For Black women entrepreneurs in male-dominated fields, even the smallest edge can be a game-changer. Just ask Takisha Clark, who in 2017 launched her own postal and shipping company, Capital Postal and Mailbox Service.
"I didn't see a lot of people who looked like me when I went to seminars," says Clark, 43, who got a boost from the shipping business workshops she attended prior to launching. "But I'm trying to really bring awareness to Black communities about this line of business; we offer services that people really need."
She's hardly alone. Many Black women entrepreneurs struggle with exposure. Part of the reason is these women lack resources. Although they're the fastest growing demographic of business owners, Black women receive a tiny fraction of all venture capital. In 2020, $130 billion was invested in the U.S. by VC firms, according to Statista--and just $3.1 billion (or about 2.3 percent) of that went to Black women- or Latina-led companies. In 2020, just 93 Black women entrepreneurs in the U.S. raised at least $1 million, according to the research organization Project Diane.
What's more, Black women entrepreneurs must often deal with microaggressions, stigmatizing assumptions, and a lack of respect, especially when compared to their white and male counterparts, adds Ruth Agbaji, 36, the founder of the Code Wiz, a five-year-old coding school franchise based in Westford, Massachusetts.
Here, these Black women founders share their best advice for navigating male-dominated fields:
Don't be afraid to ask questions.
Clark had plenty of experience running businesses before she started Capital Postal. She ran a successful daycare business for several years, before shutting down after the tragic death of her sister in 2007 and the financial crisis in 2008. Then, after taking a part-time job in credit repair, she spent three years operating Good Faith Tax Services franchise.
But logistics was something new. To learn the ropes of running a postal business specifically, she joined the Retail Shipping Associates, a trade organization that helped her to learn the ins and the outs of her new industry. It helped her make connections with people who she could ask any and all questions.
In the fall of 2021, Clark opened a second location of her business in addition of selling her first franchise, both in California. She is the first Black woman to own a franchise in the shipping industry.
Sort out the good advice from the bad.
Chekesha Kidd is the 45-year-old founder and CEO of the New York City-based elder care company Kinumi, which recently participated in Techstars's Future of Longevity accelerator. That experience has been especially helpful, she says, not only because it opened the doors for communication with VCs, but because it helped her to get feedback from impartial investors. She bootstrapped her business earlier in her career, but once she moved to a pre-seed round and took on angel investors, she noticed that a lot of questions seemed unfair. In spite of her considerable resume, investors seemed to doubt her ability to run a successful company.
"Those conversations were radically different than the ones I had with people who knew my track record," Kidd says. "People would ask, 'Why are you going to fail?' instead of 'How big can this thing get?' After a while, you start to see a pattern."
Bias--both unconscious and not--makes it harder for Black women entrepreneurs to secure funding, naturally. But Kidd says there still may be lessons in their comments that smart entrepreneurs ought to note. "You have to get a thick skin and be able to understand when there are often nuggets of information that you can internalize as good feedback, to adjust your approach, business plan, or pitch--versus the nos that come from people who just don't vibe with you."
Use your experience to create better environments.
Across her career in entrepreneurship Agbaji, has learned the value of making her own schedule. Just about every decision she's made in the last six years has helped the Code Wiz founder inject more flexibility into her life. That's also translated into how she runs her company. "You can work at 7 a.m., or 11 p.m. It doesn't really matter, as long as the work is getting done," she says. "We've had meetings where moms are calling in from the sidelines of soccer games." Agbaji considers these policies her competitive advantage.
As a Black woman and a working mother, Agbaji often found herself in work environments that weren't amenable to her. "From my experience working in a male-dominated field, I learned that I need to be very deliberate in building my team. Having men and women of different ethnicities on a team is something that happens intentionally," she says. "The second thing I promised was to create a flexible work environment. I never wanted to put another mom in the situation where she had to choose between work or her kids."
A diverse and equitable, ego-free environment, she says, is good for business, too: "In other jobs, there was no space for me to voice my thoughts and opinions. At Code Wiz, I hear all types of great ideas, because we've made a space where people feel safe to share."