Yulkendy Valdez ’17: Female Founder Stories (Part 4)
Yulkendy Valdez ’17 co-founded Project 99 with Josuel Plasencia ’17 in 2014 to encourage diversity in the workplace. At Babson, Yulkendy was a CWEL Scholar and a recipient of the Glavin Global Leadership Award. She now works full-time as the Managing Partner of Project 99. Yulkendy and Josuel are creating important and meaningful changes in the world today through their work with Project 99.
Tell me about Project 99.
Project 99 is a leadership development company that helps organizations, mainly Fortune 1000 and large professional service firms, engage and retain diverse millennial talent. Through in-person trainings, we help companies understand how to work with millennials and keep them thriving within the company. Our trainings range from one-day leadership development programs to a one-year program. We value in-person leadership development experiences to bridge communities and make company cultures more inclusive.
What inspired you to co-found Project 99?
When I was a student at Babson, I received a full-time offer from a corporate consulting firm. I was excited about this opportunity but disappointed that none of my co-workers looked like me. Because of this, I felt like I didn’t belong. There was nobody in the office that I could look up to or relate to as an Afro-Latina. I dropped out of corporate America and decided to focus on running Project 99 to help professionals of color feel like they belong in the corporate world.
Who is your role model and why?
While I have mentors and sponsors that I look up to, the main thing that keeps me going is my mom. When I was born, she was a single teenager from the Dominican Republic. She had to figure things out on her own before getting remarried. She instilled in me the values of dignity, authenticity, providing for others, and creating a space where all kinds of people can thrive. That is what I want to do for corporate America and the world. My mom keeps me going when the job gets tough.
What motivates you?
I’m a firm believer that you can do good while making money and building a legacy. I want to be an example of successful social entrepreneurship for generations to come.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received? What is the worst?
The best advice I have received is that you don’t need to have all the pieces of your business together before entering the market. You need to leverage collaborations and partnerships. Traditionally, when people think about competitors, they think they need to stay away. It’s important to shift this mindset to start thinking of competitors as collaborators. As we have built Project 99, we’ve tried to leverage our competitors to expand our businesses together and have a win-win scenario. This advice applies to any industry- entrepreneurs in any industry should feel comfortable approaching others at the top of the industry to see how you can help each other. Figure out how to leverage each other as you make your stake in the market. This strategy has saved us time and money.
The worst advice I’ve received is that once one thing goes wrong, you should take a step back and take more classes to get better for next time. This is bad advice because entrepreneurs learn by doing. You have to keep testing and making prototypes to figure out what works. Often, young entrepreneurs are discouraged or told that they aren’t ready. You will need resilience to keep testing until you hit a home run. I am a firm believer in the philosophy that taking action is the best way to learn.
What has been your greatest entrepreneurial achievement?
When we first started Project 99, we tested the idea by hosting leadership development programs across Latin America. We hosted a crowdfunding campaign for a 4-day program. At that point, we didn’t have a full curriculum and we weren’t experts, we just started and collected data that showed the program’s effectiveness. We are very proud of how we started and how we got where we are today. Now, we are looking at rebranding the company. It’s sad to let the original brand go, but it will always be where we came from. Babson was a big part of that.
What has been your greatest challenge and what lessons did you take from it?
There have been many! Project 99 is a B2B company that sells to human resources departments, diversity and inclusion teams, CEOs and business managers. Because of this, we’ve spent a lot of time talking to older and more experienced professionals and people who don’t look like Josuel and me from a racial standpoint. It has been a challenge to figure out what parts of yourself you have to compromise as an entrepreneur of color as you navigate complex relationships. Selling to these groups of very experienced people has been a journey and figuring out how to grow a B2B business is challenging. It can take 3-6 months to close a deal. It takes a lot of resilience, patience, and perseverance. I’ve learned to be a long-term relationship builder in order to have repeat clients.
What tips do you have for future female founders (what do you wish you knew then)? Specific resources?
Running a business is hard, but starting one doesn’t have to be. Start by figuring out if you have a viable business by administering a survey, hosting an event, or leveraging your existing network by asking them to talk about the problem you’re trying to solve. You don’t necessarily have to share with people that you’re starting a business- just get people’s opinions on the topic.
Luckily, there are many startups out there and it’s very likely that someone is pursuing a similar idea. Go talk to them and find out how they got started and what they suggest. Talk to people in the industry you want to disrupt. We’re fortunate that it’s easy to get meetings as a Babson student or alum.
The Blank Center is an amazing resource. They can walk you through the process of starting a business, no matter the industry. The resources shared through the monthly Blank Center newsletter alone can help you get started! For students pursuing social ventures like ours, get involved with the Lewis Institute and attend their Good Business Friday events. Talk to the Glavin Office if your venture is globally-focused. I’m also currently part of Babson’s year-long WIN Lab program. I definitely recommend other women entrepreneurs do the same if they’ve already tested their idea. Finally, the Summer Venture Program is getting better every year. I highly recommend applying.
The entrepreneurship community in Boston is amazing and has opened doors for us. I understand that it’s hard to get off campus and into Boston, but try. Join external university and industry newsletters and show up to their events to learn as much as possible. It’s incredibly inspiring. Leverage the Boston community as early as you can.
Don’t forget to utilize your peers and different organizations across campus. Before Josuel and I graduated, we did pilot workshops with the Student Government Association, CWEL, and eTower. Working with your peers can actually lead to future business; SGA recently brought us back to run a workshop for them.
Finally, always be yourself. Entrepreneurship can bring a person’s personality to life and provides a lot of confidence. Discover your personality and don’t be ashamed of it! Find a way to plug your startup into it. Be unapologetically yourself.