Leadership

6 Diverse Entrepreneurs Whose Stories Will Inspire You

January 28, 2022
The C2FO Team

Diverse entrepreneurs face challenges that other companies don’t. But with passion and persistence, it’s still possible for dreamers and doers to build inspiring companies.  

Starting a new business takes vision, perseverance and a willingness to work longer and harder than most people can imagine — traits that all of these diverse entrepreneurs happen to share. 

Because of their efforts, these business leaders have created companies that brought amazing new products onto the market. Along the way, they have overcome doubts and challenges that would have stopped others cold.  

Did you know that Daymond John, CEO of men’s apparel brand FUBU, was rejected by 27 banks? Still, he found a way to bring his vision to life. FUBU has now sold billions of dollars of clothing, and John is a regular on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”

Or how about Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy? Khan left the safety of a job in finance to build his instructional video business — and spent the next 10 months living off savings, wondering if he’d made a terrible mistake. 

Minority- and women-owned businesses often face challenges that other companies don’t, whether that’s limited access to capital or a smaller network of connections. 

But it’s still possible for diverse entrepreneurs to win. The following stories are proof.

Tope Awotona Calendly

  • Awotona is the founder of Calendly, a scheduling application that has served 30 million people worldwide and is experiencing 100% annual growth.
  • Awotona grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. His family moved to Marietta, Georgia, when he was in high school and he majored in management information systems at the University of Georgia.
  • After gaining experience as an account executive for Kansas City-based Perceptive Software, Awotona launched a series of start-ups, ranging from a dating website to ecommerce businesses selling projectors and backyard grills. 
  • His entrepreneurial journey took flight when Awotona recognized a problem that needed to be solved — how to schedule appointments without a series of emails or texts back and forth. In 2013, he formed Calendly, a simple scheduling tool that makes it easier for multiple people to check availability and plan a meeting, appointment or event. 
  • Over the next three years, Awotona’s goal is to serve hundreds of millions of people with Calendly.
  • Growing up in Nigeria, Awotona says he didn’t see race as an issue or a challenge — until coming to the United States: “There are not nearly enough examples of people who look like us in positions of power or who have a lot of success in the tech field,” he recently told Atlanta Tech Village. “Unfortunately, that limits people and can hinder the idea that they can do whatever they want.”

Sal Khan Khan Academy

  • Khan is an American educator and founder of Khan Academy, a free online platform with more than 6,500 video lessons on a wide range of academic subjects.
  • Today, Khan Academy’s YouTube channel has 5.9 million subscribers and over 1.7 billion views.
  • In 2012, Time magazine named Khan among its “100 Most Influential People in the World.”
  • Born in Louisiana to Bengali parents, Khan graduated with bachelor’s and masters of science degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
  • Khan began tutoring his cousin in mathematics in 2004 by using Yahoo’s Doodle notepad. When other friends and family asked for tutoring, Khan started posting instructional videos on YouTube. 
  • The popularity of his YouTube channel led Khan to quit his finance job in 2009. His videos began receiving worldwide interest, with more than 458 million views in the first few years.
  • A breakthrough moment for Khan Academy came in 2010, when Microsoft founder Bill Gates mentioned at a conference that his children learned using Khan Academy videos. Gates flew Khan up to Microsoft’s headquarters to meet with him a few weeks later. “This was after 10 months of living off of savings and doubting myself and wondering if I’d made a huge mistake,” Khan later told Investor’s Business Daily.
  • Today, Khan Academy is seen as an effective supplement for traditional classroom teaching, employing more than 150 people and generating more than 1.7 billion views. 
  • Khan Academy is built on the belief that education is a human right. Its services are free. Instead of generating advertising revenue through YouTube, the company is backed by individual contributions. 

Beatrice Dixon, The Honey Pot Co.

  • In 2014, Dixon founded a line of plant-based feminine care products – including washes, wipes, pads, bath bombs and more – that are now carried by the largest retailers in the United States.  
  • The idea for The Honey Pot Co. literally came to Dixon in a dream: Her late grandmother gave Dixon a list of ingredients that would help her cure a long-running case of bacterial vaginosis – and it worked! 
  • Breakthrough success didn’t happen overnight. Dixon started making her product back in 2012. But her first big retail breakthrough didn’t happen until 2016, and she didn’t quit her day job until 2018.
  • Dixon was one of the first 40 women of color to raise more than $1 million in venture capital. She started the business with a $21,000 loan.   
  • The Honey Pot Co. has captured national attention, with coverage from The New York Times, the “Today” show, Essence magazine, “T-Pain’s School of Business” and more.
  • Her advice for entrepreneurs: Know your business, inside and out. “You need to understand how you’re going to create a pathway to profitability if you want venture capital funding,” Dixon told Marie Claire.

Daymond John FUBU

  • John is founder and CEO of apparel company FUBU. But he’s best known by millions of Americans as one of the judges and investors on ABC’s reality show, Shark Tank.
  • John grew up in Brooklyn, NY, where his early entrepreneurial efforts included a commuter van service and handing out flyers for $2 an hour.
  • He started FUBU, a clothing brand for young men, in the early 1990s at his mother’s house in Queens. His mother taught him how to sew.
  • Sensing potential for a new style of menswear, John began sewing the FUBU logo on hockey jerseys, sweatshirts and T-shirts. He made ends meet by working full-time at Red Lobster. 
  • After being turned down 27 times for a bank loan, John’s mother spent the last of their money on an ad in The New York Times. The ad led FUBU to sign a deal with Samsung Textiles.
  • Today, FUBU has earned over $6 billion in global sales. 
  • In addition to leading FUBU and listening to elevator pitches on Shark Tank, John is a motivational speaker who extols the societal benefits of entrepreneurship: “Don’t focus on you. Focus on what you can give others,” he has said.  

Janice Bryant Howroyd. ActOne Group

  • She is founder and chief executive of ActOne Group, an international talent and technology employment agency that is the largest privately held, minority woman-owned business in the United States.
  • Part of a family of 13 in Tarboro, NC, Howroyd was among the first Black students to desegregate her local high school. She went on to earn an English degree from North Carolina A&T University. 
  • In the 1970s, she moved to Los Angeles to work as a part-time secretary for Billboard Magazine, where her brother-in-law worked. The job introduced Howroyd to business executives, celebrities, as well as management and workforce training.
  • With less than $1,000 of her savings, Howroyd started ActOne Group in Beverly Hills in 1978.
  • ActOne today is a multibillion dollar company with over 2,600 employees, providing employment and workforce management services to a number of Fortune 500 companies and government agencies. 
  • Howroyd has said that having a woman- and minority-owned business can be a mixed blessing: “It most often is great for a newer, smaller company, but more difficult to navigate as one grows,” she said in a recent article. “Labeling can sometimes pigeonhole you… or set you free. And sometimes the hand that feeds you, will bite you.”

Alberto "Beto" Perez. Zumba Fitness

  • Perez is a Colombian-born dancer, choreographer and entrepreneur. 
  • When he was 14, his mother was injured by a stray bullet. From that young age, Perez began supporting his family by working three jobs. He credits that early experience with solidifying his work ethic.  
  • He moved to Miami in 1999 to chase “the American dream” as a dancer, aerobics instructor and choreographer.
  • In 2006, Perez founded Zumba Fitness, selling Latin dance-inspired videos, products and licenses to Zumba instructors.
  • Today, he employs 200 people. More than 14 million people in 185 countries have taken Zumba fitness classes.
  • Perez says all entrepreneurs must have passion and perseverance. “It’s like fishing — you have to throw the bait,” he told Reader’s Digest in 2009. “You throw it once, and the fish might not bite, so you have to throw it again and again, until it bites. I was also lucky to find my business partners early. If people have ideas, they need to find the right people to help.”

The bottom line

For most of the entrepreneurs profiled here, it took years for them to secure the financial backing that their companies needed to grow. 

They had many other advantages, however. Those included:

  • Identifying a market need and coming up with a workable solution.
  • Having the passion to lead their companies through even the most challenging times.
  • Possessing a strong work ethic and an indomitable willingness to hustle. 
  • Backing from family members, friends and, ultimately, key business contacts who believed in their vision. 

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