“I wouldn’t say I took steps in any direction because I didn’t know where I would be. I have always asked myself difficult and uncomfortable questions. I was willing to be uncomfortable in certain situations and just have faith. I believe I have come this far because of God and understanding that I have a purpose”
Growing up in Harlem, Awa Diaw, has always had a passion for education and social entrepreneurship. She saw the education disparities different neighborhoods faced and was propelled to make a change. After college she spent two years working in administration for a private school, where she helped create their Diversity and Inclusion strategy. Following that, she went to Columbia University to learn more about how to create long lasting educational policy. During her spare time at Columbia University, she did part time consulting. She soon realized that to create impactful policy, she will need the quintessential management skills. She earned her Master’s in Business Administration from the Kelley School of Business on a full Consortium Scholarship!
Awa has always wanted to create an impactful business that would impact lives! She specifically chose her Business school for its focus on social entrepreneurship. Her beauty line, Nek.Awa ,was created after she took a venture planning class with a professor. Her skincare products are made out of raw shea butter that her family has been using for generations. She soon did a test drive and discovered that people really LOVED her product. She immediately went to work and launched soon after, everything sold out in a day – mostly to people she didn’t know. Till date, Awa has secured over $15,000 in funding for Nek.Awa, she recently just won The Clapp Business Idea competition.
What steps did you take in college to prepare you for your career path? Did you always know what you wanted to do?
I wouldn’t say I took steps in any direction because I didn’t know where I would be. I have always asked myself difficult and uncomfortable questions. I was willing to be uncomfortable in certain situations and just have faith. I believe I have come this far because of God and understanding that I have a purpose.
What was your dream career when you were younger? Who is your career crush? As a child, I wanted to be a doctor – like most African children. Currently, my career crush is Gwen Houston. She was the head of Microsoft’s Diversity and Inclusion initiatives. She has done impactful diversity and inclusion work in other companies prior to Microsoft. I had the opportunity to have lunch with her and she was amazing!
As an entrepreneur, how do you get funding?
At first, I had to make some personal sacrifices and invested a lot of my personal savings. Sometimes, I had to put my product first and forfeited things such as spring break trips and other activities. Winning the Clapp Competition has given us money and we hope to do a Kickstarter campaign at the end of the month to raise more funds.
What are some challenges you faced in your career and entrepreneurship as a woman of color?
People have preconceived notions of black women. They don’t know how to process that a black woman wants to build a product she is passionate about. I have had people tell me that “I am so articulate ” which is rude because it means they did not expect someone who looks like me to be articulate. People are usually surprised that I know how to speak English so well because I was born in Senegal. A lot of times people mistake microaggressions for compliments but it is actually more like a double edged sword.
Finding how to sell a product to older white men in a way that they understand it can be difficult. Finding the confidence to ask for help and resources when I need to can also be difficult because it is something that I am not used to. White counterparts are raised to ask and not worry about what people think of them because they don’t want to be seen a certain way.
“People have preconceived notions of black women. They don’t know how to process that a black woman wants to build a product she is passionate about”
What advice do you have for college grads who have diverse career interests?
I am a huge advocate of being aware of what depletes your energy and adds to it. You need to allocate your energy to doing things that are good for you and help you grow. One of my favorite quotes is “ Be fluid and fluent in who you are”. You need to do things that flow; things you like as a person; and being fluent is knowing how to act on those things.
On mentorship. How can young women of color starting out seek mentors?
Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of black women in professional spaces. I only recently started having access to mentors. Mentorship is important because it changes the way you see yourself because you see someone who is excelling at the things you want to do. If you grow up in a low income neighborhood and you go to a school where you don’t see people that look like you, it can be really hard. You can’t really seek something if you don’t necessary know where to find it.
An effective way young people can seek mentorship is by participating in after-school programs with programs such as YCWA . I think it is also helpful to have executive women interact with young women at an early age. The bigger problem is about access. We need to come up with sustainable solutions that help young women who are trying to further their careers.
What does being an executive woman of color mean to you?
I have younger siblings, and I know they are constantly watching me. Being an executive woman means knowing and recognizing your ability to impact others and let them know that they can make it and be successful! It is all about IMPACT.
Consistency is key in the sense that you are going to have highs and lows. You have to understand that things aren’t always going to go well but you should be able to celebrate those wins regardless of how small.