Shayla Varnado: “Build Your Squad”

Build Your Squad. Having people around you who GET YOU is important. My squad is made up of entrepreneur friends, family, and my team. It’s important that they keep me accountable not only while building the business but also to make sure I’m taking care of myself in the process. As a part of our series […]

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Build Your Squad. Having people around you who GET YOU is important. My squad is made up of entrepreneur friends, family, and my team. It’s important that they keep me accountable not only while building the business but also to make sure I’m taking care of myself in the process.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shayla Varnado.

Shayla Varnado is a fashion stylist turned entrepreneur, passionate about inspiring women to live the life of their dreams. As the founder of Black Girls Wine and wine talk show Wine Down LIVE, Shayla believes her purpose is to create a space where Black excellence is celebrated. In 2019, Shayla launched the Black Girls Wine Society and since its inception, the BGW Society successfully established over 50 chapters with several hundred members and continues to grow.

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?

When I graduated from college and got my first job in corporate America, I knew shortly after that entrepreneurship was going to be the best path for me. I had so many ideas about how to improve things, make them more efficient, more effective, and more impactful on businesses as a whole — but I wasn’t hired to be CEO!

During my time in corporate I launched my coaching business to help other entrepreneurs become better founders and at the time a styling firm as well. It wasn’t until later in my twenties after I truly fell in love with wine and wanted to learn more that I realized just how tone deaf the wine industry was to the Black audience who loved wine too. Black people aren’t included in the marketing, marketed to, or even invited to sit at the table and try great wines. So, I decided to build my own.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The most interesting thing that continues to happen to me is how many women tell me thank you for creating this space vs how many people who work in this industry who still have no clue just how big of an audience there is that they haven’t tapped in to. I’m five years in and industry professionals from all over still ask me “how did you know there was an audience? How did you tap into them?” My answer is always by paying attention. I got into wine because I was inspired by my friends from work who were 10 to 20 years my senior and drank all types of wine! They loved wineries, wine festivals, and fun created around wine, but nothing was ever created just for US. The industry still has so much to catch up on.

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?

I severely underestimated how quickly we would grow. When the pandemic hit, we had no idea just how many women would be so excited to become a part of our organization. It wasn’t until our numbers started to triple that I realized I needed more help, we weren’t charging enough, and we needed more leaders. At the time it wasn’t funny, because we’re still recovering, but what it has taught me is not to underestimate the power of what we’re building here in the Black Girls Wine Society.

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?

I actually don’t have one particular person. I’ve looked for mentors and attempted to reach out to a few to build relationships but that didn’t work for me. I’ve been able to achieve success because my family, friends, and circle of entrepreneurs are constantly cheering me along, giving me ideas, and supporting the crazy things I think of to do next. I think the idea of having “one person” or mentor sounds great but that wasn’t my story. It took a village, and it still does, when it comes to making the best decisions for my business.

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?

For some reason women always think they need more. We forget that everyone has to start somewhere. When I’m working with my clients, who are mostly women that are founding companies, I always tell them to start with what you have, and you can build the rest as you go. We think we need so much when we really don’t. I’ve worked with companies who have been around for decades, and they don’t have it all together either. It’s okay to not have “the way” figured out when you launch. You’d be surprised how many people will come along and help you as you’re figuring it out.

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?

As individuals, I think we must start with working on our mindset. It sounds crazy but if you think you can, I promise you will. When you do the mindset work of making the decision that you’re going to do something nothing will stop you from accomplishing what you need to see the vision through.

As a society, we must do a better job of being open minded about potential business opportunities. Too often investors don’t identify with a particular niche or audience and because they can’t see it and no one’s ever paid attention to the audience, they assume that an idea won’t work. Too many times, those investors miss out on million-dollar opportunities. As a society we’ve have to think differently about how to identify needs and invest in them.

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?

Women should become founders because there aren’t enough companies built with the realistic insight into what it takes to be a modern working woman. We need more companies that can look at lifestyle, work preference, abilities, and talents to create roles that empower individuals to be better and show up better at work. The good ole days of corporate America and the strict, masculine driven, work force environments are dead. We need better structured, better built companies, that allow humans to show up as humans in their excellence. The women I’ve seen building these types of companies are doing a phenomenal job.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

People think that building a company from the ground up means you’re going to be rich automatically and that’s simply not true. My first few years as a founder I have been supported by my husband. We’ve lived on a tight budget and have sacrificed as a family to build this dream. Being a founder with ZERO funding requires BIG sacrifice from everyone involved, including the team! But that doesn’t mean you can’t still build a great company and find great people to help you do it.

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?

Everyone isn’t cut out to be founder. I think there are some things that founders have that help push them forward when nothing else will. Resilience, determination, vision, and ingenuity are at the top of that list. Most importantly, I think you have to be someone who can quickly adapt to change. I don’t know any founders who didn’t have to pivot quickly at some point in business and learn how to make a way, even when a way couldn’t necessarily be found. With business development comes lots of growth and change that one has to be ready for or they will not last.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

Resilience. Having the strength and the wisdom to know that you will bounce back from whatever challenges come while building a business is just as important as having a plan for how to do so.

Ingenuity/Creativity. There are so many moments that will call for you to think on your feet. When business starts to take off you want to be able to respond with the growth and change. New Ideas and fresh perspective keep a company growing and its customers engaged.

Build Your Squad. Having people around you who GET YOU is important. My squad is made up of entrepreneur friends, family, and my team. It’s important that they keep me accountable not only while building the business but also to make sure I’m taking care of myself in the process.

Take Care of the Talent. I stole this from my business bestie. She’s always reminding me to make sure that the brain that created all of this is being well taken care of. I now prioritize my mental health and make sure that my brain has plenty of room for creating more.

Get a Coach. I believe we all have areas or blind spots that could use some developments while we are building these big businesses. The worst thing you can do is not have the support you need to make sure those blind spots don’t become roadblocks in the future.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Now that BGW has a home office my plan is to give back to the local community by creating a space where young adults of diverse communities can come and gain exposure to the world of wine, hospitality, and social communities. I want to show them that not only are there traditional careers options but with knowledge of this industry the world can be your oyster.

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.

It would probably be a movement to create spaces where entrepreneurs could come together and truly have a think tank session. I’ve wanted to create one for some time but it’s tough finding entrepreneurs who are:

a) where you are in your journey

b) willing to sit and collaborate with you.

So far, from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t exist. I know how tough it is as a founder/CEO and the support I’ve desired along the way. It would be nice to host an incubator for entrepreneurs at various stages in business to come together and support, empower, and connect with each other so that we can all grow together.

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.

I’d love to have a private breakfast with Arianna Huffington because I love the way she sees an opportunity to create space for others and does so without having to be the voice! She’s done it so well and I know she would have great insight into what that’s like!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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