When you serve people, God will serve you
Cameka Smith is the founder of The BOSS Network, a company she created in 2009. BOSS stands for ‘Bringing Out Successful Sisters’ and came at a time when Smith got laid off from her job in corporate America. The reason for creating the business: ‘For me, it was about having a platform for black women, she says.’ A place where Smith believes women of color can have a ‘safe space to talk about business and entrepreneurship, where we make our dreams come true and create a legacy for ourselves and our families.’ The award-winning businesswoman recently celebrated investing in 35 black women entrepreneurs’ businesses with 10k grants for each recipient through the Boss Impact Fund. A dream of hers for over a decade. Read how Smith went from needing funding for her business to investing over 500k in these women’s lives and how honoring her mother’s memory keeps her going to do more.
Congratulations! You recently provided 35 women of color with a $10,000 grant, plus a year of business coaching and mentoring. Describe the feeling?
I’m sure you can hear the smile on my face. Honestly, It has brought me so much joy. As a founder and leader in my community, it has always been my heart’s vision to create opportunities for black women. I come from an educational background, so serving is in my spirit. My mom was a minister. She was a servant, so I consider myself a servant leader. Anything I’ve done for the last 13-years has been to uplift black women who don’t get access to capital. (Less than 1% of black women get funding when we look at venture capitalists for our businesses).
Many of us are not shy about creativity or ideas when we start our business, but actual revenue and growing and sustaining a business is where most fail in the first three years. We don’t have that support. Being an educator and starting my business after being laid off, I sought that type of support. I was born and raised in Chicago, where I currently live. It’s a very segregated city, so I have always moved in multiple circles. I saw how the non-blacks supported each other, got access to resources, and all these opportunities for themselves and their businesses. I thought, ‘Okay, why don’t we have that?’
I’m the type of person who will not wait for a seat at the table. I’m not going to wait for somebody to let me in the door. I am going to build it myself. I know if I had this mindset, there would have to be other people that feel the same way, and that is how my community grew from 200 women to 200,000 women nationally over the last 13 years. Women like me said, “Hey! We want to support each other. We want to grow. We want to see ourselves being successful, and if we choose, we want to be our own bosses.” Entrepreneurship is not for everybody. It’s not for the ‘faint of hearts,’ but if that is your heart’s desire to have the same opportunities and access as any other group, that has been my mission for over a decade.
How important is it to help narrow the gap of black women obtaining funding for their businesses?
When I first started my business, I remember that I had come from having a great career. I made six figures very early on, and I was pretty well established. I worked my butt off and went to grad school. I got a master’s degree and did all of the things my mom wanted me to do, and to be able to be in that position (of security) and then being laid off, I thought, ‘This isn’t the American dream. How did I get laid off?’ It was a wake-up call for me when it happened. I realized, ‘I can do all things said (to do) and still be unemployed.’ I wanted to take my destiny into my own hands and be able to create a life for myself because the reality is—there is a feeling when it comes to most salaries. I’ve seen my aunts and uncles work tirelessly even past retirement age. I didn’t want that for myself. ‘If I have to work a job and still have to work once I get into retirement to make ends meet, that’s not the life I want.’ Seeing other people be successful, I told myself, ‘If they can do it. I can do it.’ It’s about changing the trajectory when it comes to finances. I partnered with an amazing financial institution for six years, touring the country and talking about financial literacy. Sage, a solutions accounting firm, was the first company to invest in our Boss Impact Fund. The company focuses on how business owners manage their money because the reality is money is a mindset. We have seen a lot of our celebrities, basketball players, and athletes get lots of money and lose it because they don’t have the financial literacy to manage money. ‘You have to know how to use money to get money to keep money.’ Creating an opportunity for these 35 women and getting an investor was the first part. Mentoring, support, and coaching are the ‘intangibles, unmatchable, unpriceable.’ That mentorship is going to make those ten-thousand dollars to 10 million dollars.
Black Enterprise invested $10,000 into my business when I started as an entrepreneur. I always told myself, ‘When I’m able to BOSS up and help someone else. I will do that.’ And that’s what I’ve been able to do.
What is the best advice you received from a parent or mentor that inspired you along your journey?
The best advice my mother always gave me was to believe in myself. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about you, it’s what you think about yourself, and that gave me the confidence to walk into places where I wasn’t a boss yet, but I had a boss mentality.
I will say this. I am in a place where I am in a healing process. My mom passed away about two months ago, and it has been the most devastating thing I have ever experienced in my life. If anyone is close to their mom, you can imagine not having her in your life. My mother lost her mother when she was two years old, so she became the type of mom who poured into her children because she never had that. My life was an honor to my mother because my mom didn’t have a mom, so I would show her all the things she missed out on; we traveled together, and she went to all my events. I honored my mother in so many ways to show her how great a mom she was and how great a job she did. For her to go beyond that with no guidance and become a servant and pastor and to want to give her heart to everybody beyond her children made me have that same type of heart to help people. My mother was beautiful inside and out, but her confidence is what I loved about her. She taught me that and consistency. She would go anywhere. She would do anything and feel like she belonged, and that is what we (as women) have to have.
As an educator, that is what I wanted to teach young girls. You have to have confidence, self-assurance, and self-awareness because whatever you are handed or whatever you’ve accomplished can easily be taken away from you. Everything comes with challenges. ‘You can’t do anything great without having failures.’ If you’re easily moved or offended, you’re not going to last. I’m very thick-skinned. I don’t get my panties in a bunch much (laughs). I don’t let things work me up much, but If I do, I deal with it in a moment, and I release it because I’m human, but I don’t let it sit with me very long because it doesn’t serve me or it’s not profiting me to make money, so it has to go.
One of my mentors told me a long time ago, “It’s not about who runs the fastest it’s about who wins the race.” With social media, we’re often looking at everybody and what they’re doing, and we say, “Okay, I need to do this, I need to do that.” If anyone follows me, The Boss Network is popping, Cameka not as much (laughs) because I am about the work. I understand the value of social media, but I don’t aspire to be an influencer. That’s not my jam. I aspire to be a businesswoman, make things happen, and cut checks, and that’s how I want to live my life. I’m very lowkey, and while I understand the significance of social media, I’ve also figured out my lane. I’m good at pitching. I’m good at getting six-figure checks and million-dollar checks from corporate companies. I love empowering people. I love speaking and teaching, so I focus on that, which helps me not be everywhere (my team handles more of the social media), and again, I stay in my lane.
What has been a challenge you overcame that you can help other women be seen?
We all experienced the pandemic in 2020, and everyone’s world was shook. If you were in business or had a job, you were on pins and needles thinking, “Am I going to lose my job?” or “Is my business going to fold?” Trust me. I am a company that did most of our programming live. We did conferences, events, and corporate sponsors, and when everything shut down, that was about 75 percent of my business. The good thing is that 25 percent of my business was digital, which I wasn’t foreign to because I always told myself, ‘You got to stay ahead of the trends.’ You don’t have to be an expert at everything, but you need to know a little bit about everything to empower, inspire and build a team to make those things happen. You can’t get the people you need to help you if you don’t know what’s going on with your business.
The reality was when COVID hit, I was in the same position as a lot of businesses, and I was trying to figure out how do I shift or pivot. Those were like the terms of the day. Having been in business for more than ten years, I thought, ‘Is this a moment for me to stop. Is it time for me to try something different?’ But God told me, No, it’s time to think bigger. Before then, I had gotten multiple six-figure checks from sponsors, and I had never asked for a million dollars from anyone. God said listen, Everyone is struggling right now, and you have a community of thousands of women. These companies are putting out statements about how they want to support the community and black businesses. It is your time. With all the work that you’ve done and you have a platform listed in Forbes Inc., Black Enterprise, Essence, and every publication you can think of, you’ve set the playing field for yourself to be in the game, so now it’s time for you to make an “Ask.”
I decided if I asked for $100,000 or a million dollars, the ask, the pitch, and the work would be the same. To be honest, it’s about what you think you’re worth. I saw an opportunity when these companies put out these statements about investing millions of dollars. Mind you, a lot of it is lip service, but you have to know that somebody is going to be serious. You have to knock on those doors until you get that one answer. All you need is one, and I took that opportunity. During a pandemic, I built The Boss Impact Fund and said, ‘Okay, I can save my company if I can help these women.’ I just sought to serve other women. The lesson is that when you serve people, God will serve you. My goal is to raise 10 million dollars in the next three years to help 500 women save their businesses, grow their businesses, and start their businesses within 3-months. I got my first 1.5 million dollars check to invest in women, and I’m still pitching, I’m still building, I’m still growing, I’m still trying.
I do believe you serve your way to success
That quote of mine is a lesson; you have to sometimes be in a space where your mind is so clear to where you can hear from God because that’s who I believe. I tell people God is the CEO of my company, and I am the founder. He leads and guides me through this process, and because I was trying to hear his voice by fasting and praying and seeking wise counsel, I was able to get the vision and say, ‘Hey, this (Boss Impact Fund) is a great idea!’ I empowered myself with people I knew were strong advocates who could be advisors for me and help me pitch this thing. I have my mentor, Beverly Johnson, and Brian Mullen, an investment banker for many years on Wall Street, to support me. I do believe you serve your way to success. That has always been my motto. I am a person that is blessed to be able to infuse faith into my business. It was just a non-negotiable for me. A lot of times, people say you don’t mix church and state. The reality is He is the head of my life. It is not man, but Him that guides me, opening the doors and creating the opportunities, so I would be remiss not to give Him the honor. Because of that, I can work with Fortune 500 companies and Fortune 100 companies like Sage, Pepsi Cola, Prudential, McDonald’s, and all these other companies that have invested in The Boss Network. It truly is about working hard, being consistent, and having a foundation where people can’t tell you no because you are too good at what you do.
In what ways do you take care of Cameka Smith?
I do believe in self-care 100 percent. Sometimes people say self-care is getting a massage or going on vacation. All those things are important, but I noticed that we rarely unplug even doing all that. We live in a digital world where when we’re self-caring, we’re taking a picture of ourselves at the spa or on vacation. It’s like your mind needs a break. For me, self-care is unplugging. I make sure I have a 3-day weekend. I focus on my family; I focus on time to pour into me. I got into entrepreneurship for freedom, and if I have to work and slave, that’s not freedom, so I make sure I work hard on those four days, and then on those other days, I rest so that I can be unique and authentic to myself.
What’s next for The Boss Network and how can more women begin the process of seeking funding?
I want to encourage women to visit thebossnetwork.org. If you are looking for resources and opportunities, we have so much stuff available for women in business. I definitely want women to join and become members. Good news: The BOSS Network will relaunch the grant in January 2023, so stay connected.
Before ending our conversation to head to her next big power move, Cameka also said this about the woman (her mother) who had a significant impact on her life, which helped her as a person and business leader serve and be there for others.
My mother lived a full life. Even though she died at 61, very young, she lived. Sometimes I would be so frustrated because I would say to her, ‘Mom, where are you going? Why are you getting on a plane?’ I wanted to be right with her protecting her. Her response: “Girl, I’m grown. I can go where ever I want. I don’t need y’all with me.” Cameka laughs at the memory. ‘I loved that about my mother,’ she says. She dedicated much of her life to us (her kids), but she figured it out, especially when so many moms dedicate much of their lives to their children and don’t have a life for themselves. My mother knew her kids were successful and had their life together, and it was now her time to live. It was hard for my siblings and me to let her go and live her life, but I’m glad (now) because we didn’t know she would be gone so soon. Her spirit probably knew, and she was trying to live her full life, have her independence, do what God called her to do, and know she raised her children to be independent people.
From my mother’s teachings, I want to encourage women and men to be kind to themselves. It’s okay to fail and to pause and not know everything. You have to figure out how to manage those things so they serve you most authentically because the reality is you can look at everyone else’s life, but it doesn’t mean anything if you’re not happy with your life, period.
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Photo courtesy of The Boss Network