Shopping for designer clearance items is almost like an art form. You have to scour the racks and study fabrications, tags, and price tags to find the best of the best. And you never know what you will come across one day or the other. You might find a hot deal on a Versace dress or a pair of Stuart Weitzman boots. One minute you're shopping at the clearance at Nordstrom, then taking another long drive to the Saks Fifth Avenue outlet and thinking, "If only I could just find one place to shop all my favorite clearance items in one place."
Danella Williams was that shopper. As a lawyer, she needed quality clothing and spent a lot of time shopping through the clearance sections. She said, "I had to be frugal. I would see quality stuff that looked good but was super expensive." Danella would shop online and have multiple tabs open. So she thought, "There's gotta be somewhere I can go to find all the clearance items in my size in one place." Unfortunately, Danella didn't find that, so she created Cleaven, the world's first clearance fashion search engine by women for women.
So tell us about any major setbacks and how you recovered.
In her entrepreneurial journey, Danella didn't have a technical background. And without proper funding to hire a technical founder, this delayed the process. Luckily, she reached out to a friend who became interested in her idea and came on board. Most minority founders don't have the same opportunities, and the climb is slow.
What's the biggest risk you've taken?
Danella walked away from a six-figure position and seven years of dedicated education to become a lawyer. She still pays her bar dues. That has been the biggest risk for her. However, she's committed to Cleaven and the incredible impact it's going to have on the marketplace.
What fears did you have along the journey?
Danella struggled with feelings of inadequacy. She couldn't help feeling out of place in a male-dominated industry with deep pockets. She said, "I'm from the south side of Chicago. I don't come from money, and I don't have rich uncles." Danella feared that someone with more resources would be able to surpass her in creating something similar before she could even get it up and running.
Instead, she focused on working through that feeling by gaining more industry knowledge, finding mentors to bounce ideas off of, and focusing on what she had to offer.
What are you most proud of when it comes to Cleaven?
Danella is proud of starting a business and stepping away from her career. Many rumblings surrounded her, people projecting their fears of whether or not this was a "good move." She said, "I had to tune that out. This was my life and my decision. I got prepared to be in a place to do it. I paid off my credit cards and saved up to buy my first house. I left my job in 2019, so during that time, I saved like crazy. I still had fun, but most of my income went towards savings before I even created it. I didn't want to be locked down, so I created more options for myself." Danella took time to learn how to aggregate the data and the several channels to create the website and then formulate those channels in a clean, usable format. Data aggregation is an open field for Black and Brown women entrepreneurs.
What's it like working with co-founders?
In the beginning, Danella wanted co-founders. She never wanted to build Cleaven on her own. Danella understood her strengths and was aware of the gaps in her knowledge base. She wanted to source co-founders who could fill those gaps. Danella said, "Collaboration takes patience, and working together can be hard. We're older, and we have established careers and established personalities."
Danella describes herself as an idea person, her tech founder works linearly, and she's learning how to navigate those differences. She's thankful she had solid friendships with her co-founders before embarking on this journey. She said, "We've had to have tough business conversations, but I don't want to lose these friendships I've built, so we're always making sure to check in with each other."
Describe what it was like preparing for the pitch competition.
This was Danella's first pitch competition. The preparation, she said, was grueling and how she came in with her pitch deck wasn't the final result. She said, "I owe that to the mentors, the training days were so valuable, and the input I received and all the feedback from the women was helpful. I redid my pitch deck, the colors, and the whole deck. For the audience to understand my product, I had to be concise and push everything great to the forefront."
When asked about the crowdfunding campaign, Danella drew her family, friends, and old mentors into the competition. She realized this was a wake-up call for people who didn't know what she was doing. Being heavily involved in crowdfunding helped legitimize her business in front of potential investors.
Danella advises those looking to pitch: "What do you have to lose? Really look at where you are and where you want to be and know that you can do it. It's not a matter of whether you can do it. The only thing stopping me from doing what I want is believing that I can do it—it's me. It's true in life, and in this pitch competition, people who don't do things they don't believe in themselves, so they don't attempt to do it. But once you make that attempt, you're good. Even if you fail, there's always a next time. Keep going."
Danella used the pitch funds for development. She wanted to use it for marketing, but marketing is not a priority. She hired a UX/UI designer to do backend work to put the data together so it can be presentable for her customers.
Support isn't always given to Black and Brown women in business; when has this shown and hurt or disappointed you the most?
Danella's noticed how different the support was for her versus others who had better connections. She said, "Coming out of law, the people around me had some rich uncles, and some viewed their ideas as bright and great ideas. So that person, if they were a bit different than I am, then they would have had that influx of capital, introductions, and confidence, but I didn't. I got pats on the back, like, you got this, and I'm sure you're going to make it. Or that's a great idea. But I never got the checks.
That has been the biggest disappointment. Well, just eye-opening because a similarly situated person would have a different experience starting this. With that being said, a lot of my support system has come from the opposite of my white male counterparts. I found mentors that were willing to put their names on the line. So I just try to stay positive and keep working the angles that I can. I can't control how someone else sees Black and Brown founders. I can't control people. All I can do is pay it forward."
What's the most critical lesson that you've learned about business?
Danella immediately said, "Pick up a book! If you don't know the next step, then pick up a book." At one point on her journey, she was at a standstill. When she found a co-founder, she didn't know what to focus on. Danella said, "So I went to the local library and saw all these different business books, like The Startup Company Bible. I picked up nine books and lugged them back home. I went through them one by one. I got so many ideas and more clarity as to what my responsibilities were."
She remembers looking through millions of books and breaking down crying in the aisle because she didn't know what she was doing or how to start. Danella said, "I've already started the business and was already working on it. Are you really an entrepreneur if you're not crying? But I had to get somewhere because I was at a standstill. I had to make certain choices because I didn't have the tools to get to the next step. So I had to find the tools to get there. And books led me in the direction of finding my mentors."
What is an important skill or asset you need to succeed in business?
Despite being introverted, Danella was adamant about this. She said, "You have to be willing to speak—to speak to everybody. I will make friends with a tree. Make conversations, and it so happens it's either them, or they know someone and will introduce me. I found my mentor and advisor was just me opening my mouth." Her mentor overheard her talking about her company, and that's how they met. She makes it a point to speak to anyone who will listen about what she's building because you create connections.
How do you measure success?
Danella measures success by a life well-lived. She wants to look back on her life when she's on her deathbed and say that she tried. She said, "It's experiences, all about experiences. I don't like to spend extra money on clothes or shoes. Only experiences. I want to experience life fully, even the less enjoyable parts, and within that, I've started and scaled my business. I've tried and lived a life for me."
What's the most exciting part of your business?
Danella genuinely loves saving people money. She saved much of her money to travel or have side jobs like waitressing because she wanted to have money and still do things. Developing Cleaven means giving people opportunities to quickly find items through clearance, which equals freedom. Her customers find deals quicker which provides them with more time. They find their items better priced, which keeps more money in their pockets. She becomes excited by the idea that life is more convenient and easier for them.
If you and I were meeting three years from now, looking back, what would it take for you to feel over the moon about your progress?
In three years, Danella would like to see Cleaven as a fully functioning website that people enjoy using. She hopes people rely on it and use it to save more money. Cleaven exists to make customers happy and profitable. Ideally, Cleaven will have millions of subscribers, and she's carved a niche in an untapped market.
What do you think the future holds for Black and Brown women entrepreneurs?
Danella said, "The future is bright. It's not just a feeling. It's been well documented, and we're doing well. We're starting businesses underfunded, yet we're over performing. We're going to make such a splash. I would love to see at least 20 Black women businesses IPO by 2032."
Running a business while balancing a personal life can be demanding and taxing. How do you take care of yourself?
Danella commits to engaging in activities that have nothing to do with business. Although she enjoys creating, researching, and jotting ideas, she doesn't forget her family or friends. She needs them as much as they need her. Danella loves to travel and attend converts. She focuses on creating a well-balanced life. There might be one week when she does work a lot, but the following week she carves out time to do other things.
What is your favorite quote or mantra?
"You have one life to live, so only live it once."
What is a book that you would recommend?
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
It's About Damn Time: How to Turn Being Underestimated Into Your Greatest Advantage by Arlan Hamilton
What's your favorite business hack or app you can't live without?
Name one food item you have a hard time saying no to.
What's next for Cleaven?
Cleaven is beta testing its first 100 users. After testing, they will do a soft launch.
Any last words…
Danella said, "Beyond the pitch competition and the entrepreneurship journey, if you still have a job and you're at a crossroads deciding whether you should pursue something or not, just remember, you're not going to have an answer. You won't be sure how it's going to turn out, so if you wait to have those answers, you will never do it. You'll just have to start to have patience but start. Make sure you speak up because by starting it'll get you so much further than staying stagnant. Just start. Join me, and we'll cry together."