WHY I STARTED MY COMPANY
By Elise Woappi
I was 10 when I got on a plane two weeks after 9/11, with two suitcases, to immigrate to America from Cameroon, Africa. My parents had won the United States Green Card Lottery, which meant that we were one very lucky family that was permitted to move to the United States with the support of the government. All we had to do was obey the law, respect the country, and commit 6 to 7 years as green card citizens and we would become U.S. citizens.
Our immigration to the states was one of the toughest moments of my life. I remember feeling so helpless and vulnerable as I navigated racism, puberty, and the aftermath of 9/11 as a young immigrant. We moved to a small town in Pennsylvania called Hanover. I have very fond memories of my experience growing up there, the church community that embraced us when we arrived, the African community in surrounding towns that took us under their wings, classmates that were both intrigued and fearful of my culture and background. I also have negative memories of my experience dealing with racism. An experience I first encountered once we moved to the states. Being black in Cameroon isn’t an issue, but being black in America is – at least that’s what I was conditioned to believe. I recall my first time being called the N-word by two white young adult men driving by as I stood outside the Hanover Public Library in 2004, my mother’s first employer in the states. I recall being in history class in middle school as the teacher and students debated my African culture. I recall feeling less than as I tried to make friends and talk to boys in a 99.9% predominantly white town. At that age, I didn’t quite understand just how much my parents had sacrificed to give us the American quality of life. I didn’t understand it until I was 22. Not until I graduated Penn State with a Bachelor of Arts degree and stepped out into the real world with student loans, a poor job market, and a death in the immediate family.
My father passed away when I was 19. To this day, his death has been the biggest emotional trauma I’ve undergone. I think the guilt and frustration of knowing just how much he scarified to provide for his family only to be met by cancer as his death verdict, has been too much to bear at times. If I had to summarize in one sentence what motivated me to build my business, I would simply say, “because I get to live a great life at the sacrifice of my parents’.” Uprooting their lives to a new country, moving to a new location with no financial backing and exposure to racism, all while having to start over completely as immigrants with children, was one of the greatest sacrifices my parents made. I simply want to pay them back, and to do so in a way that not only commemorates my father, but spreads the legacy of my parents’ sacrifice.
My childhood goal wasn’t to become an entrepreneur. I grew up wanting to volunteer, spread joy to the world, and help people. I was never set on one passion; rather, I just wanted to help in any way I could. My first year out of college, I decided to become an AmeriCorps VISTA in San Antonio, Texas. I committed to the program for a year and learned as much as I could about the nonprofit world. After that, I realized that volunteering barely paid the bills and I needed to find a well-paying job. I embarked on a 4-year journey of working at various nonprofits, institutions, and businesses. At each one, I made sure to specialize my skills in development, fundraising, marketing, research, and technology to stay ahead of the curve. Four years into my professional career, I decided that I was seeking something greater.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a hard worker and always exceed expectations. Matter of fact, I was always viewed as an amazing employee and my former bosses and colleagues were devastated to see me go. Truth is, I wanted to build something on my own due to years of watching my parents struggle and work tirelessly to provide for my family. I had this chip on my shoulder to create for myself. To work for myself. To build for myself. For months, I wondered why that chip was so big on my shoulders. Then a year into my last employer, I realized that I wanted to create something tangible to implant in the United States. My family moved to the states with nothing but suitcases and each other. We grew up in this country whose history did not include the Woappi family. My amazing father lived an empowering life but died at 53 and the majority of the American public never got to know him. My wonderful mother has lived and executed such a powerful life, and for the remainder of her time on this earth, I want the world to get to know her.
I launched my business in August 2017 not only to provide value to millions of individuals and businesses around the world, but to create a legacy that embodies the struggle, sacrifices, and hard work of what it means to be a black, female immigrant trying to make it in the United States. This is my story to share, a story that I hope serves as inspiration for underrepresented groups, individuals struggling with sexism, racism, and homophobia. Let my journey empower you and find the strength within to push through.
Thank you to:
Christ Woappi (dad)
Annie-Laure Woappi (mom)
Loic Woappi (brother)
Yvon Woappi (brother)
Anne-Elise Woappi (twin sister)