When You’re A Black Female Founder You’ll Hear A Lot More No’s. Don’t Let That Stop You.
Originally published here on Medium
Last month, my company Hustle Crew celebrated its third birthday. It’s a significant milestone for many reasons. Three years is the same amount of time I spent at university completing my bachelor’s degree. The longest period I’ve ever worked at a single company (Groupon, 2011–2014). Most importantly it’s far longer than many experts I met at the start — from other CEOs to investors — thought this business would last.
I’ll spare you our origin story as I’ve shared it before, but in 2016 when I set out to create a careers community for underrepresented techies I soon realised that teaching them hustle tactics to level out an unfair playing field was only fixing part of the problem. Tech employers needed to change, too. I created content that taught leaders about their own bias. About structural oppression. About why their teams are not diverse by default.
Unfortunately for 2016 me — most folks in tech’s status quo did not agree with my strategy. Back then a typical sales conversation with a tech leader went like this.
Straight white male founder from privileged background: “This sounds like really interesting work but I can’t think of how it would add value here.”
Me: “I see, so you don’t feel you have any challenges relating to diversity and inclusion. How many women and people of colour work here?”
Straight white male founder from privileged background: “Hmm. [awkward silence] Well, our office assistant is a woman.”
I’m grateful to the minority of individuals who identified that I was onto something. Their conviction fuelled mine. Their unwavering support stopped me from quitting. Their network became my first clients. Those clients referred more. I didn’t quit. I have gone from being on the brink of failing as a full-time bootstrapped founder to running a sustainable, side hustle as a full-time tech professional and founder. And to mark this high point in the journey I wanted to share my learnings in the hope they fuel you. Be brave.
The sooner you start the quicker you learn
Sounds obvious, right? And yet how many of you are reading this article with an idea still sitting in your mind that you haven’t shared with the world or tested? I spent so many years fighting my entrepreneurial urges, waiting for the time to be ready. Guess what? I’m still not ready. But I’m in the game. I’m learning. The most valuable lessons are those we learn through experience. So start experimenting and leverage that experience.
Sometimes you’re just early
As underrepresented founders solving problems that directly affect us we are by nature venturing into underserved markets. This is the blue ocean of unchartered opportunity that MBA students dream of. Yet most folks that dominate the narratives in our industry come from the status quo. They don’t see what we see. It’s easy to assume something will fail if you are ignorant about the audience it’s serving.
Advice is not created equal
As underrepresented folks in tech, we often identify opportunities in our community that those in the majority groups are not aware of. We have to be careful about whose advice we listen to. If I listened to some of the most impressive tech veterans I met in the early days then I would have followed their advice to change tack and I wouldn’t be writing this today. Take everything with a pinch of salt and stay focused on your vision.
People can be really mean
It has to be said. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint hearted. It’s for risk-loving, strong-ego’ed individuals who don’t mind taking a physical and mental battering for a cause they believe in. The early days are especially hard. I had people ask me who do I think I am for doing this. How I dare quit my job. How do I even pay my bills. How dare I accuse their company of being sexist and racist. Are you even a techie person, they asked.
These are the things I’m happy to write, some are best left unrepeated. I thank all the haters because they thickened my skin.
Stay true to your purpose
The rollercoaster ride of entrepreneurship is overwhelming to stay the least. You dive headfirst into ambiguity and uncertainty and make quick decisions on the spot. You change assumptions constantly as new data points come in. Follow your North Star or you will get derailed. I’ve run out of journey related metaphors but in short: don’t ever lose focus on why you started out in the first place. When stakeholders get involved they will often try to bend you towards their purpose so stay hell-bent on yours.
Build your informal board of advisors
Not unique advice yet so many founders I meet still don’t have this! It doesn’t have to be an official thing, it’s about self-awareness. Identify your weaknesses, your areas of growth, what you need to stay resilient — then bring people into your life to support you on all these fronts. Make them your co-working buddies, lunch dates and yoga partners. Take a genuine interest in their work and they will invest time in yours. I have an amazing “board” yet I doubt anyone on it knows I think of them as that. They are friends.
Invest in your physical and mental health
Probably the hardest to stick to. 2019 is the year I decided to be less frugal and invest in things that keep me healthy and alive. Therapy. Personal training. Organic food. I carve out time in my calendar devoted exclusively to preserving my body and mind. Find what works for you and what is feasible and make sure you are doing at least one hour of mind/body work every day that you are doing founder work. Make it a non-negotiable.
Be nice and live your principles
Word travels fast in our little tech bubble. Often the most lucrative data points travel informally through backchannels. The greatest opportunities have come my way through word of mouth. Someone I was nice to once returns that karmic energy in the form of a referral a few years down the road.
Life is too short for regrets and if you always live by your principles then even when things go horribly wrong, you can be kind to yourself knowing you did not act regrettably.
Don’t be afraid to spend money
Time is the most precious commodity a founder has. I’ve found the most effective way to get more of it is by spending money. Bear with me. Spend a day tracking what you spend time doing. Are there tasks you can outsource at a cost? Automate with software packages? Can you take a taxi directly to your meeting instead of public transport so you have an uninterrupted period where you can do a sales call or answer emails? These are some of the ways I spend money to give myself more time to work in a day.
Build a team that makes sense for you as CEO
When I transitioned from full-time founder to side-hustler I soon realised that unless I hired more people into Hustle Crew I would soon burn out. I am grateful I have an incredible community to source talent from. Some of the first Hustle Crew members now run side hustles of their own and I employ them to keep my business running. They manage our marketing channels. They manage CRM. They manage finance and operations. Like me, they do all this on top of their full-time jobs. They are outstanding.