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IU Kokomo alumna shares her entrepreneurial journey

Alumni Campus Life Apr 30, 2024

KOKOMO, Ind. — Future entrepreneurs from Indiana University Kokomo gained inside A group photo of people in front of a red background  knowledge of what it’s like to make an idea into a business, from someone who started where they are now.

Katara McCarty, founder and CEO of Exhale and a former IU Kokomo student, shared her experience as an entrepreneur, including winning the $75,000 first prize in the NBA Foundation’s 2024 All-Star Pitch competition. One of 10 contestants, McCarty showcased her Exhale app, a digital platform that offers tools and resources tailored to uplift, empower, and support Black women.

She encouraged the IU Kokomo, IU East, and IU Northwest student entrepreneurs attending to take baby steps toward their goals, so that one day, they can be where she is today.

“It’s one foot in front of the other, it’s trusting your intuition, knowing your ‘why,’ building your social capital that will get you so far in life,” she said. “I got there from head down hard work, being kind to people, showing up in spaces and places where I felt a little insecure, and sticking my hand out and introducing myself.”

Success doesn’t come overnight, she added, noting that she was 52 when she won the pitch competition for an idea she had come up with four years prior.

“It’s never too late to launch your thing,” McCarty said. “It’s never too late to believe in yourself. It’s never too late to shoot for the stars.”

Growing up in Kokomo, her family’s goal was for her to graduate from high school. Teachers and guidance counselors encouraged her to dream bigger, and she remembered being astounded to be accepted at IU Kokomo.

“Having IU Kokomo here gave a young person like me the opportunity to go to college,” McCarty said. “It was special to have a place I could drive across town and not have to pick my whole life up and move. I’m really grateful IU Kokomo is in the community and is continuing to grow and thrive.”

While she did not complete a degree, McCarty said going to IU Kokomo helped her discover where her interests lay, as she took courses in business and African American studies.

She opened her first business, a nail salon, in her mid-20s, before moving with her family to Marion, where she and her husband opened a non-profit that ran an after school program for at-risk children. Later, they built a school in Zambia.

The idea for Exhale came in 2020, when she heard news reports that the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting the Black community disproportionately, and news about the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police.

“As a Black woman, I could feel that collective stress, worry, and anxiety,” she said. “Growing up in Kokomo, my grandmother taught me how to show up for community and how to take care of your community. When all of that was happening, I started asking myself, ‘Well Katara, how can you show up for your community in a meaningful way?’”

She was looking for and not finding resources to manage her own stress and anxiety, so she decided to create them herself and make them easily accessible. That was the beginning of the Exhale app. Almost 30,000 women have downloaded the app in more than 55 countries.

“It’s been a beautiful thing we’ve been able to put out into the world,” McCarty said. “I want to make social change with the work I do. My idea, my business, didn’t come from a place of ‘This is going to make this amount of money, here is the market fit.’ What came first was that I saw a need in my community, and I wanted to offer resources that are needed, and to make social impact and social change.”

McCarty advised students to remember why they started their businesses, especially when they are being told no, to trust their intuition, and to build networks of people who may be able to help them.

“Social capital, relationship building, and making connections with people have gotten me so much farther than someone writing a check,” she said. “It’s a game changer. When you’re in rooms with people, make connections.”

Connections made through an accelerator program got her foot in the door for the NBA pitch program, leading to the $75,000 investment in her company.

“I’ve had to shed smallness and be in those spaces and say, ‘OK, I’m emailing you and we’re going to connect,” McCarty said. “When people ask how they can help you, be ready to answer that question. When someone asks me, I have three to five bullet points. Believe people when they say contact me. Be ruthless if you want to talk to somebody and follow up with them.”

Jenny Sheets said it was interesting not only as a student but an alumna to hear what someone who was in her place not that long ago had to say. Sheets and her husband own a contracting company, which she manages.

“I learned that it’s all possible if you continue to work in the area that you’re really good at,” said Sheets, from Rochester. “Hers was definitely being able to brainstorm new ideas, but also using the skills she has. She’s clearly good with people. For myself, I’m the one who is really good with people, and could focus on the networking to help us expand further, while my husband works more directly with clients.”

Elise Breisch, Kokomo, has entrepreneurial ambitions as well, and was interested in McCarty’s journey.

“Hearing about her journey and how it started at IU Kokomo was inspiring,” she said.

Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.

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