Everywhere there are men, there should be an equitable amount of women. Until that happens, nothing will be the best that it can be. We need more diverse teams (and by diverse I mean diversity in gender, race, sexual orientation, political party, etc.) in order to continue to drive projects and industries forward and continue to make things better. We need to allow diverse people to have a seat at the table to challenge, rather than to uphold the status quo when needed.
As a part of my series featuring accomplished women in STEM, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashlee Ammons, Co-founder and President of Mixtroz. Mixtroz was founded in 2015 by Ashlee and her mom, Kerry Schrader. Mixtroz is a software company that creates a community anywhere that 50 or more people are gathered using the power of technology coupled with face-to-face engagement. Following remarkable progress in 2017, Team Mixtroz kicked off 2018 by joining Alabama’s prestigious Velocity Accelerator. In May 2018, the duo was selected to pitch to AOL Co-Founder Steve Case during the Rise of the Rest® tour stop in Birmingham, AL and secured a $100,000 investment from Cases’ Revolution Fund. The team went on to close a $1M round of funding, making them the 37th and 38th black females to ever close a million-dollar round of funding.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In 2014, I went to a conference to network and I had a firsthand experience with how awkward it is to make real connections with people in the digital age we’re living in. At the time, I was working in the hospitality industry and wanted to meet people within the beauty and fashion industries. I felt super awkward and uncomfortable while trying to make personal connections with people based on them having the same color dot as me on their name tag as suggested by the event host. I started talking to my mom, Kerry, about this and together we decided there has to be a better way to meet people authentically in this day and age, so, we came up with Mixtroz over the course of one night.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Something really interesting that happened to Kerry and I since we started Mixtroz was at Collision (a tech conference) back in 2017. At Collision, we met Beth McKeon who would later head up the Velocity Accelerator in Birmingham. We were at a point with Mixtroz where we had tapped out many of our funding channels and were almost ready to give up and go back to our “normal” jobs. However, because we literally collided with Beth at Collision, we were able to reconnect with her and ultimately land a spot in the accelerator. Through Velocity and the networks we penetrated in Birmingham we received the funding we needed in order to keep Mixtroz moving forward. There is so much power in networking; we believe that anyone can be 1 degree of separation away from someone who can change the course of their life personally or professionally and that is exactly what happened with Mixtroz.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the tech industry and dealing with an app, especially one like Mixtroz where we have the ability to interact with the people using the app, you definitely run into some interesting situations. People often come us to us, regardless of how tech savvy they are, and ask us questions about features of the app or how to fully leverage different functionality within the app. Sometimes they will even just toss their phones to us without any thought and ask us to help them with something. One funny situation I ran into was a time where a person tossed me their phone without giving it a second thought and they had some personal items opened on their phone. I was really embarrassed for them and myself and tried to close out of it without them knowing. From that moment forward, I learned not to just take peoples phones and help them but to offer them support verbally while walking them through whatever their question is. However, the app is super simple to use and you definitely don’t need a Mixtroz representative at your event. If there is a Mixtroz rep there, attendees or organizers tend to lean on them as a crutch rather than trying to troubleshoot or work through things on their own.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Mixtroz is unique because we are not a technology company for technology’s sake, but we are a technology company built for humans’ sake. My mom and I come from HR and event production backgrounds respectively and with these experiences we thought through the development of our app through a different lens. We were able to build a technology for humans with humans in mind FIRST instead of making something for the sake of being cool. At its core, Mixtroz is a technology that makes human connections better. Its purpose is to improve how humans collide and connect within a digital age.
A great example of this is from a recent mix. Within a group, there was a woman who was in law school and was mentioning to her group how there was a judge in New Orleans she really wanted to connect with because she had an interest in clerking for them. A man in the same group knew that this particular judge was in the same room and knew him personally, so he went ahead and made the connection between the woman and the judge in real time at the event. We have countless examples of this and this story is an illustration of our core beliefs. People need connection and Mixtroz is the tool that easily and efficiently facilitates it.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
There is always something exciting happening with Mixtroz. We recently released a new iteration of the app which was directly based on the feedback that we’d received from customers across events, enterprise, and education over time. My mom and I attended over 200+ Mixtroz events which helped us to learn exactly what customers and their attendees want to see within our platform. It’s a page from the Airbnb startup manual, learn from your customers and build for what they want and are willing to pay for opposed to what you think they want, this is critical.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
NO! Honestly, as it stands today, if Kerry or I hear a story about an African American female tech duo in the south, it’s probably about us. This shouldn’t be the case! Everywhere there are men, there should be an equitable amount of women. Until that happens, nothing will be the best that it can be. We need more diverse teams (and by diverse I mean diversity in gender, race, sexual orientation, political party, etc.) in order to continue to drive projects and industries forward and continue to make things better. We need to allow diverse people to have a seat at the table to challenge, rather than to uphold the status quo when needed.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
My advice to boss ladies is always allow people to shine where they are at today. While building our Mixtroz team we have needed to be scrappy and smart about who we’ve hired in order to save runway while remaining as efficient as we possibly can be. We come across people all the time who have interest in Mixtroz. Even if they don’t have a Silicon Valley startup background, if they are hungry, competent and use their street smarts as well as passionate about our product and our mission we believe they can learn the rest if they’re willing. I’m a fan of taking a chance on people who may not have the sexiest background because they are talented in their own way and deserve to be given that chance to shine. On the other side, if it’s not working, with this approach you have to be willing to fail fast and pivot.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Hands down, I’d like to give credit to the city of Birmingham, personified. We started Mixtroz in Nashville where it felt like they were just scratching the surface with diversity and inclusion. In Nashville, before we were able to have a conversation with people, we always felt like we had to answer a pop quiz of sorts to determine if we were worthy of having a seat at the table. Once we got to Birmingham it felt so much more inclusive and we were welcomed and supported from the start and they were more interested in what the business could do and could bring to the city. Birmingham was all about supporting Mixtroz if it made business sense and the rest is history.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Every day, we strive to use our success to bring goodness to the world. In the beginning of Mixtroz, we were just trying to solve a problem. We didn’t think about the implications of a “millennial plus” and millennial working together or what the impact of sharing the story of our startup could or would do. Now, we’ve realized that we can be a beacon to people who want to take a risk but are on the fence. We strive to share our story of the highs and lows that we’ve been through in order to inspire others to take the leap of starting their own business. We found it was helpful to see someone we identified with when deciding to take the risk for ourselves. We find that for many women, people of color or people who don’t match the entrepreneurial status quo our story is relatable and that allows more people to take the risk and to be successful in doing so.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Always Be Respectful — It should go without saying but respect of others is key, especially in STEM where everyone has an opinion. I’ve learned to keep it simple — when I disagree with someone on something I defer to whoever has the greater expertise in the relevant area, keep calm and carry on.
- Set Boundaries — I love to box and for me, boxing is non-negotiable me time. Unless I have a customer meeting I make sure I dress for the gym, so I never have an excuse for work to get in the way of my me time. Once I take the time to get the workout I need, I come home and get back to work.
- Don’t Let Your Emotions Get the Best of You — Entrepreneurs hate to show weakness to themselves or to others. Being able to celebrate successes and overcome failures and have frank conversations without getting overly emotional is key. Every moment is an opportunity to focus and make the best of whatever situation comes your way.
- Family Comes First — When you’re building a business it can be all-consuming. Be sure to make time to create memories. My mom and I recently took a trip with the family to Disney World. We don’t want to miss out on the important moments with our family or have them feel like our work is more important than them. Full disclosure, we bring our laptops just in case but it’s totally worth it to not miss out on the moments with family because if you miss them, you’ll never have the chance to relive that very moment exactly how it was again.
- Health is Everything — Struggles with breast cancer and depression respectively taught my mom and I this lesson. It is not easy to prioritize being and staying healthy when you are in a frenzy to get your startup off the ground, but life has a way of reigning you in. Health truly is everything — make self-care a priority and never skip your medical check-ups, it could save your life. If the process to building your business is making you miserable, something is wrong. Evaluate and seek help if needed.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement I would facilitate would be the ability to talk to everyone. We are living in a time where a lot of people are scared of the unknown. People need to have more empathy for people who are not like themselves and this comes from talking to people who are not like us. Today, I don’t feel like people take enough time to understand others in a true and authentic way. We’re missing out on connection which is really a basic human need. Mixtroz is helping with this in its own way. This technology allows us to get back to the basics, removing unconscious bias to talk to others as they are, humans. Mixtroz allows people to see you how you see yourself. We are able to find commonalities with people who may be really different from us and have a conversation in a super authentic way.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can start late, look different, be uncertain, and still succeed. “ — Misty Copeland
This quote embodies everything about my mom and I and how we started Mixtroz. My mom is a boomer (she calls this millennial plus), we’re African American females, we were uncertain at the start and today we’ve found success. This is something that I repeat day in and day out, in stride with both the highs and lows.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love to chat with Sarah Blakely, founder of Spanx. Before she started Spanx, she was a door-to-door fax machine salesperson. However, she found a fashion problem and she decided that even though she didn’t know the most about fashion she did care the most to solve the problem. This is just like Kerry and I and how we started Mixtroz. We didn’t know the most about technology, but we did care the most to solve the problem.
I’d love to talk about entrepreneurship, women empowerment and the first degree connections that we have in common with her 😉
Not to mention how Mixtroz can work for Spanx #alwaysbeselling
Thank you for all of these great insights!