During this time of forced slow down we have been given the opportunity to re-evaluate what is truly important to us. So often we get caught up in the busyness of life that we never have the chance to connect with ourselves. Our brains are constantly buzzing, so there is never a time to truly stop and think. This unique time is making us connect back with ourselves. For me, it has made me go back to my “why” and I am reminding myself why I started my business in the first place. To have time with my daughter; the opportunity to be present and watch her grow up, take her to her events, volunteer at her school, and never feel like I have to miss things because I work for someone else.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Djemilah Birnie.
Djemilah Birnie is one of the founders and chief creative directors at Midnightsun Media Agency. She is a single mother who has overcome many obstacles along her journey, including addiction, teen pregnancy, and homelessness. Djemilah is currently enjoying building her speaking career, inspiring the youth of today to jump into action while chasing their dreams, and continuing to grow her business.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Becoming a successful entrepreneur is something that nobody thought was possible for me. Heck, even just living a life outside of struggle is something I was told I could not do. At the age of 17 I had been abusing substances for about four years and found myself entangled in the downward spiral of heroin addiction. To top things off, I was living in a tent and had just found out I was pregnant. That was my pivot point. It was do or die and starting an online business was the only way out that I could see. I started my first business with just $50, a cell phone, and a goodwill sewing machine. I built that business via the power of the internet and guerilla marketing tactics. That was my first introduction to the digital marketing realm and where I realized the incredible power that the internet possesses. The birth of my current agency was an organic progression from there.
The beginning of my journey was long and hard. My training was on the job, learn as you go. I had to either make it work or fail… and I was too stubborn to allow all the people who told me I couldn’t do it be right! This rocky start, however, has proven to be what sets me apart in my field now. I learned resourcefulness, the power of building authentic relationships, and creative marketing strategies that just aren’t taught in the traditional sector.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
Last October I was invited to speak at a business conference about the power of attraction marketing, social media, and showing up authentically through your messaging. Right as I was going up on stage, I ripped my pants! My initial thought was embarrassment and fear as I was about to step in front of an audience of business owners with RIPPED PANTS. I could have backed out and turned away, but instead I decided to improve and include this into my presentation. Rather than ignoring the issue and just hoping nobody noticed… I called it out, acknowledged it, and used it to strengthen my message of showing up authentically, as you are right now. This ended up being the best opener I could have asked for! I had the audience laughing right off the bat. In addition to that, it created a presentation that no one could forget!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! I am currently creating a training program for business owners to help add value to the marketplace. With the COVID-19 pandemic I see a lot of business owners trying to build their presence online; with the revenue hit many are experiencing during this time, paying an agency is just not in the budget. I will have a free program available for those who don’t have any online data to work with so they can build out a highly targeted audience of customers with a high intent to purchase, without breaking the bank. This program will help small businesses develop a digital marketing strategy so that they can stand out online, attract the right customers, and increase ROI.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. 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?
I completely agree, mentors have proven to be critical to my success. I have had several along my journey but the one that I would have to give the most credit to is Andy Frisella. He truly kicked my butt into gear and made me realize that I was selling myself short. Before I joined his mentorship program, in collaboration with Ed Mylett, I had found myself in a place of contentment. I had already created more than anyone thought possible for me and was living a comfortable, modest life. As later stated by Andy, I had settled. At first, I really didn’t like the guy. He is rough around the edges and doesn’t have any problem speaking his mind. Which means, he will say things that don’t always feel good to hear but are the exact things that NEED to be heard.
He made me realize that I wasn’t put on this earth just to be comfortable. I hadn’t gone through the things I had gone through just to be content. I am here to truly make a positive impact on this world. If I don’t grow my business, how can I provide jobs to more people? If I don’t put myself out there to step on stages to share my story, how can I inspire the youth of today with a message of hope; that it doesn’t matter what happened in their past, they now have the power to create a new and successful future. If I don’t increase my revenue, how can I create programs to help underprivileged youth?
He gave me the cold hard truth… and to be transparent, it stung a little bit, but it pushed me into action. Since then my business has more than doubled its revenue, we brought on a new team member, I have gotten on multiple stages to speak, and later this month I will be a judge and mentor for a high school entrepreneurship competition!
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
As a single mother to a very social first grader, this time has proven to be an interesting learning experience with a steep learning curve. For starters, I have learned I have no clue how I ever passed first grade! Homeschooling is no joke. My daughter is very much missing her teachers, her friends, and her extracurricular activities. Which means her attachment to me has never been greater. She doesn’t like it when I am on the phone or unable to give her my full attention all day.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I schedule time with her beyond just the school work. Each day we find an outside activity with no distractions. Whether that be taking a long walk, learning to rollerblade, or finding rolly pollies under the rocks, I make this time a priority.
In addition to this, we have been using Zoom as a way for her to get the social interaction she craves (and let’s be honest, give mom some focused time to work). I signed her up for a Zoom art class where she gets to learn, explore her creative side, and chat with other children for a couple of hours a week. She also gets to enjoy a weekly Zoom with her teacher and classmates, and we FaceTime with our family consistently to stay connected.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
Given the nature of my work it has not slowed down during this time. In fact, it has sped up. People are in need now more than ever for digital services and creative solutions. The biggest challenge is time; there just are not enough hours in the day! A good problem to have for my business and one that I simply work through each day by time blocking and prioritizing. Some of my clients have experienced a financial hit due to the stay at home orders which does put additional pressure on me to help them shift gears in order to keep revenue coming in during this unique time.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
This may not be the healthiest answer, but it certainly is the honest one! I have been staying up later and sacrificing some time asleep in order to have quiet focused work time. Once I feel like I have accomplished my top business priorities for that day, I can officially declare my day is “done.”
When it comes to my clients, I have walked them through new product launches to serve their customers during this pandemic. During such an uncertain time, it’s fun to witness client successes as I assist them in thinking differently and shifting their focus. With everyone at home, bored, and on their phones now truly is the time to lean into digital marketing and/or digital products!
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
This is a time to focus on clarity and critical tasks. Cut out all the extra noise. What are the MOST critical tasks to complete each day? Not just for your work but for your family and own mental state. The way that I do this is by breaking down my to-do list into three sectors. What are two critical tasks for growth of my mind? For me they are typically half an hour of reading and half an hour of meditation. Next, what are three critical tasks for my relationship with my daughter? These normally look like school, eating meals together, and focused outside time together. Lastly, what are five critical tasks for my business? These are the most important, move the needle tasks. Now is a time to cut the fat and stop just working for the sake of working. It is time to work for the sake of results. By choosing just five critical tasks, you can pour all your work energy into the MOST important things.
My next piece of advice would be to do the hardest thing first. You know, the one that you are kind of dreading doing. When you do the hardest thing first not only are you working while your brain is still the sharpest, but you are building momentum for the rest of the day. Completing hard things gives your brain a boost of confidence and adrenaline allowing you to be more productive the rest of the day. It lifts the weight from your shoulders, so you aren’t constantly thinking, “Ugh I still have to do XYZ.”
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?
As a single mother and business owner, being able to quickly shift a frazzled mental state is vital to keeping the peace (and sanity) in my household while maintaining productivity. Here are a couple of my favorite 5- minute tricks.
One of my go-to’s to ease the feeling of stress in a quick personal break, away from the munchkin, is to focus on gratitude. Gratitude is proven to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone. Look yourself in the eyes in your mirror and recite out loud what you are grateful for in that moment. It can be as simple as having toilet paper, having access to clean water or simply stated, the presence of your loved one(s)… just say as many things as you can think of as fast as possible! Where focus goes energy flows. When you consciously focus on gratitude for even just a few moments it changes your mental state and allows you to make choices from a mentally stable state.
My next tip is to focus on breathing. A quick and easy breathing exercise you can do (even if you have to lock yourself in a closet for a few moments) is called box breathwork. In this exercise you breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, out for four counts, and hold for four counts. Repeat this cycle at least four times and you will feel more relaxed in moments!
Move your body! Even for just five minutes. Put on some music, and dance like a mad man (or woman), do some jumping jacks, throw down on some push-ups, ANYTHING to just get that heart rate up and the endorphins flowing!
Lastly, make sure you are getting fresh air and nourishing food. I am guilty of hiding out in my office in front of the computer, hermit style, for hours upon hours. This can take a toll on our bodies and mental state. Taking a break to make yourself a nice meal, sitting on the patio for ten minutes, or walking around the block will make a massive difference in your mental state. It gives your brain the break it needs to refresh and come back to the task at hand, whether that be work, homeschool, or even just showing up for your family.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
In times of uncertainty it is important to remember that these are our biggest opportunities for growth. What typically holds humans back is fear of the unknown, fear of the uncertain. Right now, we are in the depths of uncertainty, which makes it the perfect time to take a chance on something new. If you have been desiring starting your own business but have been too caught up in the fear of leaving the security of your 9–5 in order to do so… well, the world just gave you the opportunity. The certainty is gone, so you might as well dive even deeper into the uncertainty and use this as an opportunity to try something new.
We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to stand out as leaders to help our communities, businesses, and families. In times of crisis, people remember who was there for them in the midst of it. One way to feel more hopeful yourself is to focus on creating hope for others. I have been diving into creating new programs to add value to others’ lives, hoping on more Zoom calls to help business owners brainstorm solutions, and reaching out to loved ones I haven’t spoken to in a while to show them my love.
During this time of forced slow down we have been given the opportunity to re-evaluate what is truly important to us. So often we get caught up in the busyness of life that we never have the chance to connect with ourselves. Our brains are constantly buzzing, so there is never a time to truly stop and think. This unique time is making us connect back with ourselves. For me, it has made me go back to my “why” and I am reminding myself why I started my business in the first place. To have time with my daughter; the opportunity to be present and watch her grow up, take her to her events, volunteer at her school, and never feel like I have to miss things because I work for someone else. This purpose is something I have lost over the years, as I (like many others) became too caught up in the “needs” of my business and clients. This crisis has allowed me to reconnect with my purpose- my ultimate “why.”
COVID-19 is reminding us of our humanity. People are banding together to help each other. I am watching communities come together to support working families with homeschooling, college students volunteering their time to grocery shop for the elderly, and schools providing meals to those who can’t afford it. I have never seen my own community come together in such a way. There is light in this darkness in the form of love for each other. My hope is that we never forget this intense need for community and support at the end of this pandemic.
Remember, it will not last forever. The world will open back up. Jobs will come back. The economy will eventually recover. This temporary crisis is just that, temporary. Focus on what you can do now to ensure that when we do re-open, you are on a new journey creating a better world for us all.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to our family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It is crucial to remember that whenever you are trying to show up for someone else you need to first show up for yourself. You will not be able to help ease their anxiety if you yourself are consumed with that emotion.
So put your oxygen mask on first, before assisting others.
Once you find yourself in a more mindful state and you feel you are able to be the steady voice of love that others need, you have to reach out and be present. Many are feeling isolated and scared. The best thing you can do is show them your love and allow them to dump their fears upon you.
Many times this is all people need; someone to hold space for them and just listen to their fears with loving kindness without feeding into them. Being the dumping ground for others can certainly become an emotionally taxing task, which is why it is crucial that you focus on selfcare. This allows you to focus on your positive mental state first so that you can transmute their anxiety.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life goes on. Whether you choose to move on and take a chance in the unknown. Or stay behind, locked in the past, thinking of what could have been.”
I could have allowed my past to define me. Stayed in poverty. In struggle. Despair. A victim to my circumstances. Yet, I chose to leap into the vast unknown. With no evidence that things would work out- just the faith in my heart.
No one has lived a life without pain. We always have two choices- to allow that pain to become the anchor that drowns us or the wings that allow us to soar.
This quote is still relevant to me today. When I encounter an obstacle in my business or I make a mistake I can choose to allow that to stop me or I can choose to find a new creative solution to keep the train moving forward!
How can our readers follow you online?
Luckily, I have a unique name so it shouldn’t be hard to find me! I am Djemilah Birnie on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!