Editor’s Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series on female entrepreneurs of color. Read more here.
When she finished the first of what would be a series of worldwide best-selling books, author J. K. Rowling (born Joanne Rowling) was instructed to use a gender-neutral nom de plume by her publisher.
Her website explains, “He thought that young boys might be wary of a book written by a woman.”
The world eventually learned her true identity as the “Harry Potter” series broke sales records globally and received the Hollywood treatment. But that initial branding decision stayed with her throughout and beyond her meteoric rise to fame.
Hiding a key element of one’s identity while working to get established professionally may seem like an extreme measure; some might even think it foolish. However, many female entrepreneurs — particularly those of color — do just that when starting up and growing their ventures.
Take, for example, Funlayo Alabi; she’s the founder of Shea Radiance, a Baltimore-area business that sells a line of skin and hair care products made with shea butter, a moisturizer used for centuries. Though its products are designed for use by people with all skin and hair types, Alabi told us (as several others did through our Public Insight Network query) that she sometimes found it difficult to engage a clientele beyond African-American women.
“We’ve had to change our messaging and packaging a few times, to appeal to a more diverse demographic,” she said, recalling the “warm, natural, earthy” look of the original packaging. “We found that ‘non-black’ potential customers looked at the colors, the shea butter and the fact that the owner is black, and assumed the product was not for them.”
Alabi is not alone in her concern that being known as a minority-owned business could hurt brand appeal. When Karima Renee Barge started Skinny Minority, a personal-styling venture based in the Philadelphia area, she contemplated leaving photos of herself off the company’s site.
“I didn’t want to be labeled or put in a box immediately,” Barge said. “I didn’t want to be an ‘urban’ brand or a ‘black stylist.’ I just wanted to help women look and feel great.”
Barge, Alabi and others in their shoes are not being overly sensitive — and there’s research to prove it.
For example, one study, a collaborative effort between researchers at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and Arizona State University’s finance department, asked at the start of the research effort: “When the typical person engages in a consumer transaction (usually as a buyer), does he or she try to avoid dealing with minority sellers, and does [he or] she treat minority sellers differently?”
The team found that customers reached out to black sellers less, and would make offers to them less frequently. When offers were made, they were consistently lower than the offers made to white sellers.
So it’s no surprise that many women business owners of color feel pressure to keep their branding race-neutral — and their likenesses off of websites. Terri Holley, founder of Washington, D.C.-area digital-marketing studio Holley Creative, knows many women who have taken that route so that “a prospect doesn’t have the opportunity to discriminate before they contact you about services.”
However, she chose not to. “I have no problem with showing the world that I am African-American,” she said. “And quite frankly, full disclosure ensures I work with the right clients, and that has had a positive effect on my business.”
Nichelle Stephens, a social media strategist/blogger and a woman of color herself, initially didn’t think branding while black was much of an issue, until her own sister voiced the concern to her while growing her food and lifestyle blog. “I can understand someone’s fear with that, but you are your brand — you can’t deny that,” she says. “You have to put something [of yourself] out there.”
So what does Stephens recommend?
When it comes to imagery, “one of the best things you can do is find a graphic designer, or an app, and find a photo to make into an avatar,” she said, warning that stock art usually doesn’t make the grade — especially for female entrepreneurs of color, who tend to be underrepresented in stock images.
She also said that, even if a venture is geared toward women of color, it’s wise to incorporate images of women of different shades to avoid alienating anyone with packaging or branding.
Holley — who learned quite a bit about online marketing while growing her business — noted that entrepreneurs additionally need to “truly understand the needs of your prospects, be able to communicate your value in a way that transcends ‘marketing speak,’ [and] focus on the prospect rather than your business, your accolades or what you’ve done for others” when outwardly communicating.
Beyond that, Stephens says that finding — or even creating — a community can make a significant difference in the mindset of women business owners who feel isolated. “There are tons of options, from meet-ups and conferences. Whether it’s just two people or many more, [meeting people] gives you a chance to bounce ideas off each other, to help one another.”
Above all else though, Stephens encourages sharing your story and passion with customers. “Quality and authenticity trump all. Illuminate who you are and what you’re about through your story. I know people have that fear [of potential clients making race-based judgments], but if entrepreneurs spend more time on telling their story, it might not matter” to their clients, and might even inspire them.
After all, she added, “you probably have something in your story that resonates with others, no matter where they’re from.”
We invite our readers to check back for more on this topic, and to engage us via email (email@example.com) or on social media through our Facebook and Twitter accounts. And, if you’re a female entrepreneur of color, please weigh in on the subject by filling out this questionnaire (coordinated with the Public Insight Network).