Muse360 was born in a ballet class at a local YMCA.
A former Management Associate at Citi Bank with a love of dancing, Sharayna Christmas realized she wanted to do more with her time than work in the corporate world. With zero experience in the nonprofit sector, Sharayna jumped in head first and opened her own dance studio. From there, she created Muse360, an organization that provides quality, affordable arts programming to youth in Baltimore City.
Ten years later, Muse360 now includes two additional initiatives: one that helps young people study the arts by traveling through the African diaspora, and the other that educates them on how to develop sustainable income opportunities and employment through the creative entrepreneurship.
We spoke to Sharayna about the passion, sacrifice, hustle, and courage it takes to become an entrepreneur.
How did Muse360 begin?
I grew up in Harlem and started dancing [at a young age] at the Dance Theater of Harlem. What I found in Baltimore was that the young people needed more exposure to high quality programs. Here I am volunteer teaching, so why not create a formalized program? I had no experience but it was something I was able to do based on my background in finance. From that, I started to grow other programs like taking young people out of the country to study the African Diaspora.
What’s your business model?
Muse360 is a nonprofit but we believe in a holistic approach that engages families, students, and staff. It means fiscal responsibility. I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t rely on foundations and individuals to save our programs. We ask the parents to commit to helping us raise money twice a year. The young people also raise money and they do it in a range of ways, like creating their own business such as selling their photography. They raise quite a significant amount.
So everything is funded by the students and parents?
We also have a fee-for-service model which is the dance program. That’s what has really saved us. Not that I knew what I was doing [when I started]; I was a 22 year old girl and it was about how to survive. It always comes down to how to survive. I’m not being a social entrepreneur to be cute.
Have you always worked in non-profits?
I used to work at Citi Group as a finance professional and I thought that’s what I wanted to do. But I got bored and uninspired. I have a very fearless personality. I’m not afraid to take risks. So I went ahead and quit to start building up my programs. I had to learn a lot of lessons. I don’t come from privilege, I come from the inner city. I was well educated and had lot of opportunities but I don’t have a family member who can give me money.
Where does this fearlessness come from?
I haven’t always been like this. I think it probably comes from my mother. She was a single mother. Whatever she said she was going to do, she did it. She didn’t get her degree. She was a community activist; if she saw something wasn’t right, she wouldn’t let it go. I remember when the first African-American teenager was shot by the police, my mom started doing posters, marching.
Being fearless in a city like Baltimore, you just have to. You’ve seen so many injustices. When you expose yourself to other activists or other people with creative backgrounds in history like James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston…if they could be fearless in that time, I can be. Now that I’m older, I’m even more fearless.
I love the Spark of Genius program where you teach life skills as well as creative entrepreneurship.
The students founded Spark. We didn’t have money to travel, so [I decided] we’ll create businesses to support our work. The students raised $3,000 and traveled to New Orleans. The next year [they traveled] to the Dominican Republic. Muse360 is the umbrella program. We are using entrepreneurship, international travel, history, and art forms to develop young people.
Why are you so passionate about social entrepreneurism?
It’s a serious time and a great opportunity to shift the paradigm in creating social entrepreneurs. I’ve always believed in entrepreneurship to reduce recidivism. I have family members who have been incarnated for much of their adult lives. When they get out, they don’t want to take the minimum wage. They’re smart. Why don’t we have programs to help them become entrepreneurs? Give them a chance to use their skills! Or a lot of these young people, college may not be in the cards but they can become great business owners.
A lot of people talk about wanting to find a mentor. What does mentorship mean to you?
The word mentor is not one you hear when you come from the hood. Community is your mentor. Growing up, I had people who were there for me: it might’ve been the church, my mom, a cool auntie. I didn’t learn the word mentor until college. When you become a young professional, it’s like mandatory. Everyone thinks everyone needs a mentor. I don’t necessarily believe that. You shouldn’t have one mentor; you have friends who you hang out with, mentors for certain things. A mentor is not going to save your entire being.
What have you learned through the process of running your own business?
Being an entrepreneur takes everything out of you and it can take everything from you. If I didn’t have fee for service, I wouldn’t be around since there’s no funding for me. I’m sacrificing a lot in the process. Social entrepreneurship needs to be looked at through the lens of where we are in Baltimore, what it means to be a female entrepreneur, your background, skills, values, and morals. Social entrepreneurs are always trying to prove our value. We shouldn’t have to question the value we’re bringing.
What’s some advice you can give to those thinking about starting a business?
1. Start a journal. Do a daily journal, really reflect on your successes, challenges. Do a check-in with yourself.
2. Prioritize based on timelines. I always look at the calendar. [For example], we have a show coming up and this show is going to give me X amount if I sell 100 tickets. How do I do that? What model do I need to implement?
3. Pinpoint three people you might be able to reach out. Get someone that you can call to pick their brain. I can talk to someone who has a youth development organization or someone who has a great marketing model that I can adapt. You become re-inspired and start to put the work in.