“What the hell am I going to do there?” That’s what Thinkzilla CEO Velma Trayham said to herself when she started thinking about moving to Phoenix.
Trayham had heard from a friend that the Phoenix startup ecosystem was really starting to emphasize the importance of diversity in business. And, well, diversity and inclusion is Trayham’s whole business.
Trayham did her research before coming to Arizona. What she found wasn’t necessarily convincing. For example, Arizona was the last state to adopt Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday. She found racial issues in local universities. And she learned that, although Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the U.S., African Americans made up less than 5% of the population.
Still, Trayham took the leap and moved to her company’s headquarters Scottsdale at the end of last year. She’s going to have an office in SkySong, ASU’s Scottsdale Innovation Center because, after meeting with ASU leaders, she feels that they really want to make a change, but they don’t necessarily know how.
“After speaking to so many of the leaders [in SkySong], I started to realize that they wanted to change things, and they actually wanted to be part of the change,” said Trayham. “And it felt really good.”
Trayham isn’t just a diversity, equity and inclusion evangelist. She’s an experienced entrepreneur with a lot of knowledge and lessons she’s happy to share.
Trayham began her entrepreneurial journey at age 20, after a stint at Google and another at a segregation firm. She told AZ Tech Beat that her first company “failed miserably,” as did the next two. Trayham learned several lessons through those failures and decided to take another stab. She started her fourth company — a real estate development company, which she was able to sell. She started two more companies after that, the last one of which ended due to an unfortunate incident with Animal Planet and bats … (You’re going to need to connect with Trayham to hear that story for yourself.)
Anyway … Thinkzilla Consulting Group was born shortly after. That was almost nine years ago.
Thinkzilla is designed to help larger companies diversify their supply chains. To do this, Trayham and her team encourage these corporations to build a strong foundation that would allow them to work with minority-owned companies and companies that already have inclusion infrastructure in place.
The more Trayham worked with corporations in the public space, she realized that while her passion is serving and helping minority-owned businesses and small businesses. Instead, she could make a bigger difference by building connections to smaller, more diverse businesses.
AZ Tech Beat recently spoke with Trayham and she told us some of the most important lessons she’s learned so far about being an entrepreneur, building a diverse and inclusive company and the importance of following your heart. These are some of the same lessons she uses to teach entrepreneurs now.
Lessons for entrepreneurs from an entrepreneur
The first lesson she’s learned as a founder herself is that understanding your true target audience can make all the difference in your marketing strategy.
“A lot of times, new business owners don’t really understand who their target audience is and you can’t be all things to everybody,” Trayham said. “But when you identify the audience in which you are solving the problem for them, you can really hone in on your messaging.”
Trayham also learned was that thoughtful hiring, clear communication and a well-defined goal are essential to building your new business.
“What I’ve learned is that when you don’t know what you don’t know, then you don’t know the direction to give them,” Trayham said. “If you haven’t set your culture, your company values and your company mission statement, then what happens is, you’ll pay them, and they won’t get the job done that you’re looking for.”
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that those people didn’t have the capacity or the capabilities to take your company to the next level,” Trayham continued. “There’s just no foundation in place.”
Trayham admitted she paid a lot of marketing and PR people to help with her first businesses, but she soon realized they weren’t doing much to move the needle.
She said her employees gave the same project time frame over and over again. Any project, no matter what it was, would take “nine months to a year.”
“There had to be a better way,” she thought. Turns out, there was. Trayham learned about her target audience and started putting out her own messaging. Soon, people began gravitating to her.
It’s not a bad thing to outsource PR or branding or marketing, but before you hire those consultants, but write your core values and mission statement first.
Another lesson Trayham learned, though through no fault of her own, was that a lack of mentorship impedes the growth of an entrepreneur and their business.
“When you don’t have the right mentors, you don’t know the organizations and the associations that you need to be a part of,” Trayham said.
She tackled this problem by creating the Millionaire Mastermind Academy, a nonprofit that aims to end poverty through entrepreneurship for women worldwide, in 2017.
“Millionaire Mastermind Academy is so very near and dear to my heart because we offer those mentorship components that help people to really understand the things that they don’t know, that they need to know to build a successful and sustainable company,” Trayham said.
The program has helped more than 5,000 women build capacity and mentorship and gave them access to things they never would have had as underrepresented, underserved and under-resourced women.
The academy eventually became a sister company to Thinkzilla. The two companies work well together to achieve Trayham’s ultimate goal. The academy is “building the capacity for these women and on the Thinkzilla side working with the major corporations helping them diversity their supply chains, allowed us to offer a full suite of services, while solving a huge problem.”
Core values are key
Trayham has defined three core descriptors, or values, for herself and her company: thoughtful, non-traditional and authentic.
“Those three things to me are very important because it’s the core of who you need to be to attract the people that you want,” Trayham said.
When discussing how founders and leaders can prioritize and implement diversity and inclusion in their own businesses, Trayham said it’s critical to be aware and thoughtful of cultural differences, your retention rate and the different people that you hire.
“You definitely have to understand that when you’re looking at diversity, it’s not just a checkbox,” Trayham said. “Some people are just doing it to check off a box. Diversity in the workplace plays a vital role in great success within an organization.”
Trayham also emphasized the importance of being intentional when diversifying your business.
“Even though businesses have made significant progress in becoming more diverse, it’s an intentional thing that you have to do,” Trayham said. “Give equal employment opportunities and be intentional in who you hire.”
Trayham shared another piece of advice, and it’s something that many companies lack.
“[Build] an internship program that would consist of diverse groups in a responsible ecosystem that could nurture them to be part of the workforce for a larger entity,” Trayham said.
A CEO and woman of color
Trayham, who is an African American woman, acknowledges that color always played a big role, and still does. These are systemic issues that need to be resolved, but she’s noticed things are slowly getting better.
“Now, do I feel that things are changing? I think that there has been tremendous change, in terms of even these companies that are diversifying their supply chain,” Trayham said. “We create programs that help companies become more diverse in the workplace.”
And in fact, according to Trayham, hiring people from variety of backgrounds and experiences actually makes a business more successful.
Trayham’s mission with Thinkzilla is to assist companies in understanding how to work with other minority-owned companies, and she’s seen a need to change basic behaviors and traditions.
“One of the challenges that I’ve realized is that the wealthy, the privileged, and the corporate people congregate amongst themselves,” Trayham said. “The biggest challenge I hear when I’m in board meetings is ‘well, we don’t know how to find entrepreneurs.’ Guess what? Entrepreneurs are saying that they can’t find resources. And it’s because both of these ecosystems are congregating amongst themselves.”
Trayham hopes her company will bring both ecosystems together to solve this problem.
Maybe Trayham was hesitant to move to Phoenix, but now that she’s here, she’s decided that her experience is exactly what our ecosystem needs.
“This is right up my alley, because I like challenges. I like to crack solutions. I like to get down to the bottom of things,” Trayham said. “It’s just in me.”