Female Founders: Aireka Harvell of Nodat On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Failure is expected and actually celebrated. There is a quote that I love by Robert Kiyosaki that says “Winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success.” I used to be embarrassed to talk about my failures but not anymore. Failure builds character and teaches the greatest lessons. I welcome the failures because that means I’m not talking myself out of trying.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aireka Harvell.
Aireka Harvell is the founder & CEO of Nodat, the first all-in-one geo-targeting mobile marketing and loyalty platform that helps small businesses get more from their marketing budget by targeting and retargeting consumers in their service areas or specific geographical locations wherever they are on mobile. Aireka is passionate about local businesses and helping to create access to the tools and resources they need to be more competitive. Aireka has a decade of experience in high-scale customer loyalty with national brands like AT&T and American Express Plenti Loyalty. Aireka is an advocate for women and minority entrepreneurs which led her to co-found Twende, the first accelerator for founders of color in Nashville.
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?
I am a Nashville native, a graduate of Cumberland University, and a proud mom. Before becoming an entrepreneur, I spent 10 years with AT&T in their Nashville-based Customer Loyalty and Retention Organization. This experience helped me to understand what it takes to turn consumers into brand loyalists even when they are not happy with the company.
While I am also very passionate about the small and medium business (SMB) community, I often overlooked local businesses by shopping exclusively with big name brands. However, that all changed in 2016 when I discovered that my son was upset about not going to a new water park that opened in our city. He found out about the waterpark after his friends were teasing him with videos and pictures of themselves on Snapchat. I had no clue that the water park existed. So, I started asking my family and friends if they knew about it. Only one person in my entire network knew it existed.
This experience made me wonder why so few people knew about this amazing new business. Then I started to examine what could be done to help small businesses promote their products and services within their local communities. I knew Yelp was out there, but I wanted to find a way to help people learn about and connect with more exciting businesses in their local areas. I also wanted to figure out a way to encourage people to share positive experiences versus all the negative ones, like you see on other apps. I mentioned to my son that it would be cool if someone developed an app that rewarded locals with points for sharing what they knew about businesses with other locals. My son looked at me and said, “Why don’t you do it?” I thought to myself, “Why not me?”
At the time I wasn’t aware of many women, let alone Black people in tech that were building marketing technology. So I made the decision to give it a shot. Since I had no idea how to develop an app, I started doing research and hired some developers. After a lot of hard work and testing of the beta version of the app, we launched the initial version of Nodat in the summer of 2017.
That’s how Nodat came to be, and how I became an entrepreneur.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I had been working on Nodat for six months while still in my position at AT&T. I chose to hire a team of developers from India and while we had to communicate via Skype, we got to know each other pretty well. They invited a friend and I to fly out to talk and discuss the future plans of the company. I couldn’t resist their invitation to visit India.While my family and friends thought I was crazy for going to another country to meet with people that I didn’t know, it didn’t stop them from rooting for me.
While in India, we submitted Nodat to the app stores. I can still remember how it felt getting the approval for the iOS app while boarding the plane to go home. I forgot where I was and screamed out as loud as I could, “YAY! WE GOT APPROVED FOR APPLE!” so loud.
We immediately gained a lot of traction. So when I got an early investment from a close friend, I made the decision to leave my corporate career to work full-time building my company.
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?
I made the mistake of telling my children that we were going to be rich. They immediately started looking for mansions and even found a specific one they liked. My babies started telling everyone we were moving to Governor’s Place.
My children believe in me so much that even years later they are still asking “How close are we to moving into Governor’s Place?” I am starting to think that they will never let me forget this promise. I am hustling everyday to make sure I fulfill that promise of building generational wealth to pass down to them and their children. I’ve also learned how to have faith in my dreams by watching them have faith in me.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people that come to mind, I am truly blessed to have had a long list of supporters. In previous interviews I’ve made mention of how people like Sherry Deuestchman, Kimmy & Sergio Pauluch, and Robert Jewell are some of my biggest supporters. They believed in me enough to either invest, offer advice, give mentorship, or to introduce me to people that could help me with my business. The list of support is long.
With that being said, I must add Becky Sharpe to the list. Becky and I serve on the host committee for the DealMakers Conference in Nashville, TN. We immediately bonded over our experiences as women founders in male dominated spaces. Becky did not waste any time making connections for me to potential customers, advisors and investors. Thanks to her networking skills, she was able to put us in touch with some of the largest franchises in Nashville. Beckys’ efforts helped to catapult my business and subsequently we closed our first local franchise customer and I got to meet and build relationships with some amazing and influential entrepreneurs.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I am seeing more women starting and growing companies every day and the EY report reflects this. We should be celebrating that the ratio has been on a steady increase. The ratio has doubled from 10% of startups having one woman founder to 20% over the last ten years, and that is great progress. I look forward to the day when the headline reads ”40% of Startups Have At Least One Woman Founder.”
As an advocate for women entrepreneurs, I often talk about the challenges we face growing sustainable businesses after we overcome our initial fears of failure, existing responsibilities, and commitment. In my opinion, the greatest challenge that women founders face is funding. It’s interesting to note in the EY report that when a woman has a male cofounder, funding happens more often versus when she raises as the primary founder. It astounds me that this ratio hasn’t changed since 2016.
The focus should be on what’s causing that number not to move forward. While women now have more rights and our involvement in business and entrepreneurship has increased, there are issues at the root of the problem that still need the world’s attention. One of those being the need for more diversity in the venture space. It would allow new ideologies, and processes for deal considerations to be created and people at the top of the venture space should reflect that.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Women-owned businesses are pillars in our communities and support is a key factor for them to continue to thrive. So, as a society we should make it easier for communities to support and advocate for the success of our businesses. In order to grow the pipeline, we should foster collaborative environments that encourage and empower women to become founders. One of the ways that we can create that environment and increase equality for all is by creating programs that incentivize those investors that are the first to financially support women founders.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Much like other founders, I’ve spent years building, failing, pivoting, and rebuilding. However, it took an interaction with a male investor that solidified the fact I was already equipped with the resiliency needed to be a female founder when a male investor advised me to, “quit because men before me have tried to solve the problem I aim to solve, and failed.”
The data has already been collected to validate why the world needs more women founders. Many reports have proven that companies founded by or led by women outperform our all male counterparts by 63%. It has also been proven that women funders are investing more than our male funders. That is primarily due to the fact that most women funders are investing in women founders.
I am amongst a small number of women tackling the gaps created by larger players in our space that ignore the complex needs of a very vulnerable but important demographic of businesses. The small and medium business and the local marketing space is about community, relationships, and loyalty. It requires someone with patience who cares about solving their problems and not a quick pay day. So who better to have that patience while being diligent, scrappy, and resilient than a female founder?
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
Entrepreneurs are not motivated by money alone. Most of the successful founders I have met, myself included, have a bigger why behind what we do. It’s the excitement of creating something new for the world to use while overcoming obstacles, breaking down barriers, and testing new products or services.
The personal and spiritual aspect of being a founder is also valuable. We get to see the world from different lenses and it helps us grow to become better human beings. After all of that and we finally get our formula just right, the money is a great reward.
There’s also the myth that only founders who come from certain backgrounds or graduated from certain universities can grow companies that will one day become a Unicorn. This misconception has led to a lot of great founders being bypassed. I know this to be true because I had first hand experience. Early in my journey an investor recommended that I work for an entrepreneur instead of becoming one. His reasoning was that I didn’t look a certain way and I didn’t come from a specific background. Thankfully those old ideas are rapidly being proven wrong.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
While anyone can become a founder, not everyone is cut out to remain one. Founding a company is the easy part. Once there’s a solid idea you go through the process to create it, name it, register a birth certificate and boom you’re officially a founder. In my opinion, It’s the work that comes after the birth certificate that’s not for the faint of heart. I liken it to parenting because every business is like a child, they each have their own personality and its own set of unique challenges. Now if you’re a great founder, you will possess certain qualities and traits that equip them to go through those growing pains until the company matures enough to fly on its own.
We treat our new companies the same way every parent invisions themselves raising the perfect children who never make mistakes and grow up to be amazing successful adults. If you have children then you know that sometimes they will go astray and choose their own path to becoming amazing adults. While holding on to that vision it’s our duty to be loving, patient, insightful, determined, and a resilient parent while allowing them room to grow. As parents, we take risks and make sacrifices for our children to be successful.
The criteria is the same for a founder. We have to be willing to birth the vision, nurture it, see it through its tests and trials, pivot, and allow it to grow through its failures. We often have to set our egos aside and seek help by joining supportive communities and seeking advice and mentorship. If an individual from our community doesn’t possess the necessary traits, then they may be better suited to be in a supportive role that helps build the vision and that’s ok because every role is vital for its success.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Focus on building the right relationships.
For a long time I thought I had to do this alone and I didn’t see much point in doing it. Once I finally understood the value of relationship building things got easier. There’s a definite value in building a network of people who believe in you and your vision, will vouch for you, won’t just praise you when you’re doing amazing things but will sit you down and give it to you straight when you’re not doing so amazing. This lesson allowed me to learn that relationships are just as important as the product itself because it’s those relationships that will open doors and help you grow into maturity.
2. Don’t compare your journey as a founder to any other’s.
I remember reading an article in 2016 about the two men who founded Instagram and became an overnight success. The journalist literally referred to it as a “fairytale.” The article went on and on about how it only took two months to build it and how quickly they gained momentum. When I started my company I did not have the “fairytale” experience and I felt awful because I began to compare myself to the stories of other founders.
Then one of my developers decided to send me a message of encouragement stating, “Remember at first not a lot of people understood what Instagram was. You don’t remember when they kept changing it?” I looked at that message and said to myself, “I thought they were an overnight success story?” I immediately began researching and learned that they pivoted a couple of times before they found the right formula two to three years later. I then realized I wasn’t there for the early versions and I just saw the final product. I was comparing my early versions to their final product which was a dangerous thing to do. I”m grateful for that message to this day because it put me in the right mindset to keep going. I remind myself of it often and I share it with the founders I mentor.
3. It’s okay to be myself.
There’s a lot of stereotypical ideologies about the right way to be a founder. One day I had plans to meet a potential investor for dinner for the first time and someone gave me advice on how to dress and suggested that I rent a car so it appeared I came from wealth. I declined that advice. Well, on my way to the restaurant I got a flat tire that made me about 10 minutes late. When I finally arrived he looked at me and said “You want me to invest in your company and you make me wait for you?” I explained the flat tire and he responded with a stern face “Early is on time, on time is late and late don’t ever think about it again?” I looked at him, faked a smile and shook my head ok. At this point, I’m thinking “I should have rented the dang car!” He then let out a loud laugh and said “I’m BSing you!” and we laughed about it. I’m not sure if that was the best way to break the ice but it made me forget how nervous I was to begin with. I relaxed and we had a great meeting.
To me authenticity is everything and it’s important that stakeholders, investors and team members know the real me so they know what they are getting themselves into from the beginning. I perform my best when I am allowed to show up as my authentic self.
4. Failure is expected and actually celebrated.
There is a quote that I love by Robert Kiyosaki that says “Winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success.” I used to be embarrassed to talk about my failures but not anymore. Failure builds character and teaches the greatest lessons. I welcome the failures because that means I’m not talking myself out of trying.
5. Trust your gut.
In the beginning, so many people tried to tell me that what I am building would not work. However, I felt it in my gut that video reviews and user generated content was going to be huge in marketing one day. Today user generated content has created an entirely new economy that grew from a $20B industry in 2021 to now a $104B industry in 2022 and it’s only going to continue to grow. My gut tells me we’re in the right space.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I love to share knowledge so much that a few of my colleagues have nicknamed me the “info warrior.” I get a twinge of excitement when I share something new that I’ve learned and someone confirms that they didn’t know it either. I mean after all, I did name my company Nodat (know that) because I seriously love to find new information and share it with the world.
I get excited because I know that piece of information could possibly be what that person needed to know to improve a process, get a job, heal an illness, buy the perfect gift, etc. The first time I launched a crowdfunding campaign, I realized not a lot of people in my community even knew businesses used crowdfunding as a strategy to fund themselves. So, I started educating the community on the various non-traditional ways of getting the funding an early entrepreneur may need to get to their next milestone. I partnered with two other entrepreneurs to co-found Twende, the first accelerator for Black and Brown entrepreneurs in Tennessee.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I have always wanted to partner with a restaurant to create a program that helps early-stage entrepreneurs raise a small quick round of funding. The entrepreneurs would be waiting tables and pitching to customers. While serving tables, the entrepreneurs would pitch themselves and their businesses to the customers and then based on how well they convinced the customer to believe in them and their business idea the customer would decide how much they want to contribute to that server’s campaign. I would call it Pitch House!
I would split the restaurant into two sections. One for regular seating and the other section would offer the pitch house experience. I would make it a whole experience. Each founder would get like two weeks to reach their goal. I think that is an exciting way to get more of the community involved in supporting early founders. Access to early capital is often a barrier for a lot of entrepreneurs because many times new entrepreneurs work full-time jobs and have very little extra money to use towards their business. So this would allow the entrepreneurs to raise the money to start their business without the commitment of a part-time job, and help the restaurant with free labor.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to have lunch with Serena Williams! Serena is a change agent and she has experience overcoming the adversity and challenges that come along with that type of goal. Can you tag her please?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.