May is National Small Business Month and an excellent time to celebrate current and future entrepreneurs. HBCUs have a rich tradition of graduating some of the brightest minds who became successful business owners. While everyone knows the story of some of the most famous alum such as Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, and Sean Combs (aka Diddy), many other graduates have started their own companies and set an admirable example for other entrepreneurs to follow. In a recent blog, Our Money Matters offered tips on becoming an entrepreneur. Now, we want to recognize four HBCU alums who turned their concept into a business reality and learned some lessons during their journey. While they may not be household names (yet), they are well on their way.
Jewel is an HBCU graduate who attended Howard University. She started her career at Google but returned to Atlanta to be closer to her family. She began working for McMaster-Carr, an industrial-parts distributor. In working with the customer service team, Jewell found many team members needed to learn the names of the parts and how to describe them. That led her to found Partpic, a way for customers to search for and order parts using smartphone computer-vision technology. Solomon started the company in 2013, and only three years later, it was acquired by Amazon. Today, she is a Managing Partner at Collab Capital, built to invest financial, human, and network capital to support, grow, and sustain Black-owned innovative businesses.
Lesson learned: Start a business based on a concept that solves a problem.
2. Rodney Williams graduated from West Virginia University and got his MBA at Howard University. After college, he worked for four years at P&G with a very comfortable salary, a 401k plan, and a career path that seemed all but guaranteed. And then Rodney left it all to start Lisnr, a business that put him 100k in debt. Lisnr is a company that develops proprietary software to improve the connectivity between electronic devices with speakers or a microphone — anything from phones to laptops to smart speakers to smart refrigerators to cars. Lisnr's software sends data over near ultrasonic (inaudible) sound waves instead of via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. It also eliminates the need for hardware like antennas or transmitters. Along with his co-founder Chris Ostoich, whom he met at P&G, they have managed through a lot of hard work to sell others on the validity of their idea, raise millions of dollars in funding, and get out of debt. They now have grown their business to 40 employees and count the Dallas Cowboys, Range Rover, and NBC as customers.
Lesson learned: If you passionately believe in what you are doing, don't give up when the going gets tough.
3. Andrea Johnson:
Andrea attended Hampton University and is a native of Memphis, TN. While living in St. Croix, she got the entrepreneurial bug and saw an opportunity for a line of products inspired by nature. Using her own savings and credit cards, she founded Bubble Bistro, a natural soap and skincare company that uses all raw ingredients such as clays, herbs, fruits, nut butter, and sea salts. Andrea purchases the salts in Europe, the Caribbean, and the Dead Sea; the mango butter is from Brazil, and the shea butter is from Ghana. Her company has developed a cult following and grown solely through word of mouth. And it doesn't hurt that significant publications like O, The Oprah Magazine, and Essence, have featured her products.
Lesson Learned: "Do what you love, and the money will come. Following your heart creates a mental sync of creativity that will push you into prosperity."
4. Kamilah Mitchell
Kamilah graduated from Tennessee University. She founded With Meaning, LLC in 2010 as a diverse platform for people to inspire purposeful change within their communities. In 2018, Kamilah expanded her brand with Teas With Meaning (TWM) following a cancer diagnosis. While on Mt Shasta in California, she realized nature had all the ingredients she needed to heal, and Teas with Meaning was born as an organic loose leaf and tea-infused products company. Kamilah's teas also have uses beyond the initial brew and can be used in baths, yoni steams, yogurts, or as plant compost. TWM also sells tea-infused chocolates, custom candles, and more in collaboration with women and/or black-owned small businesses. The company now has partnerships with over 75 companies, including Whole Foods, ESSENCE, Target, Twitter, Salesforce, and Google. Most importantly, Kamilah is now cancer-free, using plant and herbal medicine to support her during her mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical journey of a cancer diagnosis. In addition to her entrepreneurship, Kamilah Mitchell is an educator and author.
Lesson Learned: Resilience, purpose, and meaning can get you through some of the most challenging experiences, both personally and professionally.
In conclusion, these four successful entrepreneurs and HBCU alum took their passion, combined it with hard work, and turned a concept into a successful enterprise. And although they each faced hurdles along the way, their conviction carried them through, showing that anything is possible with hard work and dedication.
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