Sevetri Wilson recently raised $2 million in capital to expand her tech startup, ExemptMeNow, a SaaS platform designed to help nonprofits become exempt and existing nonprofits manage compliance and sustainability efforts. She is also gearing up to launch version two of ExemptMeNow’s enterprise product which caters to customers that deploy capital such as cities, corporations and private foundations. Wilson, who also founded Solid Ground Innovations, is a young black New Orleans woman. She started ExemptMeNow after realizing that her existing clients had a major need for this type of service. Today, she has raised $2 million dollars and is currently raising an additional $1 million in the coming months to close her seed round.
Tell us about your company, ExemptMeNow.
ExemptMeNow simplifies the creation, maintenance, and management processes for startup and existing nonprofits. We also provide an enterprise solution that caters to the government (think cities, police departments, etc..), corporations, and private foundations, or anyone deploying funding into initiatives, programs, and, as many do, to non-profits. The number of tax-exempt organizations has tripled since 2007; public charities reported over $4 trillion last year and charitable giving reached an annual high of over $400 billion last year. With our software, we are targeting what we know is a growing but fragmented market.
OK, you are a young black woman in the world of tech, how did this come about?
I feel that tech was a natural evolution in my career. Just based on my work over the past 10 years in the private and public sector, I was experiencing the disruption of tech in everything I was doing and in many ways I was a part of it as I was often the person introducing new technology to our clients. “Productizing” a service that I felt was very manual, labor-intensive, and time-consuming was how ExemptMeNow came about.
You have achieved many major milestones at a young age including growing your first company to seven figures, winning Business Woman of the Year in your home state, and being recognized by the Obama administration. What do you believe is your biggest accomplishment?
It’s hard to pinpoint my biggest accomplishment as I’ve had a lot of “firsts” in my career and I feel that I am achieving new accomplishments all the time. Yet, the success I experienced with SGI allowed me to start ExemptMeNow and fund it myself out of the gate with little investment capital early on. I think this is important to note because there is this fixation around raising capital, especially for black women. Yet, I started my first company at 23 and grew it organically without raising any outside capital. Now that I’ve switched gears from professional services to tech, we have to raise in order to scale. Yet, even out of the gate for ExemptMeNow our No. 1 priority was finding a product market fit and generating revenue. Then we went out to raise capital.
I read an article, where you quoted a line from Hidden Figures, “Every time you make it to the end, they move the finish line.” What do you believe is your “new” finish line at this season in your life?
I’m in the South, so I don’t think we even have to go there related to the challenges that I face as a black woman raising millions for a tech startup. I can talk all day about that. It doesn’t matter that my executive team has advanced degrees from MIT, Harvard, and Yale with over 10-15 years of experience each in operations, sales, software development and finance along with deep expertise in our space. It doesn’t matter that we’ve led campaigns, consulted Fortune 100 companies and some of the largest private foundations in the world, or worked in a presidential administration. When people see me the first thing they see is that I’m a black woman. This dynamic crosses over race and gender. I say this because there is this misleading perception that black female founders have difficulty raising money from white male investors when the truth is we have issues raising money from all investor types regardless of race or gender.
I know when people see Sevetri, they see a powerful woman, but you have a unique upbringing, tell us a little bit about it.
I really believe the person I am today and the person I’m becoming is defined by my upbringing. I was raised in a rural community about 45 minutes outside of New Orleans where I live now. I was raised by a single mother who made less than $30,000 a year. I’m a first-generation college student and lost both of my parents by the age of 22. I started my first company with zero investment capital, no connections, and grew it to seven figures. Like I said, I’m a black female founder raised in the Deep South, there is nothing that I can or care to do about that. I’m proud of who I am and where I come from. I often talk about my upbringing because I think it’s important for people to understand my journey, especially those younger than me who come from a similar background. I want them to know if I did it with so few resources they can do it too and even better.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs regarding what it takes to be successful?
I was recently speaking to a group of women entrepreneurs and I told them that one of the key things to success is the ability to deal with disappointments. I said that they have to know that disappointments are certain; disappointments are constant but disappointments can be conquered. I’ve seen the impact of not getting something you’ve worked so hard for and what that can do to your spirit. For black people, I feel we experience a large deal of disappointments and they can deliver the type of blows that some find hard to recover from. Learning to deal with disappointments and having the ability to get back up after you ‘ve been knocked down over and over again is what it takes to be successful.
So tell us a little bit about what and who motivates you?
When I was young, my No. 1 motivator was my mother. When I went to college I was so focused on being successful, which no doubt attributed to my success at a young age. My sole motivator was being able to provide my mother with the life I felt she deserved, so I worked very hard to try and do that. When my mother died months after my college graduation, it was a huge blow to me. I had to discover new motivators. I’m also motivated by the stories of other founders. People who I’ve watched and cheered on from afar like Jessica Matthews the founder of Uncharted Power who blew me away with her talk at a conference a while back, or what Morgan DeBaun is building over at Blavity.
Recently, I heard you express how it is important for successful entrepreneurs to reach back and help someone else along the way. How do you continue to do this?
As I mentioned before, I try to do this not only through speaking and mentoring students, but I’ve been able to share a ton of information with my peers. I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons in business and if I can give advice or help someone else achieve their goals and not step on a few landmines in the process, that’s what I’m going to do. Someone recently shot me a text to thank me for recommending they take part in Founder Gym, an online training center for underrepresented founders started by Mandela SH Dixon. I’m very intentional about helping people, especially those who look like me.
You stated that you are “laser-focused” on your goals, how do you continue to keep your eyes on the prize?
I’m definitely laser-focused on my goals as I’ve always been, but I find myself in a little bit of a different space today. The things that use to bother me don’t bother me anymore. I’m practicing meditation and mindfulness more. I’m an optimistic person in general but as a black woman, I’m used to overcoming and excelling with limited resources. Regardless of the delays, I just have this mentality that refuses to be denied so I have to stay focused.
If you weren’t a successful entrepreneur, where do you think you would be right now in life? I would no doubt be a college professor with a side gig as a historical film documentarian.
Lastly, what do you like to do when you are not growing your business?
I live in New Orleans so I’m a festival girl and a foodie. If I’m not growing my business (which I’m not sure there is such a time), you can definitely find me at a festival with friends and family.
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