As more minorities decide to venture into technology entrepreneurship, an increasing need arises for accelerator programs—mentorship, education, and community building support for small businesses. To keep African-Americans in the race, Sheffie Robinson, the President of Touco Direct, started Bantunium Labs, a program aiming to stimulate economic growth and close the minority startup gap.
“A large problem we have in the Black American community is the lack of knowledge, says Robinson. We tend to have a mindset that, no one helped me succeed so you have to struggle for it too. That’s the exact opposite mentality we should have. The moment I learned how to navigate in the startup community, that’s the moment I knew Bantunium Labs had to become something. I am solving the lack of mentorship and knowledge issue we have for small businesses in the Black community. No amount of marching and rioting is going to fix our communities but our businesses can and will.”
Before Robinson started her own company, she worked full-time while attending school. She became involved with the 3DS Startup Program, a boot camp weekend for starting a business at Georgia Southern. “From there, I was determined to be 100% an entrepreneur and that dream became a reality in 2015, says Robinson. After I completed 3DS in 2014, I was inspired for the next step but I found out shortly after that I was expecting a baby and things went on hold for a bit. Once my son was born, the itch was still there but I had agreed to be a stay at home mom. The Aha moment finally came when I found out about virtual assistance firms. From there, I took a stab at Elance and the rest is history.”
Here, Robinson discusses her entrepreneurial journey, why entrepreneurs should join an accelerator program and plans to launch a global economic forum in Atlanta.
Everyone has a “secret sauce” that has defined his or her success. What are the top three ingredients that have enabled you to succeed?
I would say, ambition, service, and realism. I’m hungry enough to go after success but I’m bound to be helpful to those I serve in the process. It’s important to me that people grow from their interaction with me. Being realistic is just necessary. Too many people live in little boxes of untruths and take that for face value. Nope, not me, I’m that friend who will tell you that dress makes you look fat and help you pick out a new one.
Also, keeping it 100. Anyone on my team will tell you, I am unapologetic about my beliefs and values. I have no problem calling out issues as I see them as well as finding solutions. I’m not the one that just complains. I’m a fixer so in the midst of me calling it like I see it, I also provide insight on improvement. I believe that we have to take the time and effort to improve ourselves and to give back once we do that. Each one teach one.
What are your top 3 accomplishments?
- My top accomplishment is my son. I swear he’s the best thing I’ve ever done.I never thought I would have a child. My pregnancy was riddled with issues but I gave birth to the sweetest, smartest kid I’ve encountered in my life.
- Secondly, I created a video game called Second Life. The company started as a real estate mogul in the virtual game and ventured into a financial services firm. The firm made a profit of about $52,000 in the first year, which was over $15,000,000 in the game currency. I did interviews with the LA Times and ABC News back then about the game and loved every minute of it. I was the first female to list my company on the virtual stock exchange and one of the first 5 companies ever in the history of the game to list. The company still exists under the name Dover Business Exchange and is virtually traded on a site called Capital Exchange.
- Lastly, spreading the word about Bantunium Labs has been a challenge. But having people from around the world reach out to me is a great feeling. I never knew things would take off like they have. We haven’t had the first round of pitch sessions yet. I created the plan and people believed in it. You know you have a good idea, but you never know it’s actually going to take off so when it does, it’s an awesome feeling.
Since starting your business what has been your greatest challenge?
Finding a team that believes as strongly in the economic growth of Black Americans as I do has been a challenge. Many people are militant in their beliefs and don’t think any problems exist at all so there was the issue of finding that happy medium. I overcame that challenge by carefully selecting people that had backgrounds in running businesses and a passion for the growth of Black community. It was a long and hard process but I would rather take a year to get 1 good person than spend that year with immense churn.
Can you share a few reasons why someone should join your accelerator program?
- “For Us By Us, Each One Teach One.” That’s the most important part. For each company that comes through our program, that company spends some time helping someone else through.
- Learn how to be self-sufficient. Often times, we think we need huge cash infusions to grow and end up selling our dreams for it. I can teach just about any business how to be self-funded and make your own rules.
- Community and networking. This isn’t just about growing startups. This is about growing a network, a family. I want to start a company and be able to look back 10 years from now and say, I remember your pitch day. It’s going to be awesome to create that lineage of businesses.
- You can’t afford not to. Sure there are larger accelerators offering money and everything under the sky but do they really have your best interest at heart or are they inserting people on your board with an equity share in their pocket? Think about that.
- Because you can. We aren’t limited to tech companies or medical companies. You can be a rib shack in the hood or an inventor for medical research. Our doors are open to everyone.
What upcoming events or initiatives are you working on?
October 22, is our first quarterly pitch session. September 2017, we will launch the Afro Economic Forum in Atlanta, GA. This forum is a platform to discuss economic development in the Black American communities. We hope to expand these forums worldwide. We are also looking to break ground on our own complex Q4 2017 so, yeah, we have lots coming down the pike.