I'll be honest: I am not one who loves conferences. As a media professional who has not only had to cover but host and assist in the planning of a few major ones, I've experienced a bit of burnout. Well God, as He usually does, sent a little piece of heaven in the form of the Black Women Talk Tech: Roadmap to Billions conference to reignite a fire in me to connect with awesome black female professionals and entrepreneurs and step up my own game, both professionally and personally.
Here are 10 things I learned at the BWTT conference, held over three days in New York City, that should do the same for my fellow go-getting sistas looking to make 2020 one of their best years yet:
1. Self-care and fun are necessary, not optional.
BWTT was created by three amazing entrepreneurs: Lauren Washington, co-founder of Fundr, Esosa Ighodaro, co-founder of Nexstar, and Regina Gwynn, co-founder of TresseNoire. It's a collective of more than 500 entrepreneurs in 10 U.S. and international chapters. The conference, in its fourth year, brings women of color to network, share ideas, learn from and rub elbows with top-tier entrepreneurs who are multi-million-dollar success stories in their own right.
A common theme at the event was the importance of self-care and having fun. Not only was this part of the actual conference---via a beauty bar, a Nike dance therapy class, and sessions about dating and mental health---but it was part of panelists' formulas for growth and longevity:
"I love dancing--salsa, house, swing. I find the things that bring me joy and commit to doing them," said Maisha Walker, founder of Message Medium who has worked with brands including Mars Chocolate, Columbia and Unilever (the company behind some of your favorite beauty, home care, and food brands).
Fun is a must for Rakia Reynolds, CEO of Skai Blue Media, a company that has clients including HSN and Dell. "I have to do fun things. See a movie, walk around, see something green, eat something green. Watch something that might be super-mindless."
2. Silence is indeed golden.
For Courtney Adeleye, CEO of The Mane Choice--a multi-million-dollar beauty brand that has products in Target and Sally Beauty to name a few--self-care is related to something many of us might struggle with. "My sweet spot is silence. When I travel, I haven't turned on a TV in years. I allow myself time to just think. That's normally when the most amazing ideas come."
3. Your online presence means more than just posting frivolously---even if you're not an entrepreneur.
Walker said it's important to utilize sites many of us might overlook or even neglect such as LinkedIn: "Build the audience on LinkedIn and make sure it's full of people you actually want to do business or connect with. Learn the technology and then learn how to leverage it effectively."
And ladies, it's OK if getting a handle on your social media platforms seems overwhelming or is just not your thing. "Learn as much as you can, read articles, or hire a consultant. Focus your efforts," Walker added.
4. You can use tech to hustle smart, not hard.
Another common suggestion among panelists included using automation, whether through apps (a good one I use is Crowdfire) or through added tools that you can buy for Websites, to post updates to your social accounts, provide calendar reminders for upcoming events, or even for celebrating birthdays and other key milestones among your network. You can pretty much automate many aspects of your life in order to make things simpler and focus on more important daily tasks.
Automation has also helped me relieve anxiety and get more organized.
For all my women hustlers out there with products to sell, Walker suggests, "When doing a traffic campaign, you want to think about those basic demographics of who your audience is." She also added that using tools like retargeting campaigns---which repeat exposure to your ads to targeted populations on social as well as other Websites----to get the most out of your advertising.
5. Others in your industry are potential partners, not competition.
Partnerships are a key way to work smart as well. The founders of BWTT pooled their resources, expertise, and networks together to bring powerhouse sponsors including Walmart, Shea Moisture (which awarded prizes worth more than $10,000 in this year's pitch competition), Microsoft, Ketel One Vodka, Target and several more.
Many of the panelists, no matter what the subject, talked about how important teaming up can be. "Stop thinking that every woman in your industry is competition," said Adeleye, who has featured many of the awesome women in her network in her own event, the Bawse Conference.
6. Rejection makes a boss bigger and better.
It was great to see the fellas in the room supporting all this black girl magic, and Ron Johnson, founder and CEO of Triton Consulting, was one of them. The panelist had some key, eye-opening things to say about rejection and failure: "It's part of the grooming and pruning process," he said. "I went through journeys of rejection. You can take it as an empowering experience where those are just spaces you weren't supposed to be in the first place. One of the things I try not to get distracted by is the why and how things did not work out for me the way I thought they should have because that can really distract you from where your destination is."
7. Sometimes saying 'no' is better than saying 'yes.'
"One of the No. 1 things I had to learn is the power of 'no'---giving and receiving," Adeleye said. "You can't spread yourself so thin. Be OK with your decision and not feeling the need to explain it.."
Walker agrees: "We only have a certain number of hours in a day and certain number of resources. I had to be really adamant with myself about not going beyond that. This year is my year of saying 'no'. It doesn't have to be 'no' forever but it's 'no' for right now."
8. What you thought impossible might actually be possible.
Andrea Evans, a BWTT speaker, patent attorney, and author of All About Inventing, knows how important it is to act on something you feel led to produce. "I've grown with my clients. I've seen them start with an idea on a napkin and [then get products into] Target or on Shark Tank," Evans said. "It's about that confidence---believing in yourself and taking action. The only thing that separates a billionaire inventor and you in your garage is that they took the steps to protect their invention."
9. Where there's a will, there's a way.
When it comes to making your dreams come true, the resources are out there. Several panelists were living proof of this including Mandela Schumacher-Hodge Dixon, CEO of Founder Gym, an online resource that has helped underrepresented founders raise more than $40 million in startup capital; Crystal Etienne, founder of Ruby Love who launched her business on her own and grew it to a worth of more than $10 million; Jasmine Lawrence, who simultaneously runs beauty brand Eden BodyWorks while working full-time for a major social network; and Chris-Tia Donaldson, a cancer survivor who earned a Harvard degree and runs a beauty brand called Thank God It's Natural (TGIN).
10. Get out of your own head and into a tribe.
Tiffany Dufu, who has a very clear understanding of her vision in life, said, "My life's work is advancing women and girls. I already know what my tombstone says: 'She got to as many women as she could.' I am not going to be able to get to as many women as I can doing everything by myself."
Her platform, called The Cru, actually makes it easier for women to find groups that fit their needs. You apply via the Website and are paired with nine other women to help you reach your personal and professional goals. "I've found, while working with and connecting thousands of people over the years, that even though we have a lot of people around us, we largely perceive personal and professional journey as a solo endeavor, not a team sport. There's but so much impact you can create through your own work, ingenuity, prowess or intellect...and I think that in order for us to grow our impact we have to understand that other people are involved, and we've got to figure out how to achieve results with other people as well."
Reynolds also finds a lifeline in making connections. "I have to go out and talk to people. Human interaction and talking to other people keeps me fueled," she said.
Point taken. Point truly taken.
To find out more about Black Women Talk Tech and their events, visit their Website or follow their Instagram @blackwomentalktech.
Featured Image Via Shutterstock
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Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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Queen Latifah On Her Journey To Self-Acceptance: 'I've Been Trying To Maintain My Freedom To Be Me'
Actress and rapper Dana "Queen Latifah" Owens is defying societal standards by refusing to be confined in a box regarding her personal and professional life.
Owens, who has been a part of the entertainment industry for over three decades, is widely recognized for her empowering songs and the variety of acting roles she has obtained throughout her career, among other things. The list includes Living Single, Set It Off, Chicago --with which she earned an Oscar nomination-- Just Wright, Girls Trip, and most recently, The Equalizer series on CBS.
Owens is also very tight-lipped about her personal life. However, in 2021, The Last Holiday actress showed appreciation to Eboni Nichols, who is reportedly her partner, and their son Rebel after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award.Since then, Owens has revealed why she doesn't want to be defined as anything but herself and how she maintains her sense of freedom. In a resurfaced video from theGrio Awards, Owens opened up about those topics when she accepted the Television Icon Award for her past contributions
In a clip uploaded on theGrio's Instagram account last week, Owens explained that she often had to fight to be herself because "the world" kept trying to put her in a box based on what society thought a woman should be.
"My whole life, I feel like I've been trying to maintain my freedom to be me. And the world is trying to put these things on me to stop me from being who I am," she said.
Further into the speech, Owens explained that although many would have their own opinion about her from what the media spews out, she would continue to be herself by wearing "beautiful gowns and dresses," playing in the dirt, participating in basketball games with men and loving who she loves because that's what makes her happy.
The Beauty Shop star also added that despite her celebrity status, she would continue to show respect for others because that's who she is as a person and how she was raised.
"So I wear these beautiful gowns and dresses because I want to because that's part of me. I play in the dirt. I play basketball with the boys because that's me,” she stated. "I love who I love because that's me. I love all of you who have supported me. I give you your respect. I don't have to be above you because that's me. I know me."
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