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Meet Shani Syphrett, The Innovative Strategist Empowering Women of Color

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Source: Shani Syphrett

Even if you’ve never heard of Shani Syphrett, you’ve probably been impacted by her work. She’s the mastermind behind the branding and marketing strategies that keep some of the biggest brands and corporations around the world connected to the public via field-tested brand building, experiential marketing, customer acquisition, and customer retention strategies. In layman’s terms, she’s one of the people responsible for keeping them up to date with their rapidly-growing and ever-changing consumer base.

She’s also the founder of Jamila Studio, a launchpad serving women of color that encourages and empowers them to share their stories and drive themselves forward through accessible one-on-one mentoring, brand coaching, and peer mentoring networks.

Jamila Studio staffers who focus on empowering women are a diverse group of women posing in front of a white brick wall.
Source: Shani Syphrett

We caught up with Syphrett to learn more about her role as a strategist, the influences and impact associated with her work, and what it means for her to empower women of color and drive their success.

You’re a Brand and Marketing Strategist for companies such as Samsung, Nike,  McDonald’s, Refinery29, and Gap. How do you help these well-established companies step into the future of marketing to and serving their customers?

My philosophy around brand and marketing strategy is serving the right customers with the right product at the right time. Much of what I bring to the table for the companies that I work with is getting them to step away from any assumptions they have about the customers they are trying to chase and examine who the qualities of their product or service are uniquely positioned to serve at the moment. Many times that means abandoning putting their customers in demographic boxes and looking at how they actually behave in an internet-connected, barrier-breaking world.

When did you realize that you wanted to be a Brand Strategist?

To me, it’s all human ecology – the relationship between people and their natural, social, and built environments. I would say I fell into strategy because of my innate curiosity and empathy and a few people in my life who entered in at just the right times to advocate for me and push outside of my comfort zone. I’ve always wanted to solve problems and I am lucky to be able to do that every day.

Why do you think it is important to offer support and additional resources to Women of color and intersectional identities, at large. How have you seen intersectional identity groups benefit from tailored support?

I see the work that I do for Women of color as something I am uniquely positioned to do. My experience often puts me in positions where I am the only one who looks, thinks, or acts like me. At first, it depressed me because I felt isolated and misunderstood. Now I see it for what it is: my obligation to open the door and bring others with me. And we all need that. No one succeeds all on their own. We move so much further when there is someone ahead of us, or someone who has access, who is specifically looking to help us. I made a decision to be a resource for Women of color and I see the fruits of that decision both big and small.

In 2015, you founded Jamila Studio as a consulting firm and project studio that helps high-performing women of color to thrive. How have you seen Jamila studio serving and empowering women through these endeavors? How important do you think Jamila studio is in their journey towards success?

I like to think that Jamila Studio provides creative capital and people capital for Women of color and, hopefully, soon, financial capital. What originally was a container for me to house all of my freelance creative work turned into a way for me to provide scalable support for a largely ignored market: innovative women of color. The one-on-one advising, coaching, bootcamp-style teaching, monthly meetup, and digital publication are an ecosystem that helps me reach women at different stages of their journeys. Maybe they’re just starting out and need confidence boosters and general direction. Maybe they are launching something new and need the right strategy behind them. Maybe they’ve already reached a certain milestone and need the co-sign, or connection of their peers to get them to the next step. Maybe they just want to be in the know about the myriad of options and resources out there that they can leverage to be successful. It’s the way that I can help the most people without burning myself out.

Shani is at a Chat & Chew meetup speaking to a group of people sitting in chairs in a circle.
Source: Shani Syphrett

You also started monthly Chat & Chew meetups. Where did the idea to host Chat & Chew meetups come from? How have you seen these monthly meetups impact the attendees both on a personal and professional level?

Selfishly, the Chat & Chew meetups began because I was drowning in “coffee date” requests. Though I wish I could help everyone, I am an introvert who needs a fair amount of downtime. There came a point, I believe it was after about a year of leading workshops for various entrepreneurship programs and conferences and writing for Forbes, where there was a request for a coffee date and pick your brain session every day. I just couldn’t keep up. I was meeting so many new great women, needing to catch up with others, and often wanting to connect women who I thought could benefit from each other. So Chat & Chew was born. It’s invite-only conversation between peers who help each other celebrate wins, get through tricky work-related tasks, and air out the things we don’t feel comfortable doing with just anyone. I could not have imagined the sisterhood and enterprising I’ve seen since it started. It’s warm, validating, and actionable support. It feels like the most significant thing I’ve ever done.

On top of being an active brand strategist and running Jamila Studio, you are also a regular contributor for Forbes. Have you always been interested in writing? How does being a Forbes contributor tie in with your other projects?

Contributing to Forbes came from my passion to be an advocate for women of color. It’s all connected for me. I get to expose the world to dope, innovative women of color who may have been overlooked because they don’t know anyone “in the know”. I get to open that door for them and that makes a difference for them professionally and personally. I get to vouch for these women under the Forbes banner. The writing is just the vehicle.

What is one piece of advice you would give to women of color in any career field?

Clarity comes from engagement and not just thought. You won’t figure out who you are meant to be until you get out there and try to be it.

By: Alla Issa

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Makers

How Matt Fussell Turned His Love of Teaching Into an Art Empire

Alla Issa

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Matt Fussel wearing a blue shirt, holding paint brushes, in front of a white background.
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Though he does it exceptionally well, Matt Fussell did not envision himself teaching for much of his adolescence. In fact, as the son of two teachers, he actively resisted entering the education field. It was only after Fussell got a recommendation from his instructor-turned-mentor at his art school that he decided to pursue art education, graduating with his teaching certification and entering a school he would teach at for the next 10 years.

It was at that point that Fussell was able to do something extraordinary. He and his colleagues wrote a grant that awarded their administration $1.5 million so that they could turn that school into a visual and performing arts magnet high school. Fussell was overjoyed, especially when he got the opportunity to help write a brand new curriculum for the brand new school and later become the lead art teacher for the entire school system, overseeing 120 K-12 art instructors.

While the full conversion of school and its curriculum was underway, Fussell was laying the bricks for his own little empire, long before he even knew that it would become one.

“A little bit before then, I was making videos anyway, because that was something that I enjoyed doing. I created painting videos and drawing videos in my garage and actually called it the ‘Art Garage.’ It was a lot of fun and my students enjoyed getting those DVDs. Plus, it was really easy to stand up in front of the class, and when I had a more in-depth demonstration to share with the students, I could just pop in that DVD and they could watch an oil painting developed from start to finish, where you can’t do that in a normal art classroom.”

Fussell posted these same videos onto his new website, TheVirtualInstructor.com, which quickly gathered a large and dedicated following. Seeing the success of his website and the impact of his lessons on the greater public, Fussell understood that his career path was going to change. He stepped down from his Lead Art Teacher position and re-entered the classroom at his magnet school, intending to teach there for a few more years before switching his full-time occupation to making content for his website. The decision was not an easy one, according to Fussell, but it ultimately paid off.

“I ended up just being in the classroom for one more year and then I went in and quit my job, and that was very scary. That was about seven years ago—the website’s been my full-time job since then. Currently, we’ve got people from all over the world that visit. The site gets over 3 million visits a year, and we’ve got a huge number of users in our database that are members or have purchased a course.”

The website turned out to be a hit not only with art students and hobbyists but also with fellow visual art instructors, who Fussell catered to immediately. He designed a year-long program for visual arts teachers called “The Ultimate Lesson Plan,” which has everything a teacher needs to teach a course, including handouts, examples, and even assessments. With this dedication to serving the needs of art instructors, it comes as no surprise that Fussell thought of them first when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.

“Part of being a teacher is sharing. When the pandemic started, I immediately thought of the teachers who were all of a sudden out of the classroom. Many of them are out of their element. They’re having to learn new technologies, and a lot of them depend on what I provide to aid in their instruction. I thought, ‘what can I give teachers so they can continue to give content to their students so their students can continue to benefit?’ And immediately I thought of opening up several live lessons series.”

Fussell, who has a popular YouTube channel where he posts art tutorials and relevant videos, posted a video on March 16, announcing that he was making a portion of his members-only courses, which amounted to over 25 hours of art lessons, free for anyone to access. He specifically mentioned that art teachers could utilize these lessons with their students in order to make distance learning easier.

The response was overwhelming. Many, teachers and art hobbyists alike, were quick to both take advantage of this offer and praise Matt for his generosity and quick thinking. After all, many teachers were given little time, some as few as two days, to completely readjust their curriculums for distance learning. Matt was overjoyed by the positive reception of his decision.

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“It turned out to be a great thing for everyone because people were able to benefit—there’s a lot of people that are stuck at home that aren’t teachers that have all this time on their hands now. Under normal circumstances, they like to kind of delay things that might make them happy or passions that they might want to pursue because they’re so wrapped up in work.”

Opening up those lessons for those folks too has helped them realize you only live one life, you only got one chance at this. We shouldn’t have to have a pandemic to make us realize that our lives can be more fulfilling if we just take the time to do the things that make us happy.”

While putting content together, Fussell did his best to think of all the obstacles teachers and students were facing. He immediately recognized a major issue that many students and teachers would be dealing with: a lack of access to art materials, especially those materials for specialized mediums and tools that students rely on their teachers to supply them with.

Thinking ahead, the live lessons Fussell chose to make available use very basic materials like charcoal, oil pastels, and even things that everyone has around their house, such as pencils, pens, and so on. This was so that viewers did not need the inventory and materials found within an art studio in order to succeed. Since he has been a teacher for over 10 years, Fussell understands that there is a general lack of accessibility to both art supplies and art opportunities for many students across America and the world.

“Obviously there are students that you have in a classroom that fall into all different types of economic categories. If they’re on the lower end of the economic scale, that’s not their fault. They deserve to have the same access to the same materials as a student that might be a little bit better off financially. So I think that the playing field, as far as art materials go, is definitely leveled when you’re dealing with a student in a physical classroom.”

Fussell also recognizes, however, that there is an increasing lack of accessibility not only to art materials but also in art courses. As academic budgets become increasingly strained and schools shift their course offerings to prioritize classes that require standardized testing, creative programs such as visual arts, music, and theatre are often the first to be cut. These changes often occur at the elementary level, depriving hundreds of thousands of young students the opportunity to not only develop a passion for the arts, but also to refine their art skills in an academic setting. The unfortunate result is that many grow up to see art as a hobby, and not a reasonable means of income. Fussell, of course, takes issue with this.

“If you ask a child what their favorite activity in school is when they’re in first and second grade, a lot of them are going to tell you that it’s drawing or coloring or some form of being creative. As we get older and as we develop, we start to become a little bit more self-conscious. We also have adults and people in authority tell us that anything that’s a creative form of expression is not going to lead to financial success, which totally is not true through these days!”

If you look at the people who are most successful in the world right now, they are the creative people. They are the innovators. Look at all the apps that we use, all of the websites we visit; all of those things are designed by artists. This is a wonderful time to be an artist right now. The people who are cutting the art programs, the people who are making these decisions, just don’t understand how important being creative and being innovative is.”

Despite his valid critique of these curriculum mishaps and the general lack of adequate recognition for the value of art, Fussell is hopeful for the future. Although the long-term impact of the pandemic on the American public is still hard to predict, many are speculating that life could be changed for years to come. Some of the biggest concerns right now are school reopening plans for the upcoming academic year, and whether the move to remote teaching will become a more permanent one; at least while the threat of spreading and contracting COVID-19 still looms large.

Fussell believes it is possible that, as more creative programs begin being cut, they should start turning more towards virtual instruction, such as the type that he does himself; to give students access to high-quality art courses. While these courses cannot replace the experience of in-class instruction, they offer school systems that are considering cutting creative programs and taking away their opportunity to use an economically-friendly alternative that ensures their students’ creative capacities are still nurtured. Fussell also thinks that the stay-at-home period may have a long term impact on Americans in that they’ll be more conscious of doing things that make them happy and actively improve their lives in the future.

“I think the pandemic is going to change all different aspects of the way that we live going forward. It’s my hope that there’s a greater appreciation for art, but I think the big thing here is not necessarily that. I think that people have been forced to slow down, and they’ve been forced to step out of their normal day-to-day routine. In my opinion, this is gonna sound harsh, but I think a lot of people kind of go through their life like zombies.”

They’re going to work each day and they’re coming home and going to sleep and getting up and going into work the next day. They basically live for the weekends. I think that we need, as a society, as the world, to invest ourselves in the things that we’re passionate about, the things that make us happy. These are the things that we should live for, not for the job that we hate. That’s my hope, that more people come to that realization. And I think that because of the pandemic, more people are realizing that.”

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Makers

Closing the Funding Gap for Women Entrepreneurs-Meet the Founder of IFundWomen

Sydney Murphy

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The brunnette lady in a red shirt is Karen Cahn, the CEO of IFundWomen.
Source: Karen Cahn

Karen Cahn , the Founder and CEO of IFundWomen, has dedicated her career to closing the funding gap for women entrepreneurs and opening up their realm of possibilities through maximizing confidence. A successful pioneer in tech and media, she spent 10 years as an early Google Intrapreneur leading several monetization teams in search, display, and video.

When Karen Cahn started the Branded Entertainment business on YouTube back in 2006, she and a rogue group of sales and product managers, connected big consumer brands and video creators. Her group created the first native video ad experiences monetized on YouTube. 

IFundWomen is the go-to marketplace for active participants and supporters of women-owned businesses. They offer access to capital “through crowdfunding and grants, expert business coaching on all the topics entrepreneurs need to know about, and a network of women business owners that sparks confidence, accelerates knowledge, and ignites action.” 

Despite Karen Cahn’s busy schedule, she has kindly offered advice and reflection on her success story in the following interview.

As the founder of IFundWomen, what led you to create this company? 

IFundWomen was created when my first startup—a video platform for female creators—was failing. We were out of cash. We set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise $30,000 to keep the proverbial lights on. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but eventually, we ended up meeting our goal. 

We had the idea to create a crowdfunding platform specifically designed for women entrepreneurs to get their ideas funded. Why? Because crowdfunding should be the first stop on every entrepreneurs’ journey. It allows a startup to prove there is demand before investing in supply. 

We realized that there was no one to teach us how to crowdfund. We knew that coaching was a key ingredient to any successful entrepreneurial story, so we offered coaching on how to crowdfund. 

Lastly, we knew that women thrive when they’ve got a community of sisters around them to push them to keep going. We made community a core part of our offering as well.

You coach and mentor women on how to start smarter, better businesses. How else do you try to fill that role of mentorship in your life? What do you look for in your own mentors?

I truly believe that women can solve all the world’s problems. I love having a diverse group of investors and partners that has helped me build IFundWomen from the ground up.

I think one of the ways that women differ from men is that women tend to ask for help when they need it. This has definitely been my strategy with building IFundWomen. Test, learn, iterate, and have strong coaches around me to show me the way.

What do you believe is the most valuable thing to invest your time into?

I eat, sleep, and breathe funding for women entrepreneurs. At IFundWomen, our #1 goal is driving funding into the hands of women. That’s what I invest most of my time in and care most about.

What’s one thing you believe every entrepreneur should know?

Overnight success takes five to 10 years. Do not quit your day job when you have a startup idea! You should work in your 10% time to prove there is demand before investing in supply. We believe at IFundWomen that no founder should go into debt or max out credit cards funding the earliest days of her startup.

As a woman in business, you are always meeting new people across all backgrounds and industries. If there’s one thing people take away after meeting you, what do you hope that is?

The one thing people get about me right away is that I’m no BS. I get straight to the point, and tell people the truth about their business idea (only if they ask).

This approach not only saves people time and money, but it also engenders trust. I’m not a “yes” person or a person who just wants to be liked. I’d rather people know that I care about them and their business by giving them honest, constructive, no-BS feedback. 

What is a key business strategy that you took away from your three years as General Manager of AOL Original Video?

Know what your customers want to buy and sell that exact thing to them. For example, when I started at AOL, I knew that, at the time, Verizon was looking to market to women because women make 80% of the household purchasing decisions.

So, my team and I went hunting for the best women video creators, gave them a budget to make whatever they wanted, which not only yielded a 7-figure deal from Verizon, but also got AOL an Emmy nod. 

The IFundWomen COVID-19 Relief Fund provides microgrants to women-owned businesses that are being impacted by this crisis. What charity or foundation is IFundWomen currently supporting?

Our number 1 KPI at IFundWomen is driving funding into the hands of women-owned businesses. To that end, our COVID-19 grants go directly into the crowdfunding campaigns of entrepreneurs raising capital on our platform. 

We believe that no founder should have to go into debt or relinquish equity while building the earliest days of their startup. This is why we provide access to rewards-based crowdfunding and grants. Any of our crowdfunders that have been impacted by COVID-19 are eligible for our COVID-19 grants. 

Additionally, since our inception, we have given 20% of our standard crowdfunding fees back to women raising capital on our platform. Meet some of our Pay-it-Forward grant recipients here.

IFundWomen is closing the funding & confidence gap for female entrepreneurs. How does IFundWomen advise businesses such as hair and nail salons to strategically pivot during the COVID-19 crisis? 

Think smartly about how you can meet your customers where they are and deliver some sort of value. For example, can you deliver hair color with brushes and instructions? Can you do house calls while wearing a mask?

This is the official logo of IFundWomen, or ifw for short.
Source: ifundwomen

Karen Cahn has proven that success can come from every angle, including failure. She has learned from previous challenges that determination is everything when it comes to striving for what seems to be impossible.

IFundWomen is driving funding into the hands of women-owned businesses and closing the funding gap and confidence gap for women entrepreneurs. Lack of funding should not prevent women from taking on business challenges and empowering others through their ventures. 

Karen is living out the BLENDtw vision of generating positivity and confidence for entrepreneurs across all walks of life with connections. 

Through IFundWomen, women are exchanging experiences with other women to help shape their understanding of the world and prepare them for the future. This overwhelming support between women is inspiring us all to strive to do the same: to reach for the “impossible.”

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Claire Coder Sheds the Stigma on Menstruation

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Source: Claire Coder

Claire Coder, founder and CEO of Aunt Flow, is an empowering female entrepreneur and advocate for making people comfortatreble when talking about menstruation.

Not all men are aware of women’s menstrual cycles and the importance of having menstrual products at a reachable distance. In addition, there is a stigma about menstruation that needs to be dismantled. Coder and her team at Aunt Flow work to #ShedTheStigma and educate the public about menstruation.

During a Columbus Startup event, Coder unexpectedly got her period without the supplies she needed. So, she had to leave the event filled with majority male participants to go buy tampons.

To address the inequity with a sustainable solution, at age 18, Coder founded Aunt Flow. Since its establishment in 2016, the business works towards its mission to ensure that “everyone has access to quality menstrual products.”

To accomplish its mission, the team at Aunt Flow provides 100% organic cotton tampons and pads to companies and organizations at no charge. Requests for menstrual products can be made on the Aunt Flow website. Coder believes that menstrual products should be made readily available for free since it is a necessity.

“Toilet paper is offered for free, why aren’t tampons and pads?” Claire states.

Claire Coder
Source: Claire Coder

Launching a start-up is no easy work. She worked odd jobs to raise $1.5 million in order to stock and fund over 350 businesses and schools.

When the business was launched, what were some of the greatest fears? How and when were the fears overcome?

One obstacle with a B2B [business to business] menstrual product business is that some decision-makers—primarily men—don’t always see the need for products in their bathrooms. Because they’ve never personally had a period, they don’t always view tampons and pads as bathroom necessities, like toilet paper. However, the large majority of the operations and facilities, people, office managers and other business owners we’ve worked with are certified FLOW BROS. They get why freely-accessible products matter: they support menstruators AND help business’ bottom lines.

Aunt flow provides women with organic tampons and pads, which is quite different from major menstrual product brands. What is the importance of using organic ingredients?

Transparency is key when it comes to what we put in our bodies. Unfortunately, the FDA currently classifies tampons as ‘medical devices,’ and major menstrual product brands are not required to disclose their ingredients. If we take the extra time to go for an organic apple, why would menstruators want to put chemicals (including rayons, dyes, and toxins!) into their bodies? Our tampons and pads are made from 100% organic cotton and contain no dyes, perfumes, or other WEIRD stuff.

 What advice do you have for aspiring female entrepreneurs?

Always believe in yourself and Google something when you’re not sure!

One of your accomplishments is being an advocate for making people comfortable when talking about menstruation. What are some initiatives that you have taken to advocate for this cause?

From the beginning, Aunt Flow has aimed to get people talking about menstruation and why menstrual stigma sucks. To #ShedTheStigma, we refer to our products as ‘menstrual products’ and ditched the term ‘feminine hygiene products.’ The latter implies that getting your period is somehow dirty or gross, when it’s just another normal bodily function. This verbiage is also inclusive of everyone who gets a flow, not just cisgender women. We use this same inclusive language on our social media to make people comfortable when talking about menstruation.

You have also stated that you are a “proud college drop-out.” How did you make this decision? What influenced your determination?

I have always had an entrepreneurial instinct, and I didn’t feel like college was giving me the tools needed for genuine social impact. I dropped out of college after one semester to fight for menstrual equity, and the rest is history!

What is a fun fact about you that not many people know?

I owned a company in high school called, “There’s a Badge For That” where I made trendy buttons, magnets and compact mirrors with different designs on them. I was a top seller on Etsy as a sixteen-year-old!

Claire Coder
Source: Claire Coder

What are the future goals for the company?

Our team wants to ensure EVERYONE has access to quality menstrual products. Soon, we want to see our products supporting people in 1,000 businesses and schools.

Coder exhibited her entrepreneurial instincts early on. Her experience enhanced her career as a successful entrepreneur, who sheds the stigma on menstruation.

By: Kahyun Kim

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