While the journey of an entrepreneur is incredibly rewarding, it’s not easy. The need for capital is a major challenge all entrepreneurs face. Luckily, resources like Accion Opportunity Fund can come to the rescue.
No one understands Black entrepreneurs’ need to have access to funding more than Sheena Allen, the founder and CEO of CapWay. CapWay is the revolutionary fintech company that’s removing barriers and closing gaps through digital banking and other financial services for millennials and Gen Z. AfroTech spoke with Allen about how crucial funding opportunities like the Accion Opportunity Fund are for Black entrepreneurs.
AfroTech: Becoming the youngest woman in America to own and operate a digital bank is an incredible accomplishment. Considering your non-tech background, what inspired your journey as an entrepreneur in the tech and fintech industries?
Sheena Allen: It’s interesting. I double-majored in film and psychology and minored in marketing, but the truth is I didn’t want to go to college. I was a model student — varsity basketball, student council, a 4.2 GPA. But after I graduated, I just wanted something different. My parents wanted me to go because of my scholarships, and I’m actually a first-generation college student. My senior year of college, I had an idea for an app. But when I couldn’t find what I was looking for, I decided to create it. That was my first step into tech.
I got into fintech because I was traveling a lot between the Bay and Austin. I saw the vast difference in the handling and access to money around people who were more wealthy or in certain areas versus Mississippi, where I am from. That led me to think, “Hey, you know how to build a tech company and how to talk to people in Silicon Valley. You also know what it’s like when you still don’t have a bank account.” Putting those two thoughts together was my first step in fintech.
AfroTech: You bootstrapped your first business, Sheena Allen Apps, and a lot of entrepreneurs feel they can do the same. But how and why is it important for young Black entrepreneurs to take advantage of other funding options (i.e., loans, investments, etc.)?
Allen: It’s like the saying “Get it out the mud” — we don’t have an option but to do it that way. Unfortunately, we’ve had to bootstrap because of the disparities and discrimination for Black people, especially Black entrepreneurs raising money. But people who have access aren’t spending their own money to get their businesses off the ground. They’re using investments and loans.
We’re coming upon a time where we’re seeing more opportunities open up, and there are more resources for Black businesses. I always tell people that there are pros and cons to each. For example, if you get an investment, you give up equity. But, 100% of zero is zero. So if you can, go get that investment and go get that loan.
AfroTech: What funding options and opportunities did you take advantage of, and how did they help scale CapWay?
Allen: CapWay is a venture capital-backed company. We raised outside funding and are focused on institutional funding, angel investors and venture capitalists.
But there are a lot of options now that weren’t available five years ago, and definitely not 10 years ago when I started my very first company. There are angel investors, super angel investors, equity crowdfunding and more. The starting route I recommend is taking advantage of business loans — especially if your business fits the revenue model required.
AfroTech: How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact your business? Were there COVID grants or loans in place that you used as resources? If not, how could something like the relief fund be beneficial?
Allen: We were very fortunate, [even though] we did have to lay off a few employees. The biggest impact that the pandemic had on us wasn’t money itself but fundraising options. We took a look at the market and saw that, right after the peak of COVID and the death of George Floyd, everybody was offering mentorship or grant money. Every corporation in the world was saying, “We’re pledging X amount of dollars.”
As a VC-backed founder, I thought it was selfish for us to take advantage of COVID relief funds because we had millions in the bank. With so many mom-and-pop shops shutting down and having to lay off employees, I focused on letting people know what options were available. Being a fintech company founded by a Black woman, I made sure CapWay was getting the word out about the grants and loan opportunities to other Black-owned businesses.
AfroTech: What were the biggest challenges you faced when growing and scaling your companies? What advice would you offer to entrepreneurs facing similar challenges?
Allen: A challenge that people don’t talk about a lot is finding a great team and having people who help you overcome challenges. When you’re young, hustling and bootstrapping — even VC-backed companies — you have to find the right team. Even if you’re a solopreneur, you need that foundation around when things get hard. Whether it’s a spiritual person, a higher being or someone you can pick up the phone and call, you need to have someone.
Social media is great for business and networking, but it’s also a challenge. My biggest advice is don’t let what people post on social media make or break you. Don’t let social media make you feel like everybody’s doing amazing and you’re failing. You’re not. Others are going through the same challenges.
Finally, the biggest challenge for Black women is funding. We raise less money than everybody — less than 1% of VC dollars. It’s not because our companies aren’t great, not because there aren’t some absolutely bad-ass Black women doing amazing things. They just don’t fund us. You can call it unconscious bias or whatever else, but numbers don’t lie.
This is why opportunities like Accion Opportunity Fund are great for Black entrepreneurs. Accion Opportunity Fund is making a change and helping people who have been overlooked and underinvested.
This editorial is brought to you in partnership with Accion Opportunity Fund.