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Interview with EmpowerMe! CEO Adrienne Graham

Looking to start a career-coaching business? CEO Adrienne Graham offers some great advice.

Adrienne Graham is the CEO of EmpowerMe! This Atlanta, GA based organization has been offering access to professional networking, development courses, and publishing since it's founding in 1998.

Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?

Empower Me! is a media, publishing and professional development company. Under the media division, we have Views From the Top, a weekly radio show that addresses career and small business topics, and Empowered Woman TV, an internet TV channel launching in July. We have four shows currently in development.

Under the publishing division, we are launching Empower Me! Magazine and a series of books, CDs and DVDs focusing on professional development, networking, social media branding, entrepreneurship and small business management.

Under the professional development division, we launched Empower Me! Institute, which offers real time live web based classes in career management, entrepreneurship, networking and social media branding. We currently have a proprietary platform under development to enhance the learning experience. We also offer small business growth, career, and networking coaching as well as social media branding consulting.

While the company was created for women, we have recently designed some offerings for men. We found out we had a substantial male following who felt the information and services we offer are applicable to women and men.

Wow, that sounds like a pretty big job. When did you start the business?

Empower Me! started in 1998 as a small informal network for women of color, when I realized (at the time) there weren't many resources specifically for women of color. But I reinvented the business and officially launched (or re-launched) in 2008 as a media, publishing and professional development organization. It is no longer exclusive to women of color and we have an international reach, male and female.

What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?

This is actually not my first business. I ran a recruiting firm for 6 years, then retired in 2000. In 2002 I started another recruitment firm Hues Consulting & Management Inc. focusing on global inclusive diversity. I currently run Empower Me and Hues Consulting.

Sounds like you'd have some good advice…

I would advise anyone looking to start a media, publishing and professional development company to a) not be afraid of technology (it really levels the playing field); b) leverage social media as much as possible (it allow you to connect with millions of people without breaking the marketing budget) and c) learn the industries. Media and Publishing are very fickle industries. A lot of it is who you know and who know you. You have to have a strong resolve and be able to handle rejection. The Internet level a lot of playing fields but a lot of the old school traditional mentality till exists.

What outside resources were helpful for you? Business incubators, Chamber of Commerce, SCORE, ….

For my recruiting businesses I didn't tap into outside help. Sometimes I wish I did. But because Empower Me was a different type of business for me, I sought the assistance of my local Small Business Development Center (SBDC). My counselor has helped me refine my strategy, work on my business plan, given me ideas on marketing strategy and has been very supportive. I believe it's good to have that support and impartial sounding board.

Did you operate your business from your home? What were the challenges and benefits to this strategy?

Yes I currently run my business from home. The benefits were being able to maximize the hours in my day, being able to create a studio at home for minimal cost, and not having to commute.

The challenges are also great. Some that I've encountered included colleges not taking my business serious because it's home based (a college wouldn't let me hire interns because I didn't have a commercial structure), every once in a while, I'll get sidetracked by housework (even after working at home for over 15 years), and for clients who absolutely must meet in person, I need to travel to them. I don't bring clients into my home. I use video conferencing for many clients, but there are still a few hold outs who don't feel comfortable with it. It is also hard for me to shut the door to my work when it's under the same roof. I'm still learning to set boundaries.

For women entrepreneurs, what specific advice would you have for young women who would like to become an entrepreneur? Are there specific advantages, disadvantages to being a women business owner?

My advice would be to make sure you are passionate about it first, then go for it. We are living in an ideal time to create businesses. Many people are either one paycheck away from being laid off or in danger of their job being eliminated. Find your passion and talent and then start planning your business.

I would encourage everyone before moving forward to write their business plan. It's your guide, your blueprint. Really assess yourself to see if you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur. It takes a lot of commitment, time and hard work. If you have what it takes to survive and the passion and belief in yourself and your business, nothing can keep you from success. I don't see gender as an advantage in any business, but it does help to get your woman owned certification. Certification can get you closer to obtaining government, state and local contracts and key contract from major corporations that set aside projects for women owned businesses.

With the current economy in a slump, what cost saving tips would you have for a new entrepreneur?

There are several things you can do to save money. For staff, hiring part time or contractors is cost effective, especially for project based work. You save expenses you would have with a full time employee. A virtual assistant is ideal if you need support but not full time. They work remotely and you save on office expenses. Working from home is always a great option for some businesses. No commute time extra expenses on utilities or commercial rent.

Make your office paperless. Sign up for services like eFax to receive faxes to your email. PDF everything. I use my multifunctional to scan in documents and convert to PDF. I also use a Bamboo Tablet to have clients sign documents electronically, and I carry documents on a flash drive to bring to client locations so they can print an agreement form on their own printers. To save on communications, enroll with a wireless carrier that offers a great deal on cell phone packages for multiple people. You can use a local carrier like MetroPCS to get multiple family lines then pay one bill for unlimited usage at the same amount each month. That way there are no overages or surprises. But local carriers only work in certain areas.

For travelers, one of the major carriers may be a better bet. Skype and DimDim are great tools to use for free or low cost video conferencing. Skype is also great for low cost international calling. If you don't want to opt for a phone line from your local carrier or you're worried about roaming charges or high cell phone bills, MagicJack is a great alternative. You've got your number with you wherever you have an internet connection. I would splurge on internet. It pays to have a reliable connection that's always on. In addition, I also use Verizon's mobile broadband. Having your own is worth it so that you don't pay to use airport or hotel wireless or any other wireless that requires you to pay or buy a pass.

Finally, use social media as part of your marketing. It is low cost and effective if you use it strategically.

Has social marketing worked for you?

Absolutely. I have been using social media since before it had a name. I'm an early adopter who has studied it and developed various strategies for its use to find what work for my business.

The best tool I've used to market myself, business and expertise has been my BlogTalkRadio show Views From the Top. The show has allowed me to reach a bigger audience and funnels those listeners into followers on social networking sites.

Social media has also allowed me to launch contests and campaigns to draw more awareness to the brand. For it to be successful you have to research, strategize, plan, create your message, find your target, implement, track and most importantly engage. I believe a lot of people are unsuccessful with it because they are doing it wrong. They listen to so called gurus who tell them they can make money on Facebook, Linked In and Twitter but never tell them about strategy or any of the other tools out there. They also are unsuccessful because they fail to branch out and try other tools and rely on it as their only means of marketing. It is supposed to be a component of your overall marketing plan.

Finally, a lot of business owners mistakenly believe they can get on the social networking sites and advertise or post links. It alienates potential clients and it labels you a spammer. It makes it harder for legitimate messages to be seen/heard. When in doubt, watch how successful companies are using social marketing, then model (not copy) their behavior.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Not at all. Every experience has been a lesson for me. The good and the bad have helped me become a better business person and have helped me continually grow and cultivate the business. I've had a few major obstacles, but those obstacles made me stronger and wiser. They stretched my thinking and made me step out of my circumstances to find alternative solutions. So as hard as some of those situations were, I'm glad I went through them.

Thanks for the great advice Adrienne! Good luck with EmpowerMe!

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