We sit down with our founder, Taija Thomas, to talk about her experiences as a woman of color business owner, and how she’s coping with the current BLM climate.
Q: What are some of the struggles you have faced while running a business not only as a woman, but as a Black woman?
TT: One of the motivations in starting this business was I was just getting mentally burnt out by being a Black woman in the tech space. I’m not sure how familiar you are with traditional tech, but a lot of tech companies are not very friendly to women. I was starting out at these companies at a young age, excited to work, then I got there and I’m [saying to myself] ‘I don’t understand why people are treating me as if I don’t know anything, or second guessing the work I submit.’ Then I started to talk to other Black employees across these different companies and they’re like, “yeah, this is just a thing.” [So] why do they hire us if they don’t trust anything we say? I was hired by another company later on when I was 26. They uplifted me and gave me the space to just do my work and be great … I killed it. I was able to see just how much of an impact people experience when their peers and upper management are acting through microaggressions on a daily basis.
That was around the time I started thinking about doing Zoe Elle. At that point the company [I was at] was structured very much like an influencing company. They were being paid $2 million a year just to market Bank of America’s credit cards. Me chasing my dreams, I had to go for this. Around that time I started getting pulled into some of these conversations where these deals were being brokered. It took away some of the mysticism for me, as I was able to see that it was really just two people having a conversation with each other.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to be exposed to big opportunities, but to also be told that you can do it. We all need to be encouraged. For me, that was super invaluable. It was what gave me the courage to start Zoe Elle. So, I pretty much immediately started doing research on the space. My mentor [suggested I order] my items from China for it’s low cost. I’m saving money so I could make my first purchase, and I had just learned how much of an environmental devastation the fashion industry has on the world. When I heard that it was second to oil, it broke my heart.
I started doing more research, where I found the sustainability community on Instagram. The women in that space are absolutely incredible. The things I’m telling you I’ve experienced [in the past] are not what I have experienced with this community. I’ve met women across all races, sexual orientations, and ages with everybody saying we are on the same mission. This is a very new space and the bigger my little company gets or your company gets, the more noise we are going to make and the more impact we are going to make, ultimately, for the environment.
It really is a social justice movement in its own right. I think the parallel between the Black Lives Matter movement and the sustainability movement is being up against the status quo, against these industries and organizations. In the case of BLM with police brutality, you’re up against police departments who have historically been able to operate the way they have for a very long time.
Q: With everything that’s going on the past few weeks, how have you personally been handling it — staying on social media, off social media?
TT: I’ve been pretty much off of social media. I had a high school friend who was killed by the police, so this issue is close to home. Some of my best friends from high school witnessed it happen. They had all gone to a club in Downtown Baltimore where there was a plain-clothed officer in the middle of the crowd. The club was letting out and the officer was harassing a young woman, making her feel very uncomfortable. The guy I went to highschool with, Sean Gamble, told the police officer he was making her uncomfortable and to please leave her alone, not knowing this man’s profession. The police officer pulled out his gun. There was a uniformed police officer who saw the scuffle going on and thought this was just two Black guys who were about to shoot at each other and shot both of them. Which was really unfortunate as Sean was just trying to help a girl feel comfortable as she left, what was he supposed to do?
Unfortunately, this happened before the movement really started to gain momentum. Why is it that people did not care enough to help him? I’m thankful this is happening now, but he was important too. So, I think it is important to remember that there’s so many more people being affected by this. I’m just one person and I know two people that this has happened to. I cannot imagine what it must feel like to live in the neighborhoods that are being heavily policed where there may be ten or fifteen people that you know – how much trauma are these people experiencing? I was raised in middle class, higher income neighborhoods, yet still when an officer pulls up behind me on the highway or on the street, my heart races because I don’t know what is going to happen. It is these difficult conversations where many of us who have experienced even a little bit of privilege must speak up with our feeling that something has to change.
That’s why I’m so excited to share this with the sustainable community because traditionally we may be stuck in just making our product, but it is important to know that a lot of these things are tied together with environmental sustainability being a part of social justice.
The way this directly ties in with our community, is the fact that a lot of garment workers are women of color: that’s how fast fashion is made possible. These sweatshops in third world countries where women are being paid basically nothing is where we have to remind ourselves that these articles do not just miraculously appear. When we start looking at everyone as a valuable human being, it makes it much harder for these injustices to exist in the first place.
Social media is great because you get to live in your own bubble, but I think it’s also great to do some cross pollination, because now you’re able to expose an entirely new demographic to an issue they may be very interested in supporting.
Q: In your position, what do you recommend people in the business community do to educate and give back during these times?
Taija Thomas: Black women are the least funded in business. As far as start up venture capital is concerned, 0.01% goes to Black women. Knowing how big the disparity is and how well these businesses are able to operate despite having to completely bootstrap is super encouraging, yet sad. If you want to be someone to really turn the tide of what is happening right now, especially with racial inequality, help by donating or spreading the word. Many people are doing this on social media by sharing vendors to support. All these efforts are super useful and I hope can be sustained beyond this particular moment in history.
Q: Are any brands that you’ve been watching taking the right steps in progressing the movement and how?
TT: I really like that big brands like Glossier are donating money to black owned companies and to Black Lives Matter activists. It is beautiful to see these giants in our space use their platform to promote black women-owned businesses. I was looking at Vogue yesterday, and if you go to their page from the last two weeks every post is about black folks and fashion. Whatever vertical of fashion you are in, they are talking about how you can support the movement in your own way. Because the smaller companies are the ones in the trenches and know what’s at stake, they’re always doing the work. But, when the bigger companies start to become more aware and give more visibility to these companies that are trying to grow, the impact is so much larger. It can be harder to find these Black-owned companies because they kind of exist in their own ecosystems, so it’s great that these barriers are being broken down.
Q: What would you want to share with any young women of color who are aspiring to create their own brand?
TT: Reach out to me, reach out to women who look like you who are doing the work. If I was not uplifted at the time I was, I would have never started Zoe Elle, never seeing how powerful I could be in my own right. I think it’s important to see other people like you be successful and have them tell you that they see themselves in you.
Now is the time, you can do it. I love talking to people in person, so the way I started was going to a lot of business events where you get to start having the same conversations with people, serving as a bit of research. Be honest with yourself. Everyone needs things for their business that they may not be good at, so partner with people who are good at those things. Realize early that you need a team. Thankfully, I have a background in digital marketing so I am able to attract a tribe of girls like you who through the messaging are saying, “yes, this is what I believe in and that’s why I want to be a part of it.” Spending the time to really figure out who your company is, what niche you’re serving, and what your brand voice is will help your business by leaps and bounds. It will make it easier to find those people who may end up being your co-founders.
The key takeaway is: You can’t do it by yourself. Feel community everywhere and anywhere you can, and you will definitely find success!