Resources | ESG and Diversity | May 31, 2023

Minority Entrepreneurs Who Overcame Obstacles to Achieve Success

Building a business isn’t easy, but it can be especially challenging for minority entrepreneurs. Explore some success stories and programs that can help.

business man and woman walking down street smiling with phone

Diverse entrepreneurs face challenges that other companies don’t. But with passion and persistence, it’s still possible for dreamers and doers to build inspiring companies.  

Creating, sustaining and growing a successful business is no simple feat, particularly if you’re a minority entrepreneur. Most business owners face obstacles from time to time, yet these challenges are significantly heightened for minority- and women-owned businesses. Discrimination, limited access to capital, fewer network connections and language barriers are just a few examples of obstacles to be conquered. In light of these disparities, many large enterprises have launched programs and initiatives to address inequities and break down barriers for minority- and women-owned businesses.

In this post, we’ll share the inspiring stories of eight successful minority entrepreneurs, and explore some of the programs and resources available to diverse business owners.

8 minority entrepreneur success stories

According to the US Census Bureau, nearly 20% of businesses in 2020 were minority-owned. Starting a new business takes vision, perseverance and a willingness to work longer and harder than most people can imagine — traits that all of these minority entrepreneurs happen to share. Along the way, they have overcome doubts and challenges to build highly successful companies. The following stories illustrate what is possible for business leaders with access to the right resources and a growth mindset.

1. Beatrice Dixon | The Honey Pot Co.

  • In 2014, Dixon founded a line of plant-based feminine care products — including washes, wipes, pads, bath bombs and more — that are now carried by the largest retailers in the United States.
  • The idea for The Honey Pot Co. came to Dixon in a dream: Her late grandmother gave Dixon a list of ingredients that would help her cure a long-running case of bacterial vaginosis — and it worked!
  • However, breakthrough success didn’t happen overnight. Dixon started making her product back in 2012. But her first big retail breakthrough didn’t happen until 2016, and she didn’t quit her day job until 2018.
  • Dixon was one of the first 40 women of color to raise more than $1 million in venture capital. She started the business with a $21,000 loan.
  • The Honey Pot Co. has captured national attention, with coverage from The New York Times, the “Today” show, Essence magazine, “T-Pain’s School of Business” and more.
  • Her advice for entrepreneurs: Know your business, inside and out. “You need to understand how you’re going to create a pathway to profitability if you want venture capital funding,” Dixon told Marie Claire.

2. Tope Awotona | Calendly

  • Awotona is the founder of Calendly, a scheduling application that has served 30 million people worldwide and is experiencing 100% annual growth.
  • Awotona grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. His family moved to Marietta, Georgia, when he was in high school, and he majored in management information systems at the University of Georgia.
  • After gaining experience as an account executive for Kansas City-based Perceptive Software, Awotona launched a series of startups, ranging from a dating website to ecommerce businesses selling projectors and backyard grills.
  • His entrepreneurial journey took flight when he recognized a problem that needed to be solved — how to schedule appointments without a series of emails or texts back and forth.
  • In 2013, he formed Calendly, a simple scheduling tool that makes it easier for multiple people to check availability and plan a meeting, appointment or event.
  • Over the next three years, Awotona’s goal is to serve hundreds of millions of people with Calendly.
  • Growing up in Nigeria, Awotona says he didn’t see race as an issue or a challenge — until coming to the US: “There are not nearly enough examples of people who look like us in positions of power or who have a lot of success in the tech field,” he told Atlanta Tech Village. “Unfortunately, that limits people and can hinder the idea that they can do whatever they want.”

3. Rea Ann Silva | Beautyblender

  • Silva is the founder and CEO of Beautyblender, a company that’s famous for its conical-shaped makeup sponge, which makes applying makeup easier and more effective.
  • Born in 1961, Silva grew up in Los Angeles in a working-class family. Silva attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) in Los Angeles.
  • After graduating, Silva worked at a department store selling perfume and then makeup while she built a portfolio as a professional makeup artist.
  • A Latina in the predominantly white beauty industry, Silva experienced discrimination because of her ethnic background. Despite this, she made a name for herself as an expert makeup artist focused on entertainers of color.
  • As one of the first professional makeup artists to work on TV shows in high definition in the late 1990s and early 2000s, she needed a tool that would allow her to quickly apply makeup and make it look natural.
  • Silva was a single parent when she began hand-cutting egg-shaped sponges to apply makeup on actors. Soon the sponges started disappearing from the TV set where she worked.
  • Seeing the mass-market potential, Silva started marketing and selling the edgeless sponge as Beautyblender in 2002. In 2012, Sephora took the product nationwide. It’s since become one of the most recognizable beauty tools on the planet, with at least 17 sold every minute.
  • Beautyblender’s triumph also enabled Silva to launch an inclusive foundation line, Bounce, which comes in 40 different shades.
  • When asked about her key to success, Silva told Insider: “I think I’m successful at Beautyblender because I have a passion for it.”
  • Silva was named one of America’s most successful women entrepreneurs by the National Museum of American History in 2021.

4. Leanne Pittsford | Lesbians Who Tech & Allies

  • Pittsford is the founder and CEO of Lesbians Who Tech & Allies, the largest LGBTQ professional community in the world.
  • In 2012, Pittsford created Lesbians Who Tech to build a community of queer women in the technology industry after struggling to find a community herself and finding that the voices of LGBTQ women were often missing from the conversation at industry events.
  • The community has since grown to include 100,000 nonbinary, LGBTQ women, queer women of color and allies from over 100 countries.
  • Pittsford began her career working for Equality California. At that time, the LGBTQ rights group was working to overturn Proposition 8 in California, which sought to ban same-sex marriage. In 2008, she became head of operations for the organization.
  • Lesbians Who Tech’s San Francisco Summit is the largest professional LGBTQ event in the world. Its programmatic work includes a coding scholarship, mentoring program and a leadership program for nonbinary people and LGBTQ women in tech.
  • In 2018, based on the stories she heard from tech workers across the country, Pittsford launched include.io. The platform fights bias in technology by expanding access to direct referrals for underrepresented candidates and helping companies that prioritize representation connect with diverse tech professionals.
  • In 2020, Lesbians Who Tech partnered with Fast Company to produce the first-ever list of LGBTQ women and nonbinary innovators in business and tech.

5. Melanie Perkins | Canva

  • Perkins is an Australian technology entrepreneur and the co-founder and CEO of Canva, an online design and publishing tool used by millions of people in more than 170 countries.
  • Perkins was born in Perth to multicultural parents — her father is a Malaysian of Filipino and Sri Lankan descent while her mother is Australian-born.
  • She opened her first business, at the age of 14, selling handmade scarves in markets around Perth. When she was 19 and still in college, she co-founded a company called Fusion Books, a design tool for school yearbooks.
  • Perkins’ journey to get Canva built wasn’t easy. She had zero connections in Silicon Valley and no technical background, and she was rejected by over 100 investors before she finally gained two rounds of seed funding.
  • In 2013, Perkins and her husband, Cliff Obrecht, launched Canva to make the design of logos, business cards, presentations and more accessible to all.
  • Growth was fast, and the company signed up 600,000 users in less than a year after it launched. Within five years, Perkins made headlines as one of tech’s youngest female CEOs, at just 30.
  • Today, Canva has a $40 billion valuation and 60 million monthly users from 190 countries. Over 7 billion designs have been created on Canva in more than 100 languages.

6. Sal Khan | Khan Academy

  • Khan is an American educator and founder of Khan Academy, an online platform with more than 8,700 video lessons on a wide range of academic subjects.
  • Khan Academy is built on the belief that education is a human right. Its services are free. Instead of generating advertising revenue through YouTube, the company is backed by individual contributions.
  • Today, Khan Academy’s YouTube channel has 7.7 million subscribers and over 2 billion views.
  • Born in Louisiana to Bengali parents, Khan graduated with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
  • He began tutoring his cousin in mathematics in 2004 using Yahoo’s Doodle notepad. When other friends and family asked for tutoring, Khan started posting instructional videos on YouTube.
  • The popularity of his YouTube channel led Khan to quit his finance job in 2009. His videos began receiving worldwide interest, with more than 458 million views in the first few years.
  • A breakthrough moment for Khan Academy came in 2010 when Microsoft founder Bill Gates mentioned at a conference that his children learned using Khan Academy videos. Gates flew Khan to Microsoft’s headquarters to meet with him a few weeks later. “This was after 10 months of living off of savings and doubting myself and wondering if I’d made a huge mistake,” Khan later told Investor’s Business Daily.
  • In 2012, Time magazine named Khan among its “100 Most Influential People in the World.”

7. Janice Bryant Howroyd | ActOne Group

  • Part of a family of 13 in Tarboro, North Carolina, Howroyd was among the first Black students to desegregate her local high school. She went on to earn an English degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
  • In the 1970s, she moved to Los Angeles to work as a part-time secretary for Billboard Magazine, where her brother-in-law worked. The job introduced Howroyd to business executives and celebrities, as well as management and workforce training.
  • With less than $1,000 of her savings, Howroyd started ActOne Group in Beverly Hills in 1978.
  • Today ActOne Group is a multibillion-dollar company with over 2,600 employees, providing employment and workforce management services to over 17,000 clients, several of which are Fortune 500 companies and government agencies.
  • Howroyd has said that having a woman- and minority-owned business can be a mixed blessing: “It most often is great for a newer, smaller company, but more difficult to navigate as one grows. Labeling can sometimes pigeonhole you … or set you free. And sometimes the hand that feeds you, will bite you.”

8. Ayeshah Abuelhiga | Mason Dixie Foods

  • Abuelhiga is the founder and CEO of Mason Dixie Foods, a burgeoning frozen foods company.
  • Abuelhiga grew up in a low-income family in Baltimore. She is a first-generation Asian American and was the first member of her family to get a postsecondary education. She worked four restaurant jobs to put herself through George Washington University.
  • Abuelhiga created Mason Dixie Foods to offer a healthier alternative to more processed frozen foods. The company initially launched as a highly successful pop-up restaurant, which quickly became a favorite of Washington, D.C., residents. 
  • In 2015, Mason Dixie Foods pivoted from a local restaurant business to a national brand when it expanded into retail stores. 
  • The company has since diversified its line of frozen baked goods to include breakfast foods. Mason Dixie Foods products can now be found in over 8,000 stores across the US and are also supplied to the Marriott hotel chain. 
  • In a recent interview, Abuelhiga said what fuels her motivation as an entrepreneur is “changing the course of the future for other little girls of color, who see women not only succeeding in leadership but changing the world.” For her, success is measured by how much you can give back those rewards to the world. “I owe a lot of my success to the mentorship of women and POC who believed in and supported me, as well as to my communities who continue to support not just me, but our team.”

Programs that support minority entrepreneurs

A Federal Reserve study found that minority-owned businesses typically receive less business financing, less often and at higher interest rates.

Fortunately, more and more corporations are offering financial programs and resources to certified diverse businesses to help minority entrepreneurs overcome gaps in financial and social capital. Options such as those listed below can provide a vital source of funding to help traditionally underserved communities launch or grow an existing business.

Early payment programs

Minority entrepreneurs often have fewer working capital financing options and a higher cost of borrowing, which can make it particularly challenging to address cash flow. However, many large enterprise buyers have launched initiatives to support diverse suppliers by providing a debt-free solution to cash flow issues — early payment programs.

Early payment programs help suppliers like you boost cash flow by accelerating payment on invoices in exchange for a small discount. If you have large enterprise customers, they may already be using C2FO’s Early Pay platform. This means you can log in and request early payment on their outstanding invoices to increase your working capital immediately.

Diversity marketplaces

On C2FO’s platform, enterprises can create a dedicated opportunity marketplace where diverse suppliers can request early payment on invoices at competitive rates. For example, Albertsons Companies launched its opportunity marketplace in 2021 to help diverse-owned businesses alleviate immediate capital challenges by making access to working capital more equitable with funding at significantly lower rates.

Funding partnerships

To address funding disparities, the Schultz Family Foundation and C2FO launched a new partnership that provides accessible, affordable lines of credit to diverse and underserved, high-potential businesses. The foundation’s Entrepreneurs Equity Fund will enable C2FO to power $100 million in loans in the partnership’s first year.

The bottom line

For the minority entrepreneurs profiled here, it took more than just hard work and determination to overcome systemic barriers and build successful businesses — it also took access to financial resources. C2FO has seen firsthand how reliable access to funding can give minority entrepreneurs the boost they need to be successful. In the first half of 2022 alone, C2FO accelerated more than $2.5 billion in early payments to diverse-owned businesses worldwide.

Need cash flow to take your business to the next level? See if your enterprise customers are using C2FO’s Early Payment platform or offering an opportunity marketplace.

This article originally published January 2022, and was updated May 2023.

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