When Ayanna Carrington noticed the law firm she worked for wasn’t providing young Black attorneys with the tools to be successful, she wondered how she could bridge that gap. She realized her tried and tested organizational systems could bring the needed technical support to attorneys wanting to grow their practices. Inspired to help professionals in a variety of industries, Carrington started Your Project Board, a consulting firm that offers project management, virtual assistance and marketing services to growing businesses.
As businesses shifted to work-from-home models in response to COVID-19, the demand for Your Project Board’s services skyrocketed. Suddenly, Carrington was struggling to find funding to support this rapid expansion. AfroTech spoke with Carrington to discuss how Accion Opportunity Fund opened doors for Your Project Board and many more Black entrepreneurs.
Your background is in case management in a law firm setting. How did you notice you could be a support to smaller businesses that hadn’t created infrastructure?
Ayanna Carrington: The law firm I was working at brought in a young Black woman attorney — who, funny enough, is my client to this day — and I saw how the infrastructure to support her was nonexistent. Without the right support and tangible, technical skills needed to grow, a person in that situation could only do so much.
I saw how my skills could help fill the gap for her, and when I left to start Your Project Board, I sought clients who looked like her. [This] led me to my first client, who was also a Black woman attorney. Once I worked with [her], I realized how many more people were out there for me to help.
Corporate usually doesn’t hold a lot of space for innovation or creativity. What previous experiences helped give you the skills to execute this vision of starting a business?
Carrington: Most of my experience comes from being really good at one thing and [then] people asking me to do another thing. For example, when I was working with our first client, she needed help managing social media. I happened to be taking a course that included a section on social media, so I started to apply what I learned to help her business. New clients would see what I could do with social media and ask if I could help with other types of marketing.
Literally, that’s my whole life. I’ve been promoted to things you need certificates for — that’s how I ended up becoming a paralegal when I was first an assistant. [I’m] constantly trying new things when people give me an opportunity and see the potential because they love my work.
What were some of the challenges you faced when you first started Your Project Board?
Carrington: To be 100% honest, I wasn’t prepared to run a business. My background is in legal, so I know how to set up a business with the Secretary of State, get an EIN. And I’m a millennial, so I know how to use social media to market myself. But the stuff that’s hard, I wasn’t prepared for.People get online and make you believe being an entrepreneur is exciting and a lot of fun, and you think to yourself, “Yes, I want to do that.” But you don’t hear the stories of people who slept in their office and took showers in a public bathroom in the gym. I wasn’t mentally prepared for that hard part. When you’re not mentally prepared, you fail a lot. I remember texting someone one day that I was so stressed out that I couldn’t cry.
I wasn’t prepared for how I was pricing. I worked at a job that provided a salary, PTO and [an] IRA, so I underpriced my services. And guess what? People don’t tell you when you’re underpricing. I didn’t set up boundaries about what hours people could contact me. I didn’t have the discipline to get up and work from a certain time to a certain time. Those things seem very small, but they can make or break you. Because of that, money was always low, and I had no idea there were funding opportunities through organizations like Accion Opportunity Fund.
Accion Opportunity Fund is on a mission to create funding opportunities for Black-owned small businesses by offering customized loans and repayment terms, expert coaching and online resources. It provides the tools for small business owners to reach their goals and scale sustainably, while reinvesting paid loans back into the community.
When did you find yourself at the point where you could finally start hiring support and having employees to help you expand the business?
Carrington: I would meet great people through clients, and when they were ready to move on to something new, I would ask them if they wanted an opportunity. My pitch is that I know people don’t want to stay an assistant, so work with me for that transition while you take that next step. Funny enough, my first assistant [at Your Project Board] went on to be an attorney.
That says a lot about your company culture, being so supportive of your employees’ growth. What is the impact of your work on your clients? How does improved project management and virtual assistance support a business?
Carrington: I always tell my clients they should not want to stay with me because we’re an external company. What I want to see is their businesses grow so big that people work full time for them. I believe in the work of my clients and want to see the world benefit from what they do. With my first client, for example, because of how her business has been able to grow with our services, I’ve seen her increase prices and [have seen] the change in her clientele.
Helping clients organize an email account or project manage can free their mind so they can focus on creating a bigger impact — whether that’s doing a campaign for 100 Black businesses or creating an estate plan for a family with small children. Even if we are just sending one email for our client, it has a ripple effect on our community.
How did the pandemic impact Your Project Board?
Carrington: It benefitted us because we were virtual. We are a cost, but we weren’t a large cost. People came to us frantically asking about how to make their team virtual, and we would tell them, “Just have your team take their laptops home, and let us know if you need any further technical support with project management.” Then we were being asked how to hire virtual people and network. Businesses were used to meeting in person to talk about ideas, but now it was time to network through platforms like Zoom and Instagram. Our knowledge of the virtual space allowed us to join unique projects to support businesses during this transition, which connected us to more clients.
When did you realize you would need more capital to scale your business?
Carrington: I didn’t know what I was doing with pricing. I knew I would need more capital and was only pulling on my own capital, like my IRA, to bootstrap Your Project Board. Right before the pandemic, I applied for and got one of those small loans you can get from PayPal. I tell my clients who will listen to build relationships with vendors, especially if you use PayPal or Stripe or Square to process payments. As a customer who processes thousands of dollars through these platforms, take advantage of their lending opportunities.
What kinds of funding opportunities were available to you when you were seeking capital?
Carrington: It felt like not much. Then, during the pandemic, Facebook was accepting applications for the Facebook Small Business Grants Program for Black-Owned Businesses. Because I was a social media consultant, it was an opportunity to get both grant money and free advertising. I got $2,500, and that allowed me to start hiring contractors from different countries. But it motivated me to start looking for even more funding opportunities.
When did you come across Accion Opportunity Fund?
Carrington: I couldn’t even tell you, but I know I saw it, screenshot it and applied. Anytime I see an opportunity for funding, I screenshot it and I’ll send it to my clients. But I remember first applying near the end of  when I was looking for funding to trademark our business name.
How has funding allowed your business to grow?
Carrington: When you have more money, you have more space to take advantage of potential opportunities. We have expanded our team into other countries and now have had people on our team who work in Jamaica, Kenya and Nigeria. Expansion means I can offer opportunities to people who are a little more advanced in their skill set. Even though I can create social media content, now that I have a graphic designer with four years of experience on the team, our services come with a higher level of expertise. With funding from Accion Opportunity Fund, I feel I’m more able to hire and retain the best help I can get, which means I can go after clients who can afford our services.
When companies providing business-to-business services can access opportunities for funding, there’s a powerful ripple effect of impact on each and every business they serve. Accion Opportunity Fund is opening the door for Your Project Board and each of its clients who benefit from the innovative mission to prepare small businesses for the future of project management, marketing and expansion.
This editorial is brought to you in partnership with Accion Opportunity Fund.