Success stories can seem just as fantastical as the fairy tales you (may have) loved growing up: Bold career woman finds herself in the right place at the right time, and poof, her fairy godmother mentor snaps her fingers, transforming our hero into an overnight success who brings home a seven-figure salary, jet-sets around the world spreading her you-can-have-it-all gospel, all while looking awesome and Instagramming the whole thing. Umm…really? Why do we so rarely hear the other side of the story — the false starts, the waves of doubt, the failures, and the fuck-ups? Those late-night worries and, occasionally, breakthroughs that are so relatable to the rest of us?
Welcome to Self-Made, Refinery29’s column spotlighting the real stories that fueled success — the wins, the fails, and the curveballs — proving there’s no one path to getting what you want.
Jean Brownhill is the CEO and founder of Sweeten, a free service for people who are looking for reliable contractors for their home renovation projects. She launched the company in 2011, and the concept earned her the prestigious Loeb Fellowship from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. While at Harvard, Brownhill founded the African American Student Union (AASU) to support African Americans in architecture. In the eight years since founding Sweeten, the company has managed more than $1 billion in construction projects. Brownhill is one of just 26 Black women to raise over a $1 million in venture capital and was named one of the most innovative women in business by Inc Magazine.
Refinery29 talked to Brownhill about the inspiration for Sweeten, the importance of hard work, and what she’s generally doing most nights at midnight.
Refinery29: What inspired you to launch Sweeten?
Jean Brownhill: I felt passionately that people who’ve worked hard to save up for a house should have a good experience renovating that space into their home. It was a pretty simple idea that was sparked by my own bad choice of a contractor for my remodel. I’d graduated from Cooper Union with a degree in architecture, worked in the field for years, and even with that training, made this common mistake and ended up having a terrible experience. Every day and on every project, the entire Sweeten team and I are committed to making the process of renovating clearer, easier, and more enjoyable, for both our homeowners and general contractors.
What do you think the definition of self-made is, as it pertains to you?
I’ve recently started a gratitude practice…the idea of saying I’m “self-made” feels like it goes against the very notion of appreciating the incredible work of others who’ve come before us. So while I don’t exactly feel like I’m “self-made,” however, I’ve worked extremely hard to get here. I got my first job at the age of 13 washing dishes at the Bayou BBQ & Grill in my hometown. As I remember it, there wasn’t hot water and there was a seemingly endless pile of dirty pots, especially on Saturday nights. I’ve pretty much had a job (or several jobs) ever since. When I first launched Sweeten, I was regularly putting in 15-hour days. I know how to work hard, but I also know that it takes more than just that, so I’m also grateful.
What quality do you think you possess that’s made you a good candidate for self-making your destiny?
I was raised in a community of love and strength; yes, there were plenty of hardships and flaws, but hard work and education were deeply valued. I was “made solid” by my upbringing; it gave me the fortitude to not give up. I’ve tried to instill that spirit into the team at Sweeten. We launched in 2011 and at this point have seen thousands of renovations, learning the entire way. Fortitude, love, and grit are baked into our DNA as a company.
Tell us a lesson you keep trying to learn, that you hope to master at some point?
At least once a year, I buy an African violet and have never been able to keep it alive very long. In general, I have a green thumb; my home and office are filled with plants, most of which I’ve grown from seed or cuttings from friends’ plants. But for some reason, I can’t figure out African violets. I’m sure I just need to spend some time on YouTube…there has to be someone who’s figured them out!
You are one of just 26 Black women to receive over $1 million in funding. I read that you were reluctant to even go the venture capital route and spent many years bootstrapping your business before you raised your first round. What made you change your mind?
I recently read this from Harvard Business Review: “Black women’s business ownership is the fastest growing among all women, yet women of color rarely receive any VC funding; a mere 0.2% of VC funding in 2015 went to firms founded by women of color.”
When I founded Sweeten, I didn’t know these facts but had a sense we were getting left out of the new economy as thought leaders. We were there, but only as labor — same as the old economy. So I felt compelled to swing for the fences and grow a company in a huge market that would hopefully impact millions of people at scale. At first, it was slow going, but since 2017 we’ve hit our stride. We’re growing quickly in NYC and Philadelphia metros and launching in L.A., Chicago, and Miami this summer.
Being self-made means committing to self-care, too. How do you fuel and refresh yourself when shit really starts to get hard?
Yoga, acupuncture, meditation. I work out with a trainer three days a week and try to eat healthily. But when I really want to relax, I’ll book a room at Higher Dose and sweat it all out.
You’re using technology to bring more transparency to the construction industry, an incredibly male-dominated industry. What advice would you give to other young women who want to build careers in construction and/or technology, but might be intimidated to be the only woman in the room?
Okay, this is super tactical, but it’s worked for me: I’ve learned over the years it’s better to simply acknowledge it right away. I tend to use humor, so I’ll make a joke about being the only woman there. Use whatever works for you, but name it. Then I quickly follow it up with examples of my expertise and why I deserve to be in that room. This has helped me raise millions of dollars for Sweeten, most of which has come from male investors.
What’s your Self-Made Mantra for other women, no matter where they are in the process?
A plaque on my desk says “What would Beyoncé do?” I look at it every day. I also just watched Homecoming, and I’m obsessed. Her dedication to excellence should be an inspiration to everyone.
How have your experiences as a woman of color impacted the way you’re building your business?
I think it’s just second nature for me to be inclusive. From the beginning, there’s been a certain openness about Sweeten, from who we hire and the general contractors in our network to the broad range of “real-life reno” stories we share from homeowners. The definition of family means different things to different people, and I’m proud of the diversity we’ve reflected on our blog.
What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received?
Anyone who ever told me that I should be like someone else. It’s a fool’s errand to try and be anyone other than the best version of yourself. There are so few things that have a 100 percent failure rate, and being someone else is one of them.
What are you generally doing at midnight?
Hopefully sleeping! I get up at 5:30 a.m.
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