Start up Lessons from a Black Entrepreneur

This time last year, I nearly quit.


What saved me was listening to that inner voice that God puts in us.

One afternoon, I happen to just do a search for “entrepreneurship” as a last ditch attempt at trying to get rid of this entrepreneurial itch(though I had launched 3 start ups before hand) and came across a video by Jason Nazar called ” 21 Golden Rules of Entrepreneurship“.

Jason convinced me it could be done and that falling was never a foreshadowing of failure.

Not getting back up was failure.

In my pursuit to building a world-class media company, I wanted to share my journey as I get there and what other entrepreneurs of color can learn.

There aren’t that many colored entrepreneurs; information and mentors are few and far in between. I don’t want to minimize the incredible start up and business blogs out there as business is agnostic but it is safe to say there are few entrepreneurs of color sharing their experiences. Maybe someone will take inspiration from my journey and launch their own company.

The only thing that can be guaranteed is that it won’t be boring. It’s best described as an emotional roller coaster. One minute you feel like you are on top of the world, the next you feel crushed. You will experience failure, growth, betrayal, stress, decline and a ton of success. Expect it all!

Here are some lessons I’ve learned over the past few months. A follow up to my last post: Start up Lessons from a Somali Gal


1. When you walk into a room, the reputation of your community comes in before you do. 

Often, I don’t have the benefit of presenting myself on a blank canvas. People see who I am, or what I look like and assume a lot. This is natural and is human nature. But what this does is unintentionally create many roadblocks. I can walk in to do a sales pitch and people may have an set expectation  about what I can do -often I’m the only black female Muslim who walks into the room.

My community is marred by real bad PR –  domestically, it’s drugs, young men being killed, plenty of single woman holding down entire households; internationally, it’s a failed state slowly rebuilding itself but still dealing with daily violence and poverty. Regardless of how we try to spin it, this is the baseline perceptions Somalis need to deal with.

Let’s look at the positive you say? The truth is, this stuff tips the scale and I’m sure that if our community had the best PR agent, we still couldn’t undo negative perceptions. Even those who are doing the necessary ground work to change our community don’t have a loud enough voice to compete against all that goes wrong.

The point is, the playing field is already unequal but marginalized communities need to realize that their actions magnify on a larger scale because it has an incredible ripple effect on everyone – including those trying to get out and make a difference.

2. If you’re a black woman entrepreneur, you have to work 10 x harder

Employment discrimination is real. I’ve faced it when I was in the work force and there is a myriad of data showing that white people and those with white sounding names have a higher chance of employment.

Entrepreneurship is much much harder. Starting up, especially in a marginalized communities where resources and mentors are limited, you literally feel like climbing an uphill mountain with a heavy sack on your back.

At times, reading countless articles on Forbes or Entrepreneur magazine makes me want to roll my eyes and say “these people don’t get it”. But in reality, how could they? When we’re praising entrepreneurs who’ve overcome struggles, often the spotlight is on white, male, heavily funded entrepreneurs, how can someone with that tunnel vision understand that?

I’m not so much complaining as I am trying to point out the incredible odds faced by black entrepreneurs outweights what any white entrepreneur can face.

Want more proof?

“Women-led social enterprise startups are 40 percent less likely to be funded than their male-led counterparts, even though they generate 15 percent greater revenues, according to an Emory University study. And minority-led companies are 35 percent less likely to receive venture capital financing than non-minority-led companies, it continues.” via VentureBeat “Breaking the White Guy Entrepreneur Mold”

The vast majority of venture capital firms are run by white men and they invest in what they know – other white men.

3. Start up capital. You don’t need much to get started. I started with a couple hundred dollars from selling old textbooks, boxing gloves, my smartphone and a lot of hustle to build my network. Yep. That was enough to kick start everything.

People believe you need money to make money. That’s true. But you probably need a lot less than you think. Calculate the bare minimum you need to get started and GO for it.

4. Don’t forget to take care of your health. Being a workaholic isn’t a sustainable health or productivity plan. You need to take time for self-care, sleep, exercise and eating healthy. I learned this after getting sick 3 times for 2 weeks at a time within a 6 month period. Relaxation will recharge you and give you the energy to tackle your most important business challenges.

5. People not believing in you. Stay away from people who suck energy and time from you. You are the average of the 5 closest people to you. Seek out people who understand and want to support you on your path.
6. Ideas evolve. You need to pivot. The idea that you start with isn’t what you are going to end up with. Be comfortable with pivoting or even killing an idea if it isn’t helping you achieve your ultimate goal. This is hard but as Jason Nazar once said: ” Stay committed to the problem you are trying to solve but flexible in how you solve it.”
7. Invest in your self-education. Spending time reading 10 pages a day of a book on a topic to help your business, it will increase your business. 1 book a month is 52 new books a year. When you know better, you do better.

8. Your business grows to the extend you do

People say you need need to spend money to make money – it’s true. You need to spend money to educate yourself, which in turn makes you more money. Don’t see it as a cost, see it as an invest for the future.

9. Your income is the average of the 5 closest people to you

Yeah. You really need to do this – take a calculator out and punch in the income of the 5 closest people to you and that’s your income. *Gasp*. You want to make more money? Hang out with people who make more.

10. Small, consistent actions daily is better than one big action taken once

The importance of having a ritual is incredibly understated. It’s better to do something on a consistent basis, day by day, rather than doing one big thing and never taking action again. The easiest way I have found to do this is to take your project and split it into monthly goals and then work backwards and figure out your daily schedule. Doing something, day by day, will compound into an overnight success for you, guaranteed. Success is cumulative. What you do today will reflect on tomorrow.

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