By Kayla Sosa
Note: This interview was conducted in February 2020, before the shutdown caused by the global pandemic, COVID-19.
Ariana Waller is a Grand Rapids-based entrepreneur, multi-business owner and tech innovator. She attended Tuskegee University and is originally from Atlanta, Georgia. As a young, millennial, black woman she is breaking down barriers and building a future for her family along with her husband, Omar Waller. We sat down with Waller to talk about all of her work and what it means to her.
CEI: You are currently managing three businesses. Let’s start with Dalilah Cann. What is it and how did it start?
Waller: Dalilah Cann actually started out of TechStars during StartUp Weekend last year through Start Garden. What’s funny is Shorouq (Almallah, Director of the GVSU Center for Entrepreneurship) and I were judges for the event – me, Shorouq and Jorge (Gonzalez) from Start Garden. That team (Dalilah Cann) actually ended up winning first place. What’s crazy is that two months later they approached me like, ‘Hey, you’re a specialist in tech, would you like to join our team?’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, yeah!’ … I saw it as an opportunity, as a big deal. I mean, there’s a history to it, right? Because it’s cannabis. And if you’re a black person in this country, in the United States, and you have an opportunity to be in cannabis, you should. I’m a huge advocate for that because, obviously, of the war on drugs – the black community has been impacted by that negatively far more than any community across the board. But the average person that is in the cannabis industry is heterosexual, old, white male. It’s a big deal because of capital reasons, it goes beyond stereotypes. I just think it’s important for us to be in this industry and when they came to me with it, I had no choice but to move forward because anything I do, I always look at it from a communal perspective. Okay, if I’m going to do this, how am I also going to help ten other black people? You know, physically come with me on this journey. Or how will this opportunity open a door for me to open a door for ten black people?
The role that they asked me to be … is co-founder but also Chief Technology Officer, so I’m all over the technology for this company. And essentially who we are is, we are developing a ‘Shipt’ method for cannabis products. But we’re starting off with just CBD and vape products to begin with.
(Waller has signed resigned as CTO from Dalilah Cann.)
CEI: Can you talk more about why the communal concept is important in your entrepreneurship?
Waller: The truth is that I don’t lose anything from supporting someone else and supporting them win. Even if there’s another cannabis company, and they all happen to be all women (like Dalilah Cann), and another black CTO and they are doing the exact same idea as us – at the end of the day, I think your hard work, your effort and how genuine you are will help with the projections of how successful you are. I don’t need to tarnish another brand or hate another person just because they’re doing phenomenal. I can clap for you and also still win. And most people don’t think that.
I’m just a positive person and, beyond that, I’m super grateful for life. I value more so being genuine and having relationships with my people, black people, and also women. But it took me a while to get there. I used to look at women, powerful women, I would be so intimidated… I felt like, because she was winning, I was losing, because I was always comparing myself to her story. But the truth is, I don’t know what she had to do to get there, whether good or bad. I see how hard I work behind closed doors… if I can be genuine and proud of myself behind closed doors, it’s easy for me to do it for other people because it’s coming from a real place.
CEI: Wallway Technologies is another one of your businesses. Can you tell us more about what you do in that and how it came to be?
Waller: That one officially started May 2018. Essentially, it’s a tech firm where we do tech consulting… Our main service right now is web development, but the goal within the next two years is to expand and specialize in IoT Solutions and Blockchain technology… We have clients that are across the country and we also service people here locally.
CEI: For the ‘non-tech’ person, what are some of the things you would consult businesses about?
Waller: Right now the majority of my consulting time literally is connecting with people who are like, ‘Hey, this is not my thing, but this is my idea.’ So, essentially I focus on how can I take someone from the ideation phase to step two which is the MVP – minimal viable product – Phase, so I help them essentially create a roadmap to build out their idea because sometimes it’s here in your head but it’s hard to visually plan it all out, especially if you don’t understand the technology behind it.
We are a solutions-based company. Majority of the tech advising, transparently, right now is specifically about mobile apps. The majority of the tech consulting, I would say 95 percent, is literally me helping people who have ideas about mobile applications.
CEI: Your first start up was in beauty, right?
Waller: Yeah, it was a beauty tech company. In 2018 for 100 Ideas (by Start Garden) ADORAA was a beauty tech company that I was working on. Then, I kind of pivoted as more opportunities came and as I got more exposure to figure out who I am, what is it I want to do and how can I make an impact. And, so, essentially it was a platform where we upcycled secondhand cosmetics. We partnered with a lot of Youtubers and cosmetologists and we would buy their makeup that they used once or twice and then we had a sanitation process. We would sanitize it, sell it online and people would buy it. It’s funny because I would say so far that was actually one of my most profitable businesses but it’s just that you have to be at a certain scaling point to really get that going.
I did Spring GR for that business as well. But other opportunities happened and other businesses just started to launch and grow faster… I chose to put that on hold because other things were growing and I wasn’t going to give up making a bigger difference in cannabis.
CEI: Was entrepreneurship a part of your life growing up?
Waller: It’s interesting because my dad – and I didn’t realize this until recently – is an entrepreneur. He’s been an entrepreneur for almost 30 years. But I didn’t know that as a kid, it’s just ‘dad going to work.’ … He’s a sound producer. He works for different movies like Marvel, Disney, any big station you can think of he’s worked for them, he’s done work for them – Oprah Network. He’s been in the audio/video industry for years and now that the Hollywood industry has come to Atlanta, he’s popping. His hustle inspired me. My dad was doing 48-hour straight days, real life hustle. It didn’t click until I became an adult and realized he had his own business.
My first business was a baking company – Christ’s Cakes – that I had that I started in Atlanta before my husband and I moved… One of my first really big gigs that summer, about a month after I said I was going to do it, I got to be a vendor at the Atlanta Ice Cream Festival, which is a very big festival. We sold out of everything. That was the starting point for me as an entrepreneur. That was the turning point for me, it was amazing.
CEI: What was your time like at Tuskegee University?
Waller: One day when I’m a billionaire I’m going to donate $1 billion to that institution. Tuskegee is where I met my husband. HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges/Universities) are so important. Even though I dropped out of college, Tuskegee made such a big impact on me that, because of the connections I made at that school, I am able to do everything I’m doing – starting all these companies, making all of these connections – because of the university. Period. It gave me exposure.
At our school, there were 50 percent women in the engineering program. That’s unheard of. It’s beyond just a phenomenal education, the Tuskegee Airmen, George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, all these awesome people. HBCUs are the one place where you can foster not only a good education, but get this good influx of culture and experience that’s like no other.
CEI: Would you say your parents instilled not only that hustle mindset, but also your gratitude?
Waller: Both of my parents are phenomenal. My mom taught me gratitude. We were doing great with money and then the recession happened in 2008 and we lost our home, we actually became homeless. If it wasn’t for our family that chipped in, we would’ve been looking crazy. I remember being grateful for every Friday when my mom… would save the change from different purchases and grocery shopping, she would always get my brother and I a small fry at Mcdonald’s and an ice cream chocolate sundae. I remember her just literally telling us to be grateful for the little things.
CEI: Tell us more about The Women in Tech with Ariana Podcast!
Waller: We started that December 2018. We’re in seven countries, rated top ten podcasts in women tech entrepreneurship by Medium, we were featured in Forbes… It’s cool, I get to interview so many dope women.
Now we’re looking at figuring out ways to have strategic partnerships with other countries. But that literally started with me one day waking up and getting out of bed and saying, ‘Women need a voice. Let me start a podcast and just start talking.’ Specifically women in tech.
I always say we’re the best podcast not because we inspire women and talk about technology – everyone’s doing it – but we provide actual, tangible resources. So what we do differently is that one week we’re talking about news and technology and highlighting a guest, but the following week is always a tangible tool or resource… What’s the point of inspiring people if you aren’t telling them what you’re doing? And that’s another thing that comes back to the communal perspective because most people are very territorial over stuff. I’ve literally shared applications for pitch competitions and grants that I’m applying for, too. Most people are not going to do that because they don’t want more competition. My thing is, what’s for you is for you and if you’re going hard, great. Maybe you did deserve that more than me.
CEI: What’s next for you?
Waller: Short term, I’m really excited for the official launch of Dalilah Cann. I’m excited to expand the team, we’ll be hiring for Wallway Technologies. For the podcast, we’re just globally killing it and I’m excited for that to expand.
Long term, I just want to be intentional about – in everything I do – supporting black people, people of color and women. Providing tangible resources in everything that I do.
Follow Ariana Waller on social media and visit her websites:
Women in Tech with Ariana Podcast