Aminatou Sow on Making $300,000 and Sending Money to Her Family

Aminatou Sow. Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photo by Krista Schlueter

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want. As part of the series, we’re interviewing successful women about how they feel about their paychecks and bank balances.

Aminatou Sow usually has four or five income streams at any given time. Currently, she is best known for co-hosting the podcast Call Your Girlfriend with journalist Ann Friedman. The duo sold out a nationwide tour last year and are now working on a book, Big Friendship, to be published in spring 2020. Sow also co-founded Tech LadyMafia, a network she runs with Erie Meyer that aims to boost women on the tech-world ladder. Previously, she worked in digital marketing for Google.

The child of a diplomat father, Sow was born in Guinea and grew up between Nigeria, Belgium, and France, landing in the United States at age 19 to attend the University of Texas at Austin. If one thing is universal about all of these cultures, Sow says, it’s that “everybody is fucked up about money in a very specific way.” Last year, she made over $300,000, which she used to support her extended family, pay health-care bills after a cancer diagnosis, donate to political causes, and splurge on a trip to Japan. Here’s how she got this money.

What does your income look like right now?
Last year I made over $300,000. A lot of that was from the book deal. The rest came from public speaking, the podcast, and sponsored “influencer” stuff. I have mixed feelings about doing sponsored content. I’m like, This is not a real job. It’s a weird thing, and I can’t believe that we’re here as a society. The reasons I do it are because (1) it’s lucrative, and (2) it allows me to give away as much money as I want. I treat it as a fake paycheck. Some usually goes to savings, but a lot of it goes to charity. I’m not just, like, a good person; I’m an LLC, so giving away money reduces my taxable income. But also, there are a ton of causes I care about, and it feels good to write them big checks.

Is the sponsored-content work fun?
The SmartWater sponcon that I did last year, I enjoyed. Everybody I work with at SmartWater is pretty awesome. I made over $30,000. Most of it went to GoFundMe campaigns, Donors Choose, or Radical Monarchs, which is basically like Girl Scouts — it’s an organization for young girls of color. I also give a lot to local abortion funds. Somebody needs an abortion, or some brown or black girl wants to study abroad? I will always give money for that.

What about work that isn’t lucrative, but is rewarding?
Public speaking is the least lucrative for me, but it was the thing I enjoyed the most. Twenty eighteen was a very weird year for me because I had cancer, so work-wise, a lot of things were out of whack. That’s part of why I did so much sponcon — it’s a very easy paycheck.

And your health is okay now?
Pretty good. But a lot of my money also goes to paying for health insurance. I have huge medical bills.

How did you get comfortable talking about money and asking for more of it?
On the cringe meter, money is probably the highest. There’s this idea that you’re supposed to be modest and put your head down — that work is your “family” and you’re lucky to be there. But work is not your family. The only way work shows how much they care about you is by how much they pay you.

How did you grow up around money?
I was raised in a Muslim household. At the end of Ramadan we always had elaborate parties and people give kids money and candy. Even though my brother was younger than me, he always got more money. I was like, “This is preposterous.” My parents also gave us an allowance, and there was this expectation that my brother needed more, because he went on dates and had to pay for things. Which I still see at work today. I remember once asking for a raise because I found out how much a male colleague — who did not do as much work as I did — made. One of the justifications the boss gave for the discrepancy was that this person had a family and I didn’t. I was like, “Are you serious? He can have 17 children — he doesn’t do as much work as I do!”

There’s a push now for increased transparency about salaries. How does that work for you, as a freelancer?
I’m in a cohort that shares salary information all the time and refers each other to jobs. It’s a thing we’ve done since our 20s; we’re like our own weird freelancers’ union. It’s mostly women, but there are some men. People’s salaries should be public information. Particularly for women and marginalized people, those numbers are really important. I always tell women to ask the men in their lives about their salaries. On Tech LadyMafia, we have a men’s auxiliary. They’re our go-tos for this stuff — salary, strategy, how to maximize an offer. It’s really good to have those dudes around.

You work with a lot of your friends. Has that ever led to sticky moments around getting paid?
Tech LadyMafia is not a paying endeavor. Erie Meyer and I did that on purpose. We want it to be a resource; we’re just making space for other people to give their ideas. If Tech LadyMafia ever makes money, it should go to the entire community. In terms of working with friends, it’s funny. People always say it’s a bad idea to mix friendship and business. For me at least, that’s not true. I’m a better person if the people that I work with are people that I actually care about.

What informed your drive to make money?
I grew up predominantly in Africa, watching women who could not make choices because of who they married. That had a profound effect on me — I learned that money is the freedom to say “fuck you” and leave. My mom was trained as an engineer and ended up being a housewife. She was the parent who could help me with my math homework. All these assumptions about housewives were exploded in my own home because I was like, “My mom is really smart — why is she not working?” Growing up without a lot of resources, I just knew: Being rich doesn’t solve everything. But it certainly buys you time and space.

Do you have a specific idea of how much money you want to make?
I don’t have a goal in mind, no. The question I wish more people asked is, “How do you spend your money?” Not “How much money do you make?” A lot of immigrant kids send money home. I was sending money home when I was making $28,000 a year. I feel complicated about that. It’s a burden and it’s always there, but also I knew that I would do this when I was a kid. Supporting my dad is something that I’m happy and proud to do. My parents did that for me, and that’s the grand bargain of how African people have children. Supporting the rest of my family, it’s complicated. It just seems like it’s never-ending.

Does it affect your feelings about the idea of having a family of your own — which would mean having more people to support?
For a long time I’d have said no, but the honest answer is probably yes. I already put a kid through college — why would I want to do that again? Also, I had a hysterectomy. I think I have a more realistic expectation of the kind of family unit that I want, or the kind of partner I want to raise children with one day. That’s more in the frontal cortex for me than it might be for some people.

You’ve said that your accountant is appalled at the way you handle money.
She hates that I send money home, even though she’s also an immigrant. She’s like, “This is why you haven’t bought a house!” That’s probably true. But money is very emotional; it’s very psychological. I almost died last year, so I spend my money like somebody who’s going to die. I don’t believe in hoarding it. I don’t have kids or a mortgage. I like to treat my family and friends, and one day I might not be alive to do that. If I do have a family of my own, or if one day I pool my money with a partner, that might change. But for 2019, this feels great.

What was the last thing that you blew your money on?
A trip to Japan over Christmas and New Year’s. It was entirely too much money, but it was incredible.

What’s your biggest money mistake?
So many money mistakes. For a long time I didn’t check my bank account every day, and that’s a thing everybody should do. When I was 20-something, I quit a job and cashed out my 401(K). I would not recommend that, but at the time I needed the money. I also used to be one of those people who never opened the envelopes that looked like financial questions — bills, tax stuff. I was too scared. It’s not as scary as you think. Just open it. Then you can deal with it.

Do you use any techy money tricks or apps?
I’m actually very low-tech. I have an Excel spreadsheet with expenses, budgets, money pots; it’s all in there. My accountant’s like, “Oh my God.” I’m like, “This is how my brain works. Let me have it.” And I’ve been using Digit, an app that rounds up how you use your money and then puts some in savings. That’s usually my “play money.” A lot of friends use it to save for travel. I have a small investment portfolio and a brokerage account because I worked at a tech company and they bestowed employees with some stock every once in a while.

Do people in Silicon Valley talk about the money that they’re making?
The thing I learned in Silicon Valley is that there’s a pot of money bigger than I ever imagined. That’s when I realized I don’t need to feel some sort of way about asking for $70,000 at work when Elizabeth Holmes is making hundreds of millions to kill people with her fake blood machine. Know what I mean? It gives you perspective on how much money is available in the world. The bonus at Google was insane. If you just show up and don’t break anything at work, you get 10 to 15 percent, maybe more, of your base pay as a bonus. When you’re making hundreds of thousands of dollars, that’s not insignificant. But one thing I want to stress is that, to me, ambition and money don’t run on a parallel track. Sure, money is a nice way to gauge what you’re doing in the workplace, but ambition is about working hard and wanting to be recognized for your accomplishments. Sometimes that pays a lot; sometimes it doesn’t.

Aminatou Sow on Making $300K and Sending Money to Her Family