#SWAAYthenarrative

How This Founder Landed $29M In Funding

4 Min Read
Business

Photo Credit: afewgoodclicks.com

In 2016, Renee Wang sold her home in Bejing for $500,000 to fund her company, CastBox. Two months later, she landed her first investment. Just a half hour after hearing her pitch, she was offered one million dollars. By mid-2017, CastBox raised a total of $16 million in funding. CastBox's user numbers at that point? Seven million. Fast forward to today. Renee Wang of CastBox announces a $13.5 million Series B round of financing, bringing her funding total to a tidy $29 million. CastBox is now serving more than 15 million users.


“Your fullest effort. Effort and dedication go a long way, regardless of whether you're a student, employee, or entrepreneur. And most importantly, if you don't take the first step and try, how will you ever know?" says Wang.

CastBox, Wang explains, is an award winning podcast platform that enables anyone to easily find, access, create, and enjoy spoken audio content. “It gives users access to endless content in multiple languages, from anywhere and through any device. It's designed to be incredibly intuitive and user-friendly so that anyone can start podcasting."

Its proprietary technology includes features like curated podcast recommendations and in-audio search to customize a listener's experience. It's currently the only podcasting platform that allows in-audio search to help users find exactly what they're looking for. How Wang ended up creating such a company and finding such success is a fascinating one.

Wang was an only child destined to never have any siblings. Why? She was born during China's one-child-per-family policy. She spent most of her life in a rural village, going off to a countryside boarding school outside of Bejing where there were seventy-five kids in each classroom, showers only once a month, and absolutely no phones. As a result, she was what she describes as, “a bit of a loner," living far from her family and being the only one from her area who went to that boarding school. “Other kids in school had a dozen or so classmates from the same village, so I felt like an outsider," she explains. “I even spoke a different dialect."

She eventually decided she wanted to be more social and began making friends. She describes herself as good at adapting to different circumstances and personalities. So, it wasn't long before she became “a core member of three cliques: the troublemakers, the good students, and the quirky misfits. It wasn't intentional but I ended up becoming a bridge among these three groups," she explains. Not an easy task for the “loner girl."

Wang says that China's one-child-per-family policy did indeed create what has been coined “the loneliest generation," a situation made more intense by the fact that she went to boarding school. But, she says, she believes in some ways, this phenomenon has given her an “edge." “Growing up, I would turn to my studies as a way to cope with the isolation. As a result, I became the top student in my class and excelled in school. It also gave me a lot of time to think, so I became adept at analyzing and solving problems."

“Diversity is important because you see how big the world is and it expands your heart and mind." Photo: Castbox

Hers is not the typical “techy geek girl" story since she didn't grow up with any real interest in technology. “I didn't tinker with gadgets or code from an early age. I was very much a practical person," Wang explains.

In fact, as a kid, her only real focus was to start her own business. Her uncle, who she describes as “doing very well for himself" and “being well-respected" in their community, is an entrepreneur. “He was a role model to me and I looked up to him." She says she admired how he took charge of his own destiny through hard work and a willingness to take risks while constantly improving himself. “I believed that if he can do it, so can I."

Her college major was psychology as she was seeking, she says, “to better understand myself and the people around me." Wang suffered from depression, which worsened in high school. So gaining a handle on why that was and what could be done was important to her highly analytical mind. So how does one go from psychology to tech?

“With technology, there are no borders and information is much more easily accessible than even a decade ago."

Well, her boyfriend at the time was a computer science major. He had asked her to help him with a coding assignment. “He was struggling to debug a Visual Basic (VB) game," she explains. “I never coded before but I wanted to help." So, she downloaded a VB environment and hunkered down in a coffee shop with her laptop. “After hours and hours of Googling, I finished the assignment at 4:00 a.m."

It's that experience that is responsible for her love affair with coding. She loved the “immediate sense of achievement and self-esteem," she says. Soon after helping her then boyfriend, she began helping other computer science majors. “The more I coded, the more I enjoyed it," she says. “I was surprisingly good at it."

After discovering her passion for coding, she knew she wanted to work for an innovative tech company. She took a sales job selling educational consulting services as a way to support herself but she was set on working at Google. However, in her first interview with Google, she didn't even make it past the first round. She applied three more times and was rejected each time.

She went on to take a job at Oracle but, on her first day, she got a call from Google offering her an assistant role. “It wasn't the exact role I wanted but I immediately accepted the offer and left Oracle in less than twenty-four hours." She worked her way up at Google Japan while learning English but was always itching to get back into coding.

“Making it a reality is the hardest but most rewarding part. I feel like I'm growing as person every day, with countless new challenges and life lessons ahead."

“I was spending a lot of time traveling each day," she says, “and was looking for an audio solution." That is how she decided to build her own platform - CastBox. Within 20 days of launch, 50,000 users downloaded it. She knew she had just filled a major hole in the market. “A few months later, I sold my home in Beijing to self-fund the business and never looked back."

Wang says the greatest challenge she has faced thus far was opening an office in the U.S. having never lived or worked in the US. “The first time stepping foot in this country was the day I opened our U.S. office. It was a very intimidating experience because I didn't understand that language or the culture." She didn't know anyone locally and found no real resource to help her.

Surprisingly, although she's faced many challenges as an entrepreneur, she doesn't see any of them as being unique to being a woman. “Instead, I actually believe that being a woman can be advantageous because what many see as a challenge might be an opportunity," she says. For example, while it's true that there are a disproportionately low number of female founders in tech, that also means the opportunity to stand out, she says. “Whenever I'm networking or at a work-related social function, I tend to stand out. It makes me more memorable, which can be very beneficial when building a business."

The challenges, however, are far out-weighed by the rewards, including the fact that all of her early team members have remained in the company rising to the challenges and growing as professionals. “I'm incredibly fortunate that there's low attrition and that they have faith in me and continues to see CastBox as their own company," she says.

Wang sees technology as being a vital part of the human experience as we interact with it nearly all day, every day. “Technology connects us in ways it has never connected us before," Wang says. “With technology, there are no borders and information is much more easily accessible than even a decade ago." Wang believes audio will play a much larger role in the way we consume and engage with information. “We're seeing the rise of voice technology from smart home assistants to in-car audio audio tech."

The life she lives now is the life Wang always imagined. But, she says, “making it a reality is the hardest but most rewarding part. I feel like I'm growing as person every day, with countless new challenges and life lessons ahead." Compared to any other time in her life, she says this is her happiest to be sure.

Wang hopes to keep growing at an even faster pace and to “become more open and active." She hopes to turn CastBox into a company that people all over the world will admire, respect, and, of course, use. “I hope Castbox can bring a positive change to our users and inspire them to grow as individuals." She also hopes to become a respected entrepreneur who can influence more people, particularly women. “So I can serve as a reminder that they too have the opportunity to pursue their dreams."

For other women looking to turn their own dreams into realities, Wang says you have to put in “your fullest effort. Effort and dedication go a long way, regardless of whether you're a student, employee, or entrepreneur. And most importantly, if you don't take the first step and try, how will you ever know?" Pursue what you desire, she says. And, “Don't take yourself too seriously. Life's a marathon, not a sprint, so take things in stride and stay optimistic because there is a tomorrow."

"CastBox now boasts both Chinese and American teams. The two sides have very different cultural habits, each with their own advantages," she says. “I'm constantly running between both sides and can pull strengths and learnings across borders." She says this cross-learning is extremely beneficial to her and all of her employees as they continue to learn together. The lesson here? That's easy, she says, “Diversity is important because you see how big the world is and it expands your heart and mind."

7 Min Read
Featured

"You're Pretty... For a Dark-Skinned Girl"

"You're pretty for a dark-skinned girl." That was the comment that defined my early life, to which I would typically reply, "Thank you."

I continued to offer up the reply of "Thank you," quite generously, until my mid-twenties.

Growing up, every image depicted around me gave the message that most dark girls were ugly. So, when people would say, "You're pretty for a dark-skinned girl," I took it as a compliment. Why? Because I felt that most people didn't expect to find beauty in dark-skinned black girls, so when they claimed to find beauty in me, I actually felt flattered.

All was well in my little bubble. "I was a prize," I thought, despite being born with dark skin. After all the derogatory comments I heard about my complexion throughout childhood, it felt like a step up from being told by my darker-skinned grandfather that I was "nothing but a black bitch." So, I thought, I'll take it.

One day, for what seemed like the umpteenth time, someone granted me the usual back-handed compliment, telling me I was pretty despite being dark-skinned girl, only this time my mom was there to witness it. As I smiled and said, "Thank you," my mother became incensed. "Don't you disrespect my child. If you can't simply tell her she is pretty, don't say anything at all."

Boy was she furious. Though, at the time, I didn't understand why. My mother immediately questioned my decision to say thank you to such a comment. When I explained that I saw it as a compliment, she instantly and quite bluntly corrected me. "No!" She asserted. "That's like saying you're pretty for a monkey, or, that despite your blackness, you're pretty. Do you understand me?" Her corrections landed on me with a hard thud and then continued to sink in like a dull stomachache. My response was a sheepish "I guess so."

At the time I thought she simply didn't understand because she had been born with the privilege of light skin and never had to face these types of problems. For as long as I could remember since I was a young girl, everyone has always told my mother how pretty she is. My grandparents' only light-skinned child, she was the golden girl in her community.

As time progressed, I built up complexes that I was unaware of on a conscious level. I would never color my hair blonde, for fear that I was too dark and would be laughed at for lightening my hair. I was also convinced that I was too dark to rock some red lipstick and red nails. I had created so many beauty blockers for myself.

"Dark-skinned girls can't wear this." Or, "Dark-skinned girls can't have that."

Back in my time, we had phone chatrooms that most Generation-X kids will probably remember. You would dial in and speak to people all over the world. You couldn't see each other, so it was just a bunch of voices on the other end of the line, with people flirting and repping where they were from. I remember when I would describe myself, and I would tell people, "I'm really dark."

My close friend at the time heard me and questioned why that was one of the first things I defined myself by. "Well, I'm a lot darker than a paper bag, so I must be really dark," I replied. A few months later I was with this same friend and we met a boy through some mutual connections. We were all hanging out, and he really vibed with me. At the end of the evening, he said to me, "I really like you. I think you're gorgeous, but I can't date you. I prefer light skin." To add insult to injury, he went on… "I'm going to holla at your homegirl, not because I think she's prettier or nicer, but because she has light skin."

At this point in my story, you may have already done a dozen or so eye rolls, facepalms, and winces on my behalf, marveling at the absurdity and cruelty of it all. If it helps, I've come a long way since then, and I've grown to truly love myself. But I digress…

Flashing forward to my first job after earning my Bachelor's degree, I was working in the field of social services which I felt good about because, although my workload was intense, I was doing my part to help my community. I was working on cases to determine people's benefits. One day an older gentleman in his mid-seventies came in to see me. He laughed with me and was very charming. And then… he said it! It was that phrase that had followed me throughout my life. "You're pretty for a dark-skinned girl." My boss happened to walk into my workspace and overheard the gentleman (who was much darker than me), say those insidious words. And just like my mom, my boss lost it.

"Shame on you," my boss said. "You should know better than that. You're too old to be saying ignorant things like that. Just tell her she's beautiful because she is." The older gentleman apologized to me and told me he meant no harm. He then explained to me that in his time, it was rare to see that kind of beauty paired with dark skin. That experience was my first inkling that all the people who had ever told me I was pretty for a dark-skinned girl were not consciously trying to hurt or insult me.

They were, themselves, victims of colorism.

Suddenly, I understood why my mother had been so upset and hurt when she heard her baby girl being subjected to colorism in front of her.

Before I could continue to gather my own thoughts, my boss (who really looked out for his team) called me into his office to apologize to me for having to go through that kind of backward thinking and the subsequent comments. He explained to me that this ignorance was deeply rooted in the minds of ignorant people. It was an aha moment — a real turning point in my life. That's when I began my journey of self-love. I learned to love everything about my beautiful brown skin and love my complexion unapologetically. Since then, I have pushed every limit and tore down those beauty boundaries I had saddled myself within my twenties.

Although my signature look remains cropped black hair, I now boldly experiment with every hair color including platinum blonde, and yes, I have fun with red lips and red nails. And guess what? It looks good on me. I love a blonde wig and a red lip, and I define my beauty parameters now, not society. It wasn't easy to transcend, but these days, I do not accept the backhanded compliments and micro-aggressions born out of other people's ignorance and colorism.

Fast forward to the present day, my husband, whom I love and adore, was himself a victim of colorism and admittedly didn't date dark-skinned women in his younger years. I'm glad his values and sensibilities changed before we met. If a man ever loved a woman, my husband loves me from the crown of my head to the sole of my feet. My husband is one of my biggest influencers when it comes to my current style and beauty image, and he's been a champion of me expressing my style and beauty as I wish.

My husband and I are intent on flipping the script of that old colorist narrative with our own children. We call our three-year-old son our little chocolate drop. We let him know he is perfect in his beautiful medium brown-toned skin, and I wouldn't change him for the world.

I am now pregnant with our second child, and should I have a girl, I am ready to support her in any way needed to face this world and all its societal complexities. Whether she is dark, light or in between, I will convey to her that she is perfect just as she is.

I love that I've come into my worth as a woman of color, and some of the adversity I faced early on drove me to succeed as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. These experiences fueled my passion for uplifting all women, inclusive of all ethnicities, cultures and, yes, skin tones. I went on to co-own one of New York City's most celebrated recording studios and music production companies, Brook Brovaz. I run Cloe's Corner, a storefront co-working community in Brooklyn, New York, and I chair a thriving non-profit organization, Women With Voices, providing community support, practical resources and education for women from all walks of life. My online platform, including a soon-to-be-launched mobile app called WUW (We Uplift Women) will provide these services to women digitally. The best part is, I am just getting started

I am Cloé Luv, and I am unapologetically a dark-skinned black woman.

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This piece has been originally published on April 14, 2020