This blog is a part of our series highlighting and celebrating Black founders within the subscription industry. With thousands of SUBTA members, we’re proud to tell their stories. Other blogs featured in this series include Unboxing Splendies: CEO Anthony Coombs on Gender Collaborations & Race in the Subscription World, Creating Black Representation in the Publishing Industry with Call Number Box, and How Work Space Spark Launched & Became Successful in Spite of Covid-19.
Being an entrepreneur has its challenges, and the barriers to entry can be even bigger for Black entrepreneurs, but that isn’t stopping Black founders from launching new companies. Black entrepreneurship rates are rising in the U.S., as many are drawn to the benefits of being their own boss.
“Entrepreneurship may represent a better career path than other opportunities,” Babson Professor Donna Kelley said about the increase in diversity. “Starting a business allows you independence and control in your work, and the potential to earn a higher income and pursue opportunities you’re passionate about.”
To further explore the entrepreneurial journey of Black founders, SUBTA recently hosted a panel event: Subscription Innovators: Celebrating Black Leaders in this Growing Industry. This collaborative discussion showcased four amazing Black CEOs and founders in the subscription industry: Kalish Nesbitt of The Pose Box, Nia-Tayler Clark of BlackLIT, Donna Maria of Indie Business Network, and Anthony Coombs of Splendies.
Covering topics from marketing to fulfillment, the panel provided SUBTA’s community with insights on all aspects related to launching and managing a subscription company. Nesbitt, Clark, Maria, and Coombs specifically detailed the importance of connecting with mentors to establish and expand their business structure over time.
Companies find mentorship to be incredibly valuable. Sixty-seven percent of businesses report an increase in productivity due to mentoring, and 55% feel that mentoring has a positive impact on their profits. While recognizing the barriers that come with being a Black entrepreneur in the U.S., each panelist shared their experience using mentorship to learn how to establish themselves within a competitive industry.
Entrepreneurship and Race
Launching a business is a challenge in itself, and those barriers are often even more complex for Black entrepreneurs. Upon launch, Black-owned businesses are less likely to remain open four years later, compared to white-owned businesses. Eighty percent of Black entrepreneurs felt capital demands were the hardest aspect of running a business, with Black businesses receiving just 2.6% of funding in Q1 and Q2 2020. Additionally, an intergenerational racial wealth gap makes it hard for Black entrepreneurs to meet the initial capital costs of starting a business, as Black families are 18% less likely to receive an inheritance than white families.
The panelists at SUBTA’s event found their own pathway to success despite the racial challenges they faced along the way. “There is no one in my family or around me who has paved the path of successful entrepreneurship or has started to build wealth for their families. So I’m the pioneer of that in my family,” said Nesbitt, who broke this stigma by founding The Pose Box — a style subscription service for Women. Transitioning away from The Pose Box, Nesbitt is now using her business knowledge to help other entrepreneurs prosper in the subscription industry.
To Clark, making it as a Black entrepreneur in America was an incentive in itself. “With the challenge of race [comes] the reward of being the first and the extra motivation of many other people looking up to you… It’s kind of liberating,” she said. Clark is the founder and CEO of BlackLIT, a subscription box company that highlights Black authors and entrepreneurs in literature. She used her teaching experience to launch a subscription box that seeks to inspire and empower young readers.
Entrepreneurship can also enable Black individuals to blaze their own trail. “Being an entrepreneur doesn’t insulate you from any negative happenings; however, it does give you the ability to chart your own course and be expected to do that,” stated Maria, founder and CEO of Indie Business Network. For over 20 years, her entrepreneurial training company has helped founders grow and scale their businesses. Maria’s influence on the industry is monumental, as she was named by Forbes as one of the ‘top 20 women in the country tweeting about small business and entrepreneurship.’
Maria recounted a majority of her race-related experiences occurring in the traditional workplace, long before her path to entrepreneurship. Once she became her own boss, Maria found her racial identity to play less of a factor in her professional career.
Being able to steer yourself in the business world can also provide financial liberation. Coombs always set out for economic independence in his professional career.
From an early age, Coombs remembered saying, “I’m not going to allow my future to be put in someone else’s hands. Anything that happens in my company and in my career, I’m going to be in control of that.” With this mindset, Coombs went on to create Splendies, a world-renowned underwear subscription company. Since its launch in 2013, Splendies has created a dedicated community that trades and converses about box items.
Finding Mentorship Opportunities
Although 76% of people feel mentors are important, only 37% have one. Finding a mentor can be tough at times, as Coombs affirmed: “Not everyone is able to give their time, but if you can find someone who is, find that person and try to learn as much from them as you can.”
While finding the time to connect may be hard for some, networking has never been easier for aspiring entrepreneurs thanks to the internet.
“Business used to take place behind closed doors, it doesn’t anymore,” said Maria. “If I could find them on the internet, they became my mentor. I subscribed to everything they did. There’s nothing that you can’t be mentored in if you have a Wi-Fi connection and some headphones.”
The digital space provides abundant mentorship options for those looking to grow within the subscription industry. Many platforms have specific groups where entrepreneurs seek and share industry information. Various social networks, such as Facebook, have channels that offer free advice to entrepreneurs from all demographics.
Mentorship exists in different styles on many different platforms. Depending on the medium, mentors can provide knowledge specific to one’s current needs.
Maximizing Your Mentorship Experience
Once a mentorship relationship is formed, it’s crucial to make the most of the time investment for both involved. Clark found success by proactively preparing for each mentorship meeting she has. “Once you establish those relationships, don’t show up empty-handed. Come up ready to ask questions because they want to help you,” she said.
Mentorship can provide long-term gain for business owners. Each new piece of information gained is a new advantage one can enact in their company. Coombs defined a successful mentorship experience as one that presents at least one new tidbit of information. “If you have a conversation with someone and get one thing out of it, that’s a very worthwhile use of your time.”
Coombs also highlighted the importance of growing your mentorship network alongside your business. “Make sure you’re progressively upgrading your mentorship,” he said. As business owners scale, updating mentorship connections can supplement business growth with new knowledge. At every stage of his entrepreneurial journey, Coombs spent time introducing himself to new mentors. With determination and persistence, he was able to develop an impressive mentorship network which helped build Splendies into what it is today.
Understanding Mentorship and Race
Minority groups are underrepresented in leadership positions. Black Americans account for 12% of the country’s population but only hold 3.2% of leading roles at large companies. Additionally, less than 5% of venture capitalists are Black.
Nesbitt detailed her experience seeking mentorship as a Black woman. The founder and subscription consultant noticed a stark racial gap in a mentorship network she took part in. “A lot of those mentors were white men,” Nesbitt stated. “That was a barrier for me because [they couldn’t] relate to who I was as a Black female entrepreneur.”
She turned to the digital space to find the guidance she was looking for. Nesbitt sought out resources on YouTube, Google, and through Instagram DMs. This allowed her to find new success as she grew her subscription business and consulting brand.
Panelists explained that the path to success requires a certain level of open-mindedness and understanding of what it means to be Black in America. “Race in America is going to play a factor, regardless,” stated Coombs.
For Nesbitt, this meant finding a new approach to identifying the right mentors: “[I reached] out to people who may or may not look like me, and [tried] not to use those barriers that have been drilled into us over time to prevent me from creating my own success,” she said.
Finding Success in the Subscription Industry
Many companies have used mentorship experiences to flourish. More than 90% of small business owners believe mentorship has an impact on the growth and survival of their business, and 80% of mentored companies have doubled their survival rate compared to their counterparts.
Conversing with mentors can be intimidating at first, but these four founders are strong advocates of its positive impact. “Put yourself in a position to be a part of [a] community. Entrepreneurship is a community in itself. Reach out and get resources from people,” stated Clark. Gaining new knowledge can drastically improve a subscription company, which can create a better experience for its subscribers. “When you’re serving the audience you already have, it just gets better from there,” said Maria.