For Week 11 of Female Founders Weekly, we interviewed Michelle Tran Maryns. Michelle is Founder & CEO of We Sparkle Co., a public benefit corporation dedicated to helping underestimated entrepreneurs start, operate, and grow their ventures via their suite of AI-powered software tools. Prior to We Sparkle, Michelle served as the Chief of Strategic Initiatives at Meda, a nonprofit community development financial institution (CDFI) that helps minority entrepreneurs succeed. Before Meda, she was the Associate Director of Digital Strategy & Innovation at the American Academy of Neurology, Strategy Consultant at Rêve Consulting, Community Relations Specialist at the U.S. Department of Justice, and a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State.
THE INSPIRATION: How did you get the idea for WeSparkle?
I have always wanted to start a business because my own mom was the first entrepreneur I ever knew. She had a successful fabric business back in Vietnam, but when my parents immigrated to the U.S. as part of the first wave of refugees in 1975, she didn't feel confident in continuing her business because of all the language, cultural, and systemic barriers she faced in the small town where we settled in Kansas. She inspired me with her stories and I used to fill up notebooks with all of my own business ideas.
When I was in middle school, I even won a business pitch contest competing against all high school students. This led to a summer internship at an investment firm, where I won the stock market competition and went on a trip to NYC to see the NYSE and NASDAQ. However, one of my "mentors" (a very traditional investment banker) told me on this trip that he didn't think I was "tough enough" to be in business. As a young middle-schooler surrounded by people much older than me, I took this to heart and decided to pursue my other passion: public service.
I started my career as a diplomat representing the U.S. overseas as a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State before working as a Community Relations Specialist at the U.S. Department of Justice. I then went on to work in the private sector as a Strategy Consultant advising clients like Target and Capella on their digital strategy before leading teams at 2 nonprofits: American Academy of Neurology and Meda (a nonprofit that helps minority entrepreneurs succeed). Now, I'm bringing all of these experiences in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors together into a social enterprise called We Sparkle.
THE PITCH: What is WeSparkle?
We Sparkle Co. is a public benefit corporation dedicated to helping underestimated entrepreneurs start, operate, and grow their ventures via our suite of AI-powered software tools. One of our first tools is a conversational AI assistant, or a smart chatbot, that text messages with a businesses' clients to take care of those tedious administrative and marketing tasks.
For example, it helps businesses save time by scheduling calls, Zoom sessions, or other appointments and answering frequently asked questions from customers. On the marketing side, it helps businesses increase revenues by automatically upselling the business' products/services during the booking process and encouraging customer reviews through a special "rate to donate" feature (for every customer review/referral given, We Sparkle donates $1 to a charitable cause of your choice).
We also created a directory at https://app.wesparkle.org that makes it easy for people to find local businesses they want to support based on different values they may have. If you download the app to your phone and tap the SMS icon in the We Sparkle Co. business listing, it will direct you to our Sparkle Assistant to book an appointment with us. We're in the process of rolling this Sparkle Assistant integration out for other businesses in the directory.
FROM IDEA TO REALITY: Practically, how did you get started?
I got started by winning a FINNOVATION Fellowship, which allowed me to leave my job as Chief of Strategic Initiatives at Meda to pursue this social enterprise full time. Last year, I spent most of my time researching the market and designing/developing the digital products.
WORK EXPERIENCE: Did you rely on any previous business experience to help you get going?
Yes, I have helped a lot of businesses and startups in the past. My brother is a serial entrepreneur who co-founded two Y-Combinator backed businesses, Boosted Boards and Skip Scooters. Helping him with the marketing for both these startups re-inspired me to start my own venture. I've also helped several local startups in the past like Ova Woman, 26 Letters, Molly Fuller Design, and Spinning Wylde.
FUNDING: Did you raise capital or did you bootstrap?
I have mostly been bootstrapping this business with my personal savings. Winning the MN Cup Impact Division/Crowd Favorite and securing some angel investment at the end of last year allowed me to hire my first full-time employee this year. We were recently awarded a Launch Minnesota Innovation Grant and are in the process of finalizing details with investors who have stepped up to match the grant and would like to identify others to join our seed round.
CHALLENGES & MOTIVATION: What have been your biggest hurdles and what motivates you to keep going?
My biggest challenges have been in raising capital. Building a software-as-a-service company requires a team of people in order to grow and scale quickly. What motivated me to keep going are the amazingly supportive people on my team and in my community. I am fortunate to be part of some great communities here in Minnesota including Lunar Startups, BETA.MN, Bootstrappers.MN, Impact Hub, and FINNOVATION Lab.
SUPPORT NETWORK: Who do you lean on the most for support?
My life partner, Nick Maryns, is definitely the person I lean on the most for support. He's the talented musician behind UNENDINGS. I listen to his albums every morning as I begin working every day to get going. And then throughout the day, I can hear him in his studio writing new songs. His music and inspiring words of support make up the soundtrack and steady rhythm in my life that keep me going!
WORK-LIFE BALANCE: How do you manage work-life balance and what do you do when you’re not working?
My dog, Huggleberry, ensures I manage to have work-life balance. She's a very cute corgi who makes me smile and reminds me that I need to take regular breaks so I can take her on walks and play with her every day. I also love cooking and reading when I'm not working.
CELEBRATING THE WINS: What has been your proudest achievement so far?
My proudest achievement so far happened when I was in high school and was asked to tutor an elementary school student named Kevin. His family had just immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam. When I first met Kevin, he was very shy and struggling in school because he didn't feel comfortable and he felt very different from everyone else in his class. My friends and I worked with his teacher to plan a party for the class where we made Vietnamese food and taught all of them about the country and culture where Kevin's family had roots. As the party wrapped up, Kevin proudly announced to his class that he actually preferred to be called by his true, Vietnamese name. It was the most proud I have ever felt because he was embracing his heritage and letting his light shine. That's when I decided my life's mission is to help others shine so that together we sparkle.
ADVICE FOR FUTURE FOUNDERS: What’s your best piece of advice to other women starting a business?
My best piece of advice to other women starting a business is to be willing to be vulnerable and use lean strategy methodology to put products/services out there. I have perfectionist tendencies and always wanted to have all of my ducks in a row before doing anything, but perfectionism can sometimes be the enemy of progress so I've been learning to be ok with putting minimum viable products out there (even if they aren't completely done, tested, and perfect) so that I can quickly get customer feedback and improve upon them. I'm inspired by Brené Brown and her talks about how "vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change." I'm the kind of person who used to work more behind the scenes in a supportive role as a ghostwriter etc. because early in my career I had to get a protection order, which scared me away from having a public life or posting a lot on social media. However, watching Brené Brown's TED Talk and other videos made me realize that in order for me to really let my light shine, I need to have the courage to step into the arena and lead the change that I want to see in the world.
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