Black Business Owners Share Hard Won Experiences

by: Hazmat Sani, Special to the AFRO
/ (Courtesy Photo) /

On March 1st, the city showcased some of its entrepreneurial talent as part of the Circular Summit put on by Hello Alice—a platform bringing together entrepreneurs, investors, supporters and partners to “build a more inclusive entrepreneurial world together.”

The event’s DC Founder’s Stories dialogue, moderated by Inclusive Innovation Fellow at Beacon DC, Deloris Wilson, gave the floor to some of the women shifting the sands in the District.

Shelly Bell, Takia Ross, Shay Johnson, and moderator, Deloris Wilson, at the DC Founder’s Stories dialogue, at the Circular Summit in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy Photo)

While getting her law degree at Harvard, Shay Johnson had an idea to solve a problem that was universal in the Black community, namely the diminishment of self worth and potential imposed on girls of color by society. Noting that girls of color were across the board underrepresented in professions requiring prolonged training and formal qualifications, she paired with three other Harvard students and alumna to enter the Harvard Innovation lab Incubator program. As part of that program, Johnson and her team became the first Harvard Law School team to win the Harvard’s Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge as the challenge’s first all-Black and all-female team.

Since that historical win in 2016, Shay and the MAGIC team, most now graduates of Harvard, have hit the ground running with their Magic MakeHer platform. Magic creates products that cultivate career exploration, development and awareness within young girls. Their “Starter Box” and “Career Box”  include items such as a “directly relatable” doll, books on career and self-image as well as role model cards highlighting successful women and career paths.

In speaking to the audience Johnson said that despite her achievements, her business is not at a place where it can support her fully, making it necessary to have a full time job and a different perspective on the traditional work schedule. “I don’t do math very well…but there are over 140 hours during a week, presumably if you work 40 of those hours and cut down on sleep you can work two full time jobs. So essentially I just work around the clock.”  To help find balance and time for self-care, Johnson works with her three other founders to delegate the operations of the company.

On the question of getting access to capital in a challenging landscape for Black women founders, Johnson noted having to educate potential white male investors on the merit of her product line despite the anecdotal and researched evidence supporting it.

Takia Ross, founder of Accessmatized , started small and local in her dining room, grew big enough to shift to her living room, and now, even with a stdio, temporarily occupies the homes of her growing clientele that are limited by factors that make it hard to get to a salon. Ross and her team bring their makeup artistry to clients through in-home sessions, their Pretty Mobile glam bus or the recently opened Accessmatized Studio in Baltimore.

“We grew from our home base with the idea that we are good, good girlfriends that if you sit in my chair, you are my good, good girlfriend and we are stuck together.”

Her authentic and humanizing approach to empowering women through her makeup artistry has allowed her to grow a community of women that she calls her Fabglamazons, in turn empowering her to take on opportunities to grow her business.

Ross spoke about the difficulty of growing a team after being a solo act and ensuring that customers received the same amount of care, service and attention her unique personality provides.

“You have to realize that CEOs grow businesses, they don’t run them.

You have to bring on people that are ready to rock out like you rock out. That are willing to work like you work. So when I close my eyes I know that my team is treating my clients like I would do. And it’s like turning your first born baby to school for the first time, its hard.”

Ross tackled the question of pitching funders by noting the importance of utilizing one’s boss alter ego – hers being “Kiki” – that enters the room not with the intention of asking for money but with the confidence that it will be given.

“You have to pitch with your heart but also with the knowledge that if you give me money or not I’m going to do it anyway.”

Ross ended her time by noting the importance of female founders allowing themselves to space to make mistakes.

“Ladies please allow yourselves grace and mercy. You allow other people in your life to make mistakes. You allow other people to fail and you push them forward… Remember that when you fail, when you don’t get it right, when it doesn’t work. Just remember grace and mercy and then get up and do it again tomorrow.”