Shelly Bell of Black Girl Ventures: “Create systems for yourself”

The first piece of advice is revenue is the validator. So many times, people try to listen to advice from people who have never started a business. An example for me was when I first started my print shop, one of my friends told me, “I think you should print 2000 shirts and take that […]

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The first piece of advice is revenue is the validator. So many times, people try to listen to advice from people who have never started a business. An example for me was when I first started my print shop, one of my friends told me, “I think you should print 2000 shirts and take that to your first women’s empowerment event” and when I did, I didn’t sell 2000 shirts. On that point, I realized that revenue is the validator, not other people’s opinion of what you are doing with your business.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelly Bell, CEO & Founder, Black Girl Ventures.

Named as one of Entrepreneur Magazine’s Top 100 Powerful Women in Business, Shelly Bell is a computer scientist, system disruptor, and business strategist who moves ideas to profit while empowering people to live, build, and foster better relationships. She connects entrepreneurs, investors, and corporations in order to diversify their talent pipeline, increase equity, and grow their brands. Her company, Black Girl Ventures, was founded in 2016 as a solution to wealth disparity for African American businesses, and lack of access to capital.

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?

I began my entrepreneurial journey by building a teepee in my living room. I listed it on Airbnb for supplemental income and the response was overwhelming. Later, I founded MsPrint USA, a women-run custom apparel and merchandise print shop with clients like Amazon and Google. I also hosted poetry performances and led a community-based arts organization called Seven City Art Society, which evolved into Made By a Black Woman, a marketplace offering clothing, accessories, and home decor created and curated by women of color.

In 2016, all of my experiences came together when I started a Meetup Group hosting crowdfunded pitch competitions. Very quickly, I grew it into a national organization called Black Girl Ventures. Black Girl Ventures creates access to social and financial capital for Black and Brown woman-identifying founders. One of the ways we do that is through our unique crowdfunded pitch competition, which can be described as a mix between Shark Tank and Kickstarter, but live. In these competitions, Black and Brown woman-identifying founders pitch from a stage, and the audience votes with their dollars for the pitch that they favor. Through entrepreneurial education, leadership development, and community, Black Girl Ventures is committed to supporting Black women founders and changing the face of entrepreneurship.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

The ingenuity behind building Black Girl Ventures is based on Black history. In the early 1900s during the great depression, Black people threw rent parties where admission fees to basement parties was used to fund founders. Based on this premise, I built a tech platform called SheRaise to facilitate access to capital through civic engagement. At Black Girl Ventures, we are your friends and family round to help you grow your business. We are offering alternative access to capital for Black/Brown women founders such that they don’t have to rely only on themselves. The current crowdfunding platforms have an opportunity cost and require that you have a network. We choose founders based on a competitive set of experiences to show their business knowledge, then we influence alongside them to be sure they raise capital.

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?

When I launched Black Girl Ventures, the first event ever was a brunch in a house in southeast DC. 30 women came together, and we decided to put money in a hat and have a pitch competition. Four women pitched, everyone in the audience got to ask them a question, and we voted with marbles and coffee mugs. If you liked the pitch, you would put your marble in their coffee mug. I had everything figured out except for how I was actually going to get the money that we raised to the founder that won. Some people paid at the door, some people paid online, and I was broke at that time. I was running it and operating it out of passion. A part of the money was going to food, and the other would go back to the community. The event went amazing; everyone ate, the food was great, great feedback. We got to the end, and the woman that had won made about $150.00 — $200.00, and it was like — umm, we have to pay her now. I remember putting the money together between me and a woman who helped me organize it at that time, pulling money from different sources out of our bank accounts or getting money from my PayPal to try to pay her. It was so crazy that we didn’t even think about how to get the money to the winner, but I thought about everything else. What I learned from that is to make sure we have a seamless flow. We built out our own tech platform called to handle the voting and the donating, so now your donation is a vote, and we never have to worry about whether or not we can pay someone again. We have all the infrastructure for it now.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I can’t say that I’ve had a single mentor over time. When I was building my print shop prior to Black Girl Ventures, Ricky Moore from Nyla Elise clothing was one of my first mentors or coaches. I would say that the business lessons became mentors. I’ve had coaches, and I’ve had leaned into coaches more than mentors. Shoshanna French was my intuition coach. She taught me how to lean into my intuition in business, which actually helped me grow Black Girl Ventures. Valeria Lassiter from Lassiter Associates was a coach who taught me how to think bigger and how to move in philanthropy. She coached me on language, a language that I hadn’t learned growing up about how philanthropy moves and how people think, how people with levels of money, that I never had access to, think and how they move. Over time, I leaned towards coaches, and I leaned towards inspiration, TED Talks, random videos on YouTube that are inspirational. Googling and learning different ways to navigate. Mentorship/coaching has been a large part of my journey. At the same time, as an entrepreneur, ingenuity, and going out there and seeking the information you need has been the biggest part. One of the biggest takeaways from working with everybody I’ve worked with is thinking bigger, and sometimes that means thinking bigger than the conversation that you are having right in front of you so that you can keep the inspiration to accept the no. So, when you hear somebody tell you no, keep moving.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I think disruption is necessary for us to create new experiences. Disruption creates interruption and then opens the door for something new to happen. We didn’t know we needed Uber until Uber happened. Black and brown folks knew we needed another avenue for traveling because of not having a cab stop for you. Disruption causes us to realize that hey, don’t get too comfortable cause there is a bunch of people out there thinking of ideas, and those can come to market. Technology has allowed a lot of room and space for that. Disruption is exciting, being able to have more things happen, more ideas flow.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

The first piece of advice is revenue is the validator. So many times, people try to listen to advice from people who have never started a business. An example for me was when I first started my print shop, one of my friends told me, “I think you should print 2000 shirts and take that to your first women’s empowerment event” and when I did, I didn’t sell 2000 shirts. On that point, I realized that revenue is the validator, not other people’s opinion of what you are doing with your business.

The second piece of advice is to create things in systems. Create systems for yourself. Create your own playbook because there are a lot of ways to be successful, and you have a way that you are successful. One of the examples that one of my mentors gave me is you are not going to want to be physically present for every time that you have to make money. You want to add automation and create systems for yourself to make money in your sleep.

The third piece of advice is understanding the language of philanthropy and the language of investment. Learn your craft, and in this case, your craft might be fundraising. For me, that meant studying different examples of fundraising and practice with different people around fundraising. Make notes every time in situations, fundraising became a part of my business and not just something that I was doing to grow my business.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Of course not! I’m building the second version of our proprietary software called Sheraise, which is a competition software that manages pitching and donating to help black and brown women get access to capital. I’m also working on a few initiatives and other tech developments to help people get access to work. One of the things that I’m working on and that I’ll be talking a lot about in the very future is Entrepreneurship as a career. Entrepreneurship is much more than just starting a business. It’s a mindset; it’s a way of thinking; it’s a skill that could lead to several different careers. By being an entrepreneur, you should be able to flow in and out of Entrepreneurship, and that are not viewed as negative in our society. I’ll be talking about that a lot and developing a lot more programming around that thought.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

The biggest challenges faced by women disruptors is patriarchy and the fact that men don’t expect for women to be disruptors and therefore, I think that when women are underfunded to me that is communicating that it’s not a fair opportunity to disrupt. Women are asked prevention questions when it comes to pitching their ideas, and that is communicating to us that we don’t have a space in being disruptors, but we are not stopping women are going to keep thriving. Women keep helping each other, and we are in a changing world. I’m optimistic about world-changing ideas that women are going to bring

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

My podcast is called A Dose of Disruption.

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. 🙂

I feel like this is what I’m doing. Building Black Girl Ventures (BGV) is my purpose. It’s much bigger than a company than a “cause”. It’s actually my living breathing purpose vibrating out into the world. And it’s big, and the energy that we have built with Black Girl ventures vibrates out and inspires somebody to give a $100k anonymous donation to a woman who pitched for 3 min to share her passion about her business, and then that changed her life, changed her world. I mean, how big can we get? That is the epitome of change. We have reached 64 countries, we have funded 130 women directly, we have reached millions of people at this point from something that I started in a living room with a few women thinking that if we just do something, then we can make something bigger happen. I have inspired that movement, and that movement is happening right now. I’m in awe when I think about what this has become. Nike just announced their partnership with us, and with that we are going to do storytelling. I think differently about even the partnerships we have, the funding that we received I use every bit of those dollars to inspire a movement and to continue to inspire a movement, but not just because BGV is a movement, but the movement that keeps on creating movements. The movement of Black Girl Ventures inspiring movement in other people to make movement happen, which is what I call change.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is “be all that you are as soon as possible” by Alicia Wilson. She is the VP of economic development for john Hopkins medical center at john Hopkins university. Somebody I consider to be an amazing woman and leader. She gave me that advice during an interview that I did with her, and I never forgot it. It stuck with me because I wished someone had given me that advice earlier in life but now that I’m early enough in life to get it from such an amazing woman with such great wisdom, I take it seriously to really focus on being all that I’m as soon as possible

How can our readers follow you online?

IG & twitter: iamshellybell

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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