Podcast Transcript – Series TWO, Episode 37

Melanie AKwule, minwo July 2021


[00:00:00] Melanie Akwule: [00:00:00] I Atlanta was really just good for my spirit. Good for my soul.

[00:00:11] Stumbling into things seems to be this theme of my life.

[00:00:13] I was one of those kids that was coding their website.

[00:00:17] On campus, there were a bunch of people that looked like me that had drive and ambition.

[00:00:23] If I had the mental fortitude that I have now back then, I would have been non-stop there’s a game that is being played yet that I know nothing.

[00:00:30] Think about, Hey, are you still free? We got a spot open. I was like, yes!

[00:00:35] You appreciate the wins. Definitely. But you can’t let the blows take you out.

[00:00:40] First pitch competition that actually accepted me. I ended up winning.

[00:00:43] You feel like a mad scientist almost, right? Like there’s this vision in your brain.

[00:00:47] And while some spaces were warmer than others, and you still feel like a fish out of water.

[00:00:51] How do we adopt some of these traits so that we are signaling to investors?

[00:00:56] What they’re used to seeing, you know, the vision, you know, what [00:01:00] you want to build trust in that? And people will buy in.

[00:01:03] You have everything inside of you to bring this to fruition.

[00:01:07] Dan: [00:01:07] What’s up Unfound Nation, Dan Kihanya here. Thanks so much for checking out another episode of Founders Unfound, that was Melanie Akwule founder and CEO of MINWO, a DEI tech company that connects other companies with organizations that have a specific mission to support black owned businesses on their path to scaling.

[00:01:25] Originally from Virginia Melanie was an NCAA track athlete who did her undergrad at Georgia tech. She excelled in the corporate world and worked for companies like GE and GE Digital. But it was at the Haas school, Cal Berkeley, where she really built her startup muscle. She used her time at school to develop what has become today MINWO. Melanie’s off to a great start in 2021, completing the Techstars program and gearing up for the launch of MINWO’s flagship product Rialto. Melanie has a great story. You will definitely want to listen in.

[00:01:54] Our episode is sponsored by Trajectory Startup: Ideation to Product Market Fit. This new book by [00:02:00] entrepreneur and investor Dave Parker is insight rich, and it is the playbook for those in the earliest stages of the startup journey. And this book is for you, even if you’re just contemplating the jump to entrepreneurship. To get Dave’s book today, look for a link in the show notes, or simply go to dkparker.com or anywhere you’d like to buy your book.

[00:02:18] Before we continue, please make sure to like, and subscribe to the podcast we’re available anywhere you get your podcasts, even YouTube. I so appreciate everyone and Unfound Nation who shows up to listen to the great founders that we get on the show. We can. And if you like what you hear, please drop us a review on Apple or podchaser.com. And tell a friend about us who knows. Maybe they’ll subscribe too.

[00:02:39] Now on with the episode, stay safe and hope you enjoy it.

[00:02:55] Hello and welcome. to Founders Unfound, spotlighting the best startups you don’t know yet. [00:03:00] We bring you stories of exceptional founders from underrepresented and underestimated backgrounds. This is the latest episode in our continuing series on founders of African descent.

[00:03:09] I’m your host, Dan Kihanya. Let’s get on it.

[00:03:12] Today. We have Melanie, Akwule founder and CEO of MINWO, a DEI tech company that connects black owned businesses with organizations that have a specific mission to support black businesses on their path to scaling. Welcome to the show. Melanie, we’re super excited to have you on.

[00:03:27] Thanks for making the time.

[00:03:28] Melanie Akwule: [00:03:28] Thanks so much. I’m excited to be here.

[00:03:31] Dan: [00:03:31] Terrific. So what is MINWO?

[00:03:34] Melanie Akwule: [00:03:34] Yeah, like you said, minimal was a DEI tech company. I think we’re one of the call ourselves that, and essentially our mission is to centralized black business development. And we’re doing that through a platform that we’re building it’s called Rialto and it brings together black founders, the communities that support them and the resource and capital providers that are looking to invest in.

[00:03:55] Dan: [00:03:55] I love it. And we’re going to, we’re going to dig more into that. And I particularly like the name Rialto. [00:04:00] It just has a great ring to it. Great brand to have, but before we get into the company and that endeavor, let’s hear a little bit more about you and where you’re from. Where’d you grow up.

[00:04:09] Melanie Akwule: [00:04:09] So I grew up in a town called Burke Burke, Virginia.

[00:04:12] It’s about 20 minutes outside of DC. I always joke with people and say, it’s four stoplights thing. Not many people know where it is, but yeah, born and raised in Burke. I’m actually living in Woodbridge now. So not too far away, you know, I was an athlete in high school, was an athlete in undergrad. A lot of the life’s lessons that I, that I took from athletics, I feel like helped me and support me on my entrepreneurial journey now.

[00:04:33] But essentially it was when I got to college. You know, I went to college in Atlanta and that really gave me a sense of my blackness and my personal development as a black woman, just being in a city where there are so many amazing people doing amazing things, you know, growing up in Burke, we’re nine, 8% black at the time, Atlanta was really just good for my spirit, good for my soul.

[00:04:55] And then I also started learning about the 1% and how they generate wealth and [00:05:00] generational wealth and all that kind of stuff. So that’s kind of where the early. days of my, my passion. I always say that minimum was my passion before it ever became my business really started

[00:05:09] Dan: [00:05:09] When you were growing up. You said you were an athlete.

[00:05:12] What sport did you pursue?

[00:05:14]Melanie Akwule: [00:05:14] Yeah, track and field. So that was a hundred in high school. I was more of a workhorse. So I did the long jump. Triple jump went four by one relay, sometimes four by four and a hundred hurdles and 300 hurdles

[00:05:25] Dan: [00:05:25] So what drew you to that. Did you have brothers and sisters who did sports?

[00:05:28] Did your parents encourage it? Or what, what drew you to sport?

[00:05:32] Melanie Akwule: [00:05:32] So that’s the funny thing about being first generation. I didn’t know much about sports until I got to high school. That was when I learned about lacrosse and field hockey. I had no idea what those were before high school. I actually was one of those kind of stereotypical discovery stories.

[00:05:46] I was in PE. And the unit was triple jump, track and field. And, you know, I was just playing around, jumping into the sand cause that’s what they told us to do. The PE teacher at the time was like, wait, hold on all over the head coach, [00:06:00] the head coach comes over. They’re like there, do it again and do it again.

[00:06:02] I was like, okay, ran, jumped into the sand. And they’re like, yeah. So it was actually in middle school that my coach, coach Digby at the time kind of pegged me for the track team. And so that’s kind of how that started.

[00:06:16] Dan: [00:06:16] And what was your sense of that though? I mean, I mean, for me, you know, it’s one of those things where if you’re expecting or dreaming about, or something like of like, if you were a musician or a, or an actor and somebody discovered you, but this was like, not even in your purview and all of a sudden you’re an athlete, I guess you must’ve taken to it though.

[00:06:35] What was it about? Was it the competition? Was it the practice, the pursuit of mastery? Like what was it about sports that really sort of like caught you.

[00:06:43] Melanie Akwule: [00:06:43] Yeah. I mean, I mean, stumbling into things seems to be the theme of my life, but for track and field specifically, I grew to love it. Um, it has a very different culture than most sports, right?

[00:06:53] It’s very much an individual sport as it is a team sport. And so I think I really love the fact that it was me [00:07:00] against me at the end of the day. Right. If I want to raise, if I didn’t win a raise, if I jumped well, if I didn’t jump well, I could tie it directly back to whether I ate. Right. Whether I slept, right.

[00:07:09] Whether I worked hard. Whether I skipped workouts, all of that put in at the same time, you know, my points contributed to the larger team points. So I just really love the fact that it held me personally, accountable practices were fun. Cause you can like listen to music while you’re practicing. You can laugh and joke in between runs and things like that.

[00:07:28] It was always, it was a great social time too. So yeah, it was all of the above. I would say attracted me to it. Um, kind of kept me in it.

[00:07:35] Dan: [00:07:35] And so you mentioned that you’re first generation, meaning that your, your parents didn’t come from the United States originally

[00:07:42] Melanie Akwule: [00:07:42] They were both born in Nigeria. So I’m first generation Nigerian American.

[00:07:45] Dan: [00:07:45] Did they meet in Nigeria or did they meet here in the U S?

[00:07:48] Melanie Akwule: [00:07:48] No, they met in Nigeria. I think my dad was here first, went back, brought my mom over and then they got married.

[00:07:55] Dan: [00:07:55] And so, as you were thinking about kind of what you’re going to do with your life, [00:08:00] did they have influence on that? Did they allow you to consider different things or were they kind of focusing you in certain directions?

[00:08:07] Melanie Akwule: [00:08:07] So I had the typical, I was going to be a doctor, not so much because they said that I should be a doctor. I have a brother who has autism.

[00:08:18] And so for me, I, I knew I was going to find the cure for autism. So that kind of led me down that. But very soon I learned just how long it took, so to become adopted. And I decided that wasn’t quite for me then I think that my dad had some level of influence because he he’s in the technology space as well.

[00:08:34] He had a very long career in telecommunications and so he always added access to gadgets. And I was always all about taking a part in devices, fixing things, learning how things worked, had a Palm pilot before just about anybody did that’s impressive. Yes. I was one of those kids that was coding. Their websites before, you know, there was really instructions on how to, just because I was curious about technology and then [00:09:00] eventually I kind of created this personal mantra of, I wanted to help businesses be more efficient through technology, but I really had no idea what that meant.

[00:09:08] I just knew that technology and business sounded pretty cool. So that’s kind of how things were guided. My mom’s a lawyer. She thought I was going to be a lawyer. I knew that wasn’t going to happen. So, yeah, technology, even though it wasn’t really pushed on me or. I wasn’t steering in that direction, kind of just spoke to me.

[00:09:27] Dan: [00:09:27] And you went to Georgia Tech, right? And did you continue your athletic career there?

[00:09:34] Melanie Akwule: [00:09:34] They had me focused on a hundred hurdles.

[00:09:36] Dan: [00:09:36] That’s a hard one. My brother and hurdles. I was the short stocky guy who played football and rugby, and my brothers are lean and kind of long legged. And so they were the runners in our family.

[00:09:49] Did you find yourself enjoying being a student athlete or was it extra stress?

[00:09:54] Melanie Akwule: [00:09:54] I personally love it. Yes, there was extra stress, but there are so many advantages. So many perks that came with it. [00:10:00] We had our own athletic association, which had its own dining hall, our own like academic programs and support programs.

[00:10:07] It was tough. Don’t get me wrong. So, because I was equally student and athlete. I took classes that were probably a little bit more challenging and sometimes conflicted with practice times. But my coach was extremely flexible coach page. So he, I would lift weights in the morning. I’d be at weights around 7:30.

[00:10:24] I’d have practice during my lunch. So I’d be kind of grab, grab lunch, run to the check while I eat and then practice and then get to class. And then freshman year we had study hall hours. And so I just, I love the hustle and bustle of it. I love the structure, you know, springtime. We were gone. 20 hours during the weekend or during the week, you know, at track meets and things like that.

[00:10:46] So it really just taught me how to manage my time.

[00:10:50] Dan: [00:10:50] Yeah. It’s a, it’s an amazing experience for those who are fortunate enough to go through it. For sure. So you talked a little bit before about how Atlanta was sort of this new environment for [00:11:00] you. That was a little bit more about like, what was the impact you were in college?

[00:11:03] So you’re in these formative years, what was it about Atlanta that really allowed you to shine?

[00:11:10] Melanie Akwule: [00:11:10] So Georgia Tech being in the middle of Atlanta, they tend to graduate the highest number of engineers, black engineers in the country. So on campus, there were a bunch of people that looked like me that were smart, that, you know, had drive and ambition that you don’t at the time, you didn’t always get to see on the media.

[00:11:28] Right. So for me, it was kind of like, Oh, wow. We are out here. I’m not unique in, you know, the fact that I took AP classes in high school, I might be the only black person in that class, but here there are a bunch of them, you know, that were just as smart, just as bright, just as driven. So that was like step number one, right?

[00:11:46] Like I’m not an anomaly we are out here. So that was really, really great. And then just learning more about Atlanta at the time, it had the highest number of fortune 500 companies in one city. Which meant lots of black professionals, young black professionals. [00:12:00] It was just really great to be able to see post-grad this is the life that I could be living.

[00:12:05] And really just gave me more concrete formation of, there are so many different options out here, even getting to Georgia tech. I didn’t know that there were so many different types of engineering, right? Like material science, engineering, and they were just so many different things that I was exposed to.

[00:12:20] And then, you know, lastly, Just before I graduated was when the verdict for George Zimmerman came out. And so being on campus or in the city, we went to the Capitol to protest that that was my first protest. And just being surrounded by so many people that felt as passionately about the verdict and what were, what was happening at the time it’s everlasting.

[00:12:42] So it, it stayed with me.

[00:12:44] Dan: [00:12:44] Wow. That’s great. And so when you came out of college, what was your thoughts about what kind of career you want it to have or where you want it to go with this great athletic experience? And I’m not sure if you continued sort of track and field after college, but what were you [00:13:00] thinking in terms of like, what do I do with this great experience ahead?

[00:13:04] Melanie Akwule: [00:13:04] Yeah, there is definitely a fork in the road and decision that I had to make, which I think kind of was made for me because I don’t know that I would have chosen the same. I ended up going to trials in Nigeria, Olympic trials and I placed fourth, but at the time my body was beat down bad. I had rolled my ankle.

[00:13:23] At the time suffering from Bell’s palsy, which like the left side of my face was paralyzed. Couldn’t take steroids. Cause I was an athlete to fix it. There was a lot going on. So I feel like the universe was kind of letting me know, yes, you get to have this professional race experience, but this is kind of it for you.

[00:13:39] And so from there I decided to focus on, you know, getting a job, going into corporate America and pursuing that, that mantra that I mentioned, right. The, how do I make businesses more effective through technology? So ended up going into a leadership role. Which was a lot of fun and taught me a lot. It was the it leadership program at GE.

[00:13:57] So that’s kind of how I made that decision [00:14:00] between, do I want to be a full time athlete or, or step into corporate America?

[00:14:05] Dan: [00:14:05] I mean, you obviously have some distance from it at this point, but in a very healthy perspective, but it must’ve been tough though to go through and like forest. You do, it’s like you almost rather, you finished like a hundred ninth, because then he’s like, yeah, I know I’m not even in there, but it’s like fourth seems so close.

[00:14:22] Melanie Akwule: [00:14:22] Yeah. I mean, in, in the track and field world, it wasn’t right. It was because to get the Olympic qualifier, the B qualifier at the time, I think you need to be third. And I needed 0.3 off my time. Point three seconds off my time, which in the grand scheme of things sounds like 0.3. That’s nothing, but that was still a lot of work for me to trim down.

[00:14:41] So. I was sad about my career ending, but I was at peace with the fact that I’ve had a healthy chapter, right. Like I got to go out with a bang. I got to fly out to Nigeria on my own merit run with the national team. And so it was pretty cool.

[00:14:56] Dan: [00:14:56] I bet you are watching though later. And you’re like, I could probablybeat [00:15:00] that person.

[00:15:01] Melanie Akwule: [00:15:01] Sometimes.

[00:15:03] Sometimes I’m like, you know what, if I got back in the gym, you know, I could, I could probably do.

[00:15:09] Dan: [00:15:09] I got be dangerous.

[00:15:10] Melanie Akwule: [00:15:10] Cause it’s also, it’s also a mental thing. If I had the mental fortitude that I have now. Oh, I would have been not stoppable. There was a lot of still like accepting my gift and getting confident in my abilities and things like that, that I was struggling with at that time.

[00:15:25] But now listen, it might’ve been a different game

[00:15:29] Dan: [00:15:29] And who knows? Right. That could have been part of the building blocks for where you are today. Tell us a little bit about the GE program and sort of your arc through that career. I mean, obviously GE is kind of a different place than entrepreneurship. So did you see yourself tracking into placing Jack Wells at some point?

[00:15:47] I don’t know if you overlap with him per se, but you know, it’s like, that’s where I’m going. I’m going to run this place or did you have sort of that restlessness, sometimes that entrepreneurs have, and can’t really put their finger on it until somebody says, oh yeah, go do [00:16:00] that. Like, wait, how did you think about the corporate experience you had?

[00:16:03] Melanie Akwule: [00:16:03] Yeah. So when I got into it, I thought that that’s where I was supposed to be. Right. Like, that’s all I knew people when they graduate, they get, yeah. And so going through the rotational program was great because I got to try four different areas of technology, all of them. I decided I didn’t like, but there was a common thread which had to do with data and analytics and kind of organizing data in order to make this.

[00:16:26] And that’s what I realized I was passionate about at the end of the two years, what it did start for me was me recognizing that corporate America isn’t always about meritocracy because what happens with the rotational program is that we come in and close. Right. So we’re very close to our peers. We can see who’s doing what who’s getting redid.

[00:16:47] What, and I was starting to notice my ratings were a little lower than some of the other, you know, the other people in my cohort and on paper, seeing what the output was. It just, it just, wasn’t adding up for me. It wasn’t making sense. And [00:17:00] so very early in that I realized, okay, let me, let me try and find a mentor.

[00:17:03] Let me try and find a sponsor. Let me try and figure it out. Like there’s a game that is being played here that I know nothing about. So let me figure out who can help me figure out what’s what the rules of this game is. So I can start doing a little better.

[00:17:16] Dan: [00:17:16] For me. I know I went through something similar. I went to Ford as the beginning of my career, and there’s a little bit of a, of a shock factor.

[00:17:24] It’s like, especially when you go through college and it, I, it’s not completely a meritocracy, but there is a little bit more signaling around you do this and you work hard at that. Then this is the outcome you can kind of expect. And if you don’t work hard or you don’t do that stuff, then the outcome that you think about that, I guess is the question of, do I want to play this game or is it.

[00:17:44] Just sort of, well, this is the game I’m I gotta find a way out.

[00:17:48] Melanie Akwule: [00:17:48] Initially that it was, what are the rules? I let me play by the rules and see where that gets me. And it got me, it got me a pretty good distance. I found an amazing sponsor who I’m [00:18:00] still in contact with to this day and amazing mentors. I somehow, because I had found that thread of data science, data analysts.

[00:18:07] I was the first of my program to go out to California, where they were doing data at scale. So GE at the time was just starting up their industrial internet of things and trying to collect data from all of the machines and things like that, that they were working with to create analytics and provide better support to their customers.

[00:18:26] So I got to go out there, met an amazing team. It was a team that was the most diverse team that I had ever worked for. So it was led by women. Most of the managers on the team were women, you know, ethnically, racially diverse. And so I really thrived there, but as soon as that structure fell apart, as soon as changes started to happen, that’s when the politics and the things like that became much more intense.

[00:18:49] And that’s when I started to realize this isn’t really a game that I want to play, that I can take my talents elsewhere. So why not do that?

[00:18:56] Dan: [00:18:56] That’s probably the, the nuanced approach, right? Try to fit the [00:19:00] model that seems to be projected. And then you realize, Hmm. Still doesn’t work. Yeah. We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back with Melanie Akwule from MINWO.

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[00:19:43] Melanie Akwule: [00:19:43] is Mandela Schumacher Hodge Dickson, the CEO of Founder Gym, the number one online program training underrepresented founders on how to raise capital to scale their tech startups. If there is anything I’ve learned from building a successful business, it’s that having a playbook you can trust, [00:20:00] matters a lot. Fortunately, Dave’s superpower is simplifying the complex and after decades of building and investing in and studying a vast array of businesses, Dave has transformed his lessons into an easy to follow guide.

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[00:20:22] Dan: [00:20:22] So we’re back with Melanie. So Melanie tell us we have in common, the Haas school of business and UC Berkeley. How did, how did you end up deciding to come, come to Berkeley.

[00:20:33] Melanie Akwule: [00:20:33] Yeah. I mentioned stumbling into things is the theme of mine. That was another one. As I got to California was in the data science space. I actually applied for Berkeley’s mid program, their masters in data science program.

[00:20:47] And I just knew that I was going to be a chief data officer someday. That was the route that I was going on. Apply to that program. Got rejected. And then had to have like a mini coming to Jesus moment with myself, like, okay. I had been obsessed with the [00:21:00] idea of being hands on technical, you know, a black woman in tech where they were essentially unicorns at the time.

[00:21:06] And so I had to really configure, like, is this actually what I want? Or is this something that I feel like I should be doing? So when I eventually worked myself through that, I decided an MBA would probably be better suited because that was right around the time where black lives matter had started to kick up.

[00:21:21] I decided that, is there something that I could be doing for my people, that’s a little bit more impactful than analyzing data from machines. And so I was like, all right, well maybe if I go back, get my MBA, think about entrepreneurship. That could be more effective. Despite all the odds I applied to their part-time program, my work experience was outside of the range.

[00:21:40] My GMAT scores were trash, but despite all of that, I made it in. So I just took that as a sign, like, okay, this is the direction that you should be going into. So that’s how I got the house. It wasn’t necessarily a burning desire, but kind of like a all right. Let’s, let’s see if this is where I should.

[00:21:57] Dan: [00:21:57] And you mentioned entrepreneurship, was [00:22:00] entrepreneurship, a part of the draw, or were you thinking maybe I’ll use this MBA to sort of catapult myself into other corporate opportunities?

[00:22:10] Melanie Akwule: [00:22:10] Yeah, I think naively in the beginning, I thought it could be both. I remember walking into the program, I had already started MINWO and at that time I was extremely shy about mentioning it, talking about it. People would be like, oh, you have a company. I’d be like, eh, I mean kind of, let’s not talk about that.

[00:22:27] I was a product manager at GE at the time. So I was like, okay. You know, like that felt a little bit more real, a little bit more tangible. Let’s see how far I can get with that. But it was really halfway through the program when that the politics I mentioned started to really grab a hold of me, that I was like, you know, I can’t be here anymore.

[00:22:44] This just isn’t for me. And that’s when I decided to focus on MINWO full-time. So I would say the first half of the program was kind of leveraging it for both. And then the second half was a hundred percent entrepreneurship related electives networking, all that.

[00:22:57] Dan: [00:22:57] Cool. So you mentioned that you started [00:23:00] MINWO before starting business school.

[00:23:02] So tell us about that story. So tell us where’s the origin for what MINWO is, where did that come from?

[00:23:09] Melanie Akwule: [00:23:09] It was, I remember it was like August, 2015. I felt like with rapid succession, you know, we were seeing more and more black men on, on TV, you know, being murdered by police. And I just felt like there, there has to be something there has to be, there has to be some way to like, make it stop.

[00:23:26] And for me, politics is synonymous with wealth, whether that’s true or not. I feel like in order to make us have effective change in politics, there has to be some sort of wealth and wealth. I was like, all right, well, How do we get black owned businesses to generate more revenue and create more wealth within the community?

[00:23:43] So it started originally as an idea of a marketplace, but I, as I, as I did more research, I realized marketplaces existed. Like we buy black and a few others at the time. And so. I also was learning through my market research that, that, that there were reasons why people weren’t shopping with black owned [00:24:00] businesses at the time.

[00:24:00] And they sounded like fundamental business issues, right? Price is the high quality being, not as great customer service, not being as great to me. And that sounded like issues when you don’t have a scale scaled operations. Right. So that’s when we decided to change the model that a little bit, how do we help these businesses get connected to the resources and the things that can help them grow and scale effectively?

[00:24:25] Dan: [00:24:25] That’s cool. I mean, that’s, that’s a pretty powerful insight too. Cause I think sometimes people would gravitate towards external factors around who’s a business owner is and so forth. And so how has the idea evolved? Over the, I guess it’s been several years now, I guess. How did the idea evolve to where, where it is today?

[00:24:48] Melanie Akwule: [00:24:48] Interestingly enough, it’s it’s taken very much a lean startup approach, right? We started with a very winking website. It was, it was just a landing page essentially saying that, you know, we want to support black businesses [00:25:00] and this is how we plan to do it. And that got us our first couple of clients that we worked with, then the second MVP ended up being a mini market.

[00:25:08] So we had a community of about 60 black owned businesses and then black business consultants that we wanted to figure out, how could we get them to support each other, right. With these businesses, leveraging, you know, a digital marketer or a web developer or a illegal, a paralegal that’s helping that, that consulting business grow.

[00:25:26] But then in turn that consulting businesses, helping those businesses. Flush out their operations from there and observing, we learned, you know, some of the technology was getting in the way, some of the psychology of how black business owners operate needed to be addressed. So we just did a lot of learning from that.

[00:25:44] And that is basically what’s informed the platform that we’re now building and how we’re building it to support business development communities.

[00:25:53] Dan: [00:25:53] So tell us a little bit more about how it works. Let me maybe walk us through kind of an example, case or something, or, you know, how, how does the [00:26:00] platform work?

[00:26:00] And where’s the feature set and what’s the pricing and those kinds of thing.

[00:26:05] Melanie Akwule: [00:26:05] So I will walk you through a customer of ours, black and green. They’re an all natural marketplace by all black artisans. Dr. Christian Edwards is the founder and CEO. And so essentially right now she has a marketplace of artisans about 70 or so and no real way of managing that community of artisans.

[00:26:22] She comes across resources. Sometimes she’ll send them out on a monthly basis. She’s trying to communicate related to like inventory and things like that. And so what we’re doing is providing her a platform, a committee. Space where she can do all of that more effectively. So the micromanagement, right?

[00:26:38] The micromanagement of the interview community. So there’s features like office hours. So she has experts in her network that she wants to be able to provide office hours to her artisans. She can do that on the platform. There’s a resource library. So if she’s sharing resources, it doesn’t matter when she posts them because people will be able to find them.

[00:26:57] Right. If you think about a slack or Facebook conversation, if [00:27:00] you’re not in that conversation, right. Then you won’t know that that resource has been posted. So, you know, those are some of the features that we’re providing. As community managers do what they’re already doing, just in a more effective way so that it actually reaches their audience.

[00:27:15] And then more on the macro level, we’re having multiple community spaces that serve black businesses on the same platform. And so then that gives us economies of scale to a certain degree, because then we can turn around to organizations like open grants or Salesforce or opportunity fund to say, Hey, we have a platform of X number of black owned businesses.

[00:27:35] Some of them are startups. Some of them are SMB. Whatever your flavor is, you know, what products or services do you have that can help them get where they’re trying to go?

[00:27:45] Dan: [00:27:45] How do you think about the end customer? I mean, is it sort of like the community? Is it sort of the members of those communities or is it both, how do you think about sort of like who’s sort of your north star customer.

[00:27:59] Melanie Akwule: [00:27:59] Yeah. So the [00:28:00] customer or the community owners right now, we’re charging a hundred dollars per community space per month, but the end users are those business owners, right? So we have designed the platform to make their lives easier. For example, we have a chat bot it’ll pop up, it’ll ask you, what’s your pain point.

[00:28:16] You can say funding, you can say marketing. And then what it’ll do is it’ll reach back into whatever communities you’re a part of and present you with resources or office hours. Or what have you that are related to that? Because ultimately we know that we’re country for time, our attention span is short because we’re, you know, trying to run a business.

[00:28:34] So whatever we can do to meet that founder, the entrepreneur’s life easier where we’re trying to do that.

[00:28:39] Dan: [00:28:39] Nice. And so, you know, one of the things that a lot of our founders talk about, especially if they’re focused on, you know, our own communities is why isn’t this a niche? Like, why, why is this? I know the answer, but I’m sure there’s people in our audience are thinking the skeptical.

[00:28:53] Like, why is this a thing? Are there really that many businesses? Tell us a little bit about the landscape and sort of the market potential.

[00:29:00] [00:29:00] Melanie Akwule: [00:29:00] So when it comes to black owned businesses, there are a few trillion out there. And the idea is that while the space, the limited focus might be quote unquote niche, the ways in which we can serve them are unlimited.

[00:29:13] Right. We’re starting with the aggregation of the ecosystem into one place. Finding all of these communities, these resources, et cetera, that are looking for them, supporting them, putting them into one place. That’s just the foundation from there. There’s an opportunity for business development support. So as we support these businesses, as they grow in scale, what are the needs of fill?

[00:29:35] See right though hiring right. Do you create a job board for them? Do we help them find talent as they are able to start bringing on team members? Do we create a marketplace for fire? Diversity is an extremely large space. Do we start connecting them with some of these government opportunities or some of these retail opportunities so that they can generate additional revenue and things like that.

[00:29:56] So those that that may not necessarily understand that [00:30:00] this is such an untapped market. It’s definitely there. I’m just excited to be able to see that.

[00:30:07] Dan: [00:30:07] It’s always interesting to me when people sort of dismiss opportunities like this and they can’t necessarily see that there’s this status quo that’s broken or ineffective or inefficient and sort of just like that’s the way it is.

[00:30:21] And it’s like, if that was the way it is, then we wouldn’t have Airbnb or Uber or these other companies, right. That totally disrupted industries that were basically the same for a hundred years. So you’ve been at this for a little while. Tell us about a high moment and alone moment from your startup journey so far.

[00:30:37] Melanie Akwule: [00:30:37] Actually they’re basically one in the same. So my journey into Techstars, I want to say June of last year is when I called black lives matter. Part two kind of kicked up and we had a lot of momentum, a lot of traction going. And then we were in an, in an incubator at the time that kind of helped us with our messaging and things like that.

[00:30:56] So the stars just felt like they had started to align. And then Barry [00:31:00] Givens released this blog post that said his specific cohort. He wanted to focus on racial justice and social, social impact previously, I had not really considered Techstars. And so I said, all right, well, if he is specifically looking for these kinds of companies like this, this is our chance, this is it.

[00:31:16] Right? And so we apply, we make it through, or we get through to the steering committee, had an, what I thought was an amazing interview. And I was like, I just, I just knew this was in the bag after a few weeks of follow-ups and like, Hey, haven’t heard anything. Just want to let you know, I’m still interested.

[00:31:31] We got the rejection email and it said we could only take 10, the very nice typical rejection emails. And I was gutted because it felt like it was made for me. I just didn’t, I couldn’t wrap my mind around how it, it just didn’t work out. So I spent like the next three weeks on the couch, it was thankfully, it was like right around December.

[00:31:49] So it was, you know, holiday season. Kind of just shut everything down. And I was like, you know what, I’m not really sure where to go. And so came back January 11th, I believe that was the [00:32:00] first day of work for us. And then I was like, all right, well, we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing. We’re going to find a way before I could get out of bed though.

[00:32:06] I got an email from Barry. It’s like, Hey, are you still free? We got a spot open. I was like, wow. So it was, it was quite the roller coaster, but it was definitely a worthwhile experience. So both high and low

[00:32:22] Dan: [00:32:22] that encapsulates a lot of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. You get whipsawed emotionally. And like you said, sometimes by the same entity or the same endeavor or project or client or customer and the kind of emotional mental gymnastics that you have to learn, how to maneuver is daunting.

[00:32:42] Melanie Akwule: [00:32:42] I think one of the first things that you learn is the highest can’t take you too high, and the lows can take you too low behind the net to stay in the middle of the road.

[00:32:49] You appreciate the wins, definitely, but you can’t let the blows take you out.

[00:32:54] Dan: [00:32:54] I love that. And we’re going to dig a little bit more into that, but we’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right [00:33:00] back with Melanie Akwule from MINWO.

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[00:34:12] Dan: [00:34:12] So we’re back with Melanie from MINWO. So Melanie, tell us a little bit about fundraising and how you’ve, how you’ve been able to sort of fund this. I, it sounded like you’ve been taking this lean approach, probably bootstrapping. How have you thought about the fundraising journey so far?

[00:34:28] Melanie Akwule: [00:34:28] Yeah, I’ve definitely have been bootstrapping most of the way. I’ve had some key wins over the last few years that have helped literally at critical junctures. There was a grant that I got from POS that helped out there was a pitch competition coalition of black excellence as a first pitch competition that actually accepted me, uh, ended up winning.

[00:34:47] So that helped as well. We got a very random angel. Early last year where we were still trying to piece things together. So I want to say before Techstars, it was about maybe 15,000 or so of [00:35:00] outside funding, but for the most part, it was either me working a part-time job or when I was still working at GE leveraging my paycheck.

[00:35:07] To support the business. So I think it was frustrating earlier to not get the funding that I thought I should have gotten, but at the same time and given where we are now, I’m actually kind of grateful that we did it right, because we’ve been able to kind of take our time, really learn the market, really understand the customers and what we’re doing.

[00:35:26] And so now the level of confidence I have in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and why we’re doing it is something that I didn’t have before. So now on my fundraising journey, I feel much more confident.

[00:35:38] Dan: [00:35:38] That makes a lot of sense. And yeah, sometimes it’s hard for us to appreciate it in a snapshot of where we are. And sometimes it’s very hard to think, well, we’ve made all this progress and then, you know, you don’t know you’re being compared to somebody else’s made a different kind of progress and maybe, maybe it was easy. They started on second pace as they say. Right. And that’s okay. But to that end, I mean, do you feel like there’s [00:36:00] been additional challenges in, in your path as an entrepreneur, as a black woman founder?

[00:36:06] I mean,

[00:36:06] Melanie Akwule: [00:36:06] definitely. So now I’m actually getting into the, the rat race that is fundraising, right? I think before it was mostly pitch competitions and maybe an investor here or there, but now it’s like the cold emails, warm intros, the, the grind of it all. And there, there was a time where I mentally, it was, it was draining on me.

[00:36:25] Right. Because you see the statistics and there was one success that, that I came across that last year 0.27. Of VC funding went to black women 0.27. And so, you know, you see those stats and I’m out here audaciously trying to raise a seed round of 1.8 million. It makes you wonder, like why bother, like, why even go through the motions of it.

[00:36:45] If the market is saying that there is no desire to actually change right. It has me considering all my options. And right now I’m talking to three of the major crowdfunding equity, crowdfunding platforms to see if that’s a route that I want to [00:37:00] go, just to give me, you know, a little bit more leverage, right?

[00:37:02] Because at the end of the day, I’m not really about plan Bs. It’s more like plan A.2 0.3 0.4. And so I will find the way. It depends on what makes the most sense.

[00:37:13] Dan: [00:37:13] Yeah. And you, and you talked about, you know, sort of this accidental dynamic in your life. I think it’s probably more so you have a preparedness and an ability to foresee sort of okay.

[00:37:26] If this happens it’s meant to happen and if it doesn’t then there’s, there’s what’s next. You know, as a, as an entrepreneur, particularly when you’re in the early stages, it is so hard because you get not just like official rejection. Right. But you get, you know, sort of even your friends and your grandmother, and it’s like, you try to explain what they, what you doing and they kind of roll their eyes a little bit, but so that’s, that’s nice.

[00:37:48] And, and so it’s, it’s a hard thing when you’re trying to change. The way things work in the world and peoples in aggregate the natural reaction is hesitation and skepticism [00:38:00] because, you know, if they could appreciate it, they’d probably be doing it themselves.

[00:38:04] Melanie Akwule: [00:38:04] That is a hundred percent real. Right. In the earlier days, it was, you feel like a mad scientist almost, right? Like there’s this vision in your brain that a way in which you see the world or a platform that you’re trying to build. And you’re like, okay, I see it. I know exactly where I’m trying to go with it. And to get to a point where you can effectively articulate that and have people understand that that took me years.

[00:38:24] That was, that was the longest part of the journey. And it was really only in the last few months that I was able to get it down to one sentence, to get people, to be able to understand it quickly. So that part, at least now, okay, there’s a little bit more piece, but that’s, that’s definitely some of the frustrating stuff in the early days.

[00:38:41] Dan: [00:38:41] Have there been allies organizations, experiences that have been uplifting for you, particularly as a first time founder, as a black woman founder?

[00:38:51] Melanie Akwule: [00:38:51] No, definitely. And that’s actually part of, part of my pitch deck, right? The story is, you know, being in Silicon valley for the six years that I was out there, [00:39:00] 72% white men that I walked into rooms often where I, I had no idea what was going on.

[00:39:05] I nobody, and while, you know, some spaces were warmer than others. It’s still, you know, you still feel like a fish out of water, but it was organizations like Black Women Talk Tech, Coalition of Black Excellence. These organizations that. The specific mission to find support, develop, invest in black founders, where I started to feel like, okay, they’re talking my language.

[00:39:26] They understand how I’m feeling. That understanding the unique challenges that I’m facing as a black woman that is, you know, trying to build a billion dollar tech company. And so those, those were really my saving graces. When I start. Be able to have found her friends that looked like me, even this cohort of Techstars.

[00:39:43] If I hadn’t been in any other Techstars cohort, I don’t know that it would have been 80% black founders. Right. So, you know, just being able to be surrounded by people that, that get it right. I don’t have to explain it. They’re here. They’re truly championing their allies for real. [00:40:00] That’s been extremely, extreme, helpful.

[00:40:03] Dan: [00:40:03] So maybe give us a thought or two around that. Cause I think sometimes people hear this sense of like being around people that are like me and they say, what’s the big deal. Maybe tell us, like, how does that manifest itself? Did you, did you get together with your cohort founders or like black women talk tech and I do some work with black men talk tech, like what is it about those experiences that are particularly energizing and catalyzing for you?

[00:40:28] Melanie Akwule: [00:40:28] Yeah. I mean, he goes down to the small things, right? So as a, as an entrepreneur period, there’s a lot of the tactical stuff that they just don’t talk about. Very like setting up a bank, business, bank account, anything like that. Right. But then, you know, on the black female founder side, there are, for example, I have a, an accountability group that I meet with every two weeks.

[00:40:46] One of our conversations was around the psychology of white men as they go out fundraising. It’s a psychology that we as black women, don’t. And so like we’re sharing videos and, you know, think pieces and things like that of how do we, [00:41:00] in a way that’s still authentic to ourselves, but how do we adapt some of these traits so that we are signaling to investors?

[00:41:07] What they’re used to see, right. Like how do we exist? The same level of confidence. How do we speak about our venture in a way where we don’t feel like we have to overexplain because, you know, we want to prove to them that we know things. There’s a lot of learning and unlearning that we are doing as a group to be able to say, okay, well, this is again, this is the game.

[00:41:26] How do we figure out a way to play it?

[00:41:30] Dan: [00:41:30] Yeah, that’s great. And you know, the example that I gave to my son one time is, you know, we live here in Seattle and it doesn’t really snow here very often once or twice every other year or something. But if you, if you go 60 minutes away from us, there’s snow and there’s ski places and those kinds of things.

[00:41:45] And I said, if you buy a car here in Seattle, I would bet you that 99% of the people have no thought about having snow tires. But if you live out in the, in those places where there’s snow, it’s like one of the first things you probably think about, can I put snow coats, no tires. [00:42:00] So I think a lot of people, they can’t have the perspective because they never, it doesn’t even cross their decision set or their consideration set.

[00:42:07] And so this is really great when we have conversations like this and entrepreneurs, like you can illuminate, this is why this matters because I’m thinking about snow tires. There’s a reason snow tires exist.

[00:42:16] Melanie Akwule: [00:42:16] And. No, I love that analogy because it’s true, right. If you’re not exposed to it or if it does not personally impact you, it’s very easy to forget about, right.

[00:42:26] Whether it’s a racial lens, a gender lens, a climate lens, right? Like it just, it’s the nature of that. And partially why I’m doing the work that I’m giving, right? How do we help amplify some of these unique challenges that we face so that others that don’t necessarily face those same challenges can educate themselves and then operate accordingly if they truly want to bring about change.

[00:42:49] Dan: [00:42:49] So along those lines, tell us, you know, let’s say, I don’t know, a few years, or however long it takes, meanwhile is a success, right. And meanwhile, his cover of fast [00:43:00] company or whatever it is, right. How would you define success? What’s the big vision where you could say, this was what I thought and we did it.

[00:43:07] Like, what would that look like?

[00:43:08] Melanie Akwule: [00:43:08] I mean, my goal is for MINWO ultimately to be a business development center, right. Prioritizing black business. So whether that’s we’ve created billion dollar companies that have IPO or we’re supporting, you know, some of the next Fortune 500 companies, whether they’re SMBs, what have you, that is the longterm to say that businesses have been able to find.

[00:43:30] Not only their community, their neighborhood, but the resources and the things that they need to get to the next level. Because for me, it’s not about helping them. Right. I think we’re more than capable. It’s about one. How do we get the roadblocks out of their way? And then to make it more efficient for them to get where they’re trying to.

[00:43:49] Dan: [00:43:49] I love it. So one of the questions we like to sort of ask towards the end is the quintessential go back in time. So if this Melanie with all [00:44:00] her wisdom could go back and talk to maybe the GE Melanie, who hadn’t really thought about doing entrepreneurship quite yet, what would this Melanie tell that Melanie, in terms of what to do, what not to do, what to look out for, what to prioritize kind of advice, would you.

[00:44:17] Melanie Akwule: [00:44:17] The first thing that comes to mind is you have everything inside of you to bring this to fruition early in my journey, I relied on, I felt like I needed people to help me. Right. I felt like I needed a team. I felt like I needed validation. All of those things, you do need a team. That’s true. But it ended up being more democracy than kind of like me setting direction and people, you know, getting in where they fit in.

[00:44:41] And so if I could go back, I think I would just tell myself, you know, what you want. You know the vision, you know, what you want to build trust in that. And people will buy in. People are ready to support you.

[00:44:54] Dan: [00:44:54] That’s great. That’s beautiful. Actually. I think we all can use that and you know, I have kids and so I try to [00:45:00] try to instill that in them.

[00:45:01] And I think we do a good job of it, but you never really know how much confidence they have around that. So we always like to ask the audience Unfound Nation, how can we be helpful to MINWO?

[00:45:11] Melanie Akwule: [00:45:11] Definitely first and foremost, our website www.minwo.co that’s, where you can kind of stay up to date on everything that we got going on and up for our newsletter.

[00:45:21] If you want to sign up for the platform itself, you can go to re Alto app.co and sign up for our beta lists. We’ll be onboarding people within the next few weeks. And then, you know, we’ll, we’ll keep you posted. We will probably have a crowdfunding campaign coming. We have our conference coming up in October.

[00:45:38] So definitely sign up for that newsletter. Just stay engaged.

[00:45:41]Dan: [00:45:41] Nice. Are you going to do an in-person conference or virtual?

[00:45:44] Melanie Akwule: [00:45:44] We are thinking about that. That we’ll probably do a virtual again this year, just to be on the safe side, but the first year we had it in person. So next year.

[00:45:53]Dan: [00:45:53] Everybody’s sort of struggling with, when is, when is the real okay.

[00:45:57] We can do it. And Realto is R I [00:46:00] A L T O. Correct? Yes. Any other social handles are or URLs you want to share?

[00:46:05] Melanie Akwule: [00:46:05] On Twitter. We are@MINWO_co on instagram, or @minwo.co and then we’re on Facebook and LinkedIn MINWO Inc.

[00:46:15] Dan: [00:46:15] Nice. Well, this has been an awesome conversation, Melanie. I’m so appreciative of you taking the time today.

[00:46:20] Melanie Akwule: [00:46:20] Thank you. I love it. Can’t wait to see what you guys do next.

[00:46:25] Dan: [00:46:25] We’d like to thank our guests, Melanie Akwule and our sponsor, Dave Parker and his book Trajectory Startup. This podcast was produced by me. Dan Kihanya. Audio editing and production by We Edit Podcasts.

[00:46:36] Don’t forget to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts or simply go to foundersunfound.com/listento. That’s. Listen, T O and follow us on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn @foundersunfound.

[00:46:48] Thanks so much for tuning in. I am Dan Kihanya and you’ve been listening to [00:47:00] Founders Unfound.