Although Sheila Brooks has never stepped foot on a battlefield, she knows the sting of corporate warfare.
Brooks, founder and CEO of SRB Communications, said keeping her clients happy—from the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando to merchandiser Target to telecommunications giant Verizon – as a public relations executive means a daily battle to sustain companies’ images and brands.
But while others in her field have folded, the African American PR veteran has prospered enough for two decades as a corporate communicator to have amassed tips for would-be entrepreneurs.
“As women and African American business owners- you have to work for people to take you seriously. It’s serious when you get into business. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to persevere,” Brooks told the AFRO.
“There’s also the fear of taking a risk- saying ‘I’m going to go out there and become a business owner, ’” she said.
Brooks began her own career working for free at a Seattle, Wash., news station as an intern four months before graduating from the University of Washington in 1978.
She moved through the ranks with her degree in broadcast journalism and then earned a degree in political science at Howard University.
It didn’t take long to attract attention- NBC, CBS, and Fox all were pleased with her writing and keen eye for news. But 13 years into an award-winning career that ranged from news reporting and writing to broadcast news producer and anchor, Brooks decided she needed a change.
The year was 1990.
Like many entrepreneurs, Brooks was at a crossroads- one that led her to begin her own company in her own home 23 years ago.
She was finally her own boss- a dream picked up as a child in a neighborhood where even the struggling man on the corner fixing up cars owned his own shanty mechanic shop.
“I saw that all the people in my neighborhood seemed to own something even if they were poor or disenfranchised,” said Brooks, who’s own divorced and single mother found ways to feed, clothe, and care for two girls by keeping two full-time jobs on top of the side work such as renting rooms.
“I saw that she made extra money from that. Those kind of role models-even though they weren’t wealthy or middle income- worked.”
Brooks told the AFRO that, regardless of the type business, there are a few things every entrepreneur needs: first-class management skills, a crew of hard-working talent, good advisors for finances, marketing, and human resources- and of course, access to capital.
And she’s not the only one pushing the importance of sound finances and financial advisors when starting a business.
For more than three decades Stanley Tucker has been investing in minority businesses in efforts to build up minority entrepreneurs and in turn- their communities.
Tucker, president, CEO, and co-founder of Meridian Management Group, Inc. (MMG), said he knows his away around the banking and investment world when it comes to small businesses and is keenly aware of what makes them prosper and what makes them fail.
“In terms of management, we realize that most of the entrepreneurs are first-generation. They have never run a business before- even if they worked in a business it’s different,” said Tucker. “It makes a difference what side of the check you sign.”
“There are three challenges that we see,” said Tucker of small, minority-businesses. “Money, markets, and management. Based on our experience, those are the challenges.”
Tucker said that undercapitalization is a major problem among minority businesses in today’s economy especially if they don’t have a strategic plan to grow at an appropriate pace with an in-depth management team.
Like Brooks, one of the keys for new businesses is marketing, which in today’s environment means brand power.
“With social media, we are deliberately creating a brand for our clients. If you really want to be known for who you are you have to be a brand,” she said. “You want to get the message out there and you have to have customers and stakeholders who trust and recognize the value of your brand- then they become followers.”
Whether it’s an ad on the side of a bus, radio spots, layouts for websites, or print media, Brooks said branding is the “vehicle that builds” companies these days because having good public relations is no longer enough.
Along with brand-building Brooks said companies have to think long-term, something she hadn’t considered until the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington occurred. The fallout from those attacks resulted in sharp cuts into her short-term contracts with many government agencies. Overnight she lost 60 percent of her business.
“That was when I got smart and started looking for more long-term contracts.
That’s when I started looking for 5-year contracts,” she said, adding that she was more prepared when the economy was rocked several years later.
“In 2007 and 2008 we lost another significant percentage of the business, but this time it 25 percent,” she said.
Brooks said all businesses should have a plan on how to bounce-back after failure because so many entrepreneurs will encounter setbacks. And as Tucker put it, “In business, if you’re not making mistakes you’re not taking any risks.”
“You learn from experience,” she said.