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My Mother Was My First Investor. And This Must Be Normalized.

When I told her that I was thinking of starting an online business, she jumped at the opportunity.

As Told To


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.

Damn.

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.

To continue to follow Robbie's journey, you can follow her on Instagram at @abi.project.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

In xoNecole's Our First Year series, we take an in-depth look at love and relationships between couples with an emphasis on what their first year of marriage was like.

It was a cold winter night in Chicago, more than a year ago. Your girl was scrolling through the fifty-eleven million options on Netflix to find something interesting to watch. I spotted this new show, The Circle, and have not looked away since. Produced by Studio Lambert and Motion Content Group, it premiered in January 2020 and has become my new favorite type of game show. Hosted by Michelle Buteau, The Circle is about contestants who are isolated in their own apartments and can only communicate with others via an online social media platform.

On season 2 of The Circle, the world fell in love with DeLeesa, the contestant who would eventually be crowned winner of the cash prize. She won the game by playing as a single dad named Trevor, who is actually her husband. As a true fan of the series, I figured it was only right to sit down with DeLeesa and Trevor to get the deets on how marriage has been for them IRL. So, let me take y'all back into time real quick, to the beginning of their love story.

It was 2007, and DeLeesa was starting her first day of school as a college freshman. She was getting adjusted to her new dorm and was introduced to her new resident assistant, *drum roll please* Trevor St. Agathe. They quickly became friends and Trevor helped DeLeesa find different activities around campus. After a year, they decided to take things to the next level.

Now, 14 years and two beautiful children later, the married couple have been focusing on doing whatever it takes to create the best life for their children. Since college, the power of commitment and open communication is what has kept DeLeesa and Trevor by each other's side.

One thing that we can all learn from The Circle and social media in general is that everything is not what it seems. When I connected with the couple, DeLeesa wanted to get the story straight about her and Trevor's love story. "I feel like people look at couples on social media and they think that things are perfect when that's not true. We went through stuff, too. We just figured out how to overcome it and move together as a unit."

In this installment of xoNecole's Our First Year, Deleesa and Trevor share how marriage is about work, navigating through the ups and downs, and prioritizing family. Here's their story:

How We Met

DeLeesa: I got to school early because I was starting [college] a semester late. I met him, we became friends, and I developed a little crush on him. One day, we were hanging out in his room and he just didn't want me to leave (laughs). So we were messing around for about a year. Exactly one year later, I told Trevor that I am not going to keep doing this unless he becomes my man. If he didn't make me his girl, then we were done. (Laughs)

Trevor: I tried to ride it out as long as I could (laughs). At the time, I was thinking, since I'm still in college, I shouldn't be tied down. But I knew that if I didn't make it official, she was going to leave. So, she was right, and we took it to the next level.

First Impressions

Trevor: I thought she was absolutely beautiful. She was pretty and the new girl on campus. So I knew she was going to get lots of attention. But I didn't want to be on that with her, so I continued to just be a stand-up guy. At first, it was the normal student-and-RA relationship. She would ask me what activities she could do on campus and I gave her a few suggestions. For a few days, we continued to hang out and I started to realize the chemistry we had between us.

DeLeesa: When I first met Trevor, I wasn't even thinking about going that [relationship] route with him. I was new to the school and I just wanted to be his friend. But because we shared bathrooms in the dorm, this man would just walk around in his towel sometimes. I couldn't help but notice him more after that. I just thought 'He is fine!' (Laughs) He was so nice and he never pressured me into anything, but, he knew what he was doing.

Favorite Things

DeLeesa: I love that he has unconditional love for me. I feel like that no matter what I do or no matter how mad he gets, he is still always going to be by my side for anything that I need. We have been together for a long time. Even though we had breaks in between, he has always been there for me.

Trevor: It's not just one thing for me, but I can sum it up: DeLeesa is everything that I wish I was. She is very much not afraid of what other people think and she is very determined to go after what she wants. She has that go-getter mentality and it is so attractive to me.

"DeLeesa is everything that I wish I was. She is very much not afraid of what other people think and she is very determined to go after what she wants. She has that go-getter mentality and it is so attractive to me."

Wedding Day

Trevor: On our wedding day, I was crying like a baby when I finally saw her. That is my fondest memory of that day: seeing my wife-to-be from a distance and instant water works. (Laughs)

DeLeesa: I really enjoyed our first dance. Our wedding was pretty big, and I planned the whole thing. I was very hands-on and it was hard for me to just have a moment and be present. But when we had our first dance, that was our time to just be with each other and not worry about anything else. It really hit me that we were married at that point.

The One

DeLeesa: Well, the thing with Trevor and I is that we broke up a lot. We reached nine years of being on and off. By that time, we said to each other that this would be the last time we were going to break up. We were going to try our best to do everything that we could to stay together. And if we didn't work out, we were going to go our separate ways. For me, I really wanted us to work because I did see him as my future husband and my children's father. So it was the conversation we had to not break up that was my "you are the one for me" moment.

Trevor: It was something that I always knew. Young Trevor would say, "If I had to get married, this is who I want to marry." When I knew it was time to take things more seriously with her, it was after we had that conversation. Another confirmation that DeLeesa was the one was when we had to move to Canada from New York. I thought to myself that this woman must really love me to pack up and move to another country for me. This woman trusts me so much and she is my forever.

"The thing with Trevor and I is that we broke up a lot. We reached 9 years of being on and off. By that time, we said to each other that this would be the last time we were going to break up. We were going to try our best to do everything that we could to stay together."

Biggest Fears

Trevor: The questions that popped into my head were, "Can I do it?"; "Can I be a good husband to her?"; or "Was I truly husband material?" You can't take a test for that or study to get those answers. You have to just do it, apply your morals and values, and do the best you can. What has helped me with this is continuing to reaffirm how we feel about one another—affirmations that let me know that she is happy and I am doing a good job. Marriage isn't that much different from what we have already been doing this entire time. We just wear rings.

DeLeesa: My biggest fear [is related to the fact that] I am a very independent person, [so] if I do not like something, I can be out, quick! So with me, I questioned if I could stay put and fight through the bad times within a marriage. I would question if it is worth sticking it out since this is a lifelong commitment. What has helped me get through that is reminding myself that I can still be independent within my own marriage. I can still do things on my own and still share my life with someone I really care about.

Early Challenges

DeLeesa: I feel like I have been really good at keeping my relationship with my friends balanced with my partnership with Trevor. So when we first got married, my personal challenge was me trying to juggle between being a good wife and still making time for my girls. I really didn't want to lose sight of who I was in the process of marriage.

Trevor: My work at the time forced me to travel a lot. So when you are in that honeymoon phase, it's important to have quality time together. It was hard with my job to enjoy life together as a married couple in the beginning. Yes, we have been together for a long time. But this was different. Not being around my wife as much as I wanted to was really hard for me and the both of us. Our communication started slacking and we definitely struggled during that time.

Love Lessons

Trevor: There's two lessons that I have. One lesson is that I am a husband first. I have spent a lot of time not being a husband so it can be easy for me or anyone to continue to behave that way. But my wife always has to come first, no matter what is going on in life. When you're married, you have to reinforce that. My second lesson that has helped in our marriage is making sure I do things in order to make her life easier. It can be the simplest thing, but for me, it is a huge priority.

DeLeesa: My biggest lesson is being able to learn from each other. For example, if he is doing simple things to make life easier for me, I am learning from him how to show up for him to make him happy. It can be easy to just receive everything he is putting forth, but it has to be give and take for us.

"I am a husband first. I have spent a lot of time not being a husband so it can be easy for me or anyone to continue to behave that way. But my wife always has to come first, no matter what is going on in life. When you're married, you have to reinforce that."

Common Goal

Trevor: To do everything in our power to ensure that our girls have the best possible life. Everything that we do at this point is for them. Before children, I may have moved slower working toward certain things, but there is definitely an added fire on how we approach things because of them.

DeLeesa: I agree. The number one goal is to be the best parents we can be. We want to set up generational wealth and we want them to be culturally aware. We want them to grow up and be proud of everything we have done for them.

Best Advice

DeLeesa: My advice would be don't go looking for advice, honestly. A lot of people are going to have an opinion about your life and sometimes that may not be the best for you. People can have different intentions and may give you the wrong advice. So I feel that if you need to vent, then yes, have someone to confide in. But don't take their word as facts. Try to figure out your marriage for yourself. Stick to your intuition and what you want to do, no matter if you are being judged for it.

Trevor: The things that matter are to be patient, listen close, choose to be happy, and love hard. I also think when people come to terms with the fact that marriage is work, then it is more possible for people. There are honestly more things to be happy about with the person that you marry. You have to keep all the things that you love about that person at the forefront to get you through. Once you do that, you will be fine.

Follow Deleesa and Trevor on Instagram @leesaunique and @trev_saint and their family page @itsthesaints.

Featured image via Instagram/Leesaunique

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