Publisher, Radio Personality, and Filmmaker, DeShuna Spencer is the Jack of all trades.
(Washington, DC) DeShuna Spencer is one busy woman. First and foremost, she is the founder and publisher of emPower Magazine, an online publication which “offers in-depth articles, commentary and video programming on social, educational, socio-economic, health, political and environmental issues facing people of African descent.” In addition to online journalism, Spencer is the radio host for emPower Hour on DC’s 89.3 FM station. While this may seem like a full workload for anyone, Ms. Spencer has yet another entrepreneurial venture. She has recently completed her first documentary: Mom Interrupted, which follows the narratives of mothers who have lost children to gun violence. It was an official selection of the Alexandria Film Festival, and premiered this month. Though her plate is full, and her business is booming she was generous enough to share her background, and business insights with Au’loni.
Spencer has a rich educational and professional history, that has prepared her well for her business endeavors. As an undergraduate, she attended Jackson State University, and graduated with a major in Communication and Journalism, with a concentration in print journalism, and a minor in English. While in college, she wrote for a newspaper, then began her career at The Clarion-Ledger, in Jackson Mississippi. Since then, she has moved all over the United States, from Oakland, CA, to New York, and Washington D.C, writing (mostly news) in various capacities.
When asked about her development of the idea for emPower, DeShuna says she knew she wanted to start a magazine in college. It was not until she was working in New York for AmeriCorp that she realized how badly she wanted to return to journalism. Sadly, much of her experience working in the news had been writing depressing police stories, dealing with violence and tragedy. Because Spencer has personally experienced tragedy similar to those she wrote about, she did not wish to continue in that genre of print news. She wanted to write about issues that called forth action and social and political involvement, so she began formulating ideas for emPower Magazine.
The Business Plan Hustle
She says her idea has been in the works for many years, because as any effective entrepreneur should, she needed to conduct research. She took a position working for a magazine. During this time, she observed and took notes for her future reference, assessing what made the magazine articles successful.
Once she felt prepared, she started working on business plan. She even competed in a business plan competition that entered her into a three-month development program in Baltimore. During those three months, she drove from Washington DC to Baltimore three days a week. Though it was a sacrifice, she very excited to do it! She says, “it’s one thing to make a business plan. It’s another thing to figure out how to make it happen”.
It was during this period of business plan development that Spencer made the difficult decision to move her magazine idea from print to online. As an avid print magazine reader, she found it difficult to let go of idea of print. As a savvy entrepreneur, she saw the print industry crumbling, and quickly realized that her original dream would not happen.
Through her determination and flexibility, she was able to start with a small blog. As her site developed, she reached out to writers, worked to increase followers and raised money. Spencer says, “It wasn’t perfect, and it was difficult… but it was worth it.”
Spencer can see the fruits of her labor in the audience response to her work. She has gotten positive feedback. She does, however, remember receiving confused and angry emails, recently after her launch during the US period of economic downturn in 2008-2009. She received emails from White individuals asking why Black people needed a magazine when everyone was struggling. She remembers explaining that her magazine was not meant to be exclusive, but that the issues of Blacks in America were more dire and complicated than those of other communities. Since then, she has received much support for the idea. People have told Spencer that her articles have either helped them personally, or informed them about worthy cases for donation and volunteering.
Bumps in the Road
When Au’loni asked Ms. Spencer about any difficulties she faces, she shared a unique story. Upon initially starting the magazine, She participated in a minority business plan competition, in the hopes of earning a monetary prize. Spencer remembers, “I was so excited, making plans for the magazine. I was a finalist and flew to Chicago for the next round, but when I got there, it wasn’t a very safe welcoming environment.”
She felt deeply and unnecessarily scrutinized by the judges. She understood that the organization wanted to make sure the prize investment was well spent, but felt disrespected by the critiques she was given. She vividly remembers one judge asking her if she had attended various business events in New York city. She replied that she had not, because she could not afford to travel to them at the time. The judge proceeded to ask the price of the suit she was wearing, and criticize professional Black women for investing more in their clothing than their businesses. Spencer remembers explaining that this stereotype in no way described her. She exclaimed, “I was also wearing a cheap suit from Burlington Coat Factory!”
Spencer sees this event as a turning point for her entrepreneurial endeavors. She had flown to Chicago at her own expense to be ridiculed, and told that there was no need for her idea. Such strong opposition challenged her to the point where she questioned whether or not it was worth it to move forward, or give up.
Finally she adds, “another thing about being an entrepreneur: there is no such thing as sleep. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. People see my success on social media, and that I work all the time, but they don’t see all the work that goes into these little successes. It’s tough.”
Thankfully, she chose to persevere and has seen tremendous success despite such brutal and unfair criticism. “I’m very spiritual. I spend alot of time in prayer and meditation. There is no way I could do anything I do without it. I started to trust my instincts. As entrepreneurs, we often tell people our idea, and expect people to be behind us, but at the end of the day it can be very lonely being an entrepreneur. I’m the only one who is going to get things done. Prayer and meditation have never let me down. I’m not saying to move away from people, but count on yourself to get the job done. You have to believe in yourself even when other people don’t.
Words of Wisdom
Spencer stresses the importance of having a sound business idea. “Do your research. A lot of people have so many ideas for magazines, but research is imperative because you have to know your market. At the same time, she warns not to spend too much time researching. “ Don’t spend your life doing it. Some people jump in, and some spend years before starting. You will waste years doing research, and you could lose an opportunity, nit picking. Sometimes, opportunities arise when you don’t have all the answers, but do enough research to make sure you can generate income.”
Spencer also believes heavily in trusting your instincts. She says not to listen to every opinion. “Many people are insecure, and go around asking others’ opinions until they are convinced that their idea is good enough.” She warns readers to take opinions with a grain of salt, because they come from different perspectives. For example, a mother, whose opinion you might greatly value, may not support your entrepreneurial endeavors, because she fears for your economic stability.
In both the short and long term, Spencer is interested in incorporating more video into her site. The new video venture she is launching is called kweliTV. Her research indicates that people are no longer reading long stories, but are more interested in videos. Spencer still reads, but realizes that the average person will not take the time to read an entire article. “You have to go with what’s going on in the market. People watch TV and videos – especially black people, which is my target audience. They love the magazine, but this demographic watches a lot of TV.”
Ms. Spencer is a humble, hardworking entrepreneur to keep our eyes on, in the future. We look forward to following her success, and encourage you to do the same. Follow emPower Magazine on Twitter @empowermagazine. You can also keep up with her personal account @DeShuna. You can learn more about her video venture here: www.kweli.tv