Growing up with an entrepreneur mom meant my weekends looked different. We’d drive from event to event, in churches, convention centers, and community centers, where I would help set up her table with the most recent book she’d written and watch her speak to Black women about building wealth by investing your money to achieve financial freedom.
Then, when she was ready to scale her business and raise capital, I watched her hit the same obstacles many women of color face: the people she pitched to didn’t reflect her target audience and therefore did not resonate with her vision.
After hearing dozens of no’s, she started looking for alternative funding options. My first introduction to crowdfunding was when she used IFundWomen to raise $30K for her business. Life and opportunity have a way of pointing you in the direction you’re destined for before you can even see the path.
When I moved to New York City three years ago, I couldn’t have imagined that I would join the fintech startup that gave my mom’s business its funding start. I’m now the creator and general manager of IFundWomen of Color and spend every day supporting diverse, women entrepreneurs, like my mother, by creating access to crowdfunding, grants, coaching, and the connections needed to thrive. My intrapreneurial journey within this company taught me everything I know about entrepreneurship and innovation. This same journey led me to secure both cofounder-level equity and the millions needed to support women of color during a global pandemic.
Make connections, and gain the confidence to make the ask
Knowing someone helps you break through the traffic of the job market. My mother connected me to the founder of IFundWomen, Karen Cahn, to acquaint me with the city. Karen invited me to meet their four-person team at their first “off-site”—a meeting with a projector set up in Karen’s living room. I listened to them review their goals for the next year and kept my ears open for any pain points. Among all the ones I heard, social media support was the area that seemed most urgent and most aligned with my interests.
There are a few key steps I’ve learned to build and maintain a relationship with a potential mentor or employer. The most valuable thing to influential people is their time. Don’t underestimate the power of having face time and a timely follow-up email with a thank you, a tight pitch, and a clear ask.
Drafting a pitch can be a daunting task, so I’ve learned to start by asking those closest to me what they see as my strengths and build from there. Then, practice makes perfect. The more confident you are when delivering your pitch, the more confident others will be in you.
I came home from the off-site knowing that I needed a job, and based on that meeting I recognized they needed a freelance social media manager. I responded with a thank-you note and offered my experience to support their mission. They hired me. While it wasn’t a full-time opportunity, I got in on the ground floor. Our introduction-turned-interview landed me a position while the company was still in its infancy.
Identify your allies, and roll up your sleeves
During my time as a freelancer, I focused on learning everything I could about the business and building relationships with the team. It’s important to identify and nurture your relationships with allies. Great allies aren’t competitive and truly want you to win, so they leverage their network and status to support and advance you.
Karen, in particular, quickly became an incredible ally. She took the time to learn more about where I wanted to take my career and made multiple introductions to her network. After three months, Karen and the founding team decided to bring me on as their first full-time hire.
In the earliest days at a startup, job titles are irrelevant as you do it all. I stepped into various roles, helping where I was needed across departments. Coaching entrepreneurs gave me a 360-degree view of our customers. I supported each part of the entrepreneur’s journey and learned their pain points, challenges, and needs.
Learn to spot trends to inspire innovation
Pain points and challenges pave the way for opportunity. No matter your role or industry, your ability to listen and identify trends will consistently help you prove your value. The easiest way to spot trends is to talk to your customers. Make no assumptions, just let them tell you their needs. Once you understand the problem, take the Lean Startup approach to test, learn, and iterate your way to a solution.
My coaching sessions with entrepreneurs helped me see the struggles of business owners. I quickly noticed that women in general hesitate, or even object to, asking for money, because they don’t want to be perceived as a charity. They lament not having a strong network to turn to for capital.
I recognized an even deeper hesitation when coaching female entrepreneurs of color. This was compounded by my observation that women of color have trouble positioning their businesses to fully benefit from crowdfunding. I realized my calling at IFundWomen was to create pathways to make crowdfunding more accessible for women of color, who are starting new businesses faster than any other group. I needed to help women realize the power of asking and coach them around how to create an effective pitch and to have the confidence to share what you are building and your ideas.
This year, I connected the dots and with the full support of the team, I launched IFundWomen of Color, a platform dedicated to supporting diverse, early-stage entrepreneurs, and small business owners. The funding gap is very real as women of color are being shut out of other funding options like venture capital, and even more recently, out of the Paycheck Protection Program.
When IFundWomen of Color launched on the stage at the Women’s March in January, I made a public and personal vow to leverage crowdfunding to quickly get money into the bank accounts of diverse founders.
Partner to solve problems
At this point, I’d spotted the trend and had the vision but I needed a partner and investment to jumpstart it all. In my previous role as head of Partnerships at IFundWomen, I learned that partnerships have the power to ensure impact. I also learned that it is important to find not just any partner but the right partner. You want to make sure that you are also partnering with allies that see the full potential of the collaboration.
It starts with shared values and mission alignment. There should always be a “getting to know you” phase of a partnership before anything is signed. This involves doing your own due diligence on the past work they’ve done and exploring different opportunities for collaboration based on each party’s key performance indicators (KPIs). An effective partnership is mutually beneficial with clear expectations.
I then identified a key founding partner that aligned with our mission, so I asked them to work with us to bring IFundWomen of Color to life. Unilever’s Caress brand’s $1 million investment is allowing us to provide access to the capital, coaching, and connections female entrepreneurs of color need, especially as they are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
Create a pathway to equity
There is a gender funding gap but there is also a gender equity gap, as so many women are shut out of cap tables all over the country. In addition to supporting women in their journey to secure capital, I also want women to secure equity when they bring value to organizations. The launch of IFundWomen of Color secured both my position as a leader in the company and cofounder-level equity.
I tell our entrepreneurs every single day: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Whether it’s for a salary increase, a contribution to your crowdfunding campaign, or equity in the startup you’ve put your hard work into, you must advocate for yourself. Approach these conversations from the perspective of abundance, not scarcity. Come prepared with data about what you’ve accomplished to date and make your case.
I’m so fortunate to have allies on the leadership team that understand that equity is achieved through equity. I hope my story can inspire other women to look at their contributions and create a pathway to equity in their companies. I also hope this inspires more leaders to take an honest look at their cap tables and see how sharing earned equity is a critical component of allyship.
Olivia Owens is the creator and general manager of IFundWomen of Color (IFWOC).