Cheryllyne Vaz grew up in Mumbai, India, reading U.S. feminist literature. In school she studied the American civil rights movement. She believed that sexism and racism were long over in the United States, and that America was the land of possibility for women from around the world.
When Vaz was 24, she immigrated to Florida and attended school in Miami, where she studied brand copywriting. Her family was not wealthy, but her father recognized her abilities — in a culture where the male child is often favored — and wanted her to have greater opportunities. “My father’s goal for me was to learn how to sustain myself as a woman, not be reliant on someone else,” she says.
Yet in Miami, Vaz was surprised to meet many younger women who were in relationships with older men. Many of her women classmates seemed intent on finding an older husband to take care of them, and suggested she “find a sugar daddy.”
In India, where people tend to look similar, Vaz says, prejudice occurs more along religious lines than racial. In the United States, she was shocked to learn she was targeted as different because of the color of her skin. If she wasn’t mistaken as someone of Spanish-speaking descent, she was categorized as a “person of color.”
Vaz met her husband in college. They moved to Minneapolis after graduating, and for two decades worked at separate ad agencies. She experienced racism as well as sexism in the workplace. Although she grew up speaking English, she was passed over for copywriting jobs because her English skills were questioned. People mocked her pronunciations at company meetings. They compared hands to see what shades of brown people were.
“Unfortunately,” she says, “the worst racism came from white women.” Having been the subject of sexist abuse themselves, Vaz believes, led them to act as if behaving badly was the way to succeed. Women colleagues became bullies rather than allies.
As the mother of three, recovering from a thyroid issue, and unwilling to return to her work environment, Vaz started a realty business with her husband.
Although Vaz was more insulated from coworkers, she continued to encounter the bully mentality. While promoting an open house, Vaz met a man with a gun in his hands who said she didn’t look or sound American, and that she had no business selling homes to Americans.
On the NextDoor app for Vaz’s neighborhood, a public school teacher was offering music classes to supplement her income — and got attacked. Coming from a culture where teachers are revered, Vaz could not accept the audacity of strangers to talk so rudely to a woman schoolteacher.
Each of Vaz’s experiences of racism and sexism blended together into a vision of creating a network for women. Vaz was determined to support women and build on the strengths of women working together. “We need to be more charitable and kind to each other in the face of the racism and sexism we face every day,” she says.
Using the same NextDoor app, she invited moms, single women, and women entrepreneurs to a potluck dinner at her home. She expected a few women to respond. Instead, more than 100 responded; 40 women attended that first potluck.
Her local Mompreneur Facebook page now has connected more than 200 men, who gather together for a monthly Mastermind Potluck, each featuring conversation about special topics useful for mothers who are entrepreneurs. “We don’t just pick up business skills,” says Vaz, “We learn how to juggle our lives.”
In her gatherings, Vaz noticed another pattern: women seemed unable to talk about money or discuss financial situations, even when it pertains to their own business. “They tended to talk about their children instead of the business side of their business,” Vaz said.
She also noticed that women tend to ask men for financial advice before turning to other women. So she encourages women to turn to each other for business ideas, solutions, and mentorship. One of her tips: “Women need to stop being mean to other women, period.” Communal sharing of knowledge helps everyone, she says.
Vaz believes women tend to be innately skilled at business. Wives and mothers are experienced in strategizing, budgeting, creating, and multi-tasking, she suggests. Women network to build supporters — relationships — not simply clients, she says.
She encourages women to develop a brand. Her branding is centered around her heritage. She wears a sari to every house closing. Clients get Indian food.
It’s been a long journey from Mumbai to Miami to Minneapolis to the Mompreneur network. For Vaz, it’s been a path to help women in the U.S. become the equal partners she grew up believing in.