What It’s Like to Be a Black Entrepreneur Right Now
E-commerce founder Nicole Gibbons on micro-aggressions, tokenism, and leading her company through this complicated moment
Nicole Gibbons knew she was in rare company when her direct-to-consumer paint startup Clare raised $2 million from the likes of First Round Capital in 2017. Black female entrepreneurs receive less than 1% of VC funding raised by startups.
In an industry that champions quick pivots and failing fast, Gibbons — who launched her New York City-based company in 2018 after working as an interior decorator and global head of PR for Victoria’s Secret — feels intense pressure to make no mistakes and faces microaggressions so often she says she’s learned to live with them. She spoke with Marker about the challenges of being a Black founder, doing business in the time of Covid-19, and what companies should be saying about Black Lives Matter. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
When I started pitching Clare I knew the statistics — I knew that Black women are underfunded. I had one VC who declined to take a meeting and said, “I can tell you put a lot of creativity into your idea,” like it was an arts and crafts project. I did feel dismissed at times and I wonder: If I were a white man would I have been given the opportunity to take that meeting or have my idea be received differently?
Has racism been a hindrance to my career? I mean, it has and it hasn’t. I check a lot of boxes for people. I am super articulate, I went to a great school [Northwestern University], I’m a CEO, right? So I think I get a pass that maybe not everybody would. I don’t move and shake in a world where people are outwardly racist. No one is calling me the N-word. It’s more subtle — nothing outward enough to talk about. It’s microaggressions that happen every single day, like comments about your hair or saying you’re pretty for a Black girl. It’s just everyday ignorance, which you kind of learn to live with.
These white male founders who demonstrate some of the most inappropriate, often illegal, behavior just kind of get a pass. And I feel like I can’t make any types of mistakes at all.
But I was pretty confident in my idea — VCs get pitched a lot of the same thing, and nobody had ever heard about paint. I’ve always been a networker by nature. I was kind of unapologetic about asking for intros. And I was lucky: I met [venture capitalist and former Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia CEO] Susan Lyne at The Wing in 2017 when they would do these office hours things where you could sign up to meet someone. This one was “Sign up to talk to a VC about your newest idea.” She gave me great, actionable feedback. I joined The Wing because — funny how the universe works — I hate working at home and I liked the idea that it was all women. I didn’t have any experiences with racism there, but I just kind of kept to myself.
We raised $2 million in seed funding, and I worry — well, maybe “wonder” is a better word — if I am the token Black in the portfolio. I do feel like as a Black person, my margin for error is pretty nonexistent. You look at the founders of companies like Uber and WeWork who got away with so much over the years. These white male founders who demonstrate some of the most inappropriate, often illegal, behavior just kind of get a pass. And I feel like I can’t make any types of mistakes at all. I’ve had this pressure my whole life, and I think any Black person you talk to would probably express the same thing. You just feel like you have to be perfect because if you’re not, you will validate their subtle racist perceptions.
Black people are brought up to hear, “You have to be twice as good to get half as far.” It’s 100% true. You hear stories about white dudes going in to pitch a VC with a sketch on a napkin to explain a business model. I could never do that. I have to be super-prepared, fully buttoned-up, every I dotted and every T crossed. Like I said, no margin for error. You hear these stories about Black people who made it out of the hood to become CEO — they basically climbed Mount Everest 10 times to get where they are. It’s not easy because you’re constantly combating all of this systemic racism, prejudice, roadblocks left and right.
I was just having early conversations with investors about another fundraise when Covid-19 hit. It was already a tough market. I think we saw a lot of DTC brands building hugely unprofitable companies, so people weren’t super excited to invest in DTC brands. And so I put fundraising on pause.
After George Floyd was killed, it hit me very hard. It wasn’t just knowing what happened and seeing the videos over and over; it was seeing how peaceful protesters were being treated and how much hate there still was.
I was lucky; we were in a good enough position with our runway that we weren’t running out of money. And it helps a little that we’re not paying $4,000 a month for a co-working space at the moment — our lease was up in April and I’ve decided we’re working at home for the rest of the year. We’re a small team, just four full-time and two part-time employees. [Clare partners with a factory to produce the paint.] Plus, our sales are up. They were kind of flat in the beginning of the pandemic — we didn’t see a dip — and then all of a sudden we started seeing an uptick. If you’re going to be stuck at home, people want their homes to feel good and enjoy being in them. I think people are finally picking up those long-delayed DIY projects.
But right now I’ve been consumed with Black Lives Matter and kind of my own personal grieving and reflection time. After George Floyd was killed, it hit me very hard. It wasn’t just knowing what happened and seeing the videos over and over; it was seeing how peaceful protesters were being treated and how much hate there still was for what people who I believe are on the right side of the issue were doing peacefully. As a Black person, to know that we’ve been dealing with this for centuries and were just in this position four years ago with Ferguson and it’s like, here we are again, nothing has changed, and so you just start to feel hopeless. I was crying.
I don’t know why on Monday [after Floyd was killed] I didn’t just tell my team, “I’m not going to work today.” We do a morning Google Hangout video meeting at 10 a.m. to stay connected and — it’s normally 25 minutes. But that day we ended up spending an hour having a roundtable discussion about what we all were feeling. And the discussion ended in tears. I have a very diverse team — I’m the only Black person, but there’s also only one white person. One of my team members said to me that she was so proud to work for a Black woman.
As a corporation you can’t ignore what’s happening, and as a Black person you can’t pretend this is not happening.
I don’t think before this I ever would have thought to use Clare as a platform to talk about race. I mean, if you’d asked me six months ago I would have said, “We’re here to talk about paint and color and home décor.” But as a corporation, you can’t ignore what’s happening and as a Black person, you can’t pretend this is not happening. And I had seen a million and one empty platitudes — all this virtue signaling and woke washing, which is my new favorite term for it — and companies celebrating their rapid response donations without really saying what else they’re going to be doing. This isn’t an earthquake where you have to hurry up and get medical aid and medical supplies. It takes a long time to do the work of fighting racial injustice.
So I kind of took over our social media — the employee who usually runs it isn’t Black and I felt maybe better equipped to handle what was coming in — and I just spoke from my heart. Black people don’t need to hear thoughts and prayers, especially not from a Black-led company. I wrote a guide — “How can I help?” — with eight simple and actionable things you can do to effect change.
I was a little nervous about having to respond to racists. I was nervous that by saying, “Black Lives Matter,” I was definitely going to get some, “All lives matter” comments because that’s generally how it goes. But it was so well received. A really good Instagram post of ours might get 500 likes based on followers. This one got more than 5,000 likes and was shared thousands of times. I ended up talking about it on Cheddar. I think the overarching feedback from people in comments was just, “Thank you. This was so helpful.”
I think a lot of people discovered us through my post and the sharing of that post. I thought it was really important to show myself. Funnily enough, we even got comments from some Black people saying, “You don’t have any Black people anywhere.” Actually we do — on our website, the woman playing the mom in the picture is Black and so is the child. (The father is white.) What they were implying was that those people were not Black enough, but that’s a whole other issue we don’t need to get into. And I’m sure there are people who saw my social posts and were like, “I’m never buying your paint again.” I’m positive we’ve had customers who probably don’t like Black people. And that’s just because that’s how the world is.
Update: An earlier version of this piece misstated the year of Clare’s launch. It was 2018.