6 October, 2022 Haniyah Philogene and Lotanna Ogbuefi
Every time Aisha Miller walks into her new smoothie and sandwich shop, it feels unreal. She sees her mother, Ruth, running things behind the counter — always completely “in her element” — and can’t believe that together, they own this place.
To both, it’s much more than a new business. The tidy, colorful shop just outside Chicago is a way to build generational wealth, provide jobs for more than two dozen people in the neighborhood and maybe even inspire other Black women to explore the possibilities of business franchising.
“I think it definitely has a larger impact on the community — at least for me, I don’t know a ton of Black women-owned businesses in the Chicago or neighboring areas,” Aisha Miller says. “And I think we are, I would say, almost groundbreaking.”
The pair built the foundation of their Tropical Smoothie Café franchise with support from First Women’s Bank, a women-led bank formed to close the gender lending gap. The bank helps business owners like the Millers by pairing Small Business Administration lending tools with deposits from people and organizations, including Microsoft, who support its mission.
“When you support the women’s economy, the entire economy benefits,” says bank President and CEO Marianne Markowitz. “Small business owners support their families, their employees and their communities — we’ve formed First Women’s Bank to support them.”
Earlier this year, Microsoft became a First Women’s Bank mission partner when it committed to holding deposits at the bank to support small businesses. The partnership aligns with Microsoft’s other impact investments and its equity initiatives focused on gender, race and housing.
“When we think about all of our impact investments, we’re doing this to drive positive change in the world; we’re not doing this primarily for the return,” says Joel Combs, director of Impact Investments at Microsoft.
The hope is that these investments not only help people fund big dreams, but that they also act as a catalyst for encouraging other companies to invest strategically to create new opportunities for people in many more communities, according to Michelle Christensen of Microsoft’s Treasury team.
Microsoft is also working with First Women’s Bank to develop new learning, networking and business development opportunities for the entrepreneurs through the WIT Network and Cloud Accelerator programs.
Aisha and Ruth Miller each brought their own unique skills and aspirations to their business, which officially opened on June 5. Born and raised on the south side of Chicago, Ruth Miller worked as an educator and principal prior to becoming an entrepreneur.
She’d always longed for more autonomy. When she retired, she originally aspired to open a daycare or school, but learning about Tropical Smoothie Café’s business model — and her love for the food and drinks the stores serve — convinced her to start a franchise with her daughter.
She even carried her passion for child education into her new business venture: She plans to incorporate various initiatives, including reading incentive programs, for the kids who attend neighboring schools.
“I kind of felt that maybe if I had my own business,” she says, “then I can do things my way.”
Aisha Miller studied business administration at Howard University, earned her MBA from the University of Michigan and now works full-time as a technology and digital transformation consultant. At the café — nestled between other shops on Cicero Avenue in Burbank, Illinois — she focuses on the marketing and strategy of the franchise while her mother handles the day-to-day operations.
“I think we work really well together,” she says. “I think the older you get, your relationship with your mother evolves so it’s less mother-daughter and more like, I don’t know, two best friends doing a business venture together.”
Neither had ever owned a business, so when they decided to make the leap, they liked the idea that First Women’s Bank’s was the first commercial bank in the U.S. that was founded, owned and led by women with a mission to help other women succeed. They say they also found the support they needed there.
“Being the first in our family and the first of my friends to do anything like this, it was kind of important to go with them because they are also the first — it felt historic in that way,” reflects Aisha Miller. “They wanted to know about us, like who were we as business owners? What was our vision? They just felt invested in us as people, and invested in our dream.”
Now the Millers are creating their own impact in the community. They have hired 28 part-time employees, a racially diverse group including many high school and college students.
“I’m just blown away by how we’re able to provide a form of income for younger people of color who are just trying to make some pocket change, or maybe they’re trying to pay for their books or pay something towards their college education,” Aisha Miller says.
“But our model is to not only teach them how to make smoothies, but actually teach how the business works so that they’re taking skills they can use elsewhere.”
That ripple effect happens with many new businesses like the Millers’ — they not only bring revenue for owners but also new opportunities for many others in their local communities. It’s one big reason Microsoft looks to invest strategically in purpose-driven, smaller and local banks, which can in turn use the money to make loans that truly make a difference, according to Combs.
Microsoft has been doing this kind of impact investing for more than a decade.
“The real question is, why not? We have a strong balance sheet. We have cash. It’s something we can do that’s beyond selling software,” he says. “Microsoft is in a unique position to utilize several levers and its scale to make meaningful, positive impact.”
Microsoft’s mission partnership with First Women’s Bank has also helped support business owners like Tosin and Lauret Odesanya, who are building their own dream and hope to make a lasting impact in their community, too. The Texas couple recently opened their first Scooter’s Coffee franchise in Bridgeport, a small town about 80 miles northwest of Dallas.
The couple began their journey into entrepreneurship amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a daunting time for most businesses, so they appreciated the supportive and solution-oriented nature of the Chicago-based bank and the lender who worked with them.
“It was a relationship where I felt like she wanted us to succeed. She wanted the best for us,” said Lauret Odesanya. “She cared about what we cared about. When we were worried, she also showed concern and was always reassuring.”
Lauret Odesanya immigrated from Nigeria at the age of 12 and later studied finance at Georgia Southern University. After earning her MBA from the University of Georgia, she pursued a career in merchandising.
But after years of watching women in her family run successful businesses in addition to their day jobs, she soon realized she was also destined for entrepreneurship.
“It was just always the thing for me where I just felt like, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life working for someone else,” she says.
Her husband’s love for coffee is what drew them to the Scooter’s Coffee franchise. While she is the primary lead of the business, his experience as the head of strategy and transformation at a financial services company has helped the Nigerian couple navigate some of the hurdles along the way.
Still, no amount of exposure and experience could fully prepare the couple for the trials and tribulations of starting a new business. Lauret Odesanya recalls all the questions nagging at her, including whether they’d be successful and whether it was the right decision for their family.
She says family means everything in Nigerian culture. Hers has provided so much support, she jokes that her five siblings are unofficial co-owners. Tosin Odesanya says his family has heavily influenced his life as well; he remembers lessons he learned watching his mother, also an entrepreneur, growing up.
They both hope to build generational wealth in their family and inspire their own children to be entrepreneurs as well.
The road to their coffee shop’s recent grand opening was full of challenges, from finding the perfect location to construction difficulties to facing others’ unconscious biases — such as when his emails to contractors would get answered promptly and hers would get ignored.
But Lauret Odesanya says the experience has been life-changing. She remembers when construction began on the new store — the workers were starting to frame the new building, and she drove out to see her family’s future taking shape.
“I broke down, because I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness. That’s my store. They’re working for me. They are building my store,’” she recalls. “I just got really emotional in the car, and I just started crying.”
She and her husband are already working toward opening their second Scooter’s Coffee franchise early next year.
“My advice to other women entrepreneurs, or really anyone along this path … is not to let fear hold you back. Have the conversations. Reach out to banks,” she says. “And that alone is just the first step to actually realizing that, hey, this is possible. It can be done.”
Haniyah Philogene wrote this story during her fellowship with the National Association of Black Journalists and Microsoft, a program aimed at developing emerging storytellers.
Lotanna Ogbuefi, also a NABJ-Microsoft storytelling fellow, worked with videographer John Brecher and the Microsoft Stories team to produce the accompanying video.
Lead photo: Aisha Miller and her mother, Ruth, opened a Tropical Smoothie Café in Burbank, Illinois, where they employ more than two dozen people. (Photo by John Brecher)
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6 October, 2022 Haniyah Philogene and Lotanna Ogbuefi