Carla Harris: In 2020, only 93 Black women had ever raised over $1 million in venture capital, according to a report by Project Diane. And in 2021, Crunchbase found that Black female startup founders received merely 0.34% of the total venture capital spent in the U.S. in the first half of the year. The extreme funding gap that exists for Black female entrepreneurs is laid bare through these figures. What they don't tell, though, is the story of those select few Black female founders who get funded, and the path they must then chart largely for themselves.
Today, we'll hear from one Black female entrepreneur who got her funding, and discuss how she's navigating being on the other side of these statistics.
Monique Rodriguez: The early days of starting Mielle was very trial and error. I came from a nursing background, had no idea about business, had no idea about product formulation, nothing about entrepreneurship, but sometimes your greatest asset can be the fact that you just don't know.
Carla Harris: This is Monique Rodriguez, founder and CEO of Mielle Organics, the fastest-growing Black-owned and women-led natural hair care company in the world. In 2021, Monique became the first-ever Black woman to secure a nine-figure non-controlling investment deal with Berkshire Partners. First, we'll hear how she turned her passion for hair care and women's health into a global beauty brand.
Then, I'll sit down with Monique to speak about growing pains and how Monique is leading to execute through this new phase. And throughout the conversation, we’ll draw on ideas from my new book, Lead to Win.
Welcome to Access and Opportunity, I’m your host Carla Harris. And we’re telling the stories of individuals working to drive change within their communities. We provide context about systemic inequities and share tangible examples of how ideas around access and opportunity are being made real every day.
Monique Rodriguez: I remember being a little girl going into my grandmother's bathroom and playing in her makeup and lipstick and being obsessed with her hair products and what she used. But I never thought that what I had an interest in and what I loved was something that I could make a career out of.
Carla Harris: Monique was born and raised in the southside of Chicago in the early ‘80s. Growing up in the inner city, she wasn't exposed to entrepreneurs or other mentors in business who she connected with.
Monique Rodriguez: When I was growing up, the notion of, kids can't be what they don't see – I did not see women entrepreneurs, let alone black women that were running and operating businesses, like that was so foreign. It was like, you think you have the audacity to do what? Coming from the background that I came from and the childhood that I grew up in, and no fault to my mom, because it was what she knew, but her whole thing was: I need to teach my daughter how to survive.
Carla Harris: While young Monique harbored dreams of starting a beauty business one day, inspired in part by her mother's hobby of sewing and clothes making, her mother encouraged her to follow a more stable career path. Monique heeded that advice, becoming a registered nurse. But, she never fully let go of her childhood ambitions.
Monique Rodriguez: What I've discovered is that when you have a burning dream and desire in your heart, that dream and desire is never gonna go away until you fulfill it, until you act on it.
Carla Harris: With that ambition in the background, Monique worked in hospitals around Chicago for the next nine years to help support her growing family. By 2013, she'd married her high school sweetheart, Melvin, and together they had two daughters. And soon, they'd be welcoming their third child, a son.
Monique Rodriguez: I was eight months pregnant with our third child, and I had a very high risk pregnancy, and unfortunately my son passed away from complications and it was a very dark and tragic place that I was in, and in order to pick myself up out of that dark place, I knew I had to lean on my faith, redefining who I was as a person and not living my life for what other people thought that I should do to be successful, but really doing something that was my true gift in calling.
Carla Harris: Moving into her purpose started off small for Monique. She began a hair care journey to naturally heal her curls from years of color and heat damage. She also started documenting the process and sharing it on social media as an outlet for expression and to connect with community through joy.
Monique Rodriguez: Because I felt that, me being a consumer, I was underserved. There was no one that related to me and understood my hair needs and my struggles, and so I started making mixtures and concoctions in my kitchen because I was helping my hair. I would share that on social media, and what I realized is that a lot of women were having some of the same issues and problems and it wasn't being addressed. And because I received so many requests to buy what I was already making at home, I decided to serve in an area where I felt was untapped.
Carla Harris: According to Mintel, Black hair care is valued at $2.5 billion as of 2021, and growing. Today, major hair care companies are all but scrambling to create natural hair care products for the lucrative segment they've long ignored.
But way back in 2014, when Monique was entering the space, she considered it a leap of faith.
Monique Rodriguez: The early days of starting Mielle was very trial and error. You know, I came from a nursing background, had no idea about business, had no idea about product formulation, nothing about entrepreneurship, but sometimes your greatest asset can be the fact that you just don't know, because I tend to be a person that overthinks, and when I don't know anything about an industry, I can't overthink about a situation because I don't know what to expect.
Carla Harris: Monique faced a steep learning curve to turn her natural home remedies into shelf stable products that were fit to ship. With no proven track record or existing relationships in hair care manufacturing, getting her first product off the ground was a huge personal gamble.
Monique Rodriguez: I did a lot of research, found a local chemist on Google in the Chicago area that was willing to give me a try and didn't charge me an arm and a leg for minimums. And we worked together for a very long time and so that's how Mielle Brands started with just one product, our mint almond oil, and then I just launched and we just grew from there.
My community, when I first launched, was very small. I had about 500 followers. So I didn't have a large audience, but what I did have was a lot of engagement. So, I never focused on the fact that I didn't have the numbers. What I focused on was, yeah, I know I have a small following, but how can I over serve them and deliver the best so then they can talk about it and share it with other people? – and that's how my following will grow.
Carla Harris: Soon, 500 followers became 10,000. Today, nearly one million people follow Mielle on Instagram. And as Monique's following has grown and evolved, so, too, has her business.
Monique Rodriguez: In the beginning with starting Mielle, it was solely off of my nursing paychecks. And then once I got it off the ground, we bootstrapped for about a year and a half until we got our first retail call from Sally Beauty. Going into retail, we knew that we needed funding to support the retail shelf, we needed funding for marketing, and so we were fortunate enough to receive a loan. It was like $200,000. From then on, we continued to bootstrap until 2018, where we were able to get a line of credit.
Carla Harris: That loan allowed Monique to start growing and scaling Mielle. By 2020, the business was attractive enough for Monique to raise her first round of seed funding, unlocking a new phase of growth. Today, Mielle distributes in more than 87 countries in over 100,000 stores across the globe. It's a vision that Monique continues to expand upon not only for herself, but for others looking to follow suit.
Monique Rodriguez: Ultimately, what I do is bigger than hair products because it's inspiring and impacting people's lives to dream bigger and to know that there is so much more to life than the traditional route in which we were taught and conditioned to think as kids growing up.
Carla Harris: Monique's success shows what is possible for Black female entrepreneurs when passion is paired with adequate resources, funding and support. And for Monique, it's just the beginning.
Last year, she broke the glass ceiling for Black-owned, women-led brands, inking a historic nine-figure, non-controlling investment deal with Berkshire Partners. Now, all eyes are on her.
I’m so excited to speak to Monique at this moment of her founder's journey because it's a uniquely critical time for her as a leader. Indeed, shortly after recording this conversation, Mielle announced it had been bought by Procter & Gamble, the largest consumer goods company in the world. In my more than three decades on Wall Street, I've worked alongside many CEOs at this same pivotal juncture. Through it all, I've cultivated what I like to call my ‘hard-earned and hard-learned pearls’. In my latest book, Lead to Win, I’ve identified key intentions people can set in order to be a powerful, impactful leader no matter where you work.
I sit down with Monique to talk about how she's leading to execute on this next chapter for Mielle.
Carla Harris: Monique, thank you so much for being here with me today. It's a pleasure to have you on the show. Are you ready?
Monique Rodriguez: I am absolutely ready. [laughs]
Carla Harris: Alrighty. So on Access and Opportunity, we often highlight obstacles to securing adequate funding, Now you've got your capital, Monique, and now comes the even harder part is execution. So to get us going, how would you describe your leadership style?
Monique Rodriguez: Yeah, because my background is in nursing, my leadership style has never been authoritative, “You do this, you do that,” and I'm just gonna sit back in my CEO hat and watch everybody work around me. If I lead with compassion I feel like it creates an environment where people can truly feel like they work for an organization that cares about them and it’s not just about profitability. Profitability for me is also when my people are happy. You know, I think leadership has taken on this type of masculinity. And I wanna bring that femininity back to leadership because I think that you can still lead with authority, but not be authoritative. And I feel like you can lead with compassion and still get the job done in a caring way.
Carla Harris: So let's you and I try to change, in this conversation right now, the way people characterize leadership styles, because you are absolutely right that historically this ‘my way or the highway’ leadership style has been viewed to be more masculine and the compassionate, empathetic side has been viewed to be more feminine. So let's you and I change that right now, because frankly, I know women who act with the ‘my way or the highway’ style. And I know men who are much more empathetic and compassionate. And the fact of the matter is the engagement that you talked about necessitates your being able to demonstrate as a CEO that compassion and that empathy. And that's just great leadership. It's not masculine, it's not feminine.
Monique Rodriguez: Yes.
Carla Harris: Okay, I love it. Yes, ma'am. You and I, we're gonna change that conversation for all the leaders that are out there today. So tell me a little bit though – now you are eight years into this journey – how has your leadership style developed? What were you thinking about yourself as a leader in 2014, 2015, that you see differently today?
Monique Rodriguez: Yeah, in the beginning I thought that a leader was that dictator leader, like, “This is what you do.” I thought delegation was, “You do this,” and don't do what I do, but do as I say. That's what I really thought leadership was. What I've learned is that in entrepreneurship, as a CEO, you're not gonna know everything, but what you should know is how to surround yourself with people that can compliment certain skill sets that you may not have. So for most people, they know that my husband is COO of the company. He has a totally different background, right? He came from an operations and engineering background. His skill set compliments the areas that I don't have. I don't want to use my time, energy, and resources to focus on something that's not producing fruit. I want to focus on the things that are my strengths, that really help drive the business and compliment the areas of weakness.
And then we also have mentors that we ask questions to make sure that we're going in the right direction. So it's all about surrounding yourselves with people that are smarter than you in certain areas that you're not.
Carla Harris: Mm-hmm.
Monique Rodriguez: And then also, we went through a period of being unprofitable. That was in 2018. And that period, it…you know, I always say, because I'm a faith-based person, that God will sometimes put you through things to make you learn, right? And so I felt that we went through that stage so now I can appreciate the moments where I am profitable, right? I can appreciate monitoring my spending and making sure that I know what's going in and also what's coming out. Before 2018, I really wasn't focused on that. I was really focused on the creative side, product innovation, research and development because that's what my comfort zone was, but going through this period of being unprofitable allowed me to reflect and say, "This is what I need to pay attention to." Because your finances, that's the foundation of the business.
Carla Harris: That’s right.
Monique Rodriguez: No matter how creative you are, you can create great products if you don't have the money and the profits to reinvest that back into the business. And so one of the reasons why we became unprofitable was because we went through some really bad accountants and CFOs. They didn't have a high knowledge of understanding of the industry that I was in…
Carla Harris: Yes.
Monique Rodriguez: …and they were managing our books totally inappropriately, but it allowed me to understand what a good accountant is. And so we took an investment from New Voices, that was our first round of investment, and they were great mentors to us and helped us find a new CFO. So, having that state of vulnerability to say, “You know what, look, I just don't know, but I need help.” Like, that is a sign of strength, not weakness. And we expressed what our problems were, what our challenges were, and bringing them on board helped us find the right people, put them in place, and they also invested in us and put us in a state of being profitable…
Carla Harris: Mm-hmm.
Monique Rodriguez: ...which allowed us to even have conversations with the investment banker the subsequent year.
Carla Harris: Absolutely, especially when you're talking to private equity folks or VCs, because if they even smell that, you don't either understand your business, don't understand the finances, or you don't understand the game. And let's be clear, fundraising is a game, right? And the execution on another side of it is the other part of the game. If they realize you don't understand that, they will take advantage of you at the decision making table and you can't take it personally, you know, that is the law of the jungle. You have to know the jungle and you have to know the rules.
Monique Rodriguez: Yeah, and I remember the CFO that we hired telling us once we got back into a profitable state, and I will never forget this, he said, “The best time to raise money is when you don't need the money.”
Carla Harris: That's right.
Monique Rodriguez: And I appreciated his context because I knew how hard it was to raise money when I wasn't profitable.
Carla Harris: That's right.
Monique Rodriguez: The banks didn't wanna have a conversation with us. Investment firms didn't want to have a conversation with us. So when he said that, it really resonated with me like: Wow, you raise money when you don't need the money because it gives you leverage. So once we took the investment from New Voices, we got into a very profitable state and I knew, I was like, our EBITDA looks really well, because now I understood what EBITDA was, right?
Carla Harris: [laughs]
Monique Rodriguez: Now I understood how my profit and loss statement should look, right? — and I said, “We need to raise to go for another round so we can truly scale our business.” His nugget, his wisdom of advice resonated in my soul. And I knew once we got to that state that it was time to raise.
Carla Harris: So Monique, now that you have this capital with there being new criteria on your report card around execution, how are you thinking about your goals going forward and then communicating that to the rest of the organization? – because this was a game changer.
Monique Rodriguez: You know, we went with the narrative, because it's true, is that, we don't know everything, and we wanted to bring on resources to help us grow and scale. In order to be a global beauty brand, you need those doors to be opened that you may not be able to open yourselves unless you have your big brother behind your back, right? – which is those private equity firms. And so we just expressed to our team that they are here to help. Just for example, we pride ourselves on employing our community. You have private equity companies that will come in and clean house, right? We were very adamant that the people that are in our warehouse, the people that work for us, they're important to us. We love providing opportunity and jobs to the community. That can't change. So it's really just helping them understand and bringing them into your vision and making sure that they're aligned with your vision and they don't want to come and disrupt that. So then we have the confidence to go back to our team and say, “We found some great partners. They are not here to disrupt, but they are here to help.” We had some people get it, and then you have some people that didn't get it, and some people, quite frankly, are just afraid of change.
Carla Harris: That's right.
Monique Rodriguez: You know, with our private equity partners, as far as the execution, they immediately came on board and said, “What can we help you with?”, “What are some of the challenges?” And we knew, immediately, that we needed help with infrastructure, because sometimes your company is growing faster than your infrastructure can support and so we needed help on the operations side. We put together this whole plan and prioritized what we needed to focus on first, because that's one of the challenges when you're growing so fast, it's like how do you put the right people in place to make sure that you're executing the tasks that you need to be focused on first? – the things that are really going to help drive the business and drive growth was something that they immediately came on board and helped with.
Carla Harris: Mm-hmm. Outstanding. Outstanding. Monique, one of the things I was going to talk about, that I talk about in Lead to Win Chapter 10, as a matter of fact, is that leadership has evolved from oversight to insight. And in this case, you're talking about the fact that you gleaned the insights from sort of “dating the capital” beforehand. And that also underscores the point, and I'm just going to put this playbook point out there: all money is not created equal. Let's say it again: “All money is not created equal.” Having the right partner with the money is the most important thing and making sure that while they're helping you to disrupt the industry, they don't disrupt the culture that you've already started to bring. And you were able to bring that insight into your team and help them to understand what that looks like. Let's talk about another leadership issue. though, I talk about, in Chapter Nine, about blind spots. Everybody has them. Everybody has them. What have you learned, or what blind spots have you identified for yourself as a CEO, as you watched your own evolution over these last eight years?
Monique Rodriguez: Oh, that's a good question. Blind spots. And you're right, everybody has them. I would say, some of my blind spots that I still continue to work on…like, I really don't like public speaking, but I feel like great things happen when you step out of your comfort zone. In the beginning I wanted to shy away from being on panels and doing presentations. I'll just be like, Okay, my husband's gonna do it, but I also feel like God will use the people that are most uncomfortable doing it because…
Carla Harris: Anybody say, “Moses?”
Monique Rodriguez: Listen, you took the words right out of my mouth.
Carla Harris: Oh, I'm with you. I’m with you.
Monique Rodriguez: Listen, I was just about to go there, like, you know, like Moses said, “You wanna use me to rescue the people? Like I have a stuttering problem. I can't do that.” “Why you can't use somebody else to do that?” And God's like, “No, I'm going to use you, the least expected, the least qualified, so to speak, according to society, but you're gonna fulfill my purpose and my calling. And that's exactly what I felt, because my husband's very extroverted, you know, he's very talkative. And so I always would think that he would be the one that's in the forefront and speaking and talking and God's like, “Nope, I'm gonna use you because you're not gonna lean on him for areas that you're uncomfortable. I'm gonna push you outside of your comfort zone because you're great at it and you're going to be called to be impactful and change people's lives.”
Carla Harris: Which is what you've done, which is why you're so, so incredibly good at it. That you started with no products, creating community and educating you offered value before you even started, which is something that's continuing to help you differentiate the business. So how could you abdicate speaking to your community when you started this thing, speaking to your community? So it's all come full circle. And speaking of serving your community, Mielle has an initiative called ‘More Than a Strand’ that helps female entrepreneurs secure funding and resources to get their ventures off the ground. So, what do you teach these women about leadership? Because as you know, you can have a great product and you can even get it to market and it can even be differentiated and better than the competition that's out there. So what do you teach them about leadership from your early days?
Monique Rodriguez: Well, I would say, you know, one of the most important things is to – and I'm gonna go back to finding people that can help execute your vision…
Carla Harris: Okay.
Monique Rodriguez: …because you can’t do it by yourself. And I think a lot of entrepreneurs, they fail or you know…
Carla Harris: No, they fail. You're right. “Because…”, keep going.
Monique Rodriguez: …I don't wanna be harsh. [laughs] Because they try to do everything themselves. And I always say, “If you are, you know, building a company and you've been building this company for a year or two and you are still the only one, you're answering calls, you are doing product development, you're…”
Carla Harris: You’re fulfilling orders.
Monique Rodriguez: It's not a business, because there’s no way that you can grow and expand if you are doing everything, like, there is no possible way. There is no millionaire, billionaire that has become where they are by doing everything by themselves. They have a team. And I think T.D. Jakes said it best: weight distributors. You carry a lot of weight as an entrepreneur if you don't have anyone to distribute that weight to – and that means people that can help you balance the weight – then that weight is just gonna weigh you down.
Carla Harris: Sink you. Yeah, I love T.D. Jakes and I love the way he uses words and puts the imagery right in your face. And it's not being harsh, Monique. It's being real.
So let's talk a little bit about leading through a crisis, because it is truly a great teacher, and for some people a crisis really brings out the incredible leader that they are. And for other people it shows that they're not really a leader at all. And for other people, it sinks them. So COVID-19 was certainly something we could call a crisis. And how did you navigate this with your team?
Monique Rodriguez: Yeah, when COVID-19 hit, I told myself, I said, We could either sink or swim, but I'm gonna choose to swim. And at that time, listen, we had just done the deal with New Voices a couple of weeks before COVID happened. So just imagine, you took this huge investment from partners and then COVID hits and you're like, “Okay, what's gonna happen?” So I leaned into my mentor, Richelieu Dennis at New Voices, and I said, “What do you recommend? Do you recommend we hold our marketing dollars because we don't know if we're gonna need that money, or do you just recommend really putting my foot on the gas and not looking back?” And his response to me was, “Put your foot on the gas.”
Carla Harris: That's exactly right. That's why I love Rich. He was one of the first people that I interviewed, as you know, on Access and Opportunity. We see eye to eye on these things. That's exactly right. That's the time to put your foot on the gas. That's right.
Monique Rodriguez: And when he told me that, lo and behold, I put my foot on the gas and I took that moment as an opportunity to rise above the circumstance. And so I said, “We gotta get creative. We gotta pivot.” We had a 300 and something page marketing plan. I said, “Throw that plan away. What can we do to over serve and be impactful and help our people during this moment of uncertainty and still deliver great products to them?” So one of the things that we did from a marketing perspective was we said, “Okay, we don't have events.” Events were a huge part of how we marketed, right? Grassroot marketing, boots on the ground – that was thrown out the window. All of our events, activations, were gone, right? People were not going to the stores. So we said, “Well, we have our D2C platform, right?” Stores were closed, so we're gonna leverage things on digital and I told my team, I said, “People are gonna be on their phones. People are gonna be consuming content a whole lot different than they were when they worked because they were busy. Now they have nothing to do. But if they're gonna be on their phones all day, we need to be the people that show up on their phones and be on their timeline over and over again.” So we said, “You know what, we're gonna go live every day. Every day.” And we went live and we served. We were dancing, we did things to uplift the community, we did a lot of give back initiatives, we gave back funding and money to the community. So that became memorable for our consumers, like they will remember the brand that helped them get through this pandemic, right? And then also planning and forecasting, building great relationships with our manufacturers and retail partners so we didn't go out of stock.
Carla Harris: Yep. Which means, again, you had insight. Once you decided that this was the way you were going to go, you also said to yourself, “I can't afford to run out.” Because if I'm gonna create all this momentum as a newer brand, the easiest way to lose your consumers is to go silent, to not be able to serve, to not be able to deliver, because then they leave you in the environment that we're in now, where people are so transient with respect to their brand loyalty. You know, I will tell you that in Chapter Eight of Lead to Win, I talk about leading through a crisis, and you've just hit 'em all with the example you just gave. I said, “You have to be visible, you have to be transparent, you have to be decisive, you have to be empathetic, and you have to be willing to call a thing a thing.” And the fact that you went live every day, you were calling a thing a thing: “It's the pandemic, y'all!” – right? “But you still gotta take care of your hair. You still have to do this.” So you were visible, you know, you were empathetic. You were saying, “I see you, we’re in this thing, too. That's why we're just gonna have some fun today.” You were decisive, operationally, you know. Perfection. Perfection, Monique, I gotta tell you – which is one of the reasons you've seen the success that you've seen. And you're dead right? People always remember when. So if you are with me when I'm having a tough time – and the pandemic was directly and indirectly a tough time for everybody, it was the great equalizer. There's not a person on the planet that wasn't impacted by it in some way – it's going to certainly hold you in good stead.
Monique Rodriguez: And then I wanna just add to that it still goes back to leading with compassion. If you don't have compassion and empathy to realize what's going on in the world, you're not gonna have the mindset to say, “You know what? Let me serve people.” Your mindset is gonna be, “Well, I'm just worried about me, me, me.” It can't just be about you. If you lead with compassion, you think about others.
Carla Harris: You are making my heart sing because, listen, I'm in your choir. Every single pearl that you dropped today are pearls that will yield a big return if you're an entrepreneur and just think about following this playbook, just even a couple other things that you've shared today. You will never lose, Monique, if you keep that focus as a CEO. Last question: If you were starting Mielle today, and the fundraising landscape is different, we're post COVID, a lot of things have changed. If you were starting it today, what would you do differently, if anything?
Monique Rodriguez: I wouldn't do anything differently, honestly, because I feel that, you know, I don't live with regrets. I feel that everything that I did has molded me and helped to educate me to be the leader and the person that I am today. So I wouldn't do anything different.
Carla Harris: Alrighty. Monique, thank you for being on Access and Opportunity.
Monique Rodriguez: Thank you again for having me. I appreciate it.
Carla Harris: I want to thank Monique Rodriguez again for joining me on this episode of Access and Opportunity.
What did you think of today's episode? Send us your thoughts at email@example.com. And to continue learning about individuals working to drive systematic change within their communities, subscribe to Access and Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
Thanks for coming along.