Owning a business or running a company is no easy task, which four Chicago Black business owners pointed out during recent sit-downs with the Chicago Defender. They shared why they decided to work for themselves, how they got to where they are today and what young entrepreneurs should do to make their dreams come true.
Meet Tracey Alston
Tracey Alston had always tossed around the idea to one day create her own marketing agency. When the right moment appeared, she almost let fear hold her back, but with the push from her husband, she got the ball rolling. Danielle Ashley Group, named after two of her daughters, became more than a vision, but something tangible. Her idea grew legs and grounded itself into something much bigger than she had ever imagined.
Before stepping over into the marketing world, Alston had been thriving in a challenging, yet rewarding career in radio sales. Through persistence and networking, the recent college graduate was able to land her first job. She was well on her way because by the time she was 25, she owned a major AM radio station, WBEE. It wasn’t until the station sold that she was finally able to make her dream happen. Alston said she learned a lot in those early days that prepared her for her current role.
“If you have had an opportunity to work in media, I can’t speak for all, but media sales in radio really does make you a marketer. Without taking one marketing class because you have a business that has a need, that has the financial where of all to say I’m going to spend money for you to get me a customer and by golly, you better do it. So you come up with promotions, you come up with events; you come up with one-day sales,” Alston said.
She said she loves the connection she’s able to have with the community, especially the Black community. Projects like the annual First Ladies Health Day gives her the opportunity to reach them.
Alston said she never imagined that she would be where she is today. Her agency’s work is being recognized. As a minority Black woman-owned company, she is making huge strides in the industry. In June, Danielle Ashley Group accepted the Silver Anvil Award of Excellence from the Public Relations Society of America at a ceremony in New York City. Her agency was the only African American, woman-owned agency at the event. The company won the award in the Public Service (Partnerships) category for developing the First Ladies Healthy Initiative in Chicago and Los Angeles.
Alston said she has a great team who she can rely on. It’s important to work with people who can bring a skill to the table that you might lack, she said.
Alston’s advice to young entrepreneurs:
“I would say for them, one, go back to the fundamentals that I learned in radio, know your product. Second, you have to really be financially prepared to weather the storm because in business it will not fly upwards always, you will have a decline and when that decline comes, that’s when you really see your substance. That’s the part that shows you and determines who stays in business and who doesn’t.”
Alston also recommends that young entrepreneurs jot down ideas in a notebook that they will revisit. Networking is also essential, as well as collaboration with other like-minded individuals.
Alston’s personal definition of success:
“I’m not afraid of no. When you develop your career based on asking and not accepting no, then you’re going to be successful. I think the fear is asking and yes, I’ve gotten turned down, but not the amount of yeses I’ve received. My successes have been far greater than my rejections. I don’t look at rejection as a lost, I look at it as what is it that I could have done to get better and in radio, as well as the agency side, I’ve maintained all of the fundamentals that I’ve learned in radio.”
The future of Danielle Ashley Group:
Alston said she wants to continue serving the African American community through events and projects such as the First Ladies Health Day. The Walgreens-sponsored event works with more than 40 churches throughout Gary, Indiana, Chicago and Los Angeles. This is its sixth year. On Sept. 28, attendees will receive free health screenings and information on chronic illnesses like breast cancer, HIV/AIDS and more. There will also be raffles, activities and fitness demonstrations. Alston’s goal is to expand the day to even more cities and churches across the nation. Churches can get involved by visiting FirstLadiesHealth.com.
Meet Andrea “Dre” Nichols-Everett
Dre Nichols-Everett launched a fitness center, but the inspiration behind it wasn’t solely about monetary gain. It stemmed from something much more personal. D3: Dre’s Disel Dome Fitness, LLC, 125 E. 26th St., was created because Nichols-Everett recognized that she had a gift to motivate people to be consistent with their exercise routine and live healthy lives.
Even before becoming a CEO, the health-conscious entrepreneur realized that she truly enjoyed working out. Like most, her journey didn’t consist of a straight path, but was full of detours and stops. Looking at her now, some might find it hard to believe that this fitness coach didn’t always look this fabulous. Growing up, Nichols-Everett stayed active with both sports and dance, but when she went off to college in 1989, the pounds began to stick. She ended up gaining 30 pounds by graduation.
Life after college didn’t allow her much time to exercise because her career consumed much of her time. Eventually, Nichols-Everett became dissatisfied with her image and committed to changing. She said she had struggled with staying faithful to fitness programs for years, but finally figured out that she had been approaching the weight loss issue the wrong way. The focus needed to be on just living healthy instead of losing weight, she said. With the new mindset, she slowly began to see results towards the end of 1999. It was shortly after, that she decided to become a certified fitness instructor. She was already working in the staffing industry, but found time to work part-time as a step and kickbox instructor.
The career woman wanted a change in industries so began working in pharmaceutical sales. The new job didn’t fulfill what she was looking for either so she decided to leave her successful career to pursue fitness full time. It was a risk she was willing to take.
Now, having been in business for seven years, Nichols-Everett said she loves her job. What sets D3 apart from other fitness centers, she said, is the family environment.
“My trainers and I, we just want to help people,” she said. “The most important thing for us is that when our members come in the door, they feel that we are family and we want them to get where they want to get to, probably more than they do.”
Nichols-Everett said being healthy looks like:
“I think being healthy is eating responsibly, using food as fuel and not just putting garbage in your body. You have to eat the right foods, but don’t be super strict. The goal is to really enjoy your life.”
Nichols-Everett’s personal definition of success:
“When I have helped as many people as I can to be completely happy with themselves, with their body and how they feel.”
The future of D3:
Nichols-Everett said her fitness center will offer different spin classes beginning Oct. 1
Meet Carmen Lemons
Industry: Food, retail
Some Chicagoans might not recognize the name Carmen Lemons, but mention Lem’s Bar-B-Q House, 311 E. 75th Street, and the light bulb goes off. Brothers Bruce and Myles Lemons opened their first store on Chicago’s South Side in 1954. It’s the sauce that brings people back. Growing up, Carmen Lemons was always in the kitchen, helping out anyway that she could. In 2009 she retired from Chicago Public Schools as a teacher. It was then that she dedicated all of her time to the family business.
“I feel blessed that I have discovered and embraced my purpose in life,” she said. “Not only have I been given the opportunity to inspire young people, I’ve also been chosen to sustain my family’s legacy.”
Lemons said the work is challenging, but calls it a “labor of love.” It takes a lot of commitment and dedication to keep it going, she said.
Connecting with the community is a joy for this former teacher, who said she sees the customers as friends and extended family members.
“We have been in the same community for so long that we know many of our loyal customers on a personal level, they provide sustained support to us, and, in turn, we provide superior quality and service,” she said. “We realize that our customers are the lifeblood of our business, which is why community engagement is so important to us.”
Lemons’ advice to young entrepreneurs:
“Young entrepreneurs would do well to prepare themselves for hard work. Success requires strict self-discipline and adherence to a high standard. With great dedication and a sense of purpose, their efforts will reap great rewards. Also, they should not discount the power of prayer.”
The future of Lem’s Bar-B-Q House:
“My plan for the business is to sustain the rich family legacy that was begun sixty years ago. In so doing, we have secured certification to begin the franchising process. Additionally, we plan to market our famous seasonings in grocery store chains across the country.”
Meet Georgia Parker
Industry: Skincare and hair care
Georgia Parker’s reason for starting a business started with the desire to help other women. When Parker lost her hair due to alopecia she wanted to find a way to grow it back. She used her background as a chemist and licensed aesthetician and trichologist to create a hair-growing product. When acquaintances and friends saw how well it worked for her hair, they begin to inquire and ask for samples. That was the start of a successful business. Parker started selling her Jojoba Hair Growth Treatment Oil out of her home and named the business Ashley Lauren, after her daughter in 1998. In 2001, she was able to secure a location in downtown Evanston. The Ashley Lauren Natural Skin and Scalp Salon, 636 Church St., opened in 2001. Today, her products are in three Whole Foods stores, two in Evanston and one in the South Loop.
Parker said she balances her busy schedule and personal time by making sure she eats healthy, exercises, prays and makes time for relaxing bubble baths.
Parker’s advice to young entrepreneurs:
“Do your research before starting a business. Make sure it is something that would be in demand and study, do your homework. It should be something you have a passion about because it’s something you have to work on day and night to make it work.”
Parker’s personal definition of success:
“I define success as being and having a good healthy mind, body. If you aren’t healthy, you can’t have a successful business. Success means being healthy and being in good physical health, also spiritual. When you’re successful, you need to think about the community, give back.”
The future of Ashley Lauren:
“I want to grow the company bigger. It’s important we take on more stores.”