Ayana Parsons: A Fearless Architect of Change

Ayana Parsons

By Asia Nail
The Truth Reporter

In today’s world of transformative leadership, Ayana Parsons stands as an unwavering force, fueled by a profound passion for diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) and a relentless commitment to closing the wealth gap. Her journey unfolds as a testament to the intersection of personal conviction and societal impact.

An award-winning leadership expert, board & CEO advisor, public speaker, and serial entrepreneur, Parsons’ unwavering mission is nothing short of global change. Her life’s purpose is to dismantle barriers, empowering generations to realize their fullest potential professionally and personally.

“I grew up in a small town in Arkansas outside of Little Rock named Hot Springs,” she shares. “My love for diversity and belonging came from being in a lot of spaces where I was the ‘only’.”

Parson’s passion for belonging and economic equality traces back to the heart of her experiences. Growing up in a world where the intersection of race and gender often created barriers, she recognized the need for change at an early age.

“I remember being bused over to what was referred to as ‘the all-school’ to attend the gifted and talented program at Langston Elementary, named after Langston Hughes,” recalls Parsons.

“At a young age my experience sparked so many questions for me. One of them being why the ‘all black school’ had no one in the gifted & talented program? I was also fascinated with money and making sure I’d have plenty of it one day.”

With a vision of a leveled playing field, Ayana Parsons would later go on to receive her Bachelor of Science in Management and an MBA in Marketing, both earned at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. Additionally, she completed Executive Leadership Programs at renowned institutions such as the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Smith College in Massachusetts, and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

Parsons aspired to create a world where historically disadvantaged, underrepresented, and marginalized individuals could rightfully claim their positions in business leadership. Her commitment extended beyond rhetoric, resonating in her future business endeavors.

“I went on to work in leadership roles at organizations like Korn Ferry, Heidrick and Struggles, Procter and Gamble, and Kimberly-Clark,” she says. Each role contributes to the diverse skill set that has shaped her into the influential leader she is today.

“I co-founded Yardstick Management alongside my husband, Ebbie in 2012,” recalls Parsons.

This venture, born out of a desire to reshape education and beyond, marked the beginning of Parsons’ impact on a broader scale.

Yardstick Management, co-founded by Ayana and her husband, Dr. Ebbie Parsons, III, emerged as a response to a call-to-action. Prompted by concerns about the state of education, Dr. Parsons’ mother challenged him to be part of the solution. This led to a deep dive into the world of education and eventually to the company’s founding. Today, the firm serves as a beacon of transformative strategy consulting, extending its impact globally.

“Building a Black-owned management consulting firm came with hurdles,” explains Parsons. “My husband and I bootstrapped our entire business. It wasn’t easy.”

With resilience and strategic vision, Parsons and her team have propelled Yardstick into becoming a trusted partner for major corporations, including Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, LinkedIn, Prudential and Medtronic.

“As it pertains to activism, it’s interesting that I’m here but it’s not a surprise. I’ve always wanted to help people who feel overlooked, marginalized or underrepresented because I know what that feels like,” explains Parsons.

The color of our skin is an integral part of our identity as Black individuals, and it’s essential to emphasize that this aspect of ourselves is immutable. Yet, the disheartening existence of numbers revealing astronomical differences in equity based on skin color does not reflect an inherent or justifiable distinction. Instead, it starkly highlights the enduring legacy of systemic biases and historic injustices that continue to shape our socio-economic landscape.

Yardstick Management: Navigating Challenges in DEI

Yardstick Management, recognized as “Best Management Company in America” by Inc. Magazine in 2022, showcases Ayana Parsons’ prowess as a co-founder. Her legacy extends beyond the boardroom— serving as a cabinet member at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and leading global discussions at the World Economic Forum.

“What’s unique about Yardstick is DE&I were ingrained in the business from the very beginning,” she shares.

In the realm of transformative impact, Yardstick stands tall—introducing over 300 historically disadvantaged C-level executive minorities to their clients’ executive teams. Their extensive Rolodex is more than a list; it’s a treasure trove of unparalleled talent, a mosaic of the nation’s most skilled executive minorities.

“My husband and I had a joint vision of wanting to help organizations change the compositions and complexions of their leadership teams to change business outcomes leveraging DE&I to do that,” explains Parsons.

“My mother was raised in Tuskegee, Alabama where there’s a plethora of Black history; from George Washington Carver to the Tuskegee airmen. This work has been instilled in me from a young age.”

Yardstick’s purpose resonates with a top-down approach—a commitment to opening doors for unseen talent, ensuring they not only find a seat at the table but thrive in C-suite roles. They are architects of change, facilitating the journey for mid-level to C-suite executive talent across diverse functions and industries.

Time Magazine recognized Ayana Parsons for her groundbreaking contributions in its “The Closers” edition. Standing among 18 distinguished Black leaders, Parsons is acknowledged for her dedicated efforts to address and alleviate the racial wealth gap. This recognition underscores her impactful work in reshaping economic landscapes and promoting inclusivity.

Parsons notably sold Yardstick Management last January 2023 to a private equity firm as the largest Black-owned management consulting exit in history.

“Activism is in my DNA. My mother has worked tirelessly in the social work sector. For over 40 years she’s dedicated her life to equal rights for children, fair housing and advocating for closing the education gap,” recalls Parsons fondly.

“To think of it, my Mom was also the first Black woman in our town to become the school board president.”

From the onset, Parsons stands at the intersection of race and gender, navigating the complexities of unique experiences with grace and tenacity. Her story, akin many others, is a testament to the indomitable spirit of Black women leaders who have tirelessly fought for equality.

“Black women start businesses at a higher rate than any other demographic, yet are the least funded,” explains Parsons.

In 2018, U.S. companies raised a total of $130 billion in venture capital funding, yet only 2.2 percent of that total went toward female-founded companies and less than one percent of total funding was allocated toward businesses founded by women of color (FORTUNE, 2018 & GIRLBOSS, 2019).

When we confront the numbers, it’s not about accepting a predetermined fate or accepting an inevitable disparity. It’s a collective call to action against the structural inequalities that have persistently held back entire communities. These disparities are not an inherent reflection of our capabilities or worth but are the shadows cast by historical injustices and discriminatory policies that demand our attention, rectification and dismantling.

In lieu of this, Parsons’ body of work includes co-founding Fearless Fund, the first venture capital firm for women of color by women of color. Today, the fund has a diverse and dedicated team of committed professionals who have invested $30 million in more than 40 companies, driving substantial economic impact.

“What’s interesting about Fearless Fund is co-founder Arian Simone  and I just set out to solve a problem. We didn’t set out to be pioneers, or to win awards. We certainly didn’t set out to be the face of a federal lawsuit.” (Follow The Fearless Fund For Updates)

In a world where political headlines often overlook the impactful contributions of Black women, Ayana Parsons’ journey breaks through the silence, punctuating the narrative with her dedication to economic justice. From the historic election of Kamala Harris to the groundbreaking appointment of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Black women are making history, yet they remain a minority in leadership roles, facing enduring economic disparities.

When the Fearless brand was born the mission was to create a world where women of color have equal access to the resources and support they need to succeed in business. Fearless Fund invests in women of color led businesses seeking pre-seed, seed level or series A financing. Their mission is to bridge the gap in venture capital funding for women of color founders building scalable businesses.

“We’ve invested in more than 40 companies over the past four years,” says Parsons.

Fearless Fund proudly received the 2023 TRIUMPH AWARDS honor, a distinction presented by Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network. This recognition aligns Fearless Fund with a prestigious lineage of historic figures, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Tyler Perry, Angela Bassett, Quest Love, Queen Latifah, and Spike Lee, who have all passionately championed social, racial, and economic justice.

Against the backdrop of pressing civil rights concerns, this year’s dedication to the plight of equity takes on heightened importance.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives have faced increased scrutiny and criticism, a challenge further intensified by the recent Supreme Court decision to curtail affirmative action in higher education, making the recognition of Fearless Fund’s courage in the realm of business particularly poignant.

This legal development has now provided ammunition for those seeking to criticize DEI efforts within corporate America.

Still, companies like Revolt media acknowledged Fearless Fund’s impact by featuring it on the esteemed 2023 Power List. This list spotlights influential personalities and catalysts for change across various domains, such as music, entertainment, sports, business, fashion, and social justice. In the company of other influential names, Fearless Fund’s recognition reflects its powerful influence on the intersection of business and societal progress.

One of the many success stories of Fearless Fund is Melissa Butler, Detroit owner and founder of The Lip Bar, who is now the largest Black-owned cosmetics brand in Target.

“Melissa didn’t come from the beauty industry; she just sought to solve an unmet need,” explains Parsons.

“In her first year of sales, she generated about 27K, and now she operates a multimillion-dollar business, underscoring the importance of capital support when you’re scaling operations for product development and supply chain growth.”

Breaking the Bias: Dismantling Assumptions Tied to Identity

As we weave together the narratives of being Black and the broader fight for women’s rights, recognizing the intersectionality of these challenges illuminates a shared journey towards equality. Women of color, grappling with the dual impact of racism and gender-based discrimination, stand at the convergence of these struggles. The quantified inequities should not be a verdict on any group’s abilities but a stark reminder of systemic barriers obstructing progress.

Impact-Driven Investing: Parsons’ Perspective

As a veteran in the field, Parsons navigates the intricacies of impact-driven investing, offering a nuanced view of its integration into mainstream business practices. With a keen eye on the broader investment community, she gives insights into how the landscape is evolving, sharing,

“Venture capital and private equity are very male and very white. The broader investment community isn’t always open to differences, so there’s work to do.”

Impact-driven investing emerges as the bridge that connects profitability with a broader societal purpose. Breaking free from the misconception that impact equals diminished returns, this paradigm shift challenges racial biases ingrained in conventional investment mindset.

“In 2024 impact investing doesn’t mean that there’s not a positive return on investment,” asserts Parsons.

This signifies acknowledging that perhaps in the future genuine success will be measured by both financial prosperity and positive societal change.

Future Aspirations: Changing the World

In looking toward the future, Parsons paints a vivid picture of her aspirations. Yardstick Management, Fearless Fund, and her other ventures are not just enterprises; they are instruments of change. Parsons envisions a world where inclusivity and equality redefine the landscape of business and leadership.

“Before I was wealthy, I read everything I could get my hands on,” shares Parsons. “I recommend all business owners do three important things: expose yourself to successful people in your field, access conversations in decision making circles and continually seek knowledge.”

The practical application of Parsons’ strategies in organizational settings ensures that the principles of racial equity and justice are not confined to theory. Her work provides tangible tools for CEOs and companies alike to reshape their structures, policies, and cultures, fostering environments where diversity, inclusion, and fairness breed innovation.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let Ayana Parsons stand as a luminous example of the extraordinary journey women have undertaken to rewrite history, one transformative action at a time. She is an innovator, a trailblazer, and a change-maker inspiring future generations to reach their full potential on the stage of progress. Thank you for standing as an architect of change. In your story, we find not just inspiration but a blueprint for redefining the norms and creating a world where everyone has a seat at the table.

Follow her work @ ayanaparsons.com