Create & Cultivate 100: Entrepreneur: Tika Sumpter & Thai Randolph

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Despite Black working mothers being within the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs, they remain largely underserved and underrepresented in the marketplace. And no one has capitalized on their purchasing power or amplified their voices quite like Tika Sumpter and Thai Randolph. Thanks to their new venture, Sugaberry, a lifestyle brand created by and for modern moms of color, they’re changing the narrative by diversifying the proverbial “whitespace” with a clear mission to celebrate this vibrant community of mothers. 

As the co-founders of Sugaberry explain, the platform merges content, commerce, and community to create a destination for Black consumers—and it’s a smart move. As influential consumers, mothers of color control the lion's share of the total Black spending power, which is estimated to reach $1.5 trillion by 2023. According to Forbes, these women not only influence what other Black generations (and Black men) spend their money on but as early adopters of trends, Black women also influence the general population.

Ahead, Sumpter and Randolph open up about how their career paths and life experiences led them to pursue this venture, the challenges they’ve faced along the way, and the sage advice they’d give to their younger selves if they could.

 
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How did you make your first dollar and what did that job teach you that still applies today?

TIKA SUMPTER: I worked at a United Artist Movie Theatre in middle school. I also worked at Honey Baked Ham in a seasonal position. I learned that no matter where you start, be the best wherever you are. I upsold so much at the movie theatre and at Honey Baked Ham, they wanted to hire me full-time, but I was in school. It taught me no matter who’s looking, and if no one’s looking, I can always figure out ways to be better and do more. That’s how I work. Like no one’s looking. 

THAI RANDOLPH: I got my first job at 14. I was working for a mall-based market research company. I had to stop mall-goers and convince them to take quick surveys.  I hated it at first because I felt like I was an annoying salesperson (with nothing to sell), however, it was the only place that would hire me at 14. After a few weeks, I decided to stop thinking about my job as one of a “salesperson” and that of a “market researcher.” I became really curious about how people would respond, and all of a sudden, the job was so much fun. That experience taught me that perspective is everything and you can derive joy and value from the most basic of tasks with the right attitude. 

Take us back to the beginning—what was the lightbulb moment for your business/career and what inspired you to pursue this path?

TIKA: When I was pregnant, I searched for a community that dove into “all things motherhood” from a perspective I recognized, from people who looked like me. I realized Black women aren’t always afforded the narrative of the happy moments that come along with being a new mom. We don’t have those same safe spaces and the ratio of representation seemed non-existent.

THAI: A mutual friend connected us so that I can give Tika some advice on the concept of Sugaberry. I was prepared to dissuade her from starting what I thought was “another mom blog,” but within 15 minutes I was “hooked” from a consumer perspective; it was just what I needed as a mom. After a couple of weeks of additional market research, I realized this was a game-changing business idea. The audience she was seeking to serve (Black consumer moms) had a proven ability to move markets, but were being severely underserved in the marketplace; it’s the type of blue ocean opportunity you look for with new businesses. Additionally, I feel like all of my professional experiences at the intersection of commerce, content, consumers,  (including that job at the mall) had prepared me to take on this venture.

Entrepreneurship is all about taking calculated risks—What’s the most pivotal risk you’ve taken, and how did it change your path? 

TIKA: Moving to New York City at 17. I was going to Marymount Manhattan College. I knew I wanted to act, but I didn’t know how to begin. I thought I’d go to school, major in communications, become a publicist, and then somehow squirm my way into acting. Well, I couldn’t afford school and got hit with a huge bill. They told me if I didn’t pay they’d release my classes and I would need to move out of the apartment dorms. I ended up figuring out what I needed to do to follow my dreams in New York City. Alone. That was a huge risk for me.

THAI: When I left a cushy job at Facebook after only a year with the company to come to Los Angeles and lead a go-to-market strategy for Kevin Hart’s comedy network, Laugh Out Loud, it was a big leap; leaving a huge company moving across the country to start a new venture. However, sometimes you have to recognize once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and bet on yourself. There was definitely risk involved, but it was the type of risk that was worth taking (and ended up being hugely rewarding).

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2020 presented everybody around the globe with new, unprecedented challenges. How did you #FindNewRoads + switch gears towards your new version of success?

TIKA: We haven’t lived through a year like this one before. It all feels new. We launched just as the pandemic hit and made an intentional decision to stay the course. We were forced to carve out spaces and ways to engage with our Sugaberry audience virtually right from the beginning so it didn’t feel like switching gears so much as accelerating and figuring out how to really connect with the audience and the path we were on.

THAI: Success has a new meaning in our current context. Remaining hopeful, persevering, and making things happen when the world is closing down around you takes tremendous grit, faith, and resourcefulness. We’ve all been asked to strengthen and grow new muscles in resiliency this year. I never thought we’d have to launch a new business in a pandemic that would last the entire year, but the idea that we found a unique way to build teams internally and connect with our community makes us feel exceptionally proud. That feels like success.

How are you making a difference and pushing your industry forward?

TIKA: As Black women, modern moms of color, executives, and business owners, our very existence in this space is revolutionary. We are past asking for a seat at the table. We are manufacturing the boardrooms the tables are in and filling those seats with anyone who believes in the things we believe in. 

THAI: Black women and moms have contributed to every great cause.

For those who haven’t started a business (or are about to), what advice do you have? 

TIKA: You have to be passionate about whatever it is you’re doing. If there’s no genuine drive behind your actions, then your purpose seems empty. Authenticity and passion are the building blocks to a successful venture. If you don’t really truly love and believe in whatever venture you begin, it’s not worth it. It’s truly a marathon. You’ll get a million “no’s” before you get your “yes,” especially as a Black person or a person of color. 

THAI: Launching a business is a major undertaking in any circumstance, and doing so in 2020 during a pandemic was an even more daunting feat. We were confined to our homes, dealing with an uncertain economy, and I think we saw the impacts of that in so many ways. We launched our business the week California received its first stay-at-home order. When we got the news, we called each other and agreed that delaying the launch was not an option; our audience needed a “sweet safe space” more than ever. It’s the commitment to our customers and conviction in our purpose that gets entrepreneurs over the bridge to commercial success. You have to really believe in what you're building.

What is your number one piece of financial advice for any new entrepreneur and why?

TIKA: Stick to your budgets. Have a partner who is a yin to your yang. Someone like Thai Randolph. She constantly asks questions from a place of passion but also asks questions about how are we going to create a stream of income from the ideas we are initiating. 

THAI: When forecasting, assume you’ll go a little over budget on expenses and a little under budget on revenue. This isn’t about lacking faith but about preparing for the worse. It’s impossible to plan for everything, but it’s important to be conservative out of the gate. Forecasts built on all the stars aligning, right out of the gate, rarely pan out. But if you’ve got a smart idea and are positioned to ride out the low tides, your wave will come in.

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It’s easy to celebrate the wins, but how do you handle failure or when something hasn’t worked out for you?

TIKA: Wine. Haha, wine always helps. But seriously, I do recognize we’re in privileged situations where Sugaberry isn’t our only job. As co-founders, Thai and I have the ability to slow down as much as we need to, discuss areas of opportunities and challenges, and pivot at our own pace. We know this is a marathon, not a race.

But trust we’ve been questioned so often as if Black women couldn’t possibly be a big-enough audience to target. You’d be baffled and stunned by the reactions we get. We believe in Sugaberry so deeply, we just say, If they don’t get it, someone else will. We keep it moving. That’s my mentality anyway, so I apply it to ourselves constantly. 

THAI: I once heard someone say that the key to a successful marriage is making sure two people never want a divorce at the same time. I almost feel like that could also be said of a business partnership. When one of us is having a tough day, the other always has a word of encouragement, a solution to a problem, or a big new idea to reignite the fire and drive for the business. 

What's the one productivity tip or work hack that truly changed your life?

TIKA: I don’t know if I’d call it a “hack,” but having a reliable team who believes in the vision the way you believe in the vision is so important. We founded Sugaberry, but what we accomplish every day can only be done with the buy-in of those we support and who support us. That’s what keeps this whole train moving.

THAI: I try to get my hardest tasks out of the way early in the day. I have the tough conversations, do the deep analysis, and tackle the tedious but necessary stuff before noon. Get it out of the way and do it when you have enough energy. Anyone who knows me can tell you how futile 4 PM budgeting calls are; I try to remain fresh for the hard stuff.

What is the #1 career or money book you always recommend and why?

THAI: “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s a fascinating look at how small changes can lead to big differences over time. The tipping point is what we’re all searching for in business; the moment that our ideas catch fire.

If you could go back to the beginning of your career journey—with the knowledge you have now— what advice would you give yourself? 

TIKA: I’m from New York, so I’ll quote Frank Sinatra, “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.”

THAI: “If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.” ― Audre Lorde 

I discovered this concept later, but I would tell my younger self to live my dreams instead of being controlled into other people’s fantasies of me. My level of success in business has been directly correlated to the level at which I am willing to be true to myself, my passion, my purpose, and my instincts.

Fill in the blanks:

My perfect day begins with… 

TIKA: A hug from my daughter. She is a reflection of why I do what I do.

THAI: Coffee and kisses from my son and husband. 

When I feel fear, I…  

TIKA: When I feel fear, I try to examine what the feeling is trying to show me. If you can determine that, the fear tends to subside and the learning begins. Positive affirmations help me so much. 

THAI: Acknowledge it and move through it. Look, we all get scared sometimes, but it’s no excuse not to try.

The best career advice I always give is… 

TIKA: The best career advice I always give is you have to be okay with failing. I’m not saying you won’t feel bad or disappointed or discouraged, but you have to realize those are all stepping stones to ideas, initiatives, and opportunities you may have been blind to if everything fell into place.

THAI: Start with the end in mind. You can get there from anywhere as long as you know where you’re going. Whether you want to be a CEO and you’re currently a janitor, or if you want to launch a tech company and you’re currently an intern, you’re merely a series of choices away from where you want to be. Maybe it will require several steps over time, but you can get there. 

To be successful, you need to be… 

TIKA: To be successful, you need to understand the plan isn’t always going to be the plan. It’s okay to put things on paper, but you need to have the ability to ebb and flow with collaboration and new ideas. 

THAI: Determined. 

The change I’d like to see in my industry is… 

TIKA: The change I’d like to see in my industry is representation across the board. Motherhood, in all its forms, being shown with honesty, integrity, and from the mouths of those with lived experiences.

THAI: Agreed, we’re creating the change we want to see in the industry.

 

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