Becoming an entrepreneur is nothing like the romanticised calling we often hear of, argues Thrilling founder Shilla Kim-Parker. Here, she explains why there’s still a long way to go before it becomes accessible to all communities
There’s a popular image of the entrepreneur that few can live up to. Usually young, they’re daring and fearless, breaking rules, working from a laptop on the beach and enjoying a glamorous lifestyle. And lest we forget, they’re also making lots of money.
“It’s almost like the Instagram version of entrepreneurship,” smiles Kim-Parker, who’s in the third year of her entrepreneurial journey, having co-founded Thrilling, an online marketplace of curated vintage and secondhand items in 2018. “You only read about the highs and you don’t realise these people have systems of support that allow them to take that risky step. The fact that it’s enormously risky and there are just as many downs as there are ups is something that should be talked about more openly.”
For Kim-Parker, the desire to set up her own business was something that had been gnawing away at her for a long time. “I always had this urge, throughout the twists and turns of my career to build something with my own two hands,” she explains.
She hails from a family of small business owners and says she’s proud of the fact her grandparents started the first black owned business in a small town in North Carolina in the 1940s.
But even so, nothing prepared her for giving up a very good job as Chief of Staff for the Disney/ABC Television Group and setting up her own business.
“It was terrifying and full of risk!” she recalls. “I don’t have a trust fund or safety nets and I do often think that entrepreneurship is glamorised.”
She’s quick to highlight where some of the structural support around entrepreneurship needs to be improved to create a more diverse community of founders – and give everyone the opportunity to create businesses.
“So, for example, less than one per cent of venture capital funding goes to black women,” she explains. “There’s a lot more work to do to make it a more feasible step to take for many people.”
Passionate about supporting small businesses
Kim-Parker comes across as having a strong sense of community – both in terms of wanting to make the entrepreneurial community bigger and more diverse and also in wanting to support the small business community and help them survive in a digital-first environment.
“We’re incredibly mission driven…we put our community first,” she explains. “It’s always about our small business partners and shoppers’ needs first. Then it’s how we shape the business around their needs.”
Her business operates around a simple principle; it uses technology to bring vintage stores online and make second hand shopping more modern, accessible and popular with the average consumer. It’s firmly rooted in the sustainable fashion movement and she admits that everyone at Thrilling is passionate about the climate crisis.
She hosts over 300 stores across 100 cities on their platform and says many vintage stores have felt left behind and ignored.
“There are more second hand small business shops across the U.S. than Starbucks and McDonalds combined and yet it’s completely ignored as an industry and retail category. You wouldn’t even know it existed if you read analysts’ reports,” she says.
Thrilling has raised over $12million in venture capital since its launch in 2018 and Kim-Parker is increasingly in demand. A partnership with Beyonce’s stylist resulted in an acclaimed curated collection of vintage pieces from black owned businesses and interviews with the likes of Fortune magazine have followed.
She readily acknowledges there have been some great highs so far in the start-up journey. But true to her keeping-it-real persona, she also doesn’t shy away from the low points.
“We’ve experienced a lot of growth and our revenue grew 1,900 per cent during the pandemic,” she says. “But the most meaningful thing for us is when our store partners do well. There’s a lot of mutual affection between us and our stores and we have a very close relationship with our stakeholders. The biggest high is when they thrive.”
But while she says they’re happy to have been able to find the right investors, fundraising is something she admits can be incredibly draining.
“Fundraising for sure is one of the hardest challenges,” she concedes. “You do have to go through hundreds if not thousands of conversations. A lot of them can feel defeating, some of them can be offensive. It takes an enormous amount of grit to keep going.”
‘You’re going to need the village’
But as she looks to expanding the business globally, with the UK very much on her radar, Kim-Parker is quick to thank others for helping her grow – and says this is something all entrepreneurs need.
“One of the hardest parts of entrepreneurship is that it’s a very vulnerable journey, so you have to ask for help. Do not by shy,” she says. “You may feel self-conscious about how often you’re going to have to ask for help. But you should get over it. You know the saying, ‘It takes a village…’, well you’re going to need the village.”
At this point, the sounds of her two young children in the background are a reminder of the competing priorities she’s juggling – and she’s quick to debunk the idea that entrepreneurship is easy. “It is going to be hard,” she says when asked for advice for others beginning the start-up journey. “Nothing remarkable comes from being easy.”
But if this all sounds hard medicine to swallow, it’s because she’s continually focussed on a bigger picture of ultimately changing consumer behaviour to help the environment.