Don’t discredit your power to self fund your dreams in principles and practice. Whatever work you can do toward investing in your business, be sure you are maximizing. Some of us may have begun not having startup funds or family networks to get us through the rough times of start up and growth. That’s okay. You can still thrive and be successful in your journey. Acknowledge your own value, investments, and sacrifices you have made towards your successes. It all matters. The bonus is you get to experience feeling like an investor and a philanthropist by piloting your own business venture. When others see you illuminating with your investment of time, tithe, and talents, others will align with your success path and support follows.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shemekka Ebony Stewart-Isaacs.
Shemekka Ebony Stewart-Isaacs is the best selling author of the book, While I’m Getting Naked, which is available on Amazon. She is a brilliant wife and mother of a blended family of 6 children, which was recently featured in the New York Times Magazine 2021 Money Issue. She owns the leadership training firm, I Am Brilliant, and manages her flagship organization called Black Girl Magic Market to empower the next generation of female entrepreneurs.
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?
My journey began with the local community I grew up in called Kinston, North Carolina. My humble beginnings led me down a path that led to servant leadership and community services. Growing up in my under-resourced neighborhood and making due with what we had was first modeled in my home by my single mother raising three children alone. As I grew older and headed to college, it was very clear that there was a growing wedge between those that have resources and those that have needs for much more. Believing that I could make a difference after college, I took on as my calling to ‘be the change I wanted to see’ as stated by the brilliant leader Mahatma Gandhi. Twenty years later, I continue to witness the benefits of fully applying yourself to social good.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I remember right before I launched into my own firm, I was offered a position with an organization that had a 40-year success track record. Their salary offer would have been okay, but I declined the job offer. I felt that continuing to make other people’s vision come to pass had to shift to pushing for my own vision without losing my power of voice in the process. Five years after I declined, that same organization sought out my firm’s expertise to launch their most successful project mission to date. I’m so glad, I said no. I valued myself and refused to compromise, it paid off, and continues to do so.
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 remember when I first started to search for clients; I tried my brilliant engagement strategy on THE LEGENDARY Nikki Giovanni at an event where she was the special guest speaker. My partner began by asking her our signature question, WHAT MAKES YOU BRILLIANT?, and the evening ended with laughs, cheers, and exchanging numbers. A week after that event, Nikki Giovanni sent a thank you card and left a thank you voicemail for my team. It wasn’t our event, but it didn’t stop us from making an impression on Nikki Giovanni. What a great mistake to make. Besides, I wasn’t going to dare tell Nikki Giovanni that we weren’t the reason she had a great time. I am confident that engaging with our firm was a part of her great time. Fast forward to how this mistake made me a stronger founder. The leap we took that night to network at this university sponsored event featuring Nikki Giovanni taught me that you should always be ready to take meaningful leaps towards your business success.
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 lead my firm with an awareness and appreciation for those who we connect to in our work. It is that awareness that helps ground my gratitude and understanding of knowing that if we want to go fast, go alone, if you want to be successful, go together. When I think of who I am grateful for helping me get to where I am, I think of the mentorship of my husband and co-founder of I Am Brilliant, Michael Stewart-Isaacs. His 20+ years of experience in business and investments taught me the value of investing in others. The time and talent he invested in my development inspired my company to invest in other women founders and entrepreneurs with Black Girl Magic Market.
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?
In my experience working with Black Women service providers and entrepreneurs, many of them reported barriers in support as business owners in general. The system of capitalism is finally learning to value the talents and skill sets that women possess. Black Girl Magic Market, one of my empowerment initiatives, provides access to a community of mentors, peers, and additional state & federal services to support Women Founders to thrive in their businesses.
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?
If we all were more intentional in sharing access, we collectively can make one ripple towards a wave of equity and inclusiveness from theory to practice. As a community engagement strategist, I emphasize the importance of intentional relationships between individuals, communities, institutions and government agencies when considering removing obstacles to success for women founders. Too often a woman founder’s net worth is directly linked to her network.
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?
The main reason more women should become founders is because there are more seats at the table for more women to be included and funded. The more diverse reflections of women founders seen can be the catalyst for more dreamers to be inspired to illuminate their vision.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
One myth I would like to dispel about being a woman founder is thinking you have to know it all before you can start your business. You should have a willingness to learn and you should be committed to doing all it takes for your company to grow. Be willing to gain knowledge from other successful peers and develop what it takes to learn all there is to know about building your company. As a woman founder, please know you are your most valuable investor and investment to your company’s continued success.
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?
I believe with discipline and practice, a Founder can thrive and be successful. However, if you have a hard time believing in your own success or challenged by the capacity to sacrifice towards your success, being a founder may not be for you at this time. We all must count up the cost of the success levels we seek. If the sacrifice isn’t greater than the sum of rewards of thriving in success, maybe being a founder isn’t for you at this time.
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.)
Thinking about narrowing down to 5 things we need to thrive and succeed as founders is enough to make the impossible feel so real. That’s until you begin to experience success. It always seems impossible until it’s done as declared by the brilliant leader Nelson Mandela. As founders, there’s much we learn that fuels our passions toward thriving and being successful. I have learned that sharing my brilliance with others helps them find theirs, which leads to us all thriving and succeeding together. Whether you are seeking a founder reboot of your vision or seeking what it takes to thrive and be successful, these 5 things will aid your journey.
1. Get your kitchen in order. In working in business and community, I soon found that all that glitters on the outside is sometimes dysfunctional on the inside. In order for your foundation to be as solid as it needs, you must make sure you address the details of establishing your business. Establishing your business in theory and practice leads to opening business bank accounts and business lines credit over time. We have a vision, we have a business, we have an LLC. Ok wonderful, do you legit not mix business and personal funds yet? No worries, we all have growing edges while growing our business. Your favorite restaurants have to tidy their kitchens routinely; you should make sure your business kitchen is tidy too.
2. Don’t discredit your power to self fund your dreams in principles and practice. Whatever work you can do toward investing in your business, be sure you are maximizing. Some of us may have begun not having startup funds or family networks to get us through the rough times of start up and growth. That’s okay. You can still thrive and be successful in your journey. Acknowledge your own value, investments, and sacrifices you have made towards your successes. It all matters. The bonus is you get to experience feeling like an investor and a philanthropist by piloting your own business venture. When others see you illuminating with your investment of time, tithe, and talents, others will align with your success path and support follows.
3. Connect with your local, state, and federal minority and woman owned small business services, mentorship, and startup resources. Whether you need the support or can offer mentorship, getting connected with others supports your success as a founder in the marketplace. Connecting is a priority for new partners that connect and shop with Black Girl Magic Market. Black Girl Magic Market is a community where Black Women’s business success is centered and customer relationships are formed. Many founders connected to Black Girl Magic Market community have found success in an environment where they can thrive and be successful in community with other business owners and resources. You too will thrive in connecting with others.
4. Fail Forward Fast. I learned this during one of my community assignments. It was during my 100 Million Healthier Lives SCALE work when I first felt empowerment from failing. FAIL in this case, means First Attempt In Learning. We learned how to pivot when needed and be flexible to get results. Others can learn from your journey by celebrating your successes and sharing challenges you overcame. It also reminds us that it’s all not glam on the way to the “top” while enacting your brilliant business niche. It’s ok to FAIL Forward Fast when chasing your vision.
5. If you don’t feel sparks illuminate when reflecting on building your business, go do something else. The amount of sacrifices, loss and reduction of friends and family, and the stress that comes with founding a significantly meaningful company is not for the faint of heart. If your heart no longer flutters for your business, it’s worth you considering whether you still want to invest in something you no longer feel illuminating. Quit Now!
NOW, If you are still reading this, keep illuminating your talents and gifts for your business. There is success on the other side of your Yes! Remember I Am Brilliant and You Are Too!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have used my success to make the world a better place by mentoring other founders and Minority Business Owners through Black Girl Magic Market funding initiatives. In turn, newly identified women founders are connected to resources, networking, and development opportunities. My success as a woman founder of Black Girl Magic Market partnered with current financial resources and institutional programming have helped founders build capacity.
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.
Black Girl Magic Market serves the mission: to create economic opportunities for Black Women Business Owners, Entrepreneurs and manufacturers of goods and services and those aspiring and curious. While creating such opportunities, education, skills, lived experience expertise are amplified in Black Girl Magic Market Community and echoes throughout the virtual and geographic reach of resources to needs.
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 would be interested in having a breakfast of champions with Janice Bryant Howroyd and Stacey Abrams. Both of these Women Champions have influenced my professional career and personal founder’s journey via their leadership, business success, and engagement strategies. Mrs. Bryant Howroyd is from a rural North Carolina town much like mine. I would love to learn from her brilliant insights on starting Howroyd-Wright Employment Agency. Ms. Abrams’ organizing expertise reflects my local/global impact aspirations. I want to glean from both of them what it takes to sustain socially good businesses. Something else near and dear to me would be to learn from their failing forward journeys and how to gain greater endurance for my longevity in business.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!