Aniyia Williams to Talk Start-Up Success, ‘From Concept to Coins’

Aniyia Williams

Aniyia Williams, a systempreneur, creator, inventor, tech changemaker and investor, will deliver the 2022 Nisbet Lecturer.

A trained opera singer who is now a leader in Silicon Valley, Aniyia Williams’ career is a testament to the liberal arts. She studied music and Italian at Penn State, but she has learned that her true gifts transcend her coursework. 

On March 1, Williams will deliver the Nisbet Lecture in the Duke Family Performance Hall. Her talk, “From Concept to Coins: How to Launch a Startup,” will share the lessons she has learned from her journey, and how you can turn your most valuable skills into a profitable business, while staying true to who you are. Register for the event; there’s a virtual option for those who cannot attend in person. 

After a stint in development and fund-raising, Williams moved to Silicon Valley where she quickly rose to lead marketing for a start-up that made one of the first social networking apps for smartphones. She left that company to chase a dream; founding Tinsel, a fashion tech company making “electronic jewelry.” The first product: a necklace that concealed headphones so they could hang stylishly around a woman’s neck. 

Today, as founder of Black & Brown Founders and co-founder of Zebras Unite, she’s leading efforts across the tech field to expand opportunity for diverse entrepreneurs and re-focusing on the positive, responsible integration of technology into the fabric of our daily lives.

She joined us ahead of the lecture to talk about her path and purpose. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

I love your background: Opera singer turned tech mogul. When you look back at your time in college, what did you learn that helped you get to your current position? 

That was a question I was asking myself, even as I was in college. Work and success is not a straight line. It’s not as simple as just take the right course in college and get handed the job you want. 

You have to understand what you uniquely bring to any opportunity. How do you turn your most valuable skills into gold? What is the “alchemy of you”?

My superpower, so to speak, is being able to make connections. I'm really good at seeing connective tissue between things and marrying things that seem like they don't go together. 

And that developed a lot during college. The most powerful experiences were the things I did outside of the classroom. I was the diversity director for the council of student government across all 20 Penn State campuses. Even then, I wanted to help people feel like they belong and build across differences. And I started an effort to raise money for an endowment that would fund a scholarship for a student who was furthering the goals of diversity and inclusion on campus. I learned so much about development that I wound up working in that field for a couple of years after college—until I met my husband who was a software engineer headed to the Bay Area.

How did your work in development lead you to marketing for a tech startup?

I didn’t know much about the field. But I knew how to network. And I knew that there had to be something in this tech world that I could plug into.

What I quickly grew to love about the tech industry and startups in general is that when you go into an early-stage company, there's just always more work than people. There’s so much opportunity.

So you moved to Silicon Valley and quickly rose through the ranks of a startup. What prompted you to take the leap to start your own venture? 

I knew it was time to start looking at other opportunities. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So, I talked to the CEO of the company and just basically said, “I don't know what I'm doing next, but I do have this idea.” And that idea was the seed for Tinsel. 

I was using my headphones all the time. And I just got so annoyed with headphones getting tangled every time I pulled them out of a bag. Just wires everywhere. And I was like, “I don't want to do this every time I want to use my headphones.”

I searched the internet to buy headphones that were also jewelry, but they didn't exist. Then I started to get this crazy idea that maybe I could be the person who could make this a thing. 

It's like this whole idea of entrepreneurship: you don't know what you don't know. I didn't know about manufacturing. I didn't know about industrial design. I didn't even know industrial designer was a job until I started asking people questions. 

All I knew was that I was going to talk to people who seemed like they knew something related to what I was trying to do, and to run into the unknown until I hit an insurmountable obstacle. 

And now, your work is less focused on a product than on fostering an ecosystem for diverse entrepreneurs. That seems like a very tidy bow on your college and professional interests.

My work on Tinsel was so fulfilling for me for so many reasons, I wanted the electronic jewelry thing to be a thing. But I felt like I wasn't able to secure the resources that other founders were able to secure. I just wasn't getting the same opportunities. I wasn't getting into the same rooms as other entrepreneurs.

However, I had the fortune of being a part of an entrepreneur-in-residence program that allowed me to connect with a lot of Black and Latinx entrepreneurs around the country. And I started to get a clear picture that I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. 

For women and people of color everywhere in the industry, they're not writing us checks.

Black and Latinx entrepreneurs tend to be entrepreneurs by necessity a lot of time. Even if they never see a dollar of venture capital or any kind of investment money, they are going to build these businesses one way or another. 

And I wanted to be able to provide information for them and build a community. I wanted to just bring all of the incredible knowledge and ingenuity that is unique to us, to a group of people who are doers by nature. I wanted to help them get from idea to launch and making their first dollars. Once they’re doing that, they can have a much easier conversation about investment. 

I’m trying to focus on how to make businesses that are better for the world. I want to make sure the marriage of people, purpose and profit works for everyone. 

Explore the Jay Hurt Hub for Innovation & Entrepreneurship 


  • February 18, 2022