To hear Tanya T. Morris talk about growing up in Philadelphia is to experience a spoken love letter to our city. You can almost see the Netflix version of her childhood, all warm lighting and nostalgic music framing each scene.
There were the soft pretzels she got every day from the corner store near Samuel Fels Junior High School. The legendary block parties out in West Oak Lane, where her neighbor, Troy Holiday, a barber, would cut the men’s hair; sometimes, Villanova basketball players would even come down for a fresh cut too.
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There were the hometown newspapers she read voraciously, cover stories about Dr. J arriving from the Nets to join the Sixers, for a then-staggering $6 million salary.
There were SEPTA strikes and sports heartbreaks and so many friends who helped fill the void all only children feel sometimes. There was the nervousness and excitement over leaving her neighborhood to travel to Northeast High as a “de-seg baby,” that generation of students who were encouraged to truly integrate our city’s schools.
But more than anything, there were the women coaching her along. Her grandmother, Louise Rhaney, a minister who raised five children and started her own church in North Philly. Her mother, Joyce Morris, a single mother who worked as an administrative assistant for Morris’ beloved Sixers.
“If you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to have people around you who believe in you and support you,” Morris says. “But if you don’t have people in your life that believe in you and support you, we’re here and we believe in you and we support you.”
So it’s fitting, then, that in 2017 Morris launched Mom Your Business, a nonprofit that helps Black and Brown female entrepreneurs launch and grow their businesses, whether they’re in the early stages of brainstorming, or the later stages of seeking capital.
“My mission is to help Black and Brown females turn obstacles into opportunities. Mom Your Business is like coming full circle, having had all those relationships that have shaped and molded me in business and in my personal and my professional and my spiritual life as well,” she says.
On top of mom and grandma, there were women like Ms. Harrell, the teacher who came to the small apartment Morris and her mother shared on Limekiln Pike, to tutor her in algebra on her day off, not leaving until young Tanya got it. Mrs. Grant, the junior high teacher who encouraged her star pupil to seek out the more academically rigorous schools in the Northeast, even though Morris really just wanted to go to nearby Wagner with her friends. There was Jeanne Chaney, wife of Temple’s famed basketball coach, John Chaney, who taught her gym class and coached her basketball team.
All of these women? They instilled in Morris two powerful beliefs:
One, that she really could do anything.
Two, if that “anything” didn’t work out, she could always dust herself off and try again tomorrow.
That ethos guided Morris for years, in her 20-plus years working in nonprofits like Pathways PA, Women’s Opportunity Resource Center, and Urban Affairs Coalition, while she was single-handedly raising her now-grown twin sons, Isaiah and Jeremy. It guided her through her entrepreneurial endeavors: a publishing company and a t-shirt business, a video production company she ran with her uncle.
During her nonprofit years, she remembers attending the city’s annual block captain meetings at the Convention Center: The majority of captains were, like her, women: Black and White and Hispanic, mothers and grandmothers and single.
“Tanya is someone who has this incredible, powerful, sage advice—when she speaks, people listen. But she’s also humble and constantly learning herself, and taking it in. She’s never done,” says Brala.
“As women, that’s what we’re constantly doing,” she says. “Gathering resources and tools together and bringing them back to others.”
She understands women’s endless strength, and the urgent demand for her services: Only 3 percent of venture capital funding goes to women, and less than 1 percent goes to women of color.
Through a combination of her one-on-one coaching and programs she’s led around the city—namely at OnRamp, a program of the University City Science Center and Venture Cafe, where Morris was the Founder in Residence—she’s helped more than 500 women to date. Mom Your Business helps women entrepreneurs with creating or revising their business plans; strategic planning; marketing; team-building and raising capital.
“Ultimately we work to connect them to resources and opportunities that lead to success in business, and in life,” Morris says.
It’s work that fulfills her, she says, because it has a real purpose. Throughout her whole life, she’s seen the women around her juggle so much—parenthood and motherhood and pursuing advanced degrees and working multiple jobs to pay for childcare or a new refrigerator, whatever it may be—and she wants to be that village, that cheerleader, that she feels lucky to have had throughout her own journeys.
“If you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to have people around you who believe in you and support you,” she says. “But if you don’t have people in your life that believe in you and support you, we’re here and we believe in you and we support you.”
Sometimes that support takes the form of her “Mentors, Music, and Munchies” event, a veritable speed-mentoring where she’s able to guide women who are just starting out, often pointing them in the direction of other Philly resources: The Enterprise Center, Women’s Opportunity Resource Center, Entrepreneur Works, Venture Cafe (all, she notes, run by women). Other times, it’s taking women into her eight-week business accelerator program, which focuses on growth strategy and access to capital—preparing for pitch competitions or meetings with angel investors and venture capitalists.
Chrissy Watts is the founder of Philly Experiences, a small business that curates entertainment for the Black LGBTQIA+ community—she’s been in business for three years, has grown thanks to a partnership with AirBnB. But she says she would’ve walked away, caved to the stress and pressure, had it not been for the wisdom and guidance of Morris.
Earlier this year, Morris coached Watts through a pitch competition, helping her secure second place and the funding and mentorship that came as a prize. But more than anything, she instilled confidence in Watts when the going got tough. “Tanya definitely was a huge help in my pitch deck, as she was assigned to be my mentor. I was going through a rough patch in entrepreneurship where I was seconds away from walking away from being in business. I was nervous about bringing it up to her because I thought that made me a failure, but she reassured me that it’s just a phase of the rollercoaster ride many don’t discuss enough, and that it’s common. The weight immediately lifted and I became motivated to complete the pitch, which led to my second place prize!,” Watts says.
“As women, that’s what we’re constantly doing,” Morris says. “Gathering resources and tools together and bringing them back.”
Tracy Brala, the Science Center’s senior VP of Strategy and Partnerships, says that what makes Morris so special is that she, too, is a lifelong learner.
“Tanya is someone who has this incredible, powerful, sage advice—when she speaks, people listen. Like the mom that she is, she always has that loving, caring, I’m gonna push you, I’m gonna get the best out of you aspect in everything she does,” she says. “But she’s also humble and constantly learning and taking it in. She’s never done.”
So of course Morris is an ideal addition to Generation Change Philly, The Citizen’s partnership with Keepers of the Commons to spotlight and support our city’s next generation of change agents.
In 2022, Mom Your Business—which itself is funded by grants, fee-for-service programs, and donations—will be launching its own fund, in partnership with Women’s Way and Zenith Wealth Partners. Details are still largely confidential, for now, but they’ll be hosting their first pitch competition on December 15, as a pilot. Morris also hopes to launch the city’s first-ever women’s co-working space, which could become a permanent revenue stream going forward.
And she says this city she loves can love her back by investing in Black and Brown women’s small businesses. “There are so many ways to do that,” she insists, beyond dollars. Like advocacy, and voting: “Cherelle Parker has a bill right now up for vote, about making our commercial corridors safer. If that bill pases, that’s the type of thing that makes a huge difference to Black and Brown small business owners.”
Earlier in the year, Morris gave a Tedx Talk, in which she referenced the famous Shirley Chisolm quote, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” But there is another Chisolm quote that is perhaps even more relevant to Morris’s spirit, her commitment, her love for the city and for all who cross her path:
“I want history to remember me not as the first Black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States,” Chisholm said, “but as a Black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.”
At the heart of it, that’s what Morris is more than anything: a catalyst, a spark.
The Philadelphia Citizen is partnering with the nonprofit Keepers of the Commons on the “Generation Change Philly” series to provide educational and networking opportunities to the city’s most dynamic change-makers.
Header Photo: Tayna Morris | By Sabina Louise Pierce