During her stint as a public relations professional, Lauren Wesley Wilson noticed a serious lack of women who looked like her at networking events. Concerned with how this could impact both her own career aspirations and that of many others, she developed an idea to create space to facilitate relationship building for those who may be in the same situation. In 2011, the now 30-year-old hosted an invite-only luncheon for professional women of color in field of communications. From there, ColorComm was born and has since grown into a membership organization with chapters in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta.
Wilson left her role at Qorvis MSLGroup in March of this year to work for ColorComm full-time as president and CEO. The organization hosted it’s second national conference this year in Miami, Florida. The ColorComm 2015 Conference presented by Prudential featured appearances from industry titans such as Rosalind Hudnell and Viviana Hurtado as well as keynote speakers Lisa Ling of CNN and women's activist Gloria Steinem. We caught up with Wilson on her vision for bringing women together and what it means to see Black women leading in the workplace.
EBONY: What inspired you to start ColorComm?
Lauren Wesley Wilson: What inspired me to start this was really having a need to know the people in the communications, marketing and advertising industries. There’s so many networking groups out there, so what I realized when I was going to these networking groups back in 2011, I did not see women of color and I did not see women at that level, senior level and executive level women in my field. Often times you go to industry events and you are surrounded by people who are trying to sell you something like vendors or people who are kind of like, “Oh, I need a job.” But what about those women who are very satisfied with their career and want to build relationships and future partnerships? And so I really wanted to connect these women, connect myself to these women, but also provide a platform for advanced visibility so that we are known and that we are recognized in our industry. And so people can say ‘you know these people of color are over at Edelman, I do know these people of color over at NBC. We do know each other.
EBONY: How hard was it for you to convince women of note or within your field to participate?
LWW: I think it was a challenge in the beginning; it certainly wasn’t easy to get the people out. Once they got out, they realized quickly realized that this was different. It was a very different experience that they have ever participated in. But it’s a challenge because on paper if you just view our website or maybe you just view what you read: it looks like every other organization. So ColorComm does a fantastic job with people who’ve experienced it, but if you don’t experience it you don’t know and then you label it and then you don’t participate. So for whatever reason we are a communications organization and perhaps we’re not doing the best communicating the differential points. But when people experience it, it is monumental. There’s a lot of follow-ups, there’s a lot of positioning and you know we’ve certainly made networking a mutually beneficial experience. Which is why people kept on coming back, but you have to get there to come back.
EBONY: What have been some of your biggest challenges?
LWW: I'm always experiencing challenges, you can’t run a business of this magnitude without that. There’s just every level that you acquire and achieve [there’s] a new set of challenges that you are exposed to…In the beginning, my age was a challenge. Age was a distraction. Because I’m reaching after financial partners and dealing with people trying to raise funding. Raising funding wasn’t hard, but raising funding often times is a challenge because my age was a distraction. So, in person they’re often times expecting to see someone at their age demographic and I wasn’t, I was a lot younger. So, that was always having to prove yourself because I’m in my 20s and I’m asking for all this money. “Do you really know what you’re doing?” So I’m always having to constantly prove myself, not so much now but in the beginning I always did.
EBONY: How did your PR background help prepare you to run this organization?
LWW: Two experiences that I’ve had have prepared me for running a huge monumental project like this conference. If you aren’t in it, you don’t understand how big the magnitude is. Certainly we get such positive feedback on the reach and the speakers that we’re able to bring to the table and that’s phenomenal and that’s things that you do see. Things that people don’t see are budget, operations and contracts and negotiations and funding and speakers and a lot of politics of things and a lot of behind the scenes work to get it to look fancy on the outside. And so what two positions prepared me for that is one my background in the PR agency world: I come out of working at corporate PR firms. So I understand what they want and that’s who we appeal to, and so I used to work at Hill & Knowlton a PR firm. I’ve also worked at a variety of D.C. agencies [Qorvis MSLGROUP]. I interned at D.C. agencies, Edelman and Ketchum a long time ago. But, I understood who my audience was and our audience, a lot of them are corporate PR firms. I also understood how they want to be talked to, how they receive communication. Working in that type of environment makes you extremely proactive, buttoned-up and detail-oriented. That is what those sponsors and people who are looking [to come to] ColorComm, they’re looking for people who are professional at all levels and make them feel good: and that’s what that agency world taught me.
And also I’ve worked on Capitol Hill as a Communications Director for a congresswoman. And that prepared me and gave me the thickest skin possible. Because I worked for a congresswoman who is one of the most challenging woman of Congress, and nothing I did or nothing that anyone did in that office during that time satisfied her. And so you can imagine all the fires being put out, and all the business that had to be done. And if you’re working with someone who was never satisfied how much quickly I had to think on my feet, how proactive I had to have been and so that prepared me for the unknown which is this conference. This conference is the unknown there’s always an issue, there’s always a fire. With every several positive kudos, there’s five more fires to put out and then there’s five more kudos that come, then there’s ten more fires to put out. And that was happens when you try to run a production, a three day event at the Ritz-Carlton flawlessly. There’s always going to be issues and fires, if they’re not then you’re not doing your job. You know there’s always going to be fires that you have to solve and that means that you are doing your job because you’re tending to that issue, tending to someone’s needs. And what we might feel is a fire is somebody's beach. It’s a fire to us because we care and we’re tending to make sure that their needs are met.
EBONY: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
LWW: What's rewarding to see is how much ColorComm impacts people's daily lives within the communications industry. It's really rewarding to see the ROI [return on investment] that happens from being a part of the ColorComm experience. The feedback that I receive from sponsors, from employers is that people who attend this conference and who attend ColorComm come back more motivated, ready to work, more detail-oriented and more dedicated to the job that they’re doing. And it’s amazing to watch how many friendships are built from this type of experience. There are women together who’ve never met before but are connecting for the first time [through the] ColorComm experience and all of the sudden are in each other’s weddings, are attending brunches, are becoming best friends, roommates. And it’s really amazing to see what happens when you get like-minded women like this in a room. We are faster friends because we understand the work that we do and then we also understand the challenges of being a woman of color and understanding the work we do.
EBONY: What keeps you motivated?
LWW: What keeps me motivated is really seeing the feedback and the response, if people didn't share that I'd probably quit. But so many people share the impact that ColorComm has had on their lives it makes me feel like we’re filling a void and this needs to continue. That’s what we’re based off, women empowerment [and] business. We focus on women empowerment, we are a business, a corporation and we focus on the conference, we have a membership organization, we have an influencer marketing sector. So we really have to make people feel good. And that’s what certainly keeps me motivated: the responses, the emails that we need to continue and be bigger and that we need to grow. And if no one was saying any of those things then I mean probably wouldn’t have launched a membership organization and we would’ve stopped and we would’ve had a few quarterly luncheons, gone back and worked on Capitol Hill. But it’s grown over the last four years and so I no longer work full-time for others, I work for myself and so that’s really what keeps me going.