A Modest Ambition to Change the World: Morgan DeBaun Tells Her Story
The collective events of 2020 have led us to a unique place in history. Acknowledging this moment in time, Morgan DeBaun, CEO of Blavity Inc., says women- and minority-owned businesses, in particular, have never been at a more propitious jumping-off place.
Blavity’s mission is "to inform, entertain and engage communities of color." Its name – a combination of Black and gravity – occurred to DeBaun one day, while lunching with friends as a student at Washington University, in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. DeBaun, together with co-partners Aaron Samuels and Jeff Nelson, today lead a staff of 54 and work with an estimated 100 contractors. And they’re just six years in.
It would not be an exaggeration to call the barely 30-year-old DeBaun a visionary. She is also tough as nails and wise beyond her years.
"This year has been difficult," DeBaun admitted. "It still is difficult. But I think our community feels closer together than we did before because we have been reminded of our sameness. The pain that we feel is universal. A lot of us felt frustrated this summer by the realities – the lack of justice for Black people in this country – not just on the police brutality front, but also the disparities in our healthcare system and treatments, and protection of frontline workers."
"I believe that we are all coming out of this a little bruised, but more aware, and that makes me feel hopeful that we can continue to push for change. I also believe, as a community, we now have a foundation for conversation – or a lot of conversations – that we’ve been trying to have for generations. That’s an opportunity for change. While it’s been difficult, I’m grateful for this moment. It will help accelerate a more progressive future," DeBaun added.
- Some of us need to step out of our day-to-day world to visualize success.
- Don’t wait to surround yourself with top-in-class professionals.
- Consider batch hiring to uncover what is possible in your organization.
How Success Followed What Mattered Most
"I feel like I’m constantly catching up to the world’s expectations of me, to my team’s expectations of me, to my investors’ expectations of me," DeBaun admitted. "Yet when I step outside of my day-to-day operating responsibilities and interact with the people whose lives we change, I think, ‘Wow, this is amazing. We have achieved something important.’ When I am reminded of the people we help … I do feel successful."
As a youth, DeBaun wanted to follow in her family’s footsteps and become a teacher. "I was going to change the world, one child at a time." In college, she became interested in politics and got involved in student government. As student body president, she sat on the board of trustees with "a bunch of 50-year-old white men who never set foot in a dorm" and began asking herself, "How did these people get a seat at the table? I knew that was something I wanted to do, so that I could represent the people that I cared about the most."
DeBaun made a plan. It started with a move to Silicon Valley soon after graduation to work for Intuit, a brand she knew well and admired. She left her "cushy job" after just a few years to launch what’s become one of the country’s largest and fastest growing lifestyle brands for Black Millennials and Centennials (aka Gen Y and Gen Z), about 42% of our country’s population. Blavity’s target audience, born somewhere between 1981 and 2010, is ethnically diverse, tech-addicted, social media-savvy, and intensely focused on social justice.
On a monthly basis, DeBaun and her team reach approximately 50 million who love and engage in Black culture and enjoy the Black community, she said. "We have a very diverse readership."
Women Advocating for Women
About 55% of Blavity’s audience are women. The majority of its leadership are also women. "That’s by design," DeBaun said. "I care about everybody, but I am a woman, and I’ve been intentional about selecting leadership who also represent the largest demographic of our audience," DeBaun said.
"Women have limitless possibilities today," DeBaun submitted. "We are in a powerful place. Our biggest challenge is our own self-critique and our own self-doubt," she said. "Certainly, some of our hesitancies stem from societal biases and systems. But at this point, I think we have the right tools, the opportunity and the education to establish 50/50 equity with our male counterparts. It’s about us collectively making the decision that ‘enough is enough’ and having the mindset to push hard for change."
Lack of time, resources and confidence may have kept women from advocating for each other in the past, DeBaun acknowledged. Women too often view themselves as imperfect, as works-in-progress.
"If every woman accepted that they’re already powerful and that they’re strong where they are – that they’ve got a unique thing to contribute to the world and made a decision to bring another woman along – I think we would all be better for it," she urged.
Advice for Women Entrepreneurs and Executives
DeBraun likes to say women are natural creators. "We know how to make a lot out of very little," she said. "Any perceived lack of progress is not for lack of creativity." Her advice for women leaders as we head into 2021:
- Invest in your A-team. Go after top-tier talent and consultants and "do not take ‘no’ for an answer." DeBaun acknowledges it can be intimidating to hire at this level when you’re starting out. But it pays off over the long run, she said. Success is built on these relationships – particularly when it comes to your senior team and high-level advisors, including executive coaches. These individuals should bring honed skills and deep experience you don’t have. This is not the area to "skimp."
"I wish I would have known sooner to surround myself with a team of top-in-class professionals. Having strong legal, financial and other professional counsel has been transformational for me. I wish I had invested earlier … done some of these things right from the start. I don’t think I knew early-on how critical it would become at a certain scale."
- Be attentive to the structure and details of the business. Everything from finance and banking to negotiations and contracts. Keep your eye on it all. Take the time to learn what you don’t know, make sure what you’re building meets your vision of success.
- Take advantage of the widening talent pool, flexibility and cost-savings that telecommuting enables. Embrace the benefits of technology and let go of the physical office mandate. Team members can live thousands of miles away, which means the playing field has been levelled for a lot of small businesses. This makes hiring "rock star talent" more feasible and affordable.
- Seize on the business growth opportunities created by telecommuting. The virtual workplace is creating new needs and new opportunities for astute companies, DeBaun observed. There will be financial rewards for those who pivot early to expand their reach and adjust their offerings to meet demand.
- Hire more, better. Believe in batch hiring. If you are a generalist and hire one specialist, your only reference of their capability is you versus that person. If you hire two or three people in that area, even on a contract basis, you have a better sense of what’s possible. The first person might be better than you, but the second person might be 10 times better than your first hire.
- Engage in horizontal networking. Look for people to speak your name in rooms you’re not in yet. Turn left or right for help. There is an inherent strength in networking with people who are just one or two steps ahead of you. They understand the context of where you are and will stand shoulder to shoulder with you, fighting the fight.
- Establish and nurture your tribe. Select carefully and keep your tribe close – they are your ultimate support system. They will cheer your successes, support you through failures and celebrate every milestone with you along the way.
- Be decisive. This is a trait that women often struggle with. We tend to be open and flexible and willing to concede. Be decisive – make a decision and go and do it. This can be your superpower.
About Morgan DeBaun
Since launching Blavity Inc. in 2014, Morgan has led the company to successfully acquire Travel Noire, a travel platform for Black millennials and Shadow And Act, a Black entertainment news site. Under her leadership, Blavity has launched several leading consumer summits including Summit 21 for Black women creators and Bay Area’s AfroTech, the largest tech conference for Black innovators and founders. While scaling the company, Morgan has raised 11 million dollars from top Silicon Valley venture firms such as GV and Comcast.
Morgan is a passionate small business advocate and advises early stage entrepreneurs on how to scale their business in her Signature WorkSmart Advising program.
Morgan is a St. Louis native and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis.