It’s All Relative: ‘The Onyx Family’ Builds Hit Brand Through YouTube

It’s All Relative: ‘The Onyx Family’ Builds Hit Brand Through YouTube

Imagine creating a work environment where every member of the family is gainfully employed. It’s also profitable enough to be the sole source of income — and don’t have to leave your house.

For Rita and Mirthell Mitchell, that’s a dream come true. The couple built a brand based on their four kids. Now, Shalom, Sinead, Sade (Shasha) and Shiloh are brand ambassadors and content creators.

Better known to the YouTube world as “The Onyx Family,” they have created a huge following.

“The Onyx Family”  claims 6.3 million total subscribers, over 81 million monthly views and nearly 3 1/2 billion lifetime views on their channel. Opportunities to work with Dr. Fauci, an interview with actor Matthew McConaughey and an invite from the Biden/Harris campaign tops an amazing year of growth. This family prides itself on giving as much as it receives. Their philanthropy work includes funding community outreach programs and contributing to HBCU scholarships.

Zenger News spoke with Rita and Mirthell Mitchell to discuss their unique work situation and the decision to quit their 9-5 jobs and build the family brand.

Percy Crawford interviewed Rita and Mirthell Mitchell for Zenger News.


Zenger News: It must be a dream come true to turn an idea into an empire. Did you ever see ‘The Onyx Family’ becoming this big?

Rita Mitchell: No! When we first started, we felt it would be us going on YouTube, making some great family memories. But we didn’t have a concept of how people made money on YouTube, much less build a brand. Everything evolved with time and experience.

Percy Crawford interviewed Rita and Mirthell Mitchell for Zenger News. (Heidi Malone/Zenger)

Mirthell Mitchell: In 2015, we were dabbling around with YouTube and making funny videos. Not seriously. It wasn’t until 2016 that Rita started doing some research, and then we took it really seriously in March. We got a channel and did all these videos, and in that month, it actually took off. We had never seen that much money in our lifetime in one setting. And in two months, we paid off all of our debt.

Rita: In two weeks, I quit my 9-5. I was at a crossroads. I had to decide if I’m going to work with my family or if I’m going to build this medical company that in the long run could turn a profit. When you’re launching a regular business, it’s more overhead and stress. We put out our first video, and it got a few views. And I thought: “Well, where’s the millions of views?” I started to do my own research and learned about search engine optimization, how to make an appealing thumbnail.

I also let my kids and their creativity just go! Kids can speak to kids. We said: “OK, you’re really good at this, focus on this.” And we did that with everybody. My whole thing was organizing everything, researching, so that when it all came together, it was having the maximum impact.

Zenger: Did you get “You’re crazy for leaving your ‘real’ job” treatment?

Rita: When we first started, I never involved my family or my friends. In fact, for about nine months, we didn’t tell a soul what we were doing. We just did it and depended on loving who we are. We never asked anyone to support it. People really didn’t know what was happening. They saw us going on certain vacations, and they were thinking it was all from my medical company. Till one day, I decided to start sharing what we’ve been doing and letting people know that I actually hadn’t been working in the medical field in a long time. Because the results had already been proven, they were much-much more open, then if we had said, this is what we’re going to do.

Mirthell: They were more curious than anything.

Zenger: What was your “Wow,” moment when you realized how much the brand was growing or went to sleep only to wake up to the views being through the roof

Rita: We had posted this video, I think on a Friday. We hadn’t checked the views, but by Saturday night, it had over 3 million views. It wasn’t even a full 24 hours. We had no clue something could go that far, that high so quickly. When you saw the revenue going up by the thousands every day, it made us understand why some people are doing it full-time. That was my a-ha moment! If you can continue to do this formula, you can get out of the whole 9-5 rut.

Mirthell: I had left my job in October to join my wife in her medical company. I had worked at my job for about 17 years. I loved what I did. I was a marriage and family therapist and also an ordained minister. I really didn’t want to leave my job, but my wife had supported me for many years, and she had this opportunity with these doctors to start this medical company in Florida. It was really her being a nurse practitioner that carried us financially. It brought us to a place where we could sustain ourselves.

A few months later, I actually resigned and left the congregation. I’m Canadian, so I cannot work in the United States — so I am depending on this medical company to be the thing. So, you can imagine when my wife tells me she doesn’t want to do the medical company anymore, she wants to do this thing. And she’ll figure it out. She could foresee that she wouldn’t like it. I was just beside myself: “What are we going to do now?” My a-ha moment came when we started to do YouTube in March. About six months later, it took off. I was like, “OK. We can do this.” It seemed like a blessing outside of anything I could have ever imagined.

 

Zenger: Then a global pandemic hit. Did that affect the way you put out content or the family dynamic of working together?

Rita: Since we home school and work from home, the only thing that was different is we didn’t focus so much on work. We were conscious of the fact that, as an adult, it’s hard living in a pandemic. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a teenager or 20 and wonder what my future is going to be like. When it came to our daily schedule for YouTube and other things, we took a relaxed approach, making sure that everybody’s mental health was prioritized.

Mirthell: It created more intimacy than content. During this time, Shiloh, who’s into gaming, came to us and said: “I’d like to learn Japanese and coding.” We enrolled him in a coding class for part of his homeschooling and he started learning Japanese because a lot of the games that he’s interested in are Japanese. We like to give our children that leverage to be able to discover where they would like to go. That happened during the pandemic.

And then when things like George Floyd happened, we kind of rolled with the punches. We went out there for some time just lending our voice to the movement. As well as with the pandemic, we would create jingles about washing your hands, making sure you’re quarantining effectively. Dr. Fauci saw some of our videos, and he called us and wanted to collaborate. The Biden and Harris team got wind of our channel, and they asked us to help with, ‘Rock the Vote.’ And when they won, asked us to participate in the inauguration.

Zenger: I understand Vice President Harris is related to one of you?

Mirthell: Yes! We didn’t know this prior. We found this out in 2019 when Kamala was running for president, and her father put out his memoir. His memoir kind of went viral, her Jamaican roots, especially within the Jamaican community. My parents are both Jamaican. My mom saw the pictures and the name, and she said: “I know these people. They are my relatives.”

It was quite the surprise to hear the stories from my mom about visiting Kamala’s grandmother back in Jamaica. But we never really met Kamala or her father. I’m not even sure if Kamala knows all of this. It was our little secret, and we enjoyed it, but it did make it a little bit more special. Not only that it was the first black female Vice President that my wife and my daughters could be proud of, but in our hearts, we were like: “Yeah, we in the White House, ya’ll.”

Zenger: You have four kids and allowed each to use their talents to keep this engine running. You’re not forcing them to be a part of something they’re not into.

Mirthell: There is a book that we just read from Matthew McConaughey … we’re doing an interview with him in the next couple of weeks. He described his mother as saying that raising her child was almost like a bowing arrow and a target. Rather than pointing the child toward the target as the arrow, she saw it more that he was the target and the focus was coming toward him. We could identify with that because you get one shot to get them to hit that target. Instead, their gifts and talents were more like magnets, drawing the opportunities to them, as opposed to us trying to make them hit that opportunity.

Fast-forward: They are 21, 20, 18 and 14, sitting at the table with the very professionals of some of the cartoons they were watching as a little kid. The leaders at Nickelodeon responsible for SpongeBob and The Proud Family are all working on our cartoon. The first season launched and is now bought by Amazon Prime. They’re sitting at the table as writers, as producers, my daughter creates the music, and it’s just like, “Whoa!” You shift from them hitting a target to people coming to you.

Zenger: How important is it to keep building the brand and maintaining healthy working relationships with a number of different companies? 

Rita: It’s very important. I always teach the kids this. Now and then, I’ll put on a show, or I’ll put on a song from the ’80s or ’90s and ask: “You think these people are still around? You think they are doing what they were doing back then?” 99% of the time, it’s a no. What I try to do is let them know we are not just entertainers, but a business. That’s why it’s so important to make connections. Brands come and go. But as long as we are networking, we’re being professional and showcasing our platform, but also allowing it to be a platform that showcases other people’s inventions or products.

There is going to be a peak for us, so I’m trying to teach them there can be a legacy — they can pass this on to their children. And have that leg-up we were not allowed to have as black people. The way you do it is by continuing to have business relationships along with being entertaining and fun.

Zenger: Speak a little about the charitable things you have done and are doing. 

Mirthell: We make sure we take a certain percentage of our income, and we set it aside just to give back. We don’t even consider it ours. And we encourage our children to look for opportunities to give. Every week, we give to some family in need, whether it’s online, or it’s brought to our attention that they have a problem. And we encourage our kids to look for individuals in need, so that we can give back to them. Systematically, we give as well to our church and Historically Black Colleges [HBCU]. Every year, we make sure we are giving to the college funds and the university funds. Right now, we have a project that is happening in Africa.

Rita: In Zimbabwe.

Mirthell: The way the pandemic is affecting them is unique, as well as some of the political issues. We are working with a foundation to help. We’re constantly looking for ways to give back to our local community as well as abroad.

Rita: Just last night, one of my daughters came in and said: “Mom, can I have the card?” We call it the ‘giving card’ or the ‘charity card.’ It’s connected to that account, and they know to just get the card. They are always looking for opportunities to give. We do it intentionally every week, but also, we just do it when we see it. We just think it’s very important to give back.

(Edited by Stan Chrapowicki and Fern Siegel)



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Pioneering Engineer Leverages Success To Boost Minority Contractors

Pioneering Engineer Leverages Success To Boost Minority Contractors

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It all started because she wanted to claim her seat at the table.

Deryl McKissack had worked hard in the construction business for years but was always told to put her head down, work harder and not ask any questions.

When her new boss wanted to demote her simply because she was a woman, McKissack said, “I quit.”

With a thousand dollars and a business plan drafted using a book purchased at Barnes & Noble, she launched McKissack & McKissack.

“I just think it was my passion that got me through, and my determination of, I’m just not going to let anybody define me,” she said. “No one can stop me from getting the work that I’m supposed to get. And whatever I get, I’m going to make sure that we do a great job.”

McKissack, president and CEO of McKissack & McKissack, is one of the nation’s foremost African American female engineers. She leads an architectural, engineering, program and construction management firm that today oversees more than $15 billion in projects nationwide.

Some of the nation’s most stunning and significant architectural projects of the 21st century were designed, managed or built by McKissack & McKissack.

McKissack & McKissack has overseen renovations at Washington, D.C., landmarks such as the Lincoln, Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials — and they are just a small fraction of the company’s national footprint.

Under McKissack’s leadership, the company has worked in the energy, education, aviation, infrastructure, culture and commercial real estate sectors on noteworthy projects such as the O’Hare International Airport Modernization Program, the DC Waters Clean River Project and Nationals Park, the home stadium of the Washington Nationals Major League Baseball team.

The company is an outgrowth of the oldest minority-owned architecture/engineering firm in the United States. Its roots predate the Civil War, when a slave named Moses McKissack learned the building trade. It was his grandson, Moses III (Deryl McKissack’s great-great-grandfather), who launched the first McKissack & McKissack in Nashville, Tennessee.

Moses III, along with his brother Calvin, launched the first McKissack firm in Nashville, TN. He was the grandson of Moses McKissack, a slave who learned the trade of building from his owner and began a family legacy in the industry. (Courtesy of McKissack & McKissack)

Since launching the newer McKissack & McKissack 30 years ago, Deryl McKissack has grown her company to include more than 150 employees and offices in Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, D.C.

But building the billion-dollar company in an industry dominated by white men wasn’t easy.

The Howard University alum recalls making a presentation at a university to a room full of men in one of her first attempts to gain business for the company in 1990.

When the presentation was done, the man in charge looked at McKissack and said, “Little lady, there is nothing that you can do for us.”

“I looked him in the eye, I grabbed his hand, and I was shaking it really hard, and I said, ‘Thank you so much for taking your time to listen to my presentation, and I look forward to working with you,’” McKissack said. “Then I went out on that campus for two hours and I just looked at every job I was going to be working on. I mean, I just walked through the campus and I started thanking God for the work that I was going to be doing on this campus. I believe in planting seeds.”

That seed sprang up about six months later.

The only African American man seated at the table on the fateful day of McKissack’s presentation was promoted to boss. Impressed with McKissack’s gracious response to the way she was treated, the new boss reached out to McKissack and offered her a small job worth $5,000. Within a year, McKissack had acquired $1 million worth of business with that university.

“I just never take no,” McKissack said. “I stare down the barrel of no so much, but I keep looking until I find my yes. I have won a lot of jobs at debriefings where they’re sitting there and telling me how I don’t add up, and then I get to tell them how I do.”

Even with her record of success, McKissack said she still encounters racism in the construction industry. She continues to experience “microaggressions,” which she explained as covert expressions from clients who, despite her expansive portfolio, continue to openly question her company’s ability to do the job.

“To be so successful [on previous projects] but yet get questioned over and over again on the next project — that’s what we’ve had to deal with,” McKissack said. “I’ve had to deal with it for 30 years now. … We’re achieving excellence, but at the same time you get slapped in the face every time you try to do something. There’s always resistance. There’s an undercurrent of, are you good enough? Or, can you do it? And extra questions. I’m still on calls that I’m in amazement on what I’m hearing.”

“I just hope that it gets better,” she said.

By the age of six, Deryl McKissack was drafting architectural drawings under her father’s tutelage. She later attended Howard University where she graduated with a B.S. in civil engineering. (Courtesy of McKissack & McKissack)

True to her character, McKissack is not one to just sit back and ignore these issues in the industry she loves; she’s addressing them head-on. She launched a 7-Step Plan to Confront Racism in the Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industry.

Her plan calls for industry leaders to acknowledge that racism is a serious problem in the industry and commit to fixing it through actions such as hiring minority- and women-owned firms as prime contractors and procuring goods and services from minority- and women-owned suppliers.

Blacks are significantly underrepresented in architecture, engineering and construction.

African Americans make up 12.3 percent of the workforce but represent only 6.4 percent of construction workers and 6.1 percent of architecture and engineering professionals, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By contrast, whites make up 78 percent of the total workforce but 84 percent of all architecture and engineering professionals.

McKissack said some companies have already adopted elements of her plan, but in 2021 she hopes to bring more of the industry’s major players on board.

“I’m going to be forming a group of companies that are huge companies that can really make a difference,” she said. “Because I know their CEOs really well, I’ve started small conversations with them, but we’re going to make it a little more formal in 2021.”

Keith Foxx has watched McKissack’s career over the past 20 years and believes her to be not only a visionary, but one of the industry’s foremost advocates for diversity.

As a program manager at RK&K, Foxx worked with McKissack on the D.C. Power Line Undergrounding program. When Foxx voiced his intention to start his own business, McKissack helped him secure his first government contract. Foxx is launching his engineering and construction management firm, FOXXSTEM, this month. He is grateful for McKissack’s support.

“Starting your own business, there are a lot of unknowns,” Foxx said. “She found a way to help me get my first contract. I will never forget that.”

Foxx said McKissack wields extraordinary influence in the industry.

“If she talks, everyone is listening, and she has the ears of some very important people,” Foxx said. “She’s legendary — a powerhouse and an icon — because she’s blazed a trail that I’m going to walk in.”

Beyond helping minority businesses get their foot in the door, McKissack helps them sustain success in the industry.

Christine Merdon, chief operating officer of McKissack & McKissack, said McKissack often speaks with pride about a minority contractor who was hired to work on the Washington D.C. Convention Center project managed by the firm.

“The contractor began the project with one truck, but by the time the project was over, he owned five trucks,” Merdon said. “When we bring minority- and women-owned firms on projects, it’s not only that they show up, but they are sustainable and have increased capacity.”

McKissack celebrated her company’s 30-year anniversary in 2020. That year the company received Inc. magazine’s 2020 Best in Business Award for its workforce diversity plan. Also in 2020, McKissack was elected to the National Academy of Construction. In bestowing the honor, the academy described her as “a visionary leader and entrepreneur with significant contributions in architecture, engineering, construction, and program management and a mentor to the next generation of industry leaders.”

She shows no signs of slowing down in 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a boon for McKissack’s area of the construction industry; clients have taken advantage of reduced traffic to launch school and infrastructure projects. McKissack’s company won bids for more than 40 projects, and more are expected.

She said her company is emerging from the challenges of 2020 even stronger. By slowing down, and spending less time traveling and more time interacting with employees, McKissack was able to see her business in a new light.

“I know now what we do good and what we do great,” McKissack said. “I know the people in the company, and what their strengths are, and I like to build on people’s strengths.”

Merdon said McKissack’s visionary leadership, political savvy and compassion for her employees has enabled the company to lead “mega projects” while also creating opportunities for minorities in the industry.

“Her leadership inspires people and draws really good people to the firm,” Merdon said. “Everybody has to work through tough days, but if you have a leader that believes in you, you can get it done.”

(Edited by Jameson O’Neal and Alex Patrick)



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VIDEO: Grubs Up: Iron Man’s Insect Snacks Farm Gets EU Green Light 

VIDEO: Grubs Up: Iron Man’s Insect Snacks Farm Gets EU Green Light 

Paris, France – An insect farming company backed by movie celebrity Robert Downey Jr is about to enter the market to produce food and drinks for human consumption using its mealworm bugs after getting approval from the European Union.

Ÿnsect, the French company that recently raised $435 million from investors said that they were approved by the European Food Safety Authority, which allows them to “formalize its entry into the human food market.”

“The green light from the European Food Safety Authority is a major step forward for the sector, particularly in Europe,” Ÿnsect’s public relations officer Laurene Hug said. “It should pave the way for other opinions, in particular on the consumption of deoiled insect meal, which represents the most promising market for human consumption, particularly in sports nutrition and health.”

For starters, they plan to use the ground up Molitor powder to make products for athletes.

 

The mealworm beetle’s larvae are mealworms. Dried yellow mealworm was given the go-ahead and would initially be used as protein supplements for sports persons.

“It will first be in protein energy bars or drinks intended for athletes, for example,” Hug said. “Ÿnsect has already identified the potential of this market by developing ŸnMeal, an ingredient made from deoiled insect protein suitable for human consumption.

According to the press statement, Ÿnsect submitted its Novel Food dossier on these products to the European Food Safety Authority (without request for confidentiality and therefore without five years of data protection, in order to benefit the entire European sector) which showed a much lower allergen profile than for a whole insect.

Allergen profile is an allergy test. “Immunoglobulin E (IgE) is a class of antibody (immune protein) associated with allergic reactions. It is normally found in very small amounts in the blood. This test measures the amount of allergen-specific IgE in the blood to detect an allergy to a particular substance” says labtestsonline.org.

They are now planning to file a similar authorization request with the United States Food and Drug Administration, with a focus on the market for food for athletes.

“Ÿnsect will also file in a few months with the Federal Drug Administration in the United States to address the world’s leading sports and health nutrition market,” reads the statement

Explaining the approval from the European Union’s regulator, the statement reads: “The mealworm, otherwise known as the Molitor beetle, therefore becomes the first insect to receive a positive opinion for human consumption. It is a victory and a key step for the growth of the insect industry, but also and above all for the producers of mealworms. This review shows that the ingredients from Molitor beetles are premium and suitable for human consumption, unlike other insect species used only for animal feed.”

The company describes itself as “the world leader in the natural production of insect protein and fertilizer.”

The beetle larva produced by Ÿnsect. (Ÿnsect/Real Press)

It was founded in 2011 in Paris “by scientists and environmental activists”, and “transforms insects into premium ingredients with high added value for pet food, fish farming and plant nutrition.”

Ÿnsect says that it “offers an ecological, healthy and sustainable solution to meet the growing global demand for protein and plant consumption” and is “protected by 260 patents” which enables it to “raise Molitor beetles on vertical farms with a negative carbon footprint.”

The first production unit in Dole (Jura) in France has been in operation since 2016. Ÿnsect is currently building a second unit, the largest vertical farm in the world, in Amiens (Somme).

There is a school of thought led by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which is of the view that the world population would increase to nine billion by 2050. Nations around the world will have to find out new and innovative methods to feed these growing billions. Edible insects offer a good alternative.

“They are extremely rich in proteins, vitamins and minerals, and at the same time are highly efficient in converting the food they eat into material that can be consumed by humans” says the world body.

Thailand is the world leader in insect farming, processing and marketing.

However, there are some people who are opposed to this idea of eating insects. Brian Tomasik of reducing-suffering.org says, “Is not necessarily more humane than factory farming of livestock all things considered, and along some dimensions it’s actually worse, because it involves killing vastly more animals per unit of protein.”

(Edited by Shirish Vishnu Shinde and Megha Virendra Choudhary.)



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Veteran Marketing Executive Helps Clients Drive Voter Turnout

Veteran Marketing Executive Helps Clients Drive Voter Turnout

With Covid-19 limiting in-person fundraisers and door-to-door canvassing, digital tools are more important than ever to organizations trying to reach voters in the 2020 election. That’s where veteran advertising executive D. Benny Bennafield comes in.

(Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Bennafield is a founding partner at Propellant Media, an Atlanta-based full-service digital agency that serves clients in multiple industries including medical, education, government, automotive, finance and retail. Propellant is one of the 100 fastest growing companies in the U.S. and the and fifth fastest growing company in Georgia, according to the Inc. 5000 2020 Guide to America’s Most Inspiring Entrepreneurs.

During this election cycle, about one-quarter of Propellant’s work has been helping organizations deploy sophisticated digital campaigns leading up to the election.

“There is a quote that says, ‘There are no weekends in October during the election cycle,’” said Bennafield. “You essentially have to have your hands on the dashboard every day. We are looking at campaigns all the time.”

Propellant was founded in 2015 by four partners. Bennafield and managing partner Justin Croxton are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the business.

Bennafield is the chief marketing officer and handles enterprise clients and agency partnerships.

Propellant’s political clients have included Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Atlanta mayoral candidate Ceasar Mitchell and former gubernatorial nominees Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams.

This election cycle, some of Propellant’s major clients are Black Voters Matter and The Collective PAC, both organizations that seek to increase black voter turnout and engagement, and 866 Our Vote, a non-partisan election protection organization.

D. Benny Bennafield is a founding partner at Propellant Media, an Atlanta-based full-service digital agency that serves clients in multiple industries including medical, education, government, automotive, finance and retail. (Joey Kyber, Unsplash)

“Our first push for our clients has been trying to get people registered to vote,” Bennafield said. “Now that that’s done, we are trying to get people activated and make sure they can vote.”

One major campaign is an initiative by Black Voters Matter to raise awareness about the 20 million voters who have moved or changed addresses since they registered. Being registered at the wrong address can prevent people from voting in some states, Bennafield noted.

Quentin James, founder and president of The Collective PAC, said his organization is ramping up efforts in the days ahead.

“In the final weeks leading up to Election Day, we’re focusing our energy on turning out the black vote, particularly in our battleground states,” James said. “At The Collective, we’re doing everything we can to encourage the 5 million black voters who didn’t go to the polls in 2016 to exercise their electoral rights.”

The Collective PAC is also driving campaigns such as Vote to Live, which is running digital campaigns to engage black voters in battleground states and has enlisted celebrities such as Alfre Woodard and Samuel L. Jackson for video marketing campaigns.

Bennafield and his partners have launched their own voter activation platform, blacklivesmatter.vote, to transfer the energy surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement from the streets to the ballot box. It’s one of several ventures for Bennafield, who also owns the data-driven design firm HUMINT.

“We built blacklivesmatter.vote on our own dime because we thought that was important,” Bennafield said. “A lot of what we do at Propellant and HUMINT is helping to move black and brown businesses forward.”

Propellant is also working with clients to run social media campaigns to counter misinformation.

Croxton said Propellant leverages multiple platforms such as social media, programmatic display and video advertising to help clients respond quickly when they see information that is false or misleading.

“We know many voters live, breathe and consume media using these platforms, and we now have the ability to amplify messaging faster and across multiple platforms to fight misinformation,” Croxton said.

Propellant uses tools such as geofencing (targeting people based on their physical location), conversion zone tracking (tracking online advertising to offline locations) and lookalike modeling, which identifies clients that use products and finds more of them.

“When we started Propellant Media, our goal was to bring what we call industrial strength technology to small and emerging businesses,” Bennafield said. “A lot of smaller businesses are unaware of all of the technologies that are available to them, or they can’t access it. A lot of what we do you have to be spending $25,000 a month or more to access that technology. We actually allow our clients to access it because we aggregate multiple clients, and we bring them on the platform as a collective, and so now they can access technology they couldn’t otherwise.”

Before starting Propellant, Bennafield who has a degree in computer science, led marketing and new business teams at global advertising agencies, managing multi-million-dollar accounts. He uses his computer science background to help companies leverage digital marketing tools. During his more than 25-year career, Bennafield has worked at some of the largest advertising agencies in the country, including Digitas and Leo Burnett.

“My career has been spent primarily going between big agencies and entrepreneurial start-ups,” Bennafield said. “I feel like I’m an entrepreneur at heart.”

(Edited by Emily Crockett and Allison Elyse Gualtieri)



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‘Made It Out’ Author Recalls Escape From Streets of New Orleans and Corporate America

‘Made It Out’ Author Recalls Escape From Streets of New Orleans and Corporate America

Ross Williams made it out, and then he wrote a book about it.

Growing up in New Orleans’ 7th Ward can be rife with challenges. The horror stories far exceed the successful ones. Ross’s journey is an exception, and an exceptional one.

Surrounded by a solid family with community values, Williams attended Tulane University where he studied sociology. He has gone on to become the author of two best-sellers within an eight-month span.

 

“Made It Out” is testimony not only to his journey, but also to the similarities of surviving the streets and corporate America. His follow-up book, “Crabs In A Barrel: War On Racism,” gives a different perspective on the phrase that focuses more on the barrel than on the crab.

Author is just one of Williams’ many hats. He is also CEO of Williams Commerce Writing Services, which aims to empower job seekers, authors and entrepreneurs.

Photo courtesy of Ross Williams

Zenger News invited Williams for a Q&A session to learn more about his break-out book and journey of discovery.

Percy Crawford interviewed Ross Williams for Zenger News.


Percy Crawford interviewed Ross Williams for Zenger News (Photo courtesy of Percy Crawford)

Zenger: How did you break the cycle, so to speak, and make it out of the 7th Ward in New Orleans?

Williams: Really learned as much as possible. So, really learning what cursed prior generations and trying to avoid those same things. A lot of that came from learning from my parents who were born in the 1940s, so a lot of my family members are older. So, I have a lot of old-school values. I had the chance to learn about life before my era… I was able to accumulate all of that and just learn from every lesson or loss that I had in life and just never settled.

Zenger: What was it like growing up there and seeing some of the things you experienced?

Williams: I had a sense of pride about my community. My mother’s side of the family has been part of the St. Bernard, 7th Ward community since it was established back in the 1930s and 40s. A lot of people talk about the downfall of the neighborhood. Of course, I discuss that in my first book, “Made It Out,” some of the things I experienced. But one of the big things my neighborhood helped with was just building a confidence about myself and my abilities. At first it was basketball and then it became a swag with everything I do. I believe that I can be the best at whatever I put my mind to.

Zenger: What made you decide to even write a book?

Williams: Really to help other people to make it out of situations that they encountered. At first when I was writing my book, it was kind of like making it out of the inner city. I felt my lessons were applicable to any environment that you can grow up in. Like I said, learning from mistakes, gravitating towards positive energy, and learning from your losses. I really just wanted to give people the blueprint because halfway through the book it became about making it out of corporate America and becoming an entrepreneur. As of right now, even just picking up from there, I’m trying to show the world that I’ve made it out since then. Since the book, I’m still making it out.

Zenger: You actually make parallels in the book about the similarities of making it out of the street life and making it through corporate America. As crazy as it sounds, there’s not very much separation, is there?

Williams: I think in society with social engineering, a lot of us feel that if we are a different race or different religion, society has taught us that the next person is very different from us. And we can’t see eye-to-eye just because we come from different worlds or experiences. Gangstas and crooked people growing up in inner cities are no different than white collar gangstas. White collar gangstas are actually more cutthroat because at least in the neighborhood you know who to look out for. In corporate America, a lot of people have ulterior motives, but they project friendly energy. It’s not really necessary. It’s not these people need me to get by like in the neighborhood. It’s just out of malice. That’s why I feel like it’s grimier in corporate America because of how it’s presented to you.

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Zenger: It can be difficult to navigate that.

Williams: Right. And something that my neighborhood taught me, once I started communicating with people in higher level CEO positions or people that made in the upper six figures or north of that, just the intellect and growing the confidence once I interacted with these people, it’s like, “Oh, I can sit in these positions too.” A lot of times we are made to look at certain people as if they are superior to us, especially when we’re coming from inner cities. But we have the same abilities as those people. A lot of those people had easier routes to get there. That’s one thing of just gaining confidence along each step of your journey.

Zenger: Did you anticipate becoming a best-selling author and your books having the kind of impact that they have had?

Williams: Humbly speaking, my mom always told me, “Don’t step at all if you are going to half step.” So, I know the tears, the blood and sweat that I put into each project, or even a client’s book. I put that same energy towards everything. I’m very strategic and I move with a sense of urgency. I visualized the successes that I have had in my career so many times over and over, that all of the excitement is poured into the process each day. So, when it happens, I’m kind of militant about it, so I’m really not surprised. I really put my all into each thing and utilize my natural skillset. I haven’t been surprised so far.

(Edited by André Johnson and Judy Isacoff)



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