Education has always been important to Angelina Darrisaw.
She grew up the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, but her mother worked to get her a scholarship to attend a private school on the largely well-off Upper East Side of Manhattan. She commuted up to four hours a day for school.
"They always say you don't know about racism and inequity until you see it in your face," Darrisaw tells CNBC Make It. "In going from one part of New York to another part, it was really clear to see access gaps that existed."
When she started at the private school in seventh grade, Darrisaw didn't know how to type or use a computer, while the other students could already create websites, she says.
"Those early experiences, seeing how the zip code we lived in could determine what you had access and opportunities to do, made such an impact on me," Darrisaw says. "I knew that in some way my life was going to be dedicated to closing gaps."
And that's exactly what Darrisaw is doing. After a successful career working in business development and marketing at media companies like ESPN and Viacom, in 2015, Darrisaw launched C-Suite Coach to design coaching programs for small business owners.
"I got promoted every year in my career, and I realized that every time I got promoted, there were less women in the room. There were less people of color in the room," she says. "And I wanted to do something to shift that and drive more equity in the workplace and more equity in business."
Through C-Suite Coach, Darrisaw has partnered with huge companies like Google to lead coaching sessions for underrepresented entrepreneurs, teaching things like how to use tech to grow a business and how to retain diverse talent. At Google, for example, Darrisaw leads a team of coaches and hosts three free digital workshops per month as part of a program called Grow with Google Digital Coaches.
Here are some key pieces of advice Darrisaw shares from her experience as an entrepreneur and a coach.
As part of Grow with Google Digital Coaches, Darrisaw and her colleagues have trained over 60,000 small business owners of color, she says. One of the most common things she sees holding back entrepreneurs is a fear of starting their business.
"Don't be afraid to just get started," she says. Launching a business can be overwhelming, so Darrisaw recommends focusing on one thing at a time and using as many free tools as possible.
"Start with one tool," she says. Whether it's making a website more effective in connecting with customers or using a branded email account, "pick that one tool that will help you engage with your customers more effectively, and really just focus on that," she says.
"You have to get out of your head," she says.
Invest time in building a network
Another key piece of advice, particularly for under-represented business owners, is to build a network and support system, Darrisaw says.
"Especially as I think about my community, Black business owners, us leveraging our network is really critical," she says.
There's "power" in building a network, Darrisaw says, whether it be through the Grow with Google Digital Coaches program or elsewhere.
"I see this all the time in workshops – Black business owners who are in the same area of expertise, [and] local communities engaging to figure out how to network with each other," Darrisaw says, as well as asking questions, like how others transitioned online during the pandemic, or what tools they're using to engage with customers.
For Darrisaw, her education "expand[ed] a whole new network for me," and taught her how to "position myself for the right opportunities," she says.
And your network "can advocate for you," even if you don't yet have a seat at the table, she says.
Don't be afraid to articulate the value your business brings
"Sometimes we can be really shy as business owners about sharing our services and sharing what we do," she says. But "one of the things I learned really early is that you do have to articulate the value that you're bringing to the business and be able to speak loudly about your accomplishments."
Although people of color and women are often not afforded a voice, or are encouraged to be quiet or polite, Darrisaw says it's important to see the negative impact of that. "We have to speak up."
"We do really have to market who we are and what we do and know what our secret sauce is that we do that better than someone else," she says.
Shift from calling yourself a 'small business owner' to CEO
"When you're starting, don't just think of yourself as a small business, but really think about running your company as if you are a CEO," Darrisaw says. "I think of myself as a CEO, and that was a big mind shift."
Darrisaw says her mind shift included accepting that she is worthy of running a business, that she is an expert in the field and that she is ready to take on the job. Initially, Darrisaw dealt with imposter syndrome, she says, but with the help of her network, she was able to overcome it.
And "I think that's something that I would encourage all business owners to do," because it'll help you build the confidence you need to build a longstanding, successful business, she says.
"When we start businesses, often we're starting it because we have this really innovative idea, or maybe we're recognizing a problem in the market and we've come up with a solution. And that is a great starting point," Darrisaw says. "But thinking about scaling or thinking about sustainability [and] withstanding difficult times like the pandemic we're currently in, we really have to put on that CEO hat."