Savvy, agent for positive social change, connector, innovator: those are just a few words that would aptly describe Megan R. Smith, a visionary communications powerhouse runs Brownstone Public Relations. Brownstone Public Relations is a media relations, social media implementation, and community relations firm specializing in creating integrated communications strategies for clients throughout the country. The firm has a diverse client roster across the technology, arts, hospitality, healthcare, education and financial industries.
We chatted with Megan to learn about what inspires her, how she started her business, advice she has for aspiring entrepreneurs, and her vision for the future of her growing business. Read on to learn more about this #fabfemme!
Femme & Fortune: Tell me about yourself and your background? What brought you to Philly originally?
Megan Smith: I am a native of Washington, DC, a lover of ‘90s hip hop, a runner of half marathons, and an insane collector of magazines that have long stopped printing (hello, Honey Mag!). I came to Philadelphia in 2001 to attend Temple University, where I majored in print journalism with a focus on magazine sequence. I graduated in 2005 with a desire to no longer chase the story, but to create it.
What was your first job out of college, and how did you get that job?
Megan Smith: My first job was at the Philadelphia Film Society, which was then under the leadership of Ray Murray, Claire Kohler, Eric Moore, Thom Cardwell and more. At the Philadelphia Film Society, I worked as the public relations assistant for the Philadelphia International Film Festival and the Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. I got the job by applying for an intern position my senior year of college and sticking around past graduation. I worked alongside great people, and I just kept nagging them to give me things to do, as I wanted to better understand the world of public relations. They couldn’t get rid of me, so they figured they’d give me a position.
How did you decide to start your company? Tell us more about it and the services you offer.
Megan Smith: I started Brownstone PR in 2007. We are a creative agency specializing in integrated communications strategies for clients in the technology, energy, banking/finance, law/legal services, education, public health and hospitality/tourism sectors. In addition to media relations, community engagement and overall branding efforts, we also implement strategic digital and social media campaigns for corporations, organizations and national brands.
I started the firm by either accident or circumstance, depending on how you see it. I left the Film Society as I wanted to broaden my experience in public relations. After receiving a great, personal recommendation from Cardwell, I began working at a boutique PR firm in Philadelphia. It was nice for about 4-5 months, at which point I was approached with an opportunity to do some freelance PR work on the side. I ran it by my boss; she said it was okay, considering she wasn’t paying me that much. I don’t think, however, she thought I would be that successful at the freelance work. When she saw that I was, she gave me an ultimatum: either work for her or do the freelance work. Looking back on it (and being in the role that I am now in), I can understand her position. Before I could fully decide, my boss made the decision for me: she fired me. Once that happened, I had to figure out what I was going to do: either try to get a job at another firm or create my own space. After many tears, much prayer, loads of encouragement from my parents and some discouragement from (now former) friends, I chose the latter.
What is your favorite aspect of your career?
Megan Smith: Strategic and creative thinking are the highlights of what I do. I don’t label myself a ‘PR person,’ as that is limiting. I’m a business owner and a visionary; and I’m someone who has to be 20 steps ahead of our clients, and must have a pulse on how business and various industries are evolving. What does the future look like and how do we ensure we have a place there? We have to be strategic, and we must be ridiculously creative in order to stand out.
While there may not be a typical day for a business owner in media, what are major aspects of your work day?
Megan Smith: Three things that are a daily mainstay: checking in with my team to make sure they have what they need to be successful; a 45 minute training session with Jordan at Weston Fitness; and a check-in conversation with my dad and/or personal Board of Directors to get their input and ask them to be a sounding board for any crisis that has popped up.
Can you describe a major career challenge and how you overcame it?
Megan Smith: My biggest career challenge has been learning how to negotiate. You can’t build a business on favors, and you can’t grow your business by doing great work for pennies. There is nothing wrong with expecting to be paid what you are worth. If you have a product or service and you have a cost associated with it, you deserve to be compensated accordingly. While there is always room for negotiation, I had to realize that it is okay to say ‘no’ when someone comes back to you with a number that is just not acceptable. Sometimes you have to walk away from money. It also means you may have just avoided a headache that you would be contractually obligated to deal with.
What’s on your reading or podcast list?
Megan Smith: I’m currently reading two books: The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin, with the coolest tagline ever: ‘How high will you fly?’ Godin speaks to why you should be treating your work as art. Working like an artist means investing in things that scale: creativity, emotional labor, and grit. I’m also reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which touches on race, fundamentalism, sex and sexuality, and a host of other things.
And I’m addicted to two podcasts: The Read and Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period. The former is awesomely ridiculous and straightforward. The latter needs no explanation for why it’s great; the title should be enough.
What advice do you have for other aspiring young female entrepreneurs?
Megan Smith: A few things:
1) While I respect all major institutions, there is no business class that will 100% prepare you for running a business. And each person’s experience is different. Connect with those who are both new to it and have been in it for a while, because the learning never stops.
2) You will make many sacrifices, but your health (mental, physical and spiritual) cannot be one of them. Invest in yourself as much as you invest in your business.
3) Know your worth and know your bottom line.
4) Be driven by purpose and not position.
5) You can learn from everyone around you. Don’t be so arrogant that you believe you are always the smartest one in the room. And if you are the smartest one, you’re in the wrong room.
6) Build a personal Board of Directors, and make sure those folks represent all industries. Also make sure that they aren’t all entrepreneurs. You need a good mix.
7) You deserve a seat at the table. And if there are no more seats, pull up your own.
8) It is inevitable that you will fail at something. Cry about it, learn from it, and move on.
9) Never stop thinking big. The ceiling is only where you set it.
10) Have a succession plan. At some point, if you don’t plan to sell your business, you’ll need to groom the next person to take over.
Do you have any goals for your business you would like to see come to fruition in the short term or long term?
Megan Smith: Over the next 5 years, I look for us to have a stronger presence in Washington, D.C., Chicago and LA. What’s more, I’m working on a succession plan so that in the next 5-7, I am putting someone in position to fill my shoes and take the firm to even higher levels.
To that point, I’m also looking most forward to the next iteration of my career.
Brownstone PR will always be mine, but my life goal is the shift the paradigm a bit and invest more in women of color who look to tell their stories on a multimedia platform. I’m only 31. There’s much more to come.
Who inspires you? Do you have any words you live by?
Megan Smith: My parents have been inspiring me since 1983. My team inspires me. The clients with whom we work inspire me. My friends inspire me. The homeless guy who hangs near our office building, and who, for the last 2 years, always makes sure I get into a cab safely while asking only that I keep him in my prayers, inspires me. The author who literally gave me the coat off her back because I told her I liked it, inspires me. How can you not be inspired by people with whom you interact, daily? That’s the awesome thing about life. You never know from where the lesson will come, and when it will get to you. But it always does. This applies to business as well.
Sound advice from such a trailblazer. Thank you for the interview, Megan!