At age 26, Angelica Nwandu is considered a digital pioneer, described as the Oprah for the younger generation and credited with shaping and revolutionizing the digital space.
She’s the founder and CEO of The Shade Room, an Instagram-based media company that focuses on black celebrity gossip. Nwandu has been included on the Forbes “30 Under 30 List” in 2016 and was described as “The TMZ of Instagram” by the New York Times. Her site has 10 million-plus followers and pulls in 100,000 new ones every 10 days.
She got there on her own steam by bootstrapping and turning down investments in order to stay independent, according to a Blueprint video interview with Complex’s editor-in-chief, Noah Callahan-Bever.
Nwandu went from foster care and unemployment “to formatting the tabloids for the social media generation,” and she credits her success in part with listening to her audience.
“They were like, ‘We don’t want to hear your opinions anymore,” Nwandu said on a Complex interview. “They kicked me off the blog because it was biased. I remember I hated Naya Rivera for no reason. I was just in a bad space. I was in the hood still. (They said) ‘Let’s hear our opinions.'”
When people questioned Nwandu about going against the grain — “it doesn’t make any sense that you are publishing directly on Instagram” — that was one of her most challenging moments, she said. But she went with it, “knowing that this is actually where the gold is,” she said.
The Shade Room was her backup plan after she got fired from an accounting job.
“The reason I started on Instagram was my weakness — I was not technologically savvy so I didnt know how to create a website, which actually turned out to be the best thing that happened to me,” she said.
Nwandu has since diversified to other platforms, and she has had her sites deleted — four times. These have turned out to be among her most important lessons, she said.
“If we were to get deleted tomorrow (followers, known as roommates) would try to find us somewhere else. What we created doesn’t necessarily have to live on a platform. It can live across platforms.”
Here’s more from the Complex interview:
How would you describe the corporate culture of shade room?
Angelica Nwandu: There is no corporate culture. I waited until it was absolutely necessary for us to get an office. The way I run the company is very lean (12-to-15employees, two offices — one in Atlanta, one in Los Angeles — and six different platforms.) I do give the creative direction, making sure everyone is aligning with the vision and the vision is executed. I let (employees) work until I see what they are best at and then I put them to work in that area.
You’ve turned down reality TV series. Was it hard to walk away from those checks?
Angelica Nwandu: It was hard to walk away from those checks. I really pay attention to what I’m told. I believe that certain people are put in your life for a reason to tell you certain things. Self-financing is everything. I think sometimes when you have too much money you’re not resourceful and you don’t make proper decisions. We’ve had the opportunity to take a lot of investment but we’ve turned it down. We’re bootstrapping basically. I’m cheap you know. That’s the truth. I think before every dollar.
What do you think it is about your voice that people connect to?
Angelica Nwandu: I think it’s the authenticity of my voice. Telling the truth. We have momentum now. You want to operate on that momentum. That definitely drives me. I feel like I’m at square 1.
Was there ever a moment you thought you weren’t going to be able to make payroll? This is going to fall apart?
Angelica Nwandu: Yes, every time we got deleted, which was four times across Facebook and Instagram. I believe everything happens afor a reason. When things like that happen, I say, ‘What’s the reason? What’s the lesson I need to learn from this?’ I’ma be relentless. I’m gonna fight and try to overcome every obstacle.”
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