We had the most engaging and entertaining conversation with them to learn more about their history as friends, how the idea for AB3 came to life, and how these women are using Disco to host future cohorts and a growing community of strong, empowered females in Blackademia who are ready to create, launch, and scale their own businesses.
How did the two of you first meet?
Monica: I’m a professor of Africana Studies at the University of Delaware. I have been an academic, post-PhD, for almost 20 years. I met Takiyah around 2005 when I was working at Bennett College for Women.
Takiyah: I’m Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the College of Architecture Arts and Design at Virginia Tech now, but I actually met Monica when I was a master's student at Virginia Tech. I was here working on an MFA in Arts Administration. I had submitted a paper to a conference that she was hosting at Bennett College.
At the last minute — I love telling this story — I wasn’t going to go to the conference because I was a broke grad student, my car had broken down, and all these awful things happened. It was one of my first academic conferences, and I felt so grateful that they had accepted my paper so I didn't want to be a no show. So I emailed Monica saying, “Look, I really wanted to come to your conference, but my life is in shambles. Please don't think that I'm just a no-show.”
She sent me back the nicest message, like “Oh, my God! What do you need? Can you just get here? If you just get here, I'll get you a hotel room and we won't let you starve.” It was very nice to have that from a stranger. At that point, I knew who she was as an academic, but I'd never met her. I did end up going to the conference and was put up in a very nice hotel room with a big King bed and the food was really good. Monica was very, very nice to me, and everybody was very supportive of my paper. That's actually how we met.
Monica: Then, I guess we sort of re-met, so to say, when we followed each other on social media. Every now and again, we'd beat the algorithm and see each other's posts.
But we happened to be in a Facebook group with a common colleague who was leading an exercise around New Year's resolutions-meets-goal setting. You could ask for a partner, if you wanted to have one to do this exercise with, and we were both in the same thread looking for a partner. I was like, “Hey, I already know you! We should be partners.” So we did the program together, but you have to share a lot of your life in the program. So I'm telling Takiyah everything is wrong with my life, what needs to get better, and how we're going to set quarterly goals for that. Then, we just started talking every day.
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That’s seriously incredible. What kinds of things would you talk about?
Takiyah: Yeah, you can't really do goal setting without letting people know about the various existential crises that you are experiencing at the time. So we got on Zoom, and it was like, “Hi, my life is falling apart!”
It was great to have a partner in the goal setting that I was comfortable enough with already to talk about that stuff. Even though we hadn't talked a whole ton in all those years, we fell into a very easy pattern and just started talking every day.
Those are the best kinds of relationships — where you can just be in a space with someone and it's just about shared space. There have been plenty of days where I've been on my laptop working, and she is on her laptop working, and if you were listening in on the phone, you would just hear us kind of grunting and clicking away. Just having the community even in that way was important.
Within these conversations, was the idea for Blackademic created?
Takiyah: We both started talking about our entrepreneurial endeavors, the work that we had done in that regard, and how frustrating it was for both of us to notice that in the world of online business, no one seemed to really have anything tailored to the needs of:
Black Academic women
All of whom were, perhaps, very satisfied with their academic careers, but still found that they wanted to leverage their knowledge and skills in the knowledge-based economy in a different way. We talked about how hard it was to go into entrepreneurial spaces that were out and out hostile to higher education.
We like being in higher ed, we're happy to be professors and administrators and do the work that we do. We're proud to have our PhDs; there's no shame attached to that for either of us. But it was hard to be an entrepreneurial space that was really hostile to some of the things that we appreciate about being in the academy.
It was also difficult to find resources that were tailored to our interests and tailored to our audiences. We don't need to be in a webinar where you spend 90 minutes convincing us that we can teach — we know that, because we do that in our day jobs. There were other needs that we had and, after talking about that and a lot of the frustrations that came along with it, we said, ‘’Well, maybe we could just make something so that other people don't have to go through the countless hours we have gone through to find good resources, then build community.” So much of it is about responding to a need that we had and trying to make sure that other people have it easier than we did.
“Those are the best kinds of relationships — where you can just be in a space with someone and it's just about shared space. Just having the community even in that way was important.”
Monica: The academy often expects people to give knowledge away for free.
So, for example, when you're not actually in your classroom, you go to conferences and you talk about what you do, or you get on CNN or Washington Post and you just share your knowledge for free, which — there's nothing wrong with that — but we also find that that disproportionately affects black women and women of color because, somehow, white men figure out how to get paid from these things while we're out here sharing our knowledge for free.
We also wanted to be able to help black academic women see some results financially from the work that most of us were already doing in one form or another.
We spent so much during the pandemic looking in this online and entrepreneurial space, noticing what we liked, what we didn't like, what we were doing in our own businesses — we actually do different kinds of things in our businesses, so I get to learn a lot about consulting from Takiyah because that's a big part of her business. My business is more oriented around speaking and classes. In doing this research and finding all sorts of businesses online, we realized we were leaning into our value: businesses that were run and owned by women. We wanted to support them.
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The resource and knowledge exchange is so powerful. With that in mind, who’s your ideal customer for Blackademic?
Takiyah: The ideal bootcamp participant is an academic woman — a Blackacademic woman — who has figured out that perhaps her day job isn't big enough to contain all that she wants to do in the world.
She has an idea about what she’d like to monetize. Maybe she's even been in business for a little bit. But she understands the necessity of creating some formality around what we are used to in the academy as these “handshake agreements” about speaking engagements or sending 15 emails back and forth just to land on a honorarium that's far too low.
She's frustrated because she knows that she can have more by leveraging her knowledge but needs to be in community with other people who have similar goals, which can be hard to find. She is also a woman who is very values-led in terms of her orientation. She's not just trying to sell widgets because she can turn a profit. She's not trying to monetize any and everything just because somebody else she saw on Instagram has.
Our ideal bootcamper is someone who is ready to take action. Not the professional development groupies — the ones who take 50 million webinars and online never act on that information? Not them. We work best with women who are willing to try something and put it out there. They’re in the shift to seeing themselves as an entrepreneur and a business person and really need some community and support around them.
Monica: This is the thing: We don't talk about it in the academy. Those of us who have these businesses are just running them and not talking to each other. We don't know who else is out there. It is very hard to find someone to tell you what their honoraria is if you haven't invited them yourself. People just don't talk about it. A big part of Blackademic is giving us community to talk about and to ask questions and to share. We've had some boot campers who have been doing this for a couple of years, right? But they didn't know anybody else who was an academic running a business.
Takiyah: We're in several Facebook groups with other academic women of color. Every week somebody is posting different questions, like:
“I got invited to do a talk. What do I charge them?”
“This consulting opportunity fell in my lap? I've never done anything like this before. How do I submit a proposal?”
“I really want to build out a website, but I'm not sure who to hire, and my sister's child just graduated with a degree in graphic design. So I think I'm gonna let him do it. Do you think that's a good idea?”
People really need community around this. They need safe spaces to talk about it. And They need people who will be transparent with them about how you got to get comfortable thinking and talking about money and,yes, you do need a contract and, no, you don't need to spend $5,000 on the fancy website right out of the gate. We kept seeing those conversations, conversations showing up in Facebook groups and Twitter threads and we said, “Yeah, we need to make some kind of container where we can hold this and support people going forward.”
“The ideal bootcamp participant is an academic woman — a Blackacademic woman — who has figured out that perhaps her day job isn't big enough to contain all that she wants to do in the world.”
So is this where you’re finding your members, in these groups and threads? What’s your approach to marketing and acquiring new members?
Monica: We consider this to be a beta year. We did not do a hardcore marketing push at all. We just asked a couple people, we sent some emails to people we knew and had them forward it to someone you know. I don't even think we did social media until the second round.
Some people we knew, some we didn't, so it’s hard to say where they came from. They were probably friends of friends — nobody was more than two or three degrees away, but some people just saw it online.
Takiyah: Interestingly enough, one of the things that we've noticed is that it’s not always the people you think are going to be your participants. The friends and family and close colleagues who we’ve talked to for years about our businesses and the work that we do and the businesses they want to build, you say “Okay, so we're doing this thing and come be a part of the program!” I could name names of people who I just knew were going to jump at this opportunity because of the conversations that we've had over the years, but they didn't.
Some of our most surprising bootcampers who really dug in and did work that we didn't even imagine were people that we didn't know particularly well. So learning that it's not always the people closest to you who are going to see the brilliance in your business idea and invest in what you are doing is also a lesson that we talk about in bootcamp.
Let’s talk about the design of this bootcamp and the transformation that’s possible through the Blackademic experience.
Monica: We run it over six consecutive weeks, so it is a bootcamp-style, for one and a half hours each week. There isn’t “homework,” but we do offer optional action assignments students can complete.
We cover a lot of material pretty quickly. We do spend a good amount of time talking about getting in the mindset of being a business owner, because we are people who are trained to be academics. Most of us do not have business degrees. We think about what it means as a black woman to be talking about money, branding, and marketing and our historic and contemporary relationship with some of those things.
Then, we talk about values: All of us have them, but most of us haven't taken time to really think about them and write them down and organize them in a way. We lead with values, right? We believe that if you believe in what you're doing, if you care about it, if you would do it for free — not that you should — that everything else will fall into place after that.
We also do a lot of non-sexy stuff first — we talk about business and corporations and taxes, because that's something you do not want to get wrong. This includes some of the financial pieces of laying a structure so that if it's your part time gig, you're filing your taxes appropriately, or also you're set up so that one day the whole job implodes, you have a structure to build it out and this can be your full-time job as well or full-time business.
We talk about marketing without being sleazy, we call it, because most of us still have an academic reputation, so we can't just be out here just slinging our stuff without thinking about “If my colleagues saw this, would I still feel good about it?” We also talk about when to scale and how to scale and, in the midst of all those things, we are providing the resources that we've vetted.
“[Our ideal member] is frustrated because she knows that she can have more by leveraging her knowledge but needs to be in community with other people who have similar goals, which can be hard to find. She is also a woman who is very values-led in terms of her orientation. She's not just trying to sell widgets because she can turn a profit. She's not trying to monetize any and everything just because somebody else she saw on Instagram has.”
Takiyah: We also talk a lot about the various components of brand and brand identity. It's important that we approach it very sensitively because, particularly for black women, in this moment, where everyone is considering themselves as a brand and talking about themselves as a product, you come from a history where your people were actually bought and sold as products and that can land in a very different place emotionally.
Being in a space where we can talk about that and have room for the affective response that that comes up often for folks who don’t like thinking about themselves as a brand or as a product.
We also talk to people who are at a place where they start to think about and get them thinking through the support you might need. Many of us as academics are very used to doing it for ourselves. You write your own dissertation, you do your own research, you prep your own classes; we are very much used to doing the work that's necessary in our day jobs in a solo, almost hyper-independent way. You get to the point where your business is growing or you have visions for your business to grow and you need support. You need a team. Do you need a virtual assistant? Do you need a social media manager? Is it time for you to outsource your financial pieces and accounting? All of that is a piece of why people need to have spaces where they can have safe conversations around that.
It really feels like Blackademic gives you an invitation to be yourself. Are you reactivating alumni who have completed your first iterations of the program?
Monica: We We forgot to add that we do have an application that lets us know where people are when they're starting. Once they’ve finished, we see a lot of our alumni active on Facebook. We've had a Facebook group the entire time. People will still post questions and wins. Even after the bootcamp has ended, we have some community there. But we discovered pretty early on after the first round, we would probably need to be more intentional about that, because we were thinking content-first, but it turned out that the big deal was community.
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What does community look like for you in the future, you think?
Takiyah: We've done these two beta rounds this year with the bootcamp. When we would get off the calls each week, Monica and I would usually stay on Zoom, one, just to decompress and talk about how wonderful it was, but we we're always thinking about how to make it better, how to create more, what else we can do to meet the needs of this particular group of folks that we're finding really are responding to what we create.
So, in the next year, we are transitioning from academic business and branding bootcamp to academic business and branding braintrust. It will still be AB3, but it'll be a membership community where folks can come in and be able to watch all the videos from our content and get those topics that we mentioned covering earlier, but it gives us an opportunity just to do more. We'll have an opportunity to bring in guests so they can meet some of the vendors that we've talked about. We'll have an opportunity to do hot seats with folks in the community who have built their businesses to a certain point and want one-on-one engagement and support from Monica and myself. It's a way for us to give kudos more and facilitate more community dialogue and also for members to create their own connections across cohorts.
We're very excited about it. And we're very glad to have Disco as our partner in doing that. Yes, Disco has all the functionality, but we like it ‘cause it’s cute!
This is cracking us up. Disco IS cute!
Takiyah: There are a lot of platforms out there and they look clunky, they're unattractive, they’re not slick, you can't give it your pretty brand colors. Also, some of the design of these other platforms just feels masculine, okay? Whoever made this didn't make it with me in mind. They didn't necessarily think of me, my design aesthetic, or having a person like me in this community.
I definitely want things to be functional, but I'm all about things that are luxury and Disco feels luxury to me. It feels attractive. I am obsessed with the confetti. Whoever's idea it was to have it — I need more confetti! I want people to submit the application and when they get accepted, there's more confetti! I want to see confetti when I log in! Confetti balloons, I just… Listen. We would not be with Disco if it was not aesthetically pleasing and attractive. We need a luxury experience for ourselves and for our users.
“Listen. We would not be with Disco if it was not aesthetically pleasing and attractive. We need a luxury experience for ourselves and for our users.”
We don’t even want to pivot back but we’ll return to Disco in a moment. Before that, it sounds like you’re switching from a bootcamp model to a membership model. Can you walk us through how you’re thinking about that change?
Monica: It's kind of like maybe a Peloton model. You have one thing you buy up front, and then you have a membership after that. So you're buying the course, which is the boot camp that we're going to edit for bite sized chunks because we want everyone to be on the same page that we are about being value-led. We want people to go through that process before they just jump in and start talking in the community.
After that, it will be just the same price every month, but we do think that people have to be in at least a year to really benefit from it. It's not a month by month kind of membership, so we’ll have you pay for the year. A lot of academics are able to use their professional development funds that come along with our jobs, so we are able to package it in a way that people are also able to use those funds or their business funds or their personal funds. The way the academy often sees it is the more we do and the better we look everywhere, the better that university looks, so they are generally invested in their faculty doing good things.
Your perspective is so interesting, coming from academia but building a modern virtual learning community. What’s your vision for your community but also for learning more broadly?
Monica: One reason I started doing online classes is that’s the pure fun part. Teaching is the most fun part of being a teacher. The part that nobody likes in the academy is grading. So online learning is pure teaching and learning, right? You're teaching people who want to be there but don't have time to do homework, for the most part. Not, like, read a book a week per class,which is what graduate school looks like. Online formats facilitate putting those people together who are excited and passionate about something, especially with people who want to learn these topics but either can't access or don't want to access a more traditional structure.
The other part is we have terminal degrees. Our community has PhDs. What no one tells you is how hard it is to learn new things after you finish your degree. You have to look really hard to find the time and a way to learn something new, because you're so busy being an expert in that corner of the field that you have. It's really a way to also give people who just like to learn an opportunity to learn at your own pace without going through a whole institutional application process and at a much lower price point than a four credit course would be. Those are things that we enjoy being able to offer.
Takiyah: In terms of vision and where we see things going: I'm really excited about getting to the place where we have so many folks who have participated in AB3 who have successful businesses, we can have some kind of online portal directory where you can find service providers and business owners through who our graduates. Say you're looking for somebody to consult on X topic, goto the AB3 directory first, where we can really showcase and highlight our businesses and also highlight and showcase our partners. I'm hoping that we get into a situation where we can have affiliates with all of the stuff that we use and promote in our program. I know we're both hopeful to continue building out our work such that there will be events. We want to do some AB3 live events with select members from the membership who are ready to take their businesses to the next level and they want to come be with me and Monica in some gorgeous location for four days, plus we bring our vendors and it's exciting and people meet each other and beautiful things can happen.
We definitely want to podcast. We're planning to launch a podcast late this fall/winter and have that as our lead magnet towards the membership, which we're very excited about, because that's an opportunity to also showcase bootcamp graduates and some of the service providers that we love. I have this vision that we're going to be at the Essence Festival, which is like Black woman Shangri La that happens in the summer in New Orleans. I just know that we're going to be there, featured as this amazing business. I dream in technicolor. All of these things are only a matter of time.
But really, it's about continuing to build something that's dynamic and flexible enough to wrap around the needs of the women in our community and to showcase them. That's the other piece of it — so many women of color academics and black academic women in particular have really been taught to devalue what we know. That our knowledge isn't as good as somebody else's knowledge or, even with all our degrees, that somehow what we know isn't worthy of being paid for or celebrated in the marketplace.
Monica and I can't tell you how many stories we've heard and experiences we’ve even had ourselves where people want us to come in and do two-and-a-half days of workshops or a whole keynote with a Q%A and they want to pay us with a gift basket from the grocery store and a $25 gift card. No. Our knowledge is excellent and good. We are qualified, we are credentialed. Most people in the world don't have PhDs. It's not easy to get them; if they were, everybody would have one. We've done the work. It's about celebrating and building something that amplifies and celebrates that piece of it. We know that there's likely to be some critique or backlash at some point, but we won't be able to hear it beyond the sound of being awesome and checks being deposited.
This has been such an empowering conversation! Let’s switch back to Disco, if you don’t mind. What were you looking for in a platform? What was the process like finding a platform?
Monica: How did we find Disco? I was going down a rabbit hole…
Takiyah: No, you found Disco because of that super cool conference.
Monica: Right! The conference! Then we just kept going deeper and deeper, which we do, down these Internet rabbit holes. We were like, “What is this Disco thing?” We were talking at around midnight or one in the morning. It was like some outrageous time of day, and we were like, “Look at these women and look at these values! We have to see what this is about.” If we're gonna give somebody money,this seems to be in alignment with us. We hadn’t even seen it yet, we were just reading about the platform.
Takiyah: It sounded like our kind of people: If we were building a platform, this is the thing we would have built. It was kind of freaky because, yeah, it was 1:30 in the morning. We're on our laptops, and we were like, “Maybe it's not real” because it was a little too good. Maybe our academic skepticism popped in. But then we found you and you were real.
Monica: You weren't our first platform, though. We have a web designer, and we told her about Disco, but we needed our web page up. We have a WordPress-based website, so she used Memberpress (plug-in) for our platform.
I had built that WordPress site myself, and I knew what it was like to have to sync all these plugins together. It didn't really look like our site, because it wasn't our site. I hated Memberpress. I’ll spend hours, even days, trying to figure out why a plug-in doesn’t work. I like to know how things work, and I want to be able to update things at three in the morning if I want to. I don’t want to wait for someone else’s working hours to solve problems.
Takiyah: We were having all kinds of problems with Memberpress. It’s a drag. It has been an ordeal. It’s not smooth, plug-ins stop working, it’s not cute AT ALL. It looks industrial. It’s not our aesthetic. It started charging and billing people when they shouldn’t have been billed. When you’re trying to build something new and establish your credibility, we don’t need that Google hit!
Monica: Finally, the year we paid for was up and we didn’t renew. We finally had time to go back and look at Disco. We did look at other platforms that either we didn't like as much or we just priced it out and Disco was a better price. There was no reason to look at anything else.
Takiyah: I'm an Apple person, you know: iPad, iMac, and because I'm usually in that Apple universe, I like plug and play. I like what you see is what you get. When we're looking at things, I'm trying to think about it with my head in two places. One is just something that's going to be easy for us to manage, so that we don't have to hire another person to manage it for us, therefore have money that's going out. And two, how is this going to be on the user side. Is it going to be just as easy for them? Is it going to be stressful? We want it to be easy and simple for the women that we're serving to just be able to access the platform and get their needs met.
“It just seemed like if we wanted to connect [with Disco], we probably could. I bet if we had needs, we could ask Disco about a particular thing and they might build it out if us and a number of other people asked for it. It seemed like this was a place where we could have a relationship with the platform. That was important to us, too.”
Tell us about some of those other platforms you considered.
Takiyah: What’s that one called? Mighty Networks? We looked at them and Circle, but we liked Disco because it’s not the flavor of the month yet. We feel like early adopters.
Disco also bridges learning with community in a way we haven’t seen our competitors achieve, so I’m sure that was a big selling point, too.
Takiyah: One of the other things that we were talking about was that Disco was probably small enough still that we could talk to them. It just seemed like if we wanted to connect, we probably could. I bet if we had needs, we could ask them about a particular thing and they might build it out if us and a number of other people asked for it. It seemed like this was a place where we could have a relationship with the platform. That was important to us, too.
We’re thrilled to hear that. It’s a testament to our wonderful team. Are there any specific Disco features or apps you really love?
Monica: The confetti, remember? I like that you can wholesale duplicate the whole thing. That is so. much. easier.
Takiyah: I like that we can customize things. It's our brand colors, it's our little images . It feels like our stuff. That feels premium to me. I lived in the South for a while, so I'm obsessed with monograms. So the fact that we could customize in that way so that when our participants come in, not only do they know they're in the right place, but they know that they're in something that's been built with their needs in mind.
I like that we don't have to deal with weird caps on how many documents we can upload or weird rules like don't put in a video, or you can have a video or a document, but not both. I like the messaging features. We played with those, too.
Thank you for that. Are you able to quantify, maybe, how many operational hours you’re saving using Disco?
Takiyah: It feels like a whole lot. Countless!
Monica: We spent a lot of time on Memberpress trying to fix bugs. That took hours. I think we spent at least 20 hours doing that with just not even uploading things, just fixing and addressing when something went wrong.
I don't know that we can quantify how many hours we've saved, but I know we're saving our people hours by not having them go into a longer login and onboarding process somewhere else.
Takiyah: I mean, it feels like what we're used to, Disco brings it down to maybe a quarter of that time. You know, if it was 20 hours to solve a problem, we're using a fraction of that.
Monica: I think, most of all, I love that you had a plan. Even if you didn’t have the features we needed just yet, we knew exactly the timeline Disco had for rolling them out. I really feel like we get to be thought partners on that.
At Disco, we have the opportunity to create solutions for incredible communities like AB3 who are using their experience and their teachings to change the lives of members in their space.
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