Shar Wynter, Founder of Xpat, Inc., Wants to Help Connect and Empower Black Expats Everywhere
Women's History Month may be over, but celebrating trailblazing women and their incredible achievements is something we should do all year long. Whether it's Madam Vice President Kamala Harris becoming the first African-American and South East Asian woman to hold that office in the United States, a stay-at-home mom raising her family, or a woman starting her own business, women continue to step up and and pave the way. To honor the amazing women who are making an impact, we spoke with Xpat, Inc. founder and American expat Sharolyn "Shar" Wynter to get a glimpse inside her life and journey from corporate America to living and working in Portugal.
Originally from Detroit, MI, Wynter wears many hats: she's the founder of Xpat, Inc., community building and lifestyle app designed specifically for Black expats, a diversity and inclusion advocate, a consultant, and a mentor. Prior to entering the tech world, Wynter climbed the corporate ladder in the United States and the United Kingdom before quitting her six figure job at Deloitte to take an adult gap year and focus on her personal goals. She then switched career paths to embark on her current entrepreneurial journey as a tech founder. She has been featured in numerous publications and has been invited to speak on panels since launching her tech company in 2020.
Popsugar caught up with Wynter in Lisbon, Portugal, to talk about her incredible journey.
POPSUGAR: You've done so many things in your career already. What did you study in school?
Shar Wynter: I went to undergrad at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA, and for graduate school I went to North Carolina State University. I studied Math in undergrad and then for grad school, I got my Masters in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research.
PS: What did you envision your career path to be with those degrees?
SW: I actually had no idea [laughs]. I knew that I loved solving problems and that's what attracted me to consulting because I love travel and I love solving problems and I could do both in that career.
PS: Did you have any internships during your college career that were defining moments for you?
SW: Yes, it taught what I did not want to do [laughs]! My first internships were with NASA because I had a scholarship. It was really interesting work from the perspective of we could very freely create our own projects for the summer. My first project was to create how people would live if they were on the moon. I was creating space for them through industrial engineering techniques, so ergonomics. That was a really awesome internship. The other project was trying to build a solar sail because we needed ways to get things up to space and to keep them in orbit a certain way, so it was basically math formulas to simulate a sail. Those were really interesting experiences. But I also realized that I did not want to sit behind a computer all day. I got a request to do other internships, so I started participating in applied math summer programs.
I was learning about jobs where they use math to create videos and creative design projects like Pixar movies. I had a lot of ideas but none of them made sense, so I went to grad school because I couldn't figure out what I was going to do for work. I ended up studying Operations Research and Industrial Engineering because I realized I wanted to solve humanitarian relief problems. I was using math models to solve problems — that's what I did my research in and I interned with Xerox — but I realized I did not like that either. I did all these internships and I couldn't find a good fit, so I landed on consulting because I knew there was flexibility where let's say you have a certain client or industry and you don't like it, you can switch.
PS: How did you get into the tech world?
SW: I worked for Deloitte for 10 years, [which was] on the tech side primarily working with banks. I wanted to work for Deloitte because they paid well and they were only recruiting for technology. If I wanted to work for them, I had to learn technology. I was really scared but it was actually a great thing that it happened! Once I got into technology at Deloitte, I worked in financial services because I joined the workforce right when the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 happened. All these banks were failing so I ended up working on a project working with the failed banks.
PS: A huge part of success is having someone you can turn to for advice, especially for women during their careers. How has mentorship shaped your career?
SW: Mentorship was a big piece for me; more so I think for me serving as a mentor. I feel like I had gotten to where I was through scholarships and being exposed to certain opportunities. One of the things that I noticed from my experience and the students I volunteered and worked with [was that] they just weren't aware of the opportunities. They had the talent and the capabilities, but there was this missing link of the awareness of the opportunities that were available to them. It was important for me to be a mentor a.) for representation purposes, especially being in tech, and b.) to spread awareness so they know you can work with NASA, Xerox, Disney [and that there are] all these different opportunities. I wanted them to know they were available.
PS: You mentioned briefly about the importance of representation — how does that factor into the work you're now doing as the founder of Xpat, Inc.?
SW: That came about because I think it's important to see ourselves abroad. I lived abroad in London for three years and had a really amazing experience. There's an amazing Black expat community there that I feel really shaped my experience and I felt like it enhanced my experience once I got connected to that community. When I was looking to move abroad the second time, Portugal was at the top of my list and I felt really good there, but I was curious what race relations were like there, so I was online trying to search all these expat communities.
It was really hard to find the Black female perspective somewhere. I was on YouTube and came across this channel called Driven Spice. She's a Black woman living in Portugal, and we had a conversation and it was really insightful. All I kept thinking about were two things: 1.) I was frustrated that the default was a white, eurocentric view so it was hard to find an experience that related to me, and 2.) I wish someone else heard this conversation and I wanted to share it.
That gave me the idea for Xpat Chats where I started sharing stories of Black expats living abroad, which actually grew and blossomed and gave me the idea for creating the app. It wasn't that we didn't exist abroad or weren't represented, I just think that we were in these isolated pockets. For me the purpose of Xpat App and the Xpat Chats was to create a platform to bring all these voices together in an app; to give a platform so that we can see ourselves represented but also so we can connect.
PS: When did you launch the Xpat App?
SW: Xpat Chats launched in May 2020, and the app launched in December 2020. I made a promise to myself to launch in 2020!
PS: You took a gap year from your career in 2019 — what happened during that time?
SW: I'm a huge advocate for taking a gap year. For anyone who isn't familiar, it's when you take time off to do whatever you want but you are unemployed, but it's an intentional break for yourself. Mine was to get my health in check and center myself because I wanted to do a career and lifestyle change. After my dad passed away, I reevaluated my life and the direction it was going in and that's when I started saving aggressively for my gap year. I realized I wasn't living the way I wanted to.
My goal was to find a place to live because I wanted to live abroad again. I wanted to explore some passion projects that I put on the backburner for years and to travel and be free. My gap year started off really amazingly. I was traveling a lot. I went to Mexico first, then Senegal, Togo, and Ghana. Then when the new year started there was some talk about COVID-19 but there wasn't this awareness of what we have now as this global pandemic. In the middle of my gap year around March, I was in London at the time things came to a halt due to travel restrictions. Imagine working for 10 years, saving all this money so you can take this gap year to travel the world, and a global pandemic hits. It was interesting, because what I thought I was going to do during my gap year, I had to pivot.
That's how I ended up exploring my passion projects and taking a blogging course, which led to me getting excited about Xpat Chats. I also took a coding course, as well.
PS: What is a typical day like for a startup founder?
SW: It's a lot of meetings [laughs]. I spend a lot of time meeting with people, taking calls, attending pitch competitions, things like that. On a typical day, I'm meeting with someone whether it's interviewing them or doing discovery discussions with other venture capitalists or angel investors. Sometimes I'm attending pitch competitions because I'm trying to get myself set-up to get funded.
I have passion project meetings because I still have backend work to do. Because I'm primarily a one-person team, I'm managing the app and doing the graphics and art and design. You'd be surprised how that takes up the whole day [laughs]. I'm not in a glamorous stage of the startup process but I wouldn't trade it for the world because the liberty at which I can live my life right now, it's such a stark difference from corporate America. I appreciate that about the experience. I wake up excited that I have control over my own time.
PS: What advice would you give to younger entrepreneurs starting out in tech?
SW: Just start. There's so many resources. I think a lot of the time we are waiting for perfect conditions before we start. I tell everyone to just start. Take it one step at a time, you'll never really see the full A to Z, but it starts to make sense because you've started.
The theme of the way I operate now versus the way I used to operate is: progress over perfection. Before I would wait for perfect conditions before I did anything. Now it doesn't have to be perfect because my intentions are good. Give yourself an opportunity to be gracious and be okay with failure. A lot of people are scared of failure so they never start, but it's part of the process. You'll never one hundred percent succeed every step of the way. Be comfortable with failing. The biggest message is encouraging people to get the ball rolling, don't sit on their ideas too long. And you don't have to be the first and you don't have to be the best; you just have to start.
PS: Where do you see the future of the Xpat App and Xpat Chats?
SW: The one big goal that we have is to build the world's largest directory of Black expats in the world. The reason I'm excited about that is because that is powerful for us to have a way to mobilize that community globally and to be able to find each other. When I think about how much meeting other Black expats has elevated my experience abroad, that is why our mission is to enhance the Black expat experience. I wholeheartedly believe in that. I can't wait to get to that point, where we are a common name platform, the Xpat App. This is what I look forward to: creating other avenues for us to amplify our voices and our experiences, like the Black Xpat Awards and the Black Xpat Summit. We have a lot in the pipeline, and I can't wait to share it with everybody.