Meet Shani Dowell, the first Black woman to raise $1 million for a startup in Tennessee

Mildred Europa Taylor March 14, 2024
Shani Dowell is the founder of Possip. Photo: Possip

Seven years ago, Shani Dowell ditched her stable job to pursue a business idea that would later help her make history. As a mother, she understood how parents found it difficult to share feedback about their kids and their education with their teachers and administrators but would rather raise those concerns in group chats or among themselves whenever they met.

But being a former teacher, she knew that most of these issues could be resolved when barriers to parent-school communication are erased. And that is how she came up with Possip, which stands for “positive gossip.”

“I realized that parents don’t have an easy way to share their concerns—or praise—and schools don’t have an easy way to collect and analyze parent feedback,” Dowell explained to “I also noticed that families with out-of-district addresses or different educational experiences, socioeconomic status, languages, and races faced far greater barriers to having their voices heard within the walls of the school.

“I wanted to build a positive bridge between parents and schools that was founded on trust, learning, feedback, and transparency because, at the end of the day, parents need to be heard, regardless of the barriers that may stand in the way.”

The startup, which schools subscribe to annually, helps parents and schools to communicate effectively as it uses text messages to collect quick surveys and reactions from parents about anything related to their kids or teachers’ interactions, bullying or acts of racism in schools or buses.

Growing up, Dowell faced racism too while in high school. She recalled to The Tennessean that at Lamar High School in Houston, she emerged victorious at a debate tournament but the school’s debate teacher scolded her white teammates for performing badly instead of congratulating her.

She also recounted a time when a white student told her her father was “handsome for a Black man.” Then another time, her homeroom teacher was shocked to know that Dowell took honors classes.

“It was in some ways super magical,” Dowell said about the racist experience in the school. “But some teachers didn’t expect much from (Black students), and some white teachers had some disdain for us.”

Dowell subsequently attended historically-black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and business school in California before joining Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) which The Tennessean described as college prep schools in low-income areas.

Dowell got married, moved to Nashville, and began working for other education and teacher recruitment organizations. That was when she saw how issues between parents and teachers could reach a boiling point because of the lack of communication. So the Nashville innovator started Possip in 2017 to help parents and teachers talk to each other effectively. 

She began by sending text messages to parents at her children’s schools with links to surveys. She then cut and pasted together the reports she received for administrators, and through this process, many school administrators were able to easily identify some of the concerns of parents, be it academic issues, racism, bullying or on the positive side, teachers who are doing tremendously well in the classrooms.

Dowell subsequently asked administrators if they were willing to pay for her service. Many replied in the affirmative and soon, school districts were paying an average of about $2-5 a student for 40 weeks of surveys.

In two years of starting Possip, the business spread to more than 400 schools in 19 states, however, getting investors at the time the company was still young was a problem.

Data shows that even though Black women are the fastest-growing group of female entrepreneurs in the U.S., they are not given much attention by startup investors.

“When I originally would go out and pitch Possip to people, especially to typically wealthier men, they sometimes didn’t understand the problem, and part of why they potentially didn’t see the problem is because they may not have ever had the experience of not feeling entitled and empowered to share their voice or share their opinions,” Dowell said.

“Some investors in the education technology space had a jarring disconnect from what was happening at schools and what parents might actually need,” she said.

Dowell eventually found an institutional investor and in 2019, she became the first African-American woman in Tennessee to raise more than a million dollars for a startup.

“It’s not ideal that I’m the first or that we’re even counting, but it’s important to highlight so that other folks know it’s possible,” Dowell said at the time.

Four years after making history, Possip now serves more than 1,300 organizations.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: March 13, 2024


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