August 27, 2017

Herstory

I am supposed to be an entrepreneur!
By Shelly Bell
Thrive x Google Mag 2017

HERE’S MY STORY

As a child I had a huge imagination. I had lots of dolls and stuffed animals. I would pretend that they were my students. I would give them papers and pretend I was checking them with a red marker. However, being a teacher was not my desire. I actually wanted to be a pediatrician until someone told me I talk a lot and should be a lawyer. After agreeing with them I started answering “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “I want to be a lawyer.”

When I was about 14 years old, my parents bought a Gateway computer and I was fascinated. Hearing AOL’s “you’ve got mail” message seemed so exciting back then, but I had no intention of being a woman in tech. Honestly, I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do or be. When I was 17, I got pregnant with my daughter and my whole world changed. My mom encouraged me to go to college. So I did. I was an undecided major–and just undecided in general–my freshman year. I was a college student with a child.

Teen parent, computer scientist, artist

Everything about a situation like that screams “get a job!” But my imagination and my experience playing around with a desktop computer kicked in and I majored in Computer Science. Four years and another child later, I graduated with a Comp Sci degree. Instead of going into the corporate world, my childhood stepped in again….I became a teacher!

During my tenure, a fellow teacher and I started a Web Development and Graphic Design business called “Dreamwork Technologies.” Programs were not as user friendly as they are today. We created the legal business entity and began taking clients. This was my first attempt at owning a business. It had a low overhead and was profitable.

Over time, we decided to split, but after having a taste of what it feels like to own a business I engaged in several side hustles. I sold vacuum cleaners, sold lingerie, became a nanny and became a bartender. No matter what my full-time job, was I always had a business opportunity on the side.

After years of full-time jobs and side hustles I decided to take the leap. In 2011, I became a full time business owner. I founded an arts organization called Seven City Art Society. Maintaining a huge imagination causes me to yearn for creativity in everything I do. I was a kid who became a teen parent, a teen parent who became a Computer Scientist, a Computer Scientist who became an artist and an artist who became a business owner. Seven City Art Society eventually morphed into Made by a Black Woman (t-shirt line) which eventually morphed into MsPrint USA (custom screenprinting and merchandise shop).

Right before launching Made by a Black Woman, I was engaged to be married to a man who didn’t understand my imagination. He wanted me to get a “regular job.” I wanted to be a “good wife,” so I did and I hated it. My boss was awesome and the pay was great but the lack of autonomy caused me to feel caged and unhappy. My boss came to me and said “you are very talented. I don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing but it’s not this.” He laid me off with two months and 3 months of insurance. It was then that I knew two things…1. My fiance is NOT the man for me and 2. I am supposed to be an entrepreneur!

Find a mentor, create a community

As an entrepreneur, I face challenges all the time. It’s a part of the journey. As a screen printer, there are not many woman who actually perform the physical act of printing. Finding a peer group can be difficult. One of the things I did was build a community for myself. I founded an organization called Black Girl Vision, which focuses on creating access to capital for women of color who are entrepreneurs. I started with a Meetup Group and it grew into a full-blown organization. We create events and apply the admission fees to fund  women of color who are entrepreneurs. I would encourage women founders to not only find mentors, but also find a community. A group of people who understand the roller coaster ride called entrepreneurship.

My family is part of that group of people. My mother is my rock. She is my super power! She supports all of my random ideas. She is my number one funding source as well. I am lucky to have such an amazing mom. My children are also my inspiration. They give me life. Knowing that I have 3 kids looking up to me means everything. I am often asked who inspires me, and I don’t have a famous person to name or some other a fancy answer. Seeing my growth motivates me. My imagination motivates me.

My proudest moment as the creator of MsPrint USA was sealing a large deal to print live at a conference for a huge organization. When my staff and I arrived to print the line was wrapped around the corner or the room. I knew that we would thrive when I see the excitement in my customer’ eyes. My proudest moment as the creator of Black Girl Vision was our 2017 launch event held at the Google office. The energy in the room was amazing. Over 50 women of color showed up to hear the story of Black Girl Vision and to support each other.