Ashlee Ammons of Mixtroz on conquering the fear of starting over

In 2014, Ashlee Ammons was living a comfortable life in New York City, producing celebrity driven events and working in brand marketing. She’s close with her mom, Kerry Shrader, and one day Ashlee called to vent about an awkward experience she’d had at a conference mixer. The two women realized that, despite having strong networks in their respective fields and feeling confident in their social skills, they’d both found it difficult to strike up conversation in a professional setting—especially in the digital age. After four hours on the phone, the duo hatched an idea. They saw themselves as natural connectors, able to bring people together from all walks of life, and wondered, “How do we do this with software?” 

Their answer? Mixtroz. A mashup of “Mixer” and “intros,” Mixtroz is an app designed to help event attendees connect, breaking the ice and building engagement while collecting real-time data for event organizers. In 2018, Kerry and Ashlee became the 37th and 38th black women to have raised $1 million in funding, and their clients include TEDX, Alabama Power, and universities that use the app to help incoming freshmen meet new people. So how did this mother/daughter team get from a phone conversation to co-founding their own company? Read on.

Go “all in”

After they came up with the idea for Mixtroz and decided to forge ahead, Kerry put in long hours in Nashville while Ashlee moonlighted from New York, holding down her full-time job. Ashlee liked predictability and order, and she enjoyed her big-city lifestyle—entrepreneurship was a total departure from who she was at the time. But in October 2015, Kerry was diagnosed with breast cancer. Within a month, she went through surgery and radiation and still never once lost focus on Mixtroz. Kerry’s determination in the face of hardship inspired Ashlee to dive fully into their journey together. Ashlee packed her bags and moved into her family’s home in Nashville, surrendering her professional identity to start from scratch with her mother. It was a humbling refresh when she had already risen to the top of her career. “Entrepreneurship made me do it again,” she says. 

Take care of yourself

During that first summer in Nashville, Ashlee suffered from FOMO, watching from the sidelines as her friends explored extraordinary things. As a 28-year-old living at home, she saw life passing her by and started experiencing signs of depression. “Entrepreneurship is hard. If people don’t take care of themselves mentally and physically, it’s a recipe for disaster,” she says. Ashlee sought treatment to address her depression, and eventually got back on track. Still, founding Mixtroz—like almost every startup—meant pushing through a slow start accompanied by rejection. “There’s a huge misconception that entrepreneurship is a sprint when it’s actually a marathon,” says Ashlee. Blocking out the noise of naysayers, Ashlee and Kerry persisted: refining and iterating on their product, listening to feedback from early adopters, and continuing to push their product forward. 

Do your homework

The two founders pursued every opportunity to meet with investors and began entering pitch competitions. “If I hear anybody saying anything contrary to me, my mom, my business, my team, I am ferocious. I don’t have a soft spoken bone in my body,” Ashlee said. This served her well, especially when competition was tight. At the Rise of the Rest competition in May 2018, Ashlee pitched Mixtroz to Steve Case, former CEO of AOL. “We may not have had the best product,” Ashlee recalls, “But I was the most prepared and I came ready to win.” Case commended Ashlee after she finished her pitch, the last slide of which included an African proverb that Case wrote about in his book, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” In an effort to tailor the presentation to her audience, Ashlee did some homework beforehand that ultimately helped her win the competition. She walked away with $100,000, and she and her mom decided to relocate from Nashville to Birmingham, Alabama, where the competition had taken place.

Find the right geographic fit

Ashlee and Kerry had already spent time in Birmingham, where they participated in Innovation Depot’s Velocity Accelerator. When asked what Mixtroz brings to the city today, Ashlee says, “We are literally reshaping what people think of entrepreneurship. We are making it more colorblind, more inclusive, more age agnostic, more gender agnostic—that is a great thing.” Birmingham itself is a city that implements coding programs into core curriculums and provides proper resources so that young adults don’t feel the need to move away from Alabama to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. The city has redefined entrepreneurship so that it’snot just “a sport for the elite,” as Ashlee says. She adds, “I want their journey to be a bit easier than mine was.” 

“I am as much of an entrepreneur as a guy who puts a lawnmower in the back of his truck and realizes that he can offer something that the competition can’t,” Ashlee continues. She credits Birmingham’s environment with helping Mixtroz to thrive, even positing that she and Kerry wouldn’t have been able to pursue their business anywhere else. “Birmingham listened and didn’t assume. We’ve had such an ugly history here. It’s not lost on me that my grandma is 90 and she lived in Alabama during [the fight for] civil rights, yet my mom and I raised a million dollars here.” 

Change the narrative

Although Ashlee and Kerry had a limited knowledge of entrepreneurship before embarking on their Mixtroz journey, the thing that mattered most was that they cared about solving the problem they had unearthed: how to connect individuals at networking events and gather data in the digital age. Their early promise and dedication was seen by family and friends, who raised $200,000 to fund Mixtroz at its outset. This was at a time where African American females, on average, were raising $36,000—an upsetting number when compared to white males who, at the same stage, were raising an average total of $1.3 million. From the earliest part of her startup journey, Ashlee learned an indelible takeaway: “Don’t let the fear of not knowing something stop you from starting.”


Facebook for disasters: meet Meena Palaniappan’s Atma Connect app

Somewhere between the desire to help disaster-prone communities navigate preparedness to revolutionizing the way marginalized people use social media, Meena Palaniappan gave rise to an app most easily described as “facebook for disasters.”

Meena headshotAtma Connect is a tech non-profit that runs the AtmaGo app, a local social network with 4.5 million users in Indonesia. Launched in 2015, the app was pioneered to spread disaster alerts, share safe routes and locations of government shelters, and even alert locals to signs of waterborne disease in children. 

Then, when a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit Sulawesi, Indonesia in 2018, thousands turned to AtmaGo to alert and support friends and family. In the wake of 1,700 deaths and the displacement of over 70,000 people, locals used the app to host humanitarian workers and direct those affected to resources such as food, water, and healthcare. 

Today, Meena envisions AtmaGo becoming the largest pro-social network in the world. Her passion to build resilience and social connectedness for billions of people living in low-income communities—while on the forefront of climate change—is clear. Communities with developed and successful social networks have been proven to have fewer deaths and the unique ability to bounce back quicker from disasters. 

The Backstory 

For the past two decades, Meena has been implementing community-based technology-related projects in Africa and Asia. Before AtmaGo, Meena was the principal investigator for a USAID project to improve water service for low-income communities in Indonesia.

While working on climate-related issues in India, Meena met a woman with a brilliant water conservation solution but no easy means of sharing this information with those in her community who could benefit. At the time, most (if not all) mobile networking platforms were geared towards collecting information from poor people to serve larger institutions.

Meena jumped at the opportunity to amplify the power of people through peer communication, highlight their ingenuity, and release trapped knowledge with the goal of building a grassroots movement for change. 

“Why hasn’t a social tech project reached the scale of Facebook?” Meena asked herself. “I firmly believe we need to move beyond traditional development strategies which see poor people as objects and work to build the agency of people to direct and lead their own change.” 

Building from the ground up 

The first app launched by Atma Connect in 2014 was a neighborhood water price sharing platform. Making evident the importance of focusing on the needs and opportunities of people living in low-income communities, users immediately requested that Atma Connect expand their services. 

At a scale and reach of just 10% of the population of Jakarta, AtmaGo could add 6,980 years of healthy life, save $106 million in avoided damages, and save $4.7 million in healthcare costs. (Check out this evaluation report for a detailed account of all the ways in which AtmaGo can improve disaster preparedness and response in Indonesia.)

In order to build their team and engage users, Meena used a variety of key tactics like human-centered design interviews and in-person marketing. Ambassadors, power users and friends of Atma promoted the platform. Atma reached out to local journalists and other organizations to share information and promote Atma sponsored events like garbage clean-ups and tree-planting. 

Unlike other social-centered networks (e.g., Instagram and Twitter), AtmaGo is a trusted source because it is organized locally to allow users immediate insight into neighborhood happenings. The app is available on low-cost phones as well as a mobile website, designed specifically for intermittent internet environments and low bandwidth. 

According to Meena, “Atma combines digital tools with citizen journalism and on-the-ground reporting as well as partnerships to ensure that local users see real-life community improvements.” She wanted to have the ability to “take a lean startup approach and truly follow the needs of people on the ground and not be beholden to larger institutions and interests.” 

Atma is just the beginning of protecting vulnerable communities through a fundamentally different approach. AtmaGo allows users to read, write, and comment on posts in four categories: Reporting problems, discussing solutions, finding jobs, and sharing events.

So what?

The success of Atma thus far has inspired Meena and only made her more humble—a trait she hopes to use to amplify all that is good about humanity. The challenges along the way have inevitably shaped her perspective, and she admits that “The hardest part is probably raising the funding to keep this going and developing earned income that is mission-aligned.” Put another way, Meena will not allow Atma to contribute to surveillance capitalism or erode the social fabric by monetizing people’s attention. 

As a woman of color, Meena possesses a unique drive that makes her a more empathetic leader. She is adamant about ensuring that everyone within her organization has their voice heard. Focused and passionate, Meena works to uplift everyone around her and outline their collective contribution to AtmaGo. Meena’s devotion is also evident in the stories of Atma’s users, who embody the profound change that is possible when amplifying the brilliance and ingenuity of every single person—especially of those who have historically not been heard. This video illustrates AtmaGo’s particular ability to do just that.

What’s next?

In a Medium article written by Meena herself, she admits that there are major problems with social media but also mentions the huge benefits communities can reap from an approach that centers helping people—radically and widely.

In 2020, Atma hopes to build a revenue engine by monetizing the economic loss prevention and mortality impact of AtmaGo through partnering with insurance companies. Atma also plans on expanding the tech non-profit’s value by increasing online and offline engagement, integrating more disaster services and including more voices directly from users. Possibly the most exciting next move is scaling Atma’s impact from Indonesia to Puerto Rico and Colombia. 

In conclusion, Meena leaves us with a few tips for women entrepreneurs hoping to create the next big thing: 

Don’t give up.

Remember why you are doing this.

Take care of yourself—body, mind, and spirit.

Always be celebrating, all the little successes. 

 


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