At a time when it’s becoming more and more common to see small businesses replaced with bigger corporations, Erike Mayo remains hopeful about the power of entrepreneurship.
Mayo, an East Harlem native, describes himself as a “die-hard entrepreneur.” Along with founding two companies—Start, Grow, Sustain, and Enigma Canon—which both help other people start their own small businesses, he also teaches classes on the principles of entrepreneurship to immigrants and low-income women. But according to Mayo, none of his success has come without hardship and perseverance.
After graduating from Stevens Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in electrical engineering and general and technology management, he was accepted into University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School, one of the most competitive business schools in the world. Mayo’s enchantment with Wharton quickly turned into disenchantment when he realized the campus was a “tough environment for Blacks.”
“There were people in my class who had never looked at a Black person face-to-face,” Mayo said. “Every perception of you was what they saw on TV.”
His schoolwork soon took the back burner as he focused on laying the foundation for what would later become Enigma Canon, an online consulting company for up-and-coming entertainers and artists, which helped him become one of the first-round winners in a high-profile business plan competition at Wharton. He began pursuing investors, but then came a big blow: He was dismissed from Wharton.
“I didn’t care,” Mayo said. “I didn’t want to study entrepreneurship anymore; I just wanted to do it.”
But “doing” entrepreneurship became difficult when a potential investor in his company, then called Third-Eye Rise, fell through. He began an independent fundraising “road show” where he pitched his idea to the likes of Russell Simmons, Allen Iverson, and Serena and Venus Williams.
“I couldn’t get the first domino to fall, but I stayed at it,” Mayo said.
His success, which came years after working odd jobs as a personal trainer and a body guard, brought him back home to New York. Mayo began working with Lower Manhattan Business Solutions to help others with the “nuts and bolts” of creating their businesses. He co-founded Start, Grow, Sustain, a small business consulting company that allows affordable business planning options for at-risk and low-income communities.
Mayo also realized that his business plan for Third-Eye Rise fit a larger mold—one that could be expanded beyond the realm of entertainers and be applied to any entrepreneur looking to start a business. It was then that Enigma Canon, a business planning company that helps entrepreneurs get advice from other established, high-profile entrepreneurs, was born.
Mayo is now in the process of expanding the company and finding more investors to create the technology. His steadfastness has granted him a lot of opportunities, including a feature in Forbes magazine.
“I just know that I’m not going to give up until either I’m in the ground, I’ve built the technology and realized it isn’t doable or the window [of opportunity] completely closes,” Mayo said.
For Mayo, now 43, this type of perseverance is especially important for Black entrepreneurs, who, he said, rarely get “the benefit of the doubt.”
“The landscape is not level, so you should go in knowing that,” he said. “If it’s between you and someone else, it’s sad to say, but skin color does play a factor. You have to work twice as hard to gain the same amount of ground.”
As he continues to build his business, he also teaches immigrants and women how to use entrepreneurship to their advantage. Through two separate organizations, Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, where he teaches English to immigrants through technology and entrepreneurship, and Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment, where he teaches low-income women how to change their financial situation using the power of entrepreneurship, Mayo emphasizes the importance of developing a small business.
“I believe that entrepreneurship can change someone’s situation,” said Mayo. “It’s an empowering thing.”