EPISODE 020
She Flipped It - Entrepreneur to MBA

Sheffie Robinson, the CEO of Shamrck, is a talented developer turned MBA.  Listen in to understand the back story around why she's currently completing her MBA and how she's navigated the tech world to become a tech startup founder. 

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Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[00:00]    Well, it was two-faceted for me, mostly because I came into the arena as a self-taught software engineer. And being a black woman in tech, that already comes with its own stigma. So it was a process for me to kind of validate myself in the market, I think, and show people that yeah, I do have the actual expertise. It's not just, I'm only working to my strengths. It's that I actually took the time to go back and make sure I validated my expertise.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[00:40]          Welcome to the Unpolished MBA podcast. On this podcast, we have conversations with tech startup founders and entrepreneurs and traditional corporate MBAs. Many say that startups equal the unpolished MBA because those without the formal business education are scrappy and do many things untraditionally to achieve business success. But anyone who has built a business from an idea can attest to the fact that the experience is another level MBA, and there's nothing quite like it. The candid conversations shared here is helpful to both sides of the fence. One is not better than the other, just different. Let's jump in.

[01:31]       Hi, I'm your host, Monique Mills, and in my work, I get to have great conversations with a lot of smart and interesting people. Some are tech startup founders and entrepreneurs in various industries and others are corporate employees. Here I'm sharing a conversation I had with Sheffie Robinson, an entrepreneur turned MBA. Yes, you heard that right. She has been an entrepreneur for the majority of her career and decided to go back and earn her degree. There's an interesting story behind this. So if you're someone considering a similar decision at this stage of your career, you'll certainly want to keep listening.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[02:14]       Are you an entrepreneur or corporate employee?


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[02:18]    I am an entrepreneur.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[02:20]          Are you MBA or no MBA?


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[02:24]    MBA light?


Host - Monique Mills:   

[02:27]          MBA in process.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[02:27]    I’m currently in my MBA program. Yes.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[02:30]          Yes. So MBA in process. So this is really interesting because a lot of people that come to our website, Unpolished MBA, they're trying to see insights from people who either have done it or haven't done it, they've never seen someone that's in the middle of it.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[02:48]    Yes.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[02:49]   My first question would be, you're already an entrepreneur, so why would you pursue the MBA?


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[02:56]    Well, it was too faceted for me, mostly because I came into the arena as a self-taught software engineer. And being a black woman in tech, that already comes with its own stigma. So it was a process for me to kind of validate myself in the market, I think, and show people that yeah, I do have the actual expertise. It's not just, I'm only working to my strengths, it's that I actually took the time to go back and make sure I validated my expertise. So it's definitely one of those, “Let me make sure I'm on the right track.” Because there are a lot of people who are self-made, self-taught, but also cocky and not even realizing that they don't know what they don't know.

[03:48]       One thing, I found that in conversation, I could have a discussion with a group of men - and of course, in my arena, they're usually white men - and I can command the room very easily. But then there's that other realm that's an older generation that will look me up on LinkedIn right while I'm talking. And they want to know where I'm actually coming from before they ask the question, “Well, did you actually build this yourself?” Because that does come up a lot in tech for people of color, period. It's always the, “Did you actually build this, or did you put your name on this and somebody else built it?”, especially when you're the engineer versus “I hired somebody to build this for me.” So it's definitely one of those things where the credential is helpful in just getting people to kind of calm down. I could have that same conversation with another guy, and he's like, “Oh, my God, you're brilliant,” because they are not as concerned, but the older generation absolutely are more concerned.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[04:52]          See, that's why I'm wondering too, is if the college degree will ever lose its requirement in this professional world because you keep hearing about companies that are no longer requiring degrees and no longer requiring certain things but then, on the other hand, if you got the degree, they'll take that person. So it's like, is this real or not? Are you really meaning what you say or not?


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[05:22]    I think what's going to happen is that certain industries will not require a degree. But what that's going to force education to do is to make that degree more valid, more applicable. And because the reason a lot of degrees aren't as important, I think, in a lot of arenas is because your typical schools are behind the mark on certain things. Now, that doesn't necessarily relate to the MBA because business is business and business doesn't change. How you do business may change but business itself is going to be the same. But for instance, in my realm, we have software engineers and computer scientists that come out of school, and they've never done a line of code.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[06:05]          Yep, that's right. That’s where the school that you go to really makes a difference.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[06:10]    Yes. So for the Bachelor's degrees, these folks are coming out of school with the expertise of a high schooler, and are expected to go get jobs. So that's why companies are like, “Well, we're just not going to require it anymore because we know our best people aren't coming from the schools. They're coming from the people who sat at home, got interested, and just started coding. The people who went to a boot camp. The folks who invested in themselves in a way that was above and beyond the educational jargon you typically get in a Bachelor's degree.” So I think that's what's going to change is schools are going to start looking at, “Hey, we have to be much more innovative in how we teach. Our classes need to be much more applicable to the market, and we have to start teaching soft skills.”


Host - Monique Mills:   

[07:02]          Oh, goodness gracious, especially in the technical world. It's awful.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[07:05]    Oh my God, soft skills. It's the thing that drives me nuts, even talking to some of my own developers on my team. I have a couple who they're great. They will talk to customers no problem. Then I have a couple it's like, “Why am I having to pull this out of you to get to the point?” So that's why tech is going away from and we're just not going to require it anymore because the people aren't ready. They're coming out with a piece of paper, literally. And it's sad because folks go in thinking, “I'm going to get everything I need to go into this career,” and they just don't. Not in tech. Now, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, all the other engineering fields, they're a little bit more progressive I'd say. Again, business is business. Marketing has fallen behind a lot when it comes to collegiate marketing versus real life.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[07:58]          Absolutely. Yes, it’s way behind.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[08:03]    It's like nobody markets like this anymore. Why are they only taking one social media class through a whole four-year degree? That's crazy to me. When literally without social media marketing isn't happening as efficiently. You still have direct mail, you still have newspaper and things like that but they're just not used as much. They're in tandem with other things. It's more of a retargeting than a using that as your only marketing realm.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[08:35]          Well said. I mean, I wish I had the “round of applause” button like the radio folks have because you hit that right on the head. So let me ask you something, your awareness of that, did that come when you started in the MBA? Or did it come from you already learning from your entrepreneurial journey thus far?


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[08:58]    It came from because---I came from sales and marketing in the process because I just didn't believe in myself as a software engineer. So my corporate knowledge is in sales and marketing. And I remember hiring an intern, and her job was to market to black people. And she said, “Well, in marketing, they tell us to do things this way.” And I was like, “But that's not how you market to people of color. That's not how you market to minorities.” And it took me looking at that to realize, “Oh, wow, they're not actually teaching modern marketing. They're teaching some very antiquated stuff. And that's when she went to tell me that, “Looking at these metrics, you're completely right. You market later in the day. You have different language when you're doing this. Nobody taught me that.”

[09:56]       So it was definitely before my MBA that I learned that this is just not being taught in schools. And then just from my own process of having to market to my own community. Because I thought the same thing you know, you read all the blogs, you read all the e-books, and all of this and it tells you these things. But then you sit back and realize there's intrinsic biases in marketing. And they're not necessarily intended. It's just that folks don't know this is not how you market to different people. Just like you have your customer archetype where you're devising how to market to them, you have to do that across demographics as well. And not enough people are doing that. And marketing is not teaching it in schools. And I don't even know of an MBA program that’s teaching that.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[10:43]          Nope. Mine didn’t, so everything I learned, I learned by doing, just like you said. So how far are you into your MBA right now?


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[10:54]    I will be finishing my first two classes, my first semester, in a week. And my first class was managerial finance, and-- Oh God, operation of-- Don't give me the line. Oh, I can't think of the name of the class. But it's a class that I took as I was finishing my degree as well. It was organizational communication, but the MBA version. So I was very well prepared for that class because I had literally just taken it in the Bachelor's version. The managerial finance blew my mind.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[11:41]          It changes things, right?


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[11:42]    Oh, my God. Because I mean, granted, even in the MBA, it seems more manufacturing centered, but the folks in my team, because we are cohort-based MBA program, it was a lot of kind of learning how to differentiate that manufacturing cost into a software manufacturing cost. That was a very different process to try to find NPVs and all the different values when you don't have a raw material. What is a raw material in software?


Host - Monique Mills:   

[12:21]          Right. Yep.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[12:24]    So it kind of helped me see how to better judge my cost of goods “manufactured” and cost of goods sold, just to make sure I am doing what I need to do as a financial steward of my company, and how to go into that process. Of course, my MBA is not an executive MBA so most of my teammates are employees. But I provide them with additional insight from an entrepreneurial side of things so they can continue to think about, “Oh, okay, well, I see how this works on the business side, but when you're actually the leader, it's a different conversation because you're responsible for so much more, and you have to know all facets of your business.” You don't have to necessarily be the expert in all of them, but you need to know what's going on at all times.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[13:15]   Yeah. And that's why we differentiate with many of the accelerators and incubators I'm associated with. Sometimes they don't know this at first, especially the new ones, but you have to differentiate between physical products and software. Because the approach, as far as the whole accounting of it, and even the prospects as far as raising money, and all of that, I mean, you have inventory to worry about when you have physical products, and real estate to worry about overall, which you don't have those same things in software, that’s why software is so attractive to investors. It’s scalable. Not that physical products aren't scalable, but you’ve got to get the cost down super cheap. And then outsourcing. And it's just much more complicated. And so they need to differentiate, put them on different tracks.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[14:10]    You have to. God, you do.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[14:12]          Yeah.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[14:13]    Yeah, I think I may be the only one in our entire class that's actually-- Well no, there's one other entrepreneur in the class. So there's two of us and everybody else pretty much works for someone. So it's definitely an eye-opening process for everybody, I think, because they're looking at it from the leadership standpoint of it that they typically don't see. And I think for a good MBA program, you kind of have to have both sides of that because it makes you appreciate things in a different way, I believe, than, “Oh, well, I just got my paycheck and that's all I really need to know about” versus, “I'm looking at the trajectory of the company and I'm a little worried here.” And that's because they can see things that people who may not have an MBA don't.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[15:04]    That's right. It's giving you that well-rounded view. And you know that you're just one cog in the wheel and you need to know how that entire wheel operates in order to move forward.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[15:16]    Yes.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[15:17]   We had someone on the podcast who did the MBA in six months, but he did it online because he was able to go at his own pace. So is yours online or in-person?


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[15:31]    Completely online. It's the Georgia WebMBA, which is a combination of MBA across seven schools in Georgia, Kennesaw State, Georgia Southern, University of West Georgia. I forget the other schools, but those are the three that come to mind. So it's a combination across all the schools. And it's cohort-based, so we have a team. We have a team of five people all over the state that we have to meet every week. We have group assignments, we have individual assignments, and we keep the same cohort through the whole program.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[16:11]     Oh, that's awesome. So how long is the program?


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[16:15]    It is five semesters so that breaks out to about 15 months. So our graduation would be in May of 2022.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[16:26]   Well, at least by then we'll be past this pandemic. And hopefully, you'll have a regular graduation.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:  

[16:33]    Yes, because my Bachelor's graduation was virtual. I got my cap and gown in the mail and I just had to sit there with my cap and gown and my badge. It's like, yay, video.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[16:50]     It’s over with, now on to the next thing.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[16:53]    Yes.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[16:53]     Let me ask you this though, as an entrepreneur, even before you finished your undergrad, you were already an entrepreneur.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[17:01]    Yes.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[17:01]    Was that something that people felt like you needed? Would people challenge you or ask for credentials before?


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[17:11]    No, it was more of an assumption. Everybody assumed I already had it, which was okay, but for me, I was much more interested in getting my MBA. That's what I wanted. But it's like, I didn't want to go back to undergrad. I'm like, “I'm above that. I'm 30 something years old. Why do I have to do this?” But I choked it down and did it anyway. And the reason I did-- Like my degree is in sociology, it was very much a passion project and a way for me to look at additional ways to combat racial equity. So that was the entire reason I got that degree was looking at racial equity, organizational leadership, with regard to how to structure a company culture. Those two things were important to me. And I already had the software knowledge, so I didn't feel like I needed to get a degree in that. As far as business was concerned, yes, definitely a lot to still learn there because nobody knows it all. At any point, you still have people you're going to ask, but I wanted to get down to the socialization of organizations and how that plays into people who look like me.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[18:26]   Now, on the topic of entrepreneurship, I want you to tell the audience, some of the ventures you've done in the past, and most importantly, what you're working on right now.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[18:39]    Okay, sure. So I’d probably say I started my first company when I was six. I had a candy selling business. I’d take my little $5 my mom gave me, go to the store, and flip it.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[18:52]     That's such a common story with entrepreneurs.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[18:56]    Yeah, very young. And I did that probably up until high school, and then my product changed in high school when I started coding. But my first major venture was a company called L&L Corporation, which was a FinTech product I built for a video game, that pretty much allowed people to gain interest on video game currency. We were in three different games at the time before I shut it down. And pretty much we would just amass a bunch of coins and then we had a system that put interest on those coins, like a banking system, and then they could withdraw and make money that way. And we actually had real CDs and stuff where the money was stored. So it was a great little fun venture.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[19:45]       That is neat. That was well ahead of its time though.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[19:50]    It was, because this was before Bitcoin. And that was essentially what we were trying to do was decentralize coin in video games and make it a real thing. Of course, these games where you could natively transfer coin into real money anyway, so that process made it easy. But applying that in a banking sense was just something [that] had never been heard of. But things got hectic and I just shut it down one day. I was burned out, completely burned out, depressed, sad, whole thing. And that's what happens in entrepreneurship at times when we go head down and just build and don't think about life.


[20:33]      Then in 2015, I started my software company, regular software development, Touco Direct. Then we turned that into a SaaS platform called WPClover about a year ago. And then we finally combined everything together and now we're Shamrck. So essentially, we have combined the processes of a website builder with an email marketing system with a business operation system like 17 hats into one platform. So far, so good. We have made some great strides over the last few months, brought on our CTO recently, and that has helped us streamline processes a lot. Because I was doing CEO and CTO work at the same time.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[21:18]    Oh, gosh. Yeah, that's tough.


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[21:20]    Yeah, had to pivot a little bit during COVID just because with our business being dedicated to small businesses, we had to make sure we tackled mature small businesses or folks who have low overhead, and that's what made things simpler there. We will release the machine learning portion of our platform here within the next month going into 2021. We feel like that's going to be the year. We’ve gotten our feet wet and now we're drying out and proceeding to the next thing.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[21:55]     Well, it sounds like one of those things that's so large. It's like one of those things where it's like you have to be careful that you don't think you can boil the ocean, right?


Guest - Sheffie Robinson:   

[22:06]    Right. Yes.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[22:06]    Because it sounds like a massive solution to small businesses and so it's going to have a great impact, which that's incredible.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[22:20]       Okay, that's it. Sheffie has done a lot in her career and despite that, she's still never finished learning and growing. That's the true heart of an entrepreneur. And though she's a talented developer, and confident in her abilities, with the results to prove that she's effective, she's talked about how quite often, the world still requires additional validation from her. Unfortunately, this story is all too common, especially for women in the tech world. So if you're experiencing a similar situation, just know that it's individuals like you, and like Sheffie that are clearing the path for the generations behind you, while actively setting an example for those around you right now. Well done.


The Unpolished MBA conversation continues, and you can be a part of it by going to unpolishedmba.com. Thank you for listening.

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