In Conversation with Sharon Smith-Akinsanya of Rae Mackenzie Group

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Describe your business in a few words?

Rae Mackenzie Group is an award-winning diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) marketing firm specializing in advising companies on how to best position their brands to recruit and retain Talent of Color. We help our clients achieve this through private consulting and advising and by way of a proprietary platform called People Of Color Careers™ Social Hiring Network for Professionals of Color. With a business track record spanning over 20 years, RMG has become an authority in the DEI Marketing space and has built a past and present client list consisting of Fortune 500 companies, non-profits, and top employers, including U.S. Bank, Midco, Minnesota Timberwolves & Lynx, Andersen Windows & Doors, Thrivent, Make-A-Wish® America, Best Buy, Target, Verizon Wireless, and more by helping them build more authentic relationships with Communities of Color.

RMG specializes in diversity workforce recruitment and retention, DEI marketing and strategy, event production and logistics, and creative services. CEO & Founder Smith-Akinsanya and her team have a proven track record of success in all of these areas, continually helping corporations and businesses connect and build stronger relationships with People of Color.

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

Two equally important factors led to my decision to start my own business: wealth building. I wanted to create a legacy for my family, and I identified entrepreneurship and homeownership as the fastest ways to do so. I knew that it was my purpose to pave a path for generations to come, so I sought to do just that. I am creating a legacy that will outlive me.

Additionally, I wanted to impact the world. True, I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I also had a conviction to make my entrepreneurship count. And I saw a gap for Professionals of Color having the access they needed to opportunities at top tier companies. I married my passion for wealth building with my passion for impact and, from that, birthed my DEI-focused marketing firm. The leap became unavoidable.

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

Before starting my business, I was in radio sales. I got paid 100% off of commission. If I didn’t sell, I didn’t eat. I did this for years and honed my relationship building and marketing skill sets. Then I moved to Minneapolis and landed a job with Prince. Yes, the Prince! The musical icon, himself. And I used the skills I learned in sales to help running his business empire. From throwing events to making sure folks got paid to run his clubs and so much more. Working with Prince, I learned how to get things done. I saw to it that whatever he needed to be done was done.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

After reading Master of the Game by Sidney Sheldon, I knew that I would have my own business, name it after my child, and create a legacy for my family. Legacy was everything for the powerful Kate Blackwell, who took care of her family and took no prisoners while doing it. She was clear on what she had to do to make things happen and take charge. 

Even though it was a work of fiction, that novel inspired me because I knew that I would have to make things happen for myself. There was no trust fund waiting for me like some of the women I knew from college. To be successful in this world, I would have to make it on my own, and I knew that owning my own business would give me the best shot of creating a legacy for my family.

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

To announce the launch of my company, I created an event to capture everyone’s attention. The Gathering: A Woman of Color Expo was a massive event in the Minneapolis region celebrating Women of Color leading in business. It allowed me not only the opportunity to celebrate awesome women leading change and doing the dang thing but also the chance to showcase my ability to organize a successful event, market it well, and incorporate community partners. The expo went as planned and provided me a platform to announce the launch of my own business. It catapulted my company by instantly helping me build a reputation for producing events and connecting corporations with Business Owners, Consumers, and Talent of Color.

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

In 2008, I learned that corporations value their budgets and are strict about sticking to them. I was not prepared for the recession that hit that year when the first budgetary line items that clients cut were those pertaining to DEI initiatives. I lost my business and home and found myself bouncing from couch to couch, trying to get back on my feet. You see, I had all my eggs in one basket with no pivoting contingency plan.

I learned two valuable lessons in 2008–have an even bigger rainy day fund and have something “else” in the works to make a quick pivot. So I was prepared for 2020 when the pandemic shifted our way of living and business.

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

It may sound funny, but seriously, my baby girl, Rae Akinsanya, is my biggest accomplishment. I worked hard to make sure she was not a mess (LOL)! All jokes aside, I raised her with the intention of making sure she would be a good citizen of the world. No one is required to love her like I do, and I made sure that she understood this. I made it my purpose to give her the skills and tools she would need to survive and thrive as a Black woman in America.

In terms of a work initiative, I am most proud of People Of Color Careers™ Social Hiring Network–a proprietary platform geared at connecting top Talent of Color with recruiters, hiring managers, and decision-makers at companies and corporations. And people are getting hired! I have been working on this for some time, and this year, it came fully to fruition. PeopleOfColorCareers.com is LIVE and serves its purpose as the Premier Social Hiring Network for Professionals of Color. It is free for professionals to use, funded by corporate partners like U.S. Bank, Thrivent, Minnesota Timberwolves & Lynx, Andersen Windows & Doors, Midco, and more! Make sure you create a profile on the platform and start networking today!

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

My go-to question is, “What do you read?” This question reveals so much about a person. Depending on how they answer, I get an immediate sense of their imagination, ability to problem solve, self-starter traits, teamwork, leadership, and more. 

I have learned the importance of asking questions that will show rather than tell. It is easy for people to craft answers and stories filled with flowery language when you ask questions like, “How would you rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 using X software?” (By the way, this question is loaded with bias. I wouldn’t recommend asking it). Questions about the person to get to know them better will reveal more pertinent information to your decision-making process. The hiring process is serious and shouldn’t be taken lightly. It is critical to process your entire creative self instead of doing what’s always been done.

I also like to ask situational interview questions, they start with “Will you please give me an example of a time when you…” It’s a great question to understand candidate experiences in greater detail and how they handle challenges.

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Such an interesting question. It’s twofold. Of course, the pandemic affected some fundamental aspects of my business negatively, namely my annual People Of Color Career Fair™. Since 2016, I have hosted a semiannual career fair (one in spring and one in fall) to bring Black professionals and other Professionals of Color into the same room with decision-makers. Hundreds of professionals would have face-to-face time with recruiters and hiring managers, leading to many hires being made on the spot and some made shortly thereafter. Needless to say, we were not able to do a single fair in 2020, and 2021 is not looking likely either (at least for the spring). 

On the other hand, the pandemic has called to light issues of systemic racism, disparities, and access barriers that Black people and other People of Color experience, topics for which my firm is well equipped to help corporations address. The demand for consulting with companies and organizations on ways to optimize and make public their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion has increased, placing me and my firm in a peculiar yet well-placed position for which I am grateful.

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

Big things! People Of Color Careers™ is just the beginning. While I anticipate that the platform will continue to grow and revolutionize diverse and equitable hiring in America, I am also working on a resource for Small Business Owners of Color. I don’t want to spill my popcorn in the lobby, but just know that I am serious about making sure that Black people and other People of Color have businesses that are well-positioned in the marketplace for longevity. It’s all about closing the income equity gap and building wealth.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

Pivot fast and keep moving. If you’re always ready, you don’t have to get ready. This was a reinforcement of what I learned in 2008. It is crucial to have another iron in the fire and to be ready to use it. Not only was my company already ready with the People Of Color Careers™ platform idea, but we were also prepared to move forward with it and do the work to get it launched! The pivot has to be quick, and it has to be accompanied by motion. You have to keep on moving. Like my dad would say, “Nobody can stop you when you’re going 90 miles per hour.”

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

I wish that I would have better understood, in practice, the importance of having the right people in the correct position doing the right stuff. I understood it in theory, but it didn’t translate well to practical application. This has played out in the way I hire. I have had to make hiring an intentional priority for me to improve. I’m not too fond of the process of vetting, so when I first started (and sometimes after), my hiring philosophy was if I like you, I hire you. If I met you at a networking event or if I knew you, you got the job. 

While I think this was a noble approach to hiring, I ran into many hurdles because I didn’t have individuals with the skill sets necessary to succeed in the roles I hired them. Some skills I don’t have myself to teach them to be better. For instance, the most I can tell a graphic designer is “that’s not it.” I can articulate my vision, but they are the artist. For that reason, I’ve had to buckle down and get serious about having the right people doing the right thing, not only for my benefit but for theirs as well.

How have you managed to stay grounded this year?

Staying connected to family and friends has been vital to me, specifically my 80-year-old mother. Without her, I would have lost my mind. She reminds me and others to identify life’s blessings every single day and to keep it moving. 

In general, I keep in communication with people who know me and know how to handle me. In addition to giving me love and support, they aren’t afraid to correct me when I veer off course. It’s crucial to have that level of intimacy with people to stay grounded in collective reality. Many times (especially with the pandemic), we can become so insular and in our heads that we are grounded in reality, but it may not be the reality of the world in which we all exist.

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

I struggle with it, but I do believe in it. One of the best tips I can give is to prioritize self. It’s easy to get so caught up in the motion and ritual of working that our lives become about our profession. A tell-tale sign is when you ask someone about themselves, and they start talking to you about what they do for work. You have to prioritize yourself, meaning schedule time to relax, unplug, not check emails, do some body maintenance, get your toes and feet done, get your hair done the way you like it, or whatever decompression is for you. You should be on the top of your to-do list in some way, every day.

What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

I binge watch black & white movies. I love black & white films. Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, those are my girls! And if you haven’t seen the 1963 version of Back Street starring Susan Hayward, you need to put it on your list. Every so often, I’ll take a Saturday to curl up on the couch with a glass (or three) of wine and make it a marathon.

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

  • Plan out your day with a to-do list.
  • Knock out the most challenging tasks first.
  • Scratch things off as you go.

Success doesn’t happen without planning, so start there. While you have the most energy and brainpower, take care of the things that will require most of you to make sure that you are fresh and can give them the attention they deserve.  This requires knowing your magic hour, the time of the day you are most creative and productive. For me, it’s the twilight hours of 4AM to 7AM. Finally, scratching things off as you complete them will give a sense of accomplishment and inspiration to keep going.

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

Being an Entreprenista means making boss moves while being your fabulously authentic self. It means celebrating the awesome power moves that women from all over are making and using every success story as fuel and inspiration for your own success story. As an Entreprenista, I get to be me without toning myself down. And I have the confidence of knowing that there are so many other women in business from whom I can draw strength  and rely on to do the same.

Sharon Smith-Akinsanya is CEO of Rae Mackenzie Group — an award-winning diversity, equity and inclusion marketing firm and author of “Colorfull: Competitive Strategies to Attract and Retain Top Talent of Color.” She recently founded People Of Color Careers™ Social Hiring Network to help professionals of color land their dream careers with employers who are serious about increasing racial inclusivity at all levels of the corporate structure. Learn more at BoldlySharon.com. Follow her on Twitter and connect on Linkedin!

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