Medium's Authority Magazine Features Vontélle

Medium's Authority Magazine Features Vontélle

As a part of our series about Women Founders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Tracy Vontélle Green and Nancey Flowers-Harris, Vontélle Eyewear.

Ms. Tracy Vontélle Green is the CEO and in charge of the overall designs, finance, and direction of the company. Ms. Green has amassed a strong professional career which has developed her leadership skills, business, and financial acumen. She has been involved in funding procurements as a Budget Analyst for the New York City Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget; wrote grants for the New York City Department of Health; managed financial mergers as a Consultant for Accenture; oversaw the NYC public assistance budget of $6.1 billion as the Deputy Commissioner at Human Resources Administration; worked at Harlem and Bellevue Hospitals in key financial positions before becoming the Chief Financial Officer to the Department of Education School of Support Services and at Health + Hospitals Corporation- Metropolitan Hospital Center and One Brooklyn Health System — Interfaith Hospital Center.

Ms. Nancey Flowers-Harris is the COO with a focus on operations including marketing and the design of the products. Ms. Harris is a highly experienced senior executive who has worked at International companies such as Viacom (MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon), as a Sales Executive, and at Black Enterprise as the Multi-Media Sales Director. With a strong history of revenue generation, sales management, cross platform product marketing and in program integration, she moved to (BET) Black Entertainment Television as a Senior Sales Executive where she grew her portfolio of advertising clients from $13 million to $28 million in 3 years. She is an excellent communicator who drives strategic initiatives through to completion.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Tracy lost a pair of glasses and was frustrated with the options — not only did they all look the same, but they were tight on her face. She called her best friend Nancey who she met in college at Morgan State University to complain. Nancey too had lost a pair and wanted glasses that had patterns and designs. The concept for Vontélle was born out of a need of both founders, who each lost their expensive eyewear within the same year and decided to focus their efforts on making their next purchases from a Black- owned brand. After searching high and low for glasses that were stylish, better fitting, and had an ethnic flair, they realized it simply did not exist. That is when Tracy suggested we start our own line and Nancey
booked our fate determining trip to Paris. Due to their loss, the company offers unique protection for consumers by providing a one-year/one-time replacement warranty from date of purchase if your eyewear
is lost, stolen, damaged, or broken.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Being on the Kelly Clarkson Show and gifted a full expense paid trip to Abu Dhabi where we got to meet Mika Brzezinski, Billy Jean King, Misty Copeland, Aisha Curry, Hilary Rodman Clinton and so many wonderful women of entrepreneurs on the Forbes 30/50 list. The Forbes Under 30 and 50 Over 50 lists stand as two of the world's most important honors — one for young entrepreneurs and leaders and another highlighting how, for women, experience, wisdom and leadership can flourish later in life.

We got an email, I [Tracy] thought it was a joke, so I immediately called Nancey and told her the Kelly Clarkson show was interested in us. I responded to the email with my phone number, and we received a
call in 15 minutes. In 3 days, we were flying to California to appear on the show. Once there, they prepped us and shared that Mika Brzezinski would participate via SKYPE. We still didn’t have a clue until the show, and they announced we were going to the Forbes 30/50 Summit. If you watch the clip, you can see how surprised we were — mouths wide open. Best surprise ever and the show brought a lot of acknowledgment and sales for our brand as Kelly Clarkson had us return to talk about our experience –we were on the show 2 times. We couldn’t plan that if we tried. Amazing!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There is no such thing as a soft or big launch. Once your site is up, if you post about your product, it is available for the world to see. Funny story, we had one college friend who ordered and paid for a pair of optical glasses (August 2020) before the website was technically up — as we were working on it- she saw our posts and just figured out the URL (we had not sent it out yet).

We were super excited, but the eyewear had not been delivered. We launched 37 designs. Our goal was to launch pre-orders in October 2020 and then mail to the customers in December. So, when she ordered in August, she had months to wait. But since she was our 1 st customer, we gave her an additional pair of sunglasses.

Two Lessons:

1. Consumers do not read! Although we had the word “PRE-ORDER” in the largest font possible, once the site is up, and the customer purchases, they will email you constantly about their order(s).

2. In hindsight, we would not open with so many designs. We should have started with 5–10 eyewear styles maximum — we did 37 eyewear designs — which prolonged the launch.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are many people who have helped us in our 4 years of business. We have joined accelerators, women focused programs and bank programs who have all assisted in our company’s growth. Early on, we met a phenomenal mentor whose company has 75 years in the eyewear industry. His father started it and he is now at the helm as CEO. This mentorship with David Friedfeld of ClearVision Optical is priceless. We meet monthly and he assists us with resources, distribution and the structure of our business. It’s a learning lesson and a guidance all in one. He has introduced us to power players and because of him and his family (brother & sister) Peter Friedfeld & Liz Friedfeld, we have a partnership with National Vision, Inc. parent company of America’s Best stores. Official by Vontélle collection will launch in February 2024 and will be available in 900 stores nationwide.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Capital, Distribution/Opportunity, Resources. You need all 3 to be successful. Capital is the lifeblood of any business. It’s essential for product development, manufacturing, marketing, and day-to-day operations. Lack of capital can indeed hinder growth and scalability, making it challenging for businesses to invest in expansion opportunities or weather economic downturns. Most importantly, you need distribution. Distribution channels play a crucial role in reaching customers. Limited access to major
retailers can pose a significant challenge, especially when a few key players dominate the eyewear market. As a result, independent brands like Vontélle are not able to work with such retailers as Macy’s or Target. While direct-to-consumer models offer control and direct access to customers, having multiple distribution channels is a strategic move. It reduces dependence on any single channel and enhances market reach. Lastly, resources are important. Many women founded companies lack the resources (staffing, bankers, line of credit, warehouse, sourcing, legal, accounting, etc.) to keep up with supply and demand. These are crucial to build and expand a business.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

Establish funding programs specifically aimed at supporting women entrepreneurs, providing grants, loans, and venture capital. Implement set-asides or quotas for government contracts to ensure a fair share of opportunities for women-founded businesses. Ensure transparency in the allocation of resources and opportunities to prevent biases and promote fair competition. And ensure transparency in the allocation of resources and opportunities to prevent biases and promote fair competition. There are many government needs or contracts that will benefit from female founded businesses. For example, early on Vontelle wanted to create eyewear for the Peace Corp, Army etc. To get these contracts the application process is onerous. So, the contract gets recycled to the same pool of people.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Women are steadfast, tenacious and adaptable — it’s the mother gene. Collaboration and empathy skills help women to be better teammates and stronger leaders. Women should become founders because we aren’t strangers to unfair pay, double standards, or other obstacles. As a result, women often have higher levels of perseverance and a stronger desire to succeed. In addition, female founders are often more in touch with their customers which allows them to better understand the needs of their target market and develop products and services that better meet those needs. Thus, propelling their businesses to make more money in half the time as their male counterparts.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

The only myth is work — life balance. There’s a myth that when you are a founder or entrepreneur you have more time and can schedule your work life balance. In today’s world with all the technological
advancements, no matter what type of work you do, it’s difficult to have a real work- life balance.
Founders always tend to have a phone (computer) attached to them at all times to check emails etc.

You feel guilty when you are working long hours — as you need to get your business to the next level. Oftentimes, especially at the onset of starting your business you are wearing multiple hats in the business (CEO, COO, Accounting, Marketing, customer service, etc.). And when you are at home with family, you are thinking about work, what you forgot to do or a great idea that you need to bring up the next day. There’s no work– life balance. The goal is to do your best and ensure you are present in both situations — give work your all. When with your family, give them your all. It will not be 50/50, it may be 70/30, but that’s okay when you are building a company.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

I read somewhere that you need 7 traits (below) to be a successful founder, most importantly you must be a risk taker. You can have a regular job and have these traits — Tracy had them as CFO (Chief Financial Officer), and Nancey as a Sales Executive — and they both excelled as employees and now as founders. It all boils down to what the individual wants out of their career. It’s up to the person and it’s ok for those people who want a job and are happy to clock out at 5pm — different personalities. We need to respect every person at every level. We saw who the essential workers were during COVID — it was the employees with the regular job.

Emotional Intelligence. Women entrepreneurs frequently come equipped with a significant amount of innate emotional intelligence.


Continuous Learning.

Visionary Thinking.


Decision-Making Ability.

Networking Skills.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

1. Creating and building a website was more encompassing than we thought.

We did not have coding experience, so we are thankful for our wonderful Website/Graphic Designer Kelsey. On October 1, 2020, at midnight we called a few close friends to visit the site and provide us with feedback. It was an effective way to see if the site was working, had grammatical errors, functioned properly, etc. After spending so much time with the site, it became impossible to see the little errors. And understand the customer experience — how they purchase. We needed a focus group.

2. Set aside a budget for both Marketing and Advertising.

Since we launched during the pandemic and we bootstrapped the company, lack of money was an issue. Therefore, we did not have additional funds to put towards marketing or advertising. We used word-of-
mouth, social media — Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter to build awareness. About six months after we began to see revenue flow, we began a marketing campaign, which entailed running commercial spots and placing ads on social platforms. We needed to have a budget early on…we used most our money to make the eyewear.

3. Online followers or celebrities do not necessarily lead to sales.

As we began to receive press, and celebrities wearing the eyewear we saw an increase in followers on our social media channels, however we didn’t’ see the same level in sales. We realized we had to capture emails and improve engagement with the customers to increase sales.

4. You need multiple streams of income and visibility for your business.

While our goal was to only sell direct to consumers from our website, we adjusted and started selling to Opticians/Optometrists (Business to business) creating brand awareness and people are able to touch and
feel the product. This pivot has provided a steady income for us, and we are now selling to optical stores in major cities across the U.S., and the Caribbean. We also sell to retailers like Sak Fifth Avenue and our
children’s Nickelodeon collections on Amazon and Walmart.

5. As a startup, you work around the clock.

In 2020 alone (compounded with the pandemic), one of us was diagnosed with a rare form of diabetes and the other had a fire at her home and had to relocate. Throughout it all, we continued to work, taking calls and responding to emails. In setting boundaries, we agreed that we will try to take off on Sundays. That just means we do not call our team; we only call each other. Our determination to push through, our vision and mission was bigger than both of us.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Vontélle Eyewear handcrafted designs are for diverse faces. Our research concluded that many of us are wearing ill-fitting glasses. Vontélle wider bridges for your nose, longer temples for no pain behind the ears and larger lenses for high cheekbones will fit comfortably on your face. Eyewear is not only an extension of your wardrobe, but a necessary medical device. Vontélle understands that eyewear is essential and realizes the importance of quality, thus wants to help with eye health disparities.

The National Institute of Health’s National Eye Institute report that, African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to have cataracts, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy than any other ethnic group. Befittingly, the Co-Founders have partnered with WIN (Women in Need), the largest provider of homeless shelters and supportive housing in New York City. The eyewear company has partnered with local optometrists to offer free eye exams, vision companies and foundations to provide free eyeglasses and pay for the prescription lenses. As we grow, we want to expand to other US cities.

Think about this: In 2021, the global eyewear market was valued at approximately $150 billion and estimated to grow to $200 billion by 2027. Yet there are less than a handful of Black eyewear makers.

According to the Vision Council, 164 million American adults wear glasses, and 218 million Americans wear non-prescription sunglasses (to block sunrays). Vontélle is poised to make their mark as there are a lot of consumers looking for eyewear.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

There are a few movements we care about:

1. Homelessness is a big issue — housing needs to be more affordable. And affordable doesn’t mean old or dilapidated. It should be just as nice and safe as a place you or I would want to reside.

2. Education — everyone should be allowed to have the same resources and option to attend an ivy league, HBCU and/or a public college if they are qualified. Money should not be a deterrent. There should be an option to go to college for free — a public college option.

3. Healthcare is a basic human right. Yet so many people still don’t have coverage; including affordable eyewear prescription coverage. Millions of Americans still lack coverage due to the rising health care costs. It wouldn’t hurt us to adopt the method of what our neighbors are doing in Canada to cover everyone equally.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

MacKenzie Scott with her ex-husband Jeff Bezos took an idea from their garage to create an online marketplace for books to a multi-billion-dollar company that sells everything via an online store — Amazon. Mrs. Scott has donated millions to HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) including our alma mater Morgan State University. To meet her and understand their process, what they did at each stage, and the expansion dos and don’ts would be remarkable.

Chris Paul — One of the greatest basketball players of his generation is doing phenomenal work by supporting HBCUs, Black designers and fighting for Social Justice. Both founders are products of HBCUs and would love to have the ability to collaborate with him and his platform in the near future.

Serena Williams is a living legend and icon. She is also a fashion and jewelry designer. Her commitment to help entrepreneurs has been impactful. It would be an honor to collaborate with Ms. Williams.

Oprah Winfrey is a businesswoman, entrepreneur, and a Black woman that knows the obstacles and steps to getting a seat at the table. Ms. Winfrey has made careers for so many and her greenlight on your product can drastically increase your revenues and build your brand.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

About the Interviewer: Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA was born nearly blind, crippled with club feet, partially deaf, and left-handed. He overcame all of these obstacles to become a successful civil trial lawyer. In 2000, he abandoned his law practice to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts. Doug teaches his innovative de-escalation skill that calms any angry person in 90 seconds or less. With Laurel Kaufer, Doug founded Prison of Peace in 2009. The Prison of Peace project trains life and long terms incarcerated people to be powerful peacemakers and mediators. He has been deeply moved by inmates who have learned and applied deep, empathic listening skills, leadership skills, and problem-solving skills to reduce violence in their prison communities. Their dedication to learning, improving, and serving their communities motivates him to expand the principles of Prison of Peace so that every human wanting to learn the skills of peace may do so. Doug’s awards include California Lawyer Magazine Lawyer of the Year, Best Lawyers in America Lawyer of the Year, Purpose Prize Fellow, International Academy of Mediators Syd Leezak Award of Excellence, National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals Neutral of the Year. His four books have won a number of awards and commendations. Doug’s podcast, Listen With Leaders, is now accepting guests. Click on this link to learn more and apply.

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