Stemming from South Central Los Angeles, Sheila Marmon always knew that there was something special about her community. No, her neighborhood didn’t reflect the wrist-sporting Cartier bracelets nor polished mansions found just 15 miles north in Beverly Hills. But, even at a young age, Sheila recognized that her community had potential to bloom if only they had the resources.
After breaking generational curses as a first-generation student to attend both Princeton University and Harvard Business School, Sheila went on to accelerate within the corporate world for decades. Despite her success, a voice in her head kept telling her to go back to where it started and curate opportunities for those who look like her. Shortly afterward, that unwavering voice birthed Mirror Digital, a multicultural interactive media, and advertising company. For over a decade, her company has been championing the importance of multicultural voices in the media and advertising industries.
Her Agenda recently had the opportunity to chat with Sheila about her start-up days in her kitchen, booking her first client, and how to professionally respond when people “talk crazy” to you.
Her Agenda: You had a long career in corporate America, you even worked on Wall Street, and then you became an entrepreneur. When the idea for Mirror Digital was fresh, what were the signs that this was something that you needed to pursue?
Sheila Marmon: You know it starts way, way back. I’m from Los Angeles, South Central, which is a very under-resourced community. Growing up there, I felt like there were so many amazing people in our community but we lacked resources. As a child, I didn’t have the language to think of it that way, but I always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if this person could get a job?’ and ‘Wouldn't it be nice if our neighborhood looked as nice as other neighborhoods?’ I felt like we weren’t getting a fair shot. That is what made me start thinking about what I could do in my own way to help my community.
As I got older and started to understand economics, business, and all of the things I learned in my professional opportunities, I really felt like job creation is the driver and creating economic opportunities is the kernel that leads to all the growth and success of transforming communities like South Central LA. I felt like I had unique expertise in media and knew how important media is in terms of giving our community a voice. The ability to drive real economic growth from a business model standpoint is what made me launch Mirror Digital.
Her Agenda: Everyone always says they remember their firsts! So, do you remember the first client that you booked under Mirror Digital and how you felt?
Sheila Marmon: Yes! My first client under Mirror Digital was Macy’s. I had been talking to their team for a long time and knocking on lots of doors. I was connected to the general counsel and chief diversity officer through a contact. I sat down with him, told him my story, what I was trying to accomplish with Mirror Digital, and how we thought we could help Macy’s from a business standpoint to connect with multicultural audiences. We connected on a personal level and had a great story, and he was also focused on helping diverse-owned businesses get their foot in the door at Macy's. The conversation went well and he had arranged a coffee for himself with the chief digital decision-maker of Macy's right after our meeting. So, she joined our meeting at the end, he introduced us, and that kicked off our conversation about working with them as an organization. It’s been a very fruitful partnership.
Her Agenda: Something that Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates all have in common is that they started their companies from their garage. But, you started your company from your kitchen, which I personally think is a step up. What do you remember most about those early start-up days?
Sheila Marmon: I think I started from the kitchen because I didn't have a garage; I was living in a condo. What really got me going was that my cousin needed a job and had just graduated from college. I was working alone in my kitchen and trying to get things up and running, and I couldn't afford to hire, but I knew my cousin needed a job. And, it was transformative to work with someone as gifted as my cousin. From bouncing ideas off each other and collaborating, it was able to really get us off the ground and build momentum. That reminds me of one critical thing and a message to entrepreneurs: You can’t get very much done by yourself. You have to think about how to get resources and others rallying behind your vision so that you can really make moves.
Her Agenda: I see all that Mirror Digital has done to give back like the Reflect Beauty Awards. I know you don’t do your work for praise, but has there ever been a moment that you can remember, where you realized that the work you are doing is changing lives?
Sheila Marmon: There are layers to that. In hiring for mirror digital, I am very intentional about opening doors and giving a chance to those who may not get one at other companies. We look at unidentified or overlooked talent. When you look at how many people of color are in the innovation economy, we are very underrepresented. And, there are always more opportunities to bring folks in and train young people to get them into the industry.
In terms of the work, it’s just who we are. We think about our communities, our publishers who are also primarily multicultural entrepreneurs, and how we can help our clients have an impact. That allows us to create media programs that really have the opportunity to change people’s lives. We launched the Salon Give Back program, in partnership with Procter & Gamble, in support of Black salon owners and hairstylists who had their businesses impacted by COVID. It was a Sunday afternoon, we had the checks spread out, we had notes spread out to the 20 different winners, and we went through their stories. We gave out $200,000 and we mailed those checks from my office. This is who we are as an organization.
Her Agenda: I can tell that you are very professional. Unfortunately, in the corporate and tech spaces, women, especially Black women are treated differently. And, I know you are from South Central. During those moments when people have talked crazy to you, how do you professionally approach the matter?
Sheila Marmon: What I first do is take a deep breath and don’t internalize it. I recognize when someone talks crazy to me, it’s because they don't really see me. If they really saw me, they would recognize me in all of my glory, accomplishments, and professionalism. Even further than that, if someone talks crazy to anyone regardless of their accomplishments and professionalism, that means they have work they need to do on themselves. Keeping that in mind, you can simply let it roll off your back.
Her Agenda: Mirror Digital was founded in 2012, and since then, the internet and social media have grown exponentially and swiftly. As the CEO of a company that focuses on digital advertising, what is your relationship like with social media, which is a tool that many people say is replacing advertising?
Sheila Marmon: Our business has evolved as the industry has evolved. Multicultural consumers adopt every trend first. We set the trends. As social media was starting, we knew early on that we needed to figure out a game plan to be there and reach multicultural consumers on every platform. We were running social influencer campaigns on Twitter and Facebook before either of them ever had an advertising model. We were doing what is now called ‘Influencer Work’ before there was ever such a term. We’ve been there since day one which has allowed us to stay ahead of the next wave or trend on social media. We look at them as platforms to be utilized just like any other advertising platform. And, we incorporate them into our media program appropriately. Our goal is to reach consumers and audiences for our advertising partners, and being able to do that with social media is a part of our expertise.
[Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]