Ruthie: Today, Ashley M. Williams, the CEO and Founder of RIZZARR and I are going to talk about something that we very much have in common. It’s becoming a topic that is more and more prevalent in conversations, business or otherwise. That is being at the intersection of “woman” and “minority”.
I think Ashley is a great person to talk to about it, because she actually has been successful at securing funding for her business, despite being both.
Of the $40 billion raised for the US venture capital fund in 2019, only 3% went to minorities and less than 2% went to women. But if you were in that intersection of “woman” and “black”, it was 0.2%. So we have to remember that these intersections can actually further remove us from the resources we need to make it to 5 years in business like Ashley has.
What Challenges Have You Encountered as a Minority Business Owner?
Ruthie: When you think about the struggles that women of color who are also entrepreneurs experience, part of the reason their businesses struggle to survive is lack of access to capital. I wanted to look at the challenges that you’ve experienced as a minority business owner, and as a woman. And then, I’d love to talk about anything that you feel hits you double.
Ashley: When I walk into a meeting and people are only familiar with my company, the way they react after they find out it’s me can be very disheartening. I can tell what they’re getting at with certain questions or statements. But it’s also a way to showcase that I know you might have these preconceived notions about what a founder of a tech company could look like. But hello, my name is Ashley Williams and I’m here to prove to you that’s not the case.
Ruthie: They should’ve looked you up on LinkedIn or something, so they wouldn’t have been so surprised!
Not As Many Examples of Successful POC Entrepreneurs
Ashley: It’s very sad, in that sense. Another problem with entrepreneurship is that there’s not many cases of people of color being successful entrepreneurs. I guess that’s statistically just as true, because many times we don’t have the resources. We don’t have people in our network or communities who have been successful entrepreneurs. You can’t see people who look like you, who have been on that path, who can tell you what things you need to do.
So in a sense, it takes longer because you don’t even have a roadmap. Because of not having that network, if there are opportunities, you may not be able to get them because you don’t know the people who are connected with those opportunities.
So you’re just trying to get a meeting with them to simply say, “Hey, look at me! Let me in!” But there’s already so many people in front of you who already have a relationship with that person. That takes years to build. Then it takes years to understand the roadmap of building the company.
So you’re already behind because you don’t have the network, you don’t know what resources you need to have, and there’s no one within your network who could even give you mentorship.
It breaks my heart. It angers me because there’s so many young people who could have so many more opportunities if they had access to all of these things from the get-go. With my company, I have to be successful to be able to be an abundance for myself and my future family, and because I am hellbent on becoming an investor and a person within our world who can fund companies and people like me.
Ashley Has Walked The Walk
I’ve been in your shoes, and I know almost every single stage of what you’re experiencing. I know what you’re feeling and even if you don’t want to tell me, I get it. I think if those things were to change, we would have so many more people of color creating so many more things and innovations in our world.
We really need them too, because oftentimes people who are not of color- not to shame them or anything- may not have had those experiences to know if something needs to be created. I’m hoping I make it, so I’ll be able to give back.
Ruthie: You know what? I feel like you definitely will. When you were talking and the emotion came into your voice, I got goosebumps. And we’re not even that close to each other. I think that’s a sign. You have that sort of fire that people can’t put out.
I think that that’ll be something that you are working towards, no matter what form it takes on. Even if the dream changes and it looks different, it’s not something that you will abandon. I hope you love it forever because I think you’re stuck with it!
As somebody at that intersection with you, I will say that I’d much rather be the only woman in the room and be the only brown person in the room. I was in the Army. I’m accustomed to walking into places with no women, but to be the only brown person is more disconcerting for me.
What Challenges Have You Encountered as a Female Business Owner?
Ruthie: But speaking of preferring to walk into the room and be the only woman, are there any struggles that you think you’ve had because you’re a woman? And I know it’s hard to untangle being Black and being a woman, because it’s just who you are. You are a Black woman business owner.
Ashley: I feel like part of it is that you’re underestimated, or that people think, “Oh, you’re just going to be just so sweet and polite.”
Listen, I can be very sweet and polite, but that’s not going to be my priority when we’re talking about my business. My business is my baby and if you’re going to harm my baby, I’m going to bring it!
I think women are underestimated in that regard. We’re also undervalued because we can be emotional or empathetic, but I think that’s such a beautiful thing. Imagine all the different connections, enlightenment, and empowerment you can provide to people. People sometimes don’t appreciate those qualities we have when statistically studies have shown that we actually produce more revenue.
Not Fitting in the B2B Space
Ruthie: Yeah, absolutely. I think that a lot of people expect women business owners to be in the B2C space. You know, and sell “woman” things like makeup or clothes. I’ve got nothing against that, but if that’s not the path that I’ve taken, it doesn’t mean you should look at me like I have something on my face that’s not supposed to be there.
Ashley: Or that I’m not capable, or that I don’t know what I’m up against.
Ruthie: “Are you sure you’ve got a thick enough skin for this?”
Ashley: Like, excuse me, do you know who I am?
Ruthie: That’s exactly what I’m thinking in my head. I normally like to slide in like, “Oh yeah, I understand that this can be pretty hard, but it probably can’t be harder than like a 12-month deployment to Afghanistan.” That’s me. I will throw it down every time.
Ashley: No, I think we need to for people to take us more seriously. I mean that in a tactful way. I’m not one to go off on someone unless it’s absolutely necessary. I like to be tactful, but I totally agree with you.
How Were You Able to Secure Funding for Your Business?
Ruthie: Like I mentioned at the start of this episode, you’ve actually gotten funding for your business. That’s huge. I remember AJ mentioned it to me and I was like, “She did what now?” So I’m curious about what that process was like for you. You talked a bit about having a network. But is there anything else we can highlight for other women/minority business owners out there?
Ashley: I think the problem is that most of us don’t understand the whole process of raising money. How do you even go about being investor-ready? That’s a whole other ball game of having your data together. You must know what to include in your data, your financial modeling, your financial projections, what to include in a pitch deck, what a pitch deck should look like, etc.
Getting Lost in the Details of Getting Investor-Ready
There’s so many of these steps. It was almost like trying to see the forest for the trees, because I was led in one way from some people then led in another way. Thankfully I ended up connecting with an organization in Michigan, New Enterprise Forum, which was super helpful for me with getting my pitch deck together.
Every month, I met up with coaches that really critiqued my pitch deck. They were really just kindhearted people who volunteered. That helped me get that infrastructure together for me to be investor-ready. Granted, to even be able to meet them, I still had to get things together like a little understanding of my business model, getting enough traction to pique an investor’s interest, as we continue to grow throughout the program.
Learning What To Say In An Investor Meeting
And then on that angle, what do you say in an investor meeting? How do you get to closing the deal? What to say to get them to make a decision, so that you can either move on or continue the conversation?
Honestly, from the beginning of RIZZAR, I was trying to raise money not even knowing what that whole process looked like. Looking back, my pitch deck was a hot mess, the financial modeling with a hot mess, everything was just a hot mess. Even with the resources, we ended up working with different firms. I wanted to make sure we were really well put together. But that takes money too. It’s so many things.
So I would highly suggest people to try to connect with somebody in venture capital, and I know it might be a lot of work because you may not have a program like New Enterprise Forum in your area. Just try to reach out to them on LinkedIn. There’s one national venture capital association, and there’s one for each state. So maybe they can also connect you to someone who is a venture capitalist and who’d be willing to give you some feedback or tips as to what the process should be. There are also different programs that can help you roadmap who you should be talking to.
Many Knowledge Barriers Can Prevent Progress
And then from there, it’s like putting the breadcrumbs together. But it was just crazy! That’s why I’m almost getting teary-eyed, because I realized all of my personal struggles were trying to figure out how I would even go about this. As I’m in the process, it’s not like everybody’s telling you what you need to know. People might assume you know, or they just don’t think to tell you. That’s a whole other thing too, because you get to a point where someone might be interested, but you’re not even ready because you don’t have everything together.
Ruthie: It just sounds like there are a lot of knowledge barriers everywhere.
Ashley: Many people who are not people of color already have the network and people who can give them this information from the get-go. You might even be able to get money upfront! For many of us, it’s wobble after wobble of not even having that. So you’re already behind.
And I think it’s nice that all of these venture capitalists are saying they want to help Black founders, but let’s just go back to the basics. First of all, help us with the business model, because the thing which I was very surprised about is Detroit has the highest number of Black female entrepreneurs in the country. I was really shocked by this.
I had an event last year with Startup Week, which focused on Millennials getting into entrepreneurship. It was the second highest-attended event during that week. There were a lot of Black women there, who either were entrepreneurs or wanted to be entrepreneurs. But we may not have all the resources to be able to even get the foot in the door. We crave this information.
So even though venture capitalists say, “Yes, we want to invest in your companies.” When you get to us, you tell us we’re still not ready. And honestly, we probably aren’t because we haven’t even been trained in our understanding of what we need to be ready. We’re already blocked.
A Movie-Mashup Comparison
Ruthie: If you’ve seen Frozen 2, there’s a foggy barrier that nobody can cross. So it’s still hard work even for people who have the network and the knowledge. Nobody’s saying that it’s not hard work just because you know where you’re going and you’ve got companions with you on your journey to get there. It’s still going to be like Lord of the Rings. It’s going to take everything you’ve got.
But for people who don’t have that- minorities, women, people from lower-income communities,- it’s like Lord of the Rings meets that Frozen 2 barrier. How are you going to start saving the world if there’s this impenetrable barrier that you can’t even cross? And even if you could, you wouldn’t be able to see where you’re going.
Ashley: Exactly. It makes you want to just cry. You see what I’m saying?
Ruthie: Yeah, it does. They say you’ve got to spend money to make money. Cool. But I don’t have money. There are tons of people with great ideas who live in communities that have needs. And they could fulfill those needs, but the lack of access to capital is preventing them. Even just talking to somebody with resources is just so, so very difficult.
Ashley: Yes, even a mentor.
The Search for Information and Resources Can Be Difficult
Ruthie: Yes, and just to know where to go for information when you’re trying to go beyond a Google search. Who’s open to mentoring? Who’s not?
Another barrier to entry can be if you don’t have a traditional education route. You didn’t go to college, where you tend to meet people and make connections through sororities or fraternities or campus organizations. I was watching an Instagram video about how important Historically Black Colleges and Universities were to help Black adults become entrepreneurs and the types of support that HBCUs provide.
I am not a college graduate. I’m currently still in pursuit of my degree, but thanks to deployment and having children, it got delayed. I chose to join the Army instead of going to college, so that was my choice. But even in the Army, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to a brick-and-mortar school the way traditional college students do.
So while I was listening to this person talk about HBCUs and the type of infrastructure and support that they provided, I found myself well past college-age, incredibly jealous. Not that everybody even has the opportunity to go to college. But I’m over here jealous because of an Instagram video because I’m like, “Well, infrastructure… resources… that sounds nice.”
Ashley: But look at all that you’ve done now. A huge congrats to you, and we thank you for your service too.
Ruthie: It was my pleasure most of the time. At times not so much, but most of the time.