“I’ve always wanted to create something that was disruptive. I think that technology is going to disrupt every single sector. Either you’re going to be a disruptor or be disrupted. For me, it was an opportunity to enter the technology space.”
Louisiana-based Sevetri Wilson spent most of her career in the non-profit space, but stepped into entrepreneurship in 2009 to disrupt a market that often rejects innovation.
Her first business, Solid Ground Innovations, is a strategic communications firm that helps non-profits, private foundations, and other businesses grow their marketing and branding presence. One service they offered was helping their clients incorporate correctly, and remain compliant as laws changed.
However, as that business grew, Wilson saw a gap in the services provided to smaller non-profits. “Because we are a professional service company, we couldn’t really service the smallest non-profits, who were our clients and coming to us to incorporate,” says Wilson. She battled between phasing out the service or if she should pursue a new way to reduce the crutches her clients were facing.
Her hustle won out. Wilson took a cue from quick-service sites like Turbo Tax to create a platform that can reduce non-profit incorporation from an average of 101 hours, according to the IRS, down to 10 hours or less.
ExemptMeNow was born. “In many ways, I had already created an MVP since I had serviced these clients before — I knew their battles and their pains,” says Wilson.
Launched a year ago this month, ExemptMeNow has two main products — a solution to help non-profits become incorporated as a 501c(3) and a compliance product that has the essential tools for an organization to stay compliant and manage their staff.
ExemptMeNow is in the growth stage, and Wilson has had to take a step back from her other business and prioritize being hands-on during such a crucial time for the company. She says that many of her colleagues asked why she would step back from a highly successful business to build another one.
“The non-profit sector is very technology averse, when it shouldn’t be. This was the right time and opportunity to put my best foot forward,” says Wilson.
To help often-understaffed non-profits, the platform alerts them to any compliance changes — on a local and federal level — as well as help manage policies and documents for staff. The SaaS model serves customers in a subscription model with options for a DIY or white glove service.
Before the end of the year, the startup will be releasing an enterprise model for private foundations, corporations, and cities, and an improved second version of the platform, with a premium service that pairs up the non-profit with a customer success agent.
“We’re building something to educate individuals that work in the non-profit sector, but also give them the tools and documents that they may not have known about,” says Wilson. “We’ve seen non-profits fall out of compliance because they just didn’t know. Many times accountants or attorneys don’t know the particular language or law for non-profits as they may be doing it pro-bono or it’s not their expertise.”
Wilson doesn’t shy away from the challenges of being a minority woman founder in the Southeast. Studies show that women of color entrepreneurs, despite growing over 1.5 million businesses, receive less than 1 percent of funding. So far, Wilson has raised nearly $500K in investment and is currently seeking to raise a $1 million seed round. She attributes her current funding to her establishing credibility in her previous business.
But, she still had to go outside the Southeast to get investors’ attention.
“The challenges for me have primarily been, I’m considered a double minority, black and a woman, and raising money in Louisiana,” says Wilson. “I don’t think I would’ve been able to raise our pre-seed money if I didn’t have a previous track record.”
“Raising money in the South, in general, for technology is difficult since people invest in things that are tangible to them. Technology is a bit of a harder sell. Many people have said if you leave Louisiana, you would’ve raised this money already. Now that we have begun venturing out of the South, we’ve had more success and feedback. Even with my track record, I still feel like I’m catching up before I even start when I walk into meetings.”
As far as leadership lessons, Wilson shares that entrepreneurs, including herself, are often perfectionists and sometimes letting go is the best option. “Someone told me to just launch the product,” after spending months perfecting the platform, says Wilson. “Upon launching, we learned that we gain so much more now from customer feedback that we could use to improve the product. If I did it again, I would’ve launched earlier.”
Final words of wisdom: “Don’t be scared to raise money. Women founders often don’t want to burden others and ask for help. We can do better on this,” says Wilson. “It all stems from how minorities are treated by investors. Is your idea good enough to ask for money?” She says, if the answer is yes, go for it.