February 24, 2015
Last week, we shared with you a list of some of the most successful black entrepreneurs in American history; while people tend to have some level of knowledge on the more-modern, successful, black entrepreneurs – such as BET founder Robert “Bob” L. Johnson or first, black, female billionaire Oprah Winfrey – very few are aware of the likes of the early-1900s, cosmetics magnate Annie Malone or mid-1800s, coal tycoon Robert Gordon. Continuing our look at black entrepreneurship in the United States, we reached out to modern-day black business owners and asked them to share with us stories on their entrée to the world of entrepreneurship.
Spanning across many different industries, these modern-day black entrepreneurs have found themselves doing what they love most: working for themselves by creating their own businesses. Read the stories from these 38 black entrepreneurs and discover that there are definitely several pathways onto the entrepreneurship track.
Brandon Byrd, Founder of Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats
“I believe that entrepreneurs have an internal compass that allow them to not only be able to visualize the opportunity and potential but also the tenacity to bring a vision to fruition. It requires discipline and a willingness to sacrifice in the short term. Entrepreneurship can be learned but I believe that true entrepreneurs are born and traits show up early. I believe we all have entrepreneur aspirations, But circumstances activate that gene.
For me, entrepreneurship started very young (I used to pick up aluminum cans as a kid for extra money. In junior high school 7th Grade, I started selling gummy worms: 10 for $1, and I would net about $150 weekly). However, the defining moment was when I found myself unemployed after working in corporate for many years and straddling the fence of entrepreneurship. Instead of looking for another brand marketing job I felt timing was ripe to dedicate my full attention to entrepreneurship.”
Crystal L. Kendrick, President of The Voice of Your Customer
“I never dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur. Forever, I thought that I would retire as the vice-president of customer service at a Fortune 500 company. I had worked at a corporation for my entire career. I knew the ropes. I was comfortable in that setting. Then, one day, I realized that I was no longer doing what I loved: helping customers. As the manager of 70+ employees, I spent more time managing human resources than making customer service a strategic advantage for my company.
While working for a corporation, I wrote reviews in the local African-American newspaper for arts events and restaurants. I absolutely loved being a secret-shopper of sorts. Then, a few friends asked me to secret-shop their small businesses, so I did. What started as a hobby that made me happy – at a time when my career made me unhappy – turned into my opportunity to become an entrepreneur. In the eight years since I started my business, my company has expanded to become a full-service marketing firm with government contracts and corporate clients. My dreams changed from the opportunity to retire from a corporation to being the leader of a business from where my employees may retire. I am proof that God’s plan for me was bigger than my dreams, and that God’s timing is always perfect.”
Dr. Thomas LaVeist, Cofounder of Clearview360
“My career path started out in music performance, but when I got to college my horizons began to broaden and I discovered other interests. After a number of twists and turns this path led to a PhD program in political sociology. While working on my dissertation, I discovered racial and ethnic disparities in health which became my passion. I wanted to find ways to protect and improve the health of vulnerable people in our society, so my path took another turn, this time to public health -specifically health policy and administration.
My first professional job was as Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Since 1990, I have taught countless policy analyst and healthcare administrators and remain in contact with many of them to this day. While I enjoy teaching and conducting research, I wanted to have a more practical and direct impact. So, I decided to develop one of my research projects into Clearview360, a company spun out of the university, which offers a suite of assessment tools for healthcare organizations. Clearview360 provides tools that assess patient experience, health literacy, cultural competency, and employee engagement of healthcare organizations.”
Shawn Childers, Founder of Alonus Wear
“I started my business because after the birth of my fourth child I did not feel comfortable or confident in my fitness clothing and found that other women had the same issues. So I created “Tush Ups” which have a built-in seamless panty, slimming effect, and rear pockets where removable buttock enhancement pads can be added for a boost.
I wanted to start my own business [because] I grew very frustrated with having to stay in the proverbial box and not be able to use my gifts and talents while working. So, creating Alonus Wear allowed me the freedom to do something I loved, help others, and teach my children that they can truly become whatever they want to be.”
Avonda Turner, Founder and CEO of ERIN/ANDERSON
“Entrepreneurship was never the mission – more like the calling. In 2010, during the prime of the recession I graduated from Old Dominion University and joined the thousands of eager, educated and unemployed vying for the perfect position. Following ‘no’ after ‘no’ after ‘no’, I decided to turn my passion into profit.
A self-taught graphic designer, I founded TurnerHill – a brand identity design firm – and worked with small businesses and non-profits to create memorable and engaging print and online identity systems. A web developer with a passion for style, I sought to update my professional look with jewelry that could make the transition from client meeting to social dinner. Finding this however was a daunting task. Either the jewelry was way out of my young professional budget, cheap in quality, or there was barely a selection at all. This was a problem so I set out to fix it. I created ERIN/ANDERSON – the online destination for desk-to-dinner fashion jewelry at a guilt-free price point.”
Phil E. Croskey, Cofounder and CEO of PointClickSwitch
“Entrepreneurship has always been in my blood, but growing up, I did not know I was an entrepreneur – I just enjoyed making money. I started as a 12-year-old delivering newspapers, progressed to using my father’s lawn mower to mow lawns, which manifested itself in college with sponsoring bus trips to the outlet malls, and now as CEO and cofounder of PointClickSwitch.com – an energy supply comparison website for energy-deregulated markets (Maryland, Washington D.C., Connecticut, Illinois, New Hampshire).
However, entrepreneurship for me was less of a career path but more a result of being passed over for a job and then making a vow to myself to control my own destiny in life. Entrepreneurship for me was taking all of my experiences and along with my business partners [to implement] a business plan.”
Sunny Williams, Founder of Tiny Docs
“In a not so past life, I was a big law attorney in Chicago. My honeymoon period of practicing law lasted for about 17 minutes. Every day, I woke up absolute dreading going to work. You see, ever since I was in elementary school, I imagined living a big, meaningful life. But in order to live that big, meaningful life, one must be passionate about what s/he does. Quickly, I learned that I was not passionate about practicing law, so continuing the course would mean I would have to defer my dream of living a big meaningful life. At the end of the day, though, I am a dreamer.
After reflection and considering where my skills and passions intersected with the needs of society, I founded Tiny Docs. We are creating cartoons (available on the web) to educate children and their families about surgical procedures and common health and wellness issues. Now, I devote all my resources and energy into Tiny Docs full-time. We are addressing a huge issue in health care which is health literacy. In December we had a Kickstarter campaign that was successful, so now, with more money in the bank, we are starting to create content to help educate and allay the fears of children (and parents) who face health challenges.”
Erick Mathelier, Cofounder of William & Park
“I was first introduced to entrepreneurship at the age of twelve while living in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At the time, I had no concept of what entrepreneurship was since no one in my family was an entrepreneur, but I had this random idea to build a sports complex where people could come together to play all types of sports under one roof. You can think of it as the precursor to what became “Chelsea Piers”. This was my accidental introduction to entrepreneurship.
Fast forward to the present, my motivation to start my own business stems from an innate feeling that this is what I was meant to do. I’ve worked in corporate america for years, and I’ve never felt fulfilled, but starting my own business has filled that missing void. Also, it seems like since the age of twelve, I’ve had the itch that has never gone away to build a company from the ground-up.”
Tony McGee, Founder and CEO of HNM Global Logistics
“Upon completion of an 11-year NFL career, I established HNM with one simple goal in mind: I wanted to make more money with my brain than I made with my body. However, that goal changed as I started utilizing the discipline and leadership lessons I learned as a professional athlete. The new goal is to create a sustainable business with great managers. The gratification comes from providing an invaluable service that helps our customers grow. The win for HNM is that we’re growing along with our partners.”
Sage Salvo, Founder of Words Liive
“Ever since I was a boy, I’d write poetry and songs. My proclivity for the pen carried me to write and record a hip-hop mixtape that got local play and praise, and allowed me to become the host of the largest open-mic in DC, at Bus Boys and Poets.
It was during the years as an open-mic host that I witnessed the potential impact of the art form. The eventuality of my idea was to organize my resources and launch an organization called Words Liive that addressed the literacy crisis head-on with my new innovative approach to reading and writing. As I tested and retested in many classrooms, gained confirmation and proof of concept from my end users (teachers and students), it became almost a corollary that I had to find an answer to scale our programs. That answer was our digital app!”
Ayanna Howard, Ph.D, Founder and CTO of Zyrobotics
“I’ve always had a heart for children with special needs. So when I received a National Science Foundation grant as a university professor to develop TabAccess, which allows children with motor disabilities the ability to use tablets just like everyone else, I knew the technology had to be commercialized. I knew I had to do my best to get it into the hands of the kids who needed it the most.
I’m the founder and chief technology officer of Zyrobotics LLC. Launched in September 2013, the company is commercializing smart mobile technologies for educational and accessible play. We uniquely focus on designing technologies for inclusion of children with differing abilities. From accessible interfaces to educational apps to smart robots for therapy, we are focused on making learning accessible to all.”
Billy Bones, Founder of Booking Agent Info
“I was introduced to entrepreneurship at a young age by my parents. My parents are Nigerian and when they came to this country, my dad opened up an accounting office and my mom opened up a beauty salon. At an early age, I witnessed my parents work long hours and put a lot into their business. I was often right there with them as a kid helping them where I could in running their business. I started my business after I was laid off my job, totaled my car on my birthday, and really had what seemed like no other options.”
John Parker, Owner of Guy Parker’s BBQ Sauce
“My parents Guy and Yvonne Parker opened our family restaurant on August 12, 1962. We were the first restaurant in Goldsboro, NC to serve both blacks and whites in the same dining room. During this time, we had no idea of the historical value of our actions. My parents simply wanted a better way of life for our family and to serve good, pit-cooked BBQ and home made entrees.
Since my father passing on October 21, 2006 of lung cancer, I started marketing our sauce in 2010. At first I approached mom and pop stores, then scal[ed] up to retailers such as A Southern Season, Harris Teeter, The Fresh Market and Whole Foods Market.”
Su Sanni, Cofounder and CEO of WeDidIt
“What got me on the path of entrepreneurship were several experiences that convinced me that becoming an entrepreneur was the best vehicle for obtaining the life that I wanted. Ultimately, I wanted to make a positive impact on the people around me and build wealth for my family. Although I was a psychology major at Boston College, I took courses and learned as much as I could academically about business and finance.
Ultimately I attribute the core of my entrepreneurial start to the following three experiences: 1) building my first company as a part-time side-project; 2) doing real B2B sales at a software company; and 3) continually surrounding myself with mentors and other entrepreneurs.”
Mack Jackson, Jr., Owner of MJ Computer Concepts, Inc.
“Growing up, I always wanted to start and run my own company. I had the entrepreneurial spirit and discovered I had an aptitude in computer programming so I wanted to marry the two. I worked for several companies as a software programmer. As an employee, I developed my skills in my craft; but I also knew I needed to learn about the operational aspects of running a business, so I was a sponge, picking up everything I could from my supervisors and company owners. Having the desire to be more creative and the drive to be my own boss kept me focused on my goals.
After a few years working for others, I decided I was ready to open my own software firm. As an entrepreneur in the computer field, I wanted to help bring new technologies to the marketplace and educate the public on technology. I founded MJ Computer Concepts Inc, in 1984 as a software-consulting firm. It was very important for me to learn how to run a business before branching out on my own, and it has certainly been beneficial.”
Aaron Walker, Founder of Camelback Ventures
“My grandfather was an entrepreneur. After being a Pullman Porter he started his own grocery store and then a construction company that he ran for nearly 50 years. I always had this one strong example of what chartering your own path could look like. I decided to take the jump because I was passionate about how enterprise could create social change. After founding an edtech startup and running my own independent consulting firm, I saw time and again really talented entrepreneurs of color who needed a place and platform to elevate their genius.
So about 18 months ago, I launched Camelback Ventures to provide these entrepreneurs with the coaching, connection and capital for success. The first year was complete Lean Startup mode. I had the idea, wrote up a short concept paper and started working with three entrepreneurs a few months later. It was fun, even if it wasn’t always pretty; I slept in airports to save money on hotels and endured sleepless night with a second child along the way. Now our impact is palpable; Camelback is in a position to support nearly 12 social entrepreneurs per year. Our first official cohort of Camelback Fellows are due to arrive in New Orleans next month.”
Christine Souffrant, Founder and CEO of Vendedy
“My introduction to entrepreneurship came from my upbringing in Haiti. The women in my family street vended for a living, so I spent time in the streets of Port-au-Prince and the flea markets of NYC street vending alongside them. As a first-generation American and college-educated graduate, I was introduced to the power of technology to transform lives and launched Vendedy to empower street vendors in developing markets.
Vendedy is a social enterprise start up that is digitizing the Street Vending Industry via phone app technology. For the first time, 2 billion street vendors can upload photos of their work online via mobile technology, await consumers to bid on their work, and receive payment via SMS once the order is delivered through our kiosk shipping networks. Consumers can now access remote designs in real time. In 6 months we received 29 global press mentions, closed a 3-year partnership with IBM, was recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative as an innovative poverty alleviation commitment, and [currently] work with UPS, Western Union, Boom Financial, and Digicel Mobile. Most recently, [we] received a $75k capital investment from Manatt Digital Media and Rackspace.”
Marco Hansell, Founder and CEO of Speakr
“I remember the exact moment that sparked my determination towards living an entrepreneurs life. I was 14 years and 9 months, the legal age that you could work in Detroit, MI and I got my first job literally licking envelopes and folding papers at the Wayne County Commissioners office. I believe minimum wage was $3.95 at the time, so after my first month of working there I got a check for close to maybe $300. That was the exact moment that I said there has to be a better way. I got extra encouragement from two books: Ben Carson’s ‘Think Big’ and Robert Kiyosaki’s ‘Rich Dad, poor Dad’. These books helped plant the seed firm in my head that no matter what happened in my life, I would never do anything that didn’t fit with my passion regardless of how much money I made. As a result, I stayed on the verge of poverty for a long time. I’m not talking a few months or a year, but years of failed business plans or opportunities that didn’t work quite the way I thought. But once I had committed my myself to my dream there was no changing my mind.
The pivotal moment for me was when I decided to go to Babson College, which was the number 1 entrepreneurship school. I was immediately surrounded by tons of entrepreneurs. It was there that I met Jacob Donnelly and Karan Wadhera, who were friends with John Legend at the time. They knew I was interested in music marketing, and was hungry for an opportunity. A few months after they brought me on board, John got signed to a major label and we continued to run digital strategy for almost every act under Navarre corporation, making thousands of dollars a month in retainers. After I left college, I continued to expand that business and ultimately formed the business now known as Speakr which has since gotten nearly $4 million in funding and pioneered an entirely new marketplace around social influencers. I credit my faith and determination to where I have gotten now, and I advise any aspiring entrepreneur to simply embrace the fact that your path is the path less traveled, and anything worth having takes work.”
“I got my first glimpse into the world of programming in high school during my first computer science class. I all too quickly became hooked on what I saw as a limitless, creative outlet. As I studied the binary world throughout college, I yearned for a career that would allow me to fully immerse myself in code. As an IT consultant and software developer, I was exposed to a myriad of fields including e-Commerce, finance, and automotive. As a marathoner, mountain climber, and avid adventure seeker, I knew that the traditional office environment was not the career path I wanted. The often-heard advice from managers to “become a system architect” or to “go the management route” did not inspire me. After much reflection it finally dawned on me: I was not going to find my dream career; I would have to create it.
I am now the proud Co-Founder and CTO of two Atlanta based startups: SmartUp and Eboticon. SmartUp is a legal technology platform that empowers innovators and entrepreneurs by making legal services more affordable. Eboticon is a mobile application that allows underserved minorities to express themselves via text and social media. I can’t thank my co-founders and me to take this leap. I hope my story inspires others.”
Clarence Bethea, Founder and CEO of Upsie
“The entrepreneurial spirit first gripped me as a young man in the streets of Atlanta. Although somewhat misguided, the motivation to be my own boss and leader was there even then. But I knew that sometimes opportunities don’t just present themselves. You have to make them for yourself. I began by cofounding small-scale companies in partnership with other like-minded, strong-willed leaders. The onus wasn’t all on me, and I was able to pay attention and learn enough to move forward from those to launch new companies on my own. I realized I had a unique ability to identify often-overlooked markets and find solutions to their problems.
Most recently, I founded and launched Upsie, a new warranty mobile app, after I had a terrible personal experience going through the convoluted warranty claims process for my laptop. I realized that the warranty industry was overcomplicated, unfair and overpriced. So, I set out and created a platform that would transform the warranty industry by bringing education, simplicity and power back to consumers. We launched in November 2014, and it’s been a great, thrilling success so far.”
Luke Cooper, Cofounder and CEO of Peach
“I was introduced to entrepreneurship at the age of 12 through the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. From there I went on to start my first ‘venture’, selling solar-powered microwaves. After winning my school’s science fair and business plan competitions, I got a taste of how creativity, technology and hard work combine to change the status quo and ultimately change lives.
I view my role as an entrepreneur as my chance to build the future: to help shape the minds of the next generation and demonstrate that with a positive attitude and strong work ethic, anything is possible.
With my current venture, Peach, I am committed to changing people’s lives for the better. Our platform, the first of its kind, empowers consumers to take their insurance needs into their own hands so that they can make smart choices about affordable and sensible warranty options.”
Star Cunningham, Founder and CEO of 4D Healthware
“I’ve always been a problem solver. This passion for finding solutions drove me to a career in data analytics. Eventually, though, I wanted to pivot and help chronically ill patients like myself better understand how their everyday decisions affect their health.
When starting 4D Healthware, I knew I would face a wide array of challenges not only as a female startup founder, but as an African American in digital health. I can gladly say it has been well worth it, and it’s extremely rewarding to know that my business is helping bridge the gap between wearable data and healthcare.”
John Guydon, Founder of The Lassy Project
“I became an entrepreneur because I enjoy the challenge of starting new companies that help solve the world’s toughest problems. Even at a young age, I was faced with problems that needed to be solved. For example, as a child, I took what little lunch money I was given each week that really only covered 2 days of lunches and bought mini-snickers and caramel apple pops to sell in school so that I could have not only money for lunch, but also for field trips, sports equipment and all the other things that kids wanted. I was solving a very real problem in my life.
This trend continued and as I grew into an adult I took those problem-solving skills into the business world where I had several successful ventures into the start-up world. Then, on October 5, 2012, our Colorado community was rocked by the abduction and murder of a 10-year old little girl named Jessica Ridgeway. As a father to three kids of my own, this hit very close to home and I couldn’t imagine that happening to my family. I was appalled that there wasn’t more that could be done by the community or law enforcement to help. So, I set out to solve that problem and thus, Lassy Project was born.
Lassy Project honors Jessica’s memory every day by building safer communities and protecting the children that we love. With our technology, parents and guardians can now notify an entire local community about their missing child in seconds and help to prevent additional abductions.”
Stacia Pierce, Founder and CEO of Ultimate Lifestyle Enterprises
“My father gave me my first business when I was only 13 years old. It was truly my first experience as a leader and I quickly matured over that first summer in my ice cream shop. I soon realized I found what I love and I knew then that I would be an entrepreneur.
From there, I created my own makeup line, opened my own clothing store and launched an image and branding company with classes. Once I began writing books, it opened the door to speaking engagements. From there, I launched into the speaking arena while running my companies. Eventually, this grew into my coaching business for entrepreneurs.”
Sid Simone, Founder and President of Sid Simone Solutions
“After thousands of rejections from Corporate America, and frustrated with giving my services away for free, I started my promotional marketing and staffing company, Sid Simone Solutions. Upset at the low salaries and rejections from businesses, I have proved that white women have an advantage. I began an experiment applying to jobs as a white woman, with the same resume and credentials. Job inquiries started to rise; but the account as an African-American woman lies desolate.
Sid Simone Solutions is a promotional marketing and staffing agency founded by Sid Simone in 2013. The small company provides sales training, develops unconventional marketing campaigns, and offers radio commercials. Being a progressive business, every worker is an independent contractor.”
Jenelle Augustin, Founder and CEO of RESTore Silk
“I help women wake up flawless. My company manufactures luxury silk pillowcases handcrafted in New York City; which are the secret weapon in a woman’s beauty routine.
I knew I wanted to work for myself during my first job after college. I was an assistant fashion buyer for a national department store and one day my eyes just opened. Here I was, working on someone else’s dream stuck in a cubicle while the owner is probably sitting on a beach. I knew that I wanted freedom of schedule and unlimited earning potential.”
Maryanna Quigless, Founder of TiltFit
“We are building the world’s first fitness trainer and workout directory to help empower more people to exercise. Think of it as the ‘really fit love-child’ of LinkedIn and Yelp. My background is in tech/business; I got my degree in engineering from Dartmouth, then worked in consulting/private equity, followed by grad school at Stanford GSB where I launched my career in tech.
My entrepreneurship origin story actually started when I was an overly exuberant 10-year-old with far too much time on my hands. My sister and I became the calendar moguls of Hunter Elementary school. We would literally print calendars using Print Shop Deluxe (remember that?) then color them in and sell them for $5 at school. After that, we took the bracelet and beaded necklace market by storm, selling our home-made crafts in the lobbies of gyms where my mother worked. We were just having fun and making pocket change but that planted the seed of entrepreneurship for me.
Fast forward some number of years and that e-ship streak continues. After working in consulting and private equity I took a different path for my MBA summer internship. I worked for Jason Njoku, the founder of Iroko partners, they are building “the next Netflix for Africa“. There I saw first-hand how just a few people can change people’s lives (and create value for themselves and investors) through tech. From that experience my passion for entrepreneurship was re-ignited and I began the path that has led me to the best job I have ever had, where I get to empower others through fitness as the founder of TiltFit.”
Mary Spio, Founder and CEO of Next Galaxy Media
“I was an accidental entrepreneur. I never imagined working for myself, since all the messaging around me was to get a good job, and I definitely had one making megabucks at Boeing. But after my patents with Boeing Digital Cinema and the successful commercialization of the technology, I got a lot of consulting offers; so I decided to launch a consulting company in order to work with multiple companies.
The decision paid off. My company morphed into a technology solutions and marketing company — and later, a content solutions company. It was truly exciting! At one point, I had companies that were responsible for over 50% of all music retail with Sun Coast Motion Pictures, Sam Goodies, Gameplay, Fye Stores and much more. I’ve since done business with the likes of Coca Cola, Microsoft XBOX, Tribune News Company, and the list keeps growing.”
Denise Zannu, Owner of Black Mermaid’s Natural Bath & Body Products
“I began as a ‘kitchen chemist’ making natural products like soaps, candles and oils for friends and family. My passion and drive resulted in the successful launch of Black Mermaid’s after co-workers started offering to pay for soaps that I had been giving away. My purpose was to provide people with all natural cleansing, aromatic, soothing, moisturizing, and exfoliating products that are non-allergenic, environmentally safe, effective, unique…and beautiful.
I decided on launching my own business because I wanted to ensure the quality and content of the ingredients and as I was looking for a supplementary income, I was willing to invest my time and energy into me versus someone else’s company. I did a lot of research, both online and in the library on what it would take to get started, tested out products that I was interested in ‘mass’ producing and used my tax refund to start small and strong. I credit the company’s success to my willingness to be open to opportunities and my commitment to high quality without compromise.”
“I have always had the entrepreneurial spirit but it has never resonated with me more than the moment I realized that the man who works for another only perpetuates the success of the one you are working for. I decided early on – right after college actually – that I would focus on perpetuating my own dreams.
After an unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat in New Jersey, I began looking for ways to start and build a company from the ground up. That dream came to fruition first with the Merge Me App, which integrates all of a users social networking feeds into one convenient location. I later came up with the HashTag App, my latest brainchild, which affords users the opportunity to purchase and own their very own HashTag, in the same manner you would buy and own a premium domain name. I might also add, I did all of this while homeless and destitute. ‘If you can see the invisible, you can do the impossible.'”
Blessing Platinum, Cofounder, Editor-in-Chief and Art Director of The Young Director (TYD)
“My husband and I launched TYD two years ago. When we launched we had only our savings. We didn’t get help from any of our family because to be perfectly honest they couldn’t afford to help us. It’s always been just us. We had to find a way to make it work otherwise we’ll be on the streets or in jobs that didn’t inspire us.
Our magazine is available on the iPad and has recently gained global recognition being featured on E! News. That [was] a big breakthrough; everyday is a breakthrough [though] because now we can afford things we couldn’t two years ago. Can you believe we didn’t even own an iPad when we launched! We couldn’t afford it. We just hoped it worked and it did.
Owning our own business was the only option for us, my mother brought my brother and I up singlehandedly, and ran a cleaning and security business. She tried to encourage (a.k.a., force) me to be a lawyer. I studied law in university but had no intentions of pursuing it as a career. Michael Williams (my husband and business partner) only saw his parents run businesses too. They ran restaurants and salons. We only hope for more success.”
Dakarai Larriett, Founder of Gerrard Larriett
“After 10 years of honorable service around the world in such places as Washington, Oklahoma, California and Germany, my father discharged from the U.S. Army. Finally settled in Birmingham, Alabama, my family adopted an inquisitive golden retriever mix whom we named Dexter (after the popular cartoon character). Dexter hated taking baths and would even run when the word “bath” was uttered. Giving Dexter a bath was a chore that no one volunteered for.
Many years later when I decided to start my own pet family, I knew that I didn’t want bath time to be a dreaded event. With that goal in mind, my journey began to create a natural, therapeutic and effective in-home spa experience for my four legged ‘son’ Dada. Drawing on a decade of expertise in the cosmetics industry, I consulted with cosmetic and pet-care laboratories across the country to design an aromatherapy pet-care regimen special enough to spoil even the pickiest of cats, dogs and pet parents.”
Porter Braswell, Cofounder and CEO of Jopwell
“I became an entrepreneur because I wanted to tackle an obstacle that I felt would both help society and fulfill a passion of mine. By looking at a problem from a new perspective, I wanted to use technology to create a tool that didn’t exist.
We launched Jopwell to help close the minority employment gap affecting workplaces in the U.S. This journey of connecting companies with minority candidates has been the greatest journey of my life. Entrepreneurship has allowed me to surround myself with a team of people who are equally passionate about the same issue and work every day to get one step closer to solving the problem.”
Ryan Williams, Cofounder and President of Jopwell
“I have been passionate about pursuing something entrepreneurial for a long time. The notion of making strategic decisions, growing a team, and establishing a healthy business from scratch always seemed like both a phenomenal learning experience and the most rewarding of career paths. It was also critical to me that I put my time and energy behind something that I truly believed in.
Once my cofounder and I came up with the concept of Jopwell, the decision to make the entrepreneurial leap was an easy one.”
Mark Cooper, Cofounder and CMO of Offerpop
“I began my career building brand campaigns for leading consumer marketers in the U.S. and Asia /Pacific markets, including Nike, General Mills, and Apple. In 1997, I had just accepted a job at Apple and moved to Cupertino, when I met Prakash Mishrah and Wendell Lansford. They offered me a chance to launch a startup with them, so I turned around and moved back to the East Coast to build Sitebridge. The cloud-based SaaS company grew to 25 employees, and just as it was going out for its Series B funding, we began getting acquisition offers.
Following Sitebridge’s sale, I spent the next several years working with an array of online, mobile and media businesses, including the first TV product placement ratings service, Nielsen IAG, and the wireless industry’s first mobile virtual network operator, ESPN Mobile. When I was presented with the opportunity to build and launch Offerpop with Prakash and Wendell, once again I didn’t hesitate to jump on board.
We have grown and scaled Offerpop through three rounds of funding, the last of which was a $15 million Series C round, but we still operate the company in the startup mold as we continue to innovate in digital marketing and consumer data. My experience working with top brands throughout the digital revolution gave me the knowledge and vision perfect for the startup world.”
D’Rita Robinson, Founder of Chatty Guest
“I was the first in my family to go to college, so the message growing up from my parents was always: go to college and find a good job. I never aspired to create my own [job]. Honestly I didn’t know it was even a possibility. It’s not something I grew up with or saw an example of. That’s why I believe it’s important to expand the narrative of who is, and can become, an entrepreneur. Images and real-life examples matter.
After pursing a couple of career paths I decided to embark on the scariest path – the unknown life of an entrepreneur. Why? Because I wanted to make a difference and wanted to follow my ideas and passions. It was important to create a path that wasn’t necessarily laid out for me. Now, as a mother, I encourage my children to take risks, think out the box and aim to innovate. I tell them all the time that the biggest gift you can give to yourself is to not be paralyzed by the fear of failure.”
Ashlie Davis, Founder of Smash Shoes
“Since I was a young girl, I have always looked for ways to solve problems. I can remember being in the fifth grade and, some days, there were students who didn’t have lunch because they either left theirs at home or didn’t have a ticket for the lunch program at school. So I got together with a couple of my classmates, we pooled a few dollars from our allowance, and gave the money to our teacher to buy all of the necessary ingredients to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for students at lunch. We’d sell them for two dollars. The sandwiches were a hit with the students because they tasted great, but the real reward for me came from being able to provide a solution to what I deemed to be a problem.
That same problem-solving knack became my motivation to start Smash Shoes. There are so many women, myself included, who wear extended shoe sizes and are unable to find young, exciting, contemporary designs. These women are incredibly stylish and want to complement their outfits with trendy, stylish shoes but most times can’t because the shoe industry has neglected them for years. Smash Shoes was created just for this group of women. We bring young, vibrant, contemporary styles to the extended-size market. With tools like an e-commerce site and social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram we’re able to reach our customers throughout the world. I’m so happy to lead a company that services this special group of women. We will do our best to parallel their shoe shopping experience with those of the women who wear standard sizes.”
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