Up Next

Get Lifted

This veteran entrepreneur is launching program to help new black female entrepreneurs

Demarra Gardner says Black Women About Business is inspired by her own story, the need for resources and a soaring number of business owners

Demarra Gardner is an independent consultant whose business goal is to help other women of color meet their own business goals.

As founder of Change Agent Consulting, Gardner’s development and practice started in 2008 in Michigan. She knew she wanted to lend her hard-earned skills to other female business owners, so she formed Black Women About Business (BWAB) to bring much-needed resources to African-American women seeking to build their entrepreneurial dreams.

According to the State of Women-Owned Business Support Report (2016), businesses owned by women of color have more than doubled since 2007, increasing by 126 percent. There are nearly 2.8 million more firms owned by women of color now than there were in 2007.

Gardner’s organization exists to assist these women. She describes BWAB as a yearlong virtual and retreat learning space for black women who aspire to start a business or existing business owners who want to scale their businesses. BWAB will begin its inaugural program in early December.

Education, mentorship and access to funding will be the focal point of BWAB. According to the website, one of the organization’s core value propositions is that at least 90 percent of BWAB services will be provided by other black women.

“That was something really important to me,” Gardner said. “To model that investing in each other is paramount. I have immense pride in who I am as a black woman — it’s central to my identity. I want to provide a platform where black women can be exactly who they are and be wildly successful in business.”

Gardner is a Kalamazoo, Michigan, native and still lives there with her husband and daughter. She has built a national reputation as an entrepreneur, consultant, public speaker, and certified executive and life coach. She spoke with The Undefeated about her childhood experiences, her leap into entrepreneurship and her desire to help other women of color soar with their businesses.

How did you get started with your own business?

I had worked predominantly in the not-for-profit sector, and during that time I served as a manager in some of those roles. I had the pleasure of working with consultants on strategic planning and fund development and things of that nature. I started to think what it would be like for me to transition into the field of consulting, and started doing some research.

Once I took that transition, and armored with this research of the consulting field, I continued to do the work that I was hired to do, but then also just plan out a transition plan for myself. I was with that company for about a year and a half. During that time I did things like use my vacation time to do consulting. Once I got a taste of it, I felt like that was exactly where I was supposed to be, so I just started saving from the work that I had been doing. When I would use my vacation time, I would work and then put the money away as if I hadn’t even earned it, so I had a cushion once I made that transition. That’s how I started my consulting work, and I’ve been doing it full time ever since.

How do you like it?

Oh, my God. I love it. I will tell you that I feel blessed every day that I can get up and work with individuals as well as organizations to create transformation in their lives. I do strategy work and leadership development and diverse inclusion equity work. I’ve added things to my skill set over the years, though I find that what excites me the most these days is the leadership development work, which I think is definitely where Black Women About Business falls into play. I feel blessed. I feel blessed to be able to get paid for my passion work.

Sometimes I just stop and I pause and I reflect on where I am at in my life, and I just have immense gratitude that I can do the work that I do day in, day out because every organization that I work with, every individual I work with, I really believe in their potential. I believe that I’m there to facilitate transformation and, really, they have it within themselves to create it. When I’m able to see those changes manifest, it’s such a blessing.

What are the steps you suggest for women in need of help and direction to enhance their business?

What I would want to know is what kinds of things do you already have in place. I would want to know what is your vision, what is your core values, what are the goals that you have set, what kind of impact you want to make in the world. Who are the people that you have to help you carry that out in your work, and so really thinking about your team. Thinking about legal aspects of the work, making sure that you’re protected. I have a lot of entrepreneurs that I work with that don’t have liability insurance. ‘I just put a consulting team together,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, you got to have this liability insurance, because if something were to happen, it’s going to protect you.’ Things like having contracts in place. My starting point would really be about who they are, why they wanted to start the business and the kind of impact they want to make. Then from there we’re talking about building the right kind of infrastructure, the right kind of system, to help them to carry out the impact that they’re aspiring to make.

What inspired you to start BWAB?

The women in my consulting company were really my inspiration, in part, to start Black Women About Business — and, of course, my own lived experience too, being a black female entrepreneur. I still have my consulting clients I’m working with. This year is a lot of newness for me. The idea is for me to do less consulting work, and to have my team do more of it so that I can really focus on the program development side of things, building the practice and then providing some ample support for the Black Women About Business program, for example. I’m one of the main coaches and mentors for the program.

What types of experiences did you have that really helped mold and shape you into a person who wants to help others?

I feel like helping individuals has always been a part of my fabric. It’s funny, I was out to lunch with a woman recently who I hadn’t seen in many years, and we went to camp together. She reminded me that when we were in camp that I was really a person that advocated for her. This is a woman who had talked about this experience of being bullied, and she distinctly told me that I was really the reason that she was able to stay in camp. Then she described this picture of me where everyone else is in their camp shirts and I’m wearing this sweater. You know what I gleaned from that is that, oh, my gosh, social justice and being a part of change has always been a part of my makeup, and really making sure that people are treated well from all walks of life.

When I think about that early experience and everything that I’ve done with my career, it’s been a part of transforming people’s lives. I think that, from an individual standpoint, I’ve had my own fair share of times when I have felt like I was on the sideline. I had experienced trauma as a child. I do think that those early experiences of trauma, at least for me, fueled this desire to make sure that people have the support that they need to be successful on their own terms, regardless of what their lived experience has been. Me becoming a therapist, I’m a licensed clinical mental health professional, and although I’m not seeing a lot of clinical clients these days, I do keep my licensure current. That’s a part of that. I think that that little girl inside of me still longs for justice.

How old were you when you realized this was something you would like to do?

I started working for a charter school at the age of 17. Drafted that job right out of high school and really loved this work that I was doing with young people. That, I think, set me on a pathway to this impact work that I’m doing today. When I think about as a child and where I’m at now, I didn’t have these aspirations necessarily when I was a young person. In fact, there was a time when I thought was going to be a pediatrician. I do think that even that thought about me being a pediatrician was also about this cause to make a difference in people’s lives.

When I started working at the charter school and engaging with all these young people, and I did that for two years, and my concentration was not education at that time. In fact, it wasn’t until I left that position, went into the AmeriCorps program is I realized that education, at least in some shape or form, was a part of my calling. Now, there’s been a lot that’s changed since then, but I do believe in winding paths. I believe that sometimes we have linear paths in life, and there’s nothing wrong with a linear path, and I also believe that we have winding paths, which is all a part of getting us to exactly where we’re supposed to be in life.

How many women are you looking to put through the program in the next year?

We’d like to have 150 women as part of the core virtual program. It would be about 100 women in the basic track and then 50 women in the advanced track, which is more of that inner circle component. Then we’re hoping through our in-person retreat, which will take place in August, that we have at least 350 women in attendance because that platform is not just for women as part of the Black Women About Business community, it’s for any woman who wants to attend the retreat. Of course, there’ll be special pricing in our community, but we do want to make it accessible to any woman who wants to rejuvenate and walk away with some deeper sense of what their strategies are going to be post the retreat: Aug. 9 through the 12th at the Grand Travers Resort and Spa in Michigan.

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.