Entrepreneur. Political Organizer. Managing Partner. In more ways than one, Krystal Harrell is far from the average 24-year-old.
This Southern businesswoman has the industrious attitude most employers daydream about in junior workers. But Krystal knew at a young age that self-employment was her calling (at ten-years-old, she was running her own yard sales). For most, an “entrepreneurial attitude” only goes as far as that. Krystal, on the other hand, transitioned from working in a boutique to spending a year in an entry-level position at a marketing agency to launching her own company. Create Exposure, a youth-oriented communications and marketing firm, has already gained recognition in Fortune and CNNMoney, eliciting excitement over the organization which focuses on the tweens-to-twenties crowd. They have worked with clients ranging from Mike’s Hard Lemonade to Toys For Tots.
While Create Exposure holds the majority of her time, Krystal was inspired to take on even more professional responsibilities in 2011, when it was announced that the Democratic National Convention was going to be held in her city. A Charlotte girl through and through, Krystal jumped at the opportunity to become involved. Most supporters would make a quick donation. Krystal founded Barack2012.org, a full-fledged grassroots effort aimed at getting out the vote among young voters.
Here, Krystal gives us an inspirational view on just where all that fire originates.
Name: Krystal Harrell
Current title/company: Managing Partner, Create Exposure
Educational background: Attended Columbia College & The Art Institute of Charlotte
What was your first job out of college and how did you land that position?
I attended The Art Institute of Charlotte to major in Fashion Marketing and Management, and after leaving in 2008, I continued to operate my mobile boutique, Lucky You Design, where I customized apparel and accessories. During this time, I became interested in venturing into other career paths. I enjoyed working my boutique and the money I earned was justifiable, but I was yearning for something different. Something more challenging. Something that would be the start of my “adult” career. Thanks to my high school teacher Norma Lynn-Brown, I’ve always been drawn to entrepreneurship, marketing and sales. Keeping my interest in mind, I searched Craigslist and came across an ad for a direct marketing company looking to fill entry-level positions. I’ve always understood the importance of working from the bottom up, so I was open-minded to the possibilities. In life you’re either motivated by opportunity, growth or money. At that time, I was motivated by opportunity. I wanted a chance to work with a company where I could possibly grow, earn money and learn at the same time. Upon being hired, I made a plan that within twelve months, if I was not where I wanted to be then I would leave. No hesitation. No second thought. There’s a rumor in the world that “nothing goes as planned.” I disagree. A plan gives you direction, not definitive results. A plan holds you accountable and helps to alleviate excuses. I stuck to my twelve-month plan. I worked long hours for little pay, but the information I learned was invaluable. No paycheck could ever amount to what I learned and how I was able to apply it to my current ventures. After leaving the company, I worked a deal with an investor and sold my mobile boutique. I later used those funds to help start my next venture: my own marketing company, Create Exposure.
How did you get your start as an entrepreneur?
I’m a country girl and I grew up in the “yard sale” era where Saturday mornings with my grandparents were filled with trips to yard sales and the flea market. When I was around nine or ten, I started having my own yard sales, where I would gather my old belongings and resell them to someone else. After a few years of having a lemonade stand, selling old belongings at the flea market and watching my mother grow her handbag business, 1st Class Bagz, I was ready to earn more “pocket money,” as we Southerners call it. So, when I turned thirteen, my mother gave me a $20 loan and took me to a wholesale distributor, where I purchased 5 pairs of pajamas for $4 each, and I sold them for 10 bucks. That was the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey.
Please share with us how you formed Create Exposure from the ground up. What gave you the idea and what was your first step to make it a reality?
From the time I left the direct marketing company until the time I started my own, I was very challenged. I had a variety of things I wanted to do, such as start a talent agency, start a nonprofit, work in the music industry, etc. I allowed my mind to roam, and I gave myself a chance to develop my interest. We often rush our “purpose,” when in fact practice helps develop purpose. My time spent learning from each sector brought me closer and closer to the vision of Create Exposure. Even then, I was unsure of what I wanted. I knew I had a kick-ass name, but a name alone was not going to suffice. I needed more than just an idea. I needed a strategy. Would this be a personal branding company? Would it be another direct marketing company? There were so many options to choose from. So I tested two and decided on one: youth marketing. I’ve always believed in staying in my lane. I don’t pretend to be the electrician knowing good and well I can’t tell the difference between color wire. It applies as well for my company. I’ve remained true to what I know and to myself. My knowledge grows daily, and in return, so does my business.
Create Exposure has been a growing process. It’s my baby, and we all know a baby never stays a baby. It grows, it changes and it develops personality. It falls, it makes mistakes and it has successes. I treat my business just as I treat myself. I allow room for error, take accountability and work daily at being better. Often people rush themselves when they start a business, forgetting that it’s a process, not a race. While it took me a while to “title” what I was doing, I never stopped working in between. I’ve never been shy to contact a company and ask to work with them on a project or have them sponsor an idea of mine. That’s how I built a lot of relationships and earned a clientele. When I saw a need for a company, I asked for work and delivered results. In 2010, I developed a company charity project called PINKWEEK, a seven-day citywide project designed to spread awareness and raise funds for breast cancer organizations. It felt great to have our Mayor, Anthony Foxx along with the City of Charlotte, sign a proclamation recognizing October 22-28 as “PINKWEEK-Charlotte.” I built a portfolio while I was fine-tuning the details of the business. When I felt as though I had a concrete idea of the direction to take Create Exposure, I registered it and got the appropriate licensing. I then spent the first year gaining credibility and the second year developing internal projects that would give the company a competitive advantage. Next year we’ll continue enhancing business development and growing corporate partnerships. Giving back is an essential part of living, and “PINKWEEK” has helped to instill those values throughout the company.
Do you have a staff? If so, at what point did you decide to expand your team? Can you tell a bit about your hiring process?
I have a great team of people I work with on a project-to-project basis. From freelancers, contractors, all the way to college interns. Each project requires a different skill set and has a different budget. Those two variables determine who’s on staff. I would like to see my office area complete with a full-time staff, and I’ll get there soon. But I’m in no rush. This way works well for me at this time.
You also founded and direct Barack2012.org. Can you tell us more about this program and how you went about creating it?
Last year First Lady Michelle Obama announced that Charlotte, North Carolina would host the 2012 Democratic National Convention. I was thrilled and overly excited to be a part of history in my own city. I knew I didn’t have the time to dedicate to working directly with the DNCC or any affiliate organization, so I had to plan wisely and rather quickly. Launching this project was a risky move. Politics and religion are two subjects that can destroy relationships. While this was a business decision, I also had great personal interest. As the saying goes, “If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.” The best part about releasing this project is my friends remained my friends. Regardless of my views, my supporters stayed my supporters.
Respecting someone’s opinion is the true gift of being an American. My objective is through Barack2012.org to serve as an advocate on why voting is so important amongst young adults. Immediately after the announcement from FLOTUS, I went to godaddy.com and began purchasing domains. Launched in August, Barack2012.org is an initiative to engage first- and second-time voters in President Obama’s re-election campaign. This project was created by youth for youth. Our goal is to help spread the message to young voters on the importance of voting, as well as election issues. Currently, we have campus representatives who encourage their peers to register and vote, and we have Barack2012 correspondents who serve as our online writers. During the DNC, we will be selling Barack2012 t-shirts, Barack2012 reusable tote bags and Barack2012 buttons. Campus representatives will have an opportunity to earn cool rewards from merchandise sold.
Fortune named you the Next-Generation Female Entrepreneur during their annual Most Powerful Women Coverage. What do you attribute to earning this title? What advice do you have for other women entrepreneurs?
Throughout the years, I’ve been very blessed to be recognized by some reputable organizations, BUT when I was contacted by FORTUNE Magazine within nine months of launching Create Exposure, all I could do was give God the glory. This recognition was different. I don’t know what contributed to earning this title. I could spin off a list of “possibilities,” but what I do know is that I’m grateful to have my name discussed in one of the world’s leading publications, and I don’t take it lightly. I’ve been working at this since the age of thirteen, and in reality, it took ten years to make it into FORTUNE. It just happened to be within nine months of launching Create Exposure. It’s all in how you look at it. I would advise other women entrepreneurs to stay true to who you are. Work with what YOU know. Focus on your own agenda and not that of someone else. Be open to making mistakes and assume accountability. Accept that not everyone will like you. Stand firm in your beliefs. Learn to separate business from pleasure. Never ever ever sleep with your employees. Follow your instincts and act accordingly. Be careful whom you judge, for you could be the one being judged. Be willing to say, “I apologize, will you forgive me?” If you’re good, damn it, let people know that you’re the best at what you do. And lastly, have faith. Believe in something bigger than you.
In what ways, if any, would you still like to see your business and career evolve?
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I want women to succeed. I want more women to feel confident about their ideas and their dreams. If I can serve as an example for women around the world, I’ll take that responsibility. But for me, that’s not enough. “GOAL ONE MILLION” is a project launching at the end of 2012, where I have taken a pledge to help 1,000,000 female entrepreneurs. I am committed to the mission and excited for the wonderful things in store.
How did you get pinned with the nickname “Miss Business”?
Because of my business ventures and entrepreneurial spirit, MISS BUSINESS started as a nickname given by friends and later became a pending trademark under Create Exposure. Every woman can be a “MISS BUSINESS,” and in 2013, I can’t wait to show her how!
What advice do you have for girls looking to find or create a position in a similar field?
I would tell them to email firstname.lastname@example.org or any individual who is in the field you desire. If there are no positions available, ask them if you could interview them, treat them to coffee or simply mail them a thank you note saying, “You inspire me.” People remember the small things. My position is all about strategy. Whether I’m working on an internal project or for someone else, every single day is about strategy and implementation. Be willing to work for free and do a good enough job as if you were paid the biggest paycheck of your life. Be willing to sacrifice.
Secondly I would tell them to read, read, and read. I’m a frequent visitor of the Business Section in my local bookstore. Reading is fundamental and definitely separates the well-informed from the uninformed. Create a book budget or rent them free from your local library. My third piece of advice would be to never lose your student mentality. Always be a sponge to information, advice, ideas, etc., and never be afraid to ask questions. Most importantly, “Be willing to do the things now that people won’t do, so later you can enjoy the things that people can’t.”
What were the biggest challenges of starting your own company and program? Greatest rewards?
The biggest challenge is accepting that no matter who you hire, no one will care as much as you do. When I fall asleep at night and when I rise in the morning, I carry the weight of Create Exposure and its entirety. If I show up and give 100%, it’s expected that at the most, the next person MAY give 99%. The greatest reward is knowing someone cares enough to even give 99%.
How do you find balance in your busy life?
I believe in the saying, “Don’t get so caught up in making a living that you forget to make a life.” Between traveling, spending time with my boyfriend (Mr. Amazing), chatting with my family or hanging with friends, I surround myself with people who keep me grounded. Despite pics and posts made on social media, I don’t like to have a lot of people around me. When I’m not displaying “Krystal, the entrepreneur,” I’m actually a very private person. My personal cell rings maybe three times a day. For me, that’s balance. I recently started a blog where I will share an equal balance of personal and professional details of my journey.
Take us through a day in the life of Krystal Harrell. What does your average workday look like? Do you try to keep a traditional 9 to 5 work schedule from Monday through Friday, or do you typically work nights and weekends?
Every morning at 6:30am, I wake up hearing, “Good morning beautiful,” and that’s always a pleasant start to my day. After thanking God for another day, by 7:30am I’m ready to begin my day. I check my calendar for the day’s task and proceed accordingly. Every morning, I check the local and national news site to stay abreast on current issues, and I try to squeeze in at least one chapter of reading. I think it’s important to have a few calm practices or “me” time before rushing into the day. Whether you choose to go to the gym, take a morning walk or have a proper breakfast, find a morning routine that works for you. Unless urgent, I respond to emails twice a day: at 10am and 4pm. Some days I have conference calls internationally where I have to adjust to different time zones, some days I have meetings with my team to discuss projects and plans and then there are days where I look up at the clock and think, “Are the batteries dead?” If I can, I try to take a break around 4:30pm because by then the headaches have kicked in and the swear words have rolled off the tongue. This break allows for me to do exactly what it means: take a break. Regroup. Focus my energy and attention on something or someone else. I like reading The Everygirl and catching up on other websites. I usually pick things back up around 6:30pm, getting things done before dinner at 8:30pm. I do work nights if I absolutely must, but I’m usually in bed by 11:30pm. (Note: When I first started I would pull all-nighters, sometimes not resting for 2-3 days).
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Often people are around for the celebration but are nowhere to be found during the hard times. So, be mindful of who you’re surrounded by.