Alright – so today we’ve got the honor of introducing you to Anjanette Miller. We think you’ll enjoy our conversation, we’ve shared it below.
Anjanette, thanks for joining us, excited to have you contributing your stories and insights. Alright – so having the idea is one thing, but going from idea to execution is where countless people drop the ball. Can you talk to us about your journey from idea to execution?
I became the Executive Director of Audacity Labs, a youth entrepreneurship club in Durham, NC, in early 2021. That summer, we hosted summer enrichment camps, and on Tuesdays we lunched at a coworking space in downtown: Provident 1898, which was housed in the historic NC Mutual Life building. In the lobby there stands an artistic journalism sculpture featuring the story of the impact of the NC Mutual Life Insurance company and Black Wall Street in Durham. As the youth would gather each Tuesday, we spent time looking at all of the photos, videos, and articles, and I was surprised that so many of them had no idea about that rich history. One of the Tuesday lunches, I met Courtney Napier, founder of The Black Oak Society, a magazine featuring stories, art, and reflections of BIPOC luminaries in NC. And the spark hit me: Would the teens be interested in digging deeper into the past, present, and future of entrepreneurship in Durham? We sent out inquiries through all social media and our school connections, asking if creative teens would like to join. We had over 50 responses within a week!
We reached out to Provident 1898 and asked if our new group could meet there, since it was the place where it started. They agreed right away and offered the space for free. NCIDEA, a North Carolina foundation supporting entrepreneurship, loved the idea and gave us a $5k grant to publish the first edition. This grant allowed us to pay the creatives for their work, in addition to covering the costs of printing.
Over nine months, the magazine team meet biweekly. The meetings were not always about the magazine, though. We often met with other, adult creatives making a living pursuing their art. We had sessions with photojournalists, newspaper journalists, graphic artists, professors, and library archivists. We had several meetings over coffee with family members of some of the founding “fathers” of the historic Black Wall Street businesses. We had a very impactful meeting with a city councilman who shared the history of how Black Wall Street was demolished due to politics and propaganda.
We were met with several challenges along the way. We lost members due to conflicts with other extra-curriculars, transportation issues, personal conflicts and challenges, etc. But, in the end, we had a strong staff of 15 who consistently showed up and celebrated the first print edition.
Awesome – so before we get into the rest of our questions, can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers.
I moved to North Carolina in the summer of 2019 from Dallas, Texas, where I’d spent most of my life. I’d just sold my business, an academic advocacy center that I’d founded in 2000; got divorced after a 20+ relationship; and sold my home and most of my belongings. I’d always wanted to live in the mid-Atlantic part of the US with easy access to mountains, beaches, and east coast cities. So, moved here with me and my Mini Cooper, hoping to settle, meet some friends, network and start a consulting business. Then the pandemic hit, just 8 months later.
I spent most of 2020 without a job, without friends or family close by, and, while I was happy that I’d left Texas and moved to a location that I was in love with everyday, I was still grieving the loss of a life I’d been used to, that felt normal and established. So, I took up painting. I watched video tutorials; I followed artists on social media; and I painted every day, for hours and hours. It was meditative and therapeutic and reflective, and the practice became an outpouring of all of my uncertainties and insecurities and, then, my hopes and motivations for what kind of life I’d like to build here.
In late 2020 I met Quinci King, a young BIPOC student at Duke University, who founded a nonprofit in collaboration with the Museum of Life and Science. Audacity Labs’ mission was to democratize entrepreneurship. Focused on teens who were intrigued by entrepreneurship, design-thinking, technology, and social innovation, Audacity Labs was an after-school club for like-minded peers to gather, ideate, and explore entrepreneurship. I was hooked the first time I met Quinci and asked to be a professional mentor. Quickly he asked if I would be interested in taking over as the Managing Director as he had graduated and had a full-time job that was starting soon. The organization had a very small budget and would not be able to pay me a traditional salary, but we were able to come to an agreement that suited us both, and I started my work in Feb. 2021. Within a year, we had raised over $150k and were finalists for a large grant from the city of Durham: a $1 million grant to build a stand-alone, safe center for youth in Durham to explore entrepreneurial and economic opportunities. A space where co-located and braided services could also come to provide other, very necessary, services and programs. This would allow many nonprofits to share resources: kids and funding, to be more efficient and effective.
Audacity Labs offered year-round programming with semester-long cohorts and summer enrichment camps. Our program was taught by near-peer mentors (undergraduates from local universities and HBCUs), workshops and speaker events were facilitated by local professionals and business owners. We arranged field trips to social innovation organizations and hosted social events and community-building activities.
When Audacity Labs was founded, it was based on a membership model. Members would pay to attend, almost like a School of Rock center, but for entrepreneurship. What we noticed right away was that the youth who were attracted to Audacity Labs were kids of color and over 70% indicated that paying to participate would be a barrier to attend. So, we dropped the membership model and became a nonprofit in 2020. This would allow us to find sponsors, to fundraise, and to make sure that our program was available to any youth interested. Over the years, we have remained a very diverse organization, with 80% + of our members identifying as persons of color; 70% as female-identifying; and 90% indicating that paying would be a barrier to participation.
Audacity Labs has worked with 200+ youth since its inception in 2019; we have launched several youth-led businesses; and we have launched a youth-led Zine, Shiboka. One aspect I’m especially proud of is that the program is led by the youth. We have secured funding the past two years to hire and compensate a staff of high school students as leaders. This Student Advisory Board conceives, designs and implements our program decisions. They inform me and our board of the needs of the youth entrepreneurs: what kinds of services do they need; what the space should look like; who would they like to meet or learn from; what kinds of social events should we plan; even what kind of snacks and swag should be included at events and meetings. This truly is a program for youth, by youth.
When I wrote the grant to the city to build the center, the Student Advisory Board helped me conceive of the idea and how to describe what was needed. As we socialized the idea around to the community, the project caught the attention of another nonprofit: Helius. Helius worked with necessity-driven entrepreneurs by providing training, coaching and mentoring. Audacity Labs and Helius began talks around a formal partnership to provide a pipeline of entrepreneurial services and resources. These talks resulted in a merger of the two organizations and we became Echo. This merged organization is our attempt at removing silos, to share resources, and to make it easier for the community we serve to access support.
Echo’s mission is empowerment through entrepreneurship. It is a collective of entrepreneurs, support organizations, and community members pooling together for a common goal: economic equity through entrepreneurship. The model of Audacity Labs with a tiered membership model with circular mentoring and demand-driven program offerings has been adopted by Echo and its board. We will be a community center with shared resources and on-site services with co-located and braided services. Most importantly, we will be led by the community we serve.
What do you think is the goal or mission that drives your creative journey?
Like a lot of young girls and women, I have struggled to find space to explore my own passions. When we are young, we are often told that we can become whatever we’d like to become. Dream big – all possibilities are open for you! But, in reality, that’s not always true. I remember being told by a teacher in 5th grade that I was not “good at math”; in 7th grade that I was not “built for tennis, gymnastics, the dance team”; and as a young, single mother that being a teacher was the best career path. What nonsense! But I took a lot of that to heart. Luckily, on my path I’ve met many people who knowingly (and unknowingly) held out a supportive hand. Some literally walked me to the next person who could help or mentor or share resources. Others’ support or encouragement has nestled itself in my brain, and I call up a memory to help center and guide me.
Paying that forward is my personal and professional goal. To debunk limiting, idle, and throwaway chatter. To empower young people to question, seek, and power through limiting beliefs (of their own and of others).
How do you keep your team’s morale high?
I have found that successfully managing a team comes from cultivating a space that is mostly in rough draft form. For a team to feel comfortable speaking, creating, implementing in rough draft allows them to learn, build and test. Failure is an opportunity, not an ending, not a criticism. It’s just another beginning. We are always iterating – changing, adapting, responding. So why not create a space that allows that to be acknowledged as we build out programs, projects, events? I also like to remind myself every day, every meeting, every interaction, that I am not the smartest person in the room. No matter the audience. My job requires that I work with youth for a large portion of my day to day responsibilities. And I learn from them every day, every interaction. Being open to learning, being curious, being willing to let others lead cultivates the morale needed to enjoy work and be motivated to stay engaged.
Link to article: https://canvasrebel.com/meet-anjanette-miller/