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A Peek Inside Her Agenda: Tanya Sam

Director of Partnerships at TechSquare Labs, Creator of The Ambition Fund

Sep. 10 2019, Published 5:00 a.m. ET

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A Peek Inside Her Agenda: Tanya Sam
"Overcome that fear. Overcome the idea of failure and just do it."Quotation marks
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Ambition is defined as having “a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.”

Unfortunately, within the entrepreneurship sector, due to systemic barriers and biases beyond their control, founders of color are often unable to have their desires turn into achievements. Lack of access to funding, along with the lack of a network are some of the biggest obstacles. With this in mind, Tanya Sam says she’s launching The Ambition Fund to change this narrative.

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Tanya, who you may recognize for her role on the popular Bravo TV show The Real Housewives of Atlanta, will make the fund’s first investment through the Business Battle Pitch Competition at the A3C Festival & Conference in Atlanta. One business owner will win a $25K investment in their product or service. This is the start.

“We are leveling the playing field by intentionally going out beyond the traditional circles to provide underrepresented entrepreneurs a chance at capital, mentorship, and resources for their business,” said Tanya about the October 10th event.

“The face of entrepreneurship is ever-evolving and I want to empower and ensure that all minority groups, inclusive of people of color, women, and the LGBTQ communities have the same level of access and opportunities to thrive.”

$100M dollars in revenue. Through her work as the Director of Partnerships at Atlanta based, TechSquare Labs, this is the collective ROI on a decision to mentor 60+ companies and help to invest in 50 companies led by women or and/or a person of color.

Tanya Sam spoke with Her Agenda about The Ambition Fund and their upcoming pitch competition, the importance of investing in our community, what it takes to start a successful business, and more.

Overcome that fear. Overcome the idea of failure and just do it.

Her Agenda: You’ve mentored over 60 women or minority-led companies in your roles at Tech Labs and Ascend Atlanta. What made you focus on these specific groups? 

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Tanya Sam: I was really fortunate when I was starting to build companies. I had people that really cheered me on and were able to invest in helping me to build my dreams. Oftentimes in the community of women, minorities, or underrepresented founders, we don’t have that network of friends and family that can say, “here’s some extra money that I have laying around, please go and build your dream or build a company so you can build wealth for your family and can employ other people.” You’ll look at people who have historical wealth or generational wealth and they’re able to go to their friends and family and say, ‘listen, I want to start this business, can you write the first check into my dream?’ Part of it is recognizing that people have helped me along the way and were supportive of what I wanted to do, and I’m now in a position where I can help other women and minorities build scalable and successful businesses.

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You might have a consumer product and need an inventory, but banks won’t give the $25,000 or $50,000 to grow the company. That’s the gap I’m trying to bridge for others.

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Her Agenda: Why do you think it’s important to assist in jumpstarting those companies?

Tanya Sam: My dad came from Ghana on a scholarship and became a doctor. He’s 80 years old, so that was decades and decades ago. I look at how hard he’s worked to support other Africans as they came to Canada, and helping them to build their businesses. I feel like it’s part of my family history. He always taught us to help others succeed and build their businesses. Historically in this country when you look at the people who were on the Forbes list and have the greatest amounts of wealth, a lot of that was generational, because they had generational land, lumber, or steel that helped them become the Rockefellers of this country. It’s changing now, and it’s up to us to look back and put a hand down for other future minorities and people of color, and women especially.

"Go to meet-ups, go to pitch competitions and shake a couple of hands. That’s how you really get into the ecosystem. It's hard, and it takes guts." -Tanya Sam
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Her Agenda: You’re launching The Ambition Fund to invest in women and minority entrepreneurs. Where did the concept for this fund come from? What are you hoping to achieve through this new venture?

Tanya Sam: As I transitioned into having a role on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, I had so many women and people of color reach out to me and the narrative was all the same. They were saying, ‘hey, I’m not necessarily in tech, but I’ve got this great business and I want to scale it. Can you help me?’

In order to scale and take their business to the next level, they need some sort of investment or infusion [of capital]. You look at things like a beard oil company, how do you create that and make it the next Babel? You might have a consumer product and need an inventory, but banks won’t give the $25,000 or $50,000 to grow the company. That’s the gap I’m trying to bridge for others. I’m fortunate that I can start writing these checks for people and help them visualize and understand what it will take to take them to the next level. So it’s not just writing a check, it’s connecting them with a mentor and network to help. It’s a long term plan, but all roads lead to success.

"it's not just writing a check, it's connecting them with a mentor and network to help. It's a long term plan, but all roads lead to success." -Tanya Sam via Her Agenda
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Her Agenda: As someone who works with lots of startups, what are some mistakes they often make?

Tanya Sam: The biggest part of starting any company is understanding your market. If we go back to an early-stage startup, the first thing they do is present their concept and ask for help to build it. The idea of raising venture capital is very prominent and everyone talks about it, forgetting that venture capitalists want their money back. 

One of the myths is that venture capital or getting an investor will help you build your product. We want to see that you have tested this out the idea. Instead of fundraising, build the product and get the users, because if you can come to investors and prove that there’s a market willing to pay for your product, that is so much more meaningful than simply saying you have an idea. A big misconception about the startup world is that people are just looking for someone to invest blindly. They really want to see that you’ve taken this product, you’ve built an MVP, and now it proves the point that you’re ready to really invest in it.

This is where it gets interesting for our community, because people will have an idea, but how do they build the MVP if they don’t have the money? That’s why I think The Ambition Fund is a great bridge because that $25,000 that you can offer someone can go a long way in helping them get to that level. They can put that towards building their MVP or completing some piece of that puzzle that will help them build their company.

"If you have a business idea or something that you're passionate about, just start building it. At one point you're a one woman army, but you have to believe. And, eventually, you'll get other people to believe, too." -Tanya Sam via Her Agenda
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Her Agenda: The Ambition Fund is hosting a Business Battle Pitch competition in Atlanta next month. What do interested parties need to know ahead of October 10th? What are you hoping to see?

Tanya Sam: At TechSquare Labs, we’ve been running a very similar competition called the Atlanta Startup Battle where we’ve given away $100,000 investments over nine times at a pitch competition. We’ll have a team that will review all of the applications and we’ll pick five that will pitch on stage at the A3C, which is a music, technology, and film conference based in Atlanta, Georgia. You are pitching for $25,000. So you’ve got to be prepared to answer very rigorous questions by judges to defend your product, defend your business model, explain how they’re going to make money, and how they’re going to get a return. What we’re doing differently this year is we’re expanding it into a broader business competition outside of high growth technology companies in order to include the huge group of people who have reached out to me about growing their businesses.

Her Agenda: You were an Oncology Nurse Practitioner before jumping in and taking the tech world by storm. A testimony for people who are hesitant about making a huge career jump. What inspired that transition and how did you go about making the switch?

Tanya Sam: It’s funny because coming from nursing and coming from a very academic family of doctors and nurses, I thrive on rules. I grew up thinking that I had to go to school and be perfectly prepared and ready to go into any profession. That notion is as far from startups and technology as you can get because, in entrepreneurship, there are no rules. You just do what you have to do, blaze a trail, and keep going no matter what. I tell people who are looking to make a career switch, you just have to do it. It sounds so cliche because every business book you read is saying to put your fears aside and just do it, but it is literally the truth. If you have a business idea or something that you’re passionate about, just start building it. At one point you’re a one-woman army, but you have to believe. And, eventually,  you’ll get other people to believe, too.

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"in entrepreneurship, there are no rules. You just do what you have to do, blaze a trail, and keep going no matter what." -Tanya Sam Techsquare Lab via Her Agenda

Whether you’re building a broader business or building a high growth scalable technology company, I think that technology will eat into every part of any industry that we’ll see. From how we shop to how we eat, get dressed in the morning,  make clothes, etc. Especially for women and minority entrepreneurs, we have to realize that there is a place for us in that future and grab it by the horns because we’re remiss if we let it pass aside. Whether or not you’re technical or can code, I feel like there’s a place in that sphere for all of us. Sometimes it’s in marketing or operations, but you have to engross yourself in the industry. Go to meet-ups, go to pitch competitions and shake a couple of hands. That’s how you really get into the ecosystem. It’s hard, and it takes guts.

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Her Agenda: In addition to your many business ventures, you’re also a cast member on Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta. What have you learned about navigating sisterhood from your time on the show?

Tanya Sam: It has taught me to be much more assertive, interestingly enough. I have two sisters, a brother, and a big extended family, so I definitely feel like I understand the ebbs and flows of relationships when you’re in close proximity to other people. Being on this show, you have such strong alpha women. You really have to be sensitive to what other people are going through at different times, but at the same time stand up for yourself. That’s been major for me because I’m very much a people pleaser, so I want everybody to get along at all times. I hate confrontation. At the same time, I’ve learned that if you feel strongly about something, you need to assert your opinion. You have to stand up and do it, and be very clear. 

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Sharing your story and being able to talk with other people about it is what takes you to the next level.

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Her Agenda: The show is made up of very different personalities, life experiences, etc. What would you say is a good way to balance maintaining who you are within a dominant group?

Tanya Sam: I recognize the ways that it has helped me in being more convicted in who I am and understanding that you are who you are. Also, be proud of who you are and standing up for what you believe in. It has given me a stronger sense of pride in who I am because we have such different characters on the show. I will say, the show has helped me tremendously in business. Prior to being on the show, I might have hesitated on calling someone out on a comment that was completely inappropriate, and I do it now. I’m not worried about ruffling anyone’s feathers.

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I’m not worried about ruffling anyone’s feathers.

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Her Agenda: What advice do you have for Her Agenda readers looking to start their own businesses but are intimidated about taking that first step? Book selections for entrepreneurs?

Tanya Sam: Overcoming that initial fear is huge. Oftentimes, people won’t talk about their ideas until they’re sure about it. I always tell women to talk to people about their ideas; tell them what you’re working on. Doing so gives you a certain amount of accountability to follow through, and also, it might create the bridge of partnership with someone else who is passionate about that same product or idea. Overcome that fear. Overcome the idea of failure and just do it. There’s a really great book that I’m reading called, You Are A Badass. It asks you, what’s holding you back? What are five things you can do to take you to the next level? Sharing your story and being able to talk with other people about it is what takes you to the next level. Collaborate with others—similar to those historical mastermind groups of women—to help each other and breakdown what barriers are keeping you from going to the next level.

"I've learned that if you feel strongly about something, you need to assert your opinion. You have to stand up and do it, and be very clear." -Tanya Sam
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