Roc Girl Panel: Race & Entrepreneurship Recap

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Photography by Erica Jae of  Jae Era Photography // Recap written by Maiah Johnson

I have been waiting. I have been waiting for an opportunity to attend a Roc Girl Gang event for the last two years - following it from afar once I knew I’d be moving to Rochester from Boston. I have been waiting for the networking opportunities, and chance to hear from amazing women doing amazing things. I have been waiting for an in depth conversation about race, especially given the current climate we live in. I have been waiting for a day like this in Rochester since I moved in August, 2018.

On Saturday, January 12, 2019, Becoming Boss made it’s new debut as the Roc Girl Panel. The topic: Race and Entrepreneurship. The mission: to have a more focused conversation with the same feel good vibes. Mission accomplished.

Walking into the Culver Road Armory, I was greeted by the nicest faces. I spot a familiar one in Lihn of Sir Rocha Says and I whisper to her: I’m low-key nervous. She instantly puts me at ease, pointing out three major keys:

  1. Everyone’s in the same boat and we’re all here for the same reason.

  2. Go find the Roc Girl Gang founder, Sarah Knight. She’s warm and funny and would love to say hi.

  3. And take the edge off with a Boxcar Donut and Glen Edith Coffee (both of which I enjoyed a little too much).

Sarah and our moderator, Martissa Williams of Nekkid, Yoga 4 a Good Hood and Books + Yoga Roc take the stage. Sarah starts with a heartfelt acknowledgement about a previous Instagram post that garnered some negative attention. She encourages us to look it up later and explore the dialogue; and she notes that today is about listening, learning and growing (together).

Sarah hands it over to Martissa, who beautifully highlights that privilege is more than just race. She pushes the audience to think about how we can all create more space for those who don’t walk as easily in the world as we do. We’re essentially being told to keep an open mind and an open heart as we turn towards the topic of race and entrepreneurship .

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Martissa welcomes our keynote speaker, Mayor Lovely Warren to the stage. We learn she is incredibly thankful for the elders in her family that risked everything to give her a better life. To return the favor, she’s fiercely focused on being the Mayor for the People. She has every confidence in Rochester’s potential to be great, and genuinely believes it starts with it’s us. That’s why she’s a huge advocate for Rochester’s Kiva loan program for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

She also talks about finding your purpose to figure out how to find your voice. And to elbow your way into the room, “because if you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.” She encourages us to find like-minded people because there is power is in the connections you make and maintain over time. And most importantly, she suggests that we all embrace our stories - “no one knows what you’ve gone through to get to where you are - draw strength from that. Don’t let your struggle stop you from achieving your dreams.”

Mayor Warren takes a seat alongside the remaining panelists: Alyssa Whitfield of Dress for Success Rochester, Tianna Mañón of Open Mic Rochester, Imani N. Olear of Yoga 4 A Good Hood. The breadth of experience across the panel is a breath of fresh air - not everyone is in the same phase of their career and all have very different perspectives on the incredible question prompts by Martissa:

  • Tianna on obstacles: Don’t put too much value on the things that don’t matter. Make sure you understand what you’re doing and who your audience is, and most importantly, know yourself.

  • Alyssa on obstacles: Overcome your fear of being the first or the only. Overcome your fear, then find financial resources to make it happen.

  • Imani on race: Don’t be anyone’s token anything.

  • Mayor Warren on race: Be gutsy enough to stand up for what you believe in. If we’re not brave enough to talk about race, it will remain a crack in the foundation of our nation forever.

  • Alyssa on code switching: Be your authentic self (while understanding your audience) no matter what room you’re in.

  • Tianna on code switching: Embrace the diversity, embrace your differences, take advance of the access it might give you, and don’t dilute any of yourself in the process.

After an epic first half, Martissa breaks us for more coffee, donuts and networking through a quick breathing exercise that I’m convinced help me to be more present and calm in my interactions with other attendees. I was beaming as I made my way around the room, hugging friends and strangers alike. We could have continued talking all day, but we’re pulled back to our seats by the remainder of the discussion, rounding out the the panel with a few more topics to dig into:

  • Imani on identity: Express yourself by recognizing those that came before you.

  • Mayor Warren on creating a business and bringing in equality:  Ask for help. Take advantage of your resources. Talk to your mentors, apply what you’ve learned, and don’t keep it a secret, pass it along!

  • Imani on creating a business and bringing in equality: Practice the Sankofa Method Reach back and pull someone up. Never do anything at the expense of another. It’s much more fruitful to pull someone forward.

  • Alyssa on what she would change: Don’t use all your own money. Men would never use all their own money so why should we? Learn from the boys and find your financial resources.

  • Tianna on what she would change: it’s life altering to have a mental shift towards valuing what you’re doing. If there’s one thing you have full control over, it’s YOU.

  • Imani what she would change: Your community will rise up around you if you ask for help. So ask for help sooner - don’t let pride get in the way.

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Fabulous decor and florals created by Sophia Billotti of The Flower Girl Florist

As the morning comes to a close, the panelists remind us that it’s okay to be vulnerable. To know it’s okay to fail, and that your scars should be scars of pride. It’s okay to cry and feel angry. But you must always get back up and keep working. Imani, who is a beautiful speaker and a true visual storyteller leaves us with this parting gem: we are all connected with a thread that is bigger than the hatred being spewed. And the congregation said “Amen” (literally).

The panel ends with a well deserved standing ovation. As I make my rounds, it’s clear we all seemed to share a genuine desire to continue the conversation. Guests buzzed around the space as they made their way out - making sure to take a selfie in front of a beautiful vignette created by The Flower Girl Florist.

Eventually, the audience starts to dwindle. I realized this was my cue to not be the last one out the door. I walked out feeling revitalized and energized, with a few new friends, and several promises to myself. A morning well spent  in Rochester, New York. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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Thanks again to Maiah Johnson for the fabulous recap! Get to know more about Maiah and her work HERE.