Find out who you are and do it on purpose. Let’s be honest. Being a mom and an entrepreneur are two of the most demanding jobs that exist. At some point, both roles will do a number on your self-confidence and bring you face-to-face with every insecurity you have, and reveal one’s you didn’t even know you had. To be successful, you have to believe in yourself and your ideas.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Lakesha Cole, Founder & CEO of she PR.
Lakesha is highly regarded for her ability to build powerful personal brands, increase visibility through earned-media, and ensure that women who want a seat at the table get one. Lakesha’s superpower is harnessing those distinctly feminine brand traits and using them to build strategy and messaging to deliver across the media that not only resonates with women but drives long-term wonderment, financial value, and even results at the ballot box.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Born and raised in Portsmouth, Va, my parents were teenagers when they had me, and growing up. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. One of my fondest memories of childhood was going to the “candy lady.” Every neighborhood had one, but we had the best one. Her name was Ms. Rocket. She was elderly, well, at least to us kids. She was our friendly neighborhood store owner and sold mostly snacks from her brick house located across the street from the elementary school. On the menu was some of my favorite candy — Boston Baked Beans, Lemonheads, and Chick-o-Sticks, to name a few. She also had butter ring cookies, chips, pickles with peppermint sticks, soda, and iceberg cups. For those of you not familiar with an iceberg cup, it’s extremely sweet Kool-Aid, frozen in a Styrofoam cup. Grape was my favorite. During those hot Virginia summer months, Ms. Rocket would also sell homemade vanilla ice cream and push-up pops for just a few cents.
Going to the candy lady was a daily thing. After homework, we would ride our bikes until our legs were sore. We picked refreshingly succulent, tart, and sweet mulberries that grew in our backyard. We played outside until the street lights flickered on. At night, we watched our grandparents cook family dinner together; shared our candy and snacks from the candy lady; choreographed dance moves to the latest New Edition song, and dreamed many dreams of what life would be like when we grew up.
As I got older, I often wondered why we flocked to the candy lady every day. We could have easily gone to 7–11 and bought the same items. But Ms. Rocket was something special. She knew our names, or more like, “You’re Sylvia’s daughter.” She knew our entire family and gave us a free piece of candy on our birthday. During the busy summer months, she would bring in all our favorite flavors and new ones to try.
Ms. Rocket was my first introduction to entrepreneurship and the human-to-human connection in business. My dad later opened Wright’s Wright Hand Service, a local carpet cleaning business, and my uncle owned several peddler businesses. Early exposure to business made a world of difference in knowing that ownership and entrepreneurial success are possible for people who look like me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite “Life Lesson Quote” is from Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Over a year ago, I mentored a young woman for one-hour on professional development. She has since landed her dream job and tracked me down last week to tell me all about it and to hire me to give the same mentoring talk to her team. I may not remember my exact words to her, but she remembers how I made her feel, and that’s what matters the most.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Beaches with Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey is my most favorite movie. It follows two childhood friends, Hilary and CeCe, who share a lifelong bond that withstands fights, career up-and-downs, and heartbreak. The first time I watched Beaches, I was 10, and I’ve watched it every year since. Thirty years later, I still laugh and cry at the same moment. It’s funny the different things you notice and lessons learned when you watch a classic movie like this over and over again — things like fortitude and grace and the importance of having good communication and conflict resolution skills. What has never changed is the lesson of friendships and the importance of maintaining healthy relationships. The key to building quality relationships comes down to some fundamental human behaviors: communication and being able to actively listen, displaying empathy, and giving respect to people even before they’ve earned it to gain trust. That’s what Hilary and CeCe taught me.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
My career path is quite unconventional. My background is in communications, but as a military spouse of 18 years, I moved around a lot, making it challenging to maintain a traditional career path. I worked 12 jobs, from economic development to politics to education, before deciding entrepreneurship was the best career path for myself and my family. My dream-to-reality of owning a business started as an idea 12 years ago while sitting in my small California apartment, unemployed with a three-year-old, a deployed Marine spouse, and all of my family 2,000+ miles away. I couldn’t find a job and decided to create my own. I launched an online children’s boutique with 500 dollars during the 2009 recession while working and attending school full-time. Four years later and multiple moves across the country and overseas, that brand had traveled to customers in all 50 states and six countries, paving the way for my first international pop-up store in 2013, the first U.S. flagship store in 2016, and second in 2018.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
My very way of life and business was threatened. The lockdown battered most retail stores and with the decline in foot traffic, change in consumer behavior, and compliance with social distancing guidelines, we could not quickly save the company with our resources. The financial uncertainty was not a risk I was willing to take. One location struggled to recover in an area walloped by a hurricane just one year prior. Our store was a starting point for many independent makers, and most of our sales came from in-store purchases. When the customers left, so did the revenue. Now I’ve pivoted to a business model that is conducive to short-term survival along with long-term resilience and growth.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
Launching she PR was a natural next step. We help women in C-suite and thought-leaders in business and politics accelerate thru strategy and earned-media. We amplify the voices and communicate the stories of progressive women looking for more freedom and creative expression with their messaging and public image. I founded she PR at the intersection of my advocacy efforts, media expertise, and a new life outside of the military. While mourning the loss of one business, I desperately needed a clean break from ending my 8-year retail business. As a longtime mentor to helping women and moms discover how to convert their interests and skills into a profitable business, I realized that I should focus specifically on the rising influence of women.
For me, the “aha moment” is when a colleague asked if she could hire me to consult on her possibilities of running for office. At that moment, I realized there’s space for me to use my best attributes to share the stories of some amazing, ferocious women, all while monetizing my smarts and leveraging my network, and finally using the communications degree that I earned 20 years ago.
As women, we’re at an unprecedented moment right now. Current world events prove that women are more emboldened than ever to own, speak up, lead, and take action. And in the next season of my life, I want to be a vocal part of the movement.
While working on building she PR, a family friend who has worked in the international cosmetic industry for over 25 years asked my husband to help source PPE for governments and hospitals. As entrepreneurs, we’re in the business of solving problems, and this was our way to help solve a global crisis in real-time. We also believe in building businesses together and having multiple streams of income. The timing could not have been more perfect now that our life demands are different, and my husband had retired after 20 years in the military. The procurement process revealed how difficult it was for everyday people to access face masks, disposable gloves, hand sanitizer, etc. We couldn’t get the products we were sourcing for these larger entities for our own personal use. Once the market shift, we decided to create our own supply chain to provide high-quality reusable protective wear to help others protect their family and business. That’s how My Black PPE was born.
We started thinking about accessing more people and meeting consumer demand while generating additional revenue at a minimum cost. With social distancing being the new norm, and everyone is encouraged to reduce face-to-face interaction, vending machines were a logical vertical to explore. In addition to selling products online, we also offer up to 20 product selections to vend a variety of popular safety products and medical supplies, including disinfectant wipes, latex gloves, medical masks, Kleenex, Band-Aids, hand sanitizer, and other PPE supplies, through a contactless payment experience and without having to wait in a checkout line or interact with a cashier. The machines are perfect for high-traffic locations such as hotels, resorts, and airports.
How are things going with this new initiative?
In seven short months, she PR has secured over 200k dollars in billable client work thanks to my honest business reputation, results and receipts, and an excellent network of colleagues who speak my name in rooms full of opportunities.
My Black PPE is also doing well. We secured a few wholesale accounts, hired one employee to handle order fulfillment, and installed two vending machines at Hilton properties. One is near the Clearwater, FL airport, and another at a Universal Studios partner hotel in Orlando, FL.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My husband is my rock. During the Pandemic, we juggle our businesses around homeschooling our three children, ages 15, 6, and 4.
The missed lessons, technology issues, and occasional meltdowns exist even in the best classrooms, especially at home. I don’t think I would have survived if he wasn’t retired and extremely hands-on with making sure the family is always on track. He encourages us to take breaks, get creative, have lots of patience, and make the best of it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
Someone booked a discovery call via my website. My assistant handles my schedule and provides a prospect overview before every call. Time got away that week, and I didn’t review the package beforehand. I wasn’t concerned because I thought I was meeting with an old friend. I expected her to show up in workout clothes per the usual, and we would spend the 30 minutes talking about everything but business.
However, when that Zoom video turned on, my heart dropped. I didn’t recognize the woman on my screen. What are the odds of someone having the same first and last name as my friend? I knew nothing about this woman or her business, and I looked like I just rolled out of bed. She laughed at the t-shirt I was wearing that read, “I told my therapist about you,” and I jokingly responded, “it’s virtual dress down Friday.”
I proceeded to ask questions, although I was drowning in self-doubt. We ended the call, and I immediately ran upstairs to tell my husband how I bombed the meeting. This bothered me for two days because I take pride in my work and level of professionalism. I followed up with a proposal as promised but had already conceded to losing the client.
Two days later, I received a response with the subject line:” Happy Surprise.” One of my dear publicist friends also pitched the same client, and she wanted to know how to work with both teams. That day she PR signed its first 12-month contract.
I can laugh about it now as I’m sure there’s a lesson here somewhere about authenticity and how to pitch yourself even under the worst circumstances.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Find out who you are and do it on purpose. Let’s be honest. Being a mom and an entrepreneur are two of the most demanding jobs that exist. At some point, both roles will do a number on your self-confidence and bring you face-to-face with every insecurity you have, and reveal one’s you didn’t even know you had. To be successful, you have to believe in yourself and your ideas.
2. If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door. Get up and do something. Anything. Stop waiting for a hook-up or a handout or the perfect time. There’s no such thing. How you work determines the quality and quantity of your rewards. Work as hard as you can, and then work harder.
3. Failing is not always failure. Perseverance and emotional strength are needed to be a successful entrepreneur. It is the one defining thing that keeps you moving forward and closer to your goals regardless of circumstances. Everything will not always work in your favor. Accept it and get over it. Many people don’t take the first step because they fear failure. But failure is only guaranteed when you don’t take the first step.
4. If your goals don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough. We all have that one place where we feel safe and comfortable. It’s small and limited and usually comes in the form of a box, also known as our comfort zone. The problem is if you stay within that comfort zone, you prohibit real growth. Dreams that require you to take risks and step into the unknown and overcome fears are the ones that make you grow.
5. In the words of Beyonce, politeness, and business doesn’t always mix. Just like sleep, setting healthy boundaries is non-negotiable. The way you believe about and treat yourself sets the standard for others on how you demand to be treated. You communicate self-respect by imposing respectful boundaries on disrespectful behavior. Boundaries do not make you stuffy or unprofessional. They allow you to create life and business on your terms, which is the most liberating and exciting thing you could ever do.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
When COVID hit, and the world stopped, or at least it felt like it, I low-key enjoyed being stuck in the house with my family. This moment redefined what quality time means to me and brought me back to all of the things that I love (cooking, DIYing, home projects, etc.), but somehow I’d convinced myself that I was too busy running businesses to make time for fun. However, the Pandemic heightened my gardening appeal and, honestly, truly saved my life. It affirmed my ulterior desire for real, genuine connection and togetherness, a different sense of creative expression, and work that harvests real tangible results.
So I turned my personal IG page into a creative space and launched a blog, Playing in Dirt, during the quarantine. It’s my little corner on the internet, where I share my beautiful mess of a life and my insatiable love for plants and all things business. Here is where you’ll find a collection of my experiences, advice, and best self-care habits to help you grow your garden and your business — truly all of my favorite things!
Playing in Dirt isn’t just another thing to attach my name. It’s the one thing that clears my head at the end of the week after dealing with homeschool, clients, and the media and recharges my battery so that I can show up and do all the business and mom things wholeheartedly. The concept of having to be on 24/7, especially for parents, is more than true, and we all feel it. The more I retreated and journaled while quarantined, the more I knew I had to find a creative space for my thoughts to live.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would inspire a generation of progressive women from all ethnicities, sexual identities, and backgrounds to run for political office. Although a record number of women are running for political office, Congress, statehouses, and city halls across the country are still disproportionately males. Women are fundamentally better leaders than men. We bring broader perspectives and experiences to the policy-making table, and that experience creates better policy for all.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I would love to have lunch with Yvette Noel-Schure, Beyonce’s publicist. Think about it. She’s in charge of managing and executing the image and messaging of the most renowned modern musical icon of my lifetime. Beyonce has repeatedly released albums and visual masterpieces with the secrecy and cunning precision of a military operation. I adore Mrs. Noel-Schure’s kind-heartedness, tenacity, wisdom, and generosity. And I love that she’s rooted in the belief of paying it forward and being a support system for other young Black women. When I find myself in an unpleasant situation, I often think of Mrs. Noel-Schure’s experience at Sony music and how she decided to build back stronger. She’s genuinely an undeniable force.
How can our readers follow you online? You can find me on:
LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/lakesha-cole-593137/), and online at lakeshacole.com.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!