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Need Inspiration? Gain a New Mentor in Entrepreneur and Activist Shelly Bell

Shelly Bell is the friend you’d seat at your wedding with the guests who know no one else in the room. Before long, that would be the “cool table,” with phone numbers and social media handles passed around, along with real promises to stay in touch. Shelly is a connector, an ally and a do-er. She’s infinitely human — sharing her struggles with juggling three kids, a demanding work schedule, and getting those daily steps in — and at the same time superhuman, getting more done before breakfast than some manage in a day.

Shelly Bell has long been working to support underfunded and underrecognized business founders. She started Black Girl Ventures (BGV) in 2016 in order to focus on this important undertaking full time. BGV runs the largest business pitch competition series for Black and Brown women globally and hosted one such event on November 24, 2020. That particular competition was focused entirely on women-identifying business founders in the beauty industry and you can see it in action here. It’s no surprise then, that we were excited to connect with Shelly and talk about her work.

Who were your role models and mentors growing up?

For me, it was my aunt Linda. She was the head manager for several McDonald’s, and she gave me my first job. I watched her operate the establishment, manage a team, and maintain corporate production and cleanliness rules and standards. At the same time, I also saw her engage in developing her own small stage plays at church and do wedding planning on the side. I observed her doing all these entrepreneurial things that I hadn’t really seen other women doing. My aunt was truly the hardest working woman that I knew. She could never just work one job. I think she enjoyed shopping [laughs], but ultimately, I think that she just liked working hard. In managing multiple teams, she worked with people across generations, and she helped them with their personal lives too. When I look back now, I realize how much of this I soaked up and now apply to what I do community-wise and with mentoring.

Tell us about becoming a leader. Was there a specific moment you realized that you were beginning to make an impact?

I’m not sure I’ve felt completely comfortable with that designation until only recently. Looking back, I think the first place I noticed myself leading was when I was doing performance poetry in D.C. I started out just performing, but I saw how easy it was to organize, so I thought I’d try pulling some people together and planning some small events. Soon I started doing this kind of planning for specific communities like communities of women and LGBT groups, and eventually started working with larger partners. It was at that point that I really started thinking to myself, “Wow, people are listening to what I have to say.”

You’ve always juggled a lot of different projects and passions. How do you know when it’s time to turn a hobby or a “side hustle” into a full-time effort?

I tell people all the time that the universal validator is revenue, not the endorsement of your uncle or cousin trying to give you business advice. It’s also important that you create a repeatable, scalable process and that you aren’t the only person who can manage the business. At one point I was designing and selling t-shirts, and quickly saw that the real moneymaker was on the printing side. You can sell apparel all day long and that’s OK, but when you print the merchandise for other people, then you’re looking at larger contracts, larger partnerships, and of course, more money. So, my advice is really is to stay eyes wide open all the time. The better business idea might be right there in front of you.

You help entrepreneurs find allies, mentors and support programs. What made you realize that what you were doing was needed?

Data was released saying that Black and Brown women weren’t receiving access to capital, yet that Black women were starting businesses at six times the national average. When that data came out, I recognized that journey firsthand and thought maybe I could do something about it. Using my brand, I put out a call. Thirty women showed up at my house, four pitched their businesses, and we voted by putting marbles in a coffee mug. We charged an admissions fee at the door and split it with the winner. It seemed so simple to me: somebody would be helped.

At the time I was doing some contract work for Google, and I decided I’d give Black Girl Ventures 30 days, and if it didn’t take off, it would have to go. I gave it all my energy and it started building steam from there. We describe the business as sort of a Shark Tank-meets-Kickstarter. We’ve [now] funded well over 100 women, have achieved a reach of over a million people since we started in 2016, and about 200 women have gone through one-to-one programming with us. We recently found out that we are the largest entrepreneur-support organization for Black and Brown women on the East Coast and we have efforts in about 12 cities right now, so clearly there was a need for this work.

What have been some of your personal favorites among the businesses or founders you’ve encountered?

Most recently, from our D.C. pitch competition, I keep thinking about Kendra Woolridge who’s the founder of Janet & Jo, an organic nail care company. She received an anonymous donation of $100,000 through our competition. I think she had only asked for $50,000, so that was phenomenal. She told her story about wanting to launch before her mom passed away from cancer. Her mom did get to see the business launch, and then this investment in her business’ growth was life changing — not even just business changing. Every time I watch the video of us telling her, I cry.

What inspired you to launch the pitch competition focused specifically on beauty founders?

During COVID, the beauty industry took a hit like everyone else, but also kept moving because people were at home with the time to spend on their hair and skincare. Rare Beauty Brands approached us as a partner and as a donor at first. Coincidentally, at the same time I was looking for support in enabling long-term sustainable success for beauty founders who’d had to pivot or whose businesses were reliant on having product on physical shelves for consumers.

Rare Beauty Brands was on board with this mission and they brought Ulta Beauty to the table, so we’re super excited to be working with these two partners. I think it’s finally OK to announce that Ulta Beauty is going to partner with the winner of the pitch competition and sell their product at Ultabeauty.com, which is huge. They’ve been doing a lot towards working with Black woman vendors and I’m so excited to see how that develops over time.

This year has forced your operations to go virtual. What challenges and advantages has the format brought to BGV’s pitch competitions?

There have been definite advantages. With the virtual format we can reach more people with a pitch competition because we were hyper-local before, where you had to come into a building. Now we’re thinking about what we can do nationally and globally. We’re able to work with larger partners and our reach has grown exponentially.

During this time, people have been searching for community. Where can I find my tribe? Where can I find people who not only look like me, but also sound like me and are going through what I’m going through? In response, we offer virtual co-working, virtual pitch writing, and a monthly women-in-business support group. And we’ve been able to create space and deliver education at a faster pace, at scale. We do miss being in person because of the energy it creates, and the pitch competitions are so much fun, but in exchange, we’ve had 100K donors watch pitch videos and provide amazing opportunities for entrepreneurs that might not have been there before.

How has your identity influenced you as an entrepreneur?

I call myself “diplomatically radical.” I would say that my personal identity as a mom, a teacher, a computer scientist, and as a poet and writer — all of those mixed together — have created my ability to move in rooms and deliver the right dose of disruption. I’m always pressing against different ways of thinking about things and reframing. And that definitely comes from my personal journey and identity around who I am as a bisexual woman with LGBTQIA children. I’m also from a Southern family that is very understanding, even when they might not personally agree with everything. I think this comes from my grandmother, whose thought process goes: “Whatever you look like, sound like, none of that matters. You’re a human being with a story, and everyone needs to eat, so we’re going to feed you.”

That thinking is a huge part of my identity, and I think with Black Girl Ventures I’m recreating this family space. We think about how we complement each other and how we can collaborate. How we can coexist, even when we don’t necessarily agree.

Your sense of personal style doesn’t jive with the aesthetic the capital-raising community might expect. What gives you the confidence to be yourself in a group that is often so homogenous?

In college, at one point I sold vacuum cleaners. This was an important part of my experience because in order to sell vacuum cleaners at that time, you had to arrive at someone’s door and convince them to let you into their house to show them something they already owned. I learned then and there that you can really sell your way into anything. Maybe because of this mindset, with the venture community, I haven’t seen myself as having to be like them. What I created circumvents the banks and the traditional models. Our success made us unapologetic and undeniable.

That doesn’t mean I’ve never felt intimidated. By arriving in some places, I’m showing up as myself, sometimes with funky hair color, tattoos, bright clothing, nails or whatever. I’ve had people say they’ve never seen anyone show up so bold, so proud, so colorfully. Some people are still wrapping their heads around who I am and how to talk to me, how to relate to me, but mostly I’m inspired by being able to be myself in different kinds of spaces.

How important is representation to you and the women you mentor?

At one point we surveyed our audience of women who had gone through accelerators and incubators. One of the things that came out of that was that they didn’t mind being the only Black person there, but what they really would have liked to see more of were Black or Brown teachers or people in charge. It feels empowering, to see people of color leading things, and I think that representation matters across the board with respect to all different kinds of identity. Having people represent multiple sides of the human experience is important for me. Having these perspectives at the table gives you a really well-rounded outlook on what the possibilities are. So, I do think that representation matters a lot. I think, “how many vegetables can we put in the soup?” In this gumbo we’re making here, what else can we add? The greater the variety and the more ingredients we can put in there, the better!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can learn more about Black Girl Ventures here.