From Losing Almost Everything to Raising $500K for Her Tech Startup: Meet Nichelle McCall
11 Aug 2016
I first met Nichelle McCall at Weekend Startup School where she was a featured speaker. Once I heard her story, I knew that I needed to interview her for our Bold & Fearless readers. I know you will connect to her story and be as inspired by it as I was. Enjoy!
Nichelle, tell us about yourself and how you got into the tech space—a field in which we don’t see many people of color.
I am the CEO and Founder of Bold Guidance so I love the boldness of Bold & Fearless. At Bold Guidance, we help students with the college application process and ultimately help increase college enrollment.
In general, my passion for college access comes from my own story of growing up in Cleveland, Ohio where my local high school was in an academic emergency. [The school] was failing. My mom worked three jobs to send me to a college prep school.
As a first generation college graduate, I had someone to help me through the process. Unfortunately, a lot of my neighbors had very different outcomes. So I understand the difference that a college education can make in someone’s life, and how it can totally change the trajectory of that individual, their family, and their community. I wanted to find a way to help more people to achieve that dream, so I decided to start a software company.
Have you always had the mindset of an entrepreneur. Did you know this is what you wanted to do, or did you kind of fall into it?
I always knew that, at some point, I wanted to be the boss and potentially work for myself; more so because I wanted to be in a position where someone else wasn’t dictating to me how to live my life—especially, when I get to the point of having my own family.
I didn’t know it was going to happen as soon as it did. I was finishing my Masters program for the National Urban fellows Program and working as a liaison for the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation. For nine months, I was courted and recruited for job opportunities back in my hometown of Cleveland. I finished grad school, and although I was being offered other job opportunities, I turned them down for the opportunity in Cleveland.
I soon found out that the organization that had recruited me for this job decided to go in another direction—so I found myself unemployed. Right around that same time, I also got into a car accident that totaled my car. While I was recuperating from that car accident, I was responsible for taking care of two adults: one with autism and one with Alzheimer’s. I was unemployed for almost a year.
The lesson I learned from that experience of waiting for a job opportunity that never come through, was to never leave my financial future in the hands of someone else.
I realized that if I really wanted to help our young people change their lives through education, I was going to do that through entrepreneurship.
You were unemployed for almost a year after losing a job opportunity, then you got into the car accident. You had all these things happen to you. In that year, what kept you going? What was it that kept you from not giving up and just saying, “You know what? Never mind.” and just going to crawl up a hole to never come back out?
I would say two things: 1) I was hungry…literally!
Yes, that would be a good incentive.
2) The second thing was my faith. I had many a days and nights I was on my couch crying and not understanding what is was I was going through—just feeling totally lost and confused.
I know now that I had to go through that because it was during that time that my relationship with God grew the closest. I realized that the only way I was going to be a successful entrepreneur was if God was my CEO.
That is so powerful and so true. I’ve also found that in my own life, the times I’ve felt closest to God is when I have nowhere left to turn everything is falling apart.
Yeah, and that’s exactly what it was. I literally had nothing else. I had no job, no money. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have my health. It was like, “Lord you’re all that I have.” But somehow, in that timeframe of being unemployed for 12 months, I never missed paying a bill.
Every time I got down to my last dollar (at one point, I had only $10 in my bank account), I would be like “Lord, I don’t know what to do but I know that you’ll work it out.” And then a check would come in the mail.
So it was that experience that made me realize that God’s got me as long as I’m walking in my purpose and putting actions behind my faith.
There are so many people who needed to hear that. We need to trust in that faith walk and believe that better is coming. So how did you manage to come out of that situation to now lead this amazing tech company, as well as work with entrepreneurs?
I decided that when I got turned down for that job opportunity, I was going to start my own consulting practice. It took several months before I actually got my first contract but it was still moving forward. While I was unemployed, I continued to meet with people and have informational meetings to share with them what I wanted to do. And that was to create college access programs for schools and nonprofits.
I just kept meeting with people until, eventually, I got that first contract. Shortly after that I got the second contract, and then I got the third contract, and it in that year as a consultant, I made the most money I ever had.
That’s how I knew that I could do this. I transitioned into the software company after participating in a women business development program. I learned through that experience that if I was really going to be able to help as many people as I wanted to; I can’t scale myself but I can scale technology. So I needed to figure out how to leverage software to be able to help more people. I started talking to students, parents, and school counselors, to find out what the biggest issues with the college admissions process were. I then figured out solutions to address those problems and got their feedback. With my software company, I don’t build anything without the customers’ [input].
That is such an important thing for entrepreneurs, and even corporations to understand. So often we will create something because we think it’s great and beautiful and everybody needs it—when we haven’t done an ounce of research to find out if there is even a market for it.
That’s key for every entrepreneur. Before you think about building anything, you have to figure out how to test it. You can test things on a small scale but you’ve to get feedback from your customers.
So what would you say has been the most challenging thing about being a Black female entrepreneur in the tech industry?
Personally, part of my challenge has been being a non-tech founder—as well as a solo founder—of a tech company. Because I didn’t have a tech co-founder like a software developer to help me through building my business, I had to go the route of getting angel investors and venture capital for Bold Guidance. I could actually then use that money to build out the software. So that was a challenge for me; just navigating that space—especially as an African-American or minority tech business owner.
There aren’t a lot of people who will look like us in this space, and there also aren’t a lot of people who can mentor us through that process. Because you are talking about a tech company and you are looking to be a high growth company making a lot of money in a short period of time, you need investors to support you.
For all the companies that have been ventured backed or who have received venture capital, only 8% have a female founder. Only 1% have an African-American founder and only about .1% have black woman founder.
I am in that .1%. [And] it’s a responsibility of mine to educate and to help more people to increase that number. Since I have been able to get that venture capital, I want to help more founders be able to do the same thing.
Did you realize the numbers were that low when you started your company? Or was it that you found out once you started getting in that space that you are an anomaly?
I was not aware when I first started, and it is probably a blessing that I was not aware because that could be a little scary, but I also I know of a lot phenomenal Black female tech founders who are really doing great things. They’ve also raised some form of funding for their companies. I think because I associated myself with successful tech entrepreneurs, it didn’t even cross my mind. Being around a good group of people keeps you motivated.
I agree! With that said, why do think that they aren’t more Black women or people of color in tech? Although Asians are well represented, African Americans and Hispanics tend to be very under represented minorities.
I think there may be a few reasons. In general, you know as African Americans there are plenty of entrepreneurs for sure; we’re starting businesses all the time. I posted an article on social media about how African American women are the fastest growing demographic of entrepreneurs in the country, but in many cases, we are creating more so lifestyle companies. A lifestyle company is something you just that you create to support your lifestyle, and maybe when you retire you decide you want to pass it on to your family.
I think, in some cases, we may not think that building a high growth tech company is an option for us. Whether it’s because we don’t have access to the resources to help us to build that company. I think that that’s a big part of it. I’m definitely seeing a growing trend of more entrepreneurs starting tech companies, but they aren’t a lot of us in the space currently. On another front, for African Americans who do make enough money to be investors, they don’t understand the tech space—so they are not investing in tech founders who look like them.
And most times people are going to avoid what they don’t know. So that makes your work even more important. No pressure!
What would you say is your favorite thing in the work you do?
In addition to being CEO of Bold Guidance, my software company, I also work with startup entrepreneurs—especially early stage entrepreneurs—in getting their companies off the ground. [I help] position them to be attractive to investors. I do that based on what investors are going to be looking for. I had investors who worked with me to position [my company] to be ready for more investments. My mentors were angel investors even before they put money into the company. They were able to help me raise about a half million dollars. Through my consulting and coaching, I’ve worked with other entrepreneurs to help them, not to only to get funding, but to also help them position their company to be successful.
It looks like things are going really well for you, especially given everything you’ve shared with us about some of your past challenges. But we all make mistakes in business, so if there would be anything you could change about how you run your businesses what would it be?
As a non-tech founder of a tech company, I would have brought on at least a tech advisor earlier on. I ended up making a lot of big and expensive mistakes with my software development that we probably could have bypassed. Had I brought on a contractor or consultant to work with us through that software development phase, it would’ve been done right from the beginning instead of us having to go back to fix mistakes—making it even more costly.
So that is something that I definitely advise people, especially if you are not a tech person yourself or you don’t have a tech co-founder: find someone who has experience in that area of your business.
What you are saying is so true. That could apply even beyond the tech space. So often we think we have to do it all. We forget that sometimes it’s smarter and more efficient to hire somebody to complement our own strengths and shore up our weaknesses in areas where we don’t have as much knowledge. That is such a critical point for entrepreneurs to understand: that you don’t know it all. More often than not, it’s best to spend the money on someone who does know than to spend a lot of time and money trying to figure it out.
What makes an entrepreneur very successful is knowing what they do know and what
they don’t know, and then finding the people who are going to fill those particular gaps. The President doesn’t run the country by himself. He has secretaries in different areas where he is not as strong.
Now going in a little bit of a different direction—and maybe not cause this question may tie into everything that we’ve already talked about—what would you say are three things you cannot live without?
God would be number one because He definitely helped me to make it through everything. I probably would say, second, my phone (we probably all would)—my calendar is on there! I don’t know what I have to do in five minutes without looking at my calendar. And third, ice cream.
What would say drives you every day to stay motivated toward your goals?
I would say it’s the people I’m serving. What I do is not for me. It’s for everyone else, so if I don’t get up and do what I need to do then they don’t get to benefit from the service and the gifts that I have been given to provide. If I don’t get up and run my software company and move things forward, there are some kids who may not
be able to navigate that college application process and not get a chance to go off to college. If in my consulting and coaching practice, I don’t reach out to entrepreneurs and help them strengthen their companies, there are people they are serving that may not get the benefit of what they have to offer. It’s my responsibility to help them to do that.
I’m so glad you said that because I think so often we do forget that what we do is not about us. There’s this quote, I like to use it to remind people of that: “Stop hiding your light; someone is waiting on you to use your gift to help them shine.”
Between your tech company and your consulting, where do you see yourself and your business in five years?
Ideally five years from now, I would’ve sold my tech company; that’s the purpose of establishing a high-growth company. [We knew when we accepted] that major investment, the goal was to sell it to another company. After that, I would be focusing on helping other entrepreneurs full-time. Ideally, I want to be an angel investor. I want to be able to, not only provide people with the insight and the knowledge to help strengthen their companies, but then I want to be able to put my dollars behind it.
Here’s one last question for you: What top 1-3 pieces of advice would you give to female entrepreneurs to help their businesses thrive?
First, I would say celebrate your wins. I think often times we focus so much on what is not going right that we neglect the things that are going right. No matter how big or small, we have to do better about celebrating those wins.
Second, not only do we need to celebrate those wins, we have to do better at acknowledging and promoting our accomplishments. [Many of us] have been taught to be humble and keep things to ourselves, but you better believe that our male counterparts aren’t doing that. That’s part of the reason they’re getting more investments—they’re talking about their successes personally and professionally. [I’ve got to let] people know that I’m great at what I do and I’m great at what I do because I have done xyz. Even before I started this company, I was successful in that. That’s why this company is going to be successful. It’s not bragging, it’s letting people know you’re qualified to do what it is you are doing.
Yes, that is so true! So that’s two things; is there a third piece of advice you want to add?
I think the third thing is to keep moving forward regardless of what’s going on. Regardless of whether you feel like you’ve taken three steps back, just keep moving forward. As long as you’re moving, things will work out. It’s the same concept as “faith without works is dead.” So you have to just keep moving forward and you will either figure out the solution, or other people will come your way to help you.
Amen to that! And that is the perfect way to end this interview. Nichelle thank you so much for sharing your words of wisdom, your journey, and your faith walk with our listeners.
I think so often we feel like we’re alone and like we are the only one struggling through some things. Sometimes we can’t see beyond where we are to where we know God has destined us to be. It’s that mushy middle that we can get lost in and really give up on our purpose, but I think you’ve definitely given us a blueprint and some great words of wisdom for moving forward—so thank you for that!
Earlier in 2016, Nichelle was featured in Glamour Magazine as one of five female entrepreneurs to win the publication’s Annual Starter’s Project. Congratulations Nichelle!
What challenges have you faced in your past that have actually served to contribute to your success?