The Authenticity Asset: An Interview With Entrepreneur Tonya Rapley
This is part of a series of career profiles I’m writing on black women in leadership in honor of Black History Month.
Tonya Rapley was born into a military family: the child of two career Air Force service members. But from a young age, she knew that rigid hierarchies weren’t for her. When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Rapley knew she strived to someday be her own boss, but didn’t quite know how to articulate it (perhaps because she didn’t know anyone in her family who’d ever done such a thing).
That dream became even harder to hold onto when in college, Rapley found herself stuck in a toxic relationship with a partner who was psychologically, physically and financially abusive. Like so many women leaders I know (myself included), escaping such a relationship was both the most difficult and most empowering act of Rapley’s life.
I sat down with Tonya to learn about her inspiring path to success with My Fab Finance, her award-winning site that serves up financial advice for modern millennial women.
Emilie Aries: So first, tell us why you focused on financial wellness for women?
Tonya Rapley: Well, when I finally left that abusive relationship I was in, I found out my ex had swiped my debit card and withdrawn cash from my account. And then lied to me about it. For me, that was the final straw. But when I left, I had no savings to speak of, and thought that healing myself meant not worrying about how much I was spending. Needless to say: I started out as my own first student.
Aries: Scary stuff. So how did you start improving your own financial stability?
Rapley: I made my financial well-being my focus, and it became an obsession. But as I started reading and seeking out more resources, the leaders of the financial industry weren’t exactly speaking to me. They were predominantly white, predominantly male, and didn’t seem to understand the impact that graduating from college into the Great Recession had on our Millennial mindset when it came to money.
I was laid off from my first two “real jobs” out of college. I ended up patching together part-time opportunities here and there to make ends meet. But as a result, I lost my trust and faith in the traditional job market and I saw that same pattern play out for many of my peers. Studies have found that millennials have little trust in the traditional public institutions our parents considered a given. Instead, we realized we had to create our own path to prosperity and stability in an economy where the only constant is change.
Aries: You weren’t finding financial guidance available in navigating this changing economic terrain?
Tonya: Precisely. But more than that — I didn’t see many financial educators who looked like me. My friends and I — we were fabulous black young women with professional jobs, living it up in New York City without a dollar in savings. The financial advisors I saw didn’t seem to share our values. For one, a lot of them lived in rural or suburban areas where the cost of living was lower than NYC, but I didn’t want to have to move to the ‘burbs to become financially free.
I also felt like no one was tackling how culture, policy, and race all shape the African American financial experience, including our economic and employment opportunities. I didn’t see financial education presented through a social justice lens, and I felt that was doing my community a disservice. I thought there had to be another way.
Aries: Right on. But why New York? Aren’t there cheaper places to get your financial life together?
Rapley: For sure — but why does anyone come to New York? To chase a dream! I never want to shame people to seeking out all the opportunities that exist in the big cities, even though the cost of living is so high. I came to pursue a career in the music industry. I was sure my indie music blog was about to be the next big thing, but it turned into a money pit. I poured endless time and energy in, but never monetized it. In the meantime, my day job was serving as a digital media manager for Six Flags, before they came out of bankruptcy and let me go in a wave of layoffs.
I was still figuring things out when I landed a position at the YWCA of Brooklyn. It was there I had a major wake-up call. I worked both with women who had financially prepared for their future, and many who hadn’t. It forced me to confront my own reality of where I was going to end up if I didn’t take control of my money. That’s when I changed my blogging practice to focus on my financial journey instead.
Aries: And it turns out many people took that journey with you. You reach nearly 30,000 readers each month now through your online communities and have helped folks pay off over $230,000 of debt. So tell me: what’s the motivation behind the movement?
When I took charge of my financial future, I took charge of my own happiness. It helped me own my power. When you walk away from a situation where you feel powerless, you change the dynamic. You’re like, “wait a minute – I am powerful, all on my own!” And that’s at the heart of My Fab Finance: helping women own their power.
I don’t want women to feel powerless when it comes to finances, when it comes to the workplace, when it comes to their relationships. And money links to all of that. You might stay at a job you hate because of money. You might stay in a relationship that’s not right for you because of money.
I want women to become financially free so they don’t have to compromise their power for the sake of making a living.
Aries: How did your unique perspective as a woman of color set you apart in your industry?
Rapley: I think my authenticity has been very well-received. I like to say, I’m not your mom, I’m not you’re auntie, I’m not going to talk down to you. I’m more like your cousin, who’s made a bunch of mistakes but finally got her life together and wants to help you do the same.
I want them to recognize that you can do things differently with your money. You don’t have to continue living paycheck to paycheck, and if you do make behavioral changes, you can see results rather quickly. My bottom line: you can still be fabulous and financially secure.
Furthermore, because there weren’t a lot of women of color in this industry when I got started (although I believe that’s changed a lot in recent years), it helps me stand out in the marketplace. When I’m in a room full of finance people, rockin’ my afro, it’s pretty hard not to recognize me. They know me because I am authentic to who I am, but I also get things done. I think it’s served me. Honestly, I think being unique has served me more in entrepreneurship than it did in my corporate career.
Aries: So it sounds like entrepreneurship rewarded your uniqueness and provided your path to leadership. How have you navigated your entrepreneurial journey?
Rapley: When I started, the early traction and positive responses I was getting made me realize that this was it. This was going to be the vehicle that would enable me to rise into leadership and craft the location-independent career I’d always desired. It felt like everything I’d been through up until that point made sense.
But let me be real: it’s still terrifying. I’m the first entrepreneur in my core family. My parents are career military, and I came from a stable background. But entrepreneurship, no matter how much you prepare, there’s a certain amount of instability, especially when you’re first starting your company.
When I first went full-time in my business I thought I had done everything right to prepare. But just one month into working for myself full time, one of my biggest clients fell through and I lost a five-figure deal that I was relying on being a regular source of revenue.
Unpredictable setbacks like that are inevitable in every business, but they’re also opportunities for learning and growth. That loss forced me to develop multiple streams of strong revenue for my business, and now that’s something I teach all my entrepreneurial clients who are in the midst of financially preparing to become their own boss.
Now that I’m years into my business, my challenges have changed. Now I’m all about focus and figuring out how to spend my time and money wisely to maximize ROI. Creating healthy boundaries is key, because it’s so easy to romance yourself into thinking that anything sounds like a good idea. Being approached for lots of opportunities is wonderful, but not if they distract you from your priority goals. So putting people around me who help maintain my focus has been especially important.
Aries: Totally! I’m a big believer in the power of focus, which is at a premium in today’s modern workplace. But what do you say to women who are reticent to focus on maximizing their financial gain because they’re prioritizing helping others and pursuing careers with high impact?
Rapley: You can do both! They are not mutually exclusive. You really can, it all boils down to your strategy. There’s more than one way to make a dollar. I think you have to be creative and intentional about making money when you’re doing good. Otherwise it’s so easy to fall into that martyr trap, and then you’ll resent the work eventually. No matter how pure of a heart you have, you’ll start to resent the work if you’re pouring yourself into it, and getting nothing out. It’s so important to find a way to sustain yourself while you’re creating change.
Aries: Do you feel like you’re a role model?
Rapley: Yes. I’m very intentional about that. Because when I was growing up, I never imagined I could be on a magazine cover. That’s one of the things I talk to young girls about: you can be smart, and you can have dignity and you don’t have to compromise your morality in order to be well-known and respected. I want to show young women that there’s a different way. You don’t need to become a musician, a model, or an actress.
It’s all about finding your niche. I love watching others do that — like this kid on the internet is a millionaire because he plays video games on Youtube! He found his niche, and you can do the same. So if you’re weird or different, hold on to that. There’s a way to monetize that. Your tribe is out there, waiting for you to lead them.