Founder. Product Developer. Middle school business competition champion.
Michelle Maryns is a multi-hyphenate Minnesotan if there ever was one. She runs WeSparkle, a social enterprise supporting small businesses with the Sparkle Assistant, a wellness-first productivity tool. Michelle joined us to talk about her passion for supporting women of color entrepreneurs, her winding path to entrepreneurship, and her first business inspiration.
Can you explain, in your own words, what inspired you to start WeSparkle?
Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of business owners. Before I started WeSparkle, I was the Chief of Strategic Initiatives at Meda, a nonprofit that provides business consulting, access to capital and market opportunities for BIPOC entrepreneurs.
So I’ve worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs and saw all of those different challenges they faced. Meda had a one-on-one consulting model, so I could really only help about 200 entrepreneurs a year. I wanted to be able to scale small business support because there was so much demand. I took my own background and experience in tech and came across the opportunity to become a Finnovation Fellow. That fellowship provides early stage entrepreneurs with a yearly stipend of $50,000 to incubate their business. So I seized that opportunity and I was part of the first class of Finn Fellows. It gave me the time and space to research and observe businesses owned by women of color, which is where I wanted to focus.
What I learned was that women of color entrepreneurs were spending about 40% of their time on repetitive administrative tasks like scheduling and answering FAQs. That prevented them from spending time on valuable work that would actually help them increase their revenues. With WeSparkle, I wanted to take repetitive tasks off their plate so they have time to work on other things.
Right now, the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs is women entrepreneurs. But among woman entrepreneurs, revenue growth is not on par – in fact, the gap is growing. The most recent State of Women-Owned Businesses Report from American Express found that if the average revenue of women of color-owned firms matched that of white woman-owned firms, four million jobs and $981 billion in revenue would be added to our economy.
My mom was the first business owner I ever knew, and I wanted to follow in my mom’s footsteps and start my own business as well. My mom used to own a fabric business back in Vietnam. My parents were part of the first wave of refugees that came over after the war in 1975. They ended up in Kansas, which is not as diverse as Minnesota and doesn’t have as many business support organizations, so my mom didn’t have the confidence to continue her business. I always wondered what she could have accomplished if she had. That’s also what spurs my passion for supporting women of color like my mom. If she could have opened in the US, her small business could have helped so many people.
Did you always know you wanted to be a business owner?
Starting a business was something that I always wanted to do – I even have notebooks from when I was little, and I was writing about business plans. In middle school, I actually competed against high school students and I won a business plan competition! After that, I completed an internship with an investment firm in New York. And the mentor there told me that I wasn’t tough enough to work in business. He actually said that.
So I ended up pursuing my other passion of public service early on in my career. I became a foreign service officer, and that’s where I fell in love with technology. I led a redesign of the travel.state.gov site at the same time that a huge earthquake struck Haiti in 2010. We were able to use tech to help locate survivors and bring them food, supplies, and water. And $43 million dollars were donated through our Text Haiti program. That showed me the power of technology to have a huge impact.
Like GenEQTY, WeSparkle has a social-impact driven tech product. Why did you decide to launch a technology product?
Well, I didn’t know it was going to be a tech solution at the beginning. I just listened and observed to see what the barriers were. But I knew from my experience working in tech that it could be scalable in a way to help as many people as possible.
I also try to support social enterprises as much as I can. But when I look at what I can buy, it’s usually products like food, glasses, or clothes. When I look at software to buy, just like every day software that you use, I couldn’t find any socially responsible software platforms that were producing the tools I needed.
What has been your biggest learning curve as an entrepreneur?
For me, it’s been both time management and taking time for self care.
I’m the kind of person who loves meeting with people. I’m an extrovert and I get new ideas by talking with other people. It’s been hard to block off time for focus work, which is really important when I’m working on product development and I need to be heads down looking at the entire user experience, mapping it out and making it better. And I need to balance that with sales, marketing, legal, sales, accounting, talking to investors, and customer service!
So managing my time was something I had to learn about, and also learning how to protect it. Especially with the pandemic and after the murder of George Floyd in the Twin Cities, it was very difficult to stay motivated and productive. Right before the pandemic, I was part of the MN Cup competition, and I won my division. I was so excited, I had sales leads, I had financial projections, and my beachhead market was salons. And then they were closed, and I had to start all over.
I actually took a free course at Yale called the Science of Wellbeing where I was taught 8 different ways to increase my wellbeing. And I added those features into the Sparkle Assistant so we can help other business owners. I use these features to block off time on my calendar for meditation and writing in my gratitude journal. You can also use the assistant to limit the number of zooms you have each day to manage your time and build self-care.
What are you most proud of?
For me, I love hearing feedback from our customers. That keeps me going. When I hear things like, “That saved me four hours a week in time,” or “I put that in my email signature and I got four more clients booking appointments with me this week” – that’s amazing! When we’re able to help people save time or increase their revenues, that makes me want to keep going and working on the business to help others.