BWTT Presents Founder Friday Series: Tisia Saffold

I first met Tisia Saffold at the Black Women Talk Tech 2022 Roadmaps to Billion conference. Her confidence, warmth, and enthusiasm was the first thing I noticed. It wasn’t until I had a brief conversation with her after she won 1st place in the Pitch Competition that I realized there is more to Tisia than meets the eye.

Tisia Saffold, a native of Chicago, Illinois, is the Founder and CEO of Cleare. This compliance software keeps daycare owners clear of licensing violations by digitalizing document collection. With a background in education administration and customer experience, her ultimate goal is to solve critical deficits of childcare providers across the world.

After talking with Tisia one-on-one, I quickly realized she is not only a confident go-getter but a dependable, honest, and passionate individual who genuinely cares about her community. Her loyalty to her family and overall ambition are just pieces of the puzzle.

So who is Tisia Saffold

Tell me about yourself. How would you describe yourself?

“So, I’m a Chicagoan, and I feel like that’s very important to my D. N. A. Who I am. I grew up in the inner city of Chicago on the west side, and my family eventually ended up moving south. So you know there’s more in Chicago than west and south, so I’ve equally lived on both sides. I feel like that’s really, you know, a unique like a big component of myself because it really just is it’s how I navigate spaces, right? You know, it’s just this certain grit that the city of Chicago will give you, so I think it’s sharpened me. 

I went to undergrad at DePaul University and got my master’s at the University of Texas at Austin. My bachelor’s in psychology and my master’s in media theory about the African diaspora. So looking back, I’m like, run all my college dollars back. I don’t think I had the guidance to really show me what I should go into school for, I didn’t know that you can kind of start with your heart, but I just feel like yo I want my money back. Let me do this over!”

After Tisia finished grad school, she moved to New York and worked as a market researcher for different ad agencies. While working in New York, Tisia faced several challenges from a crazy roommate, unemployment, job insecurity, and financial stressors.

“I was literally getting fired like every four to six months. I kid you not. I can’t. I’d call my mother crying every time, and she’s like, “just give it another chance.” So, this is the third time I have called my mom. She was like, okay, come home. She knows I’m pretty resilient. And if I’m calling you crying like this for the third time, then you already know this is not a good thing.”

After assessing what she was currently doing, Tisia decided that she felt empty in her marketing research position and desired something more fulfilling. From that point forward, she decided to move back to Chicago. 

“I want to go back and talk to students, work with the youth, and show them how to get up out of there. That’s what I wanted to do. And that’s what I did.”

Tisia began working for some of the roughest high schools in Chicago. Many high schools had metal detectors, kids bringing guns to schools, high truancy rates, and violence. She worked as an enrichment director, helping to bring programs and resources to schools like culinary classes, Brazilian martial arts, and cosmetology classes. After leaving her job in December 2015, Tisia took another major leap and moved to Washington D.C. 

Despite experiencing another challenging season, moving to D.C. was the catalyst that led her to child care.

“I got into child care because I was hunting for jobs. There was one company that was looking for a consultant that would basically visit home and central daycare owners. To make sure that they reported their enrollment, to make sure that they were up to code, and then check their license information. I’ve been doing that for seven years, and that’s how I started my company. I was able to go into these people’s homes and look at their problems every day and see, you know, what they had going on, and that’s how I was able to see the problem. 

I think they say for founders; you should really try to solve a problem that’s personal to you. You want to try to solve a problem that you’re kind of vested in, that, you know, a lot that you’re knowledgeable about. I can say nobody has seen more daycare than I have. I have seen over 2,000 daycares in the house and how they operate. I was on the forefront of it; I was knee-deep in that.”

Growing up, did you ever think you would be a business owner? What was your relationship with entrepreneurship?

“You know, it’s interesting. Now, looking back, first of all, my father was a hustler; okay, he had a substance abuse issue, but he was a hustler. If my mama said she needed some money, he didn’t come back until he got that money, I don’t know where he got it from, but he didn’t come back. I also know he would wash cars, and he would cut hair. And so, in hindsight, I felt like I always knew that money could be made. Number one, either the capital is in your head or your hands, right? So you can work to do the work and make money, or if you’re a smart person, the capital is like in your head, right? Because that’s something that they can’t take away from you. So I definitely saw that.”

“I don’t know if you ever remember, but this Kool-aide, sugar mixture in school, I was selling that. We would also sell Icee cups, and I would braid hair. I grinded through grad school, like braiding hair and stuff like that. I did not grow up wealthy. I grew up poor. Period, like just flat out. I grew up poor. From a very young age, I remember asking my mother, at 15, can I get a cell phone, and she said, “you got to go get a job” and girl, my first job was at Chuck E. Cheese. Until this day, my mother never in my life paid my phone bill. And so I think that it always was… I don’t know at that time if it was entrepreneurship, but it was definitely hustling. I learned that a long time ago.”

Now that you are an entrepreneur, how do you stay motivated? What motivates you on those hard days or other days when you feel like quitting?

“I have a very small family, just my mom, and my sister with like other family members but like my unit is my mom and my sister. You know, my mom just has health issues and things like that. And so, I feel like if I stop, I won’t be able to give and get her the things. My mother’s 4’11”, right? I’m 5′ 5,” and you would think I’m the green giant cause she’s like, “can you get this thing and reach it for me?” And so it’s just simple things like I want to renovate her home so that she can at least have lower cabinets… If I stop working, she ain’t gonna be able to get that stuff, so that’s number one.

Also, I really feel like I am capable, and I don’t want to disappoint myself. You know, being able to pivot and like tucking your tail, I don’t think that’s for me. I’m really just not that type of person. I’m a Taurus woman. So, I have horns, and look; I’m gonna hunt down what I’m gonna get. If you shut the door on me. I’m coming through the side window. That’s just how I am. So, part of that is I feel like I’m capable and want to get the promise that God has blessed me with. God has promised me things I feel I’m more than capable of getting. Those are the two things that keep me motivated. I want my mom to have certain things, and I want to make myself proud.”

Your mom and your sister are some of your biggest motivators. What’s an example of a day when you were going through hardships and felt like they were lifting you up?

“I’m probably more motivated than they think, or they know, and it’s not that like they actually motivate me intentionally? Like I’m not getting a pep talk from my sister or mom. My sister sends me text messages like, “I’m so glad you’re my sister like you know, you really worked hard, you deserve everything, but you know, I want to give you your flowers.” That was a few days ago; she sent me a message like that, but it’s not my personal motivation how they motivate me. For instance, my sister took a little bit longer to get through college and has a Master’s degree. I think she is just slower on her career path, and I always say that I want to be able to give her opportunities and her first salary job. 

So random, I was kind of like dating this guy. He was telling me this story about his ex-wife and how his ex-wife had this brother. Then the boy ended up going to jail, and he asked her, “but you’re his sister, and what resources did you give your brother?” And I never forgot that”

And as I work, I’m like, you never know who’s who, what hand you’re gonna be dealt? I’m younger than my sister, but I got a different hand than hers. And so you know, it just didn’t work the traditional way? I got dealt a different hand, and she had her own life experiences for her hand. So it’s like, well, if it’s your sister’s, what resources did you give her? And I never forgot that. And I feel like opportunities and resources are also driving factors that I want to be able to give my sister. Not in a toxic way surrounded by carrying the whole world on my back either.

I think that like when the dust settles, I want to be able to like bring her opportunities because she doesn’t have the instinct to seek out. Because her upbringing was different than mine. Even though we’re in the same house, we just had different experiences…I just want to be able to, you know, give her first little taste so she can go do it on her own after that.”

 

At this point in our conversation, it felt like chatting with a friend. The laughter, the relatable moments, and the realness that Tisia embodied gave me a sense of comfort and highlighted how her personal experiences cultivated who she is today.  At this moment, we both shared sentiments about the importance of community, being a resource in your community, and the pressures to get it right the first time as a black entrepreneur. As our conversation progressed, we dived further into the business side of things.

What process led to starting Cleare? How did you come up with the name for your company? 

“I started off with two ideas. My first startup was an on-demand babysitting company. I would put an ad out on Indeed and get all these babysitters to apply, and then I had all these families. With pen and paper, I matched them with babysitters, and I would go around and give them shirts in person with my logo. Girl, it was crazy, and I realized I didn’t ‘t wanna do the B2C model. I wanted to do B2B model because customers have too many opinions.” 

My second idea was the software for the daycare companies. I was once a preschool director, and it was my first taste of being a business owner. Because you have to worry about parent enrollment, parent programs after school, all the little damn ballet shows and stuff for the kids. You have to order supplies, make the food orders, and control the staff.

That was my first taste of owning a business because I had my hands in everything. We would get inspections from the county that would come and inspect the place, and after we would get done because it was very stressful. We would say, oh, we’re clear, we’re clear, no violations. 

The name Cleare came from my job. I want the company to keep daycare providers clear during licensing inspections. And so that comes from me being in the trenches actually running a daycare, and I was just like, oh yeah, like yo we were clear last night, like no violations.”

You have had many different titles throughout your career journey. Do you feel that your career background directly impacts your business?

“I would say that the root of it all is like customer experience… I told you, right out of college, I did market research, and that’s really just building a customer profile for a company. So there was a lot of like customer research and user experience research that taught me about user engagement. We would use Twitter and see what people were talking about a hashtag before that was even a thing. That was almost 10 years ago. And so like I did a little bit of that, then I was working with the high school students, and I worked in the GCPS and so really people relations, right?

So you have students, you have customers. My last job before I jumped off the bridge to entrepreneurship was a director of student services, and it was actually a startup college. I know people have never even heard of that, but when people think about a Devry, for example, or even a Morehouse or Spelman, that college was once in a very small stage. I worked for a College of National Security. Many of our students were older than me because they were graduate students and had just, you know, waited a while before they went back. I think it’s just like the structure of the business taught me a lot, but it also was traumatizing enough for me to jump off that bridge. 

Most of my jobs were like working with people and bringing experiences to the forefront. I think even in my personal life, I’m like the queen of I do not like a low-budget experience. Like baby, don’t drag my birthday up, okay, because I did not like low-budget experiences, so we’re gonna do it, do it, right? That was like the core of most of my jobs.

What are the main roadblocks or challenges you experience when starting your business? If any, what are your current challenges?

“What is the product market fit? Right. And I think a lot of times for founders, you build something off what you think people want, basically on what you feel the need is. So having to talk to users and generate and change things. I know that was a problem, and it’s a good thing and a bad thing. That’s why you can’t be overly invested in the product, you know? So ironically, so many people leave their jobs because they think, like, oh, I want to be an entrepreneur, I don’t want anybody running me, and I want to be able to do my own thing. Then people become a founder and find the customers that run their life. It’s not what you want is what they want. That’s what I’m working through now; it’s just like learning more about my customers outside, what I think that I already know, and building a product that is valuable for them.”

What are some things you realize about yourself going through this process or facing these challenges?

“Being a founder has really changed me for the better, and I think that it spills over into many other aspects of my life. It’s like a control thing. I think that growing up in an unstable household, I have this thing that I try to control anything that I can control, right? I think that when you’re a founder, you don’t. So just be easy. Like, you just got to be easy… It’s like do your part and let the universe do its part. So I think I’m a lot more relaxed than when I used to be very uptight.

As I said, I’m a hunter. You ain’t gonna tell me no. I’m gonna get it regardless…but ironically, in my journey, I realized that the things you hunt down and things like your resume, your credentials, and what you work feel like it will equal up to you getting an opportunity; it’s never that opportunity, right? It’s like this side opportunity that you had no idea what was even coming away, then you get an email like, hey, I saw your pitch, you know, like, what do you think about this? We would love to add you to our portfolio, things like that. And so yeah, I think that also a part of me doesn’t hunt down opportunities like I used to. I just need you to let me sit at the table, and once I’m at the table, I’m more relaxed. But if I feel like I need to get in that spot, I’m more of a hunter, but lately, girl, I’ve just been letting the universe do things.”. 

How do you make time for mental health, or what does that look like for you because not everyone’s the same? What do you do for yourself? 

“I work out six days a week, so that just helps and all that stuff. I feel like I know how to step away, but I also have a very fine line. Some people will work hard and play hard, and I’m just more of an I play when the work is over. That’s just me. I know that I can seem like a workaholic or whatever, but it’s just to me I am this type of person. 

I legit have a vacation coming up to Cabo, and I’m kind of like should you be on vacation, girl because I don’t know, like you got a lot of stuff going on. Yeah, life is to be lived, and you’ll have it, but I do not prematurely reward myself.

In terms of mental health, I don’t have to relax, but I know how to shut my phone down, eat my favorite Mexican food or hang out with friends and things… I have a therapist as well. So you know I do make time for recreational things and just like relaxing. I love a good sit on my couch and binge-watch murder mysteries on A&E, and I.D. investigation is my favorite. But yeah, I think I’m pretty, pretty okay with that.”

What are the next steps for your business? What do the next five years look like?

“I always said what’s innovative about Cleare is that we’re fully trying to change the foundation, how daycare operates, and the current system that holds them up. I always use the analogy of the E.Z. tollway pass. There used to be people on toll handing out cash, and then it was like, oh, you can put your money in there, but you can’t get no change back, right? And then the people just disappeared. 

That is what Cleare is trying to do. We’re taking them from the paper, and next thing, you know, it’s just gonna be auto. It’s just gonna be a different system of how daycares operate and not only that but how the licensing offices govern the daycare is right? 

And so, for me, it’s really just modernization all over. I hope we will copy and paste this in all 50 states where they have licensed systems, and it will be the go-to system for them. And so that is what we have; that’s where I see Cleare in five years we’re trying to baseline. For example, go into any like Burger King or McDonald’s. They’re gonna have like the tap thing; they’re gonna have a system that’s like the baseline system they’re using.”

What advice would you give to Black women entrepreneurs?

“The advice I would give Black women entrepreneurs is: Know your customers, keep your head low and in the game, and lastly, ASK FOR HELP. There are so many people that are more than willing to extend resources.”

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