By Chris Olsen
Growing up, Michelle Maryns heard stories about the successful fabric business her mom owned in Vietnam. The business dissolved in the ’70s when her parents sought refuge in the United States. After settling into a small farming community in Kansas, continuing the business seemed like an impossibility. Though it happened a decade before Michelle was born, tales of her mom’s entrepreneurial endeavor intrigued her. She wondered what may have become of the business had her mom had access to tools and support to keep it going.
In middle school, Michelle began thinking like an entrepreneur. She later participated in a small business competition for high school students and won. She was paired with a mentor meant to nurture her interest in entrepreneurship. Only he underestimated her. “You’re not cut out to make it in business,” he told her during one of their meetings. It couldn’t have been further from the truth.
That comment influenced Michelle to take an entirely different path. Instead of studying business as planned, she pursued an education in language arts. She went on to earn a master’s degree in public policy and worked in a variety of communications roles. While working for the U.S. Department of State in 2010, a record-breaking earthquake devastated Haiti. Michelle was part of the team that launched the “TEXTHAITI” campaign, raising $43 million for earthquake relief. Text-to-give became a powerful tool for organizations to fundraise and a simple way for the public to support causes they care about. It also led to an important realization for Michelle: While changing public policy can take years, technology can create an immediate tangible impact in the lives of others and the world.
After that experience, Michelle was drawn to roles in service design and digital strategy. She built apps and search engines and won awards for her work. She thought about her mom’s business and the support she had needed that did not exist at the time. She learned about and ended up working for a minority economic development agency. She led the creation of a platform to make it easier for founders of color to get the resources they need to build their businesses. The idea for her own social enterprise dedicated to empowering women entrepreneurs of color and closing the racial wealth gap—We Sparkle—began to materialize.
In 2018, Michelle participated in a nine-month business incubator program for impact entrepreneurs. The program provided the push she needed to move her concept forward. A year later, she officially launched We Sparkle and, shortly after, Sparkle Assistant, an app that uses artificial intelligence to automate tedious administrative work. It communicates with contacts, clients and customers via text and seamlessly answers frequently asked questions, upsells products and services, and schedules meetings, appointments, deliveries and more. And it’s completely customizable.
Michelle and her team have worked with salons, doulas and several other service-based businesses to successfully integrate this technology. The support the app provides frees up valuable resources for business owners and allows them to focus on working on their business instead of in their business. This is critical for any business owner to succeed and scale, but especially for Black and brown women business owners—who are more likely to be denied access to networks, education and tools that are critical for success. They’re also more likely to be underestimated. Michelle is on a mission to ensure that doesn’t happen. And We Sparkle will continue building and using technology to do so.
About the author: Chris Olsen is a radio veteran turned communications consultant, educator and author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose”. Through her work as a consultant partnering with startups, Chris realized her WHY—to support womxn-owned businesses in confidently communicating their purpose and impact, setting them up for entrepreneurial success. She created My Founder Story as a platform for doing so.