Jennefer Witter is the CEO and founder of The Boreland Group Inc., an eleven year old boutique public relations firm headquartered in New York with an office in Washington, DC. A certified woman owned company, the agency was selected in 2012 by TheStreet.com as one of five national, black owned businesses making a buzz.
Jennefer is the author of “The Little Book of Big PR: 100+ Quick Tips to Get Your Small Business Noticed,” and has appeared multiple times in the Associated Press, TheStreet.com, Build Your Business Radio, MarketWatch Radio Network and SmallBiz.com. Previously, she was the public relations expert for Inc.com TV and a contributor to AOL Small Business.
Witter has presented at numerous consumer, trade and academic venues, on regional, national and global platforms, on public relations, entrepreneurial and social media topics. They include: The Power Conference; The Communications Exchange; Ellevate Network; GlobalWIN; The Institute of Real Estate Managers in Washington, D.C; the National Sales Network – DC/Baltimore Chapter; and multiple presentations at The Learning Annex, New York University and Rutenberg Realty.
Witter was formerly a vice president at Ketchum, an award-winning global communications firm. There, she launched a sub-practice that generated one million dollars in revenue in its first year. She has represented numerous businesses throughout her career, from Silicon Valley start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, including IBM and FedEx.
Witter holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications (Print Journalism) from New York City’s Fordham University. She received a Regents Diploma from Brooklyn Technical High School, where she majored in Graphic Communications.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I come from a very humble background. When my parents divorced, my father got the house and my beloved mother got “my two million dollars” – meaning me and my sibling. We didn’t have much – we moved into a one bedroom apartment in the South Bronx and, for a time, we all slept in one bed. In the winter, we had little heat and my mother hung comforters over the windows to help keep the cold out. We didn’t have family around and my mother was the primary provider (my father provided child support, but it wasn’t a lot). She couldn’t fail – there were no back-up options. She worked hard and saved even harder. Six years after the divorce, she saved enough to buy a two-family house with a yard. What I learned from my mother is to not give up and that failure is not an option. You have to do your best, work your ass off and not pause, even when there are challenges and obstacles. You simply can’t give up. And that’s what a leader does.
How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at The Boreland Group?
My most fruitful learning experience came from my years at Ketchum, a global public relations agency where I was a vice president before I started The Boreland Group in 2003. Ketchum was like a conglomeration of miniature businesses – each executive was required to run their accounts like mini-corporations, from overseeing the budget to managing the staff to running the account. I learned more about how to run a business from Ketchum than any other place where I worked and I continue to use those learnings at my company.
Another key lesson – before I joined Ketchum, I worked at Thomas Associates, a boutique public relations agency that specialized in high tech PR. Susan Thomas created and led the agency. She was the very first boss that I ever had in public relations who put her staff before the client. In past agencies, the staff would be secondary. Not with Susan! I remember her saying that she would rather keep an employee rather than an account. She knew that having loyal and talented professionals was critical to the success of her agency. I have taken that with me and those with whom I work are my primary concerns. As a result, I have a fabulous and dedicated staff because they know I will go to the mat and back for them.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at The Boreland Group?
Two highlights come to mind. The first was being selected by TheStreet.com in 2012 as one of five black- owned businesses making a buzz. The second was being selected by Madame Noire in 2013 as one of the country’s top ten black CEOs and entrepreneurs. The list includes Kenneth I. Chenault, the CEO of American Express, Ervin “Magic” Johnson and Robert Johnson, a billionaire and the founder of Black Entertainment Television. The only other black woman was Ursula M. Burns, chairman/CEO of Xerox. It is exalted company and I am so honored to be among them. In addition, these recognitions provide external validation of my work, a boutique firm that competes with the goliaths such as Ketchum and Rubenstein Public Relations, as well as with a myriad of other industry boutiques.
The challenge has been juggling it all and still trying to have a semblance of a personal life. It is not easy. Being an entrepreneur is not 9-5, Monday to Friday. I often work at least one weekend day per week and my days are usually 10 or so hours long. The last real vacation I had was in 2009. But would I change it? No. I have flexibility in my schedule and I do not answer to anyone but myself. If I did not enjoy what I did, I would not do it. What I have learned is to combine work with leisure and it works – most of the time!
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in public relations?
Public relations is often ranked as one to the most stressful jobs to have. It’s not the fun, light, flighty career that you see on TV, a la the Samantha Jones character on “Sex and the City.” You need to know how to work under pressure; think fast on your feet; and deal with clients who sometimes may not be the nicest. You need to know how to write, edit, manage staff and oversee a budget. You need to be creative. And you need to have the backbone to tell a client when he or she is wrong – and from experience, I can tell you that’s not fun. But, as I often say, we are not paid to be the client’s friend. We are here to provide our professional opinion, even if it differs from theirs. We offer our recommendation and it is then up to the client to make a fully informed decision. If you can’t voice your opinion – and be able to defend it – then you are not servicing your client to the best capacity. PR is not for wimps.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?
To listen. It is an under-rated skill. You can learn a lot if you stop talking and just listen to what the other person is saying. Often, most of us simply hear – we are bombarded with information and running like a hamster on a wheel to keep up. To listen is to get the full message and develop a deeper appreciation of what is being communicated.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
As I mentioned, it’s rather difficult. I make the effort to take one day off a week. I’ll spend time with a friend, do something social. It refreshes me and keeps work in perspective.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
We take on too much. We need to learn how to delegate. There is no shame in asking for help. Some things may slide off the plate – so what if the house is a bit messy? If you miss one of your kid’s basketball games, the world won’t stop rotating. What we need to do is prioritize and be realistic about what we can and cannot do. And what we can do, we can then do it better and to the fullest.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My first job out of college was in PR and I didn’t know a thing about public relations. I trained to become a journalist and I wanted to work for the BBC. I never took a class in PR. When I graduated from Fordham University in the early 1980s, it was in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression. There were few jobs. Marge Lovero, the director of public relations at The New York Botanical Garden, saw my resume and took a risk in hiring me. She generously shared her knowledge and time and from her teachings and guidance, I learned I had a natural affinity for the discipline. That was the foundation of my PR career and I have always been eternally grateful that Mrs. Lovero was the person who took a chance with a very green young woman when others wouldn’t.
What do you want The Boreland Group to accomplish in the next year?
As with all entrepreneurs, I want my business to keep growing. I started a division – TBG: One-on-One, a coaching service for start-ups and entrepreneurs who prefer to keep the PR function in-house.
My book has been published – “The Little Book of Big PR: 100+ Quick Tips to Get Your Small Business Noticed” – and I plan on spending a lot of time promoting it and helping other entrepreneurs use PR to help their companies get to the next level. My saying is to get your “unfair share” of business-building attention and if I can lend a hand in fellow entrepreneurs achieving that, mazeltov to us all.