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Nerdy Diva Owner Touts Benefits
of STL Startup Ecosystem

August 13, 2021

Story by Dana Rieck
Photo by Elliot Powell

For most of her life, Shanae Chapman has encompassed the heart of an entrepreneur, having freelanced her skills in web design and development since she was a college student. So, it was only natural for the St. Louis native to take the next step and incorporate her design company Nerdy Diva in 2018. “I thought about how rare it was to find other women — other Black women — in technology, and I knew that I wanted my business, and my brand to reflect that women, especially Black women, belong in design and technology,” Chapman said. She recently completed Greater St. Louis, Inc.’s Diverse Business Accelerator and is in her second year of membership with BRAND of St. Louis’ Startup League Rewards Program. Nerdy Diva works with companies to create strategy for digital products and services that focus on social impact and innovation. Chapman is also an adjunct professor in user experience for Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “So that’s something that I bring to the company as well, having that teacher and growth mindset and sharing that knowledge with my clients,” she said. “So, it’s not only that we’re doing the work, but we’re also sharing knowledge with you about why we’re doing the work.” Chapman currently runs her business with a team of contractors and is in the process of creating an internship program for college students and recent graduates.
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St. Louis is full of resources for entrepreneurs, and Nerdy Diva’s founder is a prime example of how taking advantage of the region’s robust business ecosystem can benefit a new company.

Chapman participated in Greater St. Louis, Inc.’s Diverse Business Accelerator last year. The three-month program is created for ethnically, racially and gender-diverse business owners looking to advance their enterprise’s capacity to grow by planning actionable business goals, marketing and communicating their services, and making meaningful connections for future growth.

Chapman came to the organization through a pitch contest the accelerator hosted in August 2019 as a part of National Black Business Month. Lakesha Mathis, director of the Diverse Business Accelerator, said Chapman won the competition and was awarded tuition for the accelerator.

“Throughout her time in the accelerator, Shanae showed herself to be very innovative and very creative,” Mathis said. “She was able to pivot very easily, she understood the principles and was able to apply them to her business relatively quickly. She knew what she needed, and she knew how to ask for it.”

Mathis also noted that Chapman was a unique participant in that she served as a valuable resource to her fellow cohort members as an app builder while also participating in the program.

“So, when we were talking about marketing and things like that, Shanae’s input was invaluable. We haven’t captured that kind of … resource provision by a participant in the accelerator since that time,” Mathis said.

Because she lived in Boston for some time prior to moving back to St. Louis to start Nerdy Diva, Chapman said she lacked a local business network.

“So, it was a great way for me to have that conversation in a setting to really get to know people and share about your business more fully and also learn from their lessons,” she said of the accelerator.

Chapman also participates in the Startup League Rewards Program. Established a year ago by BRAND of St. Louis, the program encourages small business owners and entrepreneurs to utilize technical assistance and engage in startup ecosystems to work on their companies and achieve growth goals.

They do this through awarding points for completing tasks aimed at growing and improving their business. Those points can then be redeemed for cash. Chapman has participated for a year and recently signed up for another 12 months with the program.

Phillip Sangokoya, co-founder of BRAND of St. Louis, said Chapman is the champion of the league having earned the most points in its first year.

“[Chapman] definitely takes the initiative to put herself out there and figure out how she can best benefit from the experience. So, I definitely love that about her,” Sangokoya said.

He noted that she has an ability to understand why an opportunity may benefit her when the benefits aren’t clearly spelled out.

“I think she has that growth mindset that allows her to see what could be a potential benefit,” he said.

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As a Black person, Sangokoya acknowledged all the barriers keeping BIPOC entrepreneurs from getting involved with the St. Louis startup ecosystem — lack of diversity and inclusivity, location, access, etc. He said he hopes BRAND of St. Louis, which works to eliminate socioeconomic disparities across racial lines, can chip away at those barriers by incentivizing participation so that people can experience the benefits for themselves.

Getting those business owners to feel a sense of belonging is a key piece of the puzzle, he said.

“Either at the leadership level of these organizations, or when they go to their events, when they look around the room, seeing people who look like them. If that’s not there, it’s sometimes tough for people who look like me to want to continue to engage in that space,” he said.

Mathis added that the St. Louis startup ecosystem is so robust that there are at least three pivotal resources for every new business in the area.

“So, what I would say is if you’re not involved, get involved because the value of having other small business leaders around you [and the] resources of the ecosystem is unmatched by any other area,” she said. “I mean, you have overlapping resources, so much so that you can pretty much go from one program to the next for a couple of years from the start to the maturation of your business.”

Chapman agrees with those sentiments and encouraged new minority business owners to apply to the Diverse Business Accelerator, which is accepting applications for its next cohort until Aug. 27.

Mathis said business owners should apply if they are already making money but are ready to create sustainable growth.

“You get to have the opportunity to learn strategic resources to help you grow and scale your business,” Chapman said. “And you also get to build relationships and connections that can help you reach new audiences and increase referrals for your business.”

As for Chapman’s next business chapter, she hopes to grow her team in the future and provide educational resources and workshops aimed at increasing diversity in the tech industry.