Jewel Burks Solomon is an advocate for representation and access in the technology industry. Growing up in an entrepreneurial family, Jewel learned about business by helping out where she was needed — whether at the cash register or in creating marketing plans. In the case of her mother’s insurance agency, Burks Solomon was instrumental in helping to build the business from the ground up.
When the time was right for her to start her own venture, she wasn’t afraid of the hard work required. She successfully built and sold her first company, PartPic, to Amazon in 2016 and is now focusing her efforts on mentoring and advising the next generation of startup founders. She’s moved from building companies to investing in them. As an angel investor, she’s looking to work with founders who are doing great work already.
As a founder who raised $2M in VC funding for her company, she speaks from first hand experience regarding the pros and cons of fundraising. Notably, Burks Solomon is among just 40 Black women to successfully raise $1M or more in funding for their company. In this interview, Jewel shares a bit about what growing up was like for her and how her experience at Howard University prepared her for her career trajectory. She shares her thoughts on ‘VC math’ and what founders should be very honest with themselves about before deciding which funding route to pursue.
Her Agenda: I read somewhere that you come from a family of business owners. What did you learn from your family, either directly or indirectly, about entrepreneurship?
Jewel Burks Solomon: My mom, my dad, and my grandfathers on both sides were entrepreneurs. So growing up, I had the opportunity to work in lots of businesses at an early age. In my mom’s case in particular, I really saw her building her business from the ground up and having to sacrifice a lot. I think that taught me that hard work is a necessary part of starting a business — and so I wasn’t afraid of that when I started my business, I knew that it was going to be a lot of personal sacrifice on my part and I think I only really knew that because I had firsthand experience watching my parents go through that.
Her Agenda: You went to Howard for undergrad; how did your experience at Howard shape your journey?
Jewel Burks Solomon: I learned a lot about myself and gained a lot of access by going to Howard; my experience there set me up for my career trajectory. As a freshman, I interned at Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, that was a great experience early on. As a sophomore, I interned at Google, so I worked at two of the top companies in the world by the age of 20. I credit the 21 CAP program at Howard in helping me to secure my internships, for having those connections with such large companies.
I also met my best friends in the world at Howard. They’ve been a big part of my ability to grow in my career because we support each other and we’re always cheering for each other. The network and the access to opportunities are two things that I’m really grateful for from my Howard experience.
I learned a lot about myself and gained a lot of access by going to Howard…
Her Agenda: You went on to start your company (PartPic), and you then sold that company. After that experience, you have shared a really interesting perspective on what it takes to raise money. What’s the best advice you can share for those who want to raise money for their companies?
Jewel Burks Solomon: In my particular case, I still maintain that my business was a venture-backable business. This means that I believe that we were on the route, and had a big enough market opportunity to build let’s say a hundred million dollar or even multi-billion dollar company. I believe that was the right case for raising venture capital dollars.
After reflecting on my experience and the experiences of a lot of the folks that I’ve talked to, I don’t believe that entrepreneurs interrogate what their business can ultimately grow into. It’s important to understand VC math, and what I mean by that is, if the largest your business could ever grow to is let’s say, 50 million dollars a year, it’s probably not a good fit for venture capital investors. The way the funds are set up, VC’s need for your business to be doing much more in revenue and have much higher multiples in order for them to get their money back from an exit event. A lot of people just don’t really understand what that means, and they go out seeking funding and don’t really pitch the right people.
There are a lot of ways that you can get capital for your business. You can get a loan, you could look at research dollars like SBIR grants and those type of funding opportunities, you could talk to angel investors, you could do some type of alternative financing — there are a lot of different things you could do. The most important part is really understanding what the opportunities for the growth of your business are, how big could it actually be, and what are the levers that you’re going to have to pull along the way to help it get that big. It’s important to understand the mechanisms that are working on the other side for the people that you’re looking to get investment from.
I’m an angel investor. For me, my primary concern is funding entrepreneurs that I care about and that I believe in – those who I feel are solving a big problem. I do want to get my money back. But if an entrepreneur doesn’t return 10x my money I’m fine with it. If I get my money back, and maybe a small return then that’s good for me, I feel happy about it.
It’s important to understand VC math, and what I mean by that is, if the largest your business could ever grow to is let’s say, 50 million dollars a year, it’s probably not a good fit for venture capital investors.
Her Agenda: There’s a kind of glorification of the entrepreneurial path happening right now. What do you think that people should know who are reading stories like yours, listening to podcasts, and consuming a lot of content about entrepreneurship in general?
Jewel Burks Solomon: Number one, there is a lot of glorification of entrepreneurship but the reality is entrepreneurship is really, really hard and there are so many factors that contribute to if things work out or not that people don’t really talk about. It’s exhilarating at times and it’s fun to see something go from an idea to an actual product, something that people are consuming. But the day to day is grueling and it involves a lot of things that most people don’t want to do. The other thing is, a big part of it is your mental capacity to endure all of the ups and downs; it really is a big roller coaster, so to convince yourself day after day that it’s worth it — and not go crazy in the process — is also something that I don’t think is talked about enough.
There are a lot of ways that you can get capital for your business.
Her Agenda: You’re advising companies and entrepreneurs and you’re doing angel investing for startups. How did that happen for you after the sale of PartPic?
Jewel Burks Solomon: I guess because I had a challenging experience raising money, I always told myself that if I was able to exit my company and do well financially then I would want to get on the other side of the table and become an investor. One, to learn and really understand the psychology behind investment and two, because it’s an important way to give back. Capital is a critical piece of entrepreneurial ecosystems and communities in general, so now, to be able to be the person who’s helping to fund other entrepreneurs’ dreams is a really cool seat to sit in.
Her Agenda: If there are women that are interested in working with you either for a mentor/ mentee type of relationship or if they think that their business might be something that you might want to invest in, what are you looking for in those types of relationships and how should people approach you?
Jewel Burks Solomon: The best way to get in contact with me is through my website, you can submit a form there. I’m also doing consultations, so if there is somebody that already has a business and needs some help getting it off the ground, then you can reach out to me about my consultation services.
I’m interested in working with people who are doing great work already. I’m most effective in helping people when they’ve asked the preliminary questions and sought out information on their own and then maybe they get stuck on something specific, like their pricing model or their go to market strategy. I get a little bit frustrated when people haven’t started and they are looking for my time because I’m stretched pretty thin. It’s important to do some preliminary research and work and then reach out to folks who have some level of expertise on the thing that you’re trying to do.
Her Agenda: What do you think women need more of to achieve their goals? What does that look like for you? And what can other women maybe ask of their friends and family that also need support?
Jewel Burks Solomon: Entrepreneurship is really a family decision. I mentioned before it’s a really hard journey and it’s almost impossible if you are doing it completely by yourself. So for me what that looks like was reaching out to my mom when I first had the idea for PartPic. I asked her directly if she would support me and her answer was yes, even when she didn’t know what support was going to mean. In reality, it meant talking me off many ledges. At times I felt super depressed and felt like I couldn’t do it. She gave me the pep talks that I needed, the advice that I needed, and spent time with me to make sure that I was good. She gave me a place to go when I just need a little break.
Entrepreneurship is really a family decision.
For my Dad, It looked like him being my number one cheerleader. He sends me articles where I’m featured that I don’t even know that I’m in. He’s been my advocate online with his friends on Facebook or wherever. That’s what support looks like from him.
So it looks different ways from different people but I think the important thing is to have conversations with your family before you go out on an entrepreneurial journey because it is so difficult and taxing. Everyone is not going to be a supporter. It’s also important to recognize that from the beginning because the worst thing is to get started on a journey and then realize midway through that you don’t have the support of your husband, or your family, or whoever – that’s painful. You want to know that from the beginning so you can know what box to put people in and move from there.
Her Agenda: What’s one thing that you think other women should know about startup life that not many people talk about?
Jewel Burks Solomon: I think design is really underappreciated and under-resourced. It makes a really big difference when you’re presenting yourself to people. People neglect it greatly and wish people would spend more time thinking about design. From an aesthetic point of view, but also from a user experience point of view. People will send me their apps to look at, and I’ll think, I don’t even know how to use this because you haven’t taken the time to watch people when they were trying to use your app or haven’t considered the user experience at all. That’s something that early stage founders should think more about. There are a lot of tools out there that can help, here are a few that I like: Color Contrast Checker , Opinion Lab, What the Font, Invision.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]