Eyona Mitchell is the owner of Little Rock, Arkansas-based My Color of Beauty, a website that caters to the beauty needs of women of color by providing tutorials, beauty tips and access to products that are not easily found at big-box retailers. The startup, which recently participated in the ARK Challenge accelerator program, is working on signing more vendors, growing its email list and make more sales. To increase profit margins, My Color of Beauty also is developing its own line of branded products.
Her role as an entrepreneur is pretty new—the company launched last year—but Mitchell has been working in Little Rock’s startup community for more than a decade. Prior to starting her own business, she was a consultant for small businesses located in disadvantaged areas of Little Rock. From her experience on both sides of the table—as an entrepreneur and someone who has supported them—she has seen firsthand the challenges facing minorities in the South’s startup scene. In the following Q+A, Mitchell shares her candid thoughts about our diversity problem and what can be done to solve it.
Q: Yours is a company for women of color, so you’re already doing better than most in terms of diversity. But do you have any diversity-related challenges?
A: Sure I do, starting with when I tell people that my startup is targeting women of color. I am often asked, “What about [white] women like me?” or “Will you ever start to sell products for everyone?” It’s almost like I offended them with the actual need for my startup. I have just decided that I will not apologize for the problem I am solving. I generally use those opportunities as a chance to educate people about how hard it is to find quality products that work for women of color because of how different each of us are when trying to find products for our hair, skin and makeup.
Q: As an entrepreneur, is it harder to be black or to be a woman? Why?
A: The answer to this question differs depending on what day it is. When I was in ARK Challenge, it was hard being a woman participant. I had to keep an image that my counterparts did not have to worry about. They were, for the most part, young, white males with nothing but time to devote to their projects. At that time I was trying to raise money for my startup, and business coaches and mentors had a hard time coaching me to tell my story to investors who were more than likely going to be white men.
Q: You have more than 10 years of experience with startups in Arkansas. How have you seen diversity in entrepreneurship change since then? Has it changed enough?
Q: What should diversity look like in an entrepreneurial ecosystem? What needs to be in place to get us there?
A: At least in Arkansas, the resources in our state need to purposefully try to diversify the ecosystem. Minorities need to be asked to the table to give their input and they need to be told that their creation is a startup and that it is something. Many minority startups are born out of a need for their existing businesses, so their innovations are often overlooked because they appear to be “just a barbershop” or “just a restaurant,” etc.
Q: What is the biggest mistake you think startup companies and startup support organizations make in terms of promoting (or not promoting) diversity?
Q: What about programs like accelerators? What was your experience in terms of diversity? In general, are they diverse enough? If not, what needs to happen? Do you think there needs to be more minority-focused accelerator programs, or could that somehow perpetuate the problem?
A: While I was in the accelerator, I was introduced to many mentors and resources here in Arkansas. I was the only woman and minority in the cohort. Of the many necessary mentors who were involved in the accelerator, I had two women mentors and I can only remember one minority mentor who spoke with us at lunch. There was clearly no real work done to get minorities or women in the door. It would have been comforting for me to see a face like mine helping me and rooting for me. A minority-focused accelerator program is not necessarily needed if the existing accelerators would seek out more diversity.
Q: The abysmal state of maternity leave in the United State is another hot topic. Is this a problem in entrepreneurship, too? If so, what’s the solution?
A: Oh my goodness! Does this question open up a can of worms for me. As a mother of three children, two of whom were born while I was employed, this is a sensitive topic. Maternity leave is a joke that all working mothers still don’t get because the joke’s on them. I often describe my experience to others as being punished for giving life. Many employers do not offer enough paid time off during maternity leave. Part of the reason I wanted my own startup was the attractiveness of its flexibility and how I could define the culture for working parents on my own terms base on my own experiences. There needs to be support for mothers who are going back to work, and flexibility needs to be in place in order to make mothers feel at ease upon returning to work. We need to let mothers know that they are not judged for the time they need before they return to work and we need to try to provide them more options based on their needs. Maternity leave may be an ever-changing policy as society changes. We need to understand that a one-size-fits-all policy is a hard sell.