Black Women Entrepreneurs Series
by Jennifer Anderson and Sabrina Madison
As the second part of our series celebrating the growth and success of Black women entrepreneurs, The Madison Times (TMT) had the opportunity to speak with S.L. Owens about her path to success, her advice, and her experience as part of the new vanguard that is changing the face (and pocket!) of the national and global economic landscape.
TMT: Describe your business.
Owens: I am a commercial attorney at Quarles & Brady LLP and a member of my firm’s national Franchise & Distribution industry team. I advise entrepreneurs, start-ups and small business owners.
TMT: How did you get your start?
Owens: While in law school at the University of Wisconsin, I completed a Certificate in Entrepreneurship at the Wisconsin School of Business. Initially, I was drawn to the creative aspects of working with emerging growth companies.
TMT: How have your beginnings and your background led you to where you are now?
Owens: I am a first-generation college and law school graduate. I grew up in a low-income neighborhood on Chicago’s west side in a single-parent home. These experiences helped me develop grit and perspective. Every day, I rely on my life experiences to advance practical outcomes for my clients.
TMT: What components other than your own work and money went in to the development of your career?
Owens: Over 50% of inner city youth fail to graduate from high school. My neighborhood in Chicago was, and still is, plagued with gun violence, gangs, and child exploitation. Although I was a motivated student, I worked full time throughout high school. Working allowed me to limit the time I spent around criminal elements. But, my commitment to my education was questioned by educators. They categorized me as a distracted inner city kid. Despite my good grades, I had difficulty getting recommendations for college.
Therefore, it took more than financial resources to propel me into a legal career. I’ve learned to spend time understanding organizational frameworks and what motivates people. Even in the age of social media, I meet people face-to-face, listen to them, and incorporate their ideas into my own business strategy.
I am also a college alumna of the Posse Foundation, a national scholarship program facilitating college access for inner city youth. And, I am a law alumna of the Legal Education Opportunities Program (LEO), which promotes diversity in law.
Fellowship programs like LEO and Posse have a core ingredient to their recipe beyond scholarship dollars. They have an engaged alumni base that connects on a personal level. Actively engaged alumni pay their dues forward through mentoring, and in turn, we mobilize and disrupt the status-quo of an industry.
TMT: How have you branded yourself to make your image unique as an entrepreneur?
Owens: I value helping new businesses succeed and it lights me up to help others realize their dreams. I use two strategies to brand myself as a leader who stays ahead of the crowd. First, I am engaged in my clients’ industries. Entrepreneurs appreciate me staying ahead of their needs. Second, I quickly learn my clients’ revenue streams. This helps me articulate their value through contracts and negotiations.
TMT: The percentage of businesses owned by black women in the United States is exponentially on the rise, increasing by over 300% since 1997. What does this mean to you personally, as a woman of business?
Owens: It is deeply important for me to contribute to the ultimate success of women of color in business. I am also committed to solidarity between all women business owners. America is in uncharted territory. In addition to the increased entrepreneur levels, Black women were recently reported as leading all groups in college enrollment. This allows me to communicate the benefit of legal support to a growing community of legal consumers.
TMT: How do you see the business of your field changing in respects to gender and race?
Owens: The legal industry is adapting alongside the entrepreneurial landscape. More diverse entrepreneurs create a demand for lawyers who can communicate outside of their comfort zone.
TMT: What advice do you have for young Black women looking to get their start?
Owens: Know the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. They are equally important, but they have different goals. In my experience, mentors are better suited for planning day-to-day strategic moves. Mentors possess insider knowledge on the decorum. You attend lunches, coffees and other social events with them to learn your industry. A sponsor, on the other hand, has a business interest in your personal development. Sponsors integrate you into their business and marketing plans. They advocate for you behind the scenes.
TMT: Is there someone who inspires you or inspired you to get your start as an entrepreneur?
Owens: My first entrepreneurial influence is my mom. She keeps me grounded and empowered me to manifest my own destiny. I am also inspired by Judge Patricia Brown Holmes, whom I had the honor of introducing at a Posse fundraiser last year. Like my mom, she is down to earth. Judge Holmes inspires me to take one step at a time to reach my goals. She once told me to take one step at a time because taking leaps can cause injury. I rely on her cautionary advice as a young entrepreneur eager to make gains.
TMT: What have been the biggest challenges for you as an entrepreneur, being a Black woman?
Owens: My biggest challenge is being underestimated due to my age, race, and gender. This is also my greatest weapon. Instead of being frustrated, I take it as an opportunity to advance the position of my client.
TMT: In addition to these challenges in business, what have been the most rewarding aspects?
Owens: The most rewarding aspect of working with entrepreneurs and emerging growth companies is the intersection of law, technology and public policy. As an advisor and strategist, I enjoy finding practical solutions to complex problems.
TMT: Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Owens: I am encouraged by the diverse and collaborative entrepreneurial communities blowing up across the country. In Wisconsin, we have co-working spaces like 100State of Madison and Ward4 Milwaukee. These spaces reflect the inclusiveness, level playing field, and future of entrepreneurship.