As she puts it, Rachel Rodgers is done suffering in silence.
In late May, following the police killing of George Floyd, organizations across the country pledged support of racial justice protests and the Black Lives Matter movement to work toward dismantling systemic racism. Rodgers, founder of the business coaching and membership community Hello Seven, saw online discussions in small-business forums that, from her perspective, did little to actually uncover racism embedded within her own networks.
As a Black female founder, she took it upon herself to call out what she saw as performative allyship from White business leaders. In response, she helped organize a small-business town hall and launched the Anti-Racist Small Business Pledge to help small-business owners promote racial equity within their operations and express a long-term commitment to becoming an anti-racist organization.
Around the same time, she was grappling with the pandemic's financial impacts on her own company, a coaching service that helps women entrepreneurs scale their business from $100,000 to $1 million-plus. Clients were losing income and job security, making it harder for them to justify the nearly $3,000 annual membership fee. Breaking from how the company had operated for years, Rodgers and her team decided to adjust their membership fee down to $300 on a monthly basis to provide greater flexibility to clients.
"We had to change everything, from how the membership worked to the technology we use on the site," Rodgers, 38, tells CNBC Make It, "but I'm glad we did it and I'm grateful we're in this place now offering something that's more accessible."
Providing flexibility to scale worked. While Hello Seven started with roughly 60 clients at the beginning of 2020, it ended the year with around 1,800.
That quick thinking, followed by months of work, helped Rodgers reach her own personal milestone in June, when she brought in $1 million in revenue within a month-long timespan.
It was a feat upon feats even in more normal circumstances: While women, and especially women of color, are driving forces behind the growth of small businesses in America, just 2% of women-owned businesses bring in $1 million in revenue in a given year.
Heading into a new year, Rodgers reflects on her proudest moments of the past year, and why she's not stopping in 2021.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What she's most proud of accomplishing in 2020
"I'm proud of using my voice to speak out about things that matter to me rather than suffering in silence, which is what I've been doing pretty much my whole life.
"Last year I decided to participate in conversations about racism and racial justice in this country, and talk about what I'm experiencing and getting loud about it. This kind of confrontation has to work its way into our daily lives and become something we are willing to do every day.
"Since June, there have been so many instances where I've seen something posted online that's offensive, or a business makes a move that seems on the surface like it's trying to solve diversity issues, but in reality doesn't do anything, and I've called it out. It's been therapeutic to use my voice, and I hope to bring that into 2021.
"I've had to confront myself, too: How have I internalized White supremacy? I have to acknowledge that."
The best advice she got last year
"Focus on my own self-care. We talk about self-care all the time, and a lot of people equate it to spa days. That's BS. Self-care is not always fun and relaxing, it can require hard work — sometimes it's therapy, and sometimes I dread meeting with my therapist.
"I've also been doing more meditation and sitting with myself and my thoughts. I learned how to run this year, both to have a reason to leave my house and still be safe, but it's also brought me a lot of peace. Running is why I've made it through this year with a sound mind, and why I was able to be as resilient to handle the changes we were going through."
Challenges of speaking out publicly
"I started the year with 12,000 Instagram followers and now have around 74,000. Lots of people express their opinions to me every day. But I always think: What are my own values?
"I learned to be willing to be hated by groups of people who don't resonate with my message or hate what I stand for. And I'm good with that.
"As I engage with people, I remember what makes me proud and what legacy I want to leave behind. In the grand scheme of things, does this comment really matter? Is this feedback valuable, an action I need to take, or is it just someone else's opinion or value that's not the same as mine?"
The hardest lesson she's had to learn
"My resilience has taken 10 steps forward by learning to manage my anxiety and fear around Covid. I've had to learn to trust myself in my own decision-making, like putting myself and my family on lockdown before public institutions said we should, because I felt it was the right thing to do.
"I've had to say to loved ones and people in our lives: 'Hey, I'm not doing what you're doing.' It's not an easy thing to do, but for us it's absolutely the right thing to do."
Shifting her business strategy
"Some clients were upset we created the new offering. We could have waited around to see what would happen in the next quarter, but then it became clear the pandemic wasn't going to be a short-term thing.
"The year required us to change how we deliver our services to serve the audience we wanted to serve. We've seen it was the right thing to do. That's not to say there's one business model that's best in the time of Covid-19. What we did was listen to customers. We heard them, saw their actions, and engaged in conversations to learn what they needed given the way the world is right now.
"I'm grateful that happened now, because I don't know we would have ever landed on this solution had the year gone differently."
Her new-year reflections
"I spend time reviewing myself and where I am with my personal goals around health, finances, friendships, my relationship with my husband and with my kids, my spiritual life and mental wellbeing, and my business. I evaluate each of those areas and give myself a score on a scale of 1 to 5 of how I'm feeling there. That lets me know what areas I might need to work on.
"This year has been as amazing as it was horrible. I feel like I've had more opportunity, made more money and have been more successful than ever before. I've had more time with my family. I've taken care of myself and gotten more sleep. It's brought my life into this balance of having big exciting career moves and at the same time really being able to be at home and enjoy my family and time alone."
2 books everyone should add to their reading list
"The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level," by Gay Hendricks
"It's the book I always recommend. It's about looking at where you're limiting yourself with your own potential. It's a book you don't read just once, but revisit. I read it every year."
"On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker," by A'Lelia Bundles
"I think it's relevant today because you read about her life and what she was able to make happen despite living in the world as it was, as a Black woman whose parents were enslaved. It's a look at her life and what success she was able to create despite the challenges she was living through."