Communicate Payment Terms — Similar to contracts but learn how to make sure you get paid and get paid your worth. In PR, you work with someone and they are fully relying on you as a service. We’re a service-oriented business, not a product you can return. You can’t resell time. Once it has happened, it’s gone. So, making clear deliverables, setting up clear communication channels, and having the client understand the business of what we do has been a process to make sure they don’t end up burning us as a company.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Elizabeth Elkordy, President and founder of Elkordy Global Strategies, a full-service boutique PR firm launched during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mary Elizabeth Elkordy began her career on Capitol Hill working for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign before starting as a Production Director for legendary talk station WABC-AM in New York City. Since 2016, Mary has produced and co-hosts DL Hughley’s podcast The Hughley Truth. In 2014, she became a TEDx speaker and was City and State Magazine’s youngest person to ever receive top “40 Under 40″ in New York State at the age of 24. Today, Mary has expanded her startup company into a well-versed firm working with Fortune 500s to nonprofits featured in some of the top tier media publications globally.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started working when I was 16; I had over 10 internships working in local government, congressional offices, Presidential campaigns, and more. I immersed myself in politics and got a real strong understanding of national issues. In my senior year of high school, I landed an internship working for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 Presidential campaign in her Washington, DC Senate office. I was the youngest person in the office working and was dreaming of one day becoming the White House Press Secretary. One day, Hillary Clinton pulled me aside and told me she believed I was on my way to getting hired full-time before finishing school but made me promise that I would absolutely, absolutely, absolutely finish. And so, I did! I graduated from Fordham University with a B.A. in Political Science, but with some stops along the way, including some time studying at State University of New York at Albany alongside a plethora of additional internships. When I was back at Fordham, I worked for WABC-AM radio in New York City as their Production Director for four years producing three pretty well-known radio shows. One of these was ‘The Geraldo Rivera Show’; Geraldo would go on to be like a second dad to me and an incredibly big part of my life. I worked like crazy and even quit school for a year, producing shows not only at a local level but on a national level too. I would book 20 guests for 4 shows a day every weekday and then more on the weekend. It was an incredibly exhausting but hands-on career move for me. But I remembered the promise I made to Hillary Clinton, and so I went back to school at night while still working.
By 2014, I received the high honor of making New York’s “City and State Magazine’s” 40 Under 40 elite list of media, government, and advocacy professionals in New York State and gave a TEDx talk at the age of 24. I also created a newsletter called Mary’s News You Can Use that had 10k subscribers at its peak.
Since then, I’ve co-hosted and produced “The Hughley Truth Podcast”, worked for national PR firms, managed communications for the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nurses, received my master’s at Georgetown, a freelancer and now started my own business. What can I say, I’ve had a unique work experience. My main strength through all these jobs is knowing how to make content and get people to care about the content. I’m always looking to add to my arsenal and when I might not be an expert, I can still have a go at it and know what to do. It’s all about understanding how people think, feel, and being able to learn on your feet.
People have asked if I have been handed anything. While that would have made it easier, I worked hard for every single thing I’ve achieved in life and, because of that, I know your readers can do the same.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I was going through a period in my life where I was facing challenges personally and financially. I need to make some changes to have a more balanced life and where I could utilize my skill set. I trusted my ability and skills to be resourceful and figured out how to not only survive but thrive. I had to lean in on my strongest skill set which is working with talented people and media relations. All I needed was a central place to navigate and manage my business consistently so I could gain clients. I found a solution to manage current and current clients when I discovered a freelancer website called UpWork. From that point forward, my life as I knew it changed dramatically overnight. I started on UpWork out of necessity because I was in debt from supporting someone else. I had a couple of clients to start but by the end of the year, I was making more on the side than I was at my day job.
That leap of faith along with hours of hard work eventually sparked Elkordy Global Strategies when COVID-19 hit. Like millions of Americans, I was laid off so the journey and the road of transforming a side gig of freelancing to successful global business began.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
This journey has been no easy feat as you can imagine. I definitely thought I would give up when I got started. Add on personal tragedy to an already difficult venture in the middle of a heartbreaking global pandemic and it was daunting. Not only had I never managed anyone beyond interns, balanced my finances, nor run a global remote business on my own, but I was also trying to leave an abusive relationship. In the midst of my first few months of starting my company, I doubted every day whether the dream of having my own business would last. I wanted to hide and crawl in a cave but never allowed those feelings to stop. For a while, I didn’t know if my clients would stay with me. But I always started my day with a strong reminder that I have clients and, more importantly, my employees who relied on me for my expertise, leadership, and trust for protecting their brand and their livelihood. They gave me strength and purpose. When you start a company and you go through what I went through, I needed people I could trust. It’s because of them that we are as strong as we are today. But, ultimately, I had to trust in myself.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Within the year, I became Top-Rated talent and Expert Vetted, allowing me access to Fortune 500 clients on Upwork, doubled my income, and started building strong long-term client relationships. Freelancing two years ago may not have been extraordinary for some but it led me to where I am today with 50 clients, 17 employees. All by taking a chance and betting on myself and trusting my skills. But also, it’s been a process of learning how to deal with people who have different expectations and maintaining professionalism, kindness, and empathy, which are not always things people include in business. How people build and grow with you is key. So, we’re still growing today but trying to grow smart. I never turn down a small client because any small client can turn into a big one. When you have someone who starts with you and believes in you, they grow with you. I’ve been fortunate to have seen the success we’ve had, and I don’t take that for granted.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Two things. One — we say we have a breaking news mentality with a PR strategy. That means we cut the red tape and make a story happen within hours, which is not typical for most firms. We insert ourselves into the news cycle fast to get results for our clients.
Two — we are unique because of the people. We dispel the notion that you can’t hire or work for your friends. My personal hiring belief is if I can’t just be myself then I can’t hire them. I want to be able to talk, vent, and laugh with my team. We work hard and long hours and do our best for our clients.
From the client-side, when you create a good space, you then end up having that good rapport with your clients. Some of them I owe a beer to when COVID is over, and they’ve turned into real friends who I plan to travel the world with. We are constantly and daily talking to our clients and by doing that you start learning about people’s lives like you haven’t ever before. Because of that vulnerability to be in communication with them more personally, we’re friends and we get more work done.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I can tell you one from when I first got started back with Geraldo Rivera. When I was working with him, we used to produce two shows a day in NY and LA. One time, during an interview, I had to have the audio come from my computer and I forgot to remove email notification sounds. I never ever did that again, but it was the worst mistake because it made Geraldo upset, but in the way that you’re just guilty of disappointing someone. Like I said before, Geraldo became like a second dad; he came to my college graduation and met my first boyfriend. So, when I made that mistake, and he said to me “You’re amazing 99% of the time, but you made me look like an amateur”, I was handed my lesson and… also, found out for the first time that he thought I did an amazing job.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
In high school, I was the underestimated kid. I would always get awarded the “most improved” and I wasn’t a great test taker, but I loved to learn. So, I was told my hopes and dreams were too big and that I was too ambitious. I can’t tell you how many times I was told I need to settle or reassess my expectations. Because of that, I never applied to opportunities I wanted at the time. While I have gone to great schools since, I wish I never took that advice or rather listened to those people. I would love to send them back my acceptance to Columbia University now 🙂
So, I think, while it is important to seek other people’s advice, ultimately, trust your gut. I study a lot and work hard and that’s something anyone can do. Apply yourself and “most improved” can become leading your own company. Also, those who do best are the ones who are constantly learning.
And… I am still learning. Taking two business certificate courses at Harvard and now just getting accepted into MBA programs. I often have people say why waste money on more school if you not only have a graduate degree but are proving you can run a business. While I appreciate their advice, you can never learn too much. I practice by day what I learn at night. I have been doing this since I was in high school. I paid my way through college and grad school while working full-time.
Am I thankful for our success thus far? Yes, but I know we could be that much more successful if I carve time out to learn the fundamentals. I have found those who are most successful are ALWAYS learning at every point in life. We invest in education for every employee. It helps with retention and ultimately helps your business. Education is never a wasted investment.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Empathy — Be understanding of clients and others around you. It gets tough for all of us. I’ve had my fair share of hard times. Allowing myself and others empathy has been key.
- Authenticity — Some people promise the moon and the stars to their clients, but I’m told I tell them how it is. I’m straightforward and honest. I want people to achieve big things but with my work, I’m realistic about the dreams that you have to work hard for.
- Diligence — Be someone who doesn’t clock in and clock out. I’m someone who works really hard, and it shows. If you’re going to be a CEO, it’s not a 9–5 job. For PR, it’s pitching early when you can and recognizing what you don’t know, and then learning how to do it. I’m not the smartest person in the room always; I have to learn and allow my team to learn with me and that’s diligence.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Work-life balance is key. I’ve worked 3 jobs at one time almost my whole life. I’ve had the experience of a 40-year-old by 30. You have to be willing to hustle sometimes but you have to have a life too. Manage your time and set your priorities. Not everything has to be done in one day. Figure out what has to be done that day and make it clear with your manager what your expectations are. Then leave time for yourself that day and do something for you. Everyone has their different ways to destress. We work in a remote workforce right now; if you’re too stressed now, do it later.
Also, I say, build a community. Everyone should have someone they can turn to and a group of “advisors” that are in your corner. Being a leader can be lonely at the top, but that’s true for anyone in a career. Find those 3–5 people that bring positivity into your life and that you can turn to, then work your way through it together.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
A lot of CEOs think short-term or hire too fast. Hiring for the sake of hiring isn’t going to get you what you want. Or hiring for just a skill set. Just because someone says they have a skill set doesn’t mean they actually can do it or they are so set in a particular format of structure that they aren’t willing to adapt to a new way of doing business in any given industry. But your personality can be the #1 reason you get fired because you’re not good to work with. If you’re having someone who makes it a bad time, you’re not going to have the talent that builds a successful company in the long run. Specifically, PR firms create a competitive environment because many are so focused on personal growth. If we all grow together, then everyone wins. I don’t tolerate people that show they’re better than everyone else or think they will get brownie points for stabbing someone in the back. It’s not healthy and creates trust issues. And with PR, we work in the trust business.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Kind of jokingly, payroll is not the easiest part because you see money leave your door. But on the other side with clients, making sure people pay on time is not the easiest. Ultimately, creating a structure for a company is the hardest, especially if you’ve never done it before. So, I’ve had to make time for it. If you’re used to being someone doing the work rather than running the work, running a company is a tough transition. There’s a lot to learn and you have to learn it quickly. Things like taxes, payroll, W2s, when you’re not running the business you take for granted. Those have all been aspects I’ve taken more time to work through and understand.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Contracts, Contracts, Contracts — Those are super important. Understand what needs to be included and how to best protect yourself and your employees. Especially with PR, I’ve seen people come and go quickly so a solid contract needs to be in place.
- Know Project Management — I’ve been fortunate to grow fast and learning how to handle that has been tough. Learning project management and putting a good team in place to help organize has been crucial.
- Perfect Your Company Pitch — Know how to create a pitch for a new business call and how to sell someone for who you are. The feedback I get from clients is well praised because I make it clear what we do. I help visualize verbally the process of how we work and make the client understand. The more they understand, the more comfortable they are. Some people don’t know what PR is or have been burned in the past. So before moving forward, set clear expectations and know your pitch.
- Communicate Payment Terms — Similar to contracts but learn how to make sure you get paid and get paid your worth. In PR, you work with someone and they are fully relying on you as a service. We’re a service-oriented business, not a product you can return. You can’t resell time. Once it has happened, it’s gone. So, making clear deliverables, setting up clear communication channels, and having the client understand the business of what we do has been a process to make sure they don’t end up burning us as a company.
- Check Yourself and Your Team — You’re not always the smartest person in the room. Don’t be afraid to have tough conversations and have someone, with objective eyes, check your work to produce the best work.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I grew up volunteering with my mother’s organization, The Museum of Comedy, where she helped coordinate and produce more than a thousand comedy shows in hospitals and homeless shelters on a mission of cheer. Sadly, my mother passed in late November so if I could start a movement, I would continue my mom’s mission of bringing laughter where it’s needed most.
For my mom, that was shelters and hospitals across NYC. That mission can be expanded everywhere. In general, for people in my firm, I’m making sure people laugh once a day. Life can be so serious. When companies realize that and do little things to recognize how hard life can be, it provides a moment of relief to people. Life just isn’t all work. I would provide a platform where people can find helpful and funny content or even information if they’re in a tough situation whether it be domestic violence, homelessness, etc. My movement would consist of being a place for people to get comfortable and somehow always find the funny.
My life has taught me you can’t change your past. It’s very easy to get lost in life. A lot of things happen, and you have no idea why but eventually, all the random stuff adds up and you understand. Trust in the process and be a source so others can find that moment of why they got there. I want people to talk openly without fear of judgment. So, I don’t know what exactly my movement would be, but I know why. I want to help people get through life and find tangible and attainable solutions-focused with a dash of humor.
How can our readers further follow you online?
LinkedIn: Mary Elizabeth Elkordy
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!