As a young adult living in Texas, heading to New Orleans for the Essence Music Festival during the July 4th holiday was a right of passage. We would all pile up in our cars or catch cheap flights, if we were lucky, to the Big Easy and witness legends such as Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu tear up the mic, then party on Bourbon Street until the sun came up.
This Essence Festival was different.
In lieu of the usual “Girls Trip” (pun definitely intended), I ventured to New Orleans with my partner Will to explore opportunities to expand the #DaOMovement. This could quite possibly be one of the best decisions we’ve made since launching in December 2017. It was a low risk trip. We drove down from Houston after spending a few days with my mom and stayed with family friends instead of paying for a grossly inflated hotel room.
As soon as we arrived Friday afternoon, we inquired about a potential pitch competition as we heard rumblings that free money would be available for early-stage entrepreneurs and we certainly fit the bill. We quickly learned that there was in fact an event happening and we would first need to enter at the New Voices Fund booth located in the far reaches of the Convention Center.
Waking early Saturday morning to brave the bumper to bumper festival traffic, we hurried into the packed convention center with soulful tunes blasting outside and BBQ smoke already floating through the air. Once we entered the building, we were met with million dollar corporate booth set ups with flashing LED lights and every distraction imaginable. Despite the lure to dance with Coca Cola girls or take selfies with a life size Essence magazine cover, we stayed focused and headed to the New Voices booth.
There was a short line to enter and after an online application, 2-minute pitch and shaking a few hands, we were done. Really? Ok. So, now it was time to breathe and wait. We drove back to our accommodation where I began refining my pitch banking on the text message invitation to the next round. Soon after, we got the congratulatory message that we made the next round. Yes!
After a quick wardrobe change into our famous DāO green baseball tees, we headed to the Esuite at the International House for the face off with the 10 other female entrepreneurs. I must admit that I was among the best of the best. All of the finalists were #BossBabes in their own right. We were humbled and grateful. This was a real opportunity to share the vision for our company and get real time feedback from a room full of executives, influencers, editors and VIPs period.
I was seventh on the list. I took this as a sign of good fortune given our Divine 7 product line would be launching soon. When it was my time to speak, I grabbed the mic and our Naturel Moisturizing Spray bottle and walked to the front of the room. By this time, I had told my story many times, but something about this time felt different. It felt like it really mattered. It felt like the beginning of something great. I didn’t want to relish too much in this sentiment and powered through my pitch. I got threw it confidently without skipping a beat. At the end, the host invited me to sing the Harry Belafonte classic “Banana Boat Song (Day O)” and I nailed it! The crowd was laughing and cheering and I was so full of joy. After that point, I was happy with whatever outcome, yet continued to urge my family and friends to vote.
A couple hours after the competition ended, I received yet another congratulatory text message inviting me to the biggest stage of the weekend at the New Orleans Superdome to receive our prize. This is what we came for and we felt so blessed to be among the top prize winners.
With no food in our bellies and no time to head back to our suitcases to change, we rallied the little energy we had and drove to the Superdome. Once we met with the group of other entrepreneurs, we were whisked backstage while Missy Elliot was on stage performing. It was then that they told us what we had won — a big, fat $15,000 check. We were elated!! And the cherry on top was a chance to walk on the main stage with Reverend Al Sharpton and the executive team of Unilever and Sundial Brands.
The night ended like a fairy tale. We were happy. We were grateful. And we did it all with Love.
Thanks so much to the New Voices Fund team for helping us bring our dreams to life and we look forward to the positive impact we will have together on communities around the world.
More Info About the New Voices Fund
The New Voices Fund is a $100 million fund that invests in businesses owned or managed by women of color. The Fund was previously announced in November 2017 as part of the partnership agreement between Unilever and Sundial Brands (makers of beauty and personal care brands SheaMoisture, Nubian Heritage, Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture and Nyakio) after the former acquired the latter. The fund will make private equity investments from Seed to Series C rounds and primarily focus on three verticals: consumer, technology and media/entertainment.
The fund aims to fix the funding gap felt most severely by women of color founders. “The facts about investments in women of color entrepreneurs, particularly Black women, are astonishing,” Dennis, who co-founded Sundial and purchased Essence Communications (which includes Essence Magazine and the Essence Festival), said in a press release. “Entrepreneurship among women of color has increased 322%, but only 0.2% of those women receive access to the funding needed to sustain and grow their businesses. Black women raised just 0.0006% of the total $424.7 billion in tech venture funding since 2009. This is unacceptable. It is why the Fund is focused on making equity investments and creating an ecosystem that empowers women of color entrepreneurs to reach their full potential by addressing three of the most pertinent issues preventing their long-term success – access, capital, expertise.”