28 Aug 2020

Highlighting Black Founders: MBA Class of 2021

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by Hensley Carrasco

In the past few months, the nation and the world have shifted their focus to COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement—aspiring to help while reflecting on how they have historically and systemically failed Black communities. The business world—and Harvard Business School—has also turned their lens towards righting past wrongs and seeking social and racial justice. No single approach has been perfect—what’s important is where we go from here. HBS has acknowledged its failures and is actively working to address these problems via an Anti-Racism Task Force and an anti-racism action plan. The road will be long, and it won’t be easy, but these efforts are imperative to our journey toward racial justice, inclusion, and equity.

Our Black students and alumni have founded, and been part of, amazing organizations that might not be on the radar of those outside of the University. They deserve to be highlighted. We caught up with several of our Class of 2021 founders to learn more about their companies and ask what advice they might have for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) wanting to start a company of their own.

Navigation: Nour | RESET Third Space | Anti-Racism Fund | Welfie | The Takeoff Institute | Healthy Girls Save the World | Dream Delivered

Mae Abdelrahman (MBA 2021)

Mae Abdelrahman (MBA 2021) founded Nour. You can find Nour on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. Check out how you can help Nour.

Can you tell me a little bit about your company and the inspiration behind it?
Nour is built on the belief that all shades of skin deserve to be valued and protected equally.

Four years ago, after visiting a dermatologist, I learned that I should wear sunscreen on a daily basis to prevent skin concerns like melanoma, hyperpigmentation, and wrinkles. My dermatologist debunked the myth that darker skin is naturally protected from the sun. Since then, I have been rigorously searching and unable to find a mineral-based sunscreen that looks good on my Black skin. Mineral-based sunscreens leave an unpleasant white cast, or residue, on darker skin tones and the only tinted options currently available are shaded for lighter skin tones, leaving people of color with extremely limited options.

Nour is a line of tinted, mineral-based sunscreens, made with melanin in mind. Nour will introduce three dark shades of mineral-based sunscreen that do not currently exist. This will allow Black people who want to have healthy, beautiful skin to add a product to their daily skin care routine that will not leave an unpleasant white cast.

I come from a long line of strong, Sudanese women who believe that health and beauty go hand-in-hand. Nour is my mother’s namesake. This skin care brand is a tribute to her dedication to raise Black daughters who would challenge norms and improve the lives of others. Nour seeks to empower minority and marginalized groups to create equity where it does not currently exist. Nour embodies female strength, Black power, and the fight for equity.

Has the pandemic affected your business?
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were spaces available on campus that allowed founders to get together, discuss our ventures, and help each other out. Since then, I’ve had to be much more creative and intentional about meeting with other founders and maintaining a strong network.

I am lucky that much of the work I am doing now, product and brand development, can be done remotely. In July, I conducted some sunscreen testing and was able to find a way for everyone to test the sunscreens from their own home, rather than in a focus group, as I had originally planned. I am committed to remaining flexible and creative so Nour can make great strides during the pandemic.

What advice would you give to BIPOC about starting their own companies? Is there anything you wish someone had told you before starting your company?
I truly believe that you can start and run the business of your dreams. A few years ago, I dreamed of running my own skincare company, but I did not think I had the resources or knowledge necessary to actually start. Eventually, I decided to stop thinking I could not do it and started taking steps toward my dream, and I have not looked back since. As long as you are willing to work extremely hard, think creatively, and ask others for help, you can accomplish your wildest dreams. Today is the best day to start. Figure out what you do not know and do the research to learn. Think about all aspects of your business, not just the parts that excite you most, and how they integrate into the big picture.

Build a network of people who care about your success and who will support you. When there are people in your corner, it is easier to have the confidence necessary to start a company and the motivation to keep going when things get hard.

I wish someone told me to unabashedly share my idea with my network. We can often be too humble to mention that we are building a business or even afraid that someone will replicate our idea. However, the benefits of communicating far outweigh any downsides. By sharing your idea and your goals, you open yourself up to introductions, serendipitous connections, and more. I can’t even count the number of times someone knew someone else who could give me advice or support that has helped me get this far. Allow your community to support you, refer you to others, and lift you up. Always remember to pay it forward and help others when they need someone to be the champion of their dreams.

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Shani Carter (MBA 2021)

Shani Carter (MBA 2021) founded RESET Third Space. You can find RESET on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Can you tell me a little bit about your company and the inspiration behind it?
RESET Third Space is a platform for finding, testing, and utilizing the full range of self-care resources on the market. I come from working in demanding, stressful industries—finance and consulting—and really struggled to find wellness resources and routines that worked with my schedule, budget, and interests. It created a sense of helplessness and fatigue that reminded me of standing in front of the refrigerator trying to figure out what to eat; eventually, the decision-making process would become so exhausting that I’d end up grabbing potato chips instead of making a healthy snack just because it was easiest. For daily self-care habits, RESET’s resource library and personalized content delivery helps take the friction out of discovering ways to balance work and break-time with joy and satisfying experiences.

What advice would you give to BIPOC about starting their own companies? Is there anything you wish someone had told you before starting your company?
The world will be better because of you. We can’t allow fear, uncertainty, or challenges to get in the way of offering something good that is in our power to provide to others. Dismantle any anxiety that might stand in the way of starting a new venture by getting clear about the problem you’re seeking to solve. Then, enlist help! It’s unlikely that you’re the only one who sees the problem and is willing to help fix it; don’t be afraid to share your ideas and ask for assistance. Sometimes you may feel as if progress is slow, but creating and maintaining disciplined habits of work and reflection will go a long way.

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Kevin Chenault (MBA 2021)

Kevin Chenault (MBA 2021) co-founded the Anti-Racism Fund (ARF). You can find ARF on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Can you tell me a little bit about your company and the inspiration behind it?
Recent events continue to expose a long history of systemic racism that exists in the United States, a history where Black people have been marginalized, brutalized, and lynched because of a bias against the color of their skin.

In response to these atrocities, our networks approached us with many questions, most predominantly: "Where and how can I help?" As a response, we formed the Anti-Racism Fund to create a platform to streamline the donation process to targeted organizations that take action to fight injustice and support our community.

We understand that racism permeates our society and its institutions. Our goal is to eradicate these inequalities and build equity in our communities. ARF provides capital to organizations as a way to inject social change. We connect you with a hand-selected portfolio of organizations aligned with our Four Pillars of Purpose: Justice Reform, Health Advocacy, Community and Social Justice, and Education Access. ARF has found success through capitalizing on a heightened bias for action. To date, we have raised upwards of $700,000 in just over two months.

Has the pandemic affected your business?
The pandemic has only highlighted the importance of the work we are trying do. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color. We have worked to identify and partner with organizations that are helping the black community through this challenging time.

What advice would you give to BIPOC about starting their own companies? Is there anything you wish someone had told you before starting your company?
Nothing is going to be perfect at the start, but that should not discourage you from going forward with your business. When picking your team make sure you are clear on the expectations you have of the team members and work to make sure you are aligned on the vision you see for the company. Actively look for advisors and mentors than can help you on your journey. Most importantly, stay true to your cause and no matter how successful you become, always remember where you started.

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Zachary Hermes (MD/MBA 2021)

Zachary Hermes (MD/MBA 2021) co-founded Welfie. You can find Welfie on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Can you tell me a little bit about your company and the inspiration behind it?
Welfie is about empowering schools as they face the challenge of safely continuing operations amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. We prevent and detect outbreaks, ensure data-driven decision-making by leaders, and facilitate efficient and effective communication of critical polices and information to stakeholders. I joined Welfie as a co-founder because I felt a call to action. As someone who has invested time and effort in developing a cross-functional skillset spanning medicine, policy, law, and business, I knew I had to get off the sidelines. COVID-19 is fundamentally disrupting our society, particularly in disadvantaged communities, and I saw there was a job to be done. Children are missing out on essential academic and social-emotional learning by staying at home, and school closures are exacerbating social, economic, and racial injustice as historically marginalized children and families are suffering the most. At Welfie, we believe primary schools are essential and we work to support safe and effective school reopening plans.

What advice would you give to BIPOC about starting their own companies? Is there anything you wish someone had told you before starting your company?
Be relentless about knowing your customer and understanding what problem you are solving. There are a lot of great ideas, but you’ll save yourself time and money if you make your first order of business to become intimately aware of the journey and needs of who you are serving.

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Brian Hollins (MBA 2021)

Brian Hollins (MBA 2021) founded the Takeoff Institute. You can find the Takeoff Institute on LinkedIn.

Can you tell me a little bit about your company and the inspiration behind it?
The Takeoff Institute is on a mission to democratize resources, mentorship and financial literacy for the black undergraduate population. We are built for Black people, by Black people, and have a deep understanding of the skills and training necessary to equip the future leaders of America that exist across our community.

Prior to joining HBS, I spent six years at Goldman Sachs across three different divisions (investment management, investment banking, growth equity investing). From time to time graduating students reach out asking for advice as they begin their professional careers. One of the most common questions is, "What skills got you to where you are today?" It is important to acknowledge that there is no singular path to a successful career, nor have I figured out the best one yet! I continue to learn through trial and error, but I believe there are three core competencies every student should try to achieve before graduating from college:

  1. Identify and build a relationship with a champion (different than a mentor)
  2. Become an expert in PowerPoint, and at least intermediate in Excel
  3. Build a polished and refined "profile" (LinkedIn, resume, cover letter, website, blog, etc)

We try to give students all of these things as part of the fellowship, helping to launch their careers and send them on a promising path early in their careers.

Has the pandemic affected your business?
The pandemic accelerated our opportunity. I saw students at HBS losing internships and knew the trickle-down effect to black undergrads would be even more severe. The pandemic gave me the sense of urgency I needed to finally make it happen.

What advice would you give to BIPOC about starting their own companies? Is there anything you wish someone had told you before starting your company?
Build the company in a way that others can describe its impact. Early on, I was spending far too much time in the weeds—thinking about coordination, planning, etc.—and not enough on the mission, core values, and principles I wanted the organization to stand upon. Now that we have had 50 students graduate through the fellowship, I am able to remind myself that many of the "little things" weren't that important, and that the students find value in our mentorships and community. If you are going to build something for your community, ensure that you yourself would want to be a part of it before you ask others to—ask if there are many organizations like yours already, how yours is different, why it is going to succeed, why others should choose it.

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Camille McGirt (MBA 2021)

Camille McGirt (MBA 2021) founded Healthy Girl Save the World, Inc (HGSW). You can find HGSW on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Can you tell me a little bit about your company and the inspiration behind it?
As a 19-year-old 2010 White House intern, I volunteered with Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, and acquired a robust desire to make the message of fulfilling healthy habits tangible for low-income African American girls in my hometown community. Upon completion of the internship, I came back home to Durham, N.C., and worked with my younger sister to start Healthy Girls Save the World. The mission of HGSW is to provide transformational experiences and education on proper nutrition, the benefits of physical activity, and overall healthy lifestyles so that girls will be knowledgeable and enabled to make healthy choices in their lives. We organize culturally responsive educational tools, after-school programs, and summer camps that encourage the development of healthy and balanced lifestyles for girls of color. As a public servant, I am on a mission to sustain a community health program that is well organized, fundable, engaging, and results-driven.

Has the pandemic affected your business?
The pandemic has affected HGSW tremendously. Every summer for the last eight years we've hosted a summer camp at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, but this year we could not. Additionally, our after-school program is not active this year due to COVID. We have had to become more innovative with thinking through ways that we can use technology to help our girls remain engaged throughout the summer and school year. While it's nice that we are pivoting to more digital engagement, there's nothing like our summer camp. In this video, you can learn more about what we offer in the summer for our girls.

What advice would you give to BIPOC about starting their own companies? Is there anything you wish someone had told you before starting your company?
In retrospect, when we first started, I wish that someone had mentioned the need for developing and building diversified internal revenue streams. When we started we offered free camps, as we were winning pitch competitions, grants, and funding awards. However, we found that approach to be unsustainable—we now have a payment model based on a sliding income tax scale—aligned with the guardian’s ability to pay—and we have developed a few different streams of funding sources.

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Kam Phillips-Sadler (MBA 2021)

Kam Phillips-Sadler (MBA 2021) founded Dream Delivered. You can find Dream Delivered on Instagram and LinkedIn.

Can you tell me a little bit about your company and the inspiration behind it?
I became a founder as an undergraduate when I realized that the world of experiences I had as a child in fields such as journalism, rodeo, and cultural exchanges weren't the norm for children in what I call "dream deserts." I was volunteering at a local community center and realized that the possibilities children perceived for their future were extremely limited. I sought to broaden their horizons through hands-on experiential learning. I founded a nonprofit, Dream Outside the Box (DOTB), that mobilized college students to dream deserts via a mobile app platform and scaled across the nation. From a desire to diversify our revenue and further our reach, Dream Delivered was born. Dream Delivered launched as a subscription box service that delivered career exploration kits to children's doorsteps around the world. From chemistry to carpentry and everywhere in between, each Dream Delivered box has four to six activities, a magazine, and everything kids ages six to 10 need to explore bigger dreams and brighter futures.

Has the pandemic affected your business?
At the start of the pandemic, Dream Delivered was on hiatus. We hadn't optimized our supply chain and weren't sure of the direction the company was headed. However, I've received many requests for us to relaunch—our boxes are perfect for families who are social distancing and seeking activities that keep kids’ minds active, supplement traditional education, and maintain engagement beyond devices. As a result of COVID demand, we are exploring ways to strengthen our sourcing, make our operations more efficient, and relaunch in an imaginative way that leverages the resources available at HBS. I wrote a bit about it on the Dream Delivered website.

What advice would you give to BIPOC about starting their own companies? Is there anything you wish someone had told you before starting your company?

  • Jump off a cliff and get your wings on the way down.
  • It's nice to be important, but more important to be nice.
  • Take care of your employees and they'll take care of you.
  • Run your own race and don't compare yourself to other founders.

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