Have you ever heard the name ‘Sonia Brown’?
If you haven’t, where have you been?
Founder of the National Black Women’s Network in 1999, she’s built a durable business model that’s still going strong. And you don’t have to be a black woman to know her.
Because she’s there on stage in her killer heels and big hair at many women focused business meetings I attend, where she intrigues, inspires and initiates a buzz and a laugh. Her narrative is all about charisma, quirkiness, humour, seeing things from a different perspective from the crowd – qualities that help make her an inspiring leader. She’s also about delivering the best and expecting the best and working hard to achieve success.
With a huge number of people in her business network, politicians, CEOs, peers and ordinary business women like me, people say that she knows just about everyone. But according to Sonia Brown, ‘They say that about me, but there are still people I don’t know!’
Queen of networking? You could say so. Certainly, networking has made her. And you have to ask yourself how did a South London girl, from a regular, working class Jamaican background manage to develop such connections? Read on and find out from the extraordinary Sonia Brown herself.
Describe your work.
Sonia Brown: I’m the founder and Managing Director of the National Black Women’s Network, which provides business support for our members who are starting and growing businesses and leadership competencies for those looking to raise their game. The vast majority of my members are solo-entrepreneurs and small business owners and the network provides them with an array of knowledge and critical information through networking, training events and informal sessions.
What essential steps got you to where you are now?
Sonia Brown: Persistence. It’s really important to have a big vision and work with the end in mind.
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. I constantly review my plans and get feedback from respected and experienced mentors, peers and other entrepreneurs. If the direction I am going in needs to be changed, I change it. I tell people to stop what’s not working after exhausting all avenues and if you don’t have the tools or the resources to change it and make it go in the right direction, stop pushing; it’s just simply the wrong time.
What would you say is the most significant thing you did as a woman that got you to where you are?
Sonia Brown: I had self-belief that it was the right thing to do!
You always hear the negative stuff about being in business. When I first started, there was a lot of negative talk about race but, the more you come into your purpose, you're fighting for your passion.
A lot of discontented women give up their dreams to support other people and other people’s dreams. They then get to a point where they say, “Is this all there is to life? I’m unhappy, I’m bored, I’m stressed”
The reality is that they aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing with their life; which is to find your own purpose. You need to have the philosophy that my life matters, my dream matters; my purpose matters. It doesn’t mean I don’t love anybody else, I just want to do me before I check out of this life.
What are your purpose and dreams?
Sonia Brown: I’m here doing what I’m supposed to be doing, which is supporting people to create their best life and I’m using the forum of networking to make this happen. We all have our own purpose and we should all enjoy the journey of discovering what it is.
Everyone who knows me personally will say that I’m a real complainer because I just don’t accept things. I always challenge. I’m bored with mediocrity because I believe there is so much going on in the world and I’d like to know what it is.
Even as a child I knew that my circumstances and environment were not all that I was. So, I now recognise that I’ve had my purpose since I was a child.
Give a quick run through of your life.
Sonia Brown: My parents are Jamaican and I grew up in South London where I learned to appreciate that people have colourful personalities and backgrounds. They were always doing something entrepreneurial. It gave me a great work ethic. People did, in their own way, want a better life. And they worked hard for it the best way they could. I was the middle child so I always had to push for what I wanted.
In primary school, I was sent to Mr Pigdon’s office a lot. He was deputy head and his hobby was calligraphy, so he used to teach me how to write calligraphy. Because of him I had beautiful handwriting. Another was a Greek teacher called Ms. Taylor, who gave me a love of Greek mythology and Latin. I used the punishment to learn new interests and skills.
Secondary School was challenging and eventually my parents shipped me off to Jamaica for a “rite of passage”. I would have stayed in Jamaica but, because I didn’t like my aunt, I came back and I became the best-behaved student in school, having experienced Jamaican discipline.
I won't be specific about my first job. But I remember going in on the lowest level and was promoted within six months. There were people who had been there for years who didn’t get promotion. They were so jealous they all switched on me and I knew it was time to leave.
My biggest influence as a child was my teacher Ms. Renton. On my first day in her class she said, “I expect you to get top results in your homework, and if you don’t you’ll have a lot of detentions.” Years later I remember seeing her and she said, “What are you doing?” I had just started the network so I was telling her about that. She cried and said “I’m so happy and proud of you because I knew you’d turn out well”. She was a great champion for me.
Other than her it was Diana Ross, the coolest woman on TV and I wanted a weave just like hers. I was going to be the Diana Ross of business!
On a serious note, I drifted through a number of jobs, which I always left. Being honest, I talked my way into most of them, because I had qualifications, which opened doors. Then I would get experience by learning things that I found interesting.
My last job before setting up the network was in a global company but I was a square peg in a round hole. However, I took advantage of every opportunity, training and networking occasion going.
When things took a real turn for the worse in the job (Just Over Broke), I spoke to Baroness Howells who said to me, “Create your ideal job” So I designed a business plan which combined all my likes, competencies and qualities and the network was formed. I researched and launched it as a hobby.
After a while, I got to the point where I just kept saying, “Oh my god, I can’t tell people to walk in faith whilst I’m still sitting here with a full-time job. I’m going to take that leap of faith and do this full time.” And I did it! It was nerve-racking but the best decision I made.
In retrospect, I was in preparation for the NBWN for many years before it finally happened. Every job I had wasn’t wasted. Each one helped me to learn, develop and grow my business. I had the experience and now the purpose.
Were you intrigued and inspired by Sonia Brown? Tune in again next week and read part 2 of her story.
Find out more about the National Black Women's Network (NBWN) here.
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Thanks a million.