Shelly Bell’s eternal optimism allows her to see everything as a problem that she can solve, not just in business, but in the community and the world as a whole.
It’s what sets her apart from many would-be entrepreneurs who flit from one business idea to the next without committing. Bell, the founder and CEO of Black Girl Ventures, solves problems and achieves her goals through ingenuity, dedication and relentless positive energy.
Bell’s problem-solving comes from her wide range of experiences. After earning a degree in computer science, she worked in industries as wide-ranging as education, patent and trade, workforce development, and vacuum cleaner sales. But her entrepreneurial journey began in an incredibly unconventional way. Many entrepreneurs can tell a story about starting their business in their own living room. Bell’s story is the same, except in her living room was a teepee, and inside the teepee was a total stranger.
Her first foray into business was renting out a teepee in her living room on Airbnb. When she came up with the idea, the response was less than enthusiastic.
“Everybody was like, ‘Nobody’s going to sleep in your living room in a teepee,’ ” Bell recalls. “And I told them, ‘Yes they will, watch.’ ”
It was only after she hosted her first guest that she realized that the hospitality industry wasn’t for her.
“I quickly found out that I didn’t want people sleeping in my living room in a teepee,” Bell says with a laugh. As a true optimist, Bell didn’t take this as a setback. Instead she started to look for her next venture. It came in the form of a T-shirt line which got off on the completely wrong foot but led to her first major success.
“It sucked and nobody bought it. It fell flat,” Bell says. “I was on the phone with the printer and I said, ‘You know what, it’s made by a Black woman; I should put that on the shirt.’ ”
She designed a “Made by a Black Woman” logo and put it on her tees, and suddenly people were interested. Her mom invested her retirement money in the company, and Bell used her tax refunds to buy her own printers. She and her mom hustled at events all over selling the clothing items and eventually made it into Essence magazine’s Holiday Gift Guide for a line of infant bodysuits. Orders from Google and Amazon quickly followed. Her relentless optimism and entrepreneurship had finally paid off.
She would have been happy sticking with this business, she thought. But for Bell, there’s always another adventure and another problem to solve.
This time it wasn’t a new entrepreneurial adventure that caught her eye, it was a news headline with a startling fact: Black women start businesses at six times the national average, yet they receive less than 1% of venture capital.
“My thought was: Someone should do something about that. I could do something about that,” she says.
Black Girl Ventures was born. The first event was a gathering of 30 women in a house in Washington, D.C. Four people pitched their businesses and the women in the audience voted on a winner who would receive their joint investment funds to start their company.
From there, the endeavor took off. A partnership with Google took Black Girl Ventures to a new level. It now works like Kickstarter meets Shark Tank. Audience members vote on businesses with their dollars. Black Girl Ventures also offers a fellowship teaching leadership development to entrepreneurs.
Whether her goal is to rent out a teepee in her living room or to change the circumstances for her fellow woman, Bell’s business superpower is commitment: She does what she sets out to do. That’s good, because she does not think small about her future as an entrepreneur, or the future of Black Girl Ventures.
“I want to change the world,” she says. “I am invigorated by that idea. I want every person to think, I have something that can change the world. Because you absolutely can.”
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo courtesy of Shelly Bell and Black Girl Ventures