Sheree Williams is focused, determined, and adamant about telling the stories of our people-Black people and she has got the means to do so. The multifaceted entrepreneur recently caught up with Bronze Magazine to discuss her business, nonprofit initiative, and the publishing of the first global culinary publication.
Tell us about V Sheree Creative Enterprises.
I have over 20 years of experience in Communications working in marketing, advertising, and public relations, so I work with small business clients for the most part. I work with them around communication strategies to make sure they have cohesive messaging across their platforms from social media and what they have on the website. That’s one of the loves that I do on that end. Also, I do photography as well. I do lifestyle and travel photography for my magazine, but I am definitely getting more into real estate as well. That’s where I get to hone in on my photography skills.
What is the purpose of your newly formed nonprofit The Global Food and Drink Initiative?
So, just being in the media space for 12 years, similar to so many other Black-owned media companies, we always ran into the problem of advertisers in terms of the lack of support for Black media. You are seeing that even now more so in the media especially from Roland Martin and Ice Cube.
Last year during the pandemic nothing had changed even though there was a big focus on supporting Black-owned businesses. It wasn’t really a call to action among advertisers to support Black-owned media. Over the course of the years we have engaged in more activities, not just in publishing a magazine, but also in connecting people behind the scenes and sort of being a community and industry resource. We were getting into a lot of diversity and inclusion as it relates to food, drink, and travel and just speaking and doing certain projects that were behind it. I saw that as an opportunity as everyone did when they were pivoting in businesses last year.
Because we go beyond just publishing a magazine and we do so much more, we created a nonprofit where we can continue to do the work but also expand it. That was really the total point for us around forming the nonprofit and really getting it going.
Tell us about your global cuisine publication Cuisine Noir Magazine.
Cuisine Noir Magazine was started by a chef in Sacramento who did not see Black chefs getting their share of acknowledgement, celebration, and recognition in your mainstream magazines such as Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, etc. It was a far cry from what you are seeing today. He started Cuisine Noir to do that.
In 2009, I came on board and became the owner and expanded it to food, wine, and travel because I felt the three worked so well together. For a lot of people who really travel, one of the things that you are looking at on your itinerary is where you are going to eat. And then if you are into wine, you are traveling to a wine country or having conversations about wine.
So when I took over the magazine, I expanded those conversations again to talk about what was not being talked about at the time. We talk about Black winemakers who are out here and it has since grown. We have watched the number of players who have come into the industry just blossom and grow especially internationally as well.
At first, we were just really focused on the United States Black winemakers, but now globally it is just amazing. We wanted to cut out some of those stereotypes, especially when it comes to Black chefs. You always hear the comments that Black chefs can only cook soul food or they are placed in a box. We are not here to do that. We want the chef to tell their stories and tell the cuisine that they love to create. There are a lot of misconceptions about travel as well. They say that Black people don’t travel internationally, we don’t ski, we don’t go yachting, etc.
This is a way to really share those stories, bring them to the forefront, and to connect because if you were doing this activity, maybe you did not see a lot of Black people doing it if you were in another part of the country. Now we are building community with people who have the same interests as you, but unfortunately the representation in the media is not fair, so sometimes we wouldn’t know. That is really what we love to do through Cuisine Noir; and tell those stories.
How did your business and publication fare during the pandemic?
The other thing that the advertisers are being called out about is not having a problem taking money from Black consumers, but when it comes to Black media and reaching us through publications that fit our lifestyle and who we enjoy supporting, they don’t see the need to do that. We are sold up a lot of times under general budgets. I guess they feel like they can reach Black consumers through Racheal Ray, HGTV, or Food & Wine Magazine, etc. But they feel there is no need to go to a publication that talks specifically to Black people who have an interest in food, wine, and travel.
Our people are affluent, educated, and they travel and do whatever they want to do, but there is no interest in them talking to us directly. We have always had our way of making sure we took care of ourselves whether it was me putting in my own money and other opportunities. Because we didn’t have a lot of our revenue come from these big advertising dollars, we fared better based on one that had 50% of my revenue with advertising dollars.
What kind of advice would you give to someone who wanted to start a business and a publication?
Do something that you love doing so it doesn’t seem like a job at all. Just really learn, grow, try to get great mentors, stay abreast of what is going on in the industry that you pursue, and learn from others. Your journey is your own. I was speaking with a friend who was shamed for still having a job while they transitioned into their business. Some people go cold turkey where they quit their job and go full throttle and some people ease into it. Whatever you choose to do to get your business growing, that is your choice and your choice alone. Every entrepreneur has their own path into their journey. Choose the path that works best for you and don’t let anyone influence it.
When it comes to a publication, I would say that some of the reasons why it has worked for me is because of my background in advertising and my background as a writer. Going into this I was familiar with the advertising lingo and I had strong writing skills too. I am a firm believer of being knowledgeable about every single aspect of the publication even though you hire people who have the expertise to do that work. Make sure you know a little bit about web design, graphic design, and photography because then you can really speak to who you are working with in terms of not being taken advantage of.
I have heard of so many people starting publications that last or they don’t last. You really have to be dedicated to this because it is a lot of work. It’s not just about writing stories, there is the business part of growing it and then growing a team. We do digital but we are entering back into print with a special pandemic issue that I am excited about. Me juggling both is really hard, but being able to know what I am doing and having the right team around me makes it really easy.
Do you have any future projects that you are working on?
This year we took the time to settle into the nonprofit and continued to get the messaging out about it being the parent company of Cuisine Noir Magazine and to look at what our work is doing. We also launched some programming that we did around publishing and preparing your own cookbook. Now we are finishing the year looking at how we are going to go into 2022.
A project I am excited about is our print issue. Our last print issue was in 2017 before we went 100% digital because it is a tough market from an advertising standpoint. We really needed to step back from print until we figured it out. We are excited about the recent re-launch of our print magazine. It really has a good global focus on how the pandemic impacted Black businesses and food, drink, and travel. I am very excited about that.
We are gearing up for a few things in 2022. You are going to see more programming, more global communities coming together to have conversations, and bringing communities together around spirit because we held one of the first Black-owned spirit company discussions in September 2020. So, you are really going to see that work we are doing of connecting more so that people can share their stories and learn from one another.
What is your ultimate goal?
One of the biggest honors we have had as a publication is getting our cover included in the African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, DC when it opened in 2016 and the Smithsonian video on the 4th floor where it talks about African Americans and cooking. That has been one of the biggest accolades and accomplishments that I’ve enjoyed. I want to see Cuisine Noir become a legacy publication up there with Ebony, Essence, and Jet because of the stories that we are able to share.
It is great when you hear people say that they are so happy to see other Black winemakers or they are happy to see other Black chefs doing this, etc. We are seeing people go back to their roots. There is a big conversation happening where chefs have parents who are immigrants and maybe they are the first generation here in the United States. Of course the focus is to get your education and become a doctor, engineer, lawyer, etc. and then they fall in love with food. Then perhaps later they fall in love with whatever culture they come from because they are here in America and want to assimilate and fall into what their kids are doing in school. As they get older, they want to return back to their Latina, Haitian, and Creole roots, etc.
We want to be a legacy and get people to be proud of who they are, especially of what we have done as Black people in this industry; to be able to share that history, and tell those stories for generations to come.