When it comes to entrepreneurial support in Kansas City, women of color often are left out of conversations that could help them grow their businesses, said Ashley Rudd.
“They don’t necessarily feel like their voice is heard,” Rudd, founder of the personal shopping startup She’s Thrifted, said of her experience within the metro’s entrepreneurial community and a plight she believes is shared among many non-white women leaders.
“They don’t feel comfortable because there’s not really many people there that look like them.”
In response, Rudd and longtime friend Xavier Campbell have launched Brown Sugar Collective — a professional women’s organization that prioritizes representation and promises to deliver real and measurable impact in the growth of women-led companies.
“The way we’re going to do that is to create a sisterhood of like minded women through networking and collaboration — while empowering each other so that we can all flourish together,” explained Campbell, who also founded Phenomenal Occasions Event Planning and Consulting.
Click here to follow Brown Sugar Collective’s journey on Instagram.
The duo knows a thing or two about bonds, she continued, recalling their time as college roommates at the University of Kansas and the role that time period played in shaping their paths.
“We’ve seen babies born and marriages — we’re best friends,” Campbell said. “We do a weekly happy hour and we just kind of talk about all things.”
The ritual focuses heavily on the friends’ adventures in entrepreneurship, she added.
“We go to a lot of different networking events and [activities] in the community and we noticed there is a lack of diversity in the networking realm and in the Kansas City area, in general. So we wanted to create a space for women of color to come together and share ideas and get feedback on those ideas,” Rudd said.
Focused on growth; social comes second
Poured at happy hour, Brown Sugar Collective formally served its first event amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, despite toying with the concept for the better part of a year, Rudd said.
“We started off with virtual coworking,” she said, noting the event was a play on the organization’s Brown Sugar Lab — a monthly get-together centered around coworking and designed to inspire creation and collaboration in partnership with the Firebrand Collective coworking space, which is run by Megan Adams in the West Bottoms.
“It was a time for women of color to have a space to themselves and then also to just connect with other women. … From the feedback we got, I feel like it was definitely needed.”
With the world beginning to emerge from quarantine, Rudd and Campbell offered the first in-person Brown Sugar Collective Lab earlier this month.
“In the beginning, everybody introduces themselves and what area they work in and what they’re working on and then people are able to collaborate,” she explained of the process. “At the end [of the day] people can get immediate feedback on their projects and I think that’s a different element that we provide.”
Brown Sugar Socials — happy hours and social outings — will also serve as a key driver of Brown Sugar Collective’s programming, added Campbell.
“We like our ladies to kind of get in the mindset of when you’re in the lab we’re working and when we’re at a Brown Sugar Social, that’s our time to play. We try to work hard and play hard,” she said.
Establishing a fine line between work and play is part of what the duo hopes will help the organization find its footing as a community resource that can deliver on its promises, Rudd said.
“It’s not just a lot of panels [and events]; it’s more of actually doing the work,” she said of differences between the organization and other area groups.
“Our main focus is really growing your business, working on your business, and reaching your goals.”
While there’s nothing better than a happy hour, Campbell quipped, the real treat for the co-founders is providing pathways for women who need it — in a time that demands it.
“The need was so great because there are so many women of color who have so many talents, but don’t have the resources that they need and don’t know the right people, don’t know the right direction to go in,” she said.
“If we could even just give them a jumpstart and say, ‘Hey, this is where you go get your business license, this is something that you might need to look into,’ I feel like that goes a long way. A big opportunity is seeing the change in the women’s lives that we’re able to help.”
Diversity within community, not silos
While Brown Sugar Collective aims to deliver something other area organizations might lack, it isn’t designed to create silos or foster a culture of exclusion, Rudd said.
“It’s about creating connections within the community. Even working with Firebrand, Megan said her group isn’t as diverse as she’d like it to be. So it’s about building that bridge and working with other organizations to create that diversity,” she said of the organization’s mission and what the future could hold as Brown Sugar Collective works to create a new standard in local entrepreneurial support.
Community builders at heart — in addition to running their own companies — Campbell and Rudd are building the organization while juggling full-time jobs at local non-profits. Campbell works for Literacy KC and Rudd Kauffman Scholars.
Exposure to the community-centered mindset has served as further inspiration for Brown Sugar Collective, Campbell said.
“Our focus is really just to give back to the community because when one wins, we can all win,” she continued.
“We hope that it can grow and we can help birth multiple, successful businesses for all of the ladies in our groups [and] for the women to be able to be successful in whatever their goals are and to build long-lasting relationships and friendships.”
Click here to connect with Brown Sugar Collective on Facebook.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.