Headphones and Lottery Tickets: How Code2040’s Entrepreneur in Residence, Tinsel, is Taking on the Tech Industry

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Interview with Aniyia Williams, Founder & CEO of Tinsel

Where did the idea for Tinsel come from?

Well, the idea for Tinsel came from my own pain points: I use my headphones every day, but I got tired of digging at the bottom of my purse to find them – wearing them on my body would solve that problem. But I also spent too much time putting an outfit together to have it be downgraded by white rubber wires and I don’t want to look like a wannabe DJ. I felt like it needed to exist as a piece of jewelry but I couldn’t find it anywhere. Eventually, I thought, “why couldn’t I be the person to make it?”

When did you officially launch the company?

In 2011, my husband Marco and I took a leap of faith moving to SF from DC (he’s an engineer, I decided to quit my job and figure things out once we settled in). When we moved to Bay Area, I ended up at Voxer. To get my foot in the door, I started as a part-time office manager. By the time I left in 2014, I was running the marketing team. But after 3.5 years, I was ready for a new challenge. I went and talked to Tom Katis, Chairman & CEO (at that time) of the company to tell him I was leaving. During that conversation, I mentioned that I had this idea in the back of my mind for a jewelry piece that would transform into headphones because I wanted to get connected to an industrial designer. Tom ended up not only introducing me to a friend who became our first advisor but committing to invest in and getting my idea off the ground. He had seen my work ethic and ability when making my way through his organization and was willing to support me. Once he committed, I stopped interviewing for other jobs and started Tinsel.

What were the first few days like?

During that time my co-founder Monia Santinello and I spent a lot of time working from each others’ houses. The earliest days were a lot of networking – really, trying to find anyone who had any remote piece of information I could use. You know that saying “you don’t know what you don’t know?” My first goal was to try to figure out everything I didn’t know, and then find people who DID know those things and to help me figure this out. Product design, manufacturing, headphones, anything. I started buying headphones taking them apart and putting them back together. I bought clay and beads and would try to cobble something together to give people a visual of what I was going to create.

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I eventually hacked the clay and beads together with the deconstructed headphones and made this *rough* prototype to-show our industrial designer. It was ugly! But along with my chicken-scratch sketches and some Pinterest boards, I brought my vision to our industrial designer who was able to translate it into something beautiful – that was the original Dipper audio necklace.

What has the last year been like for you and the Tinsel team?

F*ck. It’s been a lot. [Laughs]. The most interesting thing about this journey is that I have learned so much. Things you can’t even imagine. The growth has been crazy. There have been a number of challenges, without making it all sound too dire. There have been challenges in manufacturing. We’re transparent and always put things up on our Indiegogo page. We try to maintain our timelines as much as possible but with manufacturing it’s been blow after blow. It’s really a serious reminder of how much respect I have for my team, and Monia. Some things are out of our control, but there are many issues we know we won’t have with the next product after getting slammed on the first go ‘round: that’s also part of the learning curve of making something that’s never been made before.

Why did you apply for the Entrepreneur In Residence (EIR) program?

A founder friend of mine emailed me the link to apply for it saying I should check it out. I applied in the last few days of it and didn’t really know how much of a shot I had at it. But I knew it was something worth pursuing. I was in a place where I wanted to sow as many seeds as possible to set Tinsel up for success and this was one of those opportunities. Now having been an EIR for 6 months, I could not have imagined how impactful this has been for Tinsel and me personally. What I’ve been exposed to, seeing things in a way I hadn’t seen before: all really good stuff.

What has been the highlight of the EIR program?

Getting to meet and know more founders of color. Really being able to connect with them and know they’re out there. The EIRs have become like family to me, which is crazy because we all live in different cities. Being able to be in the Galvanize community has been awesome – so many cool things are always going on on campus that I can take advantage of. It is inspiring to know there is that infrastructure for folks to take advantage of. Plus, seeing the impact of the events I’ve coordinated for Code2040 and Galvanize and actually seeing people walk away feeling like they got value out of it, that means a lot to me.

Why should others apply for the EIR program?

Above all, for the exposure to what it really means to build a business in Silicon Valley as a Black or Latino founder. It has shifted my perspective dramatically. It’s brought up a conversation that I want to have and need to have with other founders. It can be heavy. It will transform you and inherently transform your business because of the resources and people you will connect to. It will change your company for the better, but you will personally be awakened in a way that you didn’t expect. It can be intense, but it’s experience and knowledge you absolutely need to have as a business leader. For that reason, I’m glad that the Code2040 team is planning to find ways to support more founders beyond those who are chosen as EIRs. So apply!

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Who inspires you as a leader in Tech?

There are so many people who inspire me. Mostly my peers like the other EIRs, and many others I’ve met along the way. In terms of mentor types, I have a lot of love for Arlan Hamilton – she’s one of Tinsel’s investors, but I’ve gotten to watch her VC journey alongside experiencing mine. I feel like we share a bond because we’ve both had ups and downs making our respective endeavors happen. I’ve also had some poignant conversations with Sharon Vosmek from Astia. And really, people who have been willing to sit down and talk to me in a not typical way. All that talk of “build your MVP, get users, raise money” – that’s all noise. You can read that on a million different blogs today. I appreciate having real conversations with real people. The people who have inspired me the most are the ones who made themselves accessible, who sat down with me and gave me a candid depiction of the hard issues to overcome that help companies grow. This has helped me visualize how to build my business through that lens, rather through some book that everyone says you should read because it tells you “how to build a startup”. Much of the information that is out there is great advice for white dudes or people with great networks… not so much women or people of color. I’m never going to be like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Mark Zuckerberg. So hearing from people with experiences and backgrounds similar to me, that has been powerful.

What impact do you hope to have on the Tech Industry?

Here’s the thing: I’ve said this many times in my life and this still is true. Regardless of what I’m doing, Tinsel, EIR, anything I’ve done before, anything I will do after, I have always said I didn’t necessarily need to be a person who changes the world. But I have always wanted to be the person who sparks something in the person who changes the world. I want to do my part in making the world a better place, which I know is ridiculously cliche, but it’s true. I care about the betterment of others. The work I do everyday is focused on supporting women and people of color. Building Tinsel made me want to pursue this even more after I saw how little consideration women get in consumer electronics – there is currently this one size fits all mentality, but now that electronics are now in the forefront of our everyday lives, they should represent the different people who use them. Opportunities for women and people of color have been key to getting me where I am today. Karla Monterroso from Code2040 made this analogy that stuck with me: a company that has had a successful exit in Silicon Valley is like winning the lottery. We see people becoming millionaires all the time and we know that white dudes have plenty of lottery tickets. What I hope to do in this life is create more lottery tickets for women and people of color.

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