Profile of a WINner: Michelene WilkersonA sophomore from Staten Island, NY, Michelene Wilkerson is an inspiring entrepreneur who is passionate about motivating others, social justice and exploring new ideas. In addition to starting her business 36HUGHES, Michelene has been a contributor to Entrepreneur Magazine and a Youth Poet Ambassador for Staten Island (2010-2011). She was also a member of the Women Innovating Now (WIN) Lab’s first cohort in the 2013-2014 academic year.
Tell me about your business idea.
My business is 36HUGHES, a media publishing website that focuses on issues of race and race relations, targeted to individuals aged 18-24. My website has both original content as well as aggregated content from other websites. Currently, I’m still in the beginning stages of getting the business up and running; I have a co-founder, Melissa Barclay, who is a student at Quinnipiac College.
When was your light bulb moment?
It’s a funny story: I was working on another venture, a fashion retail store and I didn’t know where to go next with the idea. My constant questioning of the business model made me realize that it wasn’t the right opportunity for me and that it was time to move on. After traveling to South Africa and then coming back home to New York, I was inspired to get back to my “activism” roots. I realized that there weren’t enough honest conversations with my peers about diversity and it was at this moment that I came up with the idea of creating a website where we can have honest dialogue about race as well as controversial journalism around race related issues in the media.
What drew you to the WIN Lab?
I was drawn to the WIN Lab because I knew that I would have a great support system as I delved into entrepreneurship. As a first time entrepreneur, this support was critical for me; I needed guidance to get my idea off the ground and needed a support system to hold me accountable for executing my vision. Further, being part of an all women community was empowering.
What do you think the future of women entrepreneurship looks like?
First, let me say that being a women and pursuing my passions has never been an issue to me. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always run into the right people that take me seriously, no matter what my gender or appearance is. Perhaps it’s because I’m not afraid to voice what’s on my mind. With regard to what I believe the future of entrepreneurship looks like, I think it looks untraditional. By that, I mean that I see a lot of social innovation going on and a lot of for-profit social ventures. I think that what women are gravitating towards is creating a business around social good and social value and less about building their own brands. Women are badass!
Who’s your “shero”?
My mom! She’s always been a very independent woman, having raised me and my sister alone. Watching her do this, I never once questioned myself when it came to doing things independently and thinking for myself – two factors that have had a tremendous influence on my life today. My mom constantly pushes me to be the best I can and excel in what I do; not just academics, but in anything that I’m passionate about. She taught me to not just be good at something but to be great at it.
I’m excited about 36HUGHES! The reason I’m so excited is because I’m helping people express themselves and become more knowledgeable about the issues going on in their own racial community as well as outside of that. Since I’m studying business, the big question is always “where’s the revenue model?” I know I have to build a profitable business, but if I can build social value, hopefully the overarching goal is to connect understanding gaps of what people have of other racial groups. If I can succeed at this then I am doing something so much bigger than just creating a profitable business.
True diversity has been such a tremendous facet and contribution to my success. Giving that to others and giving them the space where they can look at issues of race – that is a great thing. We need to have these discussions more often. It’s sad when talking about race can be more awkward than talking about sex. I find that curiosity is often mistaken for racism; we forget that ignorance can be a good thing because it forces you to ask questions.
What’s your biggest need / What’s one thing that could help take your business to the next level?
Our biggest feat is building a brand; without a brand, people will not come to the website. We have to successfully get people to understand that this is not just another “race conversation”, but a community where we can have intellectual discussions around a controversial issue.
What’s the greatest thing you’ve gotten out of WIN/ how has it helped you the most?
For sure it’s the women involved. At first, I was nervous and intimidated because the majority of the participants are MBA students. However, this turned into many of the women becoming “big sisters” to me, instead of treating me like a subordinate. Having them look at me and take me seriously boosted my confidence both in pursuing my business as well as taking myself more seriously when approaching others.
Advice for other aspiring women entrepreneurs?
Just do it. Just do it. It’s scary. I’m scared. I’m really scared actually, but I am making a way. Second, don’t be afraid of having little resources. A friend of mine said something amazing a back in October. My friend Shapri said, “Michelene, why are you scared of not having anything? We had to watch our mothers work with limited resources and sometimes even the bare minimum. If they could do it with children, so can we.” Just go for it.
About the WIN Lab:
Created by Babson’s Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership, the WIN Lab provides entrepreneurs with the road map, expertise, inspiration, and community needed to successfully launch ventures. The WIN Lab team is in the business of launching companies. To do this, they choose candidates who are ready to pursue their entrepreneurial destinies.