Editor’s Note: This profile is part of a new series, “Her Perspective,” on the experiences of Black women business owners.
Angela McIver is looking for a way forward.
That applies to her entrepreneurial life in several ways. For starters, she’s trying to figure out how her in-person math club, Trapezium Math, can become a thriving entity that still thrills her young pupils, after having to shift suddenly to an online format in the wake of a global pandemic.
She hopes these changes pay off. The club, which she launched in 2014, served roughly 102 students and pulled in $357,000 in revenue last year. Now it’s impossible for kids to gather to learn and reinforce their math skills.
Her search for a clear path ahead also applies to her deep desire to “work with kids from low-resource, low-income, first-generation” households — a disproportionate number of whom are people of color. “That was my goal when starting my business,” she says.
However, she’s “had to reconcile with the fact that much of the business that I get is not in those spaces” because so many of her clients work at the University of Pennsylvania. “As a Black woman who really wanted to have an impact on these communities,” the gulf between who she set out to help and who she has helped is frustrating.
That rift is even wider now. McIver points out that “the pandemic has pulled back the curtains on the incredible disparities in education opportunities and resources” between families with and without means.
Indeed, the digital divide — something fellow education entrepreneur Lisa Love also spoke with us about — makes it even harder for McIver to reach her target demographic, as low-income families are far less likely to have computers or reliable internet connections.
But reaching them was already a struggle. While she’s happy to work with all children, she admits that “I am not serving the kids I started out to serve.”
In general, children from families of fewer means statistically have a harder time getting the rigorous math curriculum they need and McIver provides — a “content inequality,” as researchers called it, that’s “contributing to performance gaps between privileged and underprivileged students” throughout the world, especially in the United States.
Now, in a bid to “go after large-scale donations and provide … [both] technology-free and online resources to low-income families,” she is forming a 501c3. She is hoping this adjustment helps her bottom line, as well as her outreach efforts. Last year, between March and July, Trapezium Math made $168,000 in revenue — this year, in the same time period, it made $19,736. She was even forced to close the club’s brick-and-mortar space last month.
Shifting to an online model comes with challenges beyond connectivity, too. Pre-pandemic, “If you came to the space, the kids are on the floor,” McIver says. “There are no worksheets, no tables or chairs. They move around, and that’s part of learning. It’s very tactile. And it’s really difficult to replicate that in an online format.”
Plus, she adds, “kids are already decompressed — they’ve been laying around” at home, eliminating the need to burn off steam in an active learning environment.
So McIver is going to start shipping boxes of physical materials to accompany online lessons. In the meantime, she’s selling sets of brainteasers for different age groups through Trapezium’s Dinner Table Math offshoot — and giving parents who buy them the option of donating additional sets to families in need.
All of this, she hopes, will address the racial imbalance she feels her company struggles with. The aim of her plans is to, “in the area of math, find a path that provides some equity.”
As a child, McIver was never encouraged to go down that math path. She often wonders, “Why wasn’t I encouraged as a child to pursue math?”
After all, she notes, “I was clearly good at it, and loved the problem-solving nature of it.” When we interviewed her last year, she recounted that, as an 8-year-old child, she wondered about things like: “If every telephone number had seven digits, how many telephone numbers could there be?”
“And I just started trying to come up with a system for figuring out how many telephone numbers there could be,” she says. “But,” she adds now, “never did a teacher encourage me to consider math-related fields.”
The breakdown in the STEM pipeline — the pathway to careers in science, tech, engineering and math — starts early for women. Research shows that a lack of female role models, gender stereotyping by adults about girls’ abilities in areas like math, harsher grading at young ages and more can discourage girls from pursuing careers in these fields when they grow up. Children of color grapple with similar issues. The result is a STEM workforce that’s only 28 percent women and 9 percent Black.
[Related: The Story Exchange on STEM Entrepreneurship]
McIver ultimately earned her PhD in education, but she didn’t give up on her math dream — she ended up with a concentration in the field. Now she wants to give other children, including her own, a fairer shot. “I started my math club for my children, and anybody else who wanted it,” she says.
Adding another layer of difficulty to her startup journey is the fact that “I ended up needing to always prove myself, because [my credibility] is just not taken at face value” as a Black woman. She adds, “If I were a white male when this opened, I could’ve had a GED and it wouldn’t matter.” For Black women, though, “there are machinations you have to go through, to present yourself in a way that’s acceptable — in a way they’ll find credible.”
Scores of other Black women have reported feeling pressured to reinforce their qualifications or behave in specific ways to get ahead. Code-switching — adjusting one’s speech, dress or other mannerisms in predominantly white workplaces to better fit in or improve chances of advancement — is taxing for people of color and can impact their mental health. “It can be exhausting, but I don’t know any other way,” McIver says.
McIver recalls two instances when it was “very clear” that parents were unaware she was Black until meeting her in person, after having enrolled their children. They “quickly withdrew for some reason — that I can only say was because of race,” she says. Others, meanwhile, have become more aloof when they meet with McIver face to face, she adds.
Clearing the Path
Regardless of how parents behave, McIver is dedicated to helping their kids.
The path to doing so is now far bumpier than she anticipated, in particular for kids in poverty. But she’s hopeful that this moment of national reckoning with America’s racist policies will spark change for families hit hardest by the inequities of the current system.
The current movement “is different than anything I’ve experienced in my lifetime around people willing to have those difficult conversations about race, and recognizing” such problems exist in the first place, she says.
She sees it as a good starting point. “People are recognizing that Black Americans and other people of color exist differently in this world because of the color of their skin,” she says. “It’s surprising but comforting to know that people are finally waking up to reality — and are willing to dismantle it.”
More in the “Her Perspective” series
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Katrina Thompkins opened her e-commerce store, K’dara CBD, just as the coronavirus crisis was starting to take hold in the U.S.