Back when I first married my wife Kat, we LOVED to travel and explore the outdoors. We’d go all over the southeast in search of good trails. One fall, we decided to hike from Amicalola Falls (straight) up to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail on Springer Mountain in North Georgia. It’s an epic hike with a memorable visual finish at the start of the storied Appalachian Trail. It’s also a bloody slog and almost all uphill.
Don’t Think. Just Start.
I was anxious to get out there and on the trail and being a confident 30-something, didn’t really do much by way of planning. Kat trusted me, so we got up early, headed to Amicalola and without much fanfare, hit the trail with a small backpack, “enough” water and some snacks to get us through the hike. I wasn’t really worried. It was a pretty straight shot and we had a lot of experience hiking. Also. There’s this wonderful “hike in” hostel up there that is a fantastic mid-way point. They have food, snacks, water and a place to rest should you need it.
When Your Plan Goes To Shit
The “straight” hike was straight alright. Straight up. A brisk pace turned to a snails crawl. We passed the Inn on the way up and stopped in to say hello. We didn’t resupply because we thought we’d do it on the way back down. 5 hours into our hike, we reached the terminus. We celebrated with a few photos and started the trek back down.
That’s when things got worse. We were running low on water and had burned through our provisions. We also took a wrong turn near the top (and our navigation app didn’t work up on the mountain) so by the time we got back on track, our 15 mile hike was looking more like 19.0 miles. Kat was exhausted. I was fatigued.
Then things got a lot worse. We were desperately trying to reach the hike inn hostel and arrived ready to fall over. Trouble was…they had closed up early that day and the placed was locked up. So, we were out of food, running low on water (and light) and still had another terrible 5 miles to go. That was the longest 5 miles of our relationship. Kat was feeling terrible and nearly collapsed a couple of times. The only way we made it down the mountain was by playing word association games to distract ourselves from the hunger, thirst and fatigue.
We laugh about it now, but that 18 miles in 1 day hiking experience tested our relationship and our will/perseverance. And the worst part about it is that it all could have been avoided.
This IS The Entrepreneurial Journey (but, does it have to be?)
I feel like that hike is symbolic of life (and the entrepreneurial journey) in a lot of ways. We’re all scrambling to create opportunities, take risks with social or financial rewards and balance all the elements of our work and lives. Like everything else, we all:
Have lofty, ambitious goals
Feel eternally under-resourced, while being eternally optimistic
Are gritting/willing our way through things
Experience constant obstacles
Have to come up with creative problem solving
Did you have lofty ambitions for this year? Were your sights set on big things? Did you hit the ground running? Charging up the mountain only to run out of water halfway up?
5 Painful Lessons I Learned
If you’re starting a new journey or evaluating the one that you’re on, I humbly submit some suggestions for your consideration based on our “wonderful” experience.
Plan Ahead 🎯 – You can’t ever predict everything that can happen on a journey like this, but you prepare and plan for contingencies. The more you can de-risk a situation, the more likely it is that you’ll achieve success. Where are we going? What’s the journey along the way look like really? What do we need to pack (the right people, enough financial resources, tools that will help make the job easier, etc).
Get a Freaking Map 🗺️ – Listen. It’s just stupid to launch into something big without a good map (read: clear game plan) for where you’re going, what stops along the way you can make along the way (read: milestones) and what alternatives you can take to reach the summit (read: backup plans).
Pack The Essentials 🚰 – Knowing what really matters and focusing on those things can be the difference between achieving your goals and bailing with miles left to go. As Greg McKeown espouses in “Essentialism”, learn to quickly discern the trivial many from the vital few tasks that will help you achieve success.
Check In Often ✅ – Stuff goes wrong. And I’ve never hit a goal that I wasn’t tracking and monitoring. Have some good KPIs that are meaningful. Check in often with those KPIs, your team and yourself.
Correct Your Course 🧭 – Don’t be too proud, confident or stubborn to acknowledge when things are going off course. As Tyson said: “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
About The Author:
Greg Hilton is the cofounder and managing partner for SOCO, SOCO is a thriving platform and community focused on supporting creators, indie workers and entrepreneurs just like you. He’s an avid outdoorsman, creator and storyteller.
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We’re all surrounded by talented women in our lives. It just so happens that we’re super extra fortunate to be a part of a co-operative work community that is chock full of badass female creators, innovators and community builders. They wear many hats. They take on a bunch of responsibilities. And they do amazing work. So this post is for them.
We want to celebrate their spirit, tell their stories and amplify their voices this month. While we are fortunate to have many, many female members in our community…too many to list here. But these are just some of the folks doing big, cool or interesting things worth noting. Our challenge to you…read their stories, connect with them, follow them. They have causes you can support, skills and knowledge you can hire and stories worth sharing. When women thrive…we all thrive.
PS: There are 12 actually…we couldn’t help ourselves. 😂
Amy Johnson Ely
Amy is the Executive Director for The Palmetto Cycling Coalition whose mission is to make South Carolina bicycle and pedestrian friendly, by improving safety through better access and education, to promote healthy lifestyles and livable and economically viable communities. Amy is a huge advocate for bicycle and pedestrian friendly communities and livable communities; activating stakeholders, citizens and evangelists alike.
Bianca is an entrepreneur, wife, mom and a pizza and Prosecco enthusiast. Her favorite meal is brunch (check out her podcast Books, Brunch and Babes), a lover of all books (she still buys actual books), a branding photoshoot pro (check out her company, the Crawford Austin Agency) and a travel snob.
Dawn Dawson House
Dawn is fighting to preserve, celebrate and elevate African American cultural heritage in South Carolina and beyond. As the Executive Director of the WeGOJA Foundation, Dawn leverages her 20+ years as a tourism professional, storyteller and convener to document, preserve and activate African American heritage in South Carolina. Their wildly popular and award-winning GreenBook of SC provided one of the first of its kind travel guide to SC African American cultural sites. (a co-operative project with SOCO members).
Fiona is a competitive triathlete, founder of the worker-owned digital marketing agency FGM Internet Marketing, and an environmental activist. When she’s not designing digital campaigns for companies and causes she believes in, she’s competing at the highest level in triathlons around the world (competing in the ITU World Championships for Team USA). Fiona is a vocal advocate for the environment, sustainable development and equitable access for marginalized persons and cultures.
Founder and creative director of digital powerhouse HLJ Creative, Helen Johnson is passionate about combining eye-catching design with data-driven marketing strategies to create brands and websites that make the right impression, accomplish your goals, and lead to long-term growth. She’s an entrepreneur and a super mom. She’s seeing incredible growth and is evolving her team’s capabilities to serve the needs of a new generation of clients.
A high energy and highly impactful coach, consultant and thought leader in organizational culture, talent attraction & retention and leadership…Jada built and sold her first company in late 2022 and is now working on empowering CEOs to build incredible cultures and companies with several new ventures in the works.
Freelancer turned creative executive. Kaleigh Cox had a successful career as a freelance copywriter before she met fellow SOCO member Robert Gilbert in the early days of DxTEL. The two joined forces a few years ago and haven’t looked back. DxTEL is a fast growing managed services and platform company serving the rural broadband/telecom industry. Kaleigh has built a reputation as a savvy storyteller and influencer in the space. When she’s not evangelizing for access for everyone, she’s all about faith, family and community.
Kassy Alia Ray
After losing her police officer husband in the line of duty, Kassy was moved to take action and founded Serve & Connect with the mission to help police and citizens work together as one community; Serve & Connect works to heal the relationships between police and the communities they serve and by doing so, creating a future where police and citizens work together as one community.
Katherine Swartz and Bre Spaulding
This dynamic duo is transforming entrepreneurial education and building the next generation of student entrepreneurs at USC through the McNair Institute for Entrepreneurialism and Free Enterprise. Katherine has been transforming nonprofits and shaping the next generation for 20+ years. “Bre” is one of Soda City’s most dynamic young leaders. Working with stakeholders from across the university, the McNair team successfully launched USC’s first ever minor in Entrepreneurship.
Shannon is the Cofounder and COO of Consciously, a creative agency serving the needs of conscious brands including Akimbo (altMBA), B Lab, Black Wealth Data Center, and Planned Parenthood. Consciously builds purpose-driven, inclusive marketing platforms that help companies nourish their business ecosystem. In addition to being a mompreneur and a brand builder, Shannon has launched a life coaching business.
Starlitt Miller is blending a creative background with technology and data with her new startup Transity. In 2022, Starlitt graduated from Visible Hands, a high tech accelerator focused on investing in and lifting up underrepresented founders. She’s a vocal and active member of the Cola startup scene and the most recent Entrepreneur in Residence at the Richland Library.
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For most of us, telling someone we can’t do something just feels awkward. We think we’re letting them down. Or we’re giving up an opportunity for ourselves.
But the truth is, saying “no,” can be one of the most liberating things you’ll do. And it’s especially true for those who run their own businesses. If you’re not saying no once in a while, you’ll find yourself burnt out, working late nights, and answering emails after hours.
Not good at setting boundaries for yourself and your work? We’ll help you get started.
We spoke with Fiona Martin, who’s owned marketing co-operative FGM Internet Marketing LLC for 10 years. She has a lot of experience as a solopreneur. And she’s very good at setting boundaries. We wanted to get her insight.
Setting Boundaries Starts with Yourself
Fiona said she has firm working days and hours. And she sticks to them.
“I do not work on weekends, and I usually shut down at 3:00 pm on weekdays,” Fiona said. “I credit my last ‘proper job’ at VisitScotland in Edinburgh, and my managers, for not expecting us to work late or on the weekends.”
Fiona said she avoids checking emails at night or on the weekends.
Creating working hours will help you separate yourself from work. And honestly, who only checks one email when they sign-in on the weekends?
Is It Really Urgent?
According to Fiona, you need to understand what’s urgent and what is truly urgent.
“I work very hard in not getting caught up in urgency because honestly, as a digital marketer, I’m not saving lives here. The work will always be there, whether you speed up and get it done at 7:00 pm on a Tuesday or whether you take a moment and complete it in the next few days,” Fiona said.
Fiona noted urgency could also lead to poor work quality.
“The urgency, I find, also leads to shoddy work. It’s worth approaching your projects with a clear mind, and pushing for speed does not always promote that.”
It’s easy to get caught up in solving an issue immediately. So before responding to an email, or jumping on a project late at night, take a step back and see if the problem is truly urgent.
Create Boundaries with Clients
Setting boundaries with yourself is one thing. But how do you create boundaries with clients? Fiona says it starts at the beginning of the relationship.
“I include a “Rules of Engagement” page in our first contract. In it, I outline our standard working hours, preferred methods of communication, and behaviors that are unacceptable like racism, sexism, or ageism,” she said.
Fiona outlines working conditions and how she prefers to communicate with clients.
“I also tend to ask my clients to schedule a time for a call. Everyone is busy, and I want to give my clients my undivided attention, so you won’t find me taking client calls in the car or while I’m grocery shopping. In order to guarantee you have my attention, we need to plan a 30 or 60-minute phone call that works with everyone’s schedule,” Fiona noted.
If you’re spending time responding to unexpected calls, or texts, you’re giving up the thing most precious to a business owner: time.
So, what if you set boundaries with clients who aren’t very happy about them?
Then it’s probably a sign they aren’t the right fit for you.
Most clients will respect your guidelines and adhere to them. And if they’re not it may be time to re-evaluate your relationship.
Maintaining Your Boundaries
You can write down and create all the boundaries you want, but they don’t mean much if you don’t enforce them.
Fiona said if she begins to violate boundaries she’s created for herself, it causes her to step back and see what’s going on in her work life.
“I’ve found that boundaries are useless if you don’t follow them yourself, so I don’t often violate my own boundaries. If I do, it gives me a sense of unease because ultimately, I’m disrespecting myself, and I have to take a moment to reassess what I’m doing and course correct.”
If clients aren’t respecting boundaries, including your core values, it’s crucial to stand by what you say.
“For work hours and methods of communication, I simply don’t respond. If a client wants a response, they use the methods clearly outlined. Reinforcing other boundaries like not tolerating racism is usually done with conversation, and I’ve had to terminate contracts over those types of issues, too,” Fiona said.
Your Boundaries are Valid
Creating and maintaining boundaries isn’t easy. But it’s essential for everyone, especially those on a self-employment journey. Fiona said the process begins with self-discovery.
“The key is really to understand what sorts of behavior are acceptable and unacceptable to you,” Fiona emphasized. “Your own boundaries are valid and don’t need outside validation from others. If you have a client that doesn’t accept your boundaries, maybe they shouldn’t be a client.”
And Fiona noted it’s hard when you’re starting out, trying to land clients, to make boundaries a priority. But in her opinion, it’s not worth the money or mental toll to keep a client who doesn’t respect your boundaries.
Communicate Your Values
Defining your values begins with a bit of self-discovery.
“It’s important to understand your own boundaries first. What do you want your work-life to look like in a very specific way? This part was the hardest for me,” she said.
Take time to write out what you want your business to look like. For example, when are your working hours? How do you want clients to communicate with you? And what are unacceptable behaviors you won’t tolerate?
Fiona said it’s critical to communicate your values to clients and colleagues. It’s like a store posting its hours on the door. Those are their boundaries. So you should do the same, even if you don’t have a physical door.
Along with her contract, Fiona includes a Rules of Engagement document which outlines how FGM Internet Marketing communicates, their working hours, and expected turnaround times.
Over time, your boundaries will likely change based on circumstances in your life. And that’s okay.
“But the hardest part for me was figuring out those boundaries and defining them. And they will likely change every year as you accumulate new experiences, good and bad,” Fiona said.
For your productivity and health, boundaries are essential. And while they may seem prohibitive, you may find that you’ll do better work for clients you love by setting the proper parameters.
Our community has many incredible women. They’ve founded companies, run non-profits, have side hustles, and do great work for companies. Meanwhile, they also serve in the community and make SOCO (and Columbia) a better place.
So, we wanted to learn what inspires the women of SOCO, what challenges they face, and what needs to change in our society to make work more accessible for them.
Here’s what they said.
First, we asked who or what inspires their work
For some, the people in their lives have played a pivotal role.
“My mother-in-law Meredith Cox has been a big inspiration in my career. She’s a role model for me in building a career, having an equal-partnership marriage, and mothering well. I’m thankful for her example, support, and advice in work and family life,” Kaleigh Cox said.
“My mother. She’s retired now, but growing up she worked fearlessly in her job and always made time for her children,” Malai Roper explained.
And for others, the specific events caused them to change course and take action.
“George Floyd’s murder in 2020 motivated me to contribute any way that I can to helping my fellow Americans find the same beauty and respect in African Americans that they do in themselves. I already had been volunteering with historic preservation organizations but on a limited basis. The summer of 2020 changed that. Since I’m not a historian, I wanted to bring my strengths — organizational development, strategic planning and growth — to local efforts in some way,” said Dawn Dawson-House.
“A couple of years ago, I was struggling financially in one of the most expensive cities in the nation (Austin, TX). I had a $40k/year job and worked under a tyrant of a VP (think Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada). Also, the massive amount of student loan debt was getting bigger and bigger every year (because I had to put a lot of them on deferment because I couldn’t afford the minimum payment). The combination of those things and the side hustles I needed to make ends meet made me unravel. So I started looking for alternative solutions because I knew I couldn’t keep that pace much longer.
I started following bloggers publishing their income reports, like Michelle Schroder-Gardner (from Making Sense of Cents) and Melyssa Griffin. I was mesmerized by their relentless tenacity in paying off a lot of student loan debt, getting out of jobs that made them miserable, and creating a life on their terms. I devoured the content of their progressive monthly income reports and became obsessed with the idea that I could do that myself. So I did, and I’m happy I took that leap despite what others said,” Cat Treme said.
Surrounded by community and wanting to control their lives serves as the inspiration for other members.
“Having the ability to (kinda) control my own destiny,” said Fiona Martin.
“The rockstar community at SOCO!” Christina Goodman said.
Empowerment plays a big role in doing great work. So, we asked what empowered our members
A common theme in their responses; having their voices heard and a seat at the table.
“When I announced that corporate life wasn’t for me and I was starting my own online business, I got a lot of eye rolls and was told by several people to get real and “just get married and be a mom” so that someone could take care of me since corporate life was not for me.
These patriarchial statements made me even more determined that I would make this business come to profitable fruition. But I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. I needed to surround myself with a community of driven, forward-thinking entrepreneurs to lean on for support and ideas. Having a solid community (major shoutout to the SOCO community) that will keep you on that path you know you ultimately want to be on when things get tough has been a critical component to becoming an empowered business owner,” Cat explained.
“A sense of safety and respect for workspace, my voice, my POV (point of view), my strengths and shortcomings … so that I’m able to do the same for others,” Dawn explained. “I’m happy to say I feel that way at 808 (SOCO 80808).”
“Having a seat at the table makes me feel empowered. All voices should be heard. We are all unique and bring dynamic ideas that can collectively spark change,” Malai noted.
“I feel most empowered in meetings and situations where I’m asked for my opinion and that input is considered and valued. I want to feel like I’m an equal voice at the table—and I’m really thankful for a role and team where I experience that daily!” said Kaleigh.
The opportunity to tackle challenges and see their work come to life empowers other members.
“Being self-scheduled gives me a sense of control, and I thrive when working with limited micromanaging,” explained Christina.
Fiona said she loves taking ideas and putting them into action.
“Taking a large, nebulous concept or idea, turning it into action points, and seeing that idea come to life.”
Next, we asked about the unique challenges our members have faced as women in the workplace
Several members said they continue to face stereotyping and harassment.
“Not being taken seriously, being spoken down to, being accused of thinking “emotionally”, being hit on by clients, sexual harassment and assault, not being believed,” Fiona said about the issues she’s faced at work.
Malai’s also faced similar problems.
“Stereotypes. There’s this box that we as women are often put into in terms of how we should act or what we should say. As a black woman, the box is even more suffocating,” she said.
Breaking out of the “traditional” views of women in the workplace makes it difficult to be taken seriously, according to Christina.
“While many people have trouble honestly assessing their work value, women have been especially trained since toddlerhood to consider our thoughts as less valuable and less informed than other people’s. That not only makes it frustrating when we aren’t taken seriously on things we already know, but it also doubles the embarrassment if we have a genuine need for help/information and have to ask,” she explained.
The challenges of childcare and having a family, while pursuing a career, make it hard for working moms.
“When I became a mom, I wrestled for two years through whether I should stop working to be a stay-at-home mom. I’m now fully confident in my decision to work full-time, but it took me a lot more emotional work to reach that point than it probably would for a man,” Kaleigh said.
And for other members, being told what to do or how to manage their career, has been an ongoing challenge.
“I came from a woman-dominated field (tourism marketing,) so things were mostly cool. But I also spent a few years in the State Park Service and remember distinctly being told what my place was, even if they didn’t understand it. Instead of complying, I bullied my way into things and promptly got kicked out,” said Dawn.
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a woman in the work world (specifically in the South) is the recommendation to quit when things get tough. The loving yet patronizing statements from loved ones to get out of the working world period when things are stressful in your business or just a regular 9-5 just to get married and let someone take care of you as opposed to encouraging me to find creative solutions,” Cat said.
We asked our members to explain the things people don’t understand about being a female entrepreneur, freelancer, or employee
“When my son was born, I remember being frustrated when we would meet other couples. They’d ask my husband all about his work, then turn to me and only ask about my son’s sleep schedule. I wanted so badly—especially in those early days—for people to see my other skills and interests and talk to me about my work. I think some people have a false perception that moms only work if they have to, not because they want to. I want people to understand that I’m passionate about my work and that I enjoy talking about it!” Kaleigh explained.
Christina believes there’s a misconception about what freelancing means for many people.
“Choosing to be a freelancer is not always about some fancy entrepreneurial dream. Sometimes it comes from a need to be flexible with family schedules or, as in my case, to help manage health issues,” Christina said.
Fiona said female entrepreneurs are always having to work harder to raise money, start businesses, and pursue their careers.
“As women, we have to work 10x harder than a man to land a job or a pitch. Studies continue to show that when a man and a woman are pitching the same idea, “male entrepreneurs were 60% more likely to achieve pitch competition success than were female entrepreneurs.”
We work harder and come better prepared to prove that we know what we’re talking about, but there are still those in power, mostly male, who knowingly or unknowingly will trust a man over a woman. And it’s exhausting. Add to this that the role of caregiver – caring for children, parents, pets, the household – continues to fall on women and we have a lot on our plates.”
Dawn said she worked in some environments that were not flexible with the need to manage her son’s medical care.
“I was fortunate to have exceptional supervisors, but I do remember there being little patience among my male peers for my son’s doctor’s appointments. He was a fairly typical kid, standard immunizations and minor cold appointments, nothing over the top. But some were impatient with my absences. Of course, everything leveled out as my child got older.”
Cat explained there’s more pressure on women to have families.
“People don’t understand the additional societal pressures to start a family. It’s more socially acceptable for a man to be single and start a business. He’s viewed as ambitious, whereas females get labeled as problematic, defective, or spinsters if you will. This is especially true for me since I started my business in my 30s. However, I knew I needed to get my business stabilized before I even considered seriously dating.”
Finally, we wanted to know what needs to change in our society to make work more equitable for women.
“I’m going to be controversial here and say that this falls on the responsibility of the women. If you know you’re doing a good job, you need to speak up and assert yourself. To some, you will be viewed as difficult, but if your value is there and the threat of that value goes away, they will wise up and ultimately respect you for it,” Cat said.
“Old patriarchic ways continue to be rewarded, and that’s what needs to stop. Even female employees without children find themselves on a faster promotional track than women with children. Our measure of success needs to change, but until we value life and livelihood over money, I don’t see how that will change,” Dawn said.
Malai and Fiona want to see men and women on equal footing in the working world.
“Equal access to opportunities and the elimination of gender roles in the work world. Women can do any job a man can do!” Malai said.
“For equal pay in a job situation, full transparency about salaries. We need to remove this negotiation barrier at a job interview as women continue to fall behind here as societally, our role has been devalued and therefore we devalue ourselves when it comes to negotiating salaries. Child care and food preparation needs to take a more central and essential role in our society. Those who care for others and those who prepare food should be paid well, not be an underpaid and devalued position. There should be equal maternity and paternity leave for mothers and fathers to adequately care for their newborns, and so that mother’s don’t take an unproportionate hit when they become pregnant and give birth to a child,” Fiona explained.
Christina and Kaleigh both see accessible childcare and healthcare are critical to elevating women in the work world.
“I may be single and childfree, but I know that childcare costs force a lot of women to have to stay home whether that is what they want or not. The time they give up work to care for their children, later affects their ability to move up their career. Single parents have an even harder time, having to make enough to cover both childcare and basic living expenses for their families,” Christina explained. “Having easier and less expensive access to health care is another issue that would make better work and higher pay more accessible to women, and to workers across the board. Healthcare costs are debilitating for a lot of people and can cost people not only in the short term, but also limits the amount of money available for them to invest in retirement, home ownership, and wealth creation.”
“Childcare. Childcare. Childcare. We need affordable childcare and RELIABLE childcare. There’s a reason women have been leaving the workforce in droves after the pandemic. With daycares and schools constantly closing without warning for days or weeks at a time or sending kids home to quarantine for long periods of time, you simply cannot work outside of the home unless you have family nearby for backup childcare. Working from home is difficult enough, but having two parents work outside of the home seems just about impossible.
It also makes a big difference when men in leadership are in equal-partnership marriages and are hands-on in the work of raising their children, feeding their families, and maintaining their homes. It produces greater empathy, understanding, and respect and keeps expectations in line with reality. I’m thankful to work with and for men who “get it” because they’re balancing work and home in the same ways I am,” Kaleigh explained.
When you walk into SOCO 80808 or Bull Street, you’re likely to see these women, and many others, hard at work. Their voices matter. And change is needed to ensure the work world is equal and fair. We want to continue elevating them and the incredible things they do.
When she was 10 years old, Malai Roper wrote down that she wanted to be a fourth-grade teacher.
Malai tutored her cousins in French, so she already had a knack for teaching.
Unlike most kids, Malai did pursue her childhood dream. It took a few years and a roundabout way of landing in education, but she did it.
And now, she’s creating her own path in the teaching world by empowering kids (and other teachers) through an online tutoring service. Looking back, Malai may have known her teaching destiny for a long time. But her family, and the way she was raised, reveal why it’s no surprise that she’s now an entrepreneur.
Pursuing a Different Dream
Malai’s journey didn’t start in the classroom. Instead, she pursued a college degree that followed another long-time passion: writing. So she enrolled in journalism at the University of South Carolina. Once she finished, she started working at newspapers around the state.
After a few years in the business and a couple of kids, she realized the unpredictable schedule of covering news stories didn’t mesh well with her childrens’ sleep schedule (or her own, for that matter).
Malai went back to school and completed a master’s degree in education, bringing her childhood dream of being an educator to fruition, just a little differently than she expected.
Although her path didn’t start as she planned at 10 years old, Malai’s career change led to entrepreneurship.
Developing a Passion for Teaching
Malai didn’t realize it as a child, but her upbringing prepared her for life as a teacher and an entrepreneur.
“I went through a lot as a kid. My mom was a single mom. And you know, we were low income and just had a lot of challenges,” Roper said.
During the tough moments, Malai found relief with a pen and paper.
“Writing was very therapeutic for me.”
It was the creative outlet she needed.
“I felt like in school, writing had to be very structured in a certain way. And it was very critical. But on my own, I could just write how I wanted to write,” Roper said.
Malai brought her love of writing and creativity to her own classroom settings.
“I think that’s what made me love teaching because I kind of felt overlooked in school. And I remember with my fourth-grade class, I would allot time for them [the students] to write however they wanted to write.”
Entrepreneurship Was a Way of Life
Malai was surrounded by entrepreneurs, side hustlers, and founders as a kid.
But that isn’t how they referred to themselves. Instead, Malai’s family ran their own businesses to put food on the table.
“In my family and especially not growing up with a lot, being an entrepreneur or [having] a side hustle is just something that we did, but you didn’t call it that,” Roper said.
Running a business is just part of the family tradition.
“My grandfather was a farmer, and I grew up in Charleston. So Charleston, that’s where the slave trade happened, and just a lot of those remnants of my family on James Island, a lot of farmers, a lot of midwives. And so that’s what I saw growing up; my mom dibbled and dabbled in entrepreneurship. My brother, he lives here, but I mean, he works full time, but he has his own side hustle.”
Malai learned these lessons by selling produce with her grandfather at the farmers’ market and going to the flea market with her mom.
She had a recent opportunity to reflect on these times with her cousin, who spoke at the GrowCo Growth Summit, and they both reached the same conclusion.
Being an entrepreneur and hustling, it’s just in their DNA.
How Malai Turned Her Passion for Teaching into a Business
After years as a classroom teacher, Malai began tutoring on the side five years ago. She had some clients on her own but also worked for tutoring companies. Through this experience, she realized that people were willing to pay a premium for excellent tutoring services. It also gave her a unique way to connect with kids.
“I was just trying to make ends meet as a teacher and [realized] I can do this tutoring thing and try it a little bit on my own,” Roper said.
Her reputation grew after one client from New York began referring Malai to families in their network. The business grew and pushed Malai to focus on a virtual-only tutoring service.
Two years ago, Malai took the next step by filing an LLC and officially opening the doors of The Art of Learning.
The pandemic accelerated the demands for Malai’s services as schools went remote and kids struggled to keep up in a rapidly changing learning environment.
“When COVID hit, I had families just reaching out left and right. And I was working full time, and it was just the demand that I couldn’t handle. I had to turn people away.”
She ran the numbers and saw that her teaching pay was about the same as what she was making by tutoring.
A decision needed to be made, and the timing was right.
Both of Malai’s kids finished high school. She knew this was her opportunity to go all-in on the business. So she left her full-time job in October 2021 to dedicate all of her time to The Art of Learning.
The Challenges (and rewards) of Building a Business
The shift from full-time teacher to eduprenuer hasn’t always been easy.
Malai is wholly self-funded, and even though she runs an online business, she still has expenses to manage.
“There are costs associated [with the business], keeping a website up if you want quality, you have to pay for it. I have an HR system, you know, working with educators and children, I have to have background checks on these people. All of that costs money.”
Learning how to market herself as a full-time business owner is another challenge.
“I think that’s been the hardest part. Really just defining my brand and getting myself out there and because I’ve never marketed. All of my clients have been based on referrals.”
She’s overcome these obstacles by finding the right people to help.
“I’m trying to work smarter, and just really connecting with the right people and knowing that I don’t know how to do everything,” Roper said.
Now, she is building a team of tutors to expand and reach more students.
And she’s not afraid to get her kids involved and teach them the same principles she learned as as a child.
Malai has also gotten support from the Columbia entrepreneur community.
“Being here at SOCO is helpful. Just connecting with people like going out to 1 Million Cups and the Growth Summit, and at this point, it’s a lot of learning how to just navigate the space”
Malai’s excited about the future of her company. When asked why she’d step away from the classroom to run her business, she had a simple but powerful answer,
“The freedom and doing education the way that I know it can be done.”
Malai is making an impact on many kids by working with them one-on-one. They receive tutoring and instruction in a way that isn’t possible in traditional classrooms.
She’s forming close relationships with families and growing with them as their life changes. And she’s still able to have connections with teachers and the school systems.
The path to founding The Art of Learning had many twists and turns, but looking back at Malai’s childhood, it all makes sense that she’s launched a business of her own. That’s just who she is.
You can learn more about Malai, her journey, and The Art of Learning right here.
As 2021 comes to a close, we can again say, “what a year.”
The challenges were real, folks. It was a roller coaster ride in more ways than one. And while it’s easy to focus on the lows, we want to highlight the good things that happened around the SOCO community.
It’s a bit of a “family tradition” around here. Once a month, we have #winningwednesdays which we use as a time for members to share the awesome stuff in their life (business or personal). And once a year, we ask them to tell us what they’re most proud of over the last 12-months.
The answers cover a broad spectrum of accomplishments. But the common theme is this: these folks did incredible things over the past year, like freelance copywriter Cat Treme, who kept her business going (and thriving) while caregiving for her parents.
Or Mary Cate Spires, who wrote a book that’s scheduled for publishing in 2022. We love to see our folks be recognized for their hard work.
Others, like Amanda Goforth and Jeremy Tong, landed new jobs (working remotely at SOCO 🙌) with companies they’re really excited about.
And SOCO’s own Whitney Balish blew through her reading goal of 60 books (“I’m sorry, did you say 60”)? And read 78 books as of the publishing of this article (her highest total ever).
Yours truly (Ben Culbreth), quit the 9-to-5 life to become a full-time freelance writer.
We don’t like to talk about ourselves too much, but we’d be remiss, not to mention a few things we’re proud of.
First, we welcomed two new team members; the aforementioned super reader, Whitney Balish, who’s leading our sales and business development efforts, and Hannah Lee, who manages operations and makes sure the workspaces work the way they’re supposed to.
For the first time since SOCO 80808 opened, we participated in Vista Lights and welcomed more than 1,000 people to our humble abode in one evening.
We invested blood, sweat, and maybe a few tears into the GrowCo Growth Summit and continued to fulfill one of our values by supporting the entrepreneurial community.
At 80808, we made some home improvements by enclosing offices to give members a better experience to do their best work. In addition, we upgraded seating at both locations and added outdoor lighting. In short, we have the best work infrastructure in the city (Seriously, it’s really awesome).
And gave back; SOCO members lead the way by donating more jackets and coats, which will keep local students warm this winter than any other group participating. We have Dawn Dawson-House to thank for getting us involved.
It’s been a long year. But we’ve battled through a pandemic and many other things, and we’re still here. We’ll continue to support the good people who choose to be part of SOCO. We’ll tell powerful stories and hopefully offer the advice and insight that will make you better at what you do and a better human.
Nothing in life is a given. Not for one second do we take for granted the opportunity we have to serve people who are doing work that is changing our city and the world. Whatever 2022 throws our way, we’re ready. And we hope you’ll be right there beside us.