Meet four Black women forging new paths in business
Black women in the US are now the only racial group with more business ownership than their male counterparts, but despite positive steps there is still much work to be done on the road to equality. In this series we highlight four women - Holley Murchison, Jade Purple Brown, Sharmadean Reid and Liv Little - who are forging new paths for women in business.
Last year the 2018 State of Women-Owned Business Report was released giving some insight on women in business in the US, and it packed some pretty impressive numbers. The report stated that women-owned businesses had grown 58% from 2007 to 2018, and that within this number the companies owned and run by Black women had jumped by a huge 164%. Black women in the US are now the only racial group with more business ownership than their male counterparts. Pretty impressive figures, right? Well, yes and no.
While these statistics all provide positive insights, it was noted that many of the reasons why women, and specifically Black women, are starting their own businesses were due to the fact that there are still not enough positions for women readily available in industry, and many of the hiring decisions are still made by the same voices and the same faces that have been at the helm for years. Women still hold less than 5% of CEO positions in the US, UK and Europe. Isn’t it about time we changed things up?
More perspectives, more voices and greater representation will only lead to better ideas, improved creativity and dynamic thinking. And right now, most of us are in agreement that the world is quite desperately in need of some better ideas.
In this series WePresent have teamed up with Squarespace, a website building platform, to bring you the stories of four trailblazing women full of good ideas. Each of the women in this series – Holley Murchison, Jade Purple Brown, Sharmadean Reid and Liv Little – are using their platforms to promote inclusion in industries that have not always made space for the Black female voice and in doing so, they are paving the way for women of the future. Because who run the world? Girls.
New York-based artist and designer JADE PURPLE BROWN creates imagery that places women at the center of her vibrant pop art inspired work. A graduate of the Illinois Institution of Art, Jade worked within the fashion and beauty industry before becoming a freelance artist.
For visual artist and designer Jade Purple Brown committing herself to her career has never been an issue. “I remember when I was around six years old I created my own business cards with ‘Future Artist’ as the job title,” she laughs. “I guess I always kind of knew that I wanted to make a living creating.”
That early foresight paid off. Today the New York-based artist is known for her vibrant aesthetic, creating playful work that often depicts women as its central protagonists. It’s a conscious decision by the artist who uses her work to fight against stereotypes and show that strength and femininity are not mutually exclusive. “All of the characters I draw have such a strong sense of individuality,” she says. “That’s exactly how I want women to be portrayed but also to feel when they view my art.”
“Especially when it comes to Black women,” she continues. “The design industry has for too long been white and male, so I hope that doing my thing can serve as inspiration to show other Black women that they can do whatever they want.”
Jade’s work comes at a time when the design industry is in dire need of new voices, those that can authentically speak to perspectives outside of the cis-white male gaze that has for so long dominated – and homogenised – the mainstream. It was recently estimated that within design 73% of working designers are white, with Black designers only making up 3% of the overall number. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” Jade sighs. “If people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives aren’t brought into the forefront the industry will become stagnant. Innovation happens when unexpected ideas link together, and that’s impossible to do if different points of view aren’t brought into the conversation.”
Like many Black women starting out in business Jade wasn’t equipped with the means to get going right away, but her determination never wavered and a steely focus on her goals kept them at the forefront of her mind. After graduating from a Fashion Marketing and Management degree at the Illinois Institution of Art Jade worked full time as a digital designer at a corporate beauty brand. Branching out on her own was always the goal though, so each day when her alarm went off at 5am she would work for several hours on her own projects before heading into her office job. “I would take conference calls on my lunch break and when I was finally finished I would head home to continue working on my own freelance projects late into the night,” she remembers. This double life – marred by stress and a serious lack of sleep – wore Jade down to the point where she realized she was mentally and physically exhausted. Fuelled by the need to regain her happiness Jade understood it was time to make the leap. She spent time building up both her confidence and clientele, and along the way picked up a number of lucratives gigs, each one getting her closer to her freelance goals. The artist has since worked with the likes of Apple, Sephora, Nike and Google.
“It’s always an incredible feeling when a brand truly values what I do and hires me to bring my vision to their identity,” Jade says. “When companies that I’ve always dreamed of working with started reaching out to me everything began to feel real.”
Now Jade hopes that her story can act as a touchstone for others who don’t feel seen in the creative industry. Sisterhood is a theme that permeates through her work, and it’s something that jumps from her canvases into the way she lives her life too. “There are so many different types of women out there and we all deserve to be represented in the right light,” she says. “The old stereotypes of how women of color should look, feel, and react need to be thrown out the window but in order to make this happen there needs to be more women of color hired in positions of power, where their voices can be heard and truly valued.”
Jade’s optimism is infectious and her self-belief is empowering, but she puts both down to the power of creativity. The artist explains that during moments of doubt and career stress it was art that allowed her to connect with herself and refocus her energy. “My number one piece of advice for anyone trying to branch out on their own is to spend time with yourself and figure out what makes you and your business unique and capitalize on it,” she says.
“It can be so easy to get discouraged by paying attention to what everyone else is doing, but when you focus on your purpose and the things you truly want for yourself there’s no stopping you. Cut out the distractions, connect with yourself, and do you. Unapologetically.”
Live Little is the founder of gal-dem, a media company spotlighting women and non-binary people of color. She is a writer, curator and speaker, and has worked with the BBC and the Guardian.
Curator, writer, producer, publisher, CEO – there’s not much that Liv Little can’t do. And at 25 years old her rise may have come quickly but it certainly hasn’t been without plenty of late nights and a serious amount of grafting. While still studying at the University of Bristol Liv founded gal-dem, a title by and for women and non binary people of color to address a lack of representation in the media. It was a necessary reaction to the whitewashed news cycle of mainstream media, but also a form of catharsis for Liv. Feeling unhappy, isolated and misunderstood at university – “I would cry every day” – gal-dem provided a way for Liv to create a like-minded community of women going through the same thing.
“Growing up the people I would see on TV or in entertainment that looked like me were very Americanized, and they were the only things I could in any way relate to,” Liv says. “That’s true for a lot of Black people in Britain I think. The recognition of the British media of Black people and people of color more broadly has always been behind. Even the history I studied in school that was in any way related to Black history was the American side,” she says.
“I think as you get older you get to a point where certain things just don’t sit right with you anymore and when I was in university I had started to develop a framework to articulate those experiences,” she says. At the time Liv was also working part time in television and documentary making, giving her a broader understanding of storytelling and more specifically which stories were being told. “gal-dem seemed like a viable route to tell more stories from different perspectives,” she says. “It made sense for me.”
During the summer before her last term at university Liv started social media channels for gal-dem, put flyers up around her hometown of London and grew a small team of contributors. The first official magazine launched in September 2015, and in the months that followed Liv and her mum would box up issues on her kitchen table to send out to stockists. gal-dem’s community continued to grow. Liv recognised the strength of her platform and when offered a full time job as a commissioner at the BBC she turned it down in order to work part-time and still have time to focus on her burgeoning business. “I was nervous,” she says, “but I had to allow myself the flexibility and thankfully the BBC granted me that. At the same time I was developing gal-dem, pitching for investment and building a business plan. It was a manic but incredibly exciting time – I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
The gamble paid off and now, almost five years later, gal-dem is using their platform to educate other outlets on issues of race, gender and feminism. Liv too has emerged as a powerful and important voice in UK media in a tumultuous time when diverse voices and opinions are perhaps more important than ever. Recently she was named one of the Evening Standard’s Progress 1000, a list that recognises the most influential people in media. Refreshingly though, these kind of accolades don’t hold much weight with Liv and she is instead much more focussed on what representation for the next generation will look like.
“Visibility (in the media) is increasing but the structural forces that are underpinning the decisions behind what happens on TV, who gets hired, what stories are told, still need to change,” she says. “We need more than an odd scheme here or there that gets people in at junior levels. There needs to be more people in positions of power that don’t all look the same, so when it comes to that kind of representation, I still think we have a hell of a long way to go.”
“There needs to be space for the next generation to step in with fresh ideas and new perspectives,” she says. “I want to create space for the people who will come after me. Something that we do with our work is to constantly think about how we reach the 15 and 16-year-olds and how we open the door for them. I think the rest of the media should be thinking the same. We need to shake it up in order for things to change.”
For Liv, this community that she has worked so hard to galvanize has been her lifeline through the ups and downs of negotiating the business world. She notes how, despite still being so young, she doesn’t put pressure on herself to meet expectations or follow a set path. She talks about her mum as an inspiration, discussing her courage at changing careers later in life, and how grateful she is for the strong role models and women in her life.
“Nothing happens in isolation,” Liv says. “It’s all about the people. Whenever anyone asks me for advice I tell them that you have to foster a community. Especially for the work that I do, nothing can exist without it. It allows people – and business – to evolve together.”
While this idea of evolution is at the heart of what gal-dem stands for, an important function of the platform is also to document a culture that for a long time was not recorded in the media. It’s something that Liv is aware she needs to do for herself too. Despite rarely having a day off, Liv recently found the few quiet hours needed to sit down and set up her own Squarespace website to map out her own journey. “So much happens and I don’t always document it, but it’s so important,” she says. “And it’s not just for others to see, but it allows me to take stock of what I have done.”
“Really, it’s just another way of archiving,” she says. “We have to document what we’re doing for future generations. It’s a way of making it known that you existed.”
A multimedia storyteller, educator and entrepreneur HOLLEY MURCHISON’s work explores the intersection of communication, culture and education. She is the founder of Oratory Glory and the author of Tell Me About Yourself.
For a lot of us it can take many years to figure out what we’re good at, or what our careers are going to look like, but for Holley Murchison the decision pretty much made itself. “Teaching runs in my family and has always come naturally to me,” she says. “I believe it’s in my blood.”
And with a lineage like Holley’s it’s little wonder. The educator and entrepreneur comes from a long line of politically active educators, teaching artists and musicians. Surrounded by influential women from a young age, her paternal grandmother was a self-taught singer-songwriter and instructor who taught a travelling choir while her aunt, Saundra ‘Tukee’ Barnes, was invited by the Ministry of Education in Beijing as an international expert to teach Scientific English to the top 10% of the entire graduate school population during the 1980s. “A trail was definitely blazed before me,” Holley says, “and this generational curiosity and thirst for learning is what shaped my capacity to teach, and reach, others, since I was a kid.”
As a child Holley gravitated towards places that fed her thirst for knowledge, and fell further in love with teaching during afternoons spent in her local library, Macomb’s Bridge Library, in Harlem, New York. Obsessing over books and the power of language on a near-daily basis, when the library got its first computer Holley quickly learnt all of the programmes and, at age 12, was hired by the library to teach others how to use it as a part time job.
Holley’s gift for enabling and empowering grew throughout the years, leading her to launch her first business – The Hall Pass Tour – in 2011. With a motley crew of creatives and fellow teachers Holley travelled to the US producing pep rallies and workshops in historically marginalized urban and rural school communities. “The goal was to inspire and expose young people — and the communities who supported them — to ways they could leverage the resources around them to pursue their dreams and carve out learning paths that allowed them to sustain those efforts,” she says.
But it was during the second year on the tour when Holley’s lightbulb moment happened. It clicked for her that the more urgent audience was not students but people at the early-mid stages of their careers who, as she says, “are driving the economy and shaping the future but are often still marginalized by inequitable systems.” People of color, QTPOC and women became Holley’s focus and Oratory Glory was born. Focused on human development and empowered learning Oratory Glory fosters self-actualization in adults through workshop-based learning. “I knew that it would be both impactful and lucrative to build a business that helps professionals nurture their talents and hone traditionally underdeveloped skills that are the foundation of instigating innovation and change,” Holley says.
While empowerment lies at the core of Holley’s business what is perhaps so vital about Oratory Glory is that it flies in the face of established institutions in society that have actively worked to diminish marginalized voices in the past. It amplifies both the skills and the stories of those that are desperately needed to revolutionise what business looks like in 2019. Oratory Glory, and Holley, are the instigators of change, and of progress.
“(For businesses) I think the key lies in the willingness to get out and ask questions, develop cultural competence, solicit feedback, and invite people with a range of cultural experiences to the proverbial table,” Holley notes. “Once they’re at the table, businesses must also be willing to pass the mic and give people room to be the narrators of their own stories, celebrate and take risks on new ideas from new people, get to know the developmental needs of their teams and the markets they’re serving, and explore how and if they can meet those needs. If businesses commit to focusing on just one to three of those things, it is almost impossible not to amplify more diverse stories in the process.”
“I think it’s important to note that we serve people who identify all across (and outside of) the gender spectrum,” Holley continues. “And as a business owned and operated by queer, Black women, it’s important that women and femme-identifying people are among those who we prioritize through our work. We see ourselves as an engine for fulfilling human potential and are growing a business where lifestyle, culture, education, and multimedia intersect to shape a more equitable future.”
For Holley part of the success of business is watching the transformations along the way. In 2017 she launched Tell Me About Yourself, a book derived from Oratory Glory’s specialized learning experience to reach even greater audiences. The book – which focuses on how to confidently discuss yourself and your craft – has since been turned into a community challenge, podcast, tour and mini-documentary series and has reached over 200,000 people in more than 20 countries. “Through our experiences, I’ve seen individuals hone their creative confidence, articulate career transitions with ease, pitch and execute solutions more confidently, and reimagine their personal narrative,” she says.
But while Holley teaches others the skills to confidently project their best self, it’s a lesson that she has had to work on herself too. “The biggest challenges for me were the mental roadblocks that came from self-doubt and fear,” she says, “and the isolation of incubating alone before I had a team of trusted peers and a partner I could bounce ideas off of and weather storms with.” To combat that she uses meditation, prayer, reiki and therapy and credits both her wife and a circle of trusted friends with helping her to balance her work with herself.
And on a practical side Holley has found another way to separate her two identities. Following the success of Oratory Glory she created two Squarespace websites to focus her energies and distinguish her work as Holley Murchison from the work of her company. “For a long time, I was so attached to the work of Oratory Glory that I couldn’t clearly identify the difference between who I am and what the business does,” she says. “When I decided to create a website, it was a big revelatory moment of ‘I am not my work.’ My work is just one of the many manifestations of who I am.”
And for Holley this is still just the beginning. In 2020 and beyond Oratory Glory will continue to empower on an international scale, with plans to open their first physical campus in 2022. “I equate success to impact,” Holley says, “so the first time I taught a public speaking workshop in the early days of Oratory Glory and saw the transformation of someone being able to effectively communicate a side of them that they weren’t able to before, I knew this was just the tip of the iceberg.”
Entrepreneur SHARMADEAN REID is the founder of WAH nails, Beautystack and FutureGirlCorp. An advocate for women’s empowerment in business, she was awarded an MBE in 2015.
Cast your mind back to 2009. Slumdog Millionaire had won big at the box office, Lady Gaga’s Pokerface was being blasted from every radio station and Alexander McQueen’s Horn of Plenty collection had captivated the fashion world. It was also the year that nail art became perhaps the biggest trend to explode within the beauty industry, with intricately-painted designs appearing everywhere from the catwalks to dedicated nail blogs. And in London, that trend was largely down to one woman: Sharmadean Reid.
Sharmadean opened WAH nail salon on Kingsland Road in Hackney in 2009, taking the name (which stands for We Ain’t Hoes) from a zine that she started while still a student at Central Saint Martins a few years earlier. Originally founded as a space for like-minded women to meet and discuss everything from business plans to feminism while getting their nails done, WAH quickly grew into a national phenomenon. Within two months of opening, the business began hosting pop ups across London while still doing the nails of the who’s who of the fashion industry in the Hackney space. Sharmadean was thrust into the business spotlight.
“At first it wasn't about running a business for me, it was about creating a physical space to connect with my friends,” she says. “I researched the hell out of the salon business and figured out that at first it wouldn't be scalable but that it wouldn't lose money either, so I set up shop with 17 grand of capital my friend had lent me from her own savings.”
It was a sound investment. For the next 10 years WAH became the last word in nail art and Sharmadean became synonymous with savvy, young and – most importantly – Black female entrepreneurship in the UK. She launched two books, a clothing line and set up WAH Power Lunches to bring together women in the business sector to discuss anything from product development to strategy. These then evolved into her next business venture, FutureGirlCorp, a business workshop and networking event for women aiming to be the CEOs of the future. In 2015, at just over 30 years old, Sharmadean was awarded an MBE for her services to the beauty industry.
So how did she do it? Since she was a teenager Sharmadean has been focused on her success, and the tools to achieve it. “I grew up with a single mum on benefits, we had nothing,” Sharmadean says, “but I always knew I could be successful because I worked hard to better myself and access as much information as possible.”
“I never saw my race, gender, or background as something that holds me back,” she says. “When I was 14 I used the money I earned from my waitressing job to buy the Sunday Times every weekend because I constantly wanted to be informed. I've always had a vision of how I wanted my life to look and a belief that I could do it.”
Today Sharmadean has parlayed her success from WAH into her next venture – Beautystack – a site that enables seamless beauty booking directly from curated content. It’s a business focussing on convenience for women, but also one that has empowerment firmly embedded in its ethos. “One of our main missions is to change the perception of careers in beauty,” she says. “It's an industry that is often stigmatised as superficial or unintelligent, but it’s a billion-dollar sector that has allowed women all over the world to start businesses, work flexibly and feel empowered. We aim to continue that and help destigmatize the industry.”
It’s not just good ideas that have set Sharmadean apart though, her understanding of consumer trends and the psychology that guides our buying habits has always underpinned her business strategies. For today’s consumers principles matter, and Sharmadean has always understood that business is about far more than just the stuff you sell.
“Brand comes after the values system – what are the things that cement who you are?” she says. “I'm interested in a hell of a lot of things but my values system is about women, technology, education and economic empowerment. The brand works from there.”
Ten years on from her first business Sharmadean is now a powerful presence and advocate for female entrepreneurship, but she has worked tirelessly for her success and to have her voice heard. For her though, success isn’t about accolades. “My version of success is feeling secure enough to be able to think freely,” she says. “So it’s a success of the mind and not feeling any oppression there. Of course financial security is a major part of success too, the freedom to be autonomous in managing my time and my choices, and that's why my business now is so focussed on economically empowering women.” And when it comes to Sharmadean’s advice for the next generation? Keep it simple. “I think the best advice is often the most basic,” she says. “The more generic it is the more I can find my own meaning in it. Whether that's my little sister saying, ‘I’m sure you’ll figure it out,’ or an old Jamaican man I once met on a mountain who told me, ‘Nuh worry yourself,’ I find comfort in the shortest and most unlikely tidbits of wisdom.”