CEO's Take on Student Debt: Interview with Tasia Clemons
The Prosp(a)rity Project's Senior Research Analyst, Adeola Akinyemi, interviews Tasia Clemons, Co-founder of Blkgrl.edu. During this interview, Tasia speaks to starting her own Black-women owned clothing brand, explains how student loans have affected her journey, and gives advice to new entrepreneurs.
Adeola: Ok, so thank you Tasia for coming and taking time out of your busy schedule to be interviewed by me. As you know, I am a Research Analyst at the Prosp(a)rity Project and it's a nonprofit organization that is very involved in helping to empower black women and just talk about financial stability and everything so lot of great things. And we wanted to hear from Black female entrepreneurs like yourself to share your story about being in the business industry and like what advice you can give to women that also want to be in the industry. Also, we want to learn about your personal student debt story. So could you start off by giving a brief background about who you are and what you do for work?
Tasia: Yeah awesome. So, hi! Thanks for having me Adeola. I’m very excited to be doing this for you. Just the work that you’re doing is so incredible. I’m essentially from Massachusetts, from a little small-town Amherst, Massachusetts that like some folks have heard of, some folks haven't but it is what it is. And it's known as the Five College Towns so I’ve always grew up around education and things like that and that was always like the focus of how it was growing up but being from a low-income family, I was always like ok I should have education but I also don’t have that much access to it, so what does that mean for me? So eventually after I moved through K through 12 and then graduated from high school, I was like ok college is what I want to do so I ended up going to Framingham State and got my degree in Sociology, Criminology and Spanish. And when I tell you I changed my ideas about what I wanted to do for careers so many times. I was like “Oh I’m going to do policy, like I’m just going to do policy work, and like sit behind a desk and that's my game plan. And then, ended up doing policy work junior year and being like I want to talk to people. I don't want to just sit behind a desk and analyze policies, which I still love doing. But, I wanted to do something different so then I got into this realm of you know, I was a student leader on campus, right? I was an RA, I was an SRA, I was doing all of I was doing all of this different stuff, peer mentor, tour guide, all that good stuff. And I was like “I really love this!” Like I noticed I always come back to the involvement piece of things. So, I'm remember looking at my Hall Director one day and being like “Oh I wish I could just do what you do” and she was like “Why can't you?” And I said “Oh, I guess you're right.” I ended up going to get my Master's Degree in Buffalo, New York in Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration and really loved that but I noticed there's a population that was missing that I was really interested in. So, I did my whole thesis on political activist of color at PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions). I was like how come no one’s talking about this group or this population. And yeah we talk about students of color, which is so vital but like being an activist on top of it on top of just dealing with everything going on in America it's just hard. So I was like this is definitely something I want to bring light to you so that's what I focused on my two years at Canisius College and then I said alright what's next? like I don't know what else to do. Even though I served as a Hall Director there, I knew I wanted to do it as my professional career, which brings me today. So I applied to SUNY Brockport what in December of I want to say 2019 around there and then 2020 hit and we all know what 2020 kind of looked like. So I said maybe I won’t get the Brockport position because they’re not going to hire, but they said no we wanted you in March because I was actually originally supposed to work in Thompson (one of the first year residence halls at SUNY Brockport) but then they said we'll wait for you till August. That brings me to today where I currently serve as a Resident Director in MacVicar Hall and I just love it like I love working with students and that's like one of my passions just empowering students cuz truly like yeah like I'm working here and like I'm young but like the students are what matters the most and they're going off into their careers and like changing policies and changing the world as we know so if I could be one source of empowerment for them that's why I'm doing the work that I’m doing. So that's what I'm doing today. I also do things on the side like a run a business. I'm actually, you’re the first person to know this but I'm working on getting another business.
Tasia: So excited about that. One having to do with clothing apparel, social justice and higher ed and another one focused on prison abolition, incarceration and things like that so those are my two passions. I always said I wanted to bring creativity and education into one job and I think I’m finally finding that so yeah. I mean I kind of rambled but that’s me.
Adeola: Oh no! You did great I didn't know that. Oh my gosh. I'm so happy that's so exciting I love that.
Tasia: You’re the first person to know so I’m launching all of this stuff and doing all of these things in the background, but I’m having fun with it.
Adeola: Yass, I’m happy for you. Oh my goodness. Ok and then, well that’s a good segway cuz you just introduced your businesses, so why did you decide to start your company and like your business?
Tasia: Yes, so it was the summer of quarantining and boredom right. And I knew on top of the health pandemic, there’s a racial pandemic happening right? We have a lot of things going on in regards to the George Floyd case and things of that sort. I was just so, I’ve always been an activist since college but I also knew like my activism kind of changes as I grow up like how does it look? Like okay I can't be obviously during a pandemic, I can't go to these rallies anymore I can't go to these things. So, what’s another way I can tailor my activism in a way that's also creative. So, I was sitting with my friend, Chandler, and Chandler messages me. She always, she has a Cricket, so she’s always was making clothing like cute things like that. She says to me “would you be willing to wear clothes that I make and like put it on your social media pages?” because I have, I don’t want to say I have a following but I have a high following on my other page, my personal page so she was like can we do that? And then that way you know you can let people know that I'm making clothing like this. I was like yeah sure, that's fine. Then once we really started talking about it, like getting into the crucks of what I would be doing, she was like, “Tasia, why don't we just do this thing together?” And I was like “Yeah, why don’t we?” So, it really started off with having that conversation because we’re both passionate about social justice and working towards just a better future for literally everybody. I’m big on creativity and social media so I said let’s start the business let’s like get it going. So, we're both, I met her in higher-ed. I met her at Canisius College and she's been just been a huge part of my life ever since. And then her creativity and my creativity just came together and we decided to start that business. What was really the catalyst of change was really like that George Floyd case where we were like we can't go out to these protests, we can’t do XY and Z just because of our own personal safety, however what's another way we can you know showcase our activism and that's exactly what we did. We started that business and it kind of took off from there. So, never thought I’d be the one to be like I’m in clothing apparel making clothes but it kind of balanced off the place beautifully so I really love it.
Adeola: I love that. I love that. And what made you decide to start your abolitionist company/ business?
Tasia: Yes! I’m a big public speaker. I love speaking to groups. It’s just something that I really love to do. But, I also love educating folks on things that people are often afraid to hear about. So, when I was talking about race in college people were like “Woah, the Black girl’s talking about race and it’s a little uncomfortable.” And I’m like why are you uncomfortable? This is something that we should be having conversations about.
Tasia: Then speaking about abolition, people immediately have the wrong impression as to what it is because they’re not educated on it. So I’m like abolition has to do with creating opportunity and dismantling white supremacy and isn’t that what we all want? So, shouldn’t kind of everyone kind of be an abolitionist? But, I obviously don’t push views on anybody. I just educate them on what it is. So pretty much that business is like my own personal brand. So, I’ve actually been going around speaking to different businesses, colleges and EDI committees (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committees) and speaking to them about mass incarceration and this prison industrial complex that we’re in and then talking about how abolition is directly opposed to you know the prison systems and things like that because all prison is about is 1. capitalism but 2. profit. I’m big on let’s treat people like human beings regardless of what ever mistakes they’ve made. Incarceration has always been something in my head all the time because my mom’s labeled a felon in this country and my brother was labeled a felon in this country and seeing the impact it had on us financially we were evicted so we had to move locations a bunch of times because no one wants a “felon” underneath living with them and seeing that impact that it had on my family I was like ok what can I do to actually get involved in being a change with this. It was always these personal things that pushed forward all these businesses that I want to begin. So now, I love talking about abolition because I don’t know when people get a little nervous about it I’m like oh my gosh they just have no idea. I want to be that person to be able to be like “let me just educate you on it and let’s chat together and figure out what kind of America that we want for the future. So very vital, very important.
Adeola: Definitely, very very important. You’re absolutely right. I love that. Thank you for sharing.
Tasia: Yeah, no problem.
Adeola: Ok. This can kind of apply to your work, your current position right now or even like what you do with your business but just in general do you enjoy the work that you do and feel that it's the best use of your time?
Tasia: Yes, that’s a really good question. I think and I can kind of bring both things I'm doing into one so I think with being a Resident Director right now that's grounded in you know education. I don't know how many Resident Directors are talking about abolition with their college students but that's something that I like to do so I’m able to bring in what my passion is like right now but also you know educating folks who are in the building like living right with me and everything. So, I definitely love what I'm doing right now. Both my business and you know working with college students just because like I said students are literally like going to be making the impact in the future so why not be a part of that and just be like hey here’s the knowledge and let me know if you need and then move it from there. I definitely think it’s a good use of my time. So right now, blkgirl.edu is the name of my other business that I work with Chandler and even that like I've had some students from like Bramley (upperclassmen residence hall on SUNY Brockport’s campus) reach out to me and be like “you have your own business? wait tell me about it. What’s the game plan?”
Adeola: Yes, yes. I love that.
Tasia: Seeing them order from me and wearing the clothes like I'm literally walking around campus like oh my gosh.
Adeola: Yes! We’re supporting Black businesses of course. Yass.
Tasia: I definitely feel like everything I'm doing because I think when I was little, I even said this, I want to bring one job of all of my passions into one thing and I didn’t know what that looked like and now finding out what it looks like. So being a Resident Director that education, empowering students to be their best selves but also bringing in that knowledge of like things that are outside of the realm of college in general like prison abolition is not on any agenda in like in college but being able to utilize my passions and bringing it into it, I think it’s so important. So, I definitely think it’s a best use of my time. I just love college students they’re literally my favorite group of the population. It’s just something fun for me. So, yeah definitely a good use of my time.
Adeola: I love it! Thank you. So, now this applies to student loans, so like your experience and like what you can say or like give advice about for students that are currently in school or like people that are out of school and still dealing with debt. The first question is did you feel prepared to take on student loans and/or were you knowledgeable about the topic before taking them on?
Tasia: Yeah, I am a first-generation college student, so the conversation about loans and money and how to pay for college was right over my head. I remember getting my first financial aid package, I was like “Oh my gosh, they’re giving me all this money? Oh my gosh. Yass. I’m gonna say yes to everything like yeah!
Adeola: Yes, we love that! We love that.
Tasia: So that first year, I’m thinking I’m good. I had to pay maybe like $50 and I said yeah we’re good. Then my mom was like “Well, you do realize that that’s a federal loan right? Like you have to pay that back.” I said “Oh like one of them?” She said “No, like all 35,000 of these.
At the beginning, I was like oh my gosh and you know how people say college is a scam.
Adeola: Oh yeah.
Tasia: I definitely was one of those students who was like this is horrible like capitalism and college is just a business blah blah blah. Then I started reflecting and thinking well actually what is everything that I learned in the classroom and outside of the classroom like one about myself but two about just the world in general. So yes, to a degree I still believe I owe a lot of money to the college but I didn't feel like I was ready when I got into college and like moving throughout. I feel like junior year is when I really decided to think about loans and like what that means especially when I graduate. I kind of wish I thought about it sooner because I wish I started paying things off a little bit sooner but junior year that's when I decided to go to the financial aid office and I said “So what do I like owe you guys?” They were like “What?” and I said “What do I owe? Can you like walk me through it?” So, I literally had one of the financial aid counselors sit me down and talk to me and break down all of these federal loans like what has interest and what doesn’t, like how does interest accumulate and what’s it going to look like for me when I’ve graduated, etcetera and I think that was one of the best defining moments in regards to student loans for me so now I understand well what loans am I going to pay first. What’s my priority? I will say the pandemic has kind of helped because they paused student loans.
Tasia: A lot of my friends are like “Ohh I just don’t have to pay it!” I’m like no, I’m getting the interest paid now.
Adeola: Now right, get it out the way.
Tasia: It is frozen and not accumulating. Pay that off now so that way you’re just paying those loans like later. So, I definitely wasn't ready going into it but learning more about it like I think I will say it stemmed from a little anxiety like money anxiety just cuz I grew up never really having money at all so I was like I really want to have money in the future, so what does that mean for these student loans? And then I started thinking about credit and all of that stuff that my family never really talked about. So, my junior year is when I started to focus and I started just chipping away at it. Not huge amounts because I was there as a college student and like how much can I pay off? I was like I have an extra $50 here so why don’t I just throw that into the loans? And now oh my gosh Adeola, if you see me I literally like check my credit like once every month because I’m like let me see if it’s good you know what I mean? and let me build the credit now.
Tasia: Now I feel like I have a huge grasp of my student loans just because I have a whole budget book mapped out ok how much do I owe for this loan? how much do I owe for this loan? can I pay this off now? I have a car so like I know I have a loan for my car now right. How much do I have to put towards there? and now that car is paid off till like June or July. So, I’m like now that I know that’s paid off till then, what can I focus on in regards to loans now. Getting a financial aid counselor like I have a financial coach essentially. His name is Nick and he’s focused on the longevity of my money. So, he was like you want to focus on yes you have money now but focus on your future money as well. So, building my savings but also on investing in myself and investing in money is very important and I didn't realize that cuz no one's talked about that with me.
Tasia: In the past, I didn’t feel ready to take on loans but now I feel like since I've organized myself accordingly I definitely feel a lot better about the loans that I owe and paying things off just cuz that is at the forefront of my mind.
Adeola: Definitely, definitely. That sounds really, really very smart and very proactive so yes.
Tasia: That’s a good word though being proactive about it because I don’t know I think being reactive about it I don’t know it can stink and it can lead you down a bad rabbit hole.
Adeola: Yeah, it’s definitely a burden. I feel like finances like I can relate too again not growing up with much or thinking I just have to save, save don’t spend, don’t spend because you don’t want to be reckless but it’s like ooh, it can be very anxiety provoking. So, it’s good to have that kind of mindset and that support to be like hey I can do this if I really just plan it out and focus on what I can control now because even I pay that off it's like okay that's taken care of for now what can I work on for now and then think about that longevity so that is very, very smart. Yes.
Tasia: I learned about the scarce mindset when it comes to money and the growth mindset and things like just cuz if you’re thinking well I’m poor now and I’ll be poor for the rest of my life then you’re going to have this anxiety around money so I was like okay yeah, I'm like I have a roof over my head now, I have the funds to be able to afford a car things like that. I’m not going to be this uncomfortable forever like I know how I know how the United States works right. Like poor people poor and keep the rich rich. So, like if I have this mindset and anxiety around money then it’s just going to stay that way for the rest of my life. It doesn’t feel good. So, I need to change my mindset around money and then move forward. The research I have been doing about money is wild.
Adeola: Yeah ok, the next question is what role do your student loans play in your choice to work where you do or do what you do, if any?
Tasia: I will say working at a state school like a federally funded school there’s a lot of good benefits so maybe I’m not getting paid that much in regard to the grand scheme of things and how much bills cost and stuff like that, but in the future I know like pensions and things like that if I stayed at a state school for, it’s a certain amount of years, then my pension is really good in the future so I get a good amount of money in the future. However, I know myself right so the businesses that I do on the side now I really want to make into my full income later so I really want to be my own boss in the future like not have any sort of. I'm answering to myself. If I don't want to do something, I’m not doing it etcetera. So that’s the vibe I’m going for and I've seen and follow a bunch of like business owners, entrepreneurs and things like that. I kind of watch them kind of do it and I'm like well if they can why can’t I? I think we're so big on, I don’t know, I think I'm big on like if you can't beat fear do it scared so I'm always thinking that in my head. So, I’m just like I’ll launch this business and who knows if it’ll go well but hopefully it will and we’ll see what happens. Launching a business, it’s going to go up and down so student loans definitely play a huge part into what I do now. So right now, I know we’re in a pandemic and I need a job right now right. However, I want a job that I am passionate about and I want a job that I feel fulfilled in every single day. So, the student loans in that aspect, like yes, this job pays me so I’m able to pay those off. But, then when I think about the longevity of money again that future like I really know I want to be happy in myself and I want to be my own boss but I want to also make sure I’m able to pay off my student loans or pay off whatever loans I have left. You know how people push certain things or like the media will say something and it’ll drag you in so people are like “I can make seven figures in three days.” and I’m like..
Tasia: I’m like ok! Great. But I’m also like well I’ve seen folks especially the entrepreneurs that I follow who are like “yeah, it took me years.”
Tasia: And that it’s not gonna happen overnight. So, I’m like I have these next three years. I gave myself a deadline. I said by 2024, Tasia you’re working for yourself period. So, I’ve given myself three years tops to be like listen you need to focus on what your goals are, get it going because you really want to make sure one you’re comfortable but you’re also happy with what you’re doing.
Tasia: So, my student loans definitely have played a role in like the positions I’m taking because I’m almost thinking strategically. Like right now, I want to pay these off and have a place to live of course but I also want to be passionate about the work that I’m doing. However, in the future I want to not feel I don’t know constrained to the nine to five. I want to be able to pick and choose my time, make sure I am setting myself up for success in whichever way I kind of measure it. So yeah, student loans definitely play a role but they don’t control my life and I think that’s what’s so important about money. Money should not control your life. If I want to buy that cute chair, I’m buying it! That’s fine.
Tasia: I have to make sure my ducks are in line, have I paid off this loan? have I paid off my bill? Then I’m like ok so I have a few extra dollars, I need food and I can buy this cute shirt and I’m good to go.