When Towanna Burrous, 51, sought to become a business coach, she quickly realized the dearth of diversity training options. So, she built a business to fill those needs--and her timing was perfect. Her company, Washington, D.C.-based professional coach certification company CoachDiversity Institute, was ready when the summer of 2020 hit and interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion hit a fever pitch. Her company landed on the Inc. 5000 in 2021 at No. 524. --As told to Rebecca Deczynski

Before I started my business, I discovered that coaching schools weren't teaching how to coach across a diverse line. So I decided that I would use my background to create a coaching curriculum that would make up for those deficiencies. The program, which was accredited in 2015, teaches people to listen to the challenges, frustrations, and obstacles that are faced largely by historically marginalized communities. 

In the early stages of the business, my biggest challenge was saying no. It's hard because, especially at that time, you think you need all the revenue you can get. But I would prefer to eat beans and tuna fish before I put myself in a position of saying yes and then having to come up with whatever just to satisfy a client. So, when I launched, all I offered was the certification program. Then, I started doing small workshops on coaching, mainly to market myself and my business. Eventually, we started getting requests for one-on-one executive coaching--and by then, the business was in a position where I could say yes because I had the resources to do so. 

Many of our students go on to open their own coaching practices, and then we bring them back and put them on contract to work as coaches for our own services--having that in-house labor has greatly helped us to grow and say yes to a lot of opportunities. Not to mention, our students are our number one marketing tool--they refer people back to us. There are a lot of coaches out there, but they're not necessarily specialized in diversity like ours are. The coaching business has been booming--it's been increasing at least 6 percent annually for years; our certification program is about 60 percent of our business, and our coaching and diversity services are about 40 percent.

When Covid struck, the virtual learning space that emerged was a game changer. Previously, most of our students were in-person because the International Coaching Federation (ICF) had restrictions on how much training could be in-person versus virtual, and how much could be synchronous versus asynchronous. [Editor's note: The ICF is a membership group that sets standards and provides certification for professional coaches.] Covid gave us permission to have more of a hybrid curriculum. We weren't sure, at first, if we'd still have the same transformational experience remotely, but when we tested it, we found that our students developed the same skills and had the same level of engagement and community-building that they had in-person. That opened the doors for us to have students from all over the world.

With the social unrest that happened in the United States in the summer of 2020, we saw increased interest from organizations in having coaches who were a bit more understanding and clear about the challenges facing many marginalized communities. We've also seen many organizations with leaders who weren't equipped with the right level of emotional intelligence--so we've been able to design internal training and education courses to help leaders to be a bit more understanding.

Now, many other countries are catching on to coaching, especially South Africa, Nigeria, India, and the United Arab Emirates. A lot of our corporate clients are saying, "Hey, are you willing to coach across time zones? Can you train in different languages?" So, we are moving toward translating our curriculum into different languages, and we are also recruiting coaches who understand different cultures. Especially because we specialize in diversity, we have to understand that our curriculum might not register in the same way everywhere; we aren't just directly translating, we're careful to work with experts in different countries to make sure we can maintain the meaning of our curriculum while also being culturally aware. 

That is the future for us and a necessity for future leaders. Can you imagine being put in a position of leadership without having cultural awareness or being aware of how many mistakes you could potentially make? That can really get in the way of your ability to connect with employees to increase performance and engagement. 

I started this company because I wanted to have a better quality of life with my family. My youngest son is about to turn 12 this year, and I want to prioritize time with him--so I make sure the company is flexible enough to allow for that. No matter how much growth we have or how many opportunities are presented to us, I always count the cost. If we go in any new direction, we have to ask, how is that going to change the integrity of our work and the quality of life, not just for me, but for all of our employees?