By Tiffany Mikell (Co-Founder, BlackStarLaunch)
I often have moments in my work when I’d rather not spend time focused on my identity; I want to focus on execution and actual work. I want to code, design solutions, and geek out over process automation and machine learning.
But it’s in moments as simple as a visit to my local coworking space or a routine sales call that I’m quickly reminded that I don’t have the luxury or privilege to not consider my cultural identity even and especially in business. The systematic biases experienced by founders from underrepresented groups (often referred to as “pattern matching”) extend beyond fundraising rounds and investment meetings but also into interactions at networking events, informal connections with other founders and even negotiations with vendors.
While we’d love to believe that these biases have no affect on a founder who has an amazing product or well-executed business model, we know that business is all about relationships and social capital is real. As such, I feel it necessary to continue to create space for founders to share how their identities have shaped their entrepreneurial journey.
The Start of My Entrepreneurial Journey
My entrepreneurial journey began in 2010 when I left my corporate consulting gig because I was bored with enterprise tech. I began building social media analytics tools and cloud based CRM solutions simply because it was “hot at the time.” In 2011, I founded MikellSolutions, a boutique consulting and tech staffing firm that focused on mission-driven organizations, hoping the “mission focused” part would keep me fulfilled.
Through that experience, I quickly realized that I wasn’t a lifestyle entrepreneur. I wanted to build a tech product. I also knew that whatever it was, I had to be solving a problem I cared about. I had no idea what I would build.
I explored a group travel app startup idea with a team in the Chicago Lean Startup 2012 competition. Although we received decent traction and validation for our app, we weren’t passionate enough about the market, problem or customers to keep it going.
Being a self-taught developer, I promoted alternative spaces of education and spent time helping to design and develop code schools and experience based learning models.
Finding My True Calling
Continually, I discovered there was a great deal of work to be done on making these alternative spaces inclusive for people of color. In 2014, I met my co-founder who is equally brilliant and passionate about the need for inclusive learning environments. We set out to radically change business education for people of color specifically. We’ve struggled to find initial support in building a successful business model that intentionally included curriculum designers and educators of color.
In our year of building and searching for product/market fit, we’ve dealt with setbacks that have forced us to shift so many of our initial assumptions. Ultimately, our own lived experiences provided us with both the domain expertise and pure grit to keep iterating until we discovered a viable high-growth business model.
By focusing on our vision AND the market in parallel, we’ve been able to not only create radical models for delivering education, but also develop a technology platform that is being used by our customers to shift the delivery of education in ways that matter to them. This was only possible because we stayed true to our own experiences and values yet flexible enough to find a pain point big enough to scale.
My advice? Solve a problem you care about. It’s the only thing that will sustain you on your startup journey. Keep pivoting until your passion becomes a product that people will actually pay for.