As Told To is a recurring segment on xoNecole where real women are given a platform to tell their stories in first-person narrative as told to a writer.
This is Robbie Johnson-Coutee's story, as told to Charmin Michelle.
I've always worked in retail. One of my first experiences in the industry was working at a small women's boutique that was run by two older Black women. This was my first time seeing two women that looked like me successfully running a fully operated business, which I loved.
I would often wonder, how are they able to be build their brand?
And most importantly, how could I do the same?
I knew I needed to go out and gain more experience, which I absolutely did. I began to navigate through various chains: Bloomingdales, Bebe, Nordstrom, and Saks, specifically. In each of these, I learned buying and selling at a high-level, as well as the importance of targeting, and knowing, my customer. And as I maneuvered, I quickly picked up the skills necessary to place me in a position to one day own my own business.
My company is The ABI Project, an online women's fashion retailer, focusing on off-the-runway, special occasion pieces. We understand retail in a high-profile climate, and we work hard to sustain our brand through carefully selected wardrobe styling.
After many years of climbing the ladder, one day out of the blue, I was fired from my job at Saks, which devastated me. I was lost, and totally and desperately trying to find myself. I had just moved into my investment property with my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and we were struggling. Our son was enrolled in private school that we were paying for out-of-pocket. On top of all of that, our college debt had unnecessarily accumulated (trying to keep up with the Joneses), and our bills for our new place, became more and more difficult to manage due to downsizing from a two-income household, to just one.
I found myself drowning.
So, out of frustration, I began selling all of my designer pieces that I had accumulated from years of working in retail, and eventually, I was doing so well, that I figured I should start my own legit online business. And basically, due to that same frustration, and hustle, my business was born.
Of course with this new business, more expenses accrued. We all know it takes money to make money, and even though selling my designer items became a lucrative source of income, it wasn't enough to build out an entire business model while simultaneously catching up on bills and maintaining a household.
Well, one day, while having a conversation with my mother about career goals, she mentioned that she was interested in making a general business investment; she had recently retired at that time. My mother, who is my biggest supporter and an extremely savvy businesswoman, fed me her usual encouragement. So, when I told her that I was thinking of starting an online business, she jumped at the opportunity to invest.
And just like that, my mother became my first investor.
Amazing? Absolutely. But here's the thing, I was one of the lucky ones.
Ladies, our reality is this: when it comes to money, those who are set up for success, oftentimes they don't look like us. Actually, they look like us less than half a percent of the time.
And I can take this a step further: black women disproportionately receive business investments at a pace of less than 5% of the time, leaving us to find, build, and sustain what we've worked for, on our own—at almost 100%.
But why? Why isn't this a focus? Why don't we plan for our families, why is there no means of being set up for success? How do we create the change to encourage our community to prioritize our children financially?
A great start is to first have the conversation and normalize it. It's imperative that we erase the pattern of not being set up properly by our parents.
For generations, our community never promoted entrepreneurship to our children—but we should have been. We are often limited to playing sports, learning a trade or getting a job, and/or being rushed into growing up to pay bills and contribute to the household. That's no way for a child to be introduced to adulthood.
Don't get me wrong, its not like I had it like that or was a trust fund baby myself, but I am able to say that my mother invested in me; and she invested in my business—which can be passed to my son if he so chooses. And even if he takes another path, the skills and experience that he has learned because of my business, is an aspect to this game that we often miss out on too.
So, I promote all my son's ideas, I listen to what he takes interest in. He assists me on various projects, he understands that there's more to a business than taking pictures and meeting sales goals. I walk him through the pros and cons of having a business so that he sees it's more to life than making someone else rich or paying bills. All this so he can get acclimated to operations. I want him prepared in a way that one day, I can invest in him too.
To my fellow entrepreneurs, my advice lies here:
- Take the time to invest in yourself, and your family, first. Prioritize your children's success, support their vision, allow them to have ideas.
- Make sure you are creating a business for you—and I say this to everyone who asks. At the end of the day, you are going to eat and sleep your business. The goal is to have a business that runs on autopilot. I promise the money will come.
- Surround yourself with like-minded women. You need someone you can bounce ideas off of, someone to keep you focused, someone you can learn from.
- Pay yourself. Treat yourself as an employee and make sure you have a check every two weeks just like everybody else.
- To my retailers, buy in moderation and learn who your customer is. Buy for your customer. The goal is always to sell out, not to put merchandise on sale.
- And save, save, save, save, save. That is the most important thing.
When I'm overwhelmed, I do as most women do and I take a break; a break from social media, a break from my phone. I'll even sleep. When the time allows, I'll travel. I've been concentrating more on my self-care by listening to and discovering new music, which is a big part of my life. And now I'm planning to escape this quarantine with strong goals and pivoting a bomb fall season move. I'm actually looking forward to showing my customers what I'm working on.
Anyway, ladies, my biggest hope is that down the line—when investing in our families becomes the norm—my story still resonates. I'm no different from any of you: I am a mother, I am a wife, I am a fly girl. I love fashion. I follow trends as well as make my own. I'm a boss in real life not just on Instagram. I do it for my people, not for likes. My business is operated by me, and my staff...all people of color. We are original, we are one of a kind which is the essence of our culture. My brand is a lifestyle, my brand is my lifestyle. And I'm sharing it with you.
All because I had a mom who believed in me.