Get to Know Shani Dowell, The First Black Woman to Raise $1 Million for a Startup in Tennessee

Shani Dowell left her comfortable career seven years ago to pursue a business idea that would eventually help her make history. As a mother, she recognized how parents struggled to provide input about their children’s education with teachers and administrators, preferring to voice those issues in group chats or among themselves whenever they met.

But, as a former teacher, she recognized that removing obstacles to parent-school communication would help to alleviate the majority of these concerns. That is how she came up with the name Possip, which means “positive gossip.”

“I realized that parents don’t have an easy way to share their concerns—or praise—and schools don’t have an easy way to collect and analyze parent feedback,” Dowell said in an interview with “I also saw that families with out-of-district addresses or diverse educational experiences, financial position, languages, and ethnicities encountered significantly more challenges to getting their voices heard within the school’s walls.

“I wanted to build a positive bridge between parents and schools that was founded on trust, learning, feedback, and transparency because, at the end of the day, parents need to be heard, regardless of the barriers that may stand in the way.”

The startup, to which schools subscribe on an annual basis, facilitates effective communication between parents and schools by using text messages to collect fast surveys and replies from parents regarding their children’s or teachers’ interactions, bullying, or instances of racism in schools or on buses.

Dowell experienced racism while in high school. She told The Tennessean that she won a debate contest at Lamar High School in Houston, but the debate teacher chastised her white teammates for poor performance instead of thanking her.

She also described how a white classmate told her her father was “handsome for a Black man.” Another time, her homeroom teacher was surprised to learn that Dowell took honors classes.

“It was in some ways super magical,” Dowell recalled of her prejudiced experience at school. “But some teachers didn’t expect much from (Black students), and some white teachers had some disdain for us.”

Dowell went on to Howard University in Washington, D.C., then business school in California before joining the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which The Tennessean describes as college prep programs in low-income neighborhoods.

Dowell married, relocated to Nashville, and began working for various education and teacher recruitment organizations. That’s when she realized how a lack of communication between parents and instructors may lead to heated arguments.So the Nashville innovator founded Possip in 2017 to help parents and teachers communicate more efficiently.

She began by sending text messages to parents at her children’s schools, with survey URLs. She then cut and pasted the reports she received for administrators, and as a result, many school administrators were able to quickly identify some of the concerns of parents, such as academic issues, racism, bullying, or, on the bright side, teachers who are performing admirably in the classroom.

Dowell then approached officials whether they were willing to pay for her services. Many responded positively, and school districts quickly began paying an average of $2-5 per kid for 40 weeks of surveys.

Possip expanded to over 400 schools in 19 states within two years of its inception, but finding investors was difficult at the time.

According to data, even though Black women are the fastest-growing group of female entrepreneurs in the United States, they receive little attention from startup investors.

“When I originally would go out and pitch Possip to people, especially to typically wealthier men, they sometimes didn’t understand the problem, and part of why they potentially didn’t see the problem is because they may not have ever had the experience of not feeling entitled and empowered to share their voice or share their opinions,” Dowell went on to say.

“Some investors in the education technology space had a jarring disconnect from what was happening at schools and what parents might actually need,” she went on to say.

Dowell finally found an institutional investor, and in 2019, she became Tennessee’s first African-American woman to raise over a million dollars for a company.

“It’s not ideal that I’m the first or that we’re even counting, but it’s important to highlight so that other folks know it’s possible,” Dowell told reporters at the time.

Four years after making history, Possip currently serves more than 1,300 organizations.

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