Good leaders foster happy teams of diverse personalities. When I moved into a small business, I learned that you need a combination of creatives, salespeople, and operational people to be successful. Having a multi-dimensional team typically means that people have different personalities, different work environments that enhance their job performance, and varied human interaction preferences.
As part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Roshawnna Novellus, the founder and CEO of EnrichHER, a financial platform that connects women entrepreneurs with lenders who want to earn a return on their investment while fueling the growth of women-led businesses. Dr. Novellus is a gender equality advocate who believes in economic empowerment and inclusive economic growth. She holds a Ph.D. in Systems Engineering, with a Minor in Finance, a Masters of Science in Information Technology emphasizing Information System Engineering, a Bachelor of Arts in Business Management Economics, and a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering — achieving Summa Cum Laude in each. Roshawnna served on the Commission on Women for the City of Atlanta and was honored as one of the Women Who Means Business by the Atlanta Business Chronicle, one of the 40 Under 40 by Georgia Trend, one of the Top 25 Disruptors and Innovators in Tech, one of the 27 Black Founders and Investors to watch by PitchBook, and LinkedIn Top Voice #5 in Technology.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
The story really begins with my mother. Beyond working full time as a teacher, she also was a serial entrepreneur. She showed me that women have the capacity to do anything, and she was intentional about teaching me to be in control of my own financial power as a Black woman. She was well aware of the racism and sexism embedded in our country’s financial system and knew I would need to be equipped against it early. She began taking me to investment meetings at the high school where she taught when I was twelve so that I could learn how to plan, budget, and identify sound investments.
When I moved to Atlanta, I loved seeing other black executives and entrepreneurs taking major strides in the tech ecosystem. But after consulting with women-led business owners for a few years, I realized that the number one problem these business owners have is access to capital. A study revealed that Black women received 0.0006% of venture capital investment between 2009 and 2017. Despite Black women being the most educated people in the country and starting businesses in greater numbers than any other racial demographic, Silicon Valley doesn’t trust the entrepreneurial skills of women like me, apparently, who has two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree in information technology, and a Ph.D. in systems engineering. Although the Black Tech Ecosystem in Atlanta is thriving, more resources and funding need to be available for black women in all industries and geographies, especially those that aren’t served by venture capital.
This is exactly why I founded EnrichHER. My vision is to use EnrichHER’s fintech platform to support 100,000 businesses with women founders, women CEOs, and women in leadership positions across the US. And to make funding those businesses accessible for all kinds of investors, not just the wealthy.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The 2020 pandemic led to the first time I ever felt defeated since I started EnrichHER. Like many other business owners, the pandemic forced me to throw out my existing plans for 2020 and make a new plan. I was frustrated about how difficult it was for women and POC to receive financial support for their businesses. Experts were saying that as many as 42% of Black-owned businesses will close because of COVID-19. The numbers were devastating.
For two weeks, I stopped being inspired and gave myself the grace to accept my feelings. At the end of the two weeks, I asked myself, “Is everything really over, or is it time to pick myself up and keep going?” That day, I received two job offers and two sums of money from supporters. In my spirit, I knew that this was just a time of change and it was time for me to lean into my greatness.
We are incredibly grateful that we can continue helping underinvested entrepreneurs through difficult times. The most exciting part is hearing from the customers. You can literally hear it in their voice or read it in their messages: the excitement that someone created a way to build generational wealth. It is so energizing and motivating. It has also been gratifying to see things like #buyblack become important on a national and international level because it means there is a growing recognition of the connection between economic power and the advancement of historically marginalized groups.
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?
Originally, I started out to be a source of inspiration for women. We had our first event in Atlanta in April 2017 and had the support of 30 organizations that support women-led companies. The event sold out. It was great, but I started looking at the ecosystem and realized there are a lot of people that do events that provide inspiration, networking, and education, but they actually don’t provide the solution, which is capital. I thought “This is great, but I can do more.” At that point, I started speaking with investors trying to share the idea of a technical lending platform to provide capital for women-led businesses.
Right off the bat, people asked me “Is it a charity?” “Can women even build businesses?” “Do women know how to repay loans?” There are a lot of challenges, like the lack of education on how loans work along with the lack of respect when it comes to women who run businesses. There are tons of successful women out there. Time and time again, people keep telling me there isn’t enough data that shows that women know how to build businesses, and it infuriates me. I wanted to ask them, “Where are you living?”
This is a big part of the problem because these are the people who make the decisions on which companies get funded and get a chance to move forward. If I’m a woman building a high-tech company, I need people who have money to fund my business so I can ramp up. Luckily, I did find some people to help me while I bootstrapped and was creative in how I could move forward.
The main lesson I took away from the experience was the importance of focusing on people who are actually willing to help you on your journey. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. There are some people who won’t be persuaded no matter how much data or evidence you put in front of them. It’s best to focus your time and energy on supporters who get it — who say, ““Why wouldn’t I work with you? What do I need to do?”
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?
Stacie Whisonant, Founder of PYT Funds, is one of the smartest people I have ever met. She continuously paves the way for the next generation of entrepreneurs and students and has personally offered me guidance in my FinTech endeavors. Her drive, capacity, and ability to stay positive amid ignorance and bias is inspiring to me. She knows her worth and is not easily influenced by anyone who doesn’t value her insight. She continuously excels at whatever she does yet still remains humble and compassionate.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Historically, women have faced a profound lack of support in business financing. National statistics have said that women get approved for business loans at rates about 20 percent lower than the same rates for men. Additionally, predatory lending agencies have a history of targeting Black women, which is why it’s so important to be knowledgeable about multiple methods of business financing. That’s one of the things we cover in EnrichHER’s Business Financing Accelerator, and it’s very important information.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
I strongly believe that in order for society to change, access to resources must change. Diversification of business ownership is part of the solution. Business owners are the brokers of goods into the community, and they influence politics and legislation. The pandemic in itself is supposed to put 42 percent of all businesses owned by Black people in the U.S. out of business, so supporting those businesses is an important way to ensure that our culture is not left further behind.
Another key to reducing obstacles to capital is to involve women in funding decisions. It is common for us as humans to relate to, communicate with, and help those who remind us of us. We are more likely to trust those who look like us because we are more likely to share everyday experiences. This concept certainly applies to the venture capitalist funding processes. Research has shown that a venture capital firm with a woman partner is twice as likely to invest in companies with a female executive and three times as likely to invest in companies that have a woman CEO. When there is at least one woman involved in the decision-making process for venture capital, the disparity in funding women-owned businesses shrinks dramatically.
As a Black woman who started a company that strives for economic justice for women, I’m reinvigorated by the movement to close the funding gap underinvested founders face. My ‘why’ continues to be necessary. We cannot give up the fight. We owe it to our communities; we owe it to our ancestors; we owe it to our children; and we owe it to ourselves.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
I believe that providing capital for women-led and Black-owned businesses provide economic empowerment, inclusive economic growth, and overall gender equality. As the number of sustainable women-led businesses increases, society as a whole will benefit from inclusive job growth, as well as products and services that better reflect the input of women. Once women and Black founders have a larger role in the economies of our communities, we will be able to build a society that is more reflective of our needs, desires, and aspirations.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?
Not all successful founders are going to look the same way. I mean that in several senses. First, as a Black woman, it’s important for me to model success for those coming after me. Growing up, I never heard about the integration of technology and finance. But when I did, I understood it to be the perfect way to impart financial equity into underserved and underinvested communities. The thing is, it’s difficult to grow up to be a type of person that you don’t often see modeled for you, and there are many racist and sexist industry barriers that made it difficult for a young Black girl to see herself in the Fintech space.
The second way, not all successful founders look the same has to do with what success means. You have to make sure that your success metrics align with your personal values and goals, not another person’s. It doesn’t matter if what success looks like for you is different than it is for other people. What’s most important is that the goals you strive for reflect the values that make you who you are.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a regular 9–5. I’ve had those and enjoyed them, but I’ve always known that I was meant to lead rather than follow. Leadership and out-of-the-box thinking are two traits I think founders need to possess. I get energy from creating my own blueprint for life rather than sticking to preset plans made by others. For example, when I was in junior high, I started selling candy making a profit of 40 dollars per day. After that experience, I knew there was something amazing to be had from profiting from the difference between supply and demand.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- If you want to see a change, be that change. Funding equity does not exist for women-led businesses. Even women-led ventures that obtain a lot of traction, win competitions, and/or successfully raise capital, still face more challenges than their male counterparts. Lack of access to financial assets continues to impede gender equality. You also have to consider the intersectionality of being a Black woman. As a Black woman I have to face both race and gender inequality; this is why I have become such a strong advocate for equality. I believe in economic empowerment and inclusive economic growth. This is why I believe in the power of EnrichHER’s funding platform to connect New Majority founders with funders who want to help them succeed.
- Joy is a choice. I learned this lesson early, from my mother, but it took me a while to put her example into practice in my own life. When I was a child, I remember when our family had a rough financial patch. My mother had to teach high school during the day, GED classes on nights and weekends, and tutor kids in-between. I could tell she was doing everything she could to take care of my brother and me, but she was always tired and depleted. Then, one day that changed and she’s been full of joy ever since. Recently I asked her what happened. She told me that one day she realized that she was letting other people, circumstances that didn’t’ go her way, or things that she couldn’t control rob her of her joy. She decided to never let anything or anyone take her joy away because she only has this life to lead.
- Ask for what you want. You just might get it. Before I founded EnrichHER, early in my finance career, I mentioned to a mentor of mine that I was interested in having a CFO position eventually. He promoted me because he saw my potential and knew I had what it took to be a leader at the organization.
- Good leaders foster happy teams of diverse personalities. When I moved into a small business, I learned that you need a combination of creatives, salespeople, and operational people to be successful. Having a multi-dimensional team typically means that people have different personalities, different work environments that enhance their job performance, and varied human interaction preferences. Based on this, I had to ask myself if I wanted a team that was happy and effective, or if I wanted it my way. Clearly, I chose a happy and effective team. Based on this, I started having regular 1-on-1 meetings with each person on my team, having all hands team meetings once per week, and leveraging funny check-in questions during these all-hands meetings to create an atmosphere of sharing and openness. By doing this, I felt like I had less time to execute directly, but my team felt way more empowered.
- Don’t let others’ negativity affect how you see yourself. It’s impossible to please everyone, and nine times out of ten, that person’s negative attitude is about them and where they are coming from; it doesn’t have anything to do with you at all.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Since 2017, EnrichHER has deployed upwards of 4 million dollars through its platform and matched business-owners to 13 million dollars in working capital through its Business Financing Accelerator. By providing capital, coaching, and connections, we are fueling the fastest-growing demographic of business owners.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I want more people to subscribe to my theory of compassionate economics. To practice compassionate economics, shop and invest in companies that line up with your values and support groups that you feel need to be elevated. Often, we shop based on convenience, price, or brand recognition, but mindfulness asks us to take a step deeper. To be mindful, when considering supporting a given business, we should ask ourselves questions such as :
- Does this business hold the same values that I do?
- Does this business impact communities that I want to support?
- How is my economic purchase helping the world become a better place?
At EnrichHER, we offer a platform that enables users to allocate their philanthropic and investment capital to women-led and black-owned businesses on our platform. For those who are fed-up with the economic injustice experienced by these communities, our platform provides a way to show your receipts for supporting women-led and black-owned businesses.
We are very blessed that some very prominent 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.
Definitely Brittany Forsyth, the CTO of Shopify. Her leadership in creating more economic space and power for People of Color is amazing and I think we have a lot of goals and values in common. I’d love to chat with her.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
This series was inspired by Female Founders First, a program by Barclays and Techstars designed to provide female founders with resources to grow, scale and advance their businesses.