Female Disruptors: Ashley Kirk of ‘Empower Us Agency’ On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
Relationships are Critical: Every successful executive and industry leader knows that the most important asset is their network. Relationships are critical to maintaining and opening doors for future work. I was grateful to learn this at the start of my career and have continued to keep this top of mind with whomever I meet. You never know whom someone else knows or can connect you with.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Kirk.
Ashley Kirk is the co-founder of Empower Us Agency. This company serves as an industry linkage to support up and coming Black entrepreneurs, incubators, and accelerators connect to social and financial investment opportunities to maximize their capital gains and organizational goals. With the recent launch of the company in late summer 2020, her organization has gained traction from some of the most prominent Black figures in the entrepreneurial/investment ecosystem, such as Melissa Bradly (co-founder of 1863 Ventures) and Connie Evans (CEO, Association for Enterprise Opportunity). They see the organization’s value-add in its efforts to be a valuable source for building Black generational wealth in the business sector.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My life as a young Black woman in this country has forever changed in the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the countless other unarmed Black women, men, and children that have lost their lives in this country. The national and now worldwide attention garnered by these murders over the last several months has again exposed society to the barriers and systemic racism Black people have faced for well over 400 years. What makes this moment different than any other time is that people and corporations are now starting to listen. The momentum of these uprisings has caused me to shift gears from my day-to-day job as a financial Medicaid consultant and think about how I can utilize my talents to help create long-lasting opportunities for the Black community. During this period of thinking about how I can be a leader for my community, I noticed several local small Black businesses popping up on the weekends where I live in Oakland, California, selling everything you could think of (e.g., food, hair products, clothing, health/wellness products). At this moment, I realized I needed to utilize my talents in this ecosystem of business and contribute to growing Black entrepreneurship beyond an idea and creating a pathway to funding.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Before I jump into answering this question, I think it’s important for readers to understand what the entrepreneurial/investment ecosystem looks like for Black women and men regarding access and opportunity. In an industry that thrives on captivating ideas of talented entrepreneurial geniuses, Black-owned businesses continue to be overlooked by angel investors and venture capitalists for investment funds and or network resources and support. Similar to the tech industry, this isn’t something new and has been happening for some time. The Bold Italic recently released statistics that indicate from 2009 to 2017, startups have raised nearly half a trillion dollars of venture capital — only .0006% of that went to Black women, and less than 1% went to Black people overall. And in terms of venture capital investment firm ethnic representation, Black people make up less than 2%. The biggest takeaway from these two important statistics is that there is an access issue for Black entrepreneurs and Black investors that limits our ability to control capital and receive investments. As a disruptor, I am focused on eliminating these systemic barriers that revenue-generating Black entrepreneurs face by creating a platform and space for us that leads to success in the form of financial and social capital. What is unique about this approach is that nothing like this currently exists in the industry. There isn’t a business focused on creating synergy and support for Black entrepreneurs and Black investors.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There isn’t a story I can share about the funniest mistake I made when starting. What I can say in terms of a lesson learned when first starting on this journey, especially during my period of outreach, is making sure to be concise in my description of who we are as an organization and make my asks clear. Investors, business owners/startups, accelerators are busy and don’t have time to read an essay of why you want to work with them. It’s important to get to the point quickly in your outreach efforts.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Since the start of my career, I’ve been very blessed to have strong women leads whom I not only reported to but mentored me along the way and shaped me to be the woman I am today. Someone I can credit with this career shift is my former managing director lead, Michele McGinn. Over the last four years, she has helped me realize how important my voice is as a young Black female leader in my personal and professional career. She has always advocated for me to feel comfortable taking up space. She will forever be an important mentor and friend to me.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
In the entrepreneurial/investment industry, the systemic barriers Black and other ethnic groups face regarding access to capital and resource support is one of the most profound examples of a negative disruption. I believe what Empower Us Agency is striving to provide for the ecosystem in terms of limiting these obstacles and closing the White-Black wealth gap is our way of bringing positive and impactful disruption.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
Along my journey
- Relationships are Critical: Every successful executive and industry leader knows that the most important asset is their network. Relationships are critical to maintaining and opening doors for future work. I was grateful to learn this at the start of my career and have continued to keep this top of mind with whomever I meet. You never know whom someone else knows or can connect you with.
- Network or No Work: This was again another piece of advice I learned at the start of my career over 10 years ago that has served me very well. As a young person starting in any career or field, we have aspirations and goals we hope to obtain. Whether that be running our own company, becoming a hospital executive, etc. It’s important, no matter what journey or trajectory you are on, to network and meet people along the way. This can be in the form of meeting industry leaders at conferences or reaching out to people via LinkedIn or e-mail to request informational interviews. This effort provides insight into what steps leaders completed to get to their current positions and it also serves in expanding your network. Sometimes it can even lead to internships or jobs. Networking is one of the most important skills to harness.
- Don’t Be Discouraged By People Who Don’t Believe In Your Work: I learned this last piece of advice from a gentleman in the venture capital space who was kind enough to talk about our business model and approach to building Black wealth in the industry. Like me, he took an unconventional path to get into the VC industry that didn’t include business school. As cliché as it sounds, he believed he could build his own venture capital firm on his own, and now he’s done just that. One of the lessons he learned across this journey during his fund-raising phase was that many people doubted his efforts or told him his concept or approach wouldn’t work. Despite hearing such negative feedback, he kept at it because he believed in himself and didn’t let anyone discourage him from his dream. As I continue to venture into this ecosystem and meet more industry leaders, I keep this piece of advice top of mind.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
We are just beginning in terms of our business journey, and there is still so much to do and strive for in the industry. With this next phase in our work, we are focused on continuing to build meaningful and trusted relationships across the industry through our outreach efforts and start to think about how to build meaningful partnerships with our stakeholders that really get at our approach of building synergy across entrepreneurs, investors, incubators and accelerators.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
This question is unique because I strongly believe Black women disruptors face challenges that aren’t typical for White women or men. Unlike White women disruptors, Black women disruptors face gender and ethnic stereotypes that are extremely exhausting stressors. It just adds another layer in terms of the barriers in achieving success in our respective industries and feeling respected as Black female leaders. Often strong Black female leaders are stereotyped as aggressive, angry, sassy. These are all perfect examples of the use of negative words to describe powerful Black women. Society needs to allow for the idea of strong Black women to exist because we do.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
I have always been a huge fan of Alicia Garza! For those of you who aren’t familiar with her name, she is one of the Black Lives Matter movement co-founders. I’ve been an avid listener of her podcast, “Lady Don’t Take No.” She is not one to shy away from important topics impacting Black people, nor is she someone that is afraid to speak her mind. She is a strong Black woman that has inspired so many people through her advocacy efforts. In addition to her impact, she also interviews many different advocates and leaders in various industries to expand her listeners knowledge. Alicia Garza’s inspires me to be focused on my goals as a disruptor and creating meaningful change for Black people.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If I could inspire a movement, it would have to be self-care. The pandemic has taken a toll on many people over these last nine months. This happens to be our new normal and new way of life. With that being said, it’s so important for people to practice self-care, whether that be through cardio, meditation, talking to family/friends, to make sure they are doing well.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote has to be from Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. She was the first African American elected to Congress. She said, “if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” As a college-educated Black woman, there has never been a seat at the table for me; it’s been inexistent. I am sure many other people of color reading this can relate to my experience. I’ve always had to work twice as hard as my White counterparts to be noticed and valued. I eat, breathe, and sleep hustle because I know my worth.
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can follow me via our Twitter @empowerusagency to learn more about us or check out our website at www.empowerusagency.com.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!