Aniyia Williams was fed up with digging for headphones out of her purse, and as a fashion lover, she didn’t like them ruining her cute outfits. Her solution was to create earbuds that looked like a fashionable necklace. To start a hardware company is a difficult task. To do so as a new mom, a non-technical founder, and a woman of color can be especially challenging.
As a busy mother and entrepreneur, Aniyia has quite a full plate. To accommodate her schedule, I sat down with her over Google Hangouts during a 30-minute time slot that was scheduled weeks in advanced. During this chat, she shared her story of founding Tinsel and of Black and Brown Founders, her fashion must-haves, building a brand with social media, motherhood, and rethinking happiness and life.
What was the inspiration for founding Tinsel and Black & Brown Founders?
“For Tinsel, the inspiration came from my own frustration of having big wires out the bottom of my bag every time I needed headphones. I felt that there was a better solution. Also, there was a convergence of different things going on in my life and was ready to start a new chapter. I had been working at a startup for the last few years and had gotten a lot of experience and enjoyment out of it, but I was ready to move on.
To answer your question about Black & Brown Founders, it was during that journey and building Tinsel that I felt raising capital for the business was a big challenge — understanding that world and how venture capital works. It’s something that everybody is being told that they need to do in raising money to try to build their tech company. There’s really not many other narratives that exist and everyone feels like this is what they have to do. There are other options, and I wish I knew more about them before investing so much time building an entire business around the idea that I needed to get investors to get a product out there.
When you look at the statistics we know that only a small number of companies get venture funding regardless of the backgrounds of the founders. But then when we look at Black and Latinx populations it’s an even smaller fraction. Statistically, I think the number is less than 20 Black women who have raised over a million dollars for their ventures. So the odds are not in my favor. While many of us think that we’re the exception, eventually I didn’t have the time to wait to try to be that person when really, I wanted to be building my company. So anyways, I kept on hearing stories like my own. On one hand there were founders who felt that all they really needed was to be located in Silicon Valley and then everything would change in terms of like how they would be able to raise capital for their business. Then there were people who were already here and had very similar stories to myself, where they had pitched investors. They had tweaked their desk over and over again. They’ve done all these things — tried to make connections, try to be in the club, and ultimately investors weren’t writing checks for them. So I felt that there has to be another way. I had also met some really amazingly talented founders of color who had figured out different things for themselves in terms of a specific sort of area of how they built their business. I wanted to bring them together and show that while amongst our communities we are the most likely to not have the funding and the wealth, that we are still able to launch these companies. Unfortunately, not all of us can raise friends and family rounds, but we are incredible, have a lot of ingenuity, a lot of creativity and we have our community. This in itself is an advantage that we can use to try to build thriving businesses. So that’s the genesis of Black & Brown Founders.
At its essence, the core experience of the tech industry is disruption, right? When something’s not working for you or there’s a problem, we’re incentivize as entrepreneurs or people who work in this industry to solve it. For me the problem was that I couldn’t find anybody who wanted to give us money. I shouldn’t say anybody. We have a few investors, but those investors tend to be more of the exception in the rule. I had to look at other option. I think systematically, during the process of me building this company one of the things that I learned very well is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I’m always having to try to find some alternative way to accomplish something either because my resources are very modest or because someone has told me that it’s not possible or that it hasn’t been done. My approach has just been that until I get to some insurmountable obstacle, I’m just going to try to find another way to do it.
Also, for Black and Brown Founders I’m working with Tara Reed who runs an organization, called Apps Without Code. She teaches people how to launch software products and build companies without being a technical founder. You don’t have to be an engineer. The tool will let you build the first version of your app, enough to start generating revenue and then turn it into a larger business.
I’ve been amazed by the way she thought about this idea and pieced it all together. We need more Taras in the world to help show us how this kind of stuff is possible because people don’t know it’s possible, until you see someone do it.”
What are your fashion must-haves?
“Since I’ve been doing a lot of public speaking events lately, I’ve been trying to keep some interesting pieces in my closet. I’m a high-low shopper. I love to buy like things that are really unique and this is how I view the Tinsel woman. I gravitate towards items that are special or really high-quality, things that you’re going to get a lot of use out of or feel special to you. I don’t mind splurging on those things. In fact, I just bought a pair of Frye Boots. I love Frye. I wear boots all the time — short boots, tall boots, usually flat. I love buying their boots on sale because they’re pricey. I’m gonna wear these for years, they’re like great, and they go with all my outfits.
For disposable items and things that I’m not attached to, like leggings for instance I’ll buy them at Target for $10. For cheap items, I like cycle through them pretty quickly, but the things that I really care about I like to spend more money on. I tend to shop at Nordstrom a lot, sometimes Anthropologie or Free People. Also, now since there’s a life change where I used to spend a lot more money on buying fashion items and things for myself, some of that money has been shifted to spend on my daughter who is super fun to dress.
When I’m working at home because I have a toddler, there are certain things that are not going to happen, especially when she’s up and running around. My husband and I have to tag team on trying to get dressed in the morning. I prioritize getting a couple extra hours of sleep and I missed my window to shower this morning. I took her to daycare, came back and then I had phone calls. When I’m working from home I’m in my pajamas or very comfortable clothing. If I have to be on video call or not, it’ll dictate like how much makeup or how much I do my hair.
How awesome is it to have a daughter and to love fashion? I tend to dress my daughter like I would dress myself, like a miniature version. Usually I try to find styles that I would wear in kid’s size. I’m more obsessed with kid’s fashion nowadays than my own. I’ll be completely honest, mine is all about efficiency where I’ve even found myself buying a couple fashion things from Amazon. For example, if I’m putting diapers in the cart, I might as well like add this shirt.”
As for the clothes you buy on Amazon, are they familiar brands, where you know the fit and quality?
“It’s interesting that you ask that because I feel like there’s a lot of Chinese vendors have been taken over the algorithms I’m getting. I’ve been buying a handful of things from random Chinese companies, which is a gamble because the picture doesn’t always match what you get. Also, as a person who manufactures a product in China I’ve become quite familiar with what goes on the other end and I realize I’m taking a chance. I figure if it’s $15 and it ends up being something crazy I’ll just take it to Goodwill.
The other thing that I like buying for myself on Amazon are wigs. I love wearing wigs. I used to make all my own wigs, but now I don’t have that much time. I find a couple versions that I like and buy three or four of them at a time on Amazon. When they start looking ugly I just throw them away and I take a new one out the box. It’s amazing — so this is efficiency at its finest.”
What do you love and hate about fashion?
“I love that really anything can be fashion. If you’re armed with the right confidence, your style is whatever you choose for it to be. Conversely one of the things that I hate about fashion is that everything skewed so highly towards the things that are the most unattainable. There’s something to be said for being meek, having your own sense of style, and finding those items that you can’t find just anywhere. Expensive for expensive sake is one of the things that I don’t like. Also, I wish that there was more diversity in the people that get all the glory in fashion. For example, who’s going to be featured at New York Fashion Week and whose collections you’re watching walk down the catwalk. I’d love to see some more diversity there. Personally, and I think that like it can be quite exclusionary.”
On building a brand with social media and re-envisioning a company to align with personal goals
“A lot of these conversations around diversity and different perspectives are still feel fairly recent in terms of the way we’ve been able to embrace them. Lately I think a lot of that has to do with social media. To go back to fashion, because of the rise of social media this world now is opened for anyone build their own brand. Every person is a brand today and it’s causing some havoc at long established big brands. A lot of big brands are struggling today to maintain their presence. There are stores that are having to shut down because they’re not getting the foot traffic. People shop differently, people think differently about how they buy, what they buy, and what brands they value.
I think it really ties into to Tinsel and where we are. It may be the hardest time to build a consumer brand and the easiest. When I started Tinsel I really wanted us be a household name for electronic jewelry. But when I think about it today though, I hadn’t really reconciled what I really want in other areas of my life too. As I mentioned, I have a daughter and I have a husband and I have a life that I really like living. For Tinsel to be that household name, I had to ask myself some hard questions, like did I want to do what it took to get there? And, if I did get there would I be happy? Honestly the answers to many of those questions was, no.
When I talked to the members of my core team that I wanted to be on this journey with me about what we want and how we see our lives, it came down to the fact that most us are mothers. We want to be able to continue to do the work we’re doing. We love the work that we do, but it’s more important that we get to see these things continue to be produced and put out into the world because these are the things that we want to buy and no one is making them for us.
We’re in the process of reconfiguring the business completely into something that we feel really fits into what our personal life goals and choices are.”