Launching a business means dealing with all kinds of adversity. But with enough effort and the right attitude, you can overcome nearly any challenge. Just ask Nneka Brown-Massey, CEO of Innovative Supplies. Brown-Massey suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) during her military service.
Despite her injury, Brown-Massey launched a successful business and created badly-needed jobs for her community. We spoke with Nneka to hear her inspirational story and find out what advice she has for other business owners dealing with their own struggles.
Serving Her Country
Brown-Massey has been connected to the military nearly her entire life–her parents were also service members. “My Mom was a supply specialist and my Dad was a cook. Growing up I knew I wanted to be in the army as well.” As Brown-Massey turned 18, her parents asked her what she wanted to do. She would likely go overseas.
Ultimately, Brown-Massey decided to join human resources and shipped out to Afghanistan at age 18. She worked in the military post office to process mail and help soldiers with their passport applications.
After her tour of duty, Brown-Massey enrolled in the Basic Leadership Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. For most people, this would already be enough. But, Brown-Massey kept pushing. “I wanted to pick up additional skills so I applied for Airborne School, an unusual move for someone in Human Resources.” It took her three tries, but she ultimately qualified.
An Unfortunate Injury
Airborne School training meant participating in parachute jumps. This is how Brown-Massey became injured–she banged her head on multiple jumps. She describes the aftermath of one accident. “I was walking down my hallway and something didn’t feel right. I waved my hand in front of my face and I just saw a trail of hands following that hand.”
From that point on, Brown-Massey began dealing with the long-term issues from her concussion: light and noise sensitivity, constant headaches and fatigue. “I was so used to having a fully charged battery at all times. Now it’s more like a four-hour window.”
Concerns Over the Future
Due to her Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Brown-Massey had to leave the military after nine years of service. She was concerned about what would come next for herself and her family. “When you get injured in the military, you qualify for disability income benefits. But for me, that’s only $550 a month and not much to live on with my 8-year-old daughter.”
She knew she needed to earn more. Brown-Massey worried about whether her TBI would get in the way of a regular 9-5 job. “I noticed that I have a lot of anxiety. What if my disability affects how I perform for someone else? Would I get let go earlier than other workers, even if I push myself?”
She was also concerned about whether employers would understand her condition and be able to accommodate her needs. “When we think dramatic brain injuries like concussions, we think of football players or veterans who got blown up in a vehicle with a roadside bomb. But we rarely talk about other ways veterans get hurt and how it affects them.”
Turning Adversity into an Opportunity
With these health concerns in-mind, Brown-Massey delayed taking a 9-5 job and instead returned to school to continue her studies. It’s during this time that she spotted a perfect opportunity. “I wanted some nice, artistic stationary to get ready for class, but I just couldn’t find anything at T.J. Maxx or Walmart. I figured there’s got to be something out there that I like, but there just wasn’t.”
At the same time, Brown-Massey wanted to support her artist friends. “I always saw nice artists posting their work on Instagram and wondered how can I get that out to more people? That’s when I realized, stationary. People always need stationary.” The idea for Innovative Supplies was born.
Even though Brown-Massey had never launched a business before, she believed her military experience gave her the tools needed to succeed. “The military spends around $1 million training their soldiers. I wanted to use my leadership skills to help my community.” This would help her avoid the common mistakes new small business owners make.
Building a Business
She started by reaching out to one artist she really liked on Instagram and together they designed their first round of notebooks. They posted the design on Instagram–Innovative Supplies was an instant hit. “Our Instagram posts went viral and received millions of views. My artist friend earned $3,000 in commissions that first year alone.”
After proving her idea worked, Brown-Massey began hiring staff to expand. She hires a lot of teenagers for her business, especially those who are at-risk and would benefit from work experience. “I want them to develop real skills: communicating with one another, learning inventory management, how to respond to customer emails. I let them run the show and just supervise.”
In her first year of business in 2016, Brown-Massey hired 15 students part-time to manage Innovative Supplies. With her initial launch a success, Brown-Massey would like to grow her workforce even more and aims to hire at least 30 students throughout 2020.
Advice for Other Business Owners
Brown-Massey had to overcome her share of challenges and doubts. “When I face adversity, I think back to the good times I’ve had and that inspires me to keep going.” She reminds herself about the first 8,000 notebooks she sold within 24 hours and how that didn’t happen by chance. If you’re ever in a tough business stretch, she suggests thinking about your past positive results and feel confident that you can do it again.
Brown-Massey also turns to her internal motivation for launching the business in the first place. “I remind myself why I started, to give students a way to make an honest dollar. A lot of students in my community may not have the opportunity to make money in a legal manner. This keeps me going during tough times.”
She challenges other business owners to think the same way. If you find motivation beyond just making a profit, it can give you the strength to overcome adversity.
Brown-Massey went from worrying about whether her military injury would prevent her from finding employment to becoming a successful business owner, and helping others in her community launch their careers.
She hopes her story can inspire others dealing with adversity that they too can find the right opportunity, if they believe in themselves. We’d like to thank Brown-Massey for sharing her story and for her service to our country. We wish her the best of luck to continue growing Innovative Supplies.