Service-disabled military veteran Nneka Brown-Massey walked away from a nine-year career in the U.S. Army and created a business that not only made today’s youth feel seen but also provided an opportunity to prepare them for the business world.
Service-disabled military veteran Nneka Brown-Massey sought to make a positive change within her community through her business, Innovative Supplies Worldwide. After sustaining several traumatic brain injuries during paratrooper training, Brown-Massey had to leave the service after a nine-year career. However, she still retained her passion to help others.
Innovative Supplies not only provides training and employment for both high school students and veterans, but one of the company’s primary goals is to provide quality school supplies that portray youth from various ethnic backgrounds. In this way, students can see themselves in the very school supplies they use every day. The company and its mission were based on Brown-Massey’s educational experiences as a young girl.
“Growing up, I had really bad grades in school,” says Brown-Massey. “Later in my adult life, I was diagnosed with severe ADHD. I used to think that maybe if I just picked out the ‘right’ school supplies each new school year, that it would help me focus. School supplies kind of grew into my medicine.”
Brown-Massey enrolled in college and once again looked for products – particularly notebooks – that would motivate her to succeed. Unable to find any, she decided to make her own – and was thrilled with the result.
So, she snapped some promotional pictures, created a website and invested $2,000 in an ad on an Instagram page with over 16 million followers. Innovative Supplies Worldwide went viral: Over 8,000 notebooks were purchased that first day in 2016.
A credit card helped Brown-Massey launch Innovative Supplies Worldwide. Now she is giving back by employing high school students so they can graduate with valuable work experience and training.
See related: Life betterment and business venture collide
What was your start like?
The beginning of my business was very fun. It was almost like I was back in the military. As a result of going viral, I was flooded with orders on the very first day. I had to react quickly because I didn’t have any product on hand.
I needed to search for office space, find a commercial printer that I could use to subcontract some of my work. At that time, I didn’t have the capabilities to print that many notebook covers! I also had to find employees.
Soon after, there were some surprising expenses – one was business insurance. I was renting month-to-month office space from a storage building company that also was renting offices. In order to stay in the office, I had to furnish proof-of-business insurance, which I didn’t have.
And a credit card played a key role?
Yes, I now have the Capital One Platinum Credit Card that I use for the business. But when I first started my company, I used my personal card to launch. I did not actively choose that company, though – USAA sort of chose me because they constantly sent me offer after offer.
I finally decided to open one – the USAA Rewards Visa Signature Card. It was really helpful because I used it to pay my office rent, order inventory, buy sample runs and also for marketing. It’s a rewards card and I would always accept the cash option, and then just put that money toward the credit card balance.
Today, I handle the financial aspects of running my day-to-day operations by remaining debt-free. I know that I will eventually loosen my grip on this attitude somewhat along the way. For now, however, I keep my anxiety levels low by keeping all my business debts low. I make sure they’re paid off in 90 days or less.
Looking back, is there anything you’d like to do over?
I do have some regrets – mostly that I did not go to all of my doctor’s appointments with the Veterans Affairs for them to assess the full extent of my injuries. I was in the middle of processing thousands of customer orders and put them first over my health. If I could do it over, I would have gone to my scheduled appointments and left my employees in total charge.
Any advice to other entrepreneurs, particularly those who are just starting out?
Start strong out of the gate. You might have family and friends who may turn their back on you and not support your business. They may tell you to get a job when times get tough. You have to find yourself in these times and determine what it is you want. At the end of the day, this is your life, your chapter, your story. How do you want it written?
Find mentors who can help push you along the way, to keep you accountable for the things you say you want to do. Very important, though: do not pay for one. A true mentor won’t charge you.
Also, sign up for business classes before you start your venture, but don’t get caught up in the glitter and sparkles of the classes out there. They can cost a fortune. A non-degreed business owner can be just as successful as a business owner who does hold a degree.
What have you learned about credit and borrowing money?
I know the strong reality of women business owners not getting funding, even more so for women of color. Therefore, I am not going to go into debt waiting on funding that may not come.
It’s important to be financially conservative. I will keep making sacrifices to ensure I am being lean in building my business.
For example, when I flew to Los Angeles last year to present on the reality show, Entrepreneur Elevator Pitch, I took out a small business loan. It was just enough to cover my round-trip flight ticket. To save on asking for another $200 to $300 for a hotel room, I decided that I would just sleep the night in the airport. I learned to borrow only what I need and nothing more.
As for credit cards, I am a strong believer in not having too many lines of credit open. It keeps temptation at bay!