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In the digital age, influence is power. With content consumption as a group sport and marketing dollars correlating to follower count, she who has the blue check holds all of the proverbial cards. Recently, we’ve watched influencers get a bad rep for selling the fantasy of a picturesque life when the #nofliter version of reality tells a different story. For better or worse, their rise has ushered in the democratization of who has the opportunity to speak to, and sometimes for, the masses.
But some influencers are set on using their influence for good. They are building platforms that leverage the attention to shine a light on societal issues or communities that may have been ignored. Christina Brown has taken that path. The Wharton Business School grad chose to build on her status as an influencer to uplift and empower women of color. And she’s been able to turn that mission into a profitable business. Currently running a mini media empire with three blogs, an event series and a thriving consulting business, the mom of two saw her popularity as a call to action to make a difference in a community she cares about pretty early on. I got a chance to speak with her about her rise as an influencer-turned-entreprenuer, the tough lessons business school didn’t teach her and how she promotes her values with every project.
Shani Syphrett: You started your first blog, LoveBrownSugar, 10 years ago when blogging wasn’t a career. When was the moment you realized that what you were building could be a viable business?
Christina Brown: I think it was around late 2011, or early 2012, when I first started to receive inquiries from brands about content creation and paid partnerships. I’d get offers from companies about writing blog posts and reviews and also about creating digital strategy. Brands were looking for ways to establish their digital presence and didn’t necessarily know how to do that. So, not only were people willing to pay me for my voice, but they also wanted to pay me for my expertise.
Syphrett: You went to a top business school but the type of business you’re in now—blogger, social influencer, and digital strategist—would not have been part of any textbook or case study. What are some things you learned through modern entrepreneurship that business school didn’t teach you?
Brown: Business school doesn’t teach what to do when you fail. You have to actually go through that on your own and it’s a very personal journey. I have failed many times in my entrepreneurial journey. I’ve lost money and there have been many times when a client I was working with didn’t excel the way I wanted them to. Business school can’t teach you how to bounce back or how to do so quickly, which is really important.
Syphrett: Yes, resilience is so important and school usually emphasizes perfection over failure.
Brown: Resilience is a muscle that you build up over time. Relationships are something that take time too. Every relationship you build is an opportunity to propel yourself to your next step. I got my first internship by way of a relationship I made in business school and every job after that was either through an existing relationship or someone referring me. I wish I had known how important building a network was when I started. Every huge opportunity I’ve gotten was by way of a connection or relationship.
Business school also didn’t teach me was how to master my personal finances. That’s a big piece of how you’re able to build up your business finances. I was warned by my parents not to get a credit card because of horror stories of people racking up debt and ruining their credit in college. Parents mean well, but it was really about responsibility. When I graduated from school, I had no credit and was starting at base zero. And that doesn’t help when you’re an entrepreneur. You need to have good personal credit—which turns into business credit—if you want to grow your business. I hope schools start to understand the importance of teaching kids how to manage their personal finances so that they can have the right foundation.
Syphrett: You’ve been a brand ambassador for international brands and secured large corporate sponsorships for many of your projects. What is the key to showing your value to big brands as a small business?
Brown: I think the key to the larger partnerships is being confident in your expertise and showing why it is valuable. I consider myself an expert on multicultural women and how best to sell beauty products to them. I’ve been a beauty and style influencer for 10 years and I’ve learned what my audience cares about by listening to them. If a brand is launching something and they need tips on how to launch it to women of color, I’m able to help in that way. It’s also beneficial for my audience, as an influencer, because they are now getting messaging and marketing that makes sense for them. What I hate to see most is a brand that launchings product and has absolutely no idea how to talk to multicultural women. Because when they fail, it’s likely that they’ve turned us off of the product for good.
Syphrett: So it’s about having expertise but also knowing how to apply it in a way unique to you?
Brown: Yes, I apply my expertise to my mission. I want to see more multicultural women properly represented in positions of power and I also want to see responsible marketing from brands when it comes to communities of color. I know we deserve it. Black women spend a lot of money on beauty and travel. And there are so many categories that we over index in with spending. As a consultant and event producer, I have to bring those statistics and my understanding of this largely untapped market to my clients so that they understand how important it is to partner with me. My hope is that eventually there are many more women of color who can create their own events and get consulting gigs with these companies. You can’t make a change if you aren’t in the rooms where decisions are being made.
Syphrett: And you’ve started your own initiatives to bring more voices to the table. You launched the blog to fill a gap of diverse voices in beauty and fashion. What gap does your event series, POWER Day, fill?
Brown: The gap that I hope I am filling with POWER Day is empowering women of color through personal branding and entrepreneurship. When I started BrownGirlsLove [the larger brand for POWER Day] back early 2015, there weren’t many platforms that tailored specifically to entrepreneurship for women of color. My hope was to find a way to connect women who were ambitious and provide the skills, tools and resources around building a business, managing your personal finances, and finding your unique voice—all of the things I had to learn on my own when I first started. A lot of people have side hustles and a lot of people are trying to figure out how to transition out of their full-time jobs into entrepreneurship. POWER Day and BrownGirlsLove are vehicles to help women of color figure that out with the unique challenges we face.
Syphrett: I had a chance to attend the event this year and peer mentorship seemed to be a big theme. How important do you think it is and what role has it played in your journey?
Brown: I have a different view on mentorship than most people. When I graduated from college, I wanted to find a typical mentor—the wise older person to guide me in my decisions—but I never quite found it in the traditional sense. I had a lot of mentors in my head in the form of people I would look to for inspiration but who were not actually my direct mentors. The internet makes it easier to do that now because you can follow people’s journeys so closely. Lisa Price [of Carol’s Daughter] was one of those mentors for me and it was a full-circle moment to interview her on stage at POWER Day. I have no doubt that our fireside chat was a form of mentorship for some of the women in the room.
Mentorship can and should change depending on where you are. Though I’ve never had a one-on-one mentor that stayed with me from the time I was young until now, I have learned lessons from different people at different stages of my business. When I transitioned out of having a full-time job and started working for myself, my mentors were women who were thriving in those areas. I chose the speakers for POWER Day to mentor the attendees, even if it was only through a panel discussion.
Syphrett: You hinted about the next phase of your mission at POWER Day. Can you give a sneak peek at what you have going on next?
Brown: I’m currently planning to launch a tech platform in 2019 to connect multicultural creators with brand partners. My hope is to increase diversity and inclusion in marketing so more brands can actually book creators of color—whether that’s photographers, makeup artists, designers, influencers—to create and launch campaigns. Again, I want more people of color in the decision-making seats and in position to get coveted brand building opportunities. But opportunity comes with access and visibility so even if you’re doing great things, it unfortunately just boils down to who you know. If you don’t have a relationship with a brand partner, then you don’t get the opportunity. The platform aims to democratize some of those relationships and access so that more talented and diverse creatives get a shot.
January 31, 2019 at 09:09AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs