Photo: Courtesy of DeShuna Spencer
As a creative entrepreneur, there are days when I ask myself, “Why did I do this again?” In moments of doubt, it’s important to have people to whom you can look for inspiration, and DeShuna Spencer is definitely one of those people. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing DeShuna for a few years, and watching her build a media empire from the ground up is truly inspiring. And DeShuna is building an empire. The founder and publisher of emPower magazine – an online hub for articles, information and commentary on issues facing people of African descent – Spencer is also the producer and radio host of emPower Hour on Washington, D.C.’s 89.3 FM WPFW, where she discusses social justice and human rights issues. She also recently finished her first documentary, Mom Interrupted, which was an official selection of the 2014 Alexandria Film Festival.
Trust me when I tell you that DeShuna is just getting started.
I’ve had the pleasure of talking business and dream chasing with DeShuna on several occasions, even before I launched my own entrepreneurial ventures. What makes her journey so inspiring is not just her ambition, but her dogged determination to stand out in today’s crowded media landscape and stay true to her mission of uplifting African-Americans using her media ventures. I recently sat down with DeShuna to talk entrepreneurship and overcoming the fear of failure. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
CM: How did you come to the world of media and journalism?
DS: It started in high school. I loved to write. [During] my senior year, I ended up being on the yearbook staff, [which] basically opened up my eyes to being a journalist. I was the assistant editor. I took pictures and interviewed students…I [also] ended up helping with the layout. It was a lot of fun. That’s when a light bulb went off to pursue journalism.
As a kid, the only thing I liked to do was read and write. I remember in elementary school watching “Meet the Press” before church. How many 10-year-olds watch Meet the Press, right? I loved that show. I remember in high school, I would tell my guy friends if they wanted to go on a date with me, they would have to wait until “20/20” went off. I was so into news.
Another thing that made me realize I wanted to be a journalist was reading Jet magazine on the way to church [one day] and it was the anniversary of Emmitt Till’s death. I remember reading about this 13-year-old boy who was killed in Mississippi. I turned the page and saw his picture and it freaked me out…it made me realize the power of journalism and how powerful pictures can be, because I wanted to know more about him. I remember learning early on that the press was very powerful, and when looking for options for college, I realized that was something I really wanted to do.
CM: Do you remember the moment that you made the decision to become an entrepreneur?
DS: It was in college when I initially thought about it. I was working for a newspaper at the time, the Clarion-Ledger, which is the largest newspaper in the state of Mississippi. I envisioned what working for a newspaper would be like and it was totally different from what I imagined. The pay was low [and] people would grind out articles like it was a sweatshop. I [also] really felt like the content I was writing about was very depressing.
My boyfriend was murdered when I was 18 and going into my sophomore year [in college.] [During] my senior year, I was a cop reporter and they would send me out to interview moms whose kids had died of gun violence. I hated it. I would go to my dorm room and cry because it reminded me of my boyfriend. I remember talking to one of my friends at school who said, “Why don’t you start your own magazine? Why worry about working for someone else?”
I [later] ended up going to Oakland, Calif., to intern and I was going to be a cop reporter. They liked what I was doing so much that the old cop reporter was going to retire and give me the lead position at 21 years old. I didn’t want it. I ended up leaving Oakland for an AmeriCorps position in Buffalo. It was there, at 23, that I came up with the concept for emPower magazine. [When] my year ended in Buffalo, I was looking for jobs in New York and Washington, D.C.
I’m a very spiritual person, and I have a very strong prayer life. I remember when I was applying for jobs and going on interviews, I wanted a job where I could learn everything about the magazine industry. So I prayed to God [that] whatever job I got, I wanted it be the last job I would take. I didn’t want to work for anyone else again. I also prayed, that if I was really meant to do this magazine thing, let me get a job where I can learn everything.
I got a job for an association in Silver Spring as their magazine editor. I was in charge of it all – from finding stories to writing, interviewing people and layout to selling advertising and finding writers. I did it all with my assistant, and I learned everything I needed to know about running a magazine. I was there for many, many years, and I hated it actually because the CEO and I just never really got along. Every time I looked for another job, I would get an interview and it would come down to me and another person. The other person would get the job and I would think, “God I hate working here, why won’t you let me leave?” Then I would be reminded, this is supposed to be your last job, remember?
The organization ended up having some financial issues and they needed a way to save money. [The idea] came to me to become a contractor for them. They would reduce the magazine to quarterly, and I would do the combined work of my assistant and myself. I wrote a proposal [to become a contractor] and they went for it.
That’s how I became an entrepreneur.
I knew I wanted to do it early on, but everything is a long process and a journey. A lot of times people rush and think, “I have this idea—I need to do it right away before someone steals it.” But, at the end of the day, you have to do it when it’s the right timing. It was tough early on. When I first started the magazine I was still working full time. I would be up all night updating my website and then go into work. It was very hard, but I really believed in my mission, so I just kind of pressed on.
CM: You mentioned your experience with AmeriCorps. What was it about that experience that helped you realize that you could make a difference with journalism?
DS: I’ve always been a big giver, but I never really knew how to marry activism with journalism. Being in AmeriCorps really taught me how to do that. As an AmeriCorps Vista member, I started newsletters from scratch for two nonprofits and I basically did it all myself. That’s how I came up with the idea.
CM: What thoughts or feelings come up when you hear the word “failure”?
DS: Of course fear. No one wants to fail. You have this idea, and you want it to go perfectly. For me, making emPower magazine work has been a longer journey than I thought it would be. That’s the issue a lot of entrepreneurs face. It usually takes a very, very long time to do what you really want to do. For me, failure is also perfecting what you’re trying to do. When I initially started emPower magazine, my goal was to be in print. But I had to change my idea based on what I was seeing in the marketplace.
It’s compromising too. I always tell people emPower, in a way, is almost like eating vegetables. We’re not talking about Kim Kardashian or Nick Cannon and Mariah Carey. Let other publications do that. To me, I’d rather stick with my mission and maybe not be as successful as those that publish anything and everything just for clicks. So, I’ve failed in that regard – I’m not winning in the click game. But, I know what my mission is, and I need to be different. Everyone can’t publish the same thing.
CM: For me, the fear of failure can sometimes stop me from trying something new. In the past year or two, you’ve done a couple of new things with the emPower Players Awards and now you’ve got the new radio show emPower Hour. Tell me a little bit about starting those new things and how you felt about them?
DS: On the radio show, I listen to WPFW and I know they are always looking for new hosts. I submitted a [show] proposal in 2009 and then again in 2011. I submitted it one more time in October 2012. I got a phone call from the program director in January 2014 saying that he just saw my proposal from 2012, and he asked if I wanted to come in and talk about hosting my own show.
I had just had surgery and gotten off of bed rest a week before that phone call. I spent the end of 2012 and all of 2013 dealing with my dad’s diagnosis of lung cancer. I didn’t even remember sending them that proposal in 2012. Between 2012 and 2013, anything bad that could happen in my life did. My brother’s first son died, my aunt died, my dog became paralyzed—it was the worst time ever. And then I get a phone call in 2014 about a proposal, and I’m thinking, “What proposal?” I didn’t remember anything. But, I went to my computer to familiarize myself with what I wrote and went in for a two-hour interview. They said, “We’ll give you a shot.” That was on January 17. They asked if I could start on January 31—a week and a half later. Scary right? And those are those moments in life where you have to just go for it. You can’t be afraid of not knowing what you’re doing. I’ve never done radio—live radio. I was totally terrified. I had a week and a half to not only sound decent, but also come up with guests and topics. I just went for it.
The emPower Players awards has been something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I wanted to honor people who were doing things in the community because they saw a need—not because they wanted to be recognized. I never imagined that I would be able to have an awards ceremony. It’s very expensive, but I ended up having lunch with Chanelle Hardy from the National Urban League, and I was telling her about the idea. She told me, “DeShuna, you just need to do it…you need to have an actual awards ceremony so others can see the hard work that these people are doing.” I didn’t think I could afford it, but I went to my board and said, “We’re going to try to make this happen any way we can.”
I was so nervous. I’m from Memphis, which is homier, more relaxed than D.C. Here, everything has to be perfect. This is not a mom-and-pop-shop type of town. You have to be polished. I don’t consider myself to be polished at all. I’m clumsy. I stumble over things. I stumble over my words. But, it wasn’t about me or what I thought others thought of me – it was about people doing great work in the community. We got a lot of great responses. People really enjoyed the event. One person emailed me that she was crying because she was so touched by what the honorees were doing.
CM: What’s the one thing about being an entrepreneur that you think people don’t talk about?
DS: How hard it is. It’s a lot of work, a lot of sleepless nights. Most entrepreneurs I know aren’t going shopping every month. Any money they have, they invest into their business. They’re sacrificing their money and time to make this dream come true. When you’re an entrepreneur, your entire life is about business. I can be at Whole Foods and I have my business cards on me, because you just never know who might want to read emPower.
You also have to have a strong will for what you believe in. I see so many people who quit very easily. People who make it in business are not [necessarily] those who got venture capitalists to give them a million dollars; they’re the people who just didn’t give up. They kept going and going until it eventually worked out.
CM: Your business is built around making a social impact. What’s the impact that you want to make?
DS: It changes all the time. Initially the goal was to have a magazine where people learn about social issues and then want to give back, because we give tips on how to give back to the community. Now, I’m looking at what I can do as an individual to make a larger impact, and that takes money. The online news game is a hard game to be in at this point. I’ve been looking at new business models that can bring in a lot of money quickly where I can make a real impact with dollars. You think about some of the issues that are going on in the Black community – a lot of it has to do with economic and educational opportunities. Because of the magazine, I do a lot of research on why a certain segment of our community is still far behind – it’s because we don’t have the education and we just can’t get those jobs…in order for us to get out of this unemployment issue, we have to be able to employ people. That’s been my new prayer – to have a sustainable business where I can employ a large amount of Black people, because no one else wants to. My goal is to come up with something that no one else is doing now, be the first and then create wealth from that so I can help bring other Black people along.
CM: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your life?
DS: To be open. I’m open to how life will evolve. In college I had an idea about a magazine for Black girls. It evolved into a magazine for Black people in general. Now, even though I’m still going to have emPower magazine, I’m looking at how I can do more in the community with a different type of business model. I’m just being open to the new possibilities because technology changes so quickly…I’m trying to keep pace with how the world is changing, and I want to be a part of that.