CarpeDM CEO, Naza Shelley: On Why She’s Launching Dating App for Professional Black Women

CEO Shelley
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Naza Shelley, Founder and CEO: CarpeDM. Photos: Foster White.

My Business: The idea for CarpeDM really came from my personal frustration using existing dating apps. I was putting a lot of effort into finding someone special, but the payoff just wasn’t there. What I realized is gimmicky dating apps aren’t really designed to help people find love. And those that do use the typical offerings are very lucky. I was over swipe culture and the thought of messaging a guy first didn’t appeal to me. I want to be pursued. In looking for an alternative to these apps, I couldn’t find anything that spoke to me, as a Black woman or to my friends, other amazing, single Black women. In thinking about what a dating app designed for me and my friends would look like, how it would work, CarpeDM was born. CarpeDM is launching in May 2021.

My Inspiration: As the child of a female Army veteran, I’ve lived in many places and experienced many cultures. My parents always expected excellence from me but were never disappointed if I tried my best and failed. I was always encouraged to try new things when I was growing up, from sports to leadership positions, volunteerism, music. They really gave me the space and support to explore my passions. My family settled in the D.C. area when I was entering high school. I studied abroad in Spain during undergrad at UVA and I moved to China for a year after graduating from Howard Law to teach English. My upbringing and life experiences have made me a confident and adaptable person. I was a rising D.C. attorney in the utility regulation space before turning my attention to CarpeDM full-time. While I pursued a conventional career, I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum. I really believe life is too short not to pursue your passions or to live by the expectations of others.

How My Business Works: CarpeDM is an exclusive member-only dating community created for singles seeking meaningful relationships with professional Black women. We’ve elevated the online dating experience by providing personal matchmaking services to a vetted community of high-quality singles using our patented video-first dating app. Unlike most dating apps and matchmaking services, we verify and run background checks on 100% of our members. Every Black professional woman granted membership is assigned a personal matchmaker and receives personalized dating insights that display how their dating behavior impacts their success in the community. We share singles’ frustration with dating apps, such as hours wasted swiping on low-quality matches, fake profiles, players, and time-wasters. Dating apps and their algorithms, a majority created by white men, do not prioritize the needs of Black women. This contributes to the low engagement Black women receive on these platforms and exacerbates our inability to find compatible partners. CarpeDM is designed with the professional Black woman in mind. Our elevated dating experience removes the competition from “others,” provides a way for high-quality men interested in dating Black women to connect, and curates highly compatible matches for our members.

Funding My Business: I’ve been lucky to have been able to raise around $200,000 from friends and family. In addition to their contributions, I’ve been bootstrapping the company to keep it financially afloat. I’ve eliminated personal overhead by selling my condo, liquidating my retirement and investment accounts, and moving into my parents’ basement. I’ve put everything I have into my business. We haven’t accepted any major outside capital yet, choosing to focus on building a revenue-generating product. This is the stark reality for most Black tech founders. Speaking from the perspective of a Black female founder in the tech industry, I consistently deal with issues like imposter syndrome and a lack of financial backing. These aren't new or unique. But we're also in a space socially where there is a greater focus on supporting Black businesses from both within our own community and from others. There also seems to be a raised social consciousness about the unfair disadvantages Black businesses face and a concerted effort to address those disadvantages by providing more access to capital, resources, training, and even media coverage. While there is a long way to go to reach equity, I have seen positive changes. For example, in the past year alone, three of my Black female founder friends have raised sizable rounds from VC capital. This is a huge win even though the numbers still show that we're being woefully underfunded. Ultimately, however, I don't believe in dwelling on excuses to explain a lack of success. While it's not right that we have access to less, I do believe necessity is the mother of invention. As a Black woman business owner, I'm focused on building a business on sound fundamentals, networking, resource sharing, and staying scrappy to succeed.

Confidence To Forsake My Nine-to-Five: I think my background as an attorney definitely helps. Attorneys often hang their own shingles as we say, go into business for themselves. We are also problem solvers. I know that if I need to make money I can take on attorney work or do some consulting. So, the lack of a steady paycheck wasn’t a deterrent. I also have a very supportive family. Like I mentioned, my parents let me move back home. They really believe in me and want me to have the opportunity to succeed. I am really grateful to have the space to just try. My parents are entrepreneurs themselves. They have started and sold their own businesses. So, I have great examples of what it takes to be successful. 

Overcoming Obstacles: The toughest challenge I faced was figuring out that there’s no smooth sailing in business. As an attorney, we plan methodically and execute with precision. In business, so much is out of your control. One day everything is on the right track, the next day a key team member quits. One day the books are looking great, you have enough runway to meet your goals, the next day an unexpected expense pops up that requires you to reallocate everything. Mishaps used to really set me back mentally, now I know they are just a part of business as they are in life. As a business owner and leader, you have to stay flexible, be ready to reprioritize your day/week, refocus your team, and not let things outside of your control derail you completely. The only constant is change. 

For example, CarpeDM was originally launched as a video-based dating app for a broad audience. What we found is that by speaking to everyone, we were really speaking to no one. The dating space is very crowded. There are lots of apps out there and it can be tough to cut through the noise and show that you’re really bringing something great to the table. It’s even tougher when you’re bootstrapping your company without the large financial backing. But my team and I look at these challenges as opportunities to really focus on our product, the needs of our members, and being innovative. We’ve learned to do a lot with a little and our goal is always to over-deliver on what we promise and exceed our members’ expectations. It’s interesting because when thinking about who we wanted to serve, who really needs our services, we naturally landed on professional Black women like myself. It was a full-circle moment considering that my leap of faith into this industry was spurred by my personal frustrations with dating. 

Coping With COVID-19: I worked as an attorney until January 2020, when I decided to go full-time with CarpeDM. At the time that I left my job, my co-founder and I were planning to move to New York, because that’s where most of the users for our original product were. Then COVID really hit and threw everything into a tailspin, but in a good way ultimately because it gave us the space to reconceptualize our new service. As a startup, we really relied on events and personal outreach to build brand recognition. COVID changed all of that moving everyone indoors, cancelling our planned events, and really cancelling in-person dating for most people. The good thing is despite, or perhaps because of COVID, singles are turning to online dating more than ever to make connections. So even though we took a step back to create our new product, the demand for what we’re launching is higher than ever. Our plan is to officially start matchmaking in the summer, which coincides with the COVID vaccine being widely available, outdoor activities, and people feeling comfortable to gather in small groups and meet new people again. So we think our timing will be great. 

Measuring Business Growth: We’ve successfully grown our startup to an eight-person team and are solidifying exciting partnerships with creatives, relationship experts, other DC startups, and nonprofit partners. We grew our original concept to over 10,000 downloads and hope to see similar growth with the new CarpeDM. We’re very encouraged by the amount of interest we’ve received so far from singles all over the United States and will really be watching our application numbers upon launch. On a personal note, I've found that having the right team is the source of most of my wins. It is also the source of a lot of my challenges in business. When you're a startup that's unable to pay your team competitive salaries, you really rely on the strength of your ideas and your ability to convey your passion in a way that convinces others to join you on a journey filled with extreme highs and lows. It's no small feat to find the right people to take the ride with you. I'm always on the lookout for people who I think would add value to my business, people who have the ability to see the bigger picture, imagine the possibilities, and the right skills do the work.

Persistence Is The Secret To Success: Most people know to succeed you have to give it your all and never give up. We win every day and we fail every day. My goal is to just have the magnitude of those wins outweigh the impact of the failures so that over time, it just looks like we’re winning. My biggest piece of advice for anyone interested in starting any company, but especially a tech company, is knowing the sacrifice it will take to become successful. No one is an overnight success and if you're looking for quick money or an easy road, entrepreneurship probably isn't the best route. But if your purpose is bigger than yourself, if your passion extends beyond making money or self-aggrandizement, then starting your own business may be the way to go. It really is a wonderful feeling to see something you envisioned in your head come to life and actually help people. I'd also recommend that people don't go it alone. If you can, find a co-founder or partner to join you. 

Despite the challenges we face, operating a business owned by Black women, I really feel privileged to have the ability to try. I know a lot of Black people and minorities are so focused on the obligations right in front of them, helping their families, wading through debt, really just surviving the day-to-day, that the risk it takes to start a business isn't something they can even consider. Acknowledging this helps me stay grateful that I am doing what I want to do. Win or lose, I am on the path I have chosen for myself. 

My Favorite Five Books: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston; If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin; A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines; and, The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah.

My Favorite Movies: Coming to America; Pretty Woman; Leon the Professional; Pride & Prejudice; and, The 5th Element.

Five People Who’ve Inspired Me Most: Janice Bryant Howroyd; Rihanna; Michelle Obama; Serena Williams; and, Frederick Douglass.

My Contacts: 

IG: @carpeDMboss

Twitter: @carpeDMdating