If there's one thing Historically Black Universities are known, it's fostering a sense of interconnectedness for collaborative genius to thrive. Of all campuses, it was on the soil of The Mecca, Howard University, where She'Neil Johnson-Spencer and Nicolette Graves rooted their friendship and aligned their passion for beauty and natural brains. Today, the two have founded a skincare brand of their own, Base Butter, that has not only carved out their niche space in the market but rallied a community of women to glow from the inside out.
It all started with a Facebook message. In the midst of the buzzing anticipation of her inaugurate college year, She'Neil was on the hunt for a roommate with a particular aptness to live with, "Someone who was clean and possibly a Leo because I'm a Leo. And [Nicolette] answered my call."
When the two graduated, there were few Black-owned indie brands on the market, which compelled She'Neil to develop one of her own, "I was really inspired to create something for us, by us with clean, safe, and effective ingredients and celebrated our beauty," she shares. As an escape from her mundane work life, She'Neil followed her curiosity and began to explore her true passion: beauty. What she landed on was a quaint makeup line called, Color Cosmetics, which, although short-lived, led her to the real winner, "I had all these raw ingredients in my apartment and I was like, what am I gonna whip up with this?" What prevailed from the leftovers, was a homemade, natural butter that serviced the body from head to toe.
Photo Credit: Taylor Nickens
The roomies turned business partners when She'Neil sensed that her multi-use skin butter line, Base Butter (the product), was in need of some serious scaling. Meaning: it was time to call in reinforcement. Recalling Nicolette's background in product development, She'Neil knew there was no better person suited for the job than her bestie. As Nicolette recalls, "There was an interesting interaction between wellness and beauty at the time. I was consistently sending [She'Neil] trends and data that I was seeing at work then coming home and being her guinea pig."
The two knew that it was time to develop a product that would keep customers coming back for more, and looked no further than their growing community for the answer.
She'Neil and Nicolette conducted a survey called, Skin Struggles, which accumulated the insights of over 3,000 women to learn not only what ailed their skin, but how they could create a solution. "The women ended up sharing what their skin struggles were, what products they're using, what they hate about the industry, what they loved, and that was the beginning vision of the Base Butter 2.0." What they landed on was their "Hero Product," the Radiant Face Jelly, a staple for their oily, combination, and acne-prone skin to rejuvenate and restore.
xoNecole chatted with co-founders, She'Neil Johnson, CEO, and Nicolette Graves, VP of Product, to learn the secret sauce of running a successful business with your bestie.
xoNecole: For those creatives who are looking to find their business partner, what are some traits that you would recommend them looking for in that person?
Nicolette Graves: You need the Yin to your Yang. A lot of people will say, don't get into business with your friends, but I think when you're very clear on what your strengths and weaknesses are, and the other person's as well, it creates space to have a level of trust. Early on, when She'Neil brought me on, I would always joke like, "Oh my god, [Base Butter] is like your first baby." And I felt really protective of her first baby. Therefore, I was very clear on being intentional about how I came into it helping. You have to trust that the person you're working with has the appropriate decision-making skills in general. There's also the spiritual component.
It's the trust piece and having faith and knowing that person is going to pull up and show up when you can't and that you can be honest. There were some points in time where She'Neil wasn't feeling it and certain times when I wasn't feeling it, so you have to be able to communicate that and know that there's no hard feelings. It's being able to flex between those things and I think we've been successful because of the love that exists in our friendship and the level of respect.
She'Neil Johnson-Spencer: And you have to know that people's track record. I was able to officially live with Nicolette over the past 10 years because we were roommates in college together. So I knew at the end of the day, Nicolette would get it done - she graduated with a 4.0. She knew when it was time to work and when it was time to play. I think that's really important because there are signs when you meet someone and you want to work with them, and sometimes people ignore those times. So since I've been, I guess, "interviewing" Nicolette for 10 years, I know who she is, in and out.
"You need the Yin to your Yang. A lot of people will say, don't get into business with your friends, but I think when you're very clear on what your strengths and weaknesses are, and the other person's as well, it creates space to have a level of trust. There's also the spiritual component. It's the trust piece and having faith and knowing that person is going to pull up and show up when you can't and that you can be honest."
Photo Credit: Taylor Nickens
I’ve heard the term “Hero Product” come from entrepreneurs who describe the product that changed the game for their business. For you two, it’s the Radiate Face Jelly. How did you all know that you had something special with the Radiate Face Jelly?
She'Neil: When Nicolette came on, we were really like, "OK, what problem are we solving?" So from the Skin Struggles survey, we knew that 50 percent of our customers had oily, combination, acne-prone skin. We knew that we needed a solution for at least those skin types. It was also great because it was the type we also identified with and so it was kind of like a personal decision as well. For those with acne-, oily-prone or combination skin, a lot of times we're really scared to moisturize and hydrate our skin because either it's going to leave us oily or greasy or clog our pores. It was that revelation that led us to create Radiate Face Jelly.
She’Neil, you’ve once mentioned that at one point of your journey, you challenged yourself to just put things out there and not be such a perfectionist. What were some steps that you took to overcome perfectionism and how has that paid off in the long run?
She'Neil: I came into the business with a very strong design background, so for me, everything is about design, aesthetics, and being perfectly curated. It would be terrible to the point where I would spend so much time on maybe one graphic just to post on social media. But it got to a point where our brand became a business and I had to really look at the numbers and the bottom line, and make decisions based on what was making us money. That's really when the shift came. Even to this day, I don't want to do anything design- or aesthetics-related with the business because I just don't want to go back there; to being a perfectionist.
At the end of the day, it's really just about the bottom line: what's going to make us a conversion or a transaction? What's going to win us a customer? What do our customers want? The industry has changed to where customers really want that more real and authentic experience. That gave me some room to chill out some. I also became the CEO of my business and learned that everything is trial and error. Nicolette and I really take on this mindset that everything is an experiment; we're either going to hit the goal, or we're going to have a lesson learned.
"At the end of the day, it's really just about the bottom line: what's going to make us a conversion or a transaction? What's going to win us a customer? What do our customers want? The industry has changed to where customers really want that more real and authentic experience. Nicolette and I really take on this mindset that everything is an experiment; we're either going to hit the goal, or we're going to have a lesson learned."
Photo Credit: Taylor Nickens
One common misconception about starting a business and working for yourself is that you have to quit your job and let your business catch you. But for you two, how did having a full-time job help you all build your business?
Nicolette: I'm a single Black woman living in New York and therefore, I need money. We've gone through all the phases of broke entrepreneurship, making money, and all the ups and downs. One of the things I realized is despite having the goal of building this business to be as big as it can be, there are other things I want to do and that takes money and savings and being able to use those resources strategically. In addition to that, I think people have the 9-5 game messed up a little bit. I don't think they realize that when you have a 9-5, you're getting paid to learn. If you're strategic, you'll make sure you're in a role that is consistently teaching you new things.
In my [current] 9-5, I do Product Marketing for a B2B company. Through that, I've learned a lot of interesting things that I get to bring back to our company. Because I've always worked in the startup world, it's allowed me the ability to think of solutions ahead of a problem that might present itself so we're not being reactive, and we can be proactive. It's been like a really interesting space to continue to learn and find inspiration in the weirdest places, while also making sure that I'm financially setting myself up for success as it relates to the wealth gap.
"I think people have the 9-5 game messed up a little bit. I don't think they realize that when you have a 9-5, you're getting paid to learn. If you're strategic, you'll make sure you're in a role that is consistently teaching you new things."
Photo Credit: Pierre Eliezer
She'Neil: I started Base Butter with a 9-5 and ultimately, that funded the start of the business. But when Nicolette and I were laid off, we lived there until our lease ended. I had to make a decision: do I go and find a new job or do I still take this risk and make decisions to still work on Base Butter. Ultimately, I ended up staying in Philadelphia because my expenses were cut a lot and I had the support from my now-husband to build my business. I had to give myself a better financial situation so I could be a better CEO, owner, and founder - if you're not good as a founder, your company's not going to be good.
I thought early on in my business, that I'd just never pay myself until that "one day" we make it big. I thought it would be OK to be broke, broke, broke until we hit a million, but it honestly doesn't work like that. I had student loans, some credit card bills. So I went back to work with the goal of paying down debt, and I had to get very real about the type of life I wanted to live. Nicolette gave me a book called Profit First and from that book we learned how to pay ourselves, no matter how much we were making. Through implementing that model, we were able to start paying ourselves and things got a lot easier from there.
"I had to give myself a better financial situation so I could be a better CEO, owner, and founder - if you're not good as a founder, your company's not going to be good."
Photo Credit: Pierre Eliezer
Most creatives and entrepreneurs are used to only having themselves to look to for support in difficult times along their journey, but you all are fortunate enough to have each other. How do you all affirm each other when in moments of doubt or when you’re questioning yourselves?
Nicolette: We have the advantages of being best friends. We've always said, "If this is not fun anymore, then we'll stop doing it." In addition to that, although we're not perfectionists, I will say we are committed to doing a good job. There's a level of loyalty and commitment to the idea and the vision. Just consistently being aligned or finding room to realign. And understanding that there's no one right way to do anything, so we have to be flexible.
She'Neil: And I also would say we have each other, but because the of the industry being a mix of beauty, entrepreneurship, creatives, [we] do have a community of people who provide insight and advice based off their own experiences.
What’s one thing that you didn’t know prior to becoming business owners that you would impart to aspiring entrepreneurs?
She'Neil: Pay yourself from day one. I feel like a lot of the stress that comes with launching a business and starting a business is really the finances. Like, how am I going to take care of myself? How am I going to feed myself or how to pay my bills? But if your bills are paid, you're eating every day, and have a roof over your head, you can really focus on your business without having to figure out, how am I going to survive?
You want to build your business around what's going to make you happy and keep you satisfied. It's just making sure that you're in a comfortable position so that you can really focus on your business because your business is going to need you to be present. It needs you to be healthy and for you to be wealthy. Build out your financial plan around your business as early as you can to make sure your needs are met.
Nicolette: And to piggyback off of that, I would say there is no one right way to do anything and you have to trust yourself. Going back to the idea of a saturated market, things will always be saturated because none of these ideas are new. It's understanding that whatever you're building is unique because you're unique and different.
But also, I've seen a lot of people taking any and everybody's advice as goals, but you're supposed to sift through that information and discern what makes the most sense for you and your life. In the grand scheme of things, 5, 10, 20 years from now, what do you want your life to look like? Understanding that as long as you feel OK with that, any and everybody else's opinions of the way that they've done it is irrelevant. You can learn things, but it's your journey.
For more of She'Neil and Nicolette, follow them on Instagram @sheneilmonique and @nicolette.camille. Also, check out their brand Base Butter by clicking here.
Featured image courtesy of Base Butter
When Ngozi Opara Sea started Heatfree Hair almost a decade ago, curly and kinky extensions weren't the norm on the market as they seem to be today, especially if you wanted those textures in quality human hair. Beauty supply stores mainly sold synthetic curly hair, and there was a surge of renewal for women who were just beginning to embrace natural styles, taking to YouTube to experiment with new techniques and styles.
"I just knew there was a market out there for women who were going natural, who were big chopping, and who wanted more human hair options for extensions, so that's where Heatfree Hair came in."
Trained as a stylist, she even went as far as traveling to China to see, first-hand, the whole process of manufacturing and shipping hair, and she meticulously came up with the right formula for wigs and extensions to match the beautiful coifs of a client base she was sure would love it.
Image courtesy of Ngozi Opara Sea
Today, Ngozi heads a multimillion-dollar empire that includes the Heat Free Factory, which runs exclusively to manufacture the company's line of products. Customers can get closures, wigs, wefted tracks, clip-ins, and ponytails in textures that range from 3B to 4C. The company ensures you're getting 100 percent virgin hair that can be dyed and styled just as if it were growing out of your scalp, and the versatility is very evident, with options that can go from blow-outs, to twist-outs, to wash-and-gos, to kinky twists, to Afros, and back.
Well, we still can't ignore the fact that the market has also changed tremendously. There are now hundreds, if not thousands, of online vendors selling curly extensions, and so many new hair companies are cropping up via Instagram and Amazon. And some brands that once only offered straight and wavy hair have been diversifying, and even beauty supply stores have finally caught up.
The difference with Heatfree Hair is that it continues to stand out, scaling for longevity in the hair space and building an online community of 200,000-plus to boot. With her factory, she's also disrupting by being self-run and self-managed. (Thus, sis is, essentially, the plug, cultivating what her company offers from start to finish versus adding a custom tag on products that were bought from a secondary source or vendor.)
Image courtesy of Ngozi Opara Sea
"We were―and still are―very selective with what we offer our customers, from how the hair is sourced, to the production, to the marketing. We want our customers to truly feel beautiful and purchase hair that they can be proud of spending their money on."
So, the question is: In what is often seen as a saturated market, how can an entrepreneur remain viable and thrive? Let's take a page from Ngozi's journey with these key points for success. (And a plus: These insights can apply to any business or industry):
1. Authenticity dominates every time.
Ngozi and her team are keen on remaining true to the company's goals of providing premium human hair that is responsibly sourced, with an emphasis on premium and proper sourcing. "When you're dealing with human hair, it's important to know exactly where it came from and to be honest about what you're getting, how you're getting it, and the quality. There's a commitment to really be part of that process and to look at what we're choosing to supply women who are going to use our products to style their hair," she added. "We don't really chase trends or what the next person or company is doing. We like to really target what we do and excel at that."
2. Trends can die but great customer service never gets old.
"We have been able to build a good relationship, and the key to that is great customer service," Ngozi said. "It's really been great because the customers we had in those early days are the same customers we have today. Customers No. 1 or No. 50 are still buying from us," Ngozi said. "And having a customer retention rate of above 40 percent just shows the level of customer loyalty we have as a company."
And what does good customer service look like? It's actually asking your customers what they like, what they would like to see in the future, and getting insights on how exactly they use your products. It's also quickly addressing issues, being relatable, and putting customers first in any initiatives or campaigns you choose to do to market your products or services. A good word on a great experience from one customer can lead to many new customers and thus, loyalty ushers in growth.
Image courtesy of Ngozi Opara Sea
3. Know when to pivot and diversify what you offer in order to continue to show up for your loyal customers―and gain new ones.
"With Covid, we had major issues with the manufacturers shutting down. HD lace had become very popular and everyone wanted it, but we couldn't get lace. There was a shortage," Ngozi said of a recent challenge her brand faced. "Well, we decided, hey, let's offer the headband wigs. And they began to sell out! Our customers really loved those, so we're glad we were able to pivot to offer that since we couldn't with the lace wigs."
For Ngozi, it was a matter of thinking of how she could cater to the needs of her customer when her company couldn't offer something else that was in demand. "It's another product part of our line that can be an asset along with, now, the HD lace wigs and closures. Oftentimes it's about timing and reacting in a way, again, that serves the customer."
4. Forward-thinking is key, and having a vision separates a short win from a long-term one.
"Listen, in 2019, we were thinking of 2020 or 2021. We're always trying to get a step or two ahead in terms of what we dream of doing. We like to strategize what we'll offer way ahead of time," Ngozi said. When you have a vision that focuses on the future, you're not so set on duplicating what someone else has done or trying to be a replica of another concept. Having a mindset that looks to the future and seeks to be a trendsetter vs. a follower of trends, is a must.
5. Do your research and build an understanding of the ins and outs of the industry you're in.
"I moved to China and really got to know all about how they made the hair, how the hair was produced, and the whole business behind it. I like to have a hands-on presence in what I'm trying to do," Ngozi said. It's also a great idea to research the ingredients, processes, and other aspects that will contribute to solving a specific problem or meeting a need. For Ngozi, it was always about being able to give women the opportunity to provide extensions and wigs that could be a positive part of growing one's kinks, curls and coils. "We just want women to enjoy the experience, to wear our products throughout every transition of not only their hair but of their lives, and to enjoy!"
For more on Ngozi Opara Sea and Heatfree Hair, visit @ngozioparasea and @heatfreehair on Instagram or HeatfreeHair.com.
Featured image courtesy of Ngozi Opara Sea
Growing up, Eunique Jones Gibson didn't have to look far for positive imagery that reflected who she was and where she came from. At a young age, Eunique's parents wasted no time instilling the importance of self-love and embracing the richness of Black culture. From her father's afrocentric, Cross Colours-based style to seeing herself through the lens of Lena James, Jada Pinkett's confident persona on A Different World, Eunique's surroundings began to paint a colorful portrait of the worlds that true representation could form. She points out, "That was my entryway into really embracing the culture and understanding the power of who we are and being critical of false narratives." It's no wonder that her work in representation through entertainment and media no less found her.
Early out in her career, the power to influence through advertisement served as a compass to direct her career pursuits, "When people used to ask me what I wanted to do that, I always said I wanted to influence decisions in 30 seconds or less. Because that's what commercials do." But for Eunique, the power to influence doesn't stop after the commercial ends, true impact transcends fleeting attention spans and viral moments that evaporate within the vapor of a swipe or click.
Photo by: Eunique Jones Gibson and Ashleigh Bing
The creative-entrepreneur proved this to be true, most noticeably through her Because of Them We Can campaign and instant-classic game, Culture Tags. In creating her Because of Them We Can campaign in 2013, Eunique recognized that Black History Month was in need of revitalization, "I wanted to refresh it, make it youthful, engaging, and inspiring. I saw the opportunity to do that through photographs and eventually to evolve it from that point." As the campaign grew in online popularity and potency, it garnered the attention of prominent figures like Oprah Winfrey to Kerry Washington, "I thought it was going to be a 28-day campaign, but I also realized that in order to be true to what I was trying to prove — which was that we need to reimage Black History, I had to lead by example."
The example that Eunique continues to set is one that's rooted in her mission to celebrate culture and community through the highest form of resistance: Black Joy. Her new game, Culture Tags, has served as an instrument for joy as many have looked for a delightful escape in the midst of quarantine. Restoring play and festivity back into our households, Culture Tags continues to find new life as outside reopens, guaranteeing to be the life of any cookout or rooftop party where the game makes an appearance. "As Black people, we've gone through and continue to go through so much as a community that oftentimes joy is all we have to look forward to. It's up to us to preserve it, protect it, and create the space for it."
xoNecole: Your project “Because Of Them We Can,” garnered viral success with the images that you shared of young Black children portraying notable Black figures. You mentioned once that you “wanted to refresh Black History,” could you tell us about that mission to refresh/reimagine Black History and how that’s evolved today?
Eunique Jones Gibson: When I started the campaign in 2013, I didn't see a captivating push that made Black History interesting and exciting and something that wasn't just black and white photos. Black History was relegated to the narrative that in order to make history or be a figure or a person who could be acknowledged in Black History, it was a typical lineup of individuals that we learned about in school but it didn't expand beyond those individuals. It also typically ended up revolving around individuals who, when we talk about Black History Month, were older or people who were deceased and we know that Black History is constantly being made. It's always taking place, it's taking place right now as I'm talking to you.
I wanted to do something that would make it interesting to learn about figures throughout history that paved that way by refreshing those images and allowing folks to see them through the eyes of a child. Because then, you become a little more interested in the story and the individual beyond your bias or what you may think based on what you've heard or haven't heard.
Photo by: Eunique Jones Gibson and Ashleigh Bing
Because of all the success that you did receive from that campaign, was there anything that surprised you about the feedback you received or the response in general from your community?
I think at the time what really surprised me was the fact that people wanted it to continue beyond Black History Month. It was almost as if it became my responsibility to keep it going. I had started something bigger than what I had initially thought it was. I thought it was going to be a 28-day campaign, but I also realized that in order to be true to what I was trying to prove, which was that we need to reimagine Black History, I had to lead by example. I don't think I expected it when I launched it and I certainly didn't expect to be eight years later to still be building upon that foundation.
Your game, Culture Tags, is one of the hottest new games for us. What inspired the creation of Culture Tags?
We are a big entertainment family; we love game nights and it really just dawned on me at some point that we needed more games! We needed more options that were rooted in our culture. Not games that we can play because we understand the rules and because they're fun, but games we can play because they bring back the nostalgia and excitement because we know that it was made with us in mind.
The inspiration behind Culture Tags is that same inspiration behind all of my work: it's to celebrate culture and community and to make sure we are represented. I started to think about it back in 2019. One day, I was online and saw a really long abbreviation or acronym and all these people were commenting, "Why do I know what this means?" I was definitely in that same group where I was like, "Yo, this is wild, I know what this says!" I've tried to train my mind to see the opportunities beyond what's on the surface, I immediately said, this is a game!
Courtesy of: Eunique Jones Gibson
Your agency, Culture Brands, has recently been tapped to become Hyundai’s African American agency of record. Why do you think it’s important for big brands to tap firms and agencies that are actually of the culture, especially when it comes to portraying our images in advertisement?
Because we exist. We live it, we eat it, we breathe it. It isn't something that we have to study, it's something that we innately know. In order for brands to portray an authentic representation of their customer base when they are targeting Black folks, they should have experts at the table who can present an authentic story and picture. You can't do that when you are not of the culture.
There are certain things that you will miss, certain things that you will overlook, and that will never enter the conversation because you don't have that first-hand knowledge. You have to bring in people who eat, sleep, and breathe it — and people who can respect it. It's one thing to create culturally relevant content but the content also has to be responsible; it can't be exploitative.
Someone who is of the culture should know how to ensure that we are represented without allowing a brand to co-op the culture or present themselves as a culture vulture. There has to be people at the table with a voice to guide in that direction. A lot of times you have people who are in the room but are not at the table or people who are at the table but don't have a voice, or if they have a voice, no one is listening. We have to make sure that when brands invite multicultural or African-American companies to the table, that they are ready to listen and learn and to implicate the learnings and expertise that these agencies are offering.
"It's one thing to create culturally relevant content but the content also has to be responsible; it can't be exploitative. Someone who is of the culture should know how to ensure that we are represented without allowing a brand to co-op the culture or present themselves as a culture vulture."
I was listening to your interview on Luuvie’s IG Live and one of the things that really resonated was when you shared, “You’ve got to trust your vision. People steal ideas all day, but you can not steal a vision.” In your eyes, what is the difference between an idea and a vision?
Ideas come and go, and oftentimes they are inspired by a need. They are inspired by the environment and things that are happening around us but I think that the difference between an idea and a vision is that a vision makes the idea scaleable. A vision makes the idea sustainable; and gives [the vision] value and validates it beyond that moment. And it gives you direction. It helps to guide the direction that you move in. Oftentimes your ideas may change, but they should back into your vision.
Beyond that, I also don't think it's a good idea to fall in love with your ideas. I think you can execute them and like them, but you should not fall in love with them. You should commit yourself to whatever your anticipated goal is: fall in love with the goal, not with the idea that might get you there because that idea can shift, but if you commit to the goal, you might see that there are multiple ways to get there. Which is why you have to anchor yourself in the vision.
"A lot of times you have people who are in the room but are not at the table or people who are at the table but don't have a voice, or if they have a voice, no one is listening."
Something that many creatives may experience along their journey is analysis paralysis in not really knowing where to start with their ideas. What advice would you give to someone who may be sitting on an idea or hesitant to take a leap into their dreams?
I always say, "Date your dreams." A lot of times you can look at an idea as a dream or something that you want to execute or explore and I think you have to date it and spend time with it. You have to obsess over it, analyze it from different angles, poke holes in it. What's good about this, what's bad about it? What makes sense, what makes this crazy? You date it.
I also think you have to be willing to bet on yourself. After you've gone through that process, if you've come out on the other side, you've got to be willing to fail. If you're not willing to fail, then you will never try. If you're willing to fail, then you can take the risk to move forward with the idea understanding that if you failed, you really just learned.
Photo by: Eunique Jones Gibson and Ashleigh Bing
"Mistakes happen for us to patch the holes, to ensure that our baskets stay full once the blessings start coming in."
What’s something that felt like a mistake in the moment, but turned out to be a pivotal lesson for you along your journey?
I've had multiple moments like that. My mentor tells me, sometimes the thing that feels horrible that we lament over because they happened to us, really happened for us. He likened it to medicine that tastes horrible but at the end of the day, it does us some good. I think it can only do us good if we maintain the perspective that it's all an opportunity to learn and improve and not make the same mistakes that we made before because we are more informed this time.
Failure has been a consistent part of my process and they have been big and small, and costly - whether it's cost me money or peace of mind, they are not inexpensive! But I have learned from each one of them to ensure that I do not make the same mistake again. Mistakes happen for us to patch the holes, to endure that our baskets stay full once the blessings start coming in.
For more of Eunique, follow her on Instagram.
Featured image courtesy of Eunique Jones Gibson
Scroll through your social feeds, and you're very likely to spot at least one reference to being a "boss," or "bossing up." There's always talk about getting to the bag or hustling, but do we really know how to boss up? I mean, when we get past the cliches, what do these catchphrases really mean? Is it a title, an action, a lifestyle, or all of the above? For TV exec Melissa Ingram, it's not the traditional dog-eat-dog, what-can-you-do-for-me, rat-race adage, nor is it necessarily all about hustling.
"It's really my framework of servant leadership that is drawn from a great book that I have studied. And the secret is: Great leaders serve."
This focus on servant leadership has clearly benefited our good Spelman sis (HBCU tribe, stand up!) and University of California, Berkeley grad. She wears multiple leadership hats as Senior Vice President of Multicultural Networks and Strategy and General Manager at UP Entertainment, one of the foremost media companies that celebrates and showcases Black lifestyle and culture.
And let's get into some more career receipts: She started out as an associate lawyer at Atlanta's Alston & Bird, LLP—one of the largest law firms in the southeast—and eventually advanced to working as an associate lawyer at The Carter Law Firm, representing singers, record labels, and songwriters in the South's mecca of music.
Then she joined UPtv in 2009, working as part of the counsel, business, and legal affairs teams, and was privy to the transition into the company's partnership with NBA legend and entrepreneur Magic Johnson to launch AspireTV. She moved through the ranks, from Senior Director of Business Affairs Development on to VP and General Manager.
Aspire was eventually acquired by UP Entertainment, and Ingram's now in charge of executive strategy and management at the company, which offers programming including Just Angela (starring Angela Simmons) and Unboxed with Nikki Chu (starring the celebrity designer and entrepreneur).
"Reading and analytical thinking are things that come into play even as a business executive. So, critical thinking—the thinking outside the box—that's creativity, and that's what I'm still doing today. I can look back on things now and say, 'Oh, I thank God for that experience and that training' because it really has come in handy today."
Ingram urges all women to get comfortable with infusing service in the act of leadership because it literally does wonders for our personal and work lives. "It's rare that we hear people say, 'Serve others,' but we should use less 'I' and 'me' in talking and more 'us' and 'we.' I'm an advocate of this."
She's guided by an acronym for S.E.R.V.E. that we can all learn and grow from. (And go ahead, sis, print these phrases out and put them up at your desk, on your vision board, or somewhere near your work space. In these post-pandemic times, you need every bit of extra inspiration, motivation, and sheer love to keep you going throughout our work day. Thank us later.)
S - See and shape the vision.
"What I'm talking about is not only the vision for your life, but for the brand and any team you may be part of. When you are in leadership or aspiring toward leadership, part of your responsibility is to create a vision that others can buy into and understand their role in. On a day-to-day basis, I'm trying to bring clarity and make it plain for my team. I also allow the people I work with and my experiences to inspire me to create a bigger vision."
E - Engage and develop others.
"When you invest in others, they begin to trust you. And it's always been purpose over position for me. Don't get so caught up in a title. Ask yourself, 'What's my purpose in this role? Is this an opportunity for me to serve and bring my unique skill sets to the table to help others?' As a manager, if your team succeeds, you succeed. Even if you're not a manager, you can still seek to develop and engage others. You may lack title and status now, but [don't] fail to see the power of influence that your role has. That's more powerful than any position or title."
R - Reinvent continuously.
"True leaders always learn and grow. Be adaptable. Things change. We know this. COVID has happened. Life happens. And you don't want to let inflexibility cancel or block your opportunities. We often believe that once you set a vision, it's done. You don't touch it and leave it alone. But you have to be open to evolving. When roadblocks happen—when you're forced off campus, the office is closed, or you get laid off— then how do you adapt? How do you reinvent?
"What should never change is your authenticity. You must be you through and through. Lean into your uniqueness, and find companies and roles that allow you to come in and be yourself. If you're an entrepreneur, build a business that respects and celebrates the differences of others."
V - Value relationships and results.
"I cannot stress this enough. We are only better together. From the front desk to the mail room, everyone matters. Everyone you come into contact with, whether it's at the interview or on the first day at the job—they matter. What also matters is delivering results, being a woman of your word, and pursuing excellent work. That's valuing relationships and results."
E - Embody your values.
"As a leader, if you don't, you will be called out really quickly. If you've done all the other things in this acronym, but you don't embody the values, then you aren't living what you're preaching. I'm very keen on the fact that I want my teams to grow and develop under my leadership. [That means] meeting with them, having check-ins, and making myself available for things they are working on. That's key."
Featured image courtesy of Melissa Ingram
When you think of a trucker, the image of a beautiful, skinny-jeans-wearing, caramel-skinned woman behind the wheel is probably not what comes to mind. Indeed, the $791 billion industry is dominated by male drivers, many of which are over age 55 and white. But Casey Cooper is helping to change that, one million-dollar contract and one woman at at time. She is among the growing number of women in the industry, and among the few Black female millionaires who owns a company that continues to thrive.
The Virginia Beach, Va. native, and founder and president of The Compass Circle definitely knows what it's like being a boss in a male-dominated industry who built her business from the ground up. And the idea for the business, according to Casey, was sparked from sheer vision and abrupt inspiration. "One day I literally woke up, and I was like, 'You know what? I think I'm going to buy a truck.' And I couldn't tell you where the idea came from. Nobody in my family was in trucking. I just literally woke up one day and said, 'I'm going to do this.'"
Image courtesy of The Compass Circle
When Casey started in the industry, she liked the idea of employing others to drive, but she ended up having to learn how to drive for herself. "My priority at the time was to figure out how I was going to finance the first vehicle. I was 25 when I started, so I didn't have a lot of credit and I didn't have a whole lot of money." Her first investment was in an $80,000 dump truck. "Luckily my mom was able to co-sign for me, but that was only the first challenge. The second challenge was the down payment [which was] $2,500 back then, and I had a fiance at the time who helped me with the funds."
Casey also faced a third major hardship simply not seeing many people who looked like her doing what she was attempting to do.
"Trucking wasn't popular for women at the time, so I didn't have any point of reference. I was like a fish out of water."
To further turn her idea into reality, she began researching the credentials needed to drive and studying a free manual from the Virginia DMV. She took the commercial license permit test and passed, but when she asked a few mechanics she knew to help her with driving experience, they didn't take her serious. "They laughed me off the lot, like 'Girl, you're not going to be able to drive!'
She eventually found drivers who she'd pay to ride with her every day. "I knew I could still make money while getting the feel of everything. I thought it was best to learn how to drive first because in the future, if somebody's truck broke down, a driver quit, or even if we needed to take the truck around the corner to the shop, somebody needed to be able to be able to drive. Thank God I had the presence of mind to at least go through that driving process early on."
Image Courtesy of The Compass Circle
The more money Casey made taking on hauling projects, the more she'd invest back into her business, and she was able to expand her truck fleet and work with more drivers. She'd research more about ways to expand her clientele and make more money, and she later found out that the major profits were made via federal contracts. "Initially, I didn't know what I was doing in terms of the process of going for those contracts, but it was through those contracts I was really able to scale my business. I ended up just applying. I know there are a lot of myths related to that, and true, [getting federal contracts] happens so many different ways for different people."
For her, the success was seamless once she learned about the proper paperwork and other important protocols. After her initial three government-funded projects, she was able to earn $6 million in profits.
"For anybody who is looking for longevity in the business or to get your feet under you financially, try the federal sector. And it doesn't have to be huge multi-million-dollar contracts. In fact, the profit margins on smaller contracts are a lot greater than on the larger ones."
Trucking isn't limited in terms of the types of businesses you support or the types of hauls you transport, Casey added. It could be anything from construction materials, to retail goods, to farming materials and animals. No matter what the haul, she's a huge advocate of getting your business certified. "Getting the woman-owned certification is how I got my very first contract, and I had another certification that allowed me to get my first million-dollar project."
Casey's company is also part of the 8(a) program which levels the playing field for disadvantaged small businesses to have the opportunity to take on federally backed projects, providing a fair chance for women and minorities.
Today, her days driving have been replaced with managing a network of drivers, traveling to conferences, hosting events, and meeting with clients who either want to get into the trucking industry or who are already in and want to take their careers or businesses to the next level. She's now built a business where she can earn passive income, and she's cultivated a following of more than 270,000 on Instagram alone. She conducts global events to teach budding entrepreneurs as well as industry veterans about how to level up and reach the seven- and eight-figure mark. She even has an extension of her brand in the works that she said will be "the Uber of trucking."
"Being creative and coming up with new projects, new incentives, new concepts—I just love using that, combined with my background in project management, to help my clients bypass the challenges that I've gone through."
As a divorced mother of two, Casey has now developed a sense of pride in the financial and time freedom, luxury lifestyle, and redefinition of what success and motherhood looks like after launching a successful business. She's relocated to Miami, enjoys yachting, and travels the world both for business and for pleasure.
"A lot of times people are like, 'Oh she's just a pretty face,' but when I open my mouth, I can't fake about the information that comes out. You can't fake knowing about these certifications. You can't fake this stuff. It's a chance to dispel those myths. I didn't have some NFL boyfriend or a rich dad to put me in position. I really got this out of the mud. Being able to show up, present, as I am, I bring all my gifts with me. I like to really show people that I'm not some cute girl. I really can stand toe-to-toe and talk this talk and walk it."
Featured image courtesy of The Compass Circle
Valeisha Butterfield Jones Is Breaking The Mold As The Recording Academy's First-Ever Chief Diversity Officer
Valeisha Butterfield Jones is no stranger to bossing up through career transitions. Sis has resume receipts that put the proof in the pudding of more than two decades of leadership. Let's see: She's been the global head of inclusion for Google, served as the national youth vote director for the Obama for America campaign, worked for the U.S. Department of Commerce, and served as the executive director at Rush Communications (think, Def Jam, Baby Phat, Phat Farm, and Hip-Hop Summit Action Network).
She was also the national director of diversity and inclusion for the Alzheimer's Association and was an innovator at HBO before that. Oh, and let's not forget she co-founded the Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network (WEEN), a nonprofit coalition that ensures adequate representation of women of color in entertainment roles that has impacted the lives of more than 80,000 young women across the globe.
Yes, Butterfield Jones has been booked, blessed, and busy.
Now, she's become a pioneer, serving as the first-ever chief diversity officer at the Recording Academy. (And she'll soon take on the role of co-president this August.) The organization is the driving force behind the Grammy awards and initiatives like MusiCares, which gave more than $20 million to aid creatives impacted by the pandemic.
"We have an opportunity right now to be the change that we want to see. That's one key goal," Butterfield Jones said in an exclusive interview with xoNecole. "The second goal is equitable outcomes for everyone. I'm always thinking about who doesn't have a seat at the table. Whose voice is not being represented and how do we lift as we climb and bring those voices and perspectives into the room? The last part is if you can see it, you can believe it. I think it's important to have Black women in roles like this, so I don't for a second take this responsibility for granted."
"I think it's important to have Black women in roles like this, so I don't for a second take this responsibility for granted."
xoNecole caught up with Butterfield Jones, knee-deep into getting in the thick of ensuring inclusivity and diversity in her new role, to talk about how she's been able to navigate the now-normal of working, connecting, and thriving during a pandemic and how today's young women can reach the career success they seek despite the current challenges.
xoNecole: You have successfully worked in a variety of industries, from tech to entertainment, to politics. What has been the common thread in your journey?
Valeisha Butterfield Jones: I've always said that I want to make sure that I leave no gift behind when I leave this earth. Impact and purpose are two of my core values and the drivers for me to make those decisions. It's been this nice 360-moment for me to return back to entertainment, but it's always been just part of my core and my passion.
It's been difficult for many women to make career moves, especially during a pandemic when graduates weren't even able to have normal undergrad experiences. How can we really go for what we want while overcoming the challenges?
I don't know a single person that hasn't felt like a fish out of water or that imposter syndrome. I know that, for sure I feel it whenever I make a big change. You're not alone. We all go through that in some shape or form, but do it anyway. So often fear can be the greatest motivator if you just use it to your advantage. I've now learned that whenever I feel the butterflies or I have the temptation to shrink in the room when I take on a new role, I've got to just really lean into that and use it as the fuel. I'm actually afraid, now, of the day that I start a new role and I have no butterflies. It just shows that you're alive and that you're human and you care. And don't lose the humanity of who you are in all these new positions and transitions.
"So often fear can be the greatest motivator if you just use it to your advantage. I've now learned that whenever I feel the butterflies or I have the temptation to shrink in the room when I take on a new role, I've got to just really lean into that and use it as the fuel."
Also, you've still got to set healthy boundaries and do it up front. We always have a tendency, especially as women, to want to do a great job, to over-perform, to over-deliver, however, don't do it at your own expense—the expense of your mental health. I've learned now to have mentors and the importance of sponsors—people who are going to say your name when you're not in the room. I've learned the importance of knowing when to just shut the computer off, put the phone down and be present in my real life outside of work.
You have an amazing group of power women friends and colleagues in your corner, and we all know that these sorts of connections help us all sustain ourselves in building careers. How have you been able to keep in touch and continue to connect?
I'm really blessed to have the most beautiful and amazing sister circle of just women who go hard. I'll also say that [having] a good friend means being a good friend and by that I mean so much as you receive you have to give. So for the pandemic, it's been hard, because we haven't been able to physically see each other, but whenever there's a job opp, we send it to each other in our group chat. We share therapist recommendations. We share in-home, Covid-friendly massage recommendations or even just offer a listening ear when we need it. It's nice to have friends who don't feel pressure but we lean on each other when we need it most.
Whenever someone needs to meet someone, we facilitate the introduction if we have the ability to. It just means taking that extra step as a friend to make sure whatever your sister needs, if you're able to, you provide it. Also, it's giving one another space and grace.
This has been great! Now, what's your advice for young women to work toward long and sustainable careers, particularly in entertainment?
First, you must have a bias for action. A lot of people talk a good game and can give a beautiful story around the work they've done, but it's not until you're able to really go into an organization and demonstrate that bias for action. It makes you stand out and become undeniable to the fabric of the company. It sounds simple, but it's not. It means waking up― every day―with that hustle, that mentality, and that go-getter approach to the work―every single day.
The second is innovation. The entertainment industry is constantly evolving and tech has shown us that we have to stay current, and stay fresh in our skills. All the time I'm participating in new workshops and taking new trainings and just trying to make sure I'm leveling up at every stage of my career still. We want to make sure our skills still match up to what our industry still needs.
"A lot of people talk a good game and can give a beautiful story around the work they've done, but it's not until you're able to really go into an organization and demonstrate that bias for action. It makes you stand out and become undeniable to the fabric of the company. It sounds simple, but it's not. It means waking up―every day―with that hustle, that mentality, and that go-getter approach to the work―every single day."
The last one―which is probably the most important one―is self-care and taking care of your mental health, your physical health, and your heart in this very competitive male-dominated industry. So often we operate as robots―getting it done― and then we look up one day and realize that our health has declined as a result. Taking care of your heart and your mental and physical health, taking breaks, using your vacation days, and just getting centered [is important]. Get a therapist. I really believe we all have to treat our health with more intention, especially during this pandemic and even coming out of it.
For more of Valeisha, follow her on Instagram.
Featured image by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images