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Female Founders: Michelle Blake Wilson of Empower ONYX On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

You don’t have a boss, but it’s not this free, willy-nilly, environment, you are accountable to somebody, always. No matter how well your plan is laid out it’s going to get tough. It’s going to be dark. You just have to persevere.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Blake-Wilson of Empower ONYX.

With over 20 years of experience, Michelle Blake-Wilson has a strong track record of success driving innovation, creativity, and leadership to establish a broader vision and strategy. She has administered, developed and executed marketing, communications and sponsorship activation programs for some of the most recognizable brands in the world, managed multiple brands/ clients, with multiple activations at the same event. Blake-Wilson has held several senior marketing and sponsorship roles including at Viacom/BET Networks on The BET Experience , Mercedes-Benz Experiential Account Team, Marketing & Communications for USTA Eastern, Merchandising for Limited Brands-Victoria’s Secret stores and the list goes on.

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’ve been in sports my entire life. I was born into it; my Dad was a crazy tennis dad before it was a thing. I was a competitive tennis player and an equestrian coming up and played collegiate tennis for a year. I always wanted my life to mean something. So, back in the day, I had a little notepad, I wrote my ideas while moving through the city, sort of jotted them down. On the first page, I wrote, I wanted to start a foundation that would help girls through sports. I always knew that sports were a platform to transform lives.

Fast forward, to 2019 I had another company that I was trying to launch, the pandemic happened, my other company was in experiences, so all that went away. During COVID, while I was cleaning/home editing, I found that notebook and it seemed like the moon and the stars just aligned to get me to lean into this opportunity. So, I was in this place of complete rediscovery and redevelopment, EMPOWER ONYX came up and so that’s how I wound up here. I truly believe in manifesting your desires, putting them out in the universe, there’s something to be said for that.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

How open people are, more so how open people are to have a conversation around race, the intersectionality of race participation, engagement, and representation in sport. The most surprising thing is how people have really gravitated towards it. I was concerned it was going to be to niche, too small of a lens. But with the amazing people, I have around me, their ability to see it bigger and translate it into a bigger way, it has.

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?

Nothing’s funny right now, Nothing. Everything is so serious. (Laughs)

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?

So many, but my husband out of everyone. He’s helped me realize that I can sit in this role comfortably and securely. I have a mentor DA Abrams, who has really coached me through. Also, Katrina Adams, Former USTA President and author of “Own The Arena” talks about the concept of a personal board. This board is made of a beautiful array of people that will guide you, and hold you accountable on your journey. My board consists of soooo many dynamic women and men; it’s just that overall village of people that are the wind beneath my wings.

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?

Money, money, money, time, and did I say money. So many women nowadays are the head of households, making less or equal to their partners; if they are lucky to have a partner. However, many women are still, running households by themselves. Unfortunately, with our healthcare system, not having universal healthcare, not having universal childcare, prevents them from being able to step away from a guaranteed paycheck without the bottom dropping out.

That’s why I go back to crediting my husband, it’s only through our partnership that allows me to delve into this endeavor. Also, investors, and VC firms, haven’t moved as fast as we would have hoped as it relates to women and their position in getting funded. There’s still a lot of hesitancy to put money into women, or diverse partners. All recognize the need to support these businesses, but changing a system that has been in place for years takes time.

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?

Universal health care, updating the tax laws for single and working parents, are very easy top-line things. The government did a good job raising the minimum wage. But it’s deplorable we are only just above Papa, New Guinea in the world for maternity leave and government support. So, there are a lot of things our government can do to help increase entrepreneurship amongst women and work on those structural changes.

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?

It goes back to economic independence. I think we’re here because people recognize the need to create a work-life balance. This moment in time has shown us we need to be present, and our pre-pandemic lifestyle didn’t allow for that. This has provided me an opportunity to be with my kids in a very different way, and for them to see me differently. They kind of knew what I did, now they’re like “oh wow, mommy really works hard and is good at her job”. Being an entrepreneur creates economic and life independence where you’re not always beholden to someone, don’t get me wrong, your clients are your new boss, but you get to dictate how that work gets done and when it gets done, working for yourself allows that.

Do you think it was intuitive for you to be a boss and owner entrepreneur?

No, I never saw myself in that regard. I wanted to, but I was too chicken s**t to do it full time. I felt like my husband wouldn’t respect me. I wasn’t at the golden handcuff level, but I was comfortable with paid vacations, a steady paycheck, and the accouterments of working for a big corporation. I never saw myself here, an entrepreneur, but I think with the change in the way people can work and make money, lends itself to becoming successful. That pushed me and having great people in my circle, made me say, you could do this.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

You don’t have a boss, but it’s not this free, willy-nilly, environment, you are accountable to somebody, always. No matter how well your plan is laid out it’s going to get tough. It’s going to be dark. You just have to persevere.

Share some of the dark moments?

Right now? Make sure we have enough money to pay everyone. It’s a lot of stuff that nobody tells you. I had to go through writing policy, travel and expense policies, and taxes, it is all giving me a headache. (laughs)

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?

Not everyone is made to be a founder. If you have thin skin, if you need absolute security, you’re not cut out for this. If you think you’re above doing something, then you really aren’t cut out for being a founder. You need to have that scrappy gene. The other thing I go back to is that personal board, that squad, that team of people that are going to let you know when you are off track, that’s critical.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

That there are going to be dark days.

Networking, networking, networking.

To not be a micromanager. When you’re in a role, you take care of whatever that one function or area, you do it 24/7, you’re all in. So, letting go and letting folks handle and take care of things in the same vein you would have.

That’s three that’s all I got. (laughs)

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Well, we’re trying to change the narrative trajectory of black women and girls in sports and how they see themselves in sports. Also, through my authenticity, as it relates to storytelling by sharing my own personal story and journey. I’d like to think that it provides comfort to other women and girls that are looking to become founders or entrepreneurs and recognize the struggle is real, which is my favorite hashtag because it is real. No matter what someone thinks about my life, it has not been all butterflies and sunshine. Let me tell you, there’s been straight-up struggle and strife, but you can persevere.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be?

The Black equity excellence movement, by that, I mean, we are doing so much dope stuff the world must see us. The world must see us, understand us and pay us equally.

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?

Well, it would be brunch with Beyonce. She has built her whole brand on female independence and ultra-femininity. There’s value there and I believe in the power of that. Also being a lady leaning into your femininity, not sexuality, but your femininity on handling, tackling some of the biggest issues. She’s someone who built a multimillion-dollar brand on her own. She’s supported women in a big way. So, it would be Beyonce, then we could just have a lot of great conversations about Jay Z because I love him. I don’t want to steal her husband, but we can have a whole conversation. (laughs)

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.

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