For countless years, Black women have had to justify their need for support and respect in seemingly every area of their lives, including their business endeavors. 

According to recent reports, while women of color opened more businesses in 2019 than any other demographic, they are still historically underfunded — receiving less than one percent of venture capital funding. 

Recognizing the severity and far-reaching consequences of this disadvantage early on, the city of Memphis set out to level the economic landscape through several key initiatives, including, Epicenter: a non profit organization supporting entrepreneurs and creators in the greater Memphis area.

With support, equitable access to networks, capital and more, this organization is helping Black women succeed and thrive in the city of Memphis in exceptional ways. 

And they’re already beginning to see the fruits of their labor; according to the Epicenter 2019 Impact report, Venture Capital Investment Distribution from 2015-2018 shows that the city of Memphis provided 12 percent venture capital funding to minority women (compared to the national average of less than one percent.) While encouraging, Epicenter knows there is still much work to be done to ensure these numbers reflect the population demographics, and is bullishly dedicated to reaching this milestone.

Erica Plybeah and Trinette Johnson-Williams are both alums of Epicenter programs, and phenomenal examples of how the Memphis entrepreneurial ecosystem is built to propel Black women business owners forward.

Plybeah is the owner of MedHaul, which is a B2B platform that makes it easier for healthcare providers to find and book safe, skilled transportation for the most vulnerable patients. 

Johnson-Williams is the owner of woodwork and project management company, TJ Builds, LLC. She designs and builds custom woodwork and offers residential/commercial construction management and project liaison services.

Both women spoke to AfroTech about their personal experiences as entrepreneurs in Memphis and how Epicenter’s programs have helped their businesses grow.

This interview has been condensed, rearranged and edited for clarity. 

AfroTech: Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

Plybeah: Before MedHaul, I spent 7 years in clinical and research informatics, leading tech teams at some of the biggest names in healthcare like Epic Systems, $70 billion electronic medical record company, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Google Ventures-backed Flatiron Health.

So with this experience, I became increasingly frustrated and surprised that I couldn’t find an easy way to find transportation for my grandmother, who was a Type-2 diabetic, double leg amputee. None of my grandmother’s doctors could find a way either. I spoke with several healthcare organizations and, they too, were all using a very paper and phone driven process to manage non-emergency medical transportation. The idea for MedHaul was born. 

Johnson-Williams: I’ve always loved building things and being around all things related to construction. While working on my master’s degree, I found it difficult to get a job in the construction management field. So, I decided to start this business, because I knew I could do it.

AfroTech: Which of the Epicenter programs were you a part of to help with your business?

Plybeah: Epicenter + Memphis Medical District Operation Opportunity Challenge, Epicenter FedEx Logistics Innovation Accelerator and Epicenter Friends and Family Grant 

Johnson-Williams: CO.STARTERS

AfroTech: What did you gain from the program?

Plybeah: Funding: The first program that I participated in with Epicenter was actually a contest, and winning allowed me to get my first non-dilutive

$20,000 toward MedHaul. I was in disbelief, because I honestly never thought as a Black Founder that I would get $20,000 for an idea stage company (Even though this happens regularly for White founders). Not only that, winning the Opportunity Challenge also served as early customer validation, because the judges were leaders and decision makers from various health institutions in Memphis, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. 

Relationships: Being a part of the Logistics Innovation Accelerator gave me access to a ton of people to build relationships with early on. The Epicenter network expands across various spectrums in Memphis, the state, and across the country. What I appreciate most, is there is no hesitation to connect me to anyone in their network or invite me to a space that I would typically not have an invitation to. 

Early knowledge: Even though I had previously worked for a Google-venture backed startup, I didn’t know how to start a startup. Both the accelerator and the Opportunity Challenge provided education of how to start building a company. All of which gave me a great foundation to start the company and attract investors like Morgan Stanley.

Safety net: Building a company is hard, and building one while Black is even harder. Epicenter gives me room to be me. Regardless of what I need or what I’m experiencing, I always know that the team at Epicenter will have my back. Epicenter is like home, a place where I can always go back to, and is always there with open arms. 

Working with Epicenter these past 3 years has given me the chance to feel like a “normal” entrepreneur.  Black entrepreneurs aren’t typically given the space to be normal. Black entrepreneurs are expected to have above average results, with below average resources. We get no room for error. But with Epicenter, I don’t have to be perfect, I can just be an entrepreneur. They give me the space and the opportunity to fail at something, learn, and try again; yet, they still support me. 

Johnson-Williams: I learned how to talk to people about my business which was difficult at first. Before the program, I would only talk about what I did if asked directly. I found that CO.STARTERS took me out of my comfort zone and made me better at engaging an audience.

Photo Credit: Erica Plybeah/Epicenter

AfroTech: Why has Memphis been the ideal city to start, grow or expand your business?

Plybeah: Capital, support, and cost of living. 

There is no way I could have built this company anywhere other than Memphis. The constant, and consistent, support that I’ve received here has been unparalleled. I have founder friends across the country (San Francisco, New York, Houston, Atlanta, Boston). I see what they experience and have learned that the collective support in Memphis is unmatched. 

Big fish, small pond. Less competition means that entrepreneurs have more time and opportunity to engage and collaborate with ecosystem builders and support organizations.

It is very inexpensive to live in Memphis compared to San Francisco, New York, Boston or even Atlanta. The cost of living in Memphis in comparison to Atlanta is at least 30 percent less.

Memphis is intimate enough so that it isn’t oversaturated, and big enough to provide all of the business and personal necessities. Memphis also serves a major hub to several key industries (healthcare, logistics, manufacturing, academia) which provides easy access to industry experts.

Johnson-Williams: With a majority black population and relatively low cost of living, I’ve found it easier to start my business here. 

Photo Credit: Trinette Johnson-Williams/Epicenter

AfroTech: Why do you think it’s important for organizations like Epicenter, to invest in Black women entrepreneurs? 

Plybeah: We already know that Black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs, but also the least funded. It’s extremely important for every organization to invest in Black women entrepreneurs, but especially important for Memphis because of our demographic. Black people make up over ~65 percent of the population. Of this ~65 percent, there are 40,000 black-owned firms, with around 800 of these businesses employing more than just the owner.

It’s evident that we can’t afford the early resources and employees that are critical to keeping the business alive. Black women are also much less likely to have an early friends and family infusion of cash, because we are often the ones in our families that help out the family.

It’s important that Epicenter continue to invest in Black women entrepreneurs, because our businesses keep our communities and the entire city moving forward. 

Johnson-Williams: Black women will help the city grow. 

AfroTech: Tell me about any hardships or obstacles you had to overcome to receive funding for your business?

Plybeah: In short, even with having two co-lead investors (one of which includes Morgan Stanley), over half my round raised, and revenue fundraising outside of Memphis has been an extensive and brutal journey. Like many Black founders, I was operating the company and fundraising at the same time, because there’s no such thing as raising a seed or even pre-seed with no traction for us. This balancing act is very difficult and exhaustive because both are full time jobs, but both were necessary. We can’t get major traction because we don’t have the capital to do so, and we can’t get the capital because we don’t have the major traction. I almost burned completely out many times. 

Overall during my journey the primary themes of the obstacles have been: 

— My company metrics are usually criticized as they are typically compared to companies that at much later stages or have raised 5x plus what I’ve raised. 

— I regularly have to go under the “quadruple due diligence”,  which is typically bestowed upon Black founders, and often for much smaller checks. Investors don’t realize that we talk to your white portfolio companies and know that they didn’t go through these extra layers of diligence!

— All of the exploitative/predatory programs, showcases, “demo days” etc. “created for” Black and Brown founders but actually wastes thousands of founders’ time who give their blood sweat and tears at a chance to compete for ONE $10,000 check or even worse, no money at all. 

— The dreaded offer of mentorship. Black founders are ridiculously over mentored and under-sponsored/under-funded. 

I appreciate the obstacles I’ve faced during my fundraising journey because now with much trial and error, the hardships taught me how to run a more efficient fundraise process and know which investment opportunities to give my time to. Most importantly, I am thankful that I can reach back and share my lessons learned with Black founders coming right behind me. 

Johnson-Williams: Before the pandemic, despite a good credit score, I was turned down for a line of credit with my banking institution. After that, I didn’t have much time to reapply elsewhere before the pandemic changed everything. Most of my finished work goes inside people’s homes and business decreased initially. However, I have seen an increase in business in the last couple of months.

Both women are dominating the industry in their fields with the help of the ample resources available through Epicenter in Memphis. Both Plybeah and Johnson-Williams are prime examples of why Memphis is the ideal location for budding entrepreneurs. Black women are changemakers, innovators and game changers and the city is committed to their continued success. It’s time to give Black women the respect they deserve.

To learn more about Epicenter and its programs visit here