It’s Female Founder Friday and I’m delighted to introduce you to the woman entrepreneur who founded Street Entrepreneurs, Juliana Cardona Mejia. Street Entrepreneurs fills a void in entrepreneurship education for “non-traditional entrepreneurs” including minorities and homeless youth. Their programs invest in these entrepreneurs’ grit and talent through business education, mentorship and start-up grants.
I have the great fortune to interact with talented entrepreneurs quite regularly, but when I met Juliana I realized she was truly special. Her vision and dedication to making entrepreneurship accessible to anyone regardless of income, education, or race is compelling. You cannot listen to her story without wanting to get involved.
So, if you’re curious how a design thinking consultant from the World Bank’s encounter with a homeless aspiring entrepreneur launched a company, or simply want to read about something positive happening in the world, don’t miss Juliana’s thoughtful and inspiring answers to my questions below!
What inspired you to create your company?
Three years ago, I was volunteering at a homeless shelter when I met Matthew, a homeless teenager who wanted to create an app. I was inspired by him, especially when I learned that up to 40% of homeless youth sell drugs to make ends meet. I wanted to change this terrible statistic, so I started hosting business classes for homeless youth in shelters, prisons, and community centers.
When housed people and adults showed up, Street Entrepreneurs pivoted to focus on inclusivity. Since July 2017, we’ve hosted 35 classes for over 300 individuals, of whom 50% are black, 20% are Latina, and 52% are women. Our goal is to create a world where anyone with grit and a good idea can start a business.
What was your biggest obstacle and failure in going from idea to business?
Our biggest obstacle has been creating sustainability in the work we do, while also ensuring affordability. Currently, we charge participants by income – so high income individuals pay about $50 per class, while low-income individuals attend for free.
At Street Entrepreneurs we serve 300 entrepreneurs with an array of needs which is an advantage, but also a challenge. They work in a diverse range of industries ranging from tech, to shoes, to consulting. It is a blessing because they can network with each other, which creates innovation and growth within our community. But, we have to provide a wide range of programming for our entrepreneurs. We have food enterprises that need business planning, while at the same time our tech startups are seeking to raise capital. Being able to provide a range of programming that can service our diverse range of entrepreneurs, at the time they need it, is another big challenge we’re working to address.
Our biggest failure was thinking that professors from universities could teach our curriculum. We learned very quickly that our entrepreneurs needed a more practical experience. So, we started seeking out lecturers who had experience working in startups and small businesses to teach our workshops.
We’re focusing on sustainability right now, as well as systematizing so we can scale effectively. We’re working to launch an online platform teaching people about business, which would allow us to scale, expand accessibility, and hopefully provide sustainable funding for us. Our platform would also have an investor portal component, where people could learn about and gain practice investing in early stage businesses. But, in the meantime, we’re also applying for grants, hosting fundraisers, and pursuing any opportunities that come our way.
Another one of our projects is a series of popup workshops to host at community centers around Washington, D.C.. Long term, we are hoping to eventually create other Street Entrepreneurs chapters in middle America and other parts of the country.
What is a life or business hack that you recommend to help other female founders?
Test what you do, and try not to operate your business based on untested assumptions. If you are saying that there is a need for ABC for XYZ reasons, then you must test that theory. Test as you go through your journey. Don’t spend 90 percent of your time planning and 10 percent launching and testing.
If you had a theme song what would it be?
“Unwritten,” by Natasha Bedingfield.
Please share your best piece of advice for aspiring female founders.
You’re never going to be ready. Be comfortable with uncertainty. Just go for it. Was I ready? No. No one ever is. In the words of Hugh Laurie, “It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now.”
I had no idea where to start with Street Entrepreneurs. I called university professors and asked if they would volunteer to write and teach business education. Eight were crazy enough to say yes. It’s the crazy ones that change the world. It all starts with one. My advice is just start, test your assumptions, and reshape your ideas constantly.