Melanie Akwule wouldn’t be who she is—as a person, a leader, or a founding CEO—if it hadn’t been for the hurdles.
More than a decade later, Akwule remembers the pressure. As a freshman triple-jumper on her high school track team, she was asked to fill in for an injured senior on the Shuttle Hurdle Relay team. A week before her first race—at a national meet—her coach gave her a crash course on a tall order: five hip-high hurdles, three strides between each, for 55 all-out meters.
“There’s a certain level of fearlessness and a certain level of crazy that I think all hurdlers have,” Melanie says with a smile.
Making a place for minorities and women
Today, Melanie still draws on that experience as CEO of MINWO, a start-up she co-founded shortly before beginning her studies in the Evening & Weekend Berkeley MBA program. (The name blends the first syllables of the words “minorities” and “women.”) A community platform for minority and women business owners, MINWO provides affordable consulting services to help members build more financially competitive businesses. In essence, it helps them hurdle corporate obstacles through strategic coaching, pooled resources, and an empowering community.
“Forget having a seat at the table,” she says. “We’re making our own table.”
The idea for MINWO came in 2015, when Melanie was working for GE as a data analyst and felt called to be part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In college, she had protested by marching in the streets. Later, as a working professional, she found power in economics. She sought ways to support black-owned businesses believing that financial freedom is the key to true equality.
“There were marketplaces starting to pop up, like WeBuyBlack, to support black-owned businesses,” says Melanie. It got her thinking: “What can we do to bring more dollars to those businesses in another way?”
During a year of market research, Melanie learned that despite steady growth in the percentage of US businesses owned by women and minorities, their revenue growth was lagging significantly behind that of white- and male-owned firms. She conducted a survey to glean more insight. “We learned that the pain points for shopping with black businesses are business-related,” she says. “While people do want to support them, if the customer service isn’t as great, if the prices are too high, if the quality isn’t as good, people are not going to shop with them.”
Breaking down barriers
Those barriers were clearly surmountable, Melanie believed, with the help of good coaching and strategy. That idea evolved into the business model for MINWO, which she launched while working for GE Digital. The opportunity ultimately inspired her to quit her job at GE and fully immerse herself in the entrepreneurial coursework and network at Berkeley's Evening & Weekend MBA to grow her company.
One of the deciding factors in her choice of Berkeley was the inclusivity she felt while attending the Diversity Symposium hosted on campus that year. It wasn’t stuffy or pretentious, qualities she had noticed in other programs.
“These were people I would actually be able to have conversations with and continue to talk to after three years,” she recalls thinking at the event. “These were my people.”
Diverse in thought
“While Berkeley Haas is working on other areas of diversity, it is very diverse in thought—and that was something I was supremely surprised about, how many people I could relate to mentally.”
Now in her final year of the program, Melanie has tailored her education around classes that she can immediately apply to MINWO, from Venture Finance to Active Communicating, which has honed her stage presence and ability to command an audience when she speaks as a CEO.
She also found the Entrepreneurship and Innovation course helpful. “Before, I felt like I was making it up as I went. That class helped put structure around my entrepreneurial journey.”
In a way, she’s like that high school coach who gave her a crash course on hurdles a week before her debut at the national meet. At nationals she ran the fastest split, ensuring a strong finish for her senior teammates in the final race of their high school careers.
“If you want to go fast, go alone,” Melanie says, quoting her favorite African proverb. “If you want to go far, go together.”