Melissa Bradley got her MBA, took a job in corporate America, and hated every hour she spent there. Then, she decided to design her future. She created a company that works with Fortune 500 companies to help them build community development projects. She created an investment division that looks to fund business ventures of women under the age of 35. She is living the dream (although sleeping sometimes less than four hours a night) and loving it.
How did you learn how to start your own business?
Trial and error. I got a finance degree at Georgetown. I read a lot of books, talked to a lot of people.
What kind of books?
Tom Peter’s books. I read “How To Be Your Own Boss” by a woman named Sandy, but it was clearly geared toward women. I read Entrepreneur, Success, Enterprise, those kind of things. A lot of the information was really garnered just by talking to other people who have been through it.
I went to the SBA and had some challenges. They wouldn’t give me any money. They told me I was 21, I was Black, and I was a woman, so there was no way I was going to make it in the financial service industry. I was like, “OK thanks.”
Are there unique problems for women who are trying to start their own businesss?
Oh, definitely. I think obviously from a capitalization standpoint, we’re still very much steered toward debt, which is a problem in really being able to take a company to scale and really have community impact. I think that there are still a lot of perceptions about the capacity of women: They’re sensitive, and they’re emotional, and they’re not reliable, and God forbid if they have kids…they’re not going to come through. So there is still a perception that in some ways will prohibit women from getting major contracts, from getting access to certain types of venues or meetings.
Is it harder or easier for women graduating from college in 1999 than it was for you?
Both. It’s easier in that when I came out of school the options were assistance and the options for finding women entrepreneur role models were less than now. So I think there is greater visibility of women. Not the best, but greater. You’re beginning to see more and more women, like a Candice Carpenter or a Debra Shaw, or somebody who has exceeded a million dollars, that are relatively accessible and releases information about themselves, which I didn’t have. In some ways there’s more information that could make it easier. However, it’s harder because the challenges are still there around just the traditional education of women.
Sexism and all the isms period are certainly on the rise, and by just sheer numbers it’s going to be harder from a competitive perspective. More and more women are going to college and graduating, but hence, just by the nature of capitalism, only so many are going to make it through the hallways. However, when I came out people thought I was really crazy to start my own business. Now it’s, “Oh, that’s a cool thing to do right now.”
Why are isms on the rise?
There was a lull of acceptance. There was a lull of people of color. There was a lull that women — we began to see success stories and we got lax. We got comfortable with, “Oh look, somebody made it. It wasn’t me, but somebody made it.” And we began to have this false sense of reality that doors were opening. Well, the reality was they opened and they shut.
When did that happen?
Probably the mid to latter ’90s. Clearly political tides had that effect because conservatism was on the rise. Then also from an economic standpoint, while the economy has continued to do well, it’s the wealthy that have done well. Women aren’t typically among the wealthy. It’s just the nature of households and that kind of thing. Then people of color clearly are often not the wealthiest. So again, there has been this belief that people are making it, but folks on the bottom, or folks who are struggling to get access aren’t getting it.Those people say, “OK, it’s there for me,” but when they do try to take advantage of it, they realize that the pool is shrinking. It’s the ebb and the flow and it’s gone now.
I think isms are on the rise because it’s just more comfortable. People are comfortable with saying what they’ve been thinking all along because nobody is really challenging on that. I’m in New York City now. Obviously, the police brutality means that stuff has been happening all along. But there was the time when people became conscious of it because all of a sudden you were afraid that you were going to be videotaped. But then, it kind of went away, and now all of a sudden it’s emerging again. Unfortunately, oftentimes, any ism is often not corrected unless you bring attention to it.
You talked a little bit about how it’s easier for women today. There are more mentors and role models out there. Who were your role models and mentors?
My mom worked several jobs to keep me in school. She sent me to private school after some negative experiences in the public school in my area. She worked during the week and she worked on the weekend. I gained a work ethic from her that has stuck with me through the years. She was a role model because I would come home and say, “Hey, guess what? I want to be an astronaut. I want to be President. I want to be a ballerina.” She would say that’s great, let’s research that. She got me this huge picture book of all the Presidents. And I’m like, “I’m noticing a trend here, Mom. There’s no women. There’s no Black people.” And she goes, “Well, why is that and what does it take to be President?” And so I really began to learn a lot. The challenging on her part allowed for my own timing, self-paced growth, and oftentimes you don’t get from people.
How do you balance your personal and professional life. How have you resolved that? Or at least, how do you deal with that?
Working for myself has really allowed that because I feel like I have better control of my time. I think I’ve done a couple things. I surround myself with friends. I tend to make sure that I only work with people who share the same values that I do so that when I’m working it’s not a negative experience. One of the things that I’ve had people say is “You know you work too much, Melissa.” And I say I really don’t because I enjoy what I do. I think the whole balance between work and family becomes skewed when one is neglected over the other, or when you are doing one thing that you don’t like and you really wanted to do the other. I tend to be the kind of person who just loves to work because I really love what I do. So what I decided to do is surround myself with people that I could have both fun with and work with. I also tend to just schedule time in. I love to play golf and so I do that. I got into running, so there’s time that I spend with myself. I do daily meditations. That’s time that I spend with myself.
Back to Athena, CEO