143 : Strategic Networks (w/ Melanie Akwule)

Zach speaks with the founder and CEO of MINWO, Melanie Akwule, about effectively supporting women, specifically black and brown women, in the workplace. Melanie shares her experience as a black woman in corporate America and talks about MINWO’s origin and its vision. She also offers up three points of advice for women of color who are looking to get into entrepreneurship and a whole lot more.

Check out MINWO and connect with them on social media! LinkedInTwitterIGFacebook

Visit Melanie’s personal page and network with her on LinkedIn!


Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and yes, you’re listening to a what? Not a C-Side, not a D-Side, but a B-Side. Now listen, it’s 2019, so some of y’all don’t even know, like, the reference of a B-Side, but, like, there was a point in time where, like, you know, musical content was on tapes and records, right? And you would, like–you know, you would flip it over. You would flip the record over, and that would be, like, the B-Side, right? And so the B-Sides were, like, the songs that weren’t, like, the chart toppers, but they were still good songs, right? So, you know, that’s really what we’re trying to do here with B-Sides. But see, the thing about Living Corporate B-Sides is the B-Sides’ll be hits too. It’s kind of like when you think about Beyonce, right? Like, when you think about, like, a B-Side from Beyonce, like, it’s still a hit, you know what I’m saying? Like, that’s what we’re trying to do with Living Corporate, you know what I’m saying? I’m not saying we’re Beyonce. I’m just saying we’re making hits doe. [“ow” sfx] That’s all. Now, look, we’ve introduced, you know, plenty of guests, movers and shakers, business people, and, you know, today’s no different. We have a great guest, Melanie Akwule.

Melanie: Hello, hello.

Zach: What’s up? CEO and founder of MINWO, LLC, a company focused on building black wealth and black business. Melanie describes herself as living at the intersections of business and technology, black and female, African and American, introvert and extrovert, leading and supporting, and the trees and the forest, with a background in data science, product management, business administration, and diversity and inclusion. Come on, now. [kids applause sfx] So impressive. Melanie, welcome to the show. How are you doing?

Melanie: I’m good. I’m great. What a time to be alive. Just living each day.

Zach: No, I 100% agree. [straight up sfx]

Melanie: Thanks so much for having me.

Zach: No, thank you for being here. Now, look, I know I did a little bit of a short intro, but would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?

Melanie: Yeah. When you say it all like that I kind of sound like somebody, don’t I? [laughs]

Zach: [jokingly] Just a little bit though.

Melanie: [laughs] Where do I start? Well, first off, I just finished up my MBA, so I am a free woman. You could not pay me to go back to class. [air horn sfx] Thank you. Yeah, I just finished my MBA from Berkeley Haas, so I’m still living out here in the Oakland area. Born and raised in Burke, Virginia. Wanted to shout out the 703 right quick. Like I mentioned, or like you mentioned, Nigerian-American, and really just out here trying to leave a legacy through my company.

Zach: I love it, I love it. You know, there’s so much there. We gotta talk about MINWO, right? Like, let’s talk about the organization. Let’s talk about the origin. Let’s talk about the vision.

Melanie: Yeah. So MINWO was something that was kind of birthed out of a necessity. I was one of those people that did not want to start a business. It was kind of like how in Atlanta every rapper has a mixtape. Well, in the Bay Area it’s like everyone’s an entrepreneur, everyone’s a founder, so I was like, “No, that’s not gonna be me,” but, you know, life takes you in directions that you don’t really–you can’t really plan for. So in 2015 the George Zimmerman verdict came out, and I was livid, as was most of our community, and it really just pushed me to do something, and for me it’s–I’ve always been about economic development, economic empowerment within our community, and I feel like it’s the–it’s really the way that we’ll be able to make the changes that we want to see in this country, because you can’t play in the political game if you don’t have financial backing. So that’s really how it came about.

Zach: Those are facts.

Melanie: Yeah. That’s really how it came about.

Zach: So you’re absolutely right, and I think–you know, when I look at MINWO and I think about, like, just the importance of community, right? When you talk about, like, black and brown economic empowerment, that doesn’t happen on an island, and it never has. Like, no group has ever built any type of economic power base or political structure on their own, right? So, you know, we’re talking about effectively supporting women, specifically black women, in the workplace, and we’ve talked about that a few times, and really, you know, we really can’t talk about it enough. You know, what has been your experience as a black woman in corporate America?

Melanie: You know, it’s a unicorn kind of situation sometimes, right? Like, sometimes you look around and you’re like, “Man, I’m blessed to be the only person in this room from my community, like, to represent and to show them just how bad— we can be, but also on the flip side it can be extremely stressful. I was working for a Fortune 10 company, one of the largest in the world, and it was just amazing to me how I can go so many places and still be the only black woman in the room. And so it really just–it drove me to want to 1. build community that much more, so I was a part of their African-American ERG at work, even led it for a little bit, but then also 2. making sure that the knowledge that I’m getting in those rooms, so at work and then also at B school, taking that knowledge and bringing it back to my community, ’cause if I’m the only person in that room, that means there are many, many others that’s not getting that same type of wealth of knowledge. And so I took it upon me to make sure that I was doing my best to kind of package that information up and bring it back to my community.

Zach: That’s super dope. And, you know, it’s interesting because, you know, experiences, our experiences, they shape the things that we eventually do, right? So how have your experiences in corporate America shaped the culture that you’re trying to build within MINWO?

Melanie: Yeah. So for me, my thing with corporate America is I would go into the office and I didn’t know whether I was battling the fact that I was black, the fact that I was female, or the fact that I was young and in a leadership position, and so it was constantly like, “I’m not sure which weapon I need to use today,” and who I was trying to fight today, and so in building MINWO I’m really just focusing on–you know, all of the superficial stuff does not matter, right? Like, who are the people that are working with me? Who are the people that I’m working with? And how can we work most optimally together? And so I very much designed the company to not necessarily worry about working hours or not necessarily worry about how people work. As long as they’re getting their stuff done, as long as they’re, you know, working as a team, that’s really all that matters to me, and then also just being able to pour into them as a mentor, as someone that barely knows what she’s doing, but, you know, again, sharing the few gems that I do have, that’s also been important to me, just realizing that we can all win. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a zero-sum kind of game.

Zach: [cha-ching sfx] No, you’re absolutely right. [both laugh] You know, so you talked about mentorship. Can you talk a little bit about, you know–like, let’s say you had three points. Like, what would your three points of advice be for women of color who are looking to get into entrepreneurship?

Melanie: Ooh, that’s–just three? [laughs] It’s hard because the community that I work with is primarily black women, and just to see the way that we have so much–we give so much to others and we are very afraid of giving to ourselves. So I think the first point would be making sure that you don’t forget to prioritize yourself, right? So, like, even as a business owner, your job is to, you know, work with your clients, work with your customers, making sure that you’re providing a product or service for them that makes them happy, but also you need to take care of your own business, right? So do you have your business processes lined up? Do you have your business strategy outlined? Do you have all of the fundamental things that you need to be able to grow your business? So that’s definitely number one. Number two is don’t be afraid to support your fellow sister. I’m all about the retweeting and the sharing and the, you know, posting on my stories of everybody and anybody’s business that I know about, because it doesn’t take any food off of my plate, right? Like, just being able to support and promote the people that I know that are out here hustling as well. It’s amazing to me how many people talk about supporting and how the community needs to support more, but they don’t press that Share button or they don’t press that Like button or they–you know? And so it’s just, you know, work on building up that habit of sharing and leaving reviews and all that kind of stuff, ’cause those are the ways that you can support black-owned businesses for free. And then I think last is don’t be afraid to ask for help. I think that is one of the things that, you know, for me especially, I had to learn to ask for help, right? So even–and that’s as small or as big as building a team. If you have people that can support you in building your business, then you’re able to run faster, then you’re able to do more, but if you cannot even bring yourself to say, “Okay, I need help,” and figure out the areas that you need help with and then be able to close your eyes and let go of it and let them actually help you, you just create a lot of stress and strain for yourself. And so I think those would be my three points.

Zach: [Flex bomb sfx] Just a small Flex bomb. Nothing too crazy, you know what I’m saying? Just a little bit of something, you know what I’m saying? Just a little 10-piece for ’em, you know what I’m saying? Anyway, I definitely agree, [laughs] and I–you’re spot on, especially when you talked about, like, just sharing, retweeting, you know what I’m saying, giving 5 stars. What’s up? What’s up, listeners?

Melanie: Nudge nudge. [laughs]

Zach: Nudge nudge, you know what I’m saying? Y’all see me. You hear me. If you’re listening to this right now, you know you have to be giving me 5 stars. Okay. All right, back to this.

Melanie: [laughs] And then [you come back?] Come back every time. [laughs]

Zach: Right, right. Download numbers going up. 5 stars staying the same. What’s going on? Come on. We’ve got a disconnect. [laughs] Nah, but you’re absolutely right, and I just love the advice. So, you know, what I like about MINWO is the fact that y’all are building a true community of black and brown women entrepreneurs, right? And this type of thing requires trust, and so what strategies have you implemented to build and maintain that? ‘Cause you talked about asking for help and supporting one another and kind of having your stuff in order. I mean, again, it takes a certain level of vulnerability. So what does it look like to create and maintain that?

Melanie: Yeah, that’s been a lot of what we’ve been learning over the last year. So the community you’re referring to is Rialto. It’s basically a platform for not only black business owners but black professional service providers to work together, connect, so that we’re–you know, they’re building each other’s businesses essentially, and what I’ve found just in the last year of, you know, having a Slack team of these business owners is that it requires a lot of listening. Even though, you know, I know the things that I’ve learned in school and I’m like, “Hey, these are topics or things that you should know for your business,” you can’t necessarily start with, like, throwing scripture at them, right? You have to understand where they are, and you have to understand the walk that they’ve walked so far and meet them where they are, and for me that’s been the most rewarding part. And what’s also helped with that is that now what we do are monthly challenges. So this last month we just did a lean business model canvas challenge where everyone in the community worked together to work on their own individual lean business model canvasses, and then we had monthly meet-ups, which were virtual–which is a chance for anyone that wants to join, to get together, talk through, you know, their high points, their low points, what it was like for them to go through that experience, and then we also have a last little session where it’s an open brainstorming session. So as a business owner, you don’t often know too many other business owners, so to have that community of people that are living the same life that you are, that are making the same sacrifices that you are to bring about a vision, I think that’s the part where you really start to build that trust in that community. It’s from knowing that “Okay, they’re not just talking for talking’s sake,” right? Like, “They’re actually going through it too.”

Zach: No, that’s real. And, you know, you’re right. You can know everything in the world, but if people don’t trust you, they don’t really believe, you know, that you’re really listening to them, they’re just–it’s gonna go in one ear and out the other. So look, where can folks learn more about MINWO?

Melanie: Yeah. So we have a company website, minwo.co. That’s M-I-N-W-O dot co, and that’s where you can learn more about Rialto, the community that I mentioned, and then also Financial Formation, which is the personal finance consulting that I also do. Or you can go to my personal website, melanuschi.com, and that’s where you can find more about personal finance consulting, business consulting, and anything else that you’re interested in that’s related to black wealth or black business.

Zach: [coin sfx] And there it is, you know what I’m saying? [both laugh]

Melanie: I’m loving these. [laughs]

Zach: I’m saying, right? I’m trying to tell you. It’s like Living Corporate–so you remember that Salt Bae meme? But we’re, like, sprinkling, like, sound effects on the jaunt, you know what I’m saying? Like, we’re really out here, you know? It’s really fun. [both laugh] This has been a really great discussion, and I want to thank you for coming on the show. Before we go though, do you have any shout-outs? Anybody you’re working with? Any other projects you want to mention?

Melanie: Yeah. No, I really just want to shout-out the ladies that I’ve been working with on MINWO and Rialto for the last–I have business owners that are with me from literally Day 1, before we had a website, before we had any kind of anything. So Sydney [?] with Part and Parcel, Alexis Coates from LOTUS Creations, Teddy Renee [?] from TeddyRenee.com [?]. Those ladies have really supported me literally from Day 1, and so I just want to shout them out and say thank you.

Zach: Man, I know they’re thanking you too. [both laugh] We appreciate you again, and yeah, look, y’all, that does it for us. Thank you for joining us on the Living Corporate podcast. Make sure you follow us on Instagram @LivingCorporate, Twitter @LivingCorp_Pod, and subscribe to our newsletter through living-corporate.com. Living DASH corporate dot com, you know what I’m saying? Or livingcorporate.co, livingcorporate.tv, livingcorporate.org, livingcorporate.net. You know what I’m saying? We’re out here, okay? We just don’t have, you know, livingcorporate.com ’cause Australia got the domain, you know? We’ve got all the domains. Australia has the main livingcorporate.com domain looking at us like [haha sfx], and I’m just like–I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do at this point, but, you know, one day, mark my words–y’all, join me in prayer. We’re gonna be big enough. The brand will be brolic enough one day to get that domain. Okay, if you have a question you’d like for us to answer and read on the show, make sure you email us at livingcorporatepodcast@gmail.com, and that does it for us on the show. You’ve been listening to Melanie Akwule, founder of MINWO. Peace.

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