Sean Goheen (Host) 00:00:01
Greeting scholars and welcome to Following the Gong, a podcast of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State.
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Following the Gong takes you inside conversations with our Scholar Alumni to hear their story so you can gain career and life advice and expand your professional network. You can hear the true breadth of how Scholar Alumni have gone on to shape the world after they rang the gone and graduated with honors and learn from their experiences so you can use their insights in your own journey. This show is proudly sponsored by the Scholar Alumni Society, a constituent group of the Penn State Alumni Association. I'm your host, Sean Goheen, class of 2011, and college staff member. If this is your first time joining us, welcome. If you're a regular listener, welcome back.
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Sean 00:00:55 Aniyia Williams, class of 2007 is a serial entrepreneur and inclusion advocate. She's a principal at the Omaar Network. After previously founding and serving as Chief Executive officer of Tinsel, executive Director of Black and Brown founders and co-founding Zebras Unite, she previously held roles at Voxer and in the arts administration space. As an African-American woman in Silicon Valley, Williams is breaking down barriers for others now and in the future. She's also been featured in Forbes, Ebony, and many tech and fashion websites and publications, and speaks to the country on diversity in tech, fashion, tech and entrepreneurship and startups. Williams has been the entrepreneur in residence for Code 2040, which also focuses on black and Latinx entrepreneurs and is powered by Google for entrepreneurs. She's also a board member for Women's Audio Mission. Aniyia graduated from Penn State's College of Arts and Architecture with a Bachelor of Art and Music with honors, as well as minors in Business and Italian after beginning her journey at Penn State Burs.
Sean 00:01:50 In this episode, Aniyia shares her insights on building an entrepreneurial spirit at a young age, starting at a Commonwealth campus and perspectives on the button. Waller Fellows program DIYing a major from available programs when Penn State doesn't have the major you're looking for getting involved in both student governments and in the performing arts, nerding out by combining academic and personal interests and study abroad into the honors thesis process, working in arts, fundraising, and then moving into for-profit startups, and then back into non-profits, insights on the ups and downs of the startup ecosystem, and efforts to fix problems for black and brown founders in tech. She also discusses making the leap to start a company after finding an unmet need in the market and learning along the way from idea to manufacturing to consumer, creating spaces for others, especially women of color, to excel as founders and funders. Lots of practical advice for startup founders and thoughts on parenthood, especially as a founder. With that, let's dive into our conversation with Aniyia following the Gong.
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Sean: Aniyia, thank you so much for joining me here on Following The Gong. I'm very excited to talk with one of our alumni Achievement Award winners here at Penn State. Now, normally I start with a question along the lines of how did you first come to a Penn to attend Penn State and the Honors College? But in doing my research, I saw your entrepreneurial journey really started well before that. So can you share about your work and your family business from a young age to start?
Aniyia 00:03:25 Yeah. Um, my family used to own, uh, a cosmetology school and, uh, a few hair salons in the Philadelphia area. And since I was about three years old, um, being a part of that, being a part of that family business and them putting me to work at about five, um, I was small enough that I could kind of clean all the hair off of the baseboard. So I was like, how I would earn my keep. Um, and you know, as I got older, then it would be like, okay, you're going to answer phones. You're gonna receive people when they show up for their appointments. So, um, and then obviously back of house where, uh, all the other things were happening. I would say by the time I was 16, my grandmother had me doing tax reconciliations, <laugh> and trying to help with the accounting stuff. So it was just, it was constant learning. Learning is like a very big theme in, in my family, big, big cultural part. So, yeah.
Sean 00:04:20 So no surprise, you ended up in the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State. So what did draw you to come to Penn State? And if I read all of your information correctly, you started at one of our Commonwealth campuses?
Aniyia 00:04:31 That's true. I started at Penn State Berks, um, and this is gonna sound controversial, but of the, the, I think I applied for four colleges, um, when I was applying for colleges and Penn State was my last choice. Um, but the reason why was because I had this very specific major that I wanted to do. I was looking at kind of arts administration or music business as a major, um, when I was applying to schools and I applied to Penn State just because it was the state school and I had, um, you know, been to, uh, an event that Penn State actually had with high school seniors. And it was kind of, I mean, I think in retrospect I'm like, oh, it was clearly a recruiting event, but, you know, at the time I didn't know that <laugh>, um, but I was just like, okay, like I'll apply to Penn State too, and I got into all the colleges I wanted to, but, um, you know, there was just something <laugh>, there was something, actually, I, I can't say that there was something about Penn State.
Aniyia 00:05:29 What actually happened was my dad, um, told me that I should reach out and find out more about the scholarship program that they told me about at the recruiting event that I went to. And I actually ended up getting, um, a full scholarship to Penn State. I got, um, I was a Bunter Waller fellow, and that was just a game changer where it was just like, oh, okay, like student loans are a thing. I still had to kind of maybe take out a couple loans so I, I could, um, you know, pay for books and some other kind of housing expenses. But I would say in general though, it was, um, a pretty transformative experience and I have no regrets. Obviously, I'm very proud Ni Lion now. Um, after I got to the campus and started to meet people and started to make, uh, you know, friends that I would have for a very, very long time, I actually work with some of the people that I, um, that I, uh, that I was was, um, in, in, in there with, uh, at Berks that year, actually. It's funny. So it's true.
Sean 00:06:28 So you mentioned Arts administration and that is one of the few things that you can't major in at State, I think. Right.
Aniyia 00:06:35 Um,
Sean 00:06:36 And there's some great programs elsewhere, um, across the country, but unfortunately one of the few things you can't do here. So you ended up majoring in music. What drew you to pick that specifically as opposed to maybe going to the Smeal College of Business? What drew you to arts and architecture?
Aniyia 00:06:51 Oh my gosh. Okay. So, um, alongside the family business that I was, um, part of, I also have always been just a performer, a creator, a kind of person of the arts in some shape or form. And I studied music, I studied voice. Um, I sang as far back as I could remember as well. And, um, when I got to middle school and, and especially into high school, I started to study classical, um, and operatic voice. I actually ended up going to the creative and performing arts high school in Philadelphia. And I was a vocal major there, so half of my classes were, you know, voice or arts related and you know, the other half were academic. And I remember going into Penn State because it didn't have, like, I was so attached to this other major. And so I think where my head was at was like, my dad was like, well, you know what, there's nothing wrong with getting a business degree.
Aniyia 00:07:42 And I'm like, yeah, okay, I'll get a, get a business degree. It does make sense. And I started doing all the prerequisite classes and all the things for that my freshman year, and I was just kinda like, you know, I miss having half of my classes be something artistic. And I, that was when I started to get, I got, I got creative with my, my, my major and my studies. And so what I actually ended up doing was then, uh, becoming a music major. I auditioned for the School of Music and I ended up minoring in business and minoring in Italian. 'cause Italian was something I also studied alongside, um, opera. And so music major business minor, uh, Italian minor. And, um, and even when I ended up doing my honors thesis for Schreyer, I kind of pulled these different threads together and ended up getting my, my honors in musicology and Italian studies. So it, it was like a really fun ride actually. So I feel like I kind of ended up a, it was like a d i y arts administration degree. At the end of it, I think I still actually accomplished what I set out to do, but it's just a different path.
Sean 00:08:47 I think that's something a lot of scholars can probably relate to, regardless of what your major is, kind of weaving those pieces together to make your own journey. Now you've mentioned two different things that I want to dive a little bit deeper into. Obviously I wanna talk about your thesis in a minute, but you mentioned being a Bunton Waller fellow, Bunton Waller scholar. Can you talk about that program and how you balance the demands? I know there's programming parts of that as well of on top of being a Schreyer scholar and how that experience affected you.
Aniyia 00:09:17 Yeah, well, I think I've always been a person juggling multiple things. Um, I would say really it was more so, um, juggling that with the student government, um, that I was involved with when I, when to Burkes, when I was at Berks my freshman year, year I was the co-chair for, um, diversity on the Student Government Association there. And then, uh, I went up to up my sophomore year because, uh, as I changed my major to music, I had to be at the main campus. And, um, and even when I went up there, I basically became the director, the diversity director on, um, C C S G. And so I feel like there was just a lot of involvement with me kind of wanting to be a part of what was happening on campus, and diversity was always just something that was very important to me.
Aniyia 00:10:04 Um, and then of course, all of the, the wonderful things that were, um, happening with Schreyer. And I think that also both of these things offer different kinds of communities for me to get into while I was there. And so I would say that, you know, balancing it wasn't particularly hard, or at least I don't remember it feeling particularly hard. Um, but I think that there was just so much that I got out of it in terms of just friendships and connections that I made and the kinds of people that I was able to, um, to learn from.
Sean 00:10:32 For those of you who are only at U Park, you're probably like, what is C C S G? That is the Council of Commonwealth Student Governments, of which I also was on as a student. So yes, to find a fellow, um, Burts and C C S G alum in this, in this conversation. Were you involved in any other outside opportunities when you were here?
Aniyia 00:10:53 Yes. Um, <laugh>, the, like Penn State Opera, um, was another one of them, uh, which was kind of part of me being, um, part of the School of Music. But we had so much fun, um, with Penn State Opera Theater. I mean, we made our own costumes and it was just fun all around, just great people. And then, um, some musical theater too on the side, uh, with, um, you know, rich Beaver and, and his, um, sound on stage. We did Dream Girls while I was there. I got to be Dina Jones, and this was like, before Beyonce was Dina Jones. So I was like, you know, I guess the bar was a little bit lower, but, uh, <laugh>, but it was so fun. I, so I feel like there was just all kinds of really amazing things that I got to get involved with, and I think each of them shaped me in a different way.
Sean 00:11:41 I'll just assume that Beyonce was inspired by your performance and her in her take on the character. Um, that's absolutely right. Not ing girls, but I know she, she looked to you when she was doing her research, so we'll just assume that I like
Aniyia 00:11:54 This, this take. Yes. I, I agree. Yeah, that's what happened. <laugh>.
Sean 00:11:58 So you mentioned earlier, you know, you're, you're doing student government, you are doing arts, and obviously being rehearsals and things takes a lot of your time. But you mentioned your thesis mm-hmm. <affirmative> and in the sciences and in business, there's kind of a more or less a formula that for things, but in the arts, the options open up where it may not necessarily be a research paper. What was your thesis? Was it a research paper? Was it a creative endeavor? Tell us about that. Yeah,
Aniyia 00:12:26 Um, I actually ended up doing a research paper. Um, and I'm not actually, I'm like, in retrospect, I'm not really, I don't know that I remember why I chose to do that. 'cause you're right, I could have done like a, a recital or something, um, which I did do some recitals while I was there, but not necessarily part of my thesis. Um, but one thing I actually, that, that really was a standout, um, opportunity that came from the thesis work that I was doing, uh, was I got a, a grant to go to Italy and do some of my research and studies there, which I, I only did for a few weeks, but it was a really, really huge opportunity. That was actually my first time leaving the country. Um, and I got to go to Italy. I had been studying Italian for probably about five or six years at that point.
Aniyia 00:13:16 Um, and had always wanted to go. And I think, if I remember correctly, because of definitely aging myself here, but September 11th had happened around the time I had the first opportunity to go to Italy. And then it was like, no, we're not putting students on any planes. Um, and that kind of, there was like a, a long tail of like, schools trying to reestablish what travel meant for, um, traveling abroad meant for, for students. And so there was this window of time where I had always wanted to go and I couldn't go. And then I got this grant and I was so excited. I went to Milan and Parma and I got to go and see, um, and meet folks that worked at these places that could kind of add some color to the studies I was doing for, uh, Giuseppe Verdi, one of the most famous Italian composers, um, was kind of the part of the focal point of my thesis.
Aniyia 00:14:11 I did it on how his operas influenced the Italian resurgence, um, and the u unification of Italy. Um, and I feel like in any other circumstance and be like, oh my gosh, this is so nerdy, but I'm like, oh no, this is my people. So, um, it was amazing. Uh, and I definitely got to nerd out, um, and go to, you know, Lial and do just see all of these places where his operas were performed and, um, go to the place where he lived. And it was just, it was so awesome. Um, and so yeah, I did actually just end up writing a paper, but it was a fun paper to write for me. <laugh>. I really liked it.
Sean 00:14:48 I mean, I can tell just by the fact like how much you're glowing right now, <laugh> and
Aniyia 00:14:52 Smiling,
Sean 00:14:52 Just talking about it, reflecting on it, you know, 15 years later. So that, uh, says something about you can still do that in, in the arts. So I appreciate that.
Aniyia 00:15:01 Yeah, I would actually, I would even add that, you know, some of the things that came out of, um, you know, me studying another language, there was a, one of my, I have like a few classes, I still remember some of my favorite classes. I have even still some textbooks from college. And one of them, it's funny, I was just quoting something from it on Twitter this week, um, which is, uh, this, it's like an anthology called Theories on Translation. And it has these essays about translation in it. And I feel I still read it from time to time because I feel like it's actually applicable to the work that I do now. Um, and ways of especially just kind of these ideas that I think are really palpable in our current times about working across difference and trying to understand people and cultures that are very different from the one that you know, and how do you kind of effectively communicate and create, you know, a shared understanding, um, between cultures. And, um, yeah, that was like, that was definitely one of my favorite classes. I think that there's so much that I've learned just from the act of, of studying another language and, um, being immersed in, in a culture that's very different than mine.
Sean 00:16:12 So if you are reading the episode description, you the listener, you'll notice that Nia, you are not a professional singer, so you took a different career path.
Aniyia 00:16:21 I did.
Sean 00:16:22 So what was your first job out of college? 'cause it doesn't have a lot to do, but everything to do with what you're doing now. What was it and how did you actually get into that?
Aniyia 00:16:32 Yeah, I think that's a good way to put it. It's like it doesn't have to do, but it also has a lot to do at the same time. Um, so the thing that I do now, um, I do a few things. I feel like, so there's also this theme. I think I'm, I'm kind of the queen of doing too much. I don't necessarily recommend that as a path for people. It's very stressful sometimes <laugh>, it's a lot to juggle. Um, but I, I just always have all my, like, all these tentacles of interests. Um, but I would say that the, the main thing that I do now, I, I'm a principal at, um, Omidyar Network, which is, um, a social change venture. We are helping to create a more equitable, inclusive society through these main kind of themes. And the theme that I work, uh, part of is responsible technology and that is actually building on the all of the things that I, I did, um, since I left Penn State, where if I was gonna just like run through really quickly, I'd say I went from, um, after graduation I started to work at Wolf Trap Foundation, um, and major gifts and fundraising, which was also something that grew out of an experience that I had at Penn State.
Aniyia 00:17:40 When I was, um, on C C S G, I was trying to help with raise, raising enough money to start an endowment for a, um, a scholarship that would kind of reward a student for, um, you know, doing things that kind of contributed to the diversity of the campus. And, um, and that kind of gave me my first understanding of fundraising and realizing that that was a job and also that was a job you can have in the arts and that could keep me tied to the arts. And so it was a really great first job for me to have. I, I worked in major gifts fundraising for a few years and then actually what ended up happening was I met the guy who eventually became my husband. Um, and he's a software engineer. He got recruited to work at this startup in San Francisco and we were gonna be young, crazy kids and like just go into the unknown and see what happened.
Aniyia 00:18:30 And we moved to San Francisco. We've been here ever since. That was about 11 years ago. Um, and so when I got here, I actually used that as an opportunity to start working in tech. 'cause I was very intrigued by tech and I wanted to see if there was somewhere in there for me because I had gotten to just see the excitement of it and all the, like, anything can happen, this of it. And it just felt like something I wanted to try my hand at in some way. Um, so I worked on a startup for a few years, um, called Vox, or they made a walkie talkie app for sm for smartphones, like when smartphones first were, became a thing. And then, um, from there I started my first company, uh, called Tinsel. And I had, 'cause I had this idea after working at Voxer for a few years, I wanted headphones that could also be jewelry.
Aniyia 00:19:18 I wanted to be able to wear a piece of jewelry that no one would be able to tell was also electronics. And so I actually made an audio necklace. It was amazing. It is amazing. Um, and then from there I ended up starting Black and Brown Founders, a nonprofit that helps, um, black and Latinx people start tech businesses and tech enabled businesses. Um, which was really an outgrowth of the things I had learned, um, during my journey. Not just, um, building my company, but I had also had a chance to connect with other, um, founders of color and saw that there were just some similar challenges that were happening. That folks were, you know, entrepreneurs by necessity they're gonna be building these businesses regardless of whether they got the support and the resources they needed. And we really wanted to take this lens of how do you get from point A to point B like idea to launching something when you're working with modest resources.
Aniyia 00:20:13 And I think that that's still information that a lot of black and Latinx entrepreneurs in America need today. So, um, today I'm on the board of that organization and then I also started Zebras Unite, um, which is an entrepreneur led movement. It's a global, um, organization. We have 24 chapters around the world. Um, and it's about creating a more ethical and sustainable startup ecosystem. And then even a few years later after that, I started one other thing, which was the Black Innovation Alliance. Um, and it's kind of a coalition of entrepreneur support organizations that, that are helping, um, black folks start tech companies. So there's just, the theme is around how do we kind of help people who have been at the margins of an industry where opportunity is being created more than you could name in, I don't know, really any other industry that exists today.
Aniyia 00:21:05 Um, and that it's also a really an engine for wealth. I, I got to experience that firsthand because that startup that recruited my husband, um, that made us move out here, um, ended up getting acquired and that changed the financial trajectory of our lives. And even another startup he ended up working at after that also got acquired. And that has like really been, so I've seen how being a part of these companies building something useful and important, um, and those things, you know, ultimately becoming successful changes the trajectory of people's lives every day. And I think that that's just an opportunity, um, folks who have typically been left out and have great ideas and problems that they can uniquely solve. So
Sean 00:21:49 There's a lot I'd love to go back and unpack
Aniyia 00:21:51 In that story.
Sean 00:21:52 <laugh>, Nia, 'cause you're doing great stuff. I wanna go back to the point when you left your initial role at Voxer mm-hmm. <affirmative> and you decided to take a leap of faith and start your own company
Aniyia 00:22:05 Tinsel.
Sean 00:22:05 Yeah. 'cause you saw a product niche that was not being filled and you decided as any entrepreneur would, Hey, I can do that. I can fill that need. I know there's other people who would like what I like here. Yeah.
Aniyia 00:22:17 So
Sean 00:22:18 I have kind of two questions. One, tell us about your decision making process and how you actually like, took that leap to go from a stable job to startup owner. And then I remember reading about how you actually went about the manufacturing process and were very intentional in your decisions once you had your prototype made and you're ready to take it to market. So if you can talk a little bit more about those two things, I would appreciate hearing that and I'm sure our listeners would too.
Aniyia 00:22:47 Yeah. It, it, it, it started with me being frustrated with the like, tangled wires of headphones. I would have to dig out of my purse all the time, and that was where I was just like, I wanna be able to wear them on my body, but I, I also love fashion and how I, I care about how I look and I want it to be intentional. Um, and that was like where it came from. I, I thought that this would be a thing I could just buy somewhere. Someone has to have made this thing. And when I couldn't find it to buy it, then I started, my wheels started turning and it was, hmm, what would it be like if I made this thing? Also, knowing that I, like, I know nothing about making physical products, let alone electronics. Everyone has been listening to my journey and nowhere in there is like engineering, manufacturing, like any of that.
Aniyia 00:23:34 Um, but I think that it was just really, again, I feel like growing up in a culture of learning, you start to understand and also this is a thing that we say a lot in Silicon Valley. Like, you don't know what you don't know. Um, I had heard that enough by that point to know that like, okay, anyone who like knows something even remotely related to what I think I should know, I need to just start talking to people. Um, and that was when I really started to like, get some color around that vision. But the big leap of faith actually happened when I went to talk to the c e o of the company, um, that I was working at, who also, um, happened to be just a very well connected person and an angel investor. And, um, and he, I asked him really just for an intro to if he had an, uh, a friend, um, or knew anyone who was an industrial designer.
Aniyia 00:24:24 'cause I had like, had some conversations and I'm like, okay, I need to find an industrial designer, and where do I find one of those? Let me ask someone who knows people <laugh>. And he did. Um, and he made an introduction to a friend of his who was an industrial designer who then could kind of start to talk me through the outlines of what it would look like to try to make something like this real. And also said that, you know, he thought that my idea was really cool and he would, he would be helpful to me. He would be a mentor, he would be a coach, he would be an advisor to my company. And, and he did do that. And he also was like, you know, you also are gonna need like a lot of money, uh, to make this a thing and you should go back and you should ask, uh, you know, uh, to ask the person who made the intro, ask him to invest in this.
Aniyia 00:25:09 And, um, and over a series of conversations he, he did. And so I then became, okay, this is great. I'm going to stop working for you and then I'm gonna start this company, like with this money and some of the money that, um, you know, we got from the the Yammer exit too, and I'm gonna like, we're gonna make electronic jewelry for women. And so, and that was a journey. Um, manufacturing hardware is, is hard. Hardware is hard. That's the thing that we say it's true. Um, for so many reasons. There's so many variables. And I think that, you know, to me, the big difference between hardware and software that I think puts hardware in just a different category completely is your ability to iterate and fix things. Um, because in software, you know, something's not working, there's a bug, blah, blah, blah. You know, you could go, you like fix it, you push it out to production, and now everybody's having the experience they were intended to have.
Aniyia 00:26:08 Um, when you make physical products, not just electronics, but anything you're like physically holding in your hand, I mean a chapstick who knows, like, you know, if the, if the wrapper, it doesn't have the right kind of stickiness, <laugh>, and it's peeling off, like you can't do anything about that when it's already in someone's hands, right? So you just have to like recall it or make a new one. So it's just a very labor intensive, it's a very cost intensive business, and the room for error is much smaller, um, and much less forgiving. So everything from like us trying to figure out how we could source hollow metal chains that didn't snag on women's clothing, which was probably one of the biggest challenges we had to solve, um, was a whole like body of <laugh> of work inside the work in itself. There were things related to, um, certifications and, um, approvals that we had to get because we wanted to put, you know, that it was Apple compatible on the box.
Aniyia 00:27:11 And then I found out all the things you had to go through to actually even get the ability to put apples, like, you know, icons on a box and how that actually affects the requirements of how the box is designed. And Apple has to approve that. And like, you have to submit all of these things to Apple and you have to purchase Apple parts, um, to be compatible with their devices too. So there was like a whole moment where we were trying to get the Apple chips to put into the headphones, and then a new iPhone release happened, and then there was no inventory because everyone was making new accessories, manufacturing new accessories for the new iPhones <laugh>. And it was just like, we're like, nobody in this like huge fight for sourcing materials. How are we gonna, so it was just like always a constant crises. But it was also really fun in some ways because it challenged me to think creatively and figure out other ways to, I feel like I should use a better analogy of this, but there's always more than one way to skin a cat. Um, and like really being able to kind of use those limits as a source of creativity, I think is something that I draw on every day.
Sean 00:28:21 So once you got those parts and figured all that part out, and you had your, you got approved by Apple, all these things I read about where you actually were working on like who physically was assembling these, sounds like you had some intentional thought into that part of the equation as well in terms of labor.
Aniyia 00:28:39 Yeah, so I would say that just across the board, um, with the company that I I, every company that I've built really, um, from tinsel to black and brown founders to Zebras Unite to Black Innovation Alliance, there's been a very strong presence of, of women and people of color and also women of color. Um, I think that especially in the industry that we operate in, um, opportunities don't come to us in the same ways. And sometimes we have to give each other opportunities if we wanna have opportunities. And I think that it has been something that's also borne a lot of fruit, um, particularly because I think that there's just a very specific, um, perspective and lens that women of color and women bring to the workforce and to organization kind of ideas and how people interact together that I think produce greater solutions. Um, and I think a lot of that stems back to what kind of cultures are possible within a company and how people feel like they're, they belong or how they're being treated, or how they're heard, or how they're allowed to express their ideas and try to make things. And and I think that's been a very powerful aspect to my experience as well.
Sean 00:29:53 So you've mentioned all these other ventures that you've taken on and part of that was planning conferences Yeah.
Aniyia 00:30:00 Among other things,
Sean 00:30:01 <laugh> and you've worked with Google. Can you talk about some of these other experiences that you've gone from, you know, being the tech startup founder to helping create a broader ecosystem of support for others? Yeah.
Aniyia 00:30:15 Um, yes. I, and honestly, I still love planning, um, events and, and putting those together because they're instant sparks for community to be created and for people to connect with each other. And I just, I love people so much. Um, but I would say that, um, you know, from the point of starting Tinsel, the startup, um, there would be something that I would notice just kind of like at the systems level where like the challenges that I was having, it kind of felt like, okay, I need to try to tackle this thing that sits above where I am right now and what I'm able to influence in my role as a founder of this company. And that's what I feel like happened with like black and brown founders in Zebras. It was like, we wanna try to, I wanted to try to both solve this access issue for founders of color.
Aniyia 00:31:05 And then I also wanted to help with expanding the kind of financing and funding options that we had for startups on the Zebra side and thought that like tackling those things would have made it easier for the person who I was trying to start tinsel. And then doing that there, I, I noticed there was a level even above that, which was around just the kind of fragmentation of activity that had been happening, um, and how it sort of weakened what, what was, I think, not fully formed as a like shared goal, but knowing that there were so many other organizations that had a similar goal to what we were doing. And I wanted them to kind of all, I wanted all of us to start working together. And that was kind of where the Black Innovation Alliance came in. And then I think even there, which actually is doing really well, but I would say even there realizing that there's another like side to this, which is what is happening inside of the kind of, um, places that are funding or financing, you know, organizations, nonprofits, social movements, all of these things, um, where it feels like we aren't quite like, matched up in like, we're all trying to help make the world a better place, but we're not really, there's a disconnect between how the change happens and like how the funding wants the change to happen.
Aniyia 00:32:21 <laugh>. And I kind of wanted to like start tackling that too and, and thinking about how could I show up and be the funder that I always wanted to be like, or wanted to have, I should say, when I was on the other side of the table. And that's, that's what I get to do now. And I think, um, you know, even uh, in my role at Omidyar Network, I'm kind of the one who's constantly like pushing the organization and breaking things and everyone has a lot of patience for me. Um, but it's, it's the, it's also a, a sense of discovery. Like we're learning and experimenting with new ways that organizations like Omidyar Network can show up and support the kinds of organizations that I have started in the past. Um, and what gets in the way of having really real partnerships between the people who have resources and the people who are kind of on the front lines of, of work. And I think that this is the playbook that's needed now more than ever. And so I feel like I'm now working at the systems level of like, okay, this is where I feel like I can actually have a huge impact. And the, for the, the person who might be me 15 years ago, like, they will come into a better environment to try to actualize their ideas and make these beautiful things happen that need to happen. So that's my hope.
Sean 00:33:39 So a big part of being a source of funds, being a, an investor, an angel investor, for, for folks, from what I've heard and other podcasts and things, is also offering mentorship and advice and coaching. So what are, and, and based on our conversation, it seems like that's probably something that you do. So I'm just trying assume that you provide those. Yes. What are the kinds of advice that, the things that you find yourself saying when, when you know, the, the, you now comes to you and says, Hey, I have this idea we need money. What are the things that you find yourself saying to them that would be helpful for our, our scholars to know if they're interested in starting up their own venture? Mm-hmm.
Aniyia 00:34:20 <affirmative>, um, two things that I say a lot. One, um, is to solve a problem for a community that you are from or have meaningful access to. Um, I think that this is a, a mistake that people across the board make, um, in starting any kind of effort endeavor. Um, particularly in the world of startups, I think it's really easy to see a big, a big hairy problem. And if I fix this problem, there'll be so much money that could be made. You should like, give me lots of venture capital and we're gonna shoot off like a rocket ship and it's gonna be great. Um, that's kind of the energy most people show up with. And I think, you know, there's a a, a beauty and fun to that, but it's also sometimes impractical because what we find is sometimes people wanna try to tackle these problems that they don't actually understand or they haven't really experienced well enough, um, to, to come up with an effective solution.
Aniyia 00:35:17 And so I think it's both about how you can have the most, like, be able to deliver on the promise of solving the problem that you said you set out to do. Um, and being equipped to do that. I think it's also about being able to capitalize on something that might inherently be a unique skillset that will give you an advantage to have a successful effort, whatever that might be. And then the third thing is probably the most practical, which is that if you're building a business, you have to make money, which means you have to sell it to someone. And if you don't already have a mind of who your customer is gonna be, um, and have a connection to them and an ability to get in front of them to make a sale, then your business is not going to survive. So I think that solving problems for communities you're from mean that you also have early adopters that are baked in and that are gonna be interested 'cause they're gonna know and be experiencing that problem too. So, um, not your friends by the way, like people who will pay full price for your product. Um, so <laugh>.
Aniyia 00:36:16 And then, um, the other piece of advice I would, I would give, which I'm, I'm actually, um, thinking of the, the words or the framing of, of a friend of mine, Tara Reed who asked these says like, until you get to what we call product market fit, kind of this like intersection of, I built the thing and this is the thing that people want, but like, she's like, you have your job is to answer these three questions. One is, does anyone want this? Two is will they pay me money for it? And three is what are they paying me money for? Like, why are they paying for this? Um, what are the features that are important about what, like what is the benefit that this thing is offering that you can like now double down on and make people continue to buy or find new audiences to sell it to. So yeah,
Sean 00:37:04 I think that that's really good advice. Know your value prop, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative> that you can bring to the, to the market. So that's for the startup side. You also do, obviously embedded in all of this is a lot of racial and gender equity work. If scholars are interested in doing things like that in their own line of work, their own industries, what advice do you have for them to try and tackle some of these systems challenges as you put it? Ooh,
Aniyia 00:37:26 That's like a whole other podcast episode in itself, but I, I'll try to like impart a couple things. One is, um, I hope that, um, the, the wonderful folks, um, Penn State and beyond listening to this podcast episode will one, not think of the kind of gender and, and racial and really any kind of like, intersection of diversity as something that is compartmentalized into work in any specific way. It shows up in the fabric of everything that we do every day and every decision we make in our mental models and how we think that the world works. So I, I feel like my call to action in one way is to just like acknowledge that and know that, you know, if you want to be a person who is striving to live in a world where people feel, um, safe and have dignity and, um, have what they need to get by, um, then having some presence of that in your mind as you're making decisions is, is just something that you want to start to try to condition yourself to do, right?
Aniyia 00:38:37 Um, so it, it becomes in a way, part of your identity, uh, because it takes that to be thinking about it and to use that as a nexus for how you're going to decide what to do next. Um, but the other thing I would say is that once, once you've made that commitment, um, one of the things I would say is, um, I, I feel like it's, it's just make space for others. Um, this is a thing that I also find myself saying to people a lot. I think, you know, it could actually mean physical space. Like someone in a is in a room who typically you would not expect to be in this room. How can you make them feel welcome? How can you make sure that they are getting the same kind of treatment as everyone else that is there? Um, but I think also in kind of more of a metaphorical way too where, you know, in the rooms that you're in, the conversations you're having, the events that you're at, the businesses you're building, um, who's not there that should be there and how do you make space for them?
Aniyia 00:39:33 I think that it's, um, often conversations around diversity and equity and inclusion have this very zero sum kind of scarcity like element to it. And I don't think that it has to be that. I think that it is really about, you know, there can be as much space as we want to make, um, make the space. You don't have to give something up. You could just create a space for someone else. So, um, I think that, um, that those are just some, some basic things I would, I would say, yeah. And then, you know, minimize harm to others for sure.
Sean 00:40:08 I was thinking of kind of the expression of if you don't like the size of the pie, make a bigger one,
Aniyia 00:40:13 Make a bigger pie <laugh>.
Sean 00:40:16 So I appreciate that. Now, on top of all of these other things that you're doing, you know, you're a founder, you're a business owner, you are community leader, all you know, you're an angel investor yourself. Now you are also a parent.
Aniyia 00:40:34 Oh yeah. We didn't even get to that part. <laugh>. Well,
Sean 00:40:37 I wanted to dive into this 'cause this is something that is near and near to my heart as a fellow parent. And obviously many of our scholars may go on to be parents one day as well. So some future looking advice for them. And I ask this because in, in reading through your website, I think you had a whole bunch of self descriptions and one of them is mommy, right on the, on the top there. And so I wanted to ask about how do you balance being a parent, which is its own full-time job on top of all of these other things. What advice do you have for scholars who may go on to be a parent themselves one day?
Aniyia 00:41:08 Yeah. Well, one thing I should name is that I started <laugh>. I, um, I got, I got pregnant when, about six months after I started Tinsel. It was not necessarily part of the plan. Um, so it was kind of like building two startups at once, and I would not recommend that. Um, I would say that like, that, that shouldn't be the goal. Sometimes it happens, you're rolling, rolling with the punches, but, um, it's a lot, it's a lot to carry and, you know, um, it just means that there's like less space for you to do other things that, um, are also important. Like, I don't know, have patience and consideration for your partners. Like, I feel like especially probably people experiencing having young children during the pandemic, especially kids under five, uh, I'm sure can relate, where everyone just feels like they're trying to survive.
Aniyia 00:42:02 And then on top of that, you like wanna be good to each other too. And sometimes it can feel like you just don't have the capacity for that, and then that compounds and then you just are like, all of a sudden you're in a really bad place with the people who you love the most and you have to find your way back to each other. Um, and I'd say that that that has been a challenge that my husband and I have had to come through. But I think we've learned a lot. And I think that, um, you know, parenting has taught me so much about people, um, just being able to watch a fresh human develop. Um, and, and just, there's just something that's so pure about that. And, um, just such a beautiful learning experience. And, um, but I would say that, you know, for me, I'm, I'm really fortunate that I've had help, uh, because my, my husband's mother, um, has been a mainstay in helping us with, um, taking care of Noemi.
Aniyia 00:42:53 When I was in the first few months of her being born, I was still breastfeeding and I had to go to China for like two weeks. Um, was pumping at a 90 degree factory, uh, and my child was 3000 miles away. And that was really hard. Um, so, which is why I was kind of like building a business and having a kid at the same time is really hard. It's not impossible. It's really hard and you definitely have to make trade offs. And I think part of it for me was just accepting that one, I'm not gonna be the mother of the year, but also it's not like they give trophies out for this <laugh> and that, like, sometimes prioritizing my sanity meant that I could show up as a better mom in the long run. Like I think we just in America especially, wanna all be, you know, you gotta like lay on the cross to make sure your child has every possible thing that they want. And I'm like, you know what? A little bit of adversity, um, breeds resilience, <laugh>, they can't always get what they want all the time. Okay. I'm a person too, so yeah.
Sean 00:43:51 Oh yes, the toddler in my house sometimes it's like, hmm, I don't think he needs that Popsicle right now. I think he'll be fine without it. So I appreciate that. The word that comes to my mind a lot is grace. Yes. And it's sending that to just everybody. Grace, right,
Aniyia 00:44:05 Grace indeed.
Sean 00:44:06 And I have one more fun question here before we kind of go into our reflective third wrap up here. On your, on your site, you refer to yourself with many titles, but, and we've talked about pretty much all of them. Techy system, entrepreneur, creator, mommy,
Aniyia 00:44:23 <laugh>.
Sean 00:44:23 You also refer to yourself and, and maybe I'm showing my, my blind spot here as, as a white guy, but you refer to yourself as a hair magician. Can you elaborate on
Aniyia 00:44:31 That? Um, oh yeah. Okay. So I, all right. Well, we, we've already covered that. I grew up in a hair school, hair salons, hair business. Um, one of the things that I picked up, uh, as a, as a result of my time, um, being a part of that world was, was being pretty good at, at doing hair, um, and, uh, doing my hair, doing, you know, my cousin's hair and anyone who friends that needed a hookup. Um, but no, I, I say that because my hair changes all the time, like all the time. Um, and it's always been like some level of like, commentary at places that I've worked to where it's just like, oh, what hairstyle is Aniyia gonna show up with today? Um, so yeah, I, it's just hair magician because it rhymes with some of the other things I had in the scheme and also it was fun and I'm just like, yeah, it's true. I like, it's like magic. The whole look changes overnight,
Sean 00:45:27 <laugh>. I love it. I love it. Alright, so last third, we're gonna go into some reflective questions here. How do you feel your experiences in Schreyer, at Burkes, at University Park as a music major have helped you? And would you do anything differently? Yeah,
Aniyia 00:45:42 I mean, no, I wouldn't do anything differently. And I would say that it's just, it's helped to expand my lens of inquiry, is how I would put it. I think that, um, the time that I spent, um, in Shreyer I think has been something that's really encouraged the spirit of curiosity, um, within me. And I think that that's actually one of my most powerful, you know, qualities is showing up in a way of curiosity. And, um, not wanting to over prescribe or over predict or, um, or overestimate or underestimate, but just find out what's going on, <laugh>, I wanna know more about that before I make a decision or a judgment. Um, so I'd say curiosity is, it's just, it's a powerful, powerful tool.
Sean 00:46:33 What would you say is your biggest success to date?
Aniyia 00:46:35 Hmm. That's hard. Um, 'cause I'm like, I gotta put the kid at the top of the list. Although I'm also, I'm still really proud. Like, so I had to sunset tinsel, I think it was like 2019 or 2018 when I officially sunset it. But, um, I'm still really proud of creating that. I mean, I, we actually, so we didn't raise a ton of investment money for that company by the standards of building a hardware business. Um, I think we ended up raising close to about half a million dollars in capital. And that's like basically for hardware. Like, you, like rated your couch cushions for some coins that you could like take to take to some place and try to make some magical thing happened, like squeezing blood from a stone. Um, and so I think the fact that we actually were able to successfully ship, um, a couple like, um, you know, batches of like not a couple, like a couple runs, um, of, of the dipper and got that into the hands of women, um, was, was a really amazing thing. And I definitely one of my most proud achievements, like, I have a patent for that. That's really cool. I'm an inventor too, so put that on the list.
Sean 00:47:47 That is awesome. And I'm also, I I would also add for you as editorial here, also the ability to know when to sunset something. I think that's a still too. Yeah, that's
Aniyia 00:47:57 True.
Sean 00:47:57 Ride something until, you know, well past its prime. So knowing that, hey, maybe I should just move on to the next thing that is a still into itself. So I'll give you a hat tip there.
Aniyia 00:48:06 I agree. I agree. Actually, I do tell people, entrepreneurs sometimes when I'm coaching them that failure is always an option. Um, that it's not the goal. Uh, but sometimes it is the better solution is to just put it down and start something else or try a completely different way of, of solving it. But yeah, failure is always an option.
Sean 00:48:29 I hope I didn't steal your answer for my next question, which is what is your biggest transformational learning moment? But I just wanna give a quick plug on here. You talked about getting a patent that is no small feat. And if you're curious on more about how that process actually works, go back and listen to episode two of this podcast with John Hemmer, who's a patent attorney. And you can get a lot more of insight on how that works 'cause it's own crazy process. But Aniyia right here, right now, what would you say is that biggest learning moment that you've had so far?
Aniyia 00:48:57 Ooh, honestly, I would say I have so many, but like, it does tie back to the failure is always an option thing because I learn so much more from the things that I fail at and do horribly than I do from the things I do, right? I barely learn anything when something works out <laugh>. But when it goes wrong, I learn so much. And that actually makes me better. It, it makes my mental model better, it makes me more resilient. Like I, I think that we underestimate the value of failure in this society. Honestly,
Sean 00:49:31 There's a phrase, I don't know who to attribute it to, but from one of my M B A classes, the idea of failing fast mm-hmm. <affirmative> so you can learn from it. So definitely good advice. We kind of touched this on, on this a little bit, but how do you approach mentorship both as a mentee and as a mentor?
Aniyia 00:49:49 I would say, um, as a mentee, again, curiosity and like the, you don't know what you don't know. I always wanna, like, I think my, my intention with everyone, and I would say this actually goes on both ways, is probably like I, I have kind of a, a deep fascination with just human behavior. Um, and I think that I'm always trying to excavate and air out with people, um, our mental models and how we think things work and how our experiences have shaped our beliefs around the world. And I like to use that as an opportunity to try to expand my own understanding, um, and add to, to the lenses and the facets with, through which I can start to see and understand the world and, and why people make the choices that they make. Um, and so I just think that that's actually pretty foundational to a relationship where you're trying to help each other grow in some, some sense. So yeah, like airing out the mental models, I'm, I'm all about it.
Sean 00:50:50 And this must be why you referred to yourself as a system entrepreneur. I love that term. <laugh> guessing you created it.
Aniyia 00:50:56 I did not actually. Um, and I can't remember who the original person was that I heard it from, but I, i, I wish I could take credit for it, but it wasn't mine.
Sean 00:51:04 Are there any professors or friends or others from your scholar days that you want to give a quick shout out to?
Aniyia 00:51:10 Ooh, so many, but I feel like because this is the Schreyer podcast, I, I obviously Sandy Feinstein because she has been like the mainstay, um, of Schreyer activities at the Burke campus for as long as, as I think our memories can stretch. And, um, also was just such a, a, she was a mentor <laugh> in many ways. I, I still have memories of how much red ink she's left on, um, essays and papers that I've written. I think that I, I can actually credit quite a bit of my writing skills to Sandy's editing. So <laugh>, that's one. Um, and then I would also say, I don't know Dr. Lynn, um, some of my favorite classes, I think he might win the award for like the most classes by the same professor that I took, which I took three classes with him. Um, and then, um, Dr. Spivey, who was my, my voice instructor at University Park, so many people, um, really all of my Italian studies, like Italian, um, like professors, just so much that I learned from them both about Italian culture, about translation and linguistics, like so many things. Um, but yeah, those are some off the top of my head
Sean 00:52:22 And I'll give a wholehearted, uh, support for Dr. Feinstein as well, uh, at the Burke's campus. So definitely a great shout out there. As we're wrapping up our time, what is a final piece of advice that you want to share with current Schreyer scholars that you were like, hoping I would ask something where you could answer that and it just didn't come up yet? I
Aniyia 00:52:42 Dunno. I think I would definitely just like lean in on the thing I was saying earlier and just stay curious in every way possible forever. Always keep the curiosity <laugh>.
Sean 00:52:53 And on that same vein, if somebody listening wanted to connect with you and take this conversation further and d dive deeper on one of these ventures that you've had, pick your brain further, how can they connect you with you
Aniyia 00:53:06 Twitter? Um, look me up on the Twitters. Uh, my dms are open. I'm opera Queenie with an IE at the end.
Sean 00:53:15 I think you're the first person to say that one exclusively that I've had on here. So there you have it <laugh>. Uh, get on, get on Twitter if you use it and, and connect with Nia there. Now finally, as is tradition on following the Gone, if you are a flavor of Burke Creamery ice cream, which would you be? And as a scholar alumna most importantly, why would you be that flavor?
Aniyia 00:53:36 Oh my gosh. Um, well, I feel like this is gonna sound like it's super boring, but I feel like my flavor has always been vanilla and like I, I'm not a vanilla person by any stretch of the imagination, but I love a simple ice cream base because I like to put toppings on it and I, I need the canvas for all the other things that could go on top. <laugh>, the like marshmallow topping or like chocolate syrup, caramel, whatever you're feeling. Some strawberries, whipped cream, for sure cherries. Um, so I'm like, yeah, I'm just gonna go with the vanilla here. <laugh>,
Sean 00:54:17 I think that must be some reflection of your experience in musical theater and dressing up and, and all these things.
Aniyia 00:54:23 <laugh>,
Sean 00:54:23 That's what I was imagining. You're trying of dressing up the ice cream. So I think that's a great answer. Aniyia, thank you so much for joining me here on following, following the Gong. I really appreciate it. I hope you listening did as well. Lots of great insights. Thank you so much.
Aniyia 00:54:37 Thanks, Sean.
*GONG SOUND EFFECT*
Sean 00:54:46 Thank you Scholars for listening and learning with us today. We hope you will take something with you that will contribute to how you shape the world. This show proudly supports the Schreyer Honors College Emergency Fund, benefiting Scholars experiencing unexpected financial hardship. You can make a difference at raise.psu.edu/schreyer. Please be sure to hit the relevant subscribe, like, or follow button on whichever platform you are engaging with us on today. You can follow the College on Instagram and LinkedIn to stay up to date on news, events, and deadlines. If you have questions about the show or are a Scholar Alum who'd like to join us as a guest here on Following the Gong, please connect with me at [email protected]
. Until next time, please stay well and We Are!