Behind The Scenes of Building A Business

I am excited to share the news that my new company Spell Well LLC, has been born. The first stage of starting a company is to identify a problem and consider a solution to that problem. Research says that people support businesses that offer a solution to a problem that they are having.

Spell Well in a nutshell is a company that will offer educational courses and products in order to help them experience greater mental, physical, spiritual and emotional alignment in order to help them manifest their dreams and goals. Spell Well is the 2nd company that I am building. The first was Art of Culture Inc. (formerly called Donda’s House Inc.). Art of Culture is celebrating it’s 5th birthday this year and is continuing to support young artists and creatives in the Chicagoland Area. I am also pretty heavily involved in supporting my husband’s Rhymefest brand.

So what is it like to build a second company? How am I carrying the lessons from building the first company over to the 2nd one?

(1) Writing a business plan is essential as early as possible. There are so many decisions that have to be made when you start a new enterprise. You have to consider the products and services you will offer. You have to determine the strategic alliances and partnerships you will pursue. A business plan is one way to get all of your ideas out in one place. It is the opportunity for you to prioritize your activities. Contrary to popular belief it is also a super creative process. As you are meeting with partners and investors, a business plan will be your roadmap. It helps you to articulate who you are in the market and set a course for where you are headed. Here is the template that I am using for my business plan from Malta Enterprises. I like it because it is written in question format, and as you answer the questions you are crafting the plan. Right now I have completed sections 1 – 4 with a goal of finishing the entire business plan before December 1st.

We didn’t create the Art of Culture Business plan until Year 2 of operations and I was shocked at how much clarity and direction it brought once we did that. To this day, we refer to our business plan when making decisions about programming. It is also the place where we shelve future ideas. When the time is right we are able to move those ideas to the development and implementation phase.

(2) On developing a social media presence. 

Social Media is essential in developing brand awareness and connecting to potential supporters. Social Media gives you the opportunity to give your brand an identity and it allows you to communicate that message to the world unfiltered.

Art of Culture Inc. built a following organically on social media to over 30,000 followers. We are super proud of that and our social media continues to be the primary place that people meet our brand. Social Media is also an extension of our mission of providing access and information.

A Marketing Strategist shared a formula for me a couple of years ago. She said that social media should be 80% about the people following you and 20% about yourself. In other words, you have to figure out how your brand can connect to and support those who decide to click the “follow” button. You have to give them value. I have also learned the power of a good campaign on social media. Past campaigns included “Rewrite the Narrative” and “Deck the Halls of DH.”We generally do a campaign for Giving Tuesday (the Tuesday after Thanksgiving). We also do an end of the year campaign.

Invest in good photos and video content. These resources have been really helpful for me in developing content for Spell Well:

Free & High Resolution Stock Photos – Pexel –

This site helps you avoid copyright infringement as the photographers determine the licensing agreements right there on the side of the image. Most of the photos are fine for personal and commercial use.

Design & Document Creator – Canva –

Canva has beautiful templates for social media, documents, presentations and more. There is a paid version of the App that I’ve been using for about 3 years now. It really helps take your visuals and aesthetics to the next level, which matters on social media.

Social Media Publisher – Hootsuite –

Consistency is one of the most important things for social media. It is time consuming. For Art of Culture, we actually hired people to assist with managing our social media accounts which lead to exponential growth. (Shout out to our first Social Media Manager – Kelsey, and our 2nd Social Media Manager – Hakim).

Hootsuite allows you to schedule posts. The only thing you can’t do is automatically post videos to Instagram. In those cases I just make a note in my calendar for Spell Well and do it first thing in the morning on those days. Hootsuite has a paid version that is totally worth the investment. It gives me peace of mind to know that something will be posted at least once a day on Instagram for Spell Well. Our audiences comes to expect things from us based on the rhythm that we set. Once a day is considered consistent enough but you may want to increase or decrease the frequency depending on the nature of your business. It is also important to diversify your content. People don’t want to see the different versions of the same content every day. For example, Spell Well has bracelets available. My audience would get bored if I only posted photos of our bracelets every day, but I try to be very strategic about showcasing photos of the bracelets periodically so that people know we have them!

As far as video content I am sharing other people’s stuff on Spell Well with plans on developing original content in 2019. Research suggests that content that includes video is more likely to be engaged with on social media.

I usually work on social media content every two weeks on Sundays. Right now, Spell Well is only on Instagram, with plans to start posting some stuff on Facebook soon. Here is the format I use for developing content:

Content Calendar

(3) Thought partners are key. There are a few people in my network… Shout out to ya’ll, who give me great advice and great ideas. Be prepared for people to push back… ask questions… poke holes. Those are all things that help you improve your products, services and strategy. I have also been spending a lot of time on the following this website.

(4) How I organize my paperwork and time.

I love binders as organizers. I am sure that I carried that over from my teaching days. Binders are durable, and they make it easy to keep everything on one place. Even with my students I always recommended carrying one large (zipper) binder for all of the classes to keep up with notes and remain organized.


Caption: I purchased this binder Staples. It has the capacity to hold 400 sheets of paper, which should carry me for a long time before I need to add a second binder. Most Office Supply stores have really beautiful options. I also like this binder because it has a lot of symbolism with the triangle. It is the elemental symbol for fire. When turned upside down it becomes the symbol for water.  The colors represent fire and the upside down triangles (the white space) represents water. Triangles are also the strongest shape. 

I have the following dividers in the binder:


Here is the index of the dividers and also the structure of the business:

  1. Finance
  2. Human Resources
  3. Marketing
  4. Operations
  5. Strategy
  6. Tech & Equipment
  7. Events
  8. The blank tab is where I keep the Business Plan, just haven’t had time to add the label 😉

The final thing that I have that is important is my Social Media/Content Notebook:

Green Notebook

The Color Green symbolizes prosperity, abundance, money, physical & emotional healing, growth, luck. I also selected green because green is the color of nature. Post coming soon about sympathetic magic. 

Garden Plants

Caption: This is a page from inside my Garden Notebook. I consider these to be seeds or fruit, and use this notebook when I develop content for social media. It is helpful to keep it all in once place. 

I will continue to share this type of content. Click here to subscribe!

If you’re interested in staying informed about all things Spell Well, including a free download of recommended people to follow on Instagram & Twitter, click here to join that list & get the download.






Innovation Needs Incubation…10 Ideas To Take Your Business To The Next Level


I just finished taking CiCi’s (The Six Figure Chick) free masterclass “How To Build An E-mail List From Scratch.” The class was a free webinar that I signed up for earlier this week. Cici provided amazing content that will be incredibly helpful for me as I build my business.

At the end of the course I was so happy that I had signed up for it and it was a reminder for me on how important it is to invest in ourselves as entrepreneurs. It was also a reminder of how important it is to devote time to innovation.

Most companies invest money into their businesses via a line item called R & D which stands for Research and Development. According to Statista in 2017, Amazon spent 16.1 Billion, Alphabet spent 13.9 Billion and Samsung spent 12.7. You can view the remainder of the companies listed here. It is no wonder why these companies continue to grow and bring in record profits.

Here is a working definition of R & D Activities based on getting tax credit for R & D from Swanson Reed, an R & D Firm:

  • New Product Development
  • Incremental Product Development
  • New Process Development
  • Incremental Process Development

Additional Examples:

  • Design and development of new products – particularly products that are safer, more effective or have increased functionality, better performance or longer shelf life;
  • research of new applications for existing products;
  • testing for compliance with domestic or foreign regulatory requirements;
  • design, development and implementation of new reagents, testing methods or protocols;
  • product experimentation and modification to increase yield or decrease reaction times;
  • improvement of manufacturing or production technologies, processes, techniques or procedures to increase yield, reduce waste and byproducts, improve safety, improve energy efficiency or comply with regulatory requirements;
  • design and development of scaled-up manufacturing processes;
  • development of prototype pilot batches of new product candidates for testing and validation;
  • implementation of automated processes or robotics to increase production efficiency;
  • Software development or information technology initiatives related to product or process improvements; and
  • research to receive International Organization for Standardization certifications, fertilizer safety or other similar certifications.

While we may not have billions of dollars to devote to R & D, we should allocate some of our time and resources to this very important area of our businesses. Here are some ways as a small business owner that you can do your own R & D:

(1) Take a class or a workshop. I’ve taken classes from Coursera in the past. You’d be surprised how much free content there is on YOUTube. Do a Google Search about the topic you’re looking for + free classes, or + interviews. Get a pen and paper and take yourself to school.

(2) Attend a conference. Conferences usually cost money but can be a great way to learn and make connections. There are conferences for everything. Save your money and attend the conferences that are standard to your industry. On Twitter The Plug released an infographic of Black Tech Conferences:

Screen Shot 2018-10-20 at 11.35.46 AM

(3) Do an informational interview or have a meeting or phone call with someone. I am working on an event for February and a quick conversation with my best friend helped me figure out what to call it. Have regular conversations with people about what you are trying to do, and you’ll be surprised at how many great ideas or suggestions will come up.

(4) Join a professional organization. You need a tribe. You need your personal tribe but you also need your business tribe. The people who you can go to that will help you solve problems that come up. The people who have literally walked the road you are walking and can forecast what’s coming up and help you avoid the potholes that they hit. The people who are as excited about what you’re doing because they know why it matters. Join at least one professional organization and actively participate.

(5) Spend some time developing a business plan. Getting things out of your mind and onto paper is one of the best ways to hold yourself and your team accountable. It is also important because it will help you to relieve stress and manage expectations. Think of your business plan as your road map. It helps you to articulate why you are doing what you are doing and the growth you hope to achieve.

(6) Spend some time doing strategic planning (long term planning for your business). Strategic planning is like a business plan. Think of the business plan as the bird’s eye view of your business. Think of strategic planning like the GPS instructions on how you are going to get there. To be able to achieve your customer reach goals, your financial goals, etc., you have to be intentional and strategic about how you are going to achieve those goals.

(7) Read industry publications. Similar to joining a professional organization but a little more passive. If you’re in marketing, you should be reading AdWeek. If you’re in music, you should be reading Billboard, Playback Magazine. Then there are general business publications that talk about all industries: Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Forbes, etc. Make these a regular part of your R & D diet. Many of these publications have robust online platforms as well, but I strongly encourage you to subscribe. One way that I access many of these publications is through an app on my iPad called Texture. For $9.99/month, you have access to hundreds of digital publications. Click here for more info.

(8) Follow industry leaders on social media and pay attention to what they are doing! People drop gems on social media. It’s like literal gold. Find the people who are at the top of your industry and follow them. Learn from them. When appropriate, interact with them. Before you know it, you will be invited to the same panels, and they may eventually come to respect you as a peer.

(9) Hire a coach. If you are having trouble with an area of your business consider hiring a coach. I will forever have an accountant and an attorney connected to my business because those are two areas that I am not comfortable making decisions on my own. I am strongly considering hiring a communication coach to help me become a better public speaker. Be sure to check references and make sure you’re working with someone that will actually help you achieve your goals. There are a lot of people out here fronting and taking advantage of the good will of other people.

(10) Create operation manuals or other protocols for your business. When I had to start bringing on additional help for our social media management, we created a manual. It’s super short, maybe 3 – 4 pages but it was incredibly helpful in getting this new person acclimated. In the event that you get sick, need to go on maternity leave or anything of that matter, if you have manuals for people, ideally they will be able to just pick up the manual and run your business in your absence. This is also important for succession planning if you ever decide to move in a different direction. I’ve had so many colleagues that have stepped down from leadership roles at businesses or organizations they founded to go do other work. Writing things down also helps you to see where breakdowns may be occurring and to problem solve to grow your business.

It was nice to devote an entire morning to R & D. I will now take some of the lessons and recommendations from CiCi and apply them to my business. Feel free to comment below any resources that have been helpful for you to help you innovate and grow your vision.

Next step: Take out your calendar and schedule at least one hour per week to R & D for your business for the month of November. You can do any of the recommended activities above during that time. I’d love for you to send me a note in December to let me know how it impacted your business.


My First Magazine Cover

2017 has been a great year for both my husband & I. I am excited to announce that I am ending the year as a Cover Girl! I was able to sit down with Halfstack Magazine to share more about my personal & professional journey, including highlighting my work as the co-founder and Executive Director of Donda’s House Inc. For the cover I was styled by my stylist @truvanity.  My makeup was done by @iamleahlu. Hair by @cityonloc.

Screen Shot 2017-12-16 at 7.34.40 PM

Today, Halfstack hosted an event at Eloquii in downtown Chicago. The funny thing is that I am wearing an Eloquii print shirt in the cover photo and had no idea that the event would happen at the store.

Thanks to my photographer Juan Anthony for capturing these shots!


Caption: You can never go wrong with Gold during the holidays! My outfit came from 8ty4 Vintage


Caption: My cousin Arionne stopped by. So thankful that she was in town to celebrate this milestone with me! 



Caption: Cousin Crew




Caption: My Cousin’s friends also stopped by! 


Caption: With two of the beautiful fashionistas at Eloquii. Seriously, stop by the store! They will get you together! 



Caption: Me with the store manager. 


Caption: Hanging out with some of bloggers & members of the Halfstack Team. Shout out to @mindycityy, @curvatude, @michelleswoons and @theplussizedprep.








Caption: Me with Jennifer M. Veguilla-Lezan, Editor-in-Chief of the magazine. I cannot thank Jennifer enough for selecting me to grace the cover. Jen is so inspiring in her own right, and has an incredible spirit. Also shout out to one of my best girls Laurinda, for connecting Jen & I! 

How Not To Freak The F*** Out In Times Of Crisis

A little over a week ago, my car was stolen while I was moving groceries in. To add insult to injury, it happened the night before my entire family was coming to Chicago to celebrate my grandmother’s 80th birthday. I was supposed to meet my mom at the airport at 8:00 a.m., and the remainder of the family members at the train station later in the day.

I immediately felt my heart rate increase, and then I felt incredible overwhelming sadness… but then I went into DC (Damage Control) Mode.

Step 1: Call The Police – When theft, or other criminal activities take place, if you can’t handle it on your own, you may need to call the police. Not to mention that a police report is often required for insurance purposes.

Step 2: Call The Insurance Company – The first thing the Insurance Company wanted to know was were the police called. I gave them a report number. Then I asked “What is the process.” I was informed that in 48 hours, I’d be eligible for a rental car, and in 14 days if the car wasn’t recovered, it would be considered a loss. In times of crisis, the best thing that you can have is information. That way your brain (and your heart) don’t have the opportunity to dream up ridiculous scenarios. Keep the foolishness in check by getting informed on your options.

Step 3: Create an immediate/temporary plan. – I have Uber & Lyft on my phone. I’ll take that to meet my mom at the airport, and then we’ll uber back. I spoke to my sister-in-law who lives across the street from me, and made arrangements to use her car later that day to pick up the rest of my family members from the Amtrak Station. She was also going out of town for the weekend, and said that I could use her car while she was away. Temporary crises of stranded family members – averted.

Step 4: Work The Plan. Once you know the steps to rectify the situation, you just work the plan. Be sure to record the names of the people who give you the information just in case there is a discrepancy later. Follow up & follow through with any additional paperwork and follow the process.


PRE-CRISIS STEP 1: Get your paperwork in order. When it comes to property, purchase the extended warranty, the insurance, etc. All of these items seem expensive and unnecessary and the truth is that you likely won’t use it most of the time… but the one time you do need it, the peace of mind & the fees to repair or replace your product or device make it worth it in the end. I think of these things as pay now, or pay more later. In our household, anything that is over a certain amount (around $300+) gets insurance. This includes electronics, vehicles, appliances, etc. Remember to keep copies of all of the warranties and policies. I actually digitize all of my files using this and I keep all of my files organized in my Dropbox account. That way my files are easily accessible & searchable.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 2: Have a vent-partner. One of the best parts about being married is that you have a built-in vent partner. If you are not married (and even if you are married) be sure that you have someone that you can call to complain, cry, reason, laugh, etc. with. Often in times of crisis, my hubby and I bounce the responsibility back and forth so that neither of us gets burned out or overly frustrated. When it came to the first few steps of addressing the stolen vehicle, I handled the initial stages of contacting the police and the insurance company etc. Once our vehicle was recovered (thank God!) he took care of getting the estimates and dealing with the dealership to have the car serviced. My sister-in-law was instrumental in serving as my co-PI as my keys have a tracking device (TILE) which alerted me that my keys were in the area, leading to us searching the area and ultimately finding my stolen vehicle parked on the street.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 3: Copy the front and backs of all of the contents in your wallet. In the event that your purse or your wallet is stolen, you can quickly contact all of your banks and loyalty cards to get replacements. Most cards also have the phone number on the back that you should call, in case of emergency.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 4: Back up all of the contents of your computer into the cloud AND onto a hard-drive. I’ve endured at least two hard-drive crashes in my life. I’ve known friends that have been robbed at gunpoint of their briefcases and laptop bags. I have a little piece of mind knowing that all of my music, photos, important files and documents etc. are backed up using Dropbox, Google Drive, and iCloud Drive.  I’m a fan of all three systems because they are super easy to use, accessible anywhere you have the internet (let’s say you forget your laptop at home) and in many cases, other people can be given easy access to the files.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 5: Travel with a copy of your passport AND travel with at least two credit/debit cards. Anything can happen with your passport. I always keep a copy or two of my passport in different areas of my luggage. My husband recently finished a world tour with DJ Jazzy Jeff. While in Japan, an ATM machine ate his debit card. It’s important to have at least two different credit/debit cards in the event that something happens to one. One of these days I’ll have to write a whole post about crisis and travel! It really does deserve its own blog post!

PRE-CRISIS STEP 6: Learn how to use Find My iPhone and Find My Device (For Android). This has saved me so many times. Especially in situations where there was a large group and my phone or iPad went missing.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 7: Make a habit of cataloguing and keeping lists of things. This is usually a standard for home owners insurance, but you may want to get in the habit of keeping receipts and logs of your valuables so that if you need to file a claim, or if you need to replace the items, you can do so quickly and effortlessly.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 8: Write down key emergency contacts and have them easily accessible. Set up your Emergency SOS in the settings of your phone, if you have iPhone. Keep emergency contact phone numbers in your wallet, just in case you are unconscious so that members of your family can be reached.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 9: Get your car Emergency Ready. Keep your own jumper cables, and spare tire (if it can fit) in your car. Consider a membership to AAA or another road-side assistance service. Check out this article for tips on how to prepare your vehicle for Emergencies.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 10: Get your home Emergency Ready. Be sure you have a smoke detector & Carbon Monoxide Detector in your home, as well as be sure to check the batteries regularly. Do an annual fire/emergency drill in your home. Be sure that your door is labeled correctly so that people know that you have pets. Most pet stores and vets carry stickers to alert emergency personnel.

Last but not least, stay prayed up! Having a calm and faithful spirit is the best thing that you can have to regulate stress and address problems that inevitably come up in life. It is also helpful to have mechanisms for addressing stress – a healthy fitness routine, an active social life, appropriate medication and therapy where appropriate, journal writing (one of my favorite methods for processing stress and thinking through problems). If you have any helpful resources or advice, please drop them in the comments below!

NOTE: Shoutout to my sister Linedda for always encouraging me to write a book. If it be God’s will, one of these days I’ll be a New York Times/best-selling author. Writing was my first love!

The Day I Met President Obama…


Caption: Me with Joy & Hakim, two members of my Donda’s House Team

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to attend the inaugural programming event hosted by the Obama Foundation. The event gathered 175 youth from Chicago in order to provide them with Civic Engagement Training. One component of the day was the Engagement Fair, and Donda’s House was invited to participate in that. I was joined by two members of my team, our Communications Director Hakim, and one of our amazing volunteers Joy.

Caption: Some of the Obama Memorabilia I’ve collected over the years. Some of the stuff I actually purchased during the campaign! The newspapers are from the day after he won the first term! I also have two books about First Lady Michelle Obama. 

I’ll never forget President Obama’s first campaign. At the time I was living in Chicago, so we were all incredibly invested in the campaign. I was also still teaching, so I was able to incorporate many of his speeches and other non-partisan content into my curriculum. At the time I was also working at Whitney Young High School – the school that First Lady Michelle Obama attended! I’ll never forget the feeling in the air… and in our hearts… To think that we as a country could elect the First African American President was a testament to how far we had come… and it was incredibly inspiring to think about what that meant for my students and for my community.


Caption: Some of the buttons I owned during the campaign and a letter I received from First Lady Michelle Obama!

I truly enjoyed following President Obama’s campaigns (both of them), and I truly enjoyed following him and his family while they were in the White House. It was always my dream (like so many other Americans I’m sure) to meet him face-to-face. I’ve known people who were invited to some of the forums and workshops at the White House, who attended some of the epic parties and social gatherings and who were able to engage with President Obama & First Lady Michelle Obama and his team regularly. I attended a couple of events where both President Obama and First Lady Obama spoke, but I never had the opportunity to shake their hands or speak with them. The day he gave his “Obama, Out” speech, I still kept hope in my heart that one day we’d meet. 2017 has been an incredible year of manifestation for my husband and I… I plan to share more about that before 2017 ends.



Caption: Donda’s House at the Engagement Fair for the Obama Foundation. 

You can imagine my excitement when I received an invitation to participate in the inaugural Obama Foundation Event because of my work with Donda’s House AND to be able to connect with youth in the 18-24 demographic. When you run a non-profit, so much of the work you do is to create awareness about the work that you do. When I meet people and I mention Donda’s House, it is incredibly affirming to hear that they not only know about Donda’s House, but they respect and often applaud the work that we do. So when we received the invitation to participate in the Obama Foundation Event, it meant the world to me because it was an affirmation that our work was being seen and heard by a group of people that were acting on the behalf of President & First Lady Michelle Obama.

Affirmation matters in philanthropy, because I spend so much of my time making a case for the work. Many of my conversations are centered around:

(A) Why all young people, especially youth on the South Side of Chicago and from low income communities deserve access to the arts…

(B) Why the push for STEM in educational institutions has often meant relegating the “A” “arts” to the margins… Why STEAM over STEM is a better approach to curriculum development.

(C) Why African American youth deserve more than just sports & recreational programs in their communities…

(D) Why indigenous leadership in low-income and communities of color is essential… (not negating diversity which is important but arguing that people need to see people that look like them & that come from where they come from in leadership positions…)

In many instances we get more “no” responses than we get “yes” responses and when the “we are not able to provide funding at this time” letters pile up it can be disheartening because not receiving the support does not dismiss or remove the need for support. The youth that we serve expect, anticipate and need the programs that we provide. Hard stop. That means that we have to and we must do what we can to fulfill those expectations. And we try to do so, without putting a burden on the youth that we serve because we don’t want them to worry about (and frankly, they have enough to worry about!) our ability to provide services for them.

So anytime an individual or an organization says they’re familiar with our work and they’re interested in collaborating it is a huge “win” for us and for the youth that we serve. 5 years ago, Donda’s House was just a dream. An idea that we had to provide targeted support to young Creatives. We wanted to target youth who came from the same community as us, because the arts were an essential component of our lives growing up. When we started working, we quickly realized the disparities between nonprofit organizations lead by people of color and more specifically African-American lead organizations and we started advocating for capacity building support for Donda’s House and the countless organizations like ours lead by African Americans.

We had an incredible day connecting to young people yesterday – all of whom were interested in changing the world and making a positive impact on their communities. Many of the youth were artists, and were interested in pursuing careers and social change in the arts & culture sector. When we were surprised by President Obama, it was special because as the organizational leaders met him he wanted to know two things, our names & the organizations we were representing. As I shook President Obama’s hand and I said, “Donnie Smith and I’m with Donda’s House,” it was an incredibly emotional experience because I was realizing my dream BECAUSE of helping young people realize their dreams. I didn’t meet President Obama for the first time at a social event… I met him because of the work that I’ve committed my life to doing and because someone recognized the value in that work and that mission.

I can only hope & pray that we continue to find ourselves in the rooms that we need to be in and that I, as the Captain of the Ship that we call Donda’s House, find myself in the rooms that I need to be in, in order to continue to move the work forward. This is coming from a girl who doesn’t look like what she’s been through. My tests have become my testimony and I pray that my life continues to be an example of God’s grace & that I leave the spaces & the people that I touch better than I found them.


For more information about the Obama Foundation click here.

Learn more about the event yesterday here.

Check out the Donda’s House feed here, my instagram feed here, and check out the hashtag #trainingdaychi on all Social Media channels to see more reflections from the day!

Be The Change You Wish To See (Moving Beyond Entitlement)…

There are so many organizations outside of Donda’s House that I’ve supported financially and by other means. I don’t do it because I’m interested in having a transactional relationship with the organizations or the causes – I do it because I believe that it is the right thing to do and because I would not be able to accomplish even a quarter of what I am able to accomplish without the help of other people (many of whom do so quietly behind the scenes).

I hear so many entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders complaining about what people aren’t doing:

(1) People aren’t buying tickets to my event(s).

(2) People aren’t inviting me to their invite-only parties.

(3) People aren’t supporting my brand on social media.

(4) People aren’t supporting my business.

When I get frustrated sometimes I start walking down that path, but then I remember:


In order to earn the true support of people we have to work! We have to deliver quality experiences and quality products that make people want to continue working with us, that make people brag about what they’ve purchased from us, and that make people want to be committed & addicted to whatever it is that we’re selling.

When opportunities aren’t moving. When the shelves are full. When our phones are “dry” and our inboxes are empty… instead of ragging about our customers, our clients, our partners, and our cities, we have to look inward and ask some really hard questions:

(1) What can I do to create more support?

(2) When was the last time that I did the action I’m wanting from others – without any expectations? I’m a firm believer in the law of attraction. We get what we put out.

(3) Is this idea one that needs to be refreshed or aborted? Every mission that we start, is not a mission that we should finish. Especially when all of the signs and data show that it’s not worth pursuing.

When things get hard, it’s easy to point the finger outward. What I’m saying is that we have to start holding ourselves accountable for reflecting the change that we want to see in our industry, in our communities and in our world.



Happy 4th Birthday Donda’s House 

Happy 4th Birthday Donda’s House
You are 4 years old today! Only about 9% of start up businesses make it to their 4th year. You are still here because you are resilient, relentless and necessary. 

Thank you for redefining family for me and so many others. You have forged lifelong bonds, you have wiped many tears and you have created many laughs. You have created brothers that don’t share blood, you have created sisters that lean on each other and you have straightened the backs and raised the voices of the many artists who have opted in to our philosophy and mission.

More than anything I am thankful for the example of Dr. Donda West. A mother who opened her doors to so many “strangers” who were looking for something. She could have focused on raising her son but instead, decided to raise her community. From her we know that home is truly where the heART is! 

Donda’s House, thank you for being another option. A space where mostly black and sprinkles of brown youth gather to reimagine individually & collectively. Thank you for sometimes being in the minority when advocating for more time, more space and more resources. Thank you for being willing to remind others that the A in STEM is missing causing a great detriment to the next generation. Thank you for moving from the margins, to the very center wherever you find yourself.

I pray that our next year is our best year. I pray that other people continue to see your value. I pray that the people who you need, find their way to you. I pray that we find our way as quickly as possible to the people who need you. I pray that you move all of our artists, volunteers, staff and Board of Directors closer to their dreams and last but not least, when all else fails, I compel you to keep the fire of your intentions burning unimaginably hot. Visibly hot. Untouchable hot. 

Thank you to everyone who has done anything to support our mission! We are the change we wish to see!

With lots of love,

Donnie Smith 

Executive Director & Co-Founder 

A Look Around My Office 

This morning I said that I’d go live on Instagram to do a tour of my office. My baby dog was spayed this morning, so I decided to spend the evening cuddling with her. I did want to share some of my favorite things from my office:

Above: My IKEA Expedit shelf holds so much. These large square bookcases can hold so much! 

I recently purchased some Philips HUE LED lights. I control them from an App in my phone. They can change colors, the bulb doesn’t get hot and they can work together to create scenes! 

Beyonce is my absolute favorite! I had one of my favorite posters framed. I also recently purchased the “What Would Beyonce Do” desk tag from Modcloth, which lives on my desk.

Peacocks are my favorite animals. These feathers were the first thing I purchased for my office and I designed the rest of the room around those colors.

My gallery wall. I’m thinking about adding another row of frames at the top. 

I save all of the cards that I receive. This one from my Aunt I turned into a piece of art because I love the words & the messenger!

Everyone I travel in the world, I always purchase art. This piece I purchase in Mumbai in India and its a silk painting.

Another piece of art I picked up from an artist in NOLA. I loved the rhinestones.

My Vision Board and a 3 month calendar that lives above my desk. I change it annually during my end of year, new year rituals.

I found this Vintage Olive Green file cabinet on Craigslist and it’s one of my favorite pieces.

This is my super fast and powerful Fujitsu Scansnap ix500. I’ve seen it used in Medical Facilities and it allows me to digitize all of my documents. I keep a digital file cabinet of everything in Dropbox.

I love words especially the words on this cup from Michaels.

My favorite scent is Pink Champagne from Pier 1. I have diffusers, candles and room spray. I initially purchased it immediately after New Years, and was told that it was seasonal. I’ve gone back every month and it’s been there. Maybe they will make it a permanent part of their collection.

Glitter is my favorite color, followed by gold, followed by pink. I had to have this lava lamp because it combined so many of my favorite things.

I try to find gold or metallic office supplies whenever possible. Here are a few of my favorite items.

These pens used to be my favorite back in the day! I use them now often for scrapbooking. I found this mega pack on Amazon.

My office is the place where I get my work done. I have a high capacity black and white printer/copier and a regular HP printer for color. I am able to get most of my work done on these two machines. For larger jobs I go to FedEx or order online. 

So these are some of my favorite things in my Office! I look forward to the day that I can decorate my DH Office!!!!

They Gone Get These Hands…

Donda’s House Inc. turns 4 years old on August 1st. This is the first summer where we were able to hire a small team beyond our paid instructors to support our work. In the past, we have had to rely heavily on generous volunteers and our active alumni to support our initiatives. This summer we have a small team of about 6 – 7 people who work our events.

Caption: A short clip of the view outside of the restaurant, via my Snapchat.

About a week ago, I joined my husband for a two week work trip, and at the end of our work trip, we are taking a one week vacation to another country to celebrate his 40th birthday. That makes 3 weeks that I will be away from Chicago. In the past, I have felt like I couldn’t travel as often and that I had to be there personally to ensure that everything went smooth. In fact, I would feel a huge sense of guilt if I couldn’t personally be there for a Donda’s House class or event.


Caption: Hubby and I in Delaware at a delicious seaside seafood restaurant.

As an organizational leader, I have learned so much about myself over the last few years and the thing that I know for sure, is that I have to work to “replace” myself. Donda’s House has to be a well-oiled machine in that our infrastructure, our mission and our “culture” works, no matter who is at the helm and no matter if I am physically present or not.

So many organizations and institutions suffer from “founder” syndrome. Founder Syndrome is what happens when organizational founders can’t and don’t “get out of the way” to make room for innovation and for growth. Founders can also be notorious for being micro-managers. I never want to be that. If something were to ever happen to me, my hope is that others will carry the work forward and that the organization will continue to grow and support creatives as the mission intends. I want people to be able to attend a Donda’s House event and they not know (or care) whether I am there or not.


Caption: My hubby’s doing some work with DJ Jazzy Jeff. This is where all of the magic happens, in Jeff’s studio 🙂

I wanted to share some tips for those who are in a situation where you are expected to empower a team or where you feel like you personally have to be involved in every single aspect or detail of your organization and need to exercise the art of letting go more often. Some people call it delegating. I don’t even consider it just delegating, because I want people to be empowered to make decisions and to be leaders. When you delegate something, you often intend for people to do it the exact same way that you would. My expectation is that it is equal to the way that I do it, or better!

(1) Hire people that you trust. If you hire and collaborate with people that you trust, it should be easier to let go. How do you know who you can trust? People who do what they say they are going to do (honor their word), people who seem equally (and sometimes more) passionate than you, people who have a good reputation and track record from other spaces, and people who have integrity and good character. When it comes to trust, your instincts will often be on point in terms of who you should and should not place your trust in.

(2) Communicate in writing & verbally. I believe in communicating with people the same message in multiple formats. Everybody processes and receives information differently. It is not uncommon for me to have a conversation with someone and then follow up with the same information via e-mail. It is also important to always have things in writing, just in case something goes wrong, it will be easy to find out where the breakdown happened to avoid something similar happening in the future. Good communication is the best “accountability” measure that you have in place.

(3) Hire against your weaknesses or areas of challenges. We all have areas for improvement or things that don’t come easy for us. It is important to bring people on your team who have those areas as strengths so that your entire team can bring the whole package. If everybody around you including you has a background and a strength in PR, your marketing & PR will be incredible, but your accounting may lack. If everybody around you has great visual and graphic design capabilities but you don’t have anyone who can write, then your business will suffer. Know thyself, and hire those who have your weaknesses as strengths to create a mighty, well-rounded and powerful whole package.

(4) Set clear goals and outcomes. From your events, to your social media following to your programs, and your products, you should always have a target for whatever you are doing. What is your north star? What is your why? If you are having an event, how many people do you hope to attend? What do you want people to get out of the event or experience? For products, how many units do you hope to move in what time period? You should have goals as the CEO or organizational leader, and then your team should have collective goals.

(5) Everything happens that’s supposed to happen. Let go of the fact that you can control every single thing, because you cannot. We recently had a fundraiser that just so happened to fall on the same date as a huge NBA game. We had the fundraiser date set before the NBA game was announced and there was nothing that we could do about it. There will always be circumstances and things that come up that impact you and your work, and all that you can do is try to maintain a positive and calm attitude, and handle it.

The world should get your hands and the hands of as many people who share your value system and your desired change for the world. We need all of the hands that we can get and the more hands that we have, the better we are and the quicker we can see positive change happening for us all!

The Tea On Celebrities…

I have had the pleasure of working closely with and being in intimate settings with “celebrities.” The people who grace magazine covers, whose endorsement of a product or place equals support from the masses and who I hear whispered about “you know he’s this…” while I internally shake my head, because I know that the rumor, or the “tea” as it is sometimes called is not true. I’m also a person who values discretion & even if the tea is true, I am not going to be the person to confirm or refute it, just as I would not want someone to share something that I said in confidence.

I have also been called a celebrity, and so has my husband, and I’ve read “celebrity couple” behind mentions of our name in the press. When we meet new people, we are often told how “down to earth” “approachable” “authentic” and “cool” we are. For many, the term “celebrity” has a negative connotation. For the first time in my life, when I go places, I have people recognizing my face… I have people saying that they follow me on social media when we meet face-to-face for the first time and I find myself, especially lately really contemplating what the term “celebrity” means, whether or not it is a label that I (or we) want to embrace and what, if anything is problematic about celebrity.

The term celebrity comes from the latin word celebritas and it means “multitude” “fame” and “celebration.” In America, the people who we call celebrities are often in the entertainment industry – actors & actresses, comedians, athletes, singers and rappers. Sometimes we also add the term in front of other careers like “Celebrity Chef.” On a basic level, celebrity just means a person who is famous or who is appealing to the masses.

So what do I find problematic about celebrity?

(1) Proximity to celebrity is often equated with a person’s value. In my work both personally & professionally I see people pursue fame in lieu of pursuing professional and artistic excellence. My husband often says that both wealth and fame, are by-products of greatness. When you talk to people who are “celebrities” the majority of them did not have a goal of becoming famous. They had a goal of being original, or of making art that challenges or inspires people. I have watched people clamor to celebrities and boast photos with them as if they are somehow better than everyone else because of the access that they have. They sometimes feel and act as if by virtue of the photo or the V.I.P. Pass the rest of the world is unworthy…

(2) People think celebrities are the answer to our world’s challenges. While it is amazing and I am very appreciative of celebrities that are philanthropic, I also understand that celebrities are not the magic elixir to solving our world’s challenges. At least weekly, I receive an e-mail or someone stops me to talk about how we need to make a stop the violence song, and we need to get this rapper, and that singer, and that’s how we’re going to solve Chicago’s violence, world hunger, and get people out of poverty. I am not saying that celebrities do not hold influence and that they shouldn’t be a part of implementing solutions, but what we are dealing with are structural, institutional challenges that require us ALL.

Frankly, celebrities can sometimes murk up the water when they get involved in issues, and it can lead to a mission becoming trivialized or compromised.  I think the Civil Rights Movement provides an excellent example of how we can incorporate celebrities. Often, celebrities provided funding and they opened up their platforms via media and their concerts to address social challenges. Additionally, celebrities have certain causes that they may be passionate about just like non-celebrities have causes that they are passionate about. As the ED of Donda’s House, I don’t try to force every celebrity that I know to care about arts education. I have to do my due diligence (research) to find out what they ARE passionate about, and connect with those whose values and passions align with our organizations. I don’t get upset when my thing isn’t someone else’s thing.


You also run the risk of celebrities using a cause for their own corporate or branding goals. I’m always suspicious of a celebrity that broadcasts all of their philanthropic efforts, especially when it centers them as some type of savior or hero, rather than uplifting the issue(s) and the people who are being impacted by the social cause. I have many friends who are publicists and I’m married to an artist, so I understand that there is a literally a such thing as brand architecture. Brands are built, and you’d be surprised to learn just how clueless and out-of-touch some celebrities are. We need to hear from our social psychologists, our mental health practitioners, our teachers, our police officers, our block club Presidents, etc. As my brother Glenn Martin often says, “those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution.” When it comes to solving challenges, those who are closest to the ground, who have committed their lives to social causes, and who are literally living the experiences, are often the best sources for solutions. Not celebrities who are often receiving their information from 2nd- and 3rd- party sources and may be so far removed that they can’t relate or articulate the challenges.

The situation works in reverse too, where people want to use celebrity platforms for their own individualistic desires. Celebrities are just really popular people, so they often see and smell that a mile away. They have people who try to befriend them, steal money from them or broker for-profit deals that are not beneficial to them. No one likes to be or feel used and celebrities are often stockpiled with operatives and people who do not have their best interest at heart. There is a certain skepticism and paranoia that they experience due to constantly being pitched and misrepresented or used.


(3) People treat celebrities as if they are better than non-celebrities and sometimes celebrities behave as if they are better than non-celebrities. I have been in rooms where there was a noticeable difference between when people had no idea who I or my husband was, and they act one way, and then everything changes when someone tells them what you do or what you’ve done. People literally don’t make eye contact and barely mutter a “hello” & then instantly they are able to give you whatever you need. 5 star service. I have also watched celebrities ignore people who were speaking to them, speak disrespectful to their staff, or to people who were serving them. I have ended personal and professional friendships because someone acted a total fool when a celebrity was in the room. Celebrities can sometimes bring out the worst in people (or be the worst people themselves). I often work event production with celebrities, since I run an arts-focused non-profit and I usually try to stay as far away as possible from the V.I.P. Area or the Celebrity holding area, unless I have a specific job I have to do because I do not want to experience the way that people behave in those settings.

When I go to concerts, unless we have Donda’s House artists around, I will often decline backstage passes, or all-access badges because I’m not a fan of celebrity worship. When my husband and I are blessed to have people who are fans of his work, I often volunteer to take the picture, and no matter what we are thinking or feeling, we go out of our way to be accessible and to have conversations with people. We speak to every single person from the waiter, to the security, to the bartenders, because we believe that everyone matters and everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. We also believe and do not take for granted the fact that people DO NOT have to spend their money, or their time supporting us or the art.

As we find ourselves in more and more rooms with celebrities and as we ourselves feel our popularity increasing, we try to be very thoughtful about what it means to us individually, to our marriage and to the people that we love and cherish the most…