Building a Career, a Business, and a Wealth Legacy for Others | Hall of Fame 2018 Inductee: Sheila Dean Brooks

UW Department of Communication Hall of Fame 2018 Inductee: Sheila Dean Brooks, Ph.D.  (B.A. 1978) 

Sheila Dean Brooks, Ph.D. is an author, Emmy-award winning journalist, entrepreneur and advocate for minority, women and diversity issues and small businesses. “I have been passionate about reading, writing, and speaking since I was five; it came naturally to me,” Dr. Brooks recalls. “That meant I was either going to be in newspapers or television, so I focused on what I had to do to make that happen.  My passion has always been my purpose, and my purpose is my plan.”

Before spending thirteen years as a TV newscaster, Dr. Brooks earned her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Washington. “I transferred to the UW in my senior year, and I never lost a credit. I had travelled to Washington from Columbia College and the University of Missouri. And one day in December 1977, I was walking down the hall with a friend when we saw something that made us stop: a flyer about the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ),” Dr. Brooks says. “I’ll never forget it. We called, got the information, and joined both the national and local chapter. The national organization was only two years old then, with about 100 members. It now boasts a membership of more than 4,000 journalists.” Her voice swells with pride as she continues, “During the 41 years since I first joined NABJ, I’ve mentored and trained hundreds of black journalists.” Dr. Brooks founded the NABJ Student [Multimedia] Project in 1990, a competitive, paid fellowship where students cover NABJ’s annual convention and produce daily newscasts on other local stories. “It’s a wonderful experience; we have all those newsmakers in one place and students report on them on current news issues,” she explains. “Through NABJ, I met lifelong friends and my husband of 30 years; I learned from other members, and have received job offers. There is so much that I have been given, and that I have given back to NABJ, and it all started with that flyer at the UW.”

Dr. Brooks went on to build a distinguished career as a news director, reporter, anchor and documentary producer at CBS, NBC, and PBS affiliates and the Washington, D.C Fox TV O&O. “In everything I do, I try to be authentic to who I am,” Dr. Brooks says, “but the 70s and 80s were not very good times. When I was twenty-two and just starting my reporting career, one of my bosses called me the N-word. In 1981, I worked for a CBS station in Spokane, and was the first Black anchor and reporter in town. I remember once when my assignment editor sent me to Idaho for an assignment on the Aryan Nations compound [in Hayden Lake], but they wouldn’t let me on the property. As a result, it became this other story about how I couldn’t access the compound on every station’s newscast, rather than what the story originally should have been. Another time, I was detained in Montana due to the color of my skin, and there were other times when my stations would receive letters that said viewers liked ‘that little colored girl.’” She sighs, “Those moments can only make you a stronger, more determined and courageous person. But by the time they asked me to train a young, white man from Los Angeles for a higher-level-management-position than my own, I decided to leave TV news.” She laughs, “I had done my time; I wanted to take control of my own destiny.”

As she contemplated shifting careers during the late 80s, Dr. Brooks began producing long-form stories for television. “I was the news director of a documentary unit in Washington D.C.,” she recalls, “and this was when D.C. was known as ‘the murder capital of the world.’ We would produce these five-hour-long news shows that focused on drugs, homicides, gang violence, and the victims.” It was during this time when Dr. Brooks says she discovered the necessity of becoming a part of a community before reporting its stories. “If not,” she explains, “these people would see a camera, a microphone, and a well-dressed reporter and say, ‘I’m not talking to you.’” In order for community members to see her as something other than “an enemy of the state,” Dr. Brooks recalls spending months getting more involved in their day-to-day lives. “I would go to their churches on Sundays and attend their community meetings. On one side, I was still this professional, but they learned who I really was, and they saw that I ‘came from somewhere, a neighborhood much like theirs.’” Producing stories like these, Dr. Brooks says, taught her that “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” She also says that working as a documentarian gave her a great sense of fulfillment because she was able to meet “so many people that could inform the narrative and share those candid insights that really make a story come alive.”

After leaving television in 1990, Dr. Brooks established SRB Communications, an advertising and marketing agency in Washington, D.C. that specializes in multicultural markets. “In 1990, I started a production company because I knew television, and I knew how tell a story and how to operate the equipment,” she says. “Past employers (TV stations and networks) became my clients. I recognized that I had all these skills and experience that I could translate into this new enterprise; the content was not different, but the business model was. I am vigilant in my work,” Dr. Brooks explains, “which means I develop tangible action plans around whatever it is I am doing. When I became an entrepreneur, I immediately joined professional networks that taught me how to connect with other business owners and how to be around production, advertising and marketing professionals, which was different than being around journalists. Back in the day it was always about who you know, but now it’s all about who knows you.”

For nearly three decades, SRB Communications has helped build brand awareness in outreach campaigns for its clients’ programs through media channels including radio and TV commercials, video, print, and digital media. “At this stage in my business,” Dr. Brooks reflects, “I am the rainmaker and the closer. My job is to make sure that my employees deliver quality work of value and keep building relationships with our existing clients, while also seeking out new opportunities.” Dr. Brooks credits her success to learning how to “balance the peaks and valleys” of the business world. “During the recession, I had to reinvent myself,” she recalls. “We lost a lot of business overnight, because D.C. is not a production town, like Los Angeles or New York. That forced me to really look at who I was as a communications professional. By 2008, social media, the fledging internet and reality TV had changed the way we communicated, but I realized that pivoting from production to advertising was all still storytelling, albeit with a different strategy and purpose.” Eighteen years after founding the production company, SRB Communications, Dr. Brooks says she knew she had to change her business model. So, the organization became a full-service advertising and marketing agency specializing in multicultural markets. “I said to myself, ‘You know how communicate to reach people. You know how to find the right messages. You know the media channels and how to create a strategy.’” She pauses, casting her memory back over the last ten years. “I once heard a motivational speaker say, ‘in business, a setback is a set-up for a comeback,’ and I believe that. The work that I do in my own business is not for me, it’s for my talented staff of professionals – the ones who count on me every day. I have to make sure we stay competitive in the marketplace, so that I can invest in their lives as they have invested in me.”

Dr. Brooks says her experiences during the 2008 economic recession illustrate the importance of remaining flexible in the way an entrepreneur runs an organization. “You need to develop a strategic plan for your company in order to ensure that all areas of it are functioning properly. You have to reinvent yourself and reengineer the business. That’s what I did.” In addition to having a strong value proposition, Dr. Brooks places great value in building relationships, both in business and in one’s local communities. “It is important to find ways to give back selflessly and stay connected to faith, family and the community,” she says. “Touch the lives of others. Pass your knowledge and wisdom on to generations to come.” According to Dr. Brooks, a commitment to helping others should be very strong in relation to an entrepreneur’s commitment to succeeding in business. “That’s why I’ve been a member of many professional organizations over the last forty years,” she explains, “and why I feel that mentoring others is so important.”

In addition to serving on numerous boards, Dr. Brooks teaches multicultural marketing in her role as adjunct faculty in The George Washington University’s graduate school’s Strategic Public Relations program. “I believe that when you touch the life of someone else, that person is better able to overcome any obstacle,” she says. “When I was starting in television, I knew the importance of building relationships, and having an internship but I never had that one person to guide me through over the years. Through one-on-one mentorship, you have the opportunity to really see and hear about how others have excelled or struggled, and what they recommend you do in order to advance your career. Networking is good, but it’s just these quick moments of connection; a mentor learns who you are, knows your strengths, and can really help you design your own path.”

Dr. Brooks describes herself as a mission-driven leader and visionary, committed to the lifelong learning necessary to grow and sustain a business. “I’ve gone back to school, sitting in a classroom with millennials for four years and writing my dissertation for two years while earning my Ph.D.,” she says. “And in the same way that I have reinvented myself, I’ve made sure that SRB Communications refreshes its branding; agencies work really hard on a client’s image but forget to work on their own.” She adds that although the burdens of running a business can be heavy, the rewards are great. “You have to be transparent and stay true to who you are, because that’s what’s most important,” Dr. Brooks insists. “Each of us has to figure out how we face adversity, just as I had to in the 70s, and then again when I transitioned from news to business.” She takes a breath, considering the forty years she has spent in the communications industry. “Whenever things become unstable, I encourage you to continue using the talents and gifts that you have been given on your journey, and never forget about the people who brought you across.”