After leaving a job as a television news producer in 1990, Sheila D. Brooks started her own company producing news stories and documentaries. She converted a bedroom into an office at the house where she lived in New Carrollton, drummed up three small contracts, hired an assistant and persuaded a bank to give her a loan.
“I applied to four banks and three turned me down,” Brooks recalled. “The fourth bank wanted me to hand over everything except my firstborn child for collateral.” She agreed to the terms, took the five-year loan, and paid it off in two-and-a-half years.
“Eventually, I was able to get a line of credit,” she said.
Two years after starting the business, Brooks was doing well enough to lease office space on K Street in downtown DC, just a few blocks from the White House. Clients included utility companies, government agencies and national nonprofits.
“I wanted to build an enterprise that created wealth and opportunity, and it helped to have the right address,” she said.
But K Street was no sanctuary from the economic maelstroms that soon came roaring in. There was a federal government shutdown in 1995, followed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, then the Great Recession in 2007 and the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
Brooks’s business took some hard hits.
“I almost lost my shirt during the recession,” she said.
To survive, she changed her business model, pivoted from a production company with 14 full-time employees to a marketing and public relations firm with 10. She diversified her client base, brought in more universities and African American service organizations. After recouping her losses, she found herself well-positioned to contract with public health agencies to produce coronavirus safety campaigns.
Instead of going under like thousands of business have during the pandemic, Brooks was able to provide a public service — and prosper.
“It took a lot of determination and resilience,” Brooks said. “When the economy is in decline, I just tell myself, ‘withstand, adapt and recover.’ ”
Brooks’s business, SRB Communicationsis now in its 30th year on K Street, one of the most valuable — and volatile — corridors of commercial real estate in the Washington area.
From February 2020 to March 2022, more than 2,300 businesses moved away from downtown DC, an analysis by The Washington Post showed. Most have not returned.
Many DC area businesses closed during the pandemic, but even more opened
Among the estimated 11.6 million women-owned businesses in the United States, only 4.2 percent have $1 million or more in annual revenue. For the roughly 2.7 million businesses owned by Black women, only about 1 percent have annual revenue of $1 million or more.
She is in that 1 percent.
Brooks credits her mother for showing her what real determination looks like. Back in 1930s, when Brooks’s mother was 13, she grew tired of picking cotton on a farm where she lived with her grandmother, in Holly Springs, Miss. So, as Brooks tells it, she packed her bags and set out on foot for Sedalia. Mo., some 420 miles away.
“She never told us how she made the journey, but we never doubted that she had,” Brooks said. “A woman she knew in Sedalia worked as a domestic and helped her get a job and a place to stay. She saved her money, and when she heard about a new hotel opening up in Kansas City, she went there, lied about her age and got a better paying job in housekeeping.”
Her mother married and had two daughters — Brooks and a sister two years younger. Her parents divorced soon after.
“My drive to succeed comes from watching my mother hold down two full-time jobs while renting out a room in our house to make ends meet,” Brooks said. “In the evening before bedtime, she’d read the newspaper with us, this divorced woman with a grade school education, instilling in her two girls a belief that with education and hard work, we could accomplish anything in life.”
Aside from her remarkable success, Brooks’ journey to business ownership was similar to many other women.
After 18 years as a television reporter and producer in four different national markets, Brooks concluded that she had hit a “glass ceiling” and would not rise above the job she held. In a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, a group of Black women told researchers they had started their own businesses “because of poor treatment and feeling undervalued in the workplace.”
They also shared Brooks’s desire to create jobs and opportunities for others. “They were motivated to serve their communities,” the report said.
Many people who had lost or quit their jobs during the pandemic are starting businesses, with Black female entrepreneurs leading the way. The potential rewards include accumulation of wealth that can be passed along to make life easier for the next generation. But serious obstacles remain.
“Even among firms with good credit, businesses owned by Black Americans were half as likely as businesses owned by White Americans to receive all the financing they required (24 percent vs. 48 percent), said a study released in February by Goldman Sachs.
“Academic research suggests that persistent structural social and economic inequality has contributed to discouragement and disillusionment among minority business owners and that this has fundamentally impacted Black Americans entrepreneurial behavior,” the study said.
Brooks says she knows what that feels like. But she uses it to her advantage.
“For me, I found power in my pain,” she said. “It just elevated me, strengthened my resolve.”
Brooks arrives to work 7 am from her home in Silver Spring and usually stays until after 5 pm Her company is located on the eighth floor of a recently renovated building at 14th and K streets NW. The street below looks different than it did before the pandemic — not as bustling as it used to be.
It is a sign of business challenges to come.
Vacant office space in downtown Washington is at a record high — 9.7 million square feet. In a report called “Downtown 2027: Vision for the Future,” city officials outline plans to convert empty office space worth $450 per square foot into residential units worth $600 per square foot.
“The reduction in office supply increases the value of remaining office space (Downtown) by $1 per square foot,” the report said.
Brooks has endured worse and takes the proposed changes in stride.
“As business owners, we try to position ourselves to see what’s coming and plan for it,” she said. “The thing about me is, I like to plan. I’m good at it.”