American Express Stock – To Be Successful, Find Your Purpose
American Express’ 100 for 100 program selected 100 Black women entrepreneurs to give $25,000 of funding and 100 days of business education with the goal of investing in their business’s long term growth. American Express teamed together with a funding platform for diverse entrepreneurs called IFundWomen of Color. The Founder & CEO of parent company of IFundWomen, Karen Cahn, worked closely with American Express to select the winners based on a variety of factors – each of the 100 women are unique and passionate innovators, across a wide array of industries and geographies that could be the next “big thing.” One of the 100 businesses American Express selected for the 100 for 100 program was a Miami, Florida entrepreneur named LaToya Stirrup, who co-owns Kazmaleje with her two sisters. Kazmaleje is a hair comb business designed to help women with curly, textured hair that helps them detangle their locks without pain or breaking combs. ‘
I had the opportunity to interview Stirrup recently about her business’ growth and asked about her advice for other young Black women entrepreneurs, like herself, especially those who plan to use IFundWomen’s crowdfunding program. Karen Cahn also joined us.
Here are some of the highlights of that interview:
Jill Griffin – Congratulations on being part of American Express’s 100 for 100 program! Please tell me how it came to be.
LaToya Stirrup – It came to be through our relationship with IFundWomen of Color. They have been a huge supporter of our business since we crowdfunded on their platform in 2018. It’s been amazing! Their CEO, Karen Cahn and the whole team continue to bring support and resources to women-owned businesses who are a part of their network. IFundWomen of Color worked with American Express to surprise 100 Black women-owned businesses with the grants and 100 days of business resources.
Griffin – How did you get notified?
Stirrup – It was a complete surprise and amazing! I got an email that basically said, ‘Hey jump on this Zoom call’ and there were representatives from American Express to tell me I had been selected. The whole experience has been a whirlwind and it was emotional because, here we are in the middle of Covid-19 and there is a lot going on, then to get a lifeline that says, ‘We see you, we know what you are going through, we want to support you and make sure you are here to stay.’ It’s been a really emotional and fantastic journey.
Griffin – How are you using that money ($25,000)?
Stirrup – Those funds are already in use. We are using them for inventory, research and development to fuel our business forward. Part of the reason this is such an amazing opportunity is because not only are we receiving funding – which we all need – but we are also getting access to American Express and all of their resources.
Griffin – I understand that you also are getting 100 days of business development courses, tell me about those.
Stirrup – The 100 days are kicking off in January and will cover business fundamentals through a variety of channels for all 100 of us since we all have different needs. The content will come to life through a dedicated micro-site, networking sessions, workshops and business mentoring.
Griffin – Tell me about your childhood and how you got into this business.
Stirrup – As most little African American girls, at the time (the 1980’s) in the U.S., we permed our hair really young. I permed my hair at eight-years-old to relax it, to make it straight. Our moms had perms, we saw it, and that is what we wanted to do. Going natural; however, became a thing in the 2000’s because we were transitioning from having perms to wearing our hair curly. Now, this experience has become a journey because we are having to relearn our natural hair. How to care for it? How to work with it? How to style it? I am using the words “going natural” because that is the term that is used. You are trying to figure it out. How do I do this? What products work well? What do I do? It can be a really emotional experience because you want to embrace your hair as it naturally grows but it can be hard. That is why my sisters and I started the business because we wanted to create hair tools that work for our hair type. Oftentimes we Black women just use what is on the shelves because that is what is there. However, those products and tools were not designed with us in mind. So, we set out to innovate within that space by designing hair tools that will allow you to create your own hair care regimen.
Griffin – What have you learned since Kazmaleje launched?
Stirrup – I have learned so much! What I can say is, it is important to have a strong reason for your business because that is what will keep you going. People will be like ‘Oh I want to do this, I want to do that.’ But if you are not rooted in something bigger than yourself, then it’s easy to just give up and walk away. I can say there have been plenty of times we have hit roadblocks and if it wasn’t for the fact that I knew we had a product that was literally changing the way women and kids care for themselves and their hair, then it would have been like, ‘Let me just stop. Let me go back to my day job, do what I was doing before’ because that is easy, but you can’t just do what is easy. The world needs us to show up in big ways, and we have to do it even if we are afraid.
Griffin – I love platforming women leaders like you who can show the world what’s possible.
Karen Cahn- I love listening to LaToya. She is a real inspiration. LaToya, you are solving a problem that is bigger than you. You know that tens of millions of women and girls are dealing with this problem! I am honored to be a part of this conversation.
Griffin – Karen, please tell my readers, what is crowdfunding?
Cahn- Crowdfunding or online fundraising, is when you, the entrepreneur, goes out and raises small increments of money from lots of people who you know in your personal, professional, and social network that add up to just enough to get your business, or product or your idea off the ground.
Griffin – What responsibility does the sponsor of the crowdfunding have to the investor?
Cahn- There are two types of crowdfunding. There is rewards-based crowdfunding, it’s more like e-commerce. In LaToya’s case, she was selling her Kazmaleje combs in exchange for cash. That is called rewards-based crowdfunding. If you are a B2B service, you may be selling your service. Or you may be selling a discounted service. You may be selling merchandise, or t-shirts; whatever you can sell in exchange for cash to add up to funding for your business. Equity crowdfunding is the exact same principle and the exact same exercise but it’s in exchange for equity in your company. We went down the rewards-based crowdfunding path because we are working with earlier entrepreneurs setting up your company to take up equity investors because it is expensive and it’s cost prohibitive. You have to have lawyers, and you have to be a corporation, and it’s probably about $5,000 – $10,000 of legal work to be set up to do that. That really wasn’t our customer base.
Griffin – How did you and LaToya connect? She was selling her Kazmaleje product on your crowdfunding site? Is that how you connected?
Cahn- Yes, it was.
Griffin – Were you part of helping her with the American Express 100 for 100 program selection?
Cahn- In terms of 100 for 100, American Express chose her. We were just responsible for giving them a list of Black women founders who had crowdfunded on IFundWomen and the list was very long. I had nothing to do with it. IFundWomen is different from other crowdfunding businesses because we have this proprietary coaching program called the IFundWomen Method. It not only teaches people how to crowdfund, but also has a curriculum around business planning. For example, how to build a tech app without being a technical co-founder. How to set up your Google Analytics. We have an EdTech platform within our funding ecosystem that will teach entrepreneurs everything they need to know. And I remember having a couple sessions with LaToya, and I remember thinking she is brilliant and this idea is hot. I have never seen it before.
Griffin – LaToya, where does your confidence and resilience come from?
Stirrup – Tapping into my family’s legacy, what we do here in Miami, as well as what I am building for the future, my son and the generations to come. I am huge into purpose and intention and I know that what I am doing is bigger than myself, so I have to show up!
Griffin – Karen, where does your resilience and confidence come from?
Cahn- We don’t really have a choice as women. Women don’t receive funding for our businesses, as a blanket statement. Last year in the US, female-founded companies only received 2.3 percent of the venture capital dollars. For Black and Latinx founders, it’s only 0.64 percent of venture capital. With small business loans, the percentages of Black business owners versus white business owners that are accepted, it is egregious. I will tell you where I get my resilience and passion from. I have been an activist for economic equality for Black women and women overall since birth. There is systemic racism and biases built into every algorithm that drives every financial decision in this country. Period. That is what drives me. IFundWomen and our IFundWomen of Color platform are literally here to rewrite the code on how women get their businesses funded. Those algorithms are not from robots, those algorithms are data points that the humans put in. Anger fuels passion and passion fuels innovation and here we are! There are two sides to the data. There is the lack of funding and there is the actual superior business metrics that women deliver. Women are more fiscally responsible. We pay back our loans faster and more importantly, for every dollar invested in a female-founded business we are going to return twice that amount in revenue! We return two dollars for every dollar invested in our companies. It’s not just ‘Oh we are women and we don’t get funded and we are complaining and that is why we don’t have a business.’ We are better entrepreneurs.
Stirrup – These issues have been long standing. Diversity and inclusion is not something new. It is good to see companies putting in real processes, real programs, and real change. They are not just talking about it, releasing stats, and throwing some money at it with no real plan. These are real, actual plans and people are being held accountable.