Over the last few weeks on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, we’ve seen the playful side of Tanya Sam after she coordinated a girls trip to Canada, her home country, in order to celebrate West Indian heritage at the annual Caribana gathering in Toronto. But aside from appearing on the hit Bravo show, Sam is a successful entrepreneur and leader in the tech space, forming TechSquare Labs with her mentor and fiancé, Paul Judge.
“We founded TechSquare Labs about 2013, 2014. We opened our doors and the start-up scene in Atlanta was just sort of starting to become a little more mainstream and we wanted really help facilitate that for early stage entrepreneurs,” Sam said.
“We had a fund on top of that to help increase the pipeline to capital and then as well, the space where we provided a lot of business programming and education for entrepreneurs. And just because we are both people of color, I think that it was really instrumental in driving a lot of people of color into technology and our building and our programs, and we were very intentional about being able to create accelerator programs that were strictly for women and minorities, the biggest one being Ascend Atlanta.”
The Atlanta-based company was Sam’s first foray into business, after she launched a dietary supplement called Limitless Smart Shot in 2012 while working as a full-time bone marrow transplant nurse.
As the Director of Partnerships at TechSquare Labs and Co-lead of Ascend Atlanta, Tanya has helped invest in over 60 companies that have generated over $100 million in revenue. Sam recently launched The Ambition Fund which aims to level the playing field by creating access and mentorship for underserved entrepreneurs.
Femly, created by Arion Long, was the first recipient, which won $25,000 as a cash investment into the sustainable, feminine product line.
Sam recently sat down with MadameNoire to share the lessons she learned in career transitioning, business development and why Black women are the rising population of Black business owners in America.
MadameNoire: Can you talk to us about how you came to explore entrepreneurship as a career path?
Tanya Sam: It was kind of an unlikely path in my own mind. I fast forward eight to nine years, I go, “Oh who would have thought?” I started off originally as a bone marrow transplant nurse. I worked strictly in hematology, oncology, faced paced bone marrow transplant nursing at Sloane Kettering in New York. I started dating my fiancé and I moved to Atlanta. I was doing nursing there and while I was on the floor nursing, I kept having this thought like, “Man how can I be smarter?” and I would go to work with all of these brilliant and talented nurses and doctors and we were drinking coffee to make us smarter and stay awake. So I came up with the idea, like why don’t we have a focus beverage, something that’s a performance booster for your brain. So I leaned back on my science days and I formulated a dietary supplement called Limitless Smart Shot, and it was designed to increase your focus, attention and memories so you can be smarter. It was my first foray into entrepreneurship and it was really the very early days, so I was in the kitchen formulating, I found a manufacturer to help me package and bottle it, then started selling it online direct to consumer, and also in retail in Atlanta. And it was incredibly stressful. I just look back on that time and I was like, wow because I was really just kind of making it up as I went along. And I was also simultaneously, my fiancé was starting his third cybersecurity company so I was learning a lot from being in that environment on how to create my own business. And that’s really what gave me the leap, I had a problem that I was really passionate about solving like how can I be smarter and watching him build another company that turned out to be very successful. It’s not overnight, and this is the thing I tell people. Usually you start with an idea. Most businesses, you know, its you going, “How can I solve this problem for myself and wait, are other people interested in this problem and can I grow this and scale this business?” I think that’s the key to any early stage entrepreneur. And the first step is really understanding your market and do other people want this and will they pay for it.
MN: What were some hard lessons that you learned through trial and error?
TS: Oftentimes people will look and see entrepreneurs that have been super successful and they are living their best life on the fruits of their labor and nobody talks about the grind, that it took seven, eight years before. Because that idea of an overnight sense, “It takes 20 years to build an overnight sensation,” is 100 percent fact. And probably 19 of those there were tears. There’s this expression in entrepreneurship especially in startups where you know someone will ask you, “Hey hows it going?” and depending on the day, my business is either killing it or it’s killing me and you just never know right? I think that’s really the truth of it, it’s really hard but, you know if you’re passionate about something you will just dig through and drive through to get to the end result which is your goal. I would say the best thing, the most important thing when you’re in early stage starting a business is like I said, do your customer discovery. Meaning when you have an idea, it really truly becomes your baby that you’re super passionate about. But you need to do the work to investigate who will actually pay for your product. It’s probably not your mom and your best friend, who are like, “Go girl, you can do it!” You need that, they can be your cheerleaders, but I think back to my days at Limitless Smart Shot and when I built this company I thought, you know I’m going to launch this project to people like myself, smart, overworked, people in the medical industry. I also had this notion that my secondary market would be computer hackers. They stay up all night drinking Mountain Dew, typically those would be the ones who are like, “Oh I like Adderall, and all these unnatural products,” but I was like if I give them these natural products to help them increase their brain, you know, boost their brain performance, they’ll love it. And I just knew I was right. And I didn’t do a lot of the research, so when I launched my project they weren’t really that interested in it. They were like, “I’m already smart , why would I have this?” And I was stuck, I had hundreds of thousands of bottles and a marketing plan that I expended, I had planned for them to just fly off the shelves, and nobody was buying my product because I didn’t do the customer discovery and understand who my market was beforehand. So long story short, I kept pushing through to figure out where I could sell this. I started going door to door to yoga studios and my number one customer was moms. Because moms who were tired, they had pregnancy foggy brain, they had a stronger need to kind of clear through the fog and wanted a dietary supplement to help them increase their focus and attention and memory. Once I figured out that customer segment, my whole product and marketing changed. So I tell entrepreneurs to do that from the beginning.
MN: Were there any mentors that you leaned on as you built your career in the industry of tech and entrepreneurship?
TS: I think personally some of my biggest mentors, like I did say my fiancé as well as when I started to get into the startup world in Atlanta, I started looking for other people who were kind of doing what I was doing which was instrumental in starting TechSquare Labs. But at the time there was a program called Startup Chicks and it was led by a woman, Jen Bonnett. And she was doing more of this, like how do you create education and a support group for women who were building companies. And I think she was the first that I had seen that was a female that was building companies, and I really looked to her for a lot of education, for pulling together a community. She was probably one of the most instrumental and I say that because oftentimes especially with the debate of diversity, and you know, “Are there more Black women in tech and how do I find mentorship?” Sometimes in different industries you just have to find mentors and sponsorship where you can. It takes legwork. If there’s not a lot of people that look like you that are Black females that are working in tech, you have to find just other folks who have done it. If you’re not in a city that has a burgeoning tech ecosystem, it’s on a podcast, where you can learn those messages. And I think for me, I learned a lot of lessons from people who didn’t think just like me. From men who are much more assertive, who really push you to just try stuff, as opposed to, I think my nature is to be like, “Well I need to be prepared, should I go to school for this, how many books should I read before I should actually launch?” So I think you learn a lot from thinking outside the box and surrounding yourself with people who aren’t necessary in your social demographic group.
MN: Because you experienced the value of a healthy mentorship relationship, are you now hoping to impart that on others with the launch of The Ambition Fund?
TS: The Ambition Fund came actually as a direct result of being on The Housewives of Atlanta show because I’ve been working for so long in technology and startups in Atlanta, where we have a fund and all these accelerated programs for people building large-scale, scalable technology companies. But then I went on this program that has this incredible viewership, very diverse and spans across the country and across the globe. And I was getting a tremendous response from female entrepreneurs across all different backgrounds and spectrums that were building these incredible businesses. But not just in tech, they had hair companies, they had consumer product goods, they were building service industries, hospitality industry businesses that were really, really, successful. But they needed more help, they needed more access to capital, funding and education. And that’s where really The Ambition Fund came from. How do we find the next Spanx, how do we find the next Slutty Vegan entrepreneur who’s building businesses outside of the tech industry but that are actually based in technology and help them become more successful? So it’s even a broader net. Oftentimes women will come to me or you know any early stage entrepreneur, and be like, “How did you get into technology?” I really believe future is technology and whatever business you are building today is a tech company tomorrow. Because technology and software is eating into all forms of industry, how we order our clothes, how we book a hotel, how we dress, how we eat. Down to how we read our books, everything. I think, especially for women and people of color, we need to understand that and see that we have a place at the table, we have a place in this future of technology and just realize that we need to drive that and be instrumental in building our futures.
MN: According to the 2018 State of Women Business Report, there were 2.4 million African-American women-owned businesses in 2018, most owned by women 35 to 54. Black women are the only racial or ethnic group with more business ownership than their male peers, according to the Federal Reserve. What are some of the reasons why you believe Black women seem to be excelling over their male counterparts in the areas of business and education?
TS: I mean basically just because we are amazing. We truly are amazing. And I just continue to admire the tenacity of Black women. If you go back historically and you look at how we carried our families through so much adversity and then continue to raise families, be the backbones, be the breadwinners and this is testament. And we’re now starting to see the fruits of our labors. And just in a way that is only going to grow exponentially. So when you look at it from an investor or a venture capitalist standpoint, like absolutely we would want to invest in those businesses. Because venture capital is about making returns and we are remiss if we overlook any of those industries. And this is a super strong market. And one of the things that I feel when I am looking to companies to invest in is you look at the team. You look at the person who will have the will to make this company succeed through all the ups and downs. The “it’s killing it, the I’m killing it” days and I think that it’s just testimony to the strength and determination of Black women to succeed.
MN: What entails the balancing act of serving as the director of a prominent venture fund, while making time for family, friends, and most importantly yourself?
TS: So I think the balance question is super important and I think it just comes down to being able for us as Black women and like you say these support systems, these trees where you know our roots go deep and we sprout out and basically cover everyone. We just have to give ourselves the grace to just take down time when we need it, to recognize when our spirit is low, when we’re juggling too much and allow those leaves to drop because you can’t really hold them up all the time and I think it’s purely allowing yourself the grace to, “Ok, I can’t do it all today, but tomorrow is another day.”
MN: Speaking of balancing act, you are also now a public figure on one of the number one shows on reality TV. Do you ever feel conflicted between what is shown on the show, versus how you show up in your private life?
TS: I think, you know, I was very cognizant of the fact that I’m signing up to be on a reality tv show and you know I kind of think I’m an open book. So I was kind of okay with that and to date I feel like I’ve seen a fair representation of myself and you know I’m goofy, corky, zany, whatever you want to call me. This is only my second season, I might be able to redact that answer. So we’ll see what happens. I will say, I do hope they get to show parts and aspects of our lives in terms of technology and startups and the other work we do. But there are times when I’m you know hesitant to blend them all and to put a camera screen there. But for the most part, what you see is what you get?
MN: Can you tell us more about The Ambition Fund?
TS: We launched The Ambition Fund in early October and it started and kicked off with a pitch competition that was in combination of a music festival and tech conference that we have in Atlanta called A3C, and we put out a call for applicants, for women, minorities and any represented founder, that could include Latinx, LGBTQ community, just folks who traditionally were not privy to the traditional networks, you can read between the lines on that one. This competition was launching as a $25,000 cash investment. We had over 1,500 companies apply from all across the country, many of them in New York, Boston, Atlanta, etc. And we had a selection process where we narrowed it down to five. And I’ll tell you just kind of a little of a hotshot of the companies we picked on stage because we wanted to be diverse. We had a CBD company, so it was consumer product good, we had an organic sustainable feminine product company, we had a tech app that was called Legal Equalizer, its kind of a guardian angel that would connect you with lawyers and your family during any sort of police or immigration intervention. We had Music Book that was a Black musician founder who was helping connect a market place for connecting musicians and students. Like, if you wanted to learn the harp, how would you learn to play the harp right now? And the last one is another founder who was creating–trying to disrupt the production and television/movie industry in terms of job sourcing. So just like such a very interesting wide variety. And we selected those because a lot of them had some revenue or they were idea stage, but we really believe din the market as well. We also look at the founder, not necessarily if have you started a company before, but what was your secret sauce that we saw that would help this be successful and where you were in the entrepreneur journey. We interviewed everyone to understand what as an investor you’re really looking for. To break it down is, are you going to build a successful company? And what is the combination of that that will make this company grow in scale and gain revenue, etc, so that you will actively use this money to build a successful business. So it was an incredible process, that was our first one and then we plan to continue that and take that pitch competition around the company, to Canada as well, so that more people can participate. I encourage people to apply not once not twice, because oftentimes you’ll have a better understanding of perhaps what we’re looking for our your business will be further along, you know raise some amazing sparkler points for us. In addition to that we also plan on helping earlier stage entrepreneurs understand how to build businesses through business academy as well. So some of that stuff is coming up in the pipeline so stay tuned for that.
MN: Is there anything you would like to say to Black women who have an interest in entrepreneurship/owning their own business that might help them make the leap?
TS: I think you really need to take a step back and access your fear. Because I think fear holds us back in ways we don’t know and it talks to us and says, “Oh well maybe wait until later, it’s not perfect, it needs to be this,” and that’s just really your fear of failure. And failure is a natural part of any entrepreneur cycle. You are going to fail. Limitless was not–you know, it was so difficult and it was not necessarily one of my crowning moments but I love to talk about it because people go, well what happened to it. So you just can’t be afraid to fail, you just need to know that you are open to learning lessons from the failure. Making tweaks and being able to drive yourself in the different direction because nobody’s perfect, no business is perfect. Even this iPhone that’s got 11 iterations is constantly evolving. Just do it. Just do it because there is no time better than the present.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.