Real Leaders

Tyra Banks, Harvard Educated Venture Capitalist?

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

A serious businesswoman lurks beneath the former supermodel, who has launched a venture capital firm and wants to teach girls how to fiercely pursue their ambitions.

If you thought all models were only into their looks and had selfish, unlikeable personalities, think again. Television personality, actress and supermodel Tyra Banks has adopted a no nonsense approach to promote and empower women in business. Under the slogan “Fierce, Fearless, Flawsome,” Banks established the TZone in 1999, a leadership development program for girls, and more recently, venture capital company Fierce Capital LLC, that has a preference for funding start-ups that are predominantly female-led or focused.

The word “flawsome,” coined by Banks, is a combination of  you + your flaws + awesome = flawsome.” She explained the concept was tied to her years on America’s Next Top Model where she and producer Ken Mok cast over 70 percent of participants. Debate raged about what constituted beauty and Banks came up with the word as a way of expanding the concept of what beauty means. “Perfect is boring,” says Banks. “Flaws are awesome.”

Banks is a vocal critic of fashion magazines that show models who appear to have eating disorders. She saw models backstage, during her modeling days, who abused their bodies to maintain a certain weight and feed into commonly held ideals of what perfection and beauty was. In her early 20’s Banks was given a list of designers who no longer wanted to book her for shows because of her growing curves. Realizing she would need to deprive herself of nutrition to continue working, she broke down in tears.

Her mother’s solution saved the day, “’Eat pizza,’ she told me. We went to a tiny pizzeria in Milan together and strategized how to turn my curves into a curveball,” Banks recalls. “In a way, it was my decision not to starve myself that turned me into a supermodel, and later on, a businesswomen.”

She warns girls not to fall prey to thinspirational images of beauty and mothers to be careful about how they talk about their bodies in front of their daughters. With her parents divorced at the age of six, and having had her fair share of abusive relationships, Banks has first-hand experience of the self-esteem building that many young girls need. “The pre-teen and teen years are the most complex developmental years in a contemporary girl’s life,” says Bank’s.

“It’s terrifying, turbulent, and terrific… all at once. A girl’s body, family, friends, schools and community are all demanding growth and change.” For many inner-city girls living in poverty, low self-esteem, disengagement from school, pervasive community violence, risky behaviors and sexual experimentation contribute to a trip down a slippery personal slope. “As a young girl growing up, people are going to tell you, ‘no, you can’t,’ all the time.

You have to have tunnel vision and know that you want it, that you’re going to do it, through sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice. Saying, ‘ooh I want that’ – magic wand – is not going to happen.”

The Tzone, situated in the Lower Eastside of New York, inspires the hundreds of girls who attend to believe in themselves and to take control of their futures. The girls-only club encourages the awareness of the accomplishments of outstanding women, as a way of showing what’s possible.

Banks also wanted the Tzone to become an actual space that girls could come to instead of just another grant-making foundation that gives out money. The $20 million project is funded through fundraising initiatives, the City of New York and a yearly Flawsome Ball, which sees celebrities and sponsors raise nearly $1 million per event. Some of the activities at the Tzone include community activism, dance, filmmaking, leadership, sports, writing or financial literacy initiatives that will help create young entrepreneurs.

Originally started as a series of summer camp, Tzone’s is designed to reinforce positive values and encourage girls to resist social pressures through a fierce, self-esteem building adventure. Banks uses the word “fierce” a lot in her branding, although she balances it frequently with another of her crazy words, “smize” – smiling with your eyes. Her journey from supermodel to super-mogul has been a personal one, in which she has identified closely with her target market, rather than seeing them as another charitable tax break.

“I launched this venture with my own money,” says Banks. “ I feel I have a responsibility to lead by example and bring attention to the issues facing young women. I want them to take positive action to realize their ambitions.” Banks enrolled in a three-year Owner/President Management Program (OPM) at Harvard, graduating in 2012, and has been prolific in establishing new business ventures ever since, all with a slant towards empowering women.

Despite the shallowness found within much of the fashion and beauty industry, Banks is showing that it can evolve beyond this. She’s acutely aware of her celebrity status and knows she cannot allow it to become an overriding factor in her work at Tzone. “What I don’t want to be is Tyra, the ‘celebrity girl,’ coming here and the girls being excited when they see me,” says Banks. “I want them to be numb to me.

I can do normal work here and they can see me, to know that this is what a business is. It’s not about living on a red carpet. I am a businesswoman who goes to work every single day.”
 To fund her social ventures Banks established Fierce Capital, the investment arm of The Tyra Banks Company, of which she is both CEO and Chairman. Its aim is to help raise capital and develop profitable business strategies.

One of her early investments was in The Hunt, a community-driven online shopping experience, that will track down coveted items seen in social media photos and let you know where to buy them. The fun and innovative approach to shopping allows women to help other women find their perfect outfit.

Since its launch The Hunt has surged to one million unique monthly visitors, attracting hundreds of thousands of people who are drawn to this new approach to collective retail and styling. Through Fierce Capital, Banks is leveraging her unique background of 20 years as a leader in fashion, beauty and entertainment. And rather than moving away from her previous career as a model, she is using all she learnt to develop innovative products and businesses, for the ultimate benefit of women’s empowerment.

Fierce Capitals latest investment in Android application Locket, in November this year, had the CEO and Co-founder, Yunha Kim, reinforced this when she said, “As a female founder, I am excited to be able to lean on another female entrepreneur for advice and deep media expertise.”

Banks supports businesses through brand alignment and by giving financial support that entrepreneurs might otherwise find difficult to procure through traditional venture capital channels.

The successful businesses that she takes on will have the opportunity to leverage Bank’s social and traditional media sphere of influence, as well as tap into The Tyra Banks Company’s extensive network to build significant business relationships.

Banks does not see her business units in isolation, but rather as complimentary structures that might even give rise to new business ideas. In an age jaded with countless combinations of private investment meeting fashion, it’s impressive, and extremely rare to see a fashion model, leading a capital group with Harvard certificate in hand. While Banks is desperate for the young girls in her care to find women to look up to in society, she has inadvertently become their greatest role model.

“I’m encouraging girls to be leaders, not followers; in control, not out of control; powerful, not powerless,” she says.

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