We all know that technology can improve our lives in pretty much every aspect, but have you considered what it can do for how we care for Black hair?
In this edition of Black Voices in Tech, we’re coming at you with a #BlackExcellence feature from the Black Tech Mecca – Atlanta, Georgia! Earlier this month, we connected with computer scientist, Co-Founder and CEO of MYAVANA, Candace Mitchell Harris. Mitchell Harris is one of few Startup founders who is using technology to carve a space for herself in one of the most highly competitive global markets, the Black haircare industry.
Nielsen reports that African Americans in the US have a growing population count of 48.2 million citizens with a purchasing power of about $1.2 trillion each year according to Essence. The Black haircare industry, valued at over 2 billion dollars Essence estimates, is an area of business where African Americans exercise much of their spending power given the cultural significance of hair to the Black community.
In our interview, Mitchell Harris explains how she managed to break through the billion-dollar Black haircare industry, persevered her way to the top of her field, and shares key mentorship tips that all Black entrepreneurs and tech professionals should consider on their path toward success.
What educational tools have you acquired to arrive at this point in your tech journey?
Mitchell: “My educational background is in computer science. I completed a bachelor’s degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology with a specialization in human and computer interaction. I was drawn to the institution because they had recently rolled out a new degree program, ranked in the top ten programs in the country, which was based on this concept called threads.
Computer science is a broad term with several topic threads. Being a computer scientist can translate to so many different things from robotics, algorithms, software development and a host of other areas. I chose to specialize in two threads – media and people. This was important because I wanted to learn how to build technology solutions, grasp how people interact with technology from different media perspectives, and ultimately understand how it affects people.
All the knowledge that I accumulated helped me build my tech company MYAVANA. I even took a class called, entrepreneurship for software-based ventures. This course was life-changing for me because it taught me to view software as not just an engineering solution but an entrepreneurship solution that solves business problems. By adopting that lens, I quickly realized that the biggest problem that I wanted to solve was my hair. I was going natural at the time, and I didn’t really know what products I needed to use. Therefore, I decided to develop an algorithm to solve this problem which is the founding concept behind my Startup venture.”
How has your community positively shaped your tech career path or choices?
Mitchell: “I am the eldest of three girls and they all have as much hair as I do, if not even more. Growing up, to help my mom out, I was put on hair duty. I would do my younger sisters’ hair. This experience cultivated a love for hair. Being a Black woman, hair is part of our upbringing and is an integral part of who we are. We all have those stories about getting our first relaxer, perming our hair and the passing of those important rituals which are all considered rites of passage for women within the Black community. Hair shapes so much of Black women’s identity. This notion has been at the core of how I wanted to structure my life and make an impact in my career.
Beyond my family, my college community groups, M@CC and W@CC (specialized student support circles catering to the needs of minorities and women), at Georgia Tech were another support channel that positively shaped my career choices – especially during the tough times in my computer science classes. During that time, I felt like an outsider in class which was composed of predominantly white and Asian males. I had a hard time connecting with my professors and even my classmates because I felt like I didn’t belong. I was a fish out of the water, and I felt like I wasn’t quite in my habitat. However, thanks to my community groups, I was able to gain support and overcome those challenges. For example, I had empowering experiences like attending the Grace Hopper Women In Computing conference which showed that I do belong in this field. I tapped into myself, discovered what I knew, and that allowed me to excel in my courses and graduate.”
What are some of the challenges of being an entrepreneur in tech and how do you overcome them?
Mitchell: “The most challenging part is balancing both the short-term and long-term goals at the same time. You must consider what you need to achieve in this quarter to meet the milestones and maintain the company’s growth while also entertaining what you need to be planning five years from now. They’re both relevant because something that you’re doing now could impact you five years later. It’s like building a product roadmap. You need to achieve your sprints and execute certain features while being cognizant of the deliverables required in the next year based on where the market is heading.
As a founder and CEO, that’s challenging because you’re always balancing the long-term vision along with the real-time execution. What I’ve discovered is that most founders are strong visionaries but are often lacking when it comes to the operational side of things. This pain point could stem from a personality type or even strengths or weaknesses in other areas. Whatever the cause, founders need to ensure that this issue is properly covered – meaning you must learn how to do it and figure it out or hire someone else who can do it for you.
An additional challenge, that specifically impacts Black founders is the struggle narrative we encounter. Capital hasn’t always been readily available for us. Therefore, we must be resourceful. Unfortunately, we often look at things from a deficit standpoint because we get less than 1% venture capital. There aren’t many of us, and overall, it’s a struggle narrative. This really affects people’s mentality. If you’re operating from a deficit standpoint it prevents you from being resourceful and being in the mindset to figure it out. The more you say you don’t have the money, the more you are comfortable with pushing off your goals, but in fact maybe you need to be more resourceful. Get more comfortable with making an ask and asking for exactly what you need. For example, this may be the time for you to reach out to some of the people that you went to school with and bring them in to invest or help.”
What is a common mistake that founders make and should avoid in order to be successful in tech?
Mitchell: “One of the mistakes founders often make do is wait for permission or seek external validation. Rather, thinking that you need permission to build and do what you feel called to achieve. This means feeling the need to be accepted into certain circles or feeling like you need to be on Forbes before anybody else will pay attention to you. What I realized is that as an entrepreneur, you must go get it and make it happen. You can’t wait for it to happen or even disqualify yourself. If you get rejected by an investor or an accelerator program, do not let that rejection, make you feel undeserving of those opportunities. This just signifies that this wasn’t the door for you right now. What you need to do is to keep chasing seeking that yes at the next door.
I faced similar rejections when I was raising venture capital for my Startup. I spent 18 months raising venture capital and never got a yes because many didn’t understand the Black haircare industry, Black women, hair’s significance to Black women and our inherent community needs. If I accepted those initial rejections, then I would have forfeited the opportunity and promise of what I have achieved today. Instead, I entered pitch competitions and accelerator programs, completed a crowdfunding campaign, did set up a family and friends fundraising rounds, and successfully raise over $300,000.00 that year to keep the vision going.”
How has diversity played a part in your tech career, if at all?
Mitchell: “I think about diversity in its fullness beyond only race. I think about age, gender, culture and even intellectual diversity. I always strive to have a 360 view of any project or problem and to achieve that we need diverse perspectives. Diversity shapes the way in which I build my teams and even my advisory board. For instance, some of my most impactful advisors and investors look nothing like me and have not lived through similar life experiences.
Also, the shift towards Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the tech space has also been beneficial because it has opened a lot of doors for me. It’s forcing people to be accountable, intentional, and thoughtful of how they may be excluding others. These doors are opening in certain tech spaces because they need more representation and diversity overall. It’s no where near solved, but I’m gonna walk through every door needed to get the resources I need to be successful so that I can be a change agent and give back to others.”
What is your advice to other tech organizations seeking to create more inclusive spaces for Black tech professionals?
Mitchell: “It’s important to recognize that we are all human. Unfortunately, our country has put a certain stigma on Black men and women that is false. Don’t regard us simply by our race but as humans. Think about how you would connect with another human. Don’t’ try to connect with me because I am Black and try to say some cool Black stuff. Please, no. I am a human. Try to connect with me in other ways because we are more connected than we think. The color of our skin may make you think that we’re something different but we’re not. Strive to connect with us as humans because that’s who we are.”
What makes Atlanta an ideal ecosystem for Black tech founders and professionals?
Mitchell: “Atlanta is the perfect blend of culture. It’s a mix of tech, music, art, politics, history, business, entertainment, and civil rights. There’s a thriving corporate and real-estate scene as well. Atlanta is everything! This is exactly what makes the Atlanta tech ecosystem so unique. The creative barriers are off and you’re not in a box. You can easily see how to navigate the different parts of the ecosystem and connect with all sorts of people.
We’ve always had prominent people that push movements forward such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other figures of the civil rights movements. Atlanta was the headquarters for those movements and involved churches and various other institutions to form that foundation. In terms of the tech movement, I’d say between 2005 and 2015, there were a few entrepreneurs who shaped the Atlanta tech scene based on their successes. Sig Mosely, Chris Klaus, Paul Judge, Rodney Sampson, and David Cummings are a few notable figures. These pioneers established Atlanta as the capital for tech within the larger ecosystem. Prior to that, many people encouraged me to go to New York or San Francisco to launch my Startup, given that I had a consumer product and Atlanta was not well known or established in this space yet.
Today, the Atlanta tech scene is thriving. We have more angel investors. We have more firms providing capital like COLLAB Capital and Zane Venture Fund. We have a healthy ecosystem of top tech organizations such as MailChimp, Calendly, and other tech companies that have been acquired like PartPic founded by Jewel Burks. Many top tech companies are now moving their offices to Atlanta like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon. Our new mayor Andre Dickens is a Georgia Tech engineer as well.
The movement of Black people in tech is one of Atlanta’s most notable markers in this whole global community of Blacks in tech. We’re special because of our ability to lead movements and shape the culture. As it’s been said, Atlanta Influences everything! Black culture influences everything and that culture is the most influential thing in our country and in this world . Black culture is the highest exported GPD in the United States. Our culture shapes every industry and that’s the DNA of Atlanta.”
Ready to break into the tech industry after reading Candace’s review of Atlanta’s dynamic tech scence? We got the perfect solution that will spare you the cost of the flight. Sign up for our Early Career Hook Up recruitment initiative by uploading your resume to our portal and our recruiters will help you secure a tech job!
About the Early Career Hook Up Initiative
We have a porfolio of accomplished business partners and leading tech organizations looking to recruit 375 early career Black identified professionals and interns yearly for the next three years. Visit our Early Career Hook Up page to upload your resume and our recruiters will get you started on the path towards career success!