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Dr. Shanté Williams, born and raised in Charlotte, is an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and chairwoman of the Charlotte Black Chamber of Commerce.
Williams, who has a Ph.D. in integrated biological sciences from Ohio State, just released a book, Black Angels Among Us, about investing for beginners. The 37-year-old launched her investment firm Black Pearl Global Investments last year, and has had to quickly adapt her business strategy amid the coronavirus pandemic. She spoke with the Agenda about her career trajectory and financial lessons learned along the way.
(The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Why did you want to get into venture capital?
My last corporate job actually was in electric vehicles and intellectual property, so completely not what anybody would have expected.
When I started my first firm (RogersWilliams Capital Partners), I recognized that there was a lot of talent and a lot of entrepreneurs that had great ideas. For whatever reason, nobody was listening to them. And if no one’s listening to you, no one’s giving you money. And if no one’s giving you money, it doesn’t matter how great your idea is, because it’s not gonna go anywhere.
That kind of lit a fire in me. I had a little money to start investing, and start figuring out how to make my money work for me. I took a chance on really early entrepreneurs that other people completely ignored.
What is it like to leave a full-time job to go out on your own?
The craziest thing that I had done to date. And it seemed way more audacious than being the first person in my family to graduate from college, or get a doctorate. It felt really, really risky because I was leaving a corner office and a very good salary to essentially say, ‘I’m going to build from nothing.’
How much of your own money did you use to start your first firm?
Initially, it was $15,000. But I didn’t make any money for nearly 11 months, so I used savings and credit cards to run operations and live on. Total, the amount from credit cards and savings was $100,000.
What piece of advice has stuck with you over the years about growing a business?
From my doctorate days, my advisor said, ‘They’re as dumb as you are.’ He really meant, ‘You’ve got all the right skills, and the people that you’re afraid will do it better than you? They’re on the same level as you.’
The second piece of advice I got was from one of my partners: Even when everything else fails, and you don’t know what to do, trust your own gut.
What was the mission you had in mind with launching RogersWilliams Capital Partners?
I almost looked at myself as the defender of the working entrepreneurial class, if you will. Those were the people that we were overlooking, because generally when we talk about entrepreneurship today, we’re talking about app developers or the next Facebooks of the world, not the person who took all their money and started a restaurant.
That’s the entrepreneurial spirit. They need investments as well.
Who was the first entrepreneur you invested in?
My hairstylist here in Charlotte. She was a veteran, a single mom, and she was building her business. Of course, I knew her work. She knew that in order to create other streams of revenue, she needed money from an investor to buy products so she could sell products to generate more revenue. We worked on a plan, mapped out a space, and she’s been rocking and rolling ever since.
When and why did you launch Black Pearl?
In 2018, we sunsetted our investment arm (of RW) to focus on what became our major division, which was businesses dispute resolution.
It sounds really arrogant to say, but I’m just not going to change the world with $5,000 to $10,000. I needed to play in a bigger space, I needed to be less constrained. I wanted to make outside differences and really move the needle. So after talking to the team, it was OK, let’s think about where our money makes the most sense.
I met my partner, Dr. Carl Smart, through a pastor at his church.
How have you had to adapt your strategy Black Pearl during the coronavirus pandemic?
We were just at the start of what would been our international launch, which meant a tour through China and Africa. Then COVID hit.
That meant we had to get very smart very quickly. We started looking at how to create platforms to get visibility. I started writing, speaking, and working the phones. We pulled on an impressive and diverse group of advisors. And we started automating. We became really great at sourcing companies and talking to founders, literally around the world, in a very streamlined process.
How do you work to increase diversity in the local venture capital community?
I show up every day. There’s power in walking into a room, not just as a person of color, but as a woman, because there aren’t a lot of women doing what I do either.
I hear all the time, ‘We’d invest in more people of color or we’d invested in more women if we just knew where they were.’ Like there’s some rock that we’re all hiding under that no one’s ever overturned to see, oh, that’s where they all are. For me, it’s saying, ‘I don’t think you’re looking hard enough.’
How would you describe Charlotte’s venture capital community?
Charlotte’s conservative. It’s a town of bankers, not a town of venture capitalists. And people don’t necessarily know that those aren’t the same thing. I’ve been operating in a circle of bankers to show them there are people here who need small business loans.
What’s the main message you want to communicate with your book?
The book came out to say, ‘Hey, this is not that hard.’ I think one of the things I hate about what I do is that people make it seem so complicated.
If you could give one piece of advice to 22-year-old Shanté what would it be?
Stop overthinking it. I could chew on a piece of gum until it had no flavor, and then I would stick it in my hair and create another problem.
What is your No. 1 piece of financial advice?
Money is a tool. It’s a tool that can be used for good or for bad. Like a hammer, someone can use a hammer to build a house, or to hit you over the head.
Want to read more about personal finance? Find our Cash Confessional series here.