How a Great Idea and Just $500 Launched a Powerful Network of Entrepreneurial Women of Color
Here's the story of how Aisha Taylor Issah founded Sistahs in Business Expo.
At a September street fair in Jersey City, N.J., Aisha Taylor Issah knew she couldn't run from her idea anymore.
About a year before, she'd first had the idea to create a space to help women of color showcase their businesses while also providing them with resources and tools to help them grow. Issah says she avoided the idea for a while — she wasn't too keen on starting another business, since she'd co-owned a career consulting and recruiting firm for more than 15 years. But it wouldn't leave her alone. Everywhere Issah went, she says she met more women of color working on great ideas, brands and projects, and many of them shared a similar struggle: They wanted to participate in business events and expos to grow their businesses, but they found them to be cost-prohibitive.
For Issah, the Jersey City street fair sealed the deal. She saw so many women of color showcasing their businesses and interacting with customers that she felt she couldn't ignore her idea anymore. Beyond a seasonal street fair, she wanted to launch an expo catering specifically to this demographic that occurred more often and in more locations. After returning home that day in September, Issah began her search for venues, and a month later, she put down a $500 deposit on an event space. She figured that where there's a will, there's a way, and she decided to figure out the rest of the costs as she went. Let me really take a stab at this, she remembers thinking, and see what happens.
Starting with the expo's first event series in 2018, Sistahs in Business has operated in four cities: Newark, N.J.; Columbia, S.C.; Philadelphia and Atlanta. To keep the weekend programming accessible, costs for one-day tickets range from about $10 to $25.
Entrepreneur chatted with Issah about her experience as a founder, what it's like creating programming for a demographic she's passionate about and the top piece of advice she'd give to soon-to-be entrepreneurs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you choose which cities to spotlight in hosting the conference?
We officially launched it in October of 2017 and held our first tour in 2018. So we toured four cities in 2018 and the same in 2019. Choosing the cities was a combination of both research and gut — knowing the market and, although entrepreneurial women of color really are everywhere, knowing where we might find the highest concentration. I also wanted to pick markets where we at least had some type of footing or connection so we wouldn't be going in completely blind. We started in Newark, New Jersey — I live in the area, so that was a great location.
How did you take your own experience with similarly sized conferences, expos and trade shows and use that to inform your approach to Sistahs in Business?
We were intentional about opening a space that was accessible to all business types. Also, through my own experience and conversations with others who had been to events like this, I knew that in many cases, there are a lot of things competing for your attention in different spaces — speakers, workshops, entertainment — and that can take away from your ability to engage with consumers as a vendor.
At our expos, people can be talking to vendors or engaging with customers and still hear what's happening onstage. Finally, we knew we wanted the content to be high-quality, so all of our speakers, presenters and panelists are entrepreneurs themselves and can speak to our audience from experience.
Let's talk about the training you provide for entrepreneurs. What does it entail, and how long has it been up and running?
Our university, the teaching arm under our foundation, is a 501(c)3 nonprofit entity. We provide training, resources and other information to business owners in a tangible way. At the expo, you can only glean so much — it's high-energy, there's music, there's shopping. So we really wanted to have dedicated time for women of color business to be able to learn and apply what they've learned. So the university was launched as a way to solve that issue. So far we've had about four or five offerings, including marketing for vending events, legal tips and strategies for your business and an in-person event in Newark on business opportunities for women in CBD.
How did you decide on the programming for your audience?
It's tricky because we can't just think of ourselves as women of color businesses. We want to be on the same playing field with everyone else. So that means we need the same resources, the same information: "This is what you need to do to grow and scale your business, period." But it depends on the topic. And there might be some spaces that are harder for you to get into because you're a woman of color, so it's about figuring out how we can make sure that you have everything that you need in place — taxes, accounting, legal structure, trademarking — so that no one can discredit you in saying you didn't have everything together. We're already at a disadvantage, so we want everyone to be able to do the best they can from the business side to be sure they're ready for those opportunities and doors when they do open.
In terms of representation, it's important to see someone who looks like you doing what you want to do so that you know it's possible. And we do that not just in our courses, but also at our expos. The speakers and panelists are people who look like our audience, who have been through similar situations, who have been able to overcome the same hurdles as an entrepreneurial woman of color. It's really key for people to begin to think bigger and not believe they always have to be a small mom 'n' pop shop. They see there are women of color who are millionaires and investors themselves doing really great work. It's the mindset of: If they can do it, so can I.
Which expo speaker or course instructor stands out most in your mind?
One of the most touching moments for me was our keynote speaker for Atlanta: Cynthia Bailey from The Real Housewives of Atlanta. In addition to being a supermodel and reality television star, she's a boss entrepreneur with several brands — the epitome of a successful woman in business. One participant asked how she finds balance between being a model, business owner, mom and, soon, a wife. Her answer was honest and transparent. I remember her saying that there really is no such thing as balance, that a lot of times she felt she maybe hadn't done her best at that, particularly when it came to motherhood, since she had a young daughter and had to be away a lot for work. But she was working towards a greater goal: to provide a legacy for her daughter.
What's the number-one piece of advice you'd give to other people who are trying to launch their own business or event series?
You really need a strong team. An undertaking like this is huge. It's a lot of work to enter into just one city, and for multiple cities? I don't know what I was thinking. It's a lot. So my team is key to our success. Many times, when people start businesses, they think they can do everything themselves, but I learned very quickly that I could not. The key is surrounding yourself with people who support you, are skilled and can help you bring the vision to life. So that's my biggest piece of advice: We can't all be Superwoman or Superman. Yes, your business is your baby and your brainchild, so you try to oversee it and make sure that it succeeds. But you have to be willing to delegate and trust others to help you make it happen.