Charmaine’s Story: Championing Diversity in VC

By Rahmon Agbaje and Maatin Adewunmi

2020 was a rollercoaster. After a year which taught us all many valuable lessons, Extend VC celebrates the start of 2021 by highlighting one of the most successful black women in the business and entertainment community: Charmaine Hayden.

We uncover her story and how her unwavering passion and hustler mentality enabled her to break into the VC industry from the world of media and entertainment. We explore what makes her tick and how she successfully transitioned from the music industry to building her own fund backing the most exciting diverse founders from the continent of Africa and beyond.

Starting young

Always curious, Charmaine’s first entrepreneurial venture came at the age of 15. She recalls going to Wembley Market in search of a job to fund her love of trainers, though when her friends saw her there they told her it was uncool to be working at the market.

But she soon spotted an opportunity. The person she worked for was selling chestnuts and asked her to go to his supplier. Out of curiosity, she asked the supplier about the best prices for the chestnuts, then hustled her way around the market asking other chestnut sellers the same question. She eventually persuaded them to pay her £50 to be their main chestnut supplier as she could ensure better prices for them. For a good two years, she became the supplier for all the sellers in the market. “That hunger developed and I said to myself ‘I need to taste more of this’,” she recalls. 

Other ventures followed, including a company she started with her friends that supplied shot girls for clubs, which she recalls with a cheeky smile. It was all a balancing act for Charmaine. Like many black founders, her family steered her towards the security of education and the familiarity of corporate life. Having studied a law degree because “it sounded like the right thing to do at the time,” Charmaine was faced with some tough decisions before she took the next step. 

The degree made her mum proud, but it put a lot of pressure on her as she knew deep down that she had more to give the world than what the standard corporate law route could offer. The seeds of business that were sown back when she was 15 had grown and developed into a passion for entrepreneurship. 

However, she essentially had to learn as she built since she had no one around her that could teach her about the fundamental principles of business: “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. “I was freestyling, I didn’t know what investment really meant. I was just starting something I thought was great that could change the world.” 

Looking back, Charmaine admits she could have achieved more faster with the right network. However, the route she took was part of her journey. “When we look at startups we always think of overnight success but that is often not the case,” she says. “Early on in my journey, there was a lot of chasing of my tails.”

Champion for diversity

Like many of Charmaine’s key moments, her most notable entrepreneurial success started spontaneously as she began helping her friend source models for a music video. She quickly saw a gap in the market and an opportunity to place more diverse talent in music videos. This led her to launch Face4Music, a modelling agency dedicated to the UK music and entertainment scene, providing models who represent their audience but are rarely seen on shoots. “The more I worked in the industry, the more I realised there were not enough people who looked like me in TV or in music videos, so I thought maybe I can do something,” she says.

Whilst balancing multiple jobs to pursue this venture, Charmaine still remained hands on with the business, making the time to be on set and to develop the right revenue model. This was particularly challenging because it was before the injection of capital into the UK urban scene that we know today for its high-budget videos and flashy lifestyles. “At the time, they didn’t know who Tinie Tempah was, they didn’t know who Wretch 32 was,” she says.

She built a strong network with the biggest artists and managers in the UK music scene and these early relationships would come to benefit her in the long term. She became the go-to investor for many of these artists later on in their careers as the UK music scene became more lucrative and the artists gained mainstream success.

However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Faced with moral dilemmas about the representation and sexualisation of women in some of these videos, Charmaine reflected about the messaging of her brand. She also had to deal with a lot of backlash within her own community because of the women she selected as models, who were not like the standard faces people were used to seeing on television. On the other hand, she faced resistance from the big beauty brands who at the time only wanted conventional white models rather than women from diverse backgrounds.

Undeterred, Charmaine expanded her services towards serving commercial clients and cites a campaign helping a signature beauty brand with their diversity campaign as a turning point for the business. Confident as ever, she approached them and said: “I’m a black woman and I buy your products. How about you focus on a more diverse group of people - people that are curvier, people who are from ethnically diverse backgrounds, not only because it's the right thing to do but because your customer acquisition costs will be lower, your customer loyalty will be incredible and in turn you will improve your bottom line.”  She went back and forth with the client for nearly two years but eventually they listened and it paid off - they’re known for their diverse and inclusive beauty campaigns and have seen their profits increase significantly over the last decade.

This success led to an inflow of commercial work in the beauty space for Charmaine’s agency and proved the importance of her mission statement around diversity in the beauty and media industries. 

Good soil - going where the grass is greener

Another key pillar to Charmaine’s work is black ownership and generational wealth. Having been through the toils of growing a successful business, Charmaine plunged headfirst into the investing space, learning some valuable, and sometimes expensive, lessons along the way.

She teamed up with her friends and fellow entrepreneurs Ashley Thompson-MacCarthy, Richard Mensah and Orla Enright, who had themselves built good companies and saw an opportunity to invest in the black community, where many lack access to capital to start their own businesses and build generational wealth.

They started off with two investments which proved to be unsuccessful. “We got the hard and fast lesson of losing money. We didn’t come from an investment background but we had skin the game and were able to learn. If you can lose as a team you can certainly win as a team but not necessarily the other way round,” Charmaine reflects.

The team made two more investments, “which went a lot better” and after that Charmaine started to look at the VC landscape, speaking to different fund managers to learn more about how she could disrupt the space.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’ve seen this before - this is my beauty campaign all over again’,” she says, referring to the ‘mirroring’ she observed in the VC world where investors tend to invest in entrepreneurs who are from the same background as them, limiting access to funding for diverse founders.

With this problem in mind, GOODsoil was born. “Where they see weeds, we plant seeds,” she says, explaining the inspiration for the name. Her new fund focuses on investing and supporting diverse founders and startups which target the UK and sub-Saharan African markets.  

After a year and a half of fundraising, they have closed £12m worth of funds and have a target of £50m. Meanwhile, they continue to deploy capital in order to show more traction and growth to attract the right LPs. 

Mother Africa

Having spent a lot of time in Ghana, it’s clear that Charmaine is pretty bullish on Africa.  Her eyes light up any time she talks about the continent: “There is so much unturned ground, it's crazy,” she says. “Africa is really ripe. A lot of people are looking at it as an emerging market but it’s a frontier market. I think the size of the market, the growing middle class, the growing workforce shows there is very fertile ground. There is so much potential.” 

She talks about the tenacity of African founders. “They are very hard working, skilled and are building genuine products for genuine needs, which is something that gets lost in the West because we are so used to building for the sake of it,” she says. She also highlights the social impact of many of the startups being built on the continent and how the sheer size of the population means any successful product built for the continent is going to change a lot of lives.

‘Black women are like Bitcoin’

Towards the end of our conversation, Charmaine opened up about her mission and the key lessons she learnt from the state of play in the world and her experiences. She wants people to understand that entrepreneurship is a lot more accessible than it seems, especially in the information age. While there are a lot of hurdles for minority business owners, what helps make the change is representation in these spaces and positive success stories which inspire the next generation to flip the status quo. “I want to change the world and in order to make people believe they can change the world I have to show by doing it,” she says.

We discussed her being a role model to many black women as a double minority in the VC space. The statistics right now are bleak - according to an Extend Ventures report, black women founders received only 0.02% of all venture capital funding in the past decade - but Charmaine notes the increasing awareness in the black community of the value of ownership and is optimistic about the potential of overlooked founders. “Black women are like Bitcoin - the price is only going up,” she says.

Ultimately, Charmaine’s journey has been one of fearlessness and seeing opportunities where others may not. As she continues to champion diversity and entrepreneurship in the black community, we are excited to see where her ventures take her.

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Read our latest report, Diversity Beyond Gender.