Cheryl Contee founded a billion dollar firm when most Black women don’t prevail – These five tips from her journey are what you need

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 15, 2024 7:22 AM EDT
Cheryl Contee. Photo credit: Cheryl Contee

Cheryl Contee says she has ‘the sickness of being a serial entrepreneur’, and it becomes quite clear when you look at the businesses that she has founded. Contee co-founded, a tech startup specializing in influencer marketing technology in 2012. The startup was ultimately sold to Blackbaud, a NASDAQ-traded software and services business specializing in the non-profit world. It was the first tech startup with a Black female founder on board to be acquired by a NASDAQ-traded company. In 2022, hit a $2.2 billion valuation, officially becoming a unicorn.

In 2008, Contee co-founded Fission Strategy, an Internet strategy and web development firm that specialized in nonprofits and foundations. Ten years later, Fission Strategy merged with 270 Strategies to create Do Big Things, a digital marketing agency that works with non-profits and progressive political campaigns. Contee also co-founded #YesWeCode (now DreamCorps Tech) and is the CEO of the Impact Seat Foundation. Her book “Mechanical Bull: How You Can Achieve Startup Success” narrates her success as a Black female startup founder.

Contee knows all too well the challenges that come with being a Black female tech entrepreneur. And they range from funding to equity. Nontraditional founders do not usually have the same resources as their white counterparts.. Consequently, traditional startup advice doesn’t always apply to female Black founders as most books and blogs assume. Contee has unique insight into what it takes to thrive in business as a female Black founder.

These five tips from Cheryl Contee will help you navigate entrepreneurship.

1. Bet on yourself
Starting your own business can be quite terrifying. Contee was working for a big multinational PR company in San Francisco when she was passed over for promotion. She had been promised the promotion in her offer letter and was already bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. Contee did the math and found that she could do well if she made a fraction of the amount of money she generated for the organization for herself. She bet on herself, left the job and started her first business.

“I was willing to make that bet. I get it. I mean, I wasn’t a parent then. I get, especially if you’re a parent, that that is an even more terrifying direction to take. But I was experiencing real bias. I mean, plain and simple, and I wasn’t prepared to stick around for more of it. I was willing to stand up for myself,” said Contee.

2. You need a team
People who have experienced discrimination often lose trust in larger systems. They tend to isolate. But Contee knew that to thrive in business, she had to connect with others. When she was ready to launch her tech startup, she sought to expand her network. She tweeted out looking for partners who could recognize her talent, contributions, and drive. “Even the best founders can’t do everything themselves,” Contee advises.

3. Identify the right investors
Most startup founders are told that their first funding round should take about six months. But this is only true for traditional founders, who usually have more resources, financial backing and interpersonal connections. Although Contee had generated millions of dollars for her first business, she still found it difficult to raise initial seed funding for She was eventually able to raise over $2 million, becoming one of the first Black female tech founders to achieve the feat. Contee advises Black female founders to focus on finding early seed investors who understand their vision and fully support the idea. Such investors can be found by searching online and joining social networks specifically designed to connect investors and entrepreneurs.

“Be yourself and find the investors who really get you especially if you don’t come from a technical background, if you are a woman, if you are a minority. You might have to knock on more doors. I certainly did. I have to knock on a lot more doors to finally find those investors who really got it,” Contee said about finding the appropriate investors.

4. Pursue strategic partnerships
Raising funds and finding the right investors can take a very long time. For Black female founders, it can take a year or longer. This can impact business strategy, payroll and growth potential. Contee therefore advises founders to prioritize strategic partnerships. If shown how a startup can improve its products, many organizations may be interested in partnerships that ultimately generate revenue and promote growth. partnered with WealthEngine, a provider of predictive marketing analytics and audience development services to boost their reach. Its partnership with the global philanthropic community Blackbaud culminated in an acquisition.

5. Don’t give up
While seeking investment for, Contee approached more than 50 people. Many of her calls and emails went unanswered. When she managed to get a demo, Contee was often told that she wasn’t the best person to execute the idea. She was confident that she would eventually find the funding she wanted and worked through the rejections and distorted signals. She believed that her company’s product could make a big difference in the nonprofit sector and never gave up. Eventually, she found an angel investor and was able to build a team, produce strong traction and execute a successful exit.