Entrepreneurship with a Purpose (Personal Profile)

She was well on her way to the top of the corporate game—a senior vice president for a high-tech firm with a successful 14-year career including stints at 3Com (formerly U.S. Robotics) and IBM.

But Cheryl Mayberry McKissack wasn’t happy; in fact, she was stressed out. McKissack realized that what she really wanted was a job in Chicago with flexible hours that would also give her an opportunity to work with other African-American women. “It was clear to me that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to craft the perfect job, unless I did it myself,” McKissack says. “I really wanted to use my technological expertise, but in a different way than I had before. And I wanted it to have a community element that I hadn’t had the opportunity to pursue.”

McKissack came up with not one, but two interrelated entrepreneurial solutions. Both of them take their names from nia, the Swahili word for “purpose.” In 2000, McKissack founded Nia Enterprises, a market research and services firm that uses Web-based tools to provide online consumer research, delivering insights into the buying habits and consumer preferences of the U.S. ethnic group with the largest buying power: African American women and their families. The firm’s corporate clients include General Motors, Sears, Disney, American Airlines, Revlon, and State Farm Insurance.

That same year McKissack and Bonita K. Coleman, an automotive marketing and brand executive, also created an online community for African-American women with a Web site called NiaOnline™. They structured the site to become the premier Internet destination for African-American women by offering articles on women’s health, careers, fashion, relationships, travel, and entertainment topics, with a special focus for their target audience. In addition, the site featured columns with “empowering advice” from other African American women. The site claims to reach an online community of more than 100,000 black household members.

More important, NiaOnline is the vehicle for much of Nia Enterprises’ market data collection. Website users can “opt-in” to sample and evaluate products provided by manufacturers. They can voice their opinions through simple quick-response surveys. Or they can register for the Consumer Advisory Panel, where they agree to take surveys or participate in online focus groups, and are then rewarded with points that can be redeemed for merchandise, such as photo albums or briefcases.

McKissack, who received an MBA from Northwestern’s J. L. Kellogg School of Management, got some help for starting her ventures from Springboard Enterprises, a national not-for-profit that educates, showcases, and supports women entrepreneurs trying to start high-growth potential enterprises. One of Springboard’s most effective programs has been their Women’s Venture Capital Forum, which gives fledgling women entrepreneurs access to sources of equity funding while providing an environment where they can refine their business strategy. McKissack was one of the 25 women selected for the first Springboard Forum in January 2000 at the Kellogg School. Since that time more than 350 women entrepreneurs have presented at more than 15 additional forums across the country, where they have raised over $3 billion for their ventures.

While McKissack notes that minorities are “frequently left out of the networks that provide the best advancement opportunities,” she has obviously bridged the gap in her own career. Her marketing firm and Web site have helped her to reach her personal goal while she achieves her purpose of helping other African-American women. In addition to starting these businesses, McKissack has cowritten three “Nia guide” books on careers, balance, and health, and serves on several corporate boards. She also shares what she has learned with aspiring entrepreneurs by teaching at the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University in Chicago. 

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