women
(L to R) Carla Watkins, Ming Lee, Nicole Gibbons, Hope Wiseman

Read the numbers and you’ll see Black women are clearly making boss moves.

The 2018 State of Women-Owned Business Report by American Express notes that while the number of women-owned businesses increased by 58%, African American women-owned firms soared by 164%, nearly three times that rate. Black women are entering growth industries like cannabis, which is as popular for its psychoactive effects as it is for its medicinal benefits. But they are also leaving corporate America in droves to dip their toes in the entrepreneurship pool.

For these four dynamic business women taking the leap into entrepreneurship meant leveraging their expertise, and shooting their shot. Read on to learn how they did it.


HOPE WISEMAN

AGE: 26

COMPANY: Mary and Main

LOCATION: Capitol Heights, Md.

FORMER: Investment Sales Analyst

CURRENT: Founder

Hope Wiseman (Credit: Jay Lenard Photography)

ON BECOMING A BOSS: Reportedly the youngest Black cannabis dispensary owner in the U.S., Wiseman is making moves. Her educational background in economics led her to follow emerging markets—industries that drive growth in the global economy. “Cannabis was set to become one of the fastest-growing industries of my lifetime,” says Wiseman, who was determined to get a piece of the action. She partnered with her mother, Dr. Octavia Simkins-Wiseman, a dentist, and Dr. Larry Bryant, another healthcare practitioner, to start the business. In September 2018, they opened up shop in Prince George’s County.

ON HER BOLDEST MOVE YET: Applying for the dispensary license in the state of Maryland. Wiseman explains: “We spent over $250,000 during our pre-application stage in 2015 hiring experts, securing a property, paying legal fees, and setting up the business. That money was at-risk capital.” Without the trust, support, and ultimately financial backing of her mother and Dr. Bryant, Mary and Main would not exist.

ON BEING A CEO: “On any given day, I am fielding calls from vendors, answering hundreds of emails, or testifying at a bill hearing in the state capitol,” she says. “I have to be ready to play any role, even the janitor.”

ON THE CANNABIS LEARNING CURVE: With Wiseman’s experience, she could oversee business operations while her partners handled the healthcare aspect of the business. “We hired many cannabis experts to provide the specific experience we needed to become successful.”

ON CREATING CHANGE: Historically, our government has demonized and as a result, criminalized cannabis. “They have used this plant, that produces medicine for patients, to incarcerate Black and Brown people at rate four times the rate of our Caucasian counterparts,” says Wiseman. “Now that cannabis is becoming legal, it paves the way for more African Americans to build generational wealth.”

ON THE ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT: Her grandmother was a South Carolina school teacher, and at 85 years young, she runs her own real estate firm. Her mom fuels her entrepreneurial passion. “My mother opened her dental practice about six months after I was born and it has grown to become one of the most recognized practices of our area,” says Wiseman. “Looking at their dedication to independence has instilled a passion for entrepreneurship in my heart.”

ON FOLLOWING YOUR DREAMS: “Not the one your family or friends have put on you, but the dream that seems unattainable.”

READ MORE: These black women entrepreneurs are showing love to all skin tones with ‘Mented’


MING LEE

AGE: 32

COMPANY: SnobLife

LOCATION: Atlanta

FORMER: Hair Stylist

CURRENT: Owner

Ming Lee (Credit: Courtney Montford of 22 Productions)

ON BECOMING A BOSS: As the owner of a million-dollar retail beauty business focusing on hair care products, styling tools, makeup, lashes, and more, Lee, a former hairstylist, realized the potential. “Once I realized how many customers I was referring to various brands, I decided it was smarter to sell the products myself.” So she figured out where the hair was being sourced by asking questions and doing research and bought it directly from the factory. Lee started the online boutique in 2010 and opened her salon SnobLife Studio in 2013. With a few bundles of hair and a $500 investment, she flipped the business from an online hair extensions store to a beauty empire.

ON HER BOLDEST MOVE YET: The biggest boulder that she has moved thus far is launching her dropshipping company in April. “Dropshipping is a retail fulfillment method where a store does not keep the products it sells in stock,” says Lee. “Instead, when a store sells a product, it purchases the item from a third party and has it shipped directly to the customer.” The bold move is part of her company’s five-year-plan to transition from retailer to mainstream wholesaler.

ON SCALING UP: There comes a time in business where you are either maintaining or looking to grow. The only way to achieve the latter is to hire top talent at the right time. “Knowing when to hire people is very important because you don’t want to stunt the growth of your company,” says Lee, in one of her “Storytime” videos on YouTube. “You can get more accomplished if you hire help when you need it.”

ON A DAY IN HER LIFE: Normally, most of Lee’s days would be spent trying to figure out the next move, but these days, she is trying to fit in as much time as possible with her daughter Story. “I typically wake by 6 am to feed, change, and play with her in an attempt to tire out before the nanny comes at 11 am,” she says. Then it’s off to work to check on her warehouse, visit the SnobLife Studio, take meetings with her team, and create content. “I get home around 8 p.m., to spend more quality time with my daughter,” says Lee. With her little one asleep, she revs up again to communicate with overseas manufacturers til the wee hours.  

ON LESSONS LEARNED: “Starting a business takes more discipline than money,” offers the entrepreneur who grew through a process of bootstrapping. “Every single dollar that I made early on was reinvested into the business.”

ON HER BEST ADVICE FOR BOSSES: “It’s okay to learn as you go; the key is to start.”   

READ MORE: Entrepreneur Mahisha Dellinger coaches Black women to take their business from the set up to the blow up


CARLA WATKINS

AGE: 36

COMPANY: Yoga Green Book

LOCATION: Chicago

FORMER: Electrical Engineer

CURRENT: Founder

Carla Watkins (Credit: Vanessa Ramos)

ON BECOMING A BOSS: Watkins started this online studio to give people of color a safe space to transform their physical and mental well-being through yoga and meditation. In 2011, yoga became her saving grace. “At the time, I had high anxiety, prehypertension, and a painful ovarian cyst,” says Watkins. As an electrical engineer in a white-male-dominated industry, she was completely stressed out and it manifested in high levels of anxiety. Toxic stress hijacks the body’s immune and endocrine systems and can affect attention, memory, and the ability to learn new skills, according to “The Unequal Toll of Toxic Stress,” a report from The Center for American Progress. Because of that she started practicing yoga, become a certified instructor, and launched her practice in 2016.

ON HER DEFINING MOMENT: While teaching yoga in Chi-town, Watkins was discouraged by the lack of diversity among instructors. In response, she spearheaded a movement for yogis of color by creating a platform for us and by us. “With the media portraying the image of a young White woman as the ideal yogi, some question, “Is Yoga for me?” says Watkins. Thanks to Instagram, Facebook, and now Yoga Green Book, the ancient healing practice is experiencing a glow up in our communities.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF-CARE: “The way you start your day sets the tone for everything that comes later,” says Watkins, the mother of a five-month-old. “I wake before sunrise, express gratitude, oil pull (swishing oil in the mouth to draw out toxins), drink tea, and then meditate for at least five minutes.”

ON THE CHALLENGE OF HEALING + HEALTH: It’s not because we don’t know what to do. It’s because we don’t have access to a supportive space and culturally-affirming resources, she says. Yoga Green Book answers the call with classes that give practitioners a much-needed release. Scroll through the site to find teachings of poses, breathing techniques, meditation, and mind-soothing tools that promote health and healing.

ON THE ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT: “I focused on pursuing a corporate path,” she says. “After meeting my husband, who is also an entrepreneur, I knew I could pursue my passion and let go of the false belief of conforming to societal expectations.”

ON LIVING YOUR BEST LIFE: “It’s impossible to be your best self if you don’t take care of you first.”

READ MORE: Black women investors help fund women-led start-ups through Pipeline Angels program


NICOLE GIBBONS

AGE: 37

COMPANY:  Clare

LOCATION: New York, New York

FORMER: Interior Designer

CURRENT: Founder and CEO

Nicole Gibbons (Credit: Courtesy of Clare)

ON BECOMING A BOSS: As an interior designer, Gibbons had an ah-ha moment. “After running my design business for many years, my ears were ringing with the same complaints from clients—the process of paint shopping is miserable,” she says. It was clear that the traditional paint-buying experience was broken, so Gibbons set out to fix it. In 2018, she launched the company Clare, which reinvents the way people shop for paint. “We are transforming the process into an easy, efficient, and inspiring e-commerce experience with 55 designer-curated, premium Zero VOC paint colors in two finishes, along with peel-and-stick color swatches and high-quality painting supplies delivered to your door.”

ON RUNNING A START-UP: Managing a young company with a lean team means this CEO wears a lot of hats. “I still have a heavy hand in the day-to-day execution of the company which means I am in meetings, on calls during the day, and working late into the night on task-focused work,” says Gibbons, who raised $2 million in seed funding in 2017 to start the business. Occasionally, a little excitement enters the picture when she is filming a TV segment, having been on Rachael Ray and OWN Network’s Home Made Simple, among others.

ON LEVERAGING HER EXPERTISE: Before launching the company, Gibbons ran her own interior design firm, “so I was able to bring an enormous amount of expertise to the brand that other paint companies lack,” she says. Clare’s online platform is set up to act as an interior designer BFF for customers needing color curation and paint tips while receiving superior customer service. “I wanted to ensure that I was delivering the premium product that had become standard in my experience as a designer.”

ON STAYING INSPIRED: Successful entrepreneurs who use their position and platform to create change the world inspire Gibbons. This includes people like Oprah Winfrey, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

ON GOING FOR IT: “Don’t ever limit your potential because anything is possible.” 

READ MORE: My Sister’s Keeper: 15 Trailblazers who champion the efforts of other women