Kerry Schrader and Ashlee Ammons aren’t your traditional entrepreneurs. For starters, Kerry has known Ashlee since birth. She’s Ashlee’s mother — and she’s the willing collaborator on a wild idea Ashlee had back in 2014, which was to launch Mixtroz, a platform designed to simplify and improve business networking.
Mixtroz is an app-based technology that uses customizable features and real-time data to optimize the business networking experience. Event hosts can use Mixtroz’s technology to choose a group of questions or icebreakers, or create their own. Then, when attendees answer the questions, the Mixtroz algorithm connects them in a meaningful, authentic way.
By eliminating the all-too-often awkwardness of networking, Kerry and Ashlee are out to improve the way we connect. And aside from blazing through the start-up sphere, this mother-daughter duo has also become a beacon for other women who aspire to launch their own businesses. As two black women in a field traditionally dominated by white men, Kerry and Ashlee are proving that where there is a will, there is a way. And they’re not afraid to fight back and speak out against gender and racial prejudices.
We had a blast chatting with this fearless pair, and we are honored to share a snapshot of their story. Welcome today’s FACES of Birmingham, the ambitious women of Mixtroz!
Where are you all from, and how did you end up in Birmingham?
Ashlee: We’re from Cleveland, Ohio. When we came up with the idea for Mixtroz, I was living in New York City and my mom was in Franklin, Tennessee. I ended up moving from New York to Nashville to continue the business with my mom, but Nashville was just a very difficult market. Being that we’re black, female, non-technical tech founders — and we’re outside of the healthcare and music industries — Nashville didn’t know what to do with us. However, in moving our business 170 miles down the road, everything changed. Birmingham has been an amazing place to really launch and grow our business.
How did you come up with Mixtroz?
Ashlee: I was at a networking event in 2014, and the suggestion was to go up to someone with the same color dot on their nametag as you. I thought it was a really awkward way to go about starting a conversation with someone because it was a women’s conference, and women always wear their nametags on their breast. So you had to go up to someone and look at their breast and say, “Let’s talk about this dot.” I thought it was messy and awkward.
I told my mom about the event, and we thought there had to be a better way. We looked online and saw that nothing was talking about solving the problem in the way that we wanted to, so we came up with Mixtroz in one night, on November 9, 2014. It was a whirlwind.
What’s it like being a mother/daughter-run business?
Kerry: I think I have the best of both worlds. We’re both strong and well-versed in our career paths, but there is something to say about being in business with someone who you’ve known your whole life. Ashlee has tremendous strengths that challenge me and help me to learn every day. Even beyond being her mom and the life lessons I’ve taught her, we’re always learning from one another.
At the end of the day, Mixtroz is a business, so we approach it with a business mindset. And that mother-daughter bond, we know that’s going to survive the test of time.
What’s it like being a female entrepreneur in 2019?
Ashlee: You have to add more layers to that. It’s not just being a female entrepreneur of color, but also a female entrepreneur when half of your team is in the 40+ category. I think we have done an exceedingly good job. I think we were a little timid in the beginning just because we were venturing out [of our previous career paths]. My mom and I were both vastly successful in our careers before Mixtroz. We were crushing it. So, to take a step back from the career that you prepped your whole life for and then to jump into something you don’t really know or understand — it’s scary.
Now, we’ve been through the blood, sweat and tears to build this business. And because of that, we’re very honest. When someone says something we don’t like, we don’t just let it roll or slide off our back. People ask us, “Why didn’t you stay in Nashville?” And we say because it wasn’t inclusive.
We’re very to the point. To be a female entrepreneur today, it’s getting better, but it’s getting better for people who have the means to start a business. We quit our jobs and essentially had no salary for three years. If we didn’t have ourselves set up like that, there would be no way for us to do Mixtroz. So I feel for the person who has a great idea but really can’t start on it because she has life obligations she has to fulfill. When we first started this, we didn’t realize that entrepreneurship is for the elite — but it shouldn’t be.
What’s your best piece of advice to someone who wants to launch their own business?
Ashlee: To a new entrepreneur starting out, I would say, if you hear over and over that because you’re a woman, or because you’re a black woman, or because you’re gay – whatever it is – the best thing you can do for yourself is move elsewhere. Startups need support. They need the community. If you’re in a place that’s not giving you the support to go on this very difficult journey, then the easiest thing you can do is move. The best thing we did for our business was to move to Birmingham – and it took us three years to figure that out. Go figure out where your tribe is.
Kerry: You have to have the confidence that you have every right to be on the road as anyone else. That sounds very easy, but I almost let my swagger be stolen because of what people were saying. Everywhere I go I hear “millennial, millennial.” I’ve actually had people come up to me when I’m traveling with Ashlee to say “Oh, that’s so awesome that you brought your mom out with you.” So I have to really have the confidence that I have the experience and education to be here. Don’t let the world steal your confidence.
Ashlee: I’d also add, if you can get a woman over 40 to co-found something with you, I would highly recommend it. Women in that age group, they had to go through raising a family at a time when the split of work just wasn’t even at all. It was expected that the woman could work, she could come home and do all the family stuff, clean the house. I look at my mom, and she did all that, plus she went back to school and got her Master’s degree while she was working full-time and had a family. All of that combined, it makes her an extraordinary entrepreneur because she was able to juggle so much at once. She continues to iterate and learn.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
Ashlee: I’m really bad at dating. I’m horrible at it. I don’t know if it’s me or the men — but I think it’s the men! Also, I love to box. It’s my happy place. And obviously, I think I take out my frustration from dating while boxing.
Kerry: I had open-heart surgery, and all of my friends across ethnicities helped to supply the blood for my surgery back in ’68. That was awesome. When there was so much civil unrest going on around the world, my neighborhood in Ohio rallied around me. Also, I love to drink red wine.
What’s your favorite book?
Ashlee: I’m a big fan of Brené Brown. When I first moved from New York to Nashville, I had a bout of depression because it was a startling contrast. I felt like I was being knocked down a peg or two in addition to the fact that we were doing this business and people didn’t understand it. It was a lot. I read The Gifts of Imperfection seeking treatment for the depression, and that ended up being something that helped me reset, realign. I’m a big fan of books like that.
Kerry: My favorite book is Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. I had to read it while studying for my Master’s degree. I thought, “What the hell does this have to do with business?” But it ended up having everything to do with business. I refer back to that book a lot. It brings me back to the question of, “What are you doing with your life?”
Describe your perfect Birmingham night.
Ashlee: For me, it would be waking up and taking a spinning class or going boxing. Then, my favorite thing to do is go and walk around a park and then meet up with friends and go out. One of the new restaurants we recently discovered and love is The Rougaroux. We also love Rojo.
Kerry: When I’m here, I love having people come and visit. My husband still lives in Franklin, and I go back and forth. So whenever I tell people about Birmingham, I tell them it’s a hidden gem. I am an ambassador for Birmingham!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Ashlee: Use the skills you have gained personally and professionally to build whatever you want today. Use the skills you have today to get to where you’re going tomorrow.
Kerry: Don’t forget to breathe and live. At the end of this, this too shall pass, and there are a lot of more important things in life. Take a breath.
What are three things you can’t live without, with the exception of faith, family and friends?
Ashlee: The iPhone X with AT&T is amazing. Also, I would say my Mixtroz team. They inspire me. The people we have working on Mixtroz right now are amazing. When we started this business, it was two ladies with the idea to try to solve a problem. We never saw this far forward, so the fact that we have a team of people working on something we care about is extraordinary.
Kerry: Especially our developer. They took an idea and helped us bring it to life. They believed us from the beginning.
Ashlee: Also, when you’re an entrepreneur it’s an all-encompassing thing. So, honestly, social media — just to keep up with what my friends and family are doing — is great. We don’t always have the time to be super diligent about what’s going on in everyone else’s life, so being able to quickly look at Facebook and Instagram to see what people are doing is really important.
Kerry: I’d also have to say my yearly mammogram. I was diagnosed with breast cancer during this crazy time [of launching a business]. Now I get mammograms twice a year, so that’s always in my top three. It’s a priority. Early detection saves.
Thank you so much for sharing with us, Kerry and Ashlee! And thank you to Charity Ponter of Charity Ponter Photography for the amazing photos. If you’re hosting an event with your company or organization and want to learn more about Mixtroz’s non-awkward way to connect attendees, learn more about their product and pricing here.