By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times
For Cecilia Pearson, founder and CEO of Birmingham-based Babypalooza, an important next personal and professional step is to invest in Black women who are establishing businesses—just as others made investments in her.
“I had to learn a lot of my lessons the hard way, and I would love to be able to help somebody learn some of the things I learned a lot faster than I learned them,” she said.
Pearson explained that “stats and rates show that Black [business] founders, and particularly Black female founders, get very little [when it comes to venture capital] dollars.”
“The answer to that is to have more founders that are willing to invest in Black females, and they don’t have to be young,” she added. “I think that’s part of our problem; we feel like everybody has to be specifically young. I’d also like to be able to invest in them.”
Pearson’s Babypalooza began as a magazine in 2005 and evolved into more of an events-oriented business, marketing products and providing information both online and via high-energy baby expos. It recently became one of the first four portfolio investments announced by Bronze Valley, a nonprofit, early-stage venture investment platform that supports high-growth, innovation-focused, and technology-enabled companies created by underrepresented founders. Pearson also has participated in Innovation Depot’s Velocity Accelerator, which provides entrepreneurs with hands-on instruction in how to grow and scale their businesses.
“Being at the Innovation Depot for me is not just about Babypalooza, it’s about the ability to contribute to the whole system because, even right now during the transition, I’m on the team that’s helping with Innovation Depot. So, I spend my time on Babypalooza plus other stuff to build the ecosystem,” Pearson said.
“I think of investment as not just finances but knowledge, as well,” she added. “When I wanted to be in Velocity, … I wanted to learn what other people know so I can teach it to other people. With Black entrepreneurs, in particular, there’s a lack of knowledge about how to grow our businesses.
“A lot of the conversations that happen on the golf courses and at cigar bars involve knowledge that’s being passed on from generation to generation, [and a lot of Black entrepreneurs] are missing that. … I want to take what I’m learning about the startup world and share it with others to help bridge that gap.”
Family members were Pearson’s earliest investors. Her sister, LaTanya Bayles, a senior program engineer at BBVA, made the first cash investment into Babypalooza.
“She was the only investor for 14 years. … Friend and family investments look different for every entrepreneur, and mine invested through all sweat and no equity,” said Pearson, adding that her mother, Francine Pearson, was “ride or die.”
“I had this business in the recession of 2008, and I was doing events in Dothan and places like that, not making any money. My mother would pay for the hotel and the food so I could keep doing these baby expos all over the place. … I think that’s pretty significant,” she said.
The women in Pearson’s family were entrepreneurial role models. Her mother was one of the “few black female employees to integrate the staff at the Social Security Administration before going on to be a manager with the Department of Industrial Relations for the state of Alabama,” she said.
“My grandmother, Sarah Hooks, the person I was closest to growing up, was an incredible seamstress. My great-grandmother, Lula Hooks, was born in the 1800s and owned a store called Simmon Hill Grocery, located next door to Wenonah High School on the west side of Birmingham. … She also owned several houses in Birmingham.”
Pearson’s grandfather, Claude Hooks, carried on the legacy and ran the store after her great-grandmother: “This was back in the 1960s, when I think it was hard to have a business,” she said.
It’s not lost on Pearson that her business is located at the Innovation Depot on First Avenue North in Birmingham, which used to be a Sears department store.
“When my dad came to visit, he remembered that … he wasn’t allowed to come through the front door when it was a Sears. [He and I] talk about the entrepreneurial opportunities that exist for me now that didn’t exist for them, just one generation away,” she said. “Things are so totally different.”
Pearson was an entrepreneur before she founded Babypalooza. At age 9, growing up in Hoover, Alabama, Pearson saved her money and bought a stand from which she served Kool-Aid. It became so popular that she bought several of them and placed them around the neighborhood.
“Kids would actually get their moms to make lemonade, and the kids would come work the stand for free,” she said. “And at the end of the day, I would get all these jars of change put at my door.”
The entrepreneurial spirit didn’t stop there. Pearson would organize kickball games on the days the Kool-Aid stands would be out because “I knew that meant kids would drink more Kool-Aid or lemonade, so my sales would go up,” she said.
Pearson also organized a backyard carnival for which children had to buy tickets, as well as a library for which children would bring their books to fill the library and then pay to check out the books.
In addition to excelling as a childhood entrepreneur, Pearson, a W.A. Berry (now Hoover High School) graduate, excelled academically. She completed a double major in marketing and computer science at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama. She went on to earn a master’s degree in counseling from the University of Montevallo in Montevallo, Alabama.
She then embarked on a career in media, starting out with Child Times magazine. When the publication was purchased by a larger company, Pearson realized that there was no longer a presence in the market for first-time moms.
“When you look at the market, you look at what’s not there. When I looked at those magazines, … I saw that there was kind of a hole in the market for another magazine to help parents,” she said.
That “hole” sparked the idea for Babypalooza.
While working on Babypalooza, Pearson continued to work as a freelance marketing consultant for other companies until she traveled to Aruba for a concert about eight years ago. At the end of the trip, her eye started itching. When she returned home, she got it checked and was told there was inflammation in her eye. The inflammation eventually blocked her sight, resulting in blindness in her right eye. After taking medication, her eye cleared up, but the inflammation returned, and she lost sight in her other eye. Shortly thereafter, Pearson became extremely ill, to the point where she thought she was going to die.
“I literally was in the bed for weeks thinking, ‘I’m never going to get back to my normal self.’ That was really the pivot for me, when I realized that if I got better I would make sure I did something with Babypalooza and with my life that would have an impact on other people,” said Pearson, who still takes medication to prevent inflammation from building up in her eye, blocking her vision, and causing blindness.
Pearson stopped freelancing and started working on Babypalooza full-time, just as the platform was getting nationwide recognition from its events. Now the company consists of a magazine that is published quarterly, events, and an app—and it has no plans to slow down, even with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting the economy.
“[As an entrepreneur] you have to have an appetite for high risks,” Pearson said. “[COVID-19] doesn’t bother me is because I have an appetite for being on the edge a little bit. … I see the challenge, and it excites me.”
To learn more about Babypalooza, visit Babypalooza.com.