Business 01 July 2019
Lessons learned while pitching a business venture to VC partners and investors. Encompassing my unique entrepreneurial journey and the truth behind the #startuplife.
When I set out to begin Leon, I knew one thing - I wanted to work in business but struggled to find clothes that made me feel confident while doing so. With little to no knowledge or experience in the tech and fashion industry, I ventured to conceptualize Leon, an eCommerce petite women's clothing brand. Through collaborations with my passionate team, YouTube videos, university courses, mentorship sessions and real time trial and error, I learned about business management, design making, supply chain operations and the inevitable ups and downs that the entrepreneurial journey ushers.
I thought to myself, what will be next? Do I find more mentors that will help me refine my business plan? Raise seed capital? Or, close the shop and venture out onto a new idea? Well, because my problem of finding petite clothing didn't vanish, I knew I had to make this work. I dipped my foot in the raising funds for Leon idea and was taken aback when I learned ...
2.2%!? Less than 1%? At first, I was excited to see this number, I've always liked a good challenge but then I let it sink in…
2.2%. What would my odds be? What would make my company stand out? And why was that percentage so low? Without an answer to this question, I was motivated to fortify Leon and joined Almaworks, Columbia University's Start-up Accelerator. The reason? To learn exactly what VC's were investing in and learn how I could lead Leon to a standard in which the 2.2% did not feel so intimidating. During this time, I met with engaging, intelligent and kickass mentors who would ultimately help me refine Leon's business strategy and make priceless relationships. During the last day of Almaworks, the cohort participated in Demo Day, where each company presented their venture to a room brimming with VC partners and investors. While pitching Leon, I recall feeling anxious yet prepared, nervous yet excited and the results? Invaluable experience, constructive feedback from top NYC VC partners and an immense sense of relief. While answering investors' questions with confidence and complete transparency, I learned a few lessons during this journey that I'd like to kindly share with women who find the 2.2% daunting and perhaps discouraging.
Remember your WHY!
What led you to begin your company? Was it a personal problem you were attempting to solve? Does it make a difference in your community, the world? Even during the toughest times, my passion for Leon hasn't waned. I believe it's vital to find your why and stick to it because it will get you through the ups and downs your venture will inevitably encounter. In terms of your business valuation, you have clarity as to how much you allow a VC firm to decide your company is worth. Honing in on your WHY can arm you with the confidence you need to firmly say no to a deal or enthusiastically ask for more with full awareness of your company's potential, purpose and impact.
Create and nurture your support system.
Let that be your communities, friends or start-up accelerators that support your vision and want to see you WIN! Nurturing this support system and seeking constructive criticism is vital to the continued evolution and success of your business. Leon's support system are friends, families, mentors and communities of like-minded individuals who enjoy creating solutions to problems everyday people face. Our communities like Latinas En New York and Almaworks help Leon stay focused and on track. We move forward because petite women motivate us to do and be better. It's encouraging to have a support system that is chanting for us to WIN.
You and only you are responsible for the success of your business, so make it happen.
Raising funds through an investor or VC firm isn't the only way your company can succeed. Tapping into other resources can empower you to lead your company in an authentic manner. In the earlier stages of Leon, I worked a part-time job during college to help grow Leon (bartended on weekends and invested that income to build Leon's first website) as well as gained the support of my family and friends who contributed as models, photographers, creative directors and advisors. Besides, VC funding, there are grants offered to minority business owners, crowdfunding campaigns, corporate partnerships and start-up accelerators that cater to under funded business ventures. Also, remembering the power of your community, family and friends is vital in the beginning stages of your start-up. You may have the privilege to raise funds within the community you serve and family and friends that support your vision.
Get good with numbers OR find a confidant that is.
If you are not an expert at P&L financial statements, you can learn. Getting scrappy by learning online, taking university courses (check out Stanford University's School of Engineering free online course, Entrepreneurship Through the Lens of Venture Capital) or Google's free resources, can set you apart and arm you with the knowledge necessary to get your company to the next level without overextending your budget. (Just like my confidant, my middle school best friend now investment banker who is always a phone call away).
Starting a new venture and leading it, is not EASY! At first it's exciting, so exciting and then its devastating, heart wrenching and down right upsetting but then it kicks up again and you're on cloud 9. To say the least, it's like a roller coaster and if you're like me and you LOVE your business and the problem its working to solve, you will stay on the ride until the very end. Reality is, there is no defined formula for the success of your business or that of anyone else's. It's all about trial and error. Being realistic about your businesses successes and failures makes you human and opens you to growth opportunities. For instance, noticing that your business is not on track motivates you to seek mentorship if needed. Or, if your company is doing well, sharing business advice to other women entrepreneurs venturing to level the playing field may serve as an opportunity to give back.
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7 Min Read
"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.
This piece has been originally published on April 14, 2020