Amid the disparaging reality that black women make up less than 3% of the tech workforce and struggle to gain financial support for their companies—two tech stars are breaking through those obstacles to bring their innovations to life and make it easier for the women coming behind them. I had the pleasure of speaking with Dawn Myers and Shawna Stepp-Jones, they opened up about their innovative companies—Richualist and Divaneering Lab Inc., the MAJOR sacrifices they’ve had to make in pursuit of their goals and what keeps them persevering in spite of obstacles. Read on for their inspiring stories.
I want to first start out with how you came up with the names of your businesses—THE MOST and Divaneering are such great names!
Shawna: So Divaneering Lab, literally just came from being a diva and an engineer at Morgan State University. And I wasn’t your typical engineer—I was very fashionable, fashion forward, trendy and I just wanted to be unique, so I used to say, ‘I’m not an engineer, I’m a divaneer’. And then ‘divaneering’ was just an extension of that confidence…and putting it into an organization where other young ladies could be impacted. And Spundle was the product, and Spundle came from ‘spin-bundles’.
Dawn: So, for me, just for clarity here—I run multiple brands, and the brand we are launching right now is called Richualist—they sit under a C-corp umbrella called THE MOST. And the reason we did that [the spelling of Richualist] is because we wanted this process of washday, we wanted that to feel like a rich experience, we wanted it to feel like a spa moment, a moment for self-care rather than this moment of stress and anxiety that it’s been in the past.
Richualist Styling Tool, The Mint
I love that. Thank you for the clarification too. Dawn, you created The Mint, it detangles, it styles, it warms the product, all in one—which is amazing! And Shawna, you created the Spundle, which dries weaves and wigs and bundles—could you tell me a little bit about how those amazing ideas came about and how long did it take for these products to come to life?
Dawn: Whew chile, it’s a long story. So first of all, let me say this—Shawna and I have been, kind of side-by-side, developing these products for years now, and that’s been a privilege because we’re black women developing hardware and hardware is expensive. Nobody wants to fund it and the people who are in positions to fund it, usually don’t look like us and so they don’t understand the problems that I and Shawna are trying to solve. In 2018, really ’17—this required me to sell my house, use the proceeds to fund those early prototypes…and then I liquidated my 401K…and that’s where our funding came from for the first three years. In year three we began to get institutional funding from VCs (Venture Capital) and we became one of—probably—175 black women, who have raised over a million dollars in VC. It’s been a long, long road—so I’ve had to raise other brands to prove to them [investors] that I could run an e-commerce company. So, we’re on our second brand and we’re finally getting to launch our technology that we’re founded upon.
Shawna: So, for me—and thank you Dawn for setting the scene with the hurdles that we have to overcome—for me, I am a hardware engineer so I’m in technology all day, every day…I wear wigs and weaves and having to take my bundles, drive 40 minutes to drop the bundles off [at my stylist], go home, and then come back the next day so that the bundles were completely dry before installation is a pain-point that I experienced. And so, working in the U.S. Patent Office as a patent examiner, you’re around innovation and you can’t help but be inspired. And as I shared, I’m an engineer and we solve problems, and I felt like this was a great problem to solve…I would see them hanging wigs and weaves from any and everywhere—so trying to solve the problem, but not really having the tools, the resources, or the skills to come up with a really efficient and convenient solution.
Dawn, you just spoke to something I would love to get more information on, or more of your journeys—you talked about the obstacles that you’ve faced, but you also spoke about the support that came from having, almost like a sisterhood—what else kept you going on the road to entrepreneurship when there were a lot of “no’s” or so many obstacles?
Dawn: Thank you for pointing that out because getting to go on this journey with Shawna is such a privilege because…we’re going to go through those days when we’re like, “I’m done. I’m going home.” And having someone who’s like “Nah, girl, come on, we got this”, it’s just really nice. It’s really helpful. And I’ll say that it’s been a lot of that energy from my black, female-founder friends. Last year I got a cancer diagnosis and had to undergo five surgeries, chemo, and radiation, while I was launching my company, while was fundraising for my company, and it was black women in tech who kept me afloat. One of whom saved my life—by getting me to the hospital for emergency surgery. Being able to form these bonds with these women has been such a privilege and an honor.
The people who can get to the finish line are the people who are here for a reason, who are solving a problem that they care about. You’re going to have whole days, whole weeks, whole months where you’re like, “I can’t do this anymore. I must stop”, but it’s the focus on the problem that you’re solving, it’s the focus on the customer, it’s the focus on your community…that’s what gets you through.
Shawna: In addition to sisterhood…a brother was the person who put the battery in my back and powered me up. 2016 was really when I started this journey I linked up with a friend from Morgan State University, and he had just become a program manager for an investment organization in Maryland, and I had this great idea, but I didn’t have any money. After working with him for some time, we weren’t able to raise any funds we were told we were “pre-product”, and they just didn’t understand the market, as Dawn alluded to. I was working as a patent examiner and as a patent examiner you cannot file for a patent—you have to leave the office and you have to be gone one year—and I started to get weary and anxious…What I had to do to position myself to walk away from the patent office and have some investment capital became a surrogate. So, I gave birth to twins in 2019 to get my first five figures to invest in my concept development. But it was that guy, Matt Conwell, who was that driving force behind me. He couldn’t believe it; he was appalled that we had to do things like that to be able to commercialize our technologies. So, he raised the funds…and I was one of his first investments and that allowed me to propel myself and my company to land where we’re at today. I realized I needed to lean into where I was being celebrated, not where I was being tolerated.
The last question I would pose to both of you—Shawna, I know you have a STEM program as well, underneath your Divaneering Lab—but just talking to those young ladies, and even older ladies, like myself, what would you say to encourage people who are on the road of creating, career-changing, or just following their dreams, what encouragement would you give them?
Shawna: I would start by reminding them that greatness is a process and it’s really important that they understand that it’s not something that happens overnight, it’s something that’s built, it’s something that’s cultivated, it’s something that is committed to. I think that the generation coming behind us… must understand that the idea of instant gratification is not going to produce long-lasting, sustainable businesses and successes for yourself. Get comfortable knowing that greatness…it’s a process.
Dawn: I think it’s really important for people—young people, older people, middle-aged people—people need to understand that if you have a thing on your heart, it’s on your heart for a reason. You might fail, but failure isn’t a failure in this space. Failure is a data point for somebody else who comes behind you…One of my peers and inspirations in this space, Aniyia—when I was coming up, everybody was telling me “You can’t build hardware”. I had people telling me “You are going to fail”. I kept saying “no, there’s this lady”—I saw this lady on tv, she was on QVC or something, and she was building hardware, she was building like, earphone jewelry. And this lady, Aniyia, kinda looked like me, she was wearing her hair curly and we’re about the same age…and so for me, I was like “I just saw somebody like me do this, what do you mean I can’t do it?” Years later I would meet Aniyia and I was like, “You’re the lady! The reason I kept going down this road is because I saw you.” So, the point I’m making is: You may not be able to write the whole playbook, but you can start to write the playbook for somebody.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Follow Shawna, Dawn, and their amazing companies on Instagram: @dawndoesthemost, @thedivaneer, @getrichualist, @divaneering, and online at www.meetspundle.com and www.richualist.com And follow Aniyia on Twitter @operaqueenie
The Mint is available for pre-order now. Look for the Spundle’s launch date coming this summer.