Starting Up in America as A Black, Female, Immigrant Founder.
My reflections on why I decided to be an entrepreneur America.
Making the decision to start a company, as black and immigrant woman in the United States wasn’t something I took lightly. I had already spent 6 years building a consulting firm in South Africa and frankly I was tired of the startup grind. My hopes after grad school were to find a job in a FAANG, become invisible and get transferred to their South African office. It a was neat little plan and I thought I had it all figured out.
Then Covid-19 hit. My little plan got punched in the mouth.
I saw retrenchment numbers going high and friends with jobs offers that were being rescinded. I started a spreadsheet to see how many jobs I was applying to — and when it got to over 100 with only 1 interview, I decided to stop. It was time to change plans.
All Bets On Me
In 2014 decided to start my first company, Lawgistics — initially part time and in 2015 I took the leap to make it full time. The timing couldn’t have been worse, I had just resigned from a job that hadn’t paid me for 4 months (despite my boss driving a Bentley and owning a Rolex). I was in credit card debt of $10 000 and I had just moved into a friends house because I couldn’t make rent.
My co-founder and I were 2 black girls, aged 25 and 26, proposing a new model to deliver legal services. The rejections came so fast and frequent! We pivoted, followed the data and gave clients what they wanted. By 2018 Lawgistics was a 6 figure company.I was completely debt free, I had received recognition as one of South Africa’s Top 100 youth and attended the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship. In 2019 I set my sights on America. I wanted to build something scalable among the best founders in the world.
Although things were changing rapidly in an unfamiliar country.
I chose what I know: Me.
However, I am not a special snowflake, this is what black women do.
Black women are starting businesses faster than any other ethnic group in America. The reason for this is workplace frustrations such as racism, sexual harassment, pay inequality and lack of promotion. In order to enjoy our work environment, many of us just decide to create it for ourselves. There is no calvary for us, no one is coming to rescue us. Recent events around the shooting of Meg Thee Stallion and murder of Breonna Taylor show us that no one will #ProtectBlackWomen. Also, let the record reflect that the WNBA boycotted first.
We met at Cornell Tech, after I sent out a Slack message looking to build a team for my startup. After I put out the message, I sort of didn’t expect a response- out of 400 students, only 1% of the student body was black women. Yes, there were only 4 black women at Cornell Tech.
When Max responded, I was pleasantly surprised by his open-mindedness to my idea and, frankly to me. I had literally been praying for a technical co-founder for years. I had been looking for the opportunity to work with someone was dissimilar to me in every way, but shared the same values.
Working with Max, creating a culture that reflects us both and working a challenge we care about is our biggest milestone to date. We will tell our story, together, soon. Sign up to our mailing list here.
Send The Wire. Make The Hire.
In May, we graduated via Zoom from grad school and toying with going full time. We had concluded our pilot and had enough of a gumption to know that we were onto something, but weren’t quite sure it was a real thing. I had my concerns of making ends meet as an unemployed graduate, the little income I had from South Africa was being eroded away by the exchange rate. I couldn’t really commit.
Then George Floyd was murdered.
Amy Cooper weaponized her whiteness.
The protests began and black squares popped up.
Conversations started happening in an unprecedented way. The discussions we, as black people normally have in private, began to happen in public. Companies scrambled to hire Diversity and Inclusion managers, and investors said they were willing to break the mould.
For a moment, it seemed like non-black America had a “come to Jesus” moment. As with coming to Jesus, it’s a single statement to a lifetime commitment. You need to do the daily work for the transformation to occur.
Suddenly, there were many lists going around with white founders, funders and people of influence making commitments to help black people with advice, connections, and where possible- with resources. It quickly revealed that all the barriers that have kept black people out of these spaces — citing “inability to find qualified talent, no culture fit, etc” were just artificial and the laziness of those who claim to be the seekers of innovation.
This put fire in my belly. I felt I had to make a run at it, I couldn’t just disappear into Sephora, Starbucks, Sweetgreen and Soul Cycle. I thought of the protestors being gassed and harassed, with the oppressive sun beating on them as they chanted “no justice, no peace.” Their pressure was creating an opening for me. Surely I could take a little investor scorn and rejection, if they endured the physical discomfort.
Although I am not American, I am black. I may not be able to fully relate to the historical context of the US, but I am living through this climate. I had the privilege to chose to come here and I made that choice because there were other black people here who make it easier for me to show up. I am very respectful in honoring that legacy and pays homage to Africans and Americans. Think Black is King meets Homecoming.
Right now, I am on the wrong side of my balance sheet, but on the right side of history. Whether we succeed or fails is based on measurable metrics- like customer acquisition and retention, our burn rate, unit economics, revenues, etc. These are things we can foresee and plan for.
When I landed at JFK a year ago, I had no idea I what lay ahead. However, as Vice President Joe Biden said “Bravery resides in every heart and some day, it shall be summoned.”
I think I have been summoned.