In this special Women’s History Month Boss Up series, we talk to women who are redefining what leadership looks like. They’re deciding, on their own terms, to tap into a fulfilling career, walk their own paths, and embrace the fullness of the impact of Black women when they decide to unapologetically take up space and disrupt in business.
With the challenges of the day—a global pandemic (that’s still not quite over), horrifically high gas prices, and the yet-to-be-resolved issue of unequal pay, to name a few—the need to pivot, recharge, and reinvent in many aspects of Black women’s lives has become more and more important for us. The environment today has led to a shift in not only how we live but how we approach getting to the bag, whether that be through a full-time job, a side hustle, a business, or all three combined.
The days of the straight-and-narrow journey on the road to so-called success are quite long gone, and today, new generations of Black women are traveling roads that not only have detours but intersections created anew. And one unchanging component that seems to always fuel success is a plan founded on good old-fashioned principles of planning, education, and resilience through advocacy, empowerment, and innovation.
Courtesy of Ayris Scales
Ayris T. Scales is a leader who knows more than a thing or two about just those things, with more than 20 years of experience excelling as what she calls a “tri-sector” professional. The path to her current role as CEO of Walker’s Legacy Foundation included taking on a variety of roles in corporate, nonprofit, and public service industries.
“When I came into this role last year, it was interesting because someone who I considered a friend said to me, ‘So what are you now—a champion of women in business?’ It was a bit of a slight, and I had to correct her and say, ‘You know, I’ve really been doing this work for almost 20 years now,’” Scales recalls to xoNecole. “I started out in communications and got a job in corporate America doing corporate communications. I hated it. And we were working with big global brands. Every once in a while, we’d have these smaller businesses calling us about our services or calling us trying to tap into resources but couldn’t afford them. I come from a family that has been very focused on community, collective impact, and service, so I thought, let me get out of this corporate job and go into the public sector to work on policies to connect businesses with the resources they need.”
She eventually moved on to work in public policy, managing initiatives and communications for city governments including those in Washington DC, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Atlanta. Throughout her career, she’s seen many career highs, but one, in particular, landed her in a position to work with the Obama administration as the inaugural executive director of the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI), part of the White House Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative with a purpose to end generational poverty.
To date, she has raised more than $50 million in funding and overseen more than $200 million in grants and subsidies to support women, marginalized communities, and small business owners.
Now at Walker’s Legacy, an organization founded in honor of beauty mogul Madam C.J. Walker and committed to uplifting the next generation of minority women entrepreneurs, Scales is tasked with leading the nonprofit arm’s charge of getting 10,000 Black women founders “capital ready” by 2025. It’s a challenge she does not shy away from. And it’s the use of transferable skills and the reliance on deep confidence to take risks to pursue out-of-the-box opportunities that have been key in building that tenacity.
Courtesy of Ayris Scales
“It’s been an amazing journey to be at Walker’s Legacy to lean in more on what I’m passionate about,” she says. “For me, I know that I have to bring those things that are natural to me. That’s not also to say don’t push yourself [beyond], because that’s important, too,” she adds. “I love to lead with my ‘why.’ Why are you here? Why do you feel the need to make a pivot, start a business, or go into a role? And I challenge people who say, ‘Well, I’m passionate about the mission or vision.’ We’re all passionate about those things but that’s not why you are here. When you have that understanding of what your ‘why’ is, it allows you to be more connected and invested in how you’re going to have a true impact and navigate when those days get hard.”
Black women millennials and Gen Zers, in particular, are at the forefront of putting their “why” first, further challenging the status-quo approach in building a successful career or business. “I’m just observing my own daughter, my cousins, and the children of my friends: They care so much more—which is great—about the quality of life–how they live–and not so much about being driven or focused on ‘I gotta chase down this role, and this job, and this title. They’re looking at how they move and how they make money [in a way] that’s more supportive of some of these broader goals that they have in life,” she says.
“And I’m like ‘How wonderful is that!’ As we think about millennials—who are well grown at this point—I think the path isn’t as linear as it used to be. We are seeing right now that more Black women are starting to go into entrepreneurship at faster rates and in larger numbers than ever before—even at higher rates than any of their counterparts. And we’re doing that for many reasons. Part of that is understanding that we want to start to create legacy."
"We are seeing right now that more Black women are starting to go into entrepreneurship at faster rates and in larger numbers than ever before—even at higher rates than any of their counterparts. And we’re doing that for many reasons. Part of that is understanding that we want to start to create legacy."
And here’s where the aggressive push for the “Capital Ready Initiative” becomes that much more significant for Scales. It’s a way to not only educate Black women founders on how to get funding that will sustain their businesses through the long game but also to remind the world that the disparity still exists. “When we talk about minority- and women-owned businesses, and then you throw on being a Black woman-owned business, it’s exceptionally hard to access capital for a few reasons. For one, we may not have the full understanding of what it takes to successfully complete a loan or a grant,” she shares.
“One of the things I’ve also said is that we have funding that’s available in this country. Capital is here and capital flows throughout this country. What’s not always available is for that capital to trickle down to our communities and that’s because of discriminatory and systemic types of barriers and criteria in which we are being evaluated against people who are not traditionally our peers.”
A huge part of an elevated pivot to success is one that involves Black women, especially millennials and Gen Zers, stepping things up beyond social media hype and overnight-success stories of six- and seven-figure revenues of bootstrapped startups, especially when it comes to the glazing over of in-real-life success metrics of actual profit, longevity, business legitimacy, impact, and market influence. “When it comes to social media, we want to see what others are doing so that we can draw inspiration and stay abreast of what competitors are doing in the market, but we can’t be distracted from what actually works for sustainability. When we have a plan, we have to work it. We want to talk about the ability to still be around when the market starts to shift.”
Scales, who is also an entrepreneur herself, having founded Abel Vision Enterprises, has had a chance to continue to lay the foundation for her own success, as a woman whose career has been multifaceted and nonlinear, and continues to work to pay it forward for other women who are operating in the same vein—and generations that will learn from their journeys in the future.
“As Black people, we are so enterprising anyway—that’s how we’ve always had to be. We’ve always had to create our own products and services for our own community. We've always had to figure things out in that sense,” Scales explains. “So to be able to do that today where there are some resources finally being made available to us, and where we have the luxury of being global—just because of social media— and we have the opportunities to be paid for our services and ideas, it’s something that our ancestors could have never, never even imagined. I’m extremely committed and passionate about creating legacy. We are literally our ancestors’ wildest dreams.”
Featured image courtesy of Ayris Scales