Editor’s Note: This profile is part of a new series, “Her Perspective,” on the experiences of Black women business owners.
Growing up in a largely white New Jersey suburb, Dreena Whitfield always wanted to see more Blackness in the world. She even crafted fictional adventures featuring young Black girls — her personal answer to “The Baby-Sitters Club” books, whose main characters are mostly white.
As an adult, Whitfield has turned a desire to amplify Black voices and a penchant for storytelling into WhitPR, a Union, New Jersey, communications firm that spotlights the “movers and shakers of Black culture.”
In the decade since launching her company, Whitfield and her 6-employee team have helped nearly two dozen clients — a mix of black-owned businesses, individuals and organizations — tell their stories through national news outlets like CNN and the Los Angeles Times, on talk shows like ABC’s “The View,” and in magazines like Glamour. Clients range from the City of Newark and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to shaving products maker Scotch Porter and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors.
Telling Black Stories
Before starting up, Whitfield worked for Grey Global Group, an international advertising giant with operations in 154 cities, coordinating marketing campaigns for corporations like insurance firm Liberty Mutual and car maker BMW. While it was a good opportunity, “I really wasn’t feeling it,” Whitfiled says, largely because she felt the client roster and corporate culture at the time were saturated in whiteness.
It’s wasn’t just her imagination: Research indicates that an overwhelming majority of people in PR are white, which is doubtlessly reflected in the ads they create. So on the side Whitfield began to conceive of a communications firm whose specialty was Black-owned businesses.
“My identity as a Black woman is actually what motivated the launch of my firm,” she says. “I could not find opportunities in the public relations space that were in alignment with my goals of amplifying the stories of the Black community.”
Soon after having the idea, she launched from her living room. It was a side hustle at first, “until finally, I just went into the office one day and said, ‘You know what? Today is the day I’m leaving my job.’”
It was a leap of faith, she admits — starting up without any entrepreneurial knowledge, and going out on her own “with no media contacts, no clients, and no clear roadmap.” A number of studies have found that more black founders tend to have fewer professional connections, role models and mentors.
What Whitfield did have, though, was a clear vision for what she wanted WhitPR to be — and her hyper-focus on the Black voice turned out to be good for business. Now “75 percent of my business to date has been referral-based,” for which she’s “extremely grateful.”
Whitfield declined to disclose revenue figures, but she has been named one of 10 political publicists to watch by Ebony magazine, featured as an up-and-coming millennial publicist by Huffington Post, and made Black Enterprise’s list of “5 Black Women Making Moves in PR.”
Even with all of that, Whitfield says “my firm has been drastically under-compensated.” She recalled a client accidentally sending a contract for a different firm doing similar, simultaneous work — and saw “a disproportionate difference” in remuneration. “Even though the scope of work being provided was the same, the opposing firm had been contracted for an $18,000 monthly retainer, while WhitPR had been receiving $3,000 [per] month,” she says.
And her fellow Black PR professionals working at other, often older and larger agencies continue to tell her that “their ideas and voices are often ignored, dismissed, and muted” by colleagues and supervisors — despite their own years of experience and accrued expertise.
‘What Will it Take’
To effect change, some in the marketing and PR world are mounting awareness and inclusion efforts. The aim is to create more “cultures of care” at firms of all sizes, as one member of Adweek’s Diversity and Inclusion Council put it.
On a more global scale, Black voices are presently getting more time on a national stage. Whitfield referred to the current political climate as “a scary time, but also a monumental time in history” — one that’s necessary after decades of Black people “being racially profiled, stereotyped and murdered by white supremacists.”
The first change she wants to see come of these protests isn’t about the business world — her main wish is for the Louisville Metro Police Department officers who killed Breonna Taylor to be punished for their crimes. She also wants justice for victims of police brutality like George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells, among others.
That said, she does have a wish list for systemic changes to help Black women entrepreneurs in particular. “We need to be granted the same opportunities as our white counterparts, such as access to funding and capital opportunities that could aid with the launching or scaling of our businesses,” Whitfield, who has bootstrapped her business from the start, says. Indeed, the ongoing pandemic has only served to further the existing funding divide, as reports of Black-owned businesses left behind by federal assistance programs continue to come in.
In the meantime, Whitfield says some companies seem to be taking up the mantle of change, noting an uptick in “companies and brands looking to ensure they aren’t tone deaf during this time, in addition to ensuring the inclusivity of the Black community.” She added, “Now that there is a lens in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve noticed a need for traditional media relations, crisis communication, and communication strategy direction.”
But she wants to ensure that the intentional inclusion of Black people is ongoing, rather than a flash in the pan or an attempt to capitalize on a movement’s moment. When talking about the lives and livelihoods of those in her community, she asks: “What will it take for Black lives to truly matter?”
[Related: The Enduring Power of Buying Black]
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