Michelle Maryns is building a stronger and more inclusive economy by equipping underestimated entrepreneurs with tech-enabled business tools.
From an early age, Michelle Maryns was interested in the economic empowerment of women of color. “My mom was the first entrepreneur I ever knew,” she says. “She had a successful fabric business back in Vietnam, but when my parents immigrated to Kansas in 1975 as part of the first wave of refugees, she didn’t feel confident in continuing her business because of all the language, cultural, and systemic barriers. I always wondered what she could have accomplished if she had the tools, resources, and confidence to continue her entrepreneurial journey. That’s why I’ve dedicated my own career toward issues of economic empowerment–especially for women of color like my mom.”
Michelle wanted to start a business like her mom. In middle school she participated in an after-school program on entrepreneurship. “I ended up competing against high school students in a business plan and stock market competition. I won both!”
The prize for the stock market competition was an all-expenses paid trip to New York to see the NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange. During that trip, one of her mentors who was a traditional investment banker told her that he didn’t think she was cutthroat enough for the business world.
“I was only in middle school, so I took his words to heart and decided to pursue a path in public service. Over the years, I helped various startups on the side–including two of my brother’s companies–but I was always afraid to take the leap and start my own venture.”
Genesis of We Sparkle
Michelle directed her energy toward public service. She completed a master’s degree in Public Policy from Harvard University. She worked at the U.S. Department of State, the American Academy of Neurology, and the Metropolitan Economic Development Association (Meda). But she was never able to ditch the feeling that she wanted to start a business.
On her journey, she experienced setbacks. Michelle reminded herself to not let others dull her sparkle. She developed a mantra, we sparkle. “It was a reminder to let your light shine, to help others to shine, so that together we shine,” she says.
It was another amazing woman in Michelle’s life, her mother-in-law, who finally made Michelle realize that if didn’t take the leap and start her own venture, she would always regret it. “That’s why I finally did it and I took the leap.”
In 2018, Michelle applied for and was accepted to the FINNOVATION Lab as a FINNOVATION Fellow. The FINNOVATION Fellowship is a nine-month incubator and fellowship program for purpose-driven entrepreneurs. This led to her startup, We Sparkle.
We Sparkle is a public benefit corporation that leverages technology to help small businesses save time and increase revenues. They are building a stronger and more inclusive economy by equipping underestimated entrepreneurs with tech-enabled business tools. Most of their customers are women of color. We Sparkle’s AI Assistant texts with customers to schedule appointments, answer their questions, educates them on your products/services, and encourages their reviews.
Connection as a Source of Resilience
In this global pandemic, the businesses that Michelle works with have been hit hard. To cope, the community has pulled together.
But, before the community came together, the community had to exist. Michelle has built a strong network. She sees that network as a secret to resilience.
“It’s been tough,” Michelle explains. “Even though there’s been a great outpouring of support and help, it’s still a lot. It can be overwhelming for small businesses to navigate the different programs where they can apply for for assistance.
“And a lot of it is not just the technical logistical thing, but just emotional support.
“One of the groups that I work with is called the Minnesota Healing Justice Network. It’s a collective of 100 doulas, midwives, birth workers, healers, and artists. We have a daily check-in call to provide emotional support. It’s a little bit of an overwhelming time, and sometimes it’s nice to just laugh with someone else. Or sometimes we even have a little dance parties. Or does anyone need some food? I could bring some food by or whatever it is that you need. So, it’s not just the logistical or technical support, but the emotional support that’s needed.
“I think in these times when there is an emergency or crisis, you also see the positive side of people really supporting and helping each other. Because we all need each other at this time.
“I think that’s what resilience is all about. How do you reach out and connect with others?”