Oral Histories

Cordelia Donovan

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

Cordelia Donovan Biography

Cordelia Donovan, CEO of Cordelia Donovan, Inc., a public relations and marketing firm located in Manhatten, specializes in the beauty, finance and fashion industries.


INTERVIEWER: Okay. What benefits and hurdles do you find to being a minority public relations practitioner?

DONOVAN: Wow. I have a lot of benefits and hurdles. Some of them are general as to being a woman business owner. Some of them are just specific to minority women. We’re in a really interesting stage—when you sent me this question I knew I was going to be asked so I was thinking a lot about it. What’s very interesting for me, unlike a lot of minority friends that I have that have PR firms, I’ve actually built my business dealing with a lot of Caucasians. Because I was great at relationship management and in the finance world, I just kind of used those relationships to say what I was doing and let them know about the PR firm and so forth where I was told by Robin Beaman of course that, you don’t want to be labeled as “minority only”. And, there’s so many minority—when you’re African American women, you almost have to prospect Caucasian business more, and get that business first before you take a minority contract. Because if not, they will only label you and say, oh you just deal with minorities. And yes, there are certain things in a minority marketplace where someone wants to go after a niche market but there are certain things that are just human beings, whereas a Caucasian person doesn’t have that as a hurdle. They don’t have the fact that they have to watch who they take in in their client mix cause they don’t have to worry about the typecasting that comes along with that. And so I find as a minority woman, that there are certain things—I always have to make sure I have a good client mix and client demographics whereas a Caucasian woman—they can just take the business and they don’t have to worry about being typecast because of their color—that the only business they do is when you have minority outreach. So I think that’s the number one hurdle and it’s something I’m always thinking about when I’m looking at my book of business. The great thing about being a minority woman though, I find that in the last year to two years, I’ve been very courted by or very attractive to international firms that want a U.S. presence. So, I think for the first time, maybe being a minority at the front of the company is maybe being seen as a positive. So like I said, it’s just a very interesting time that you’re doing this interview and it’d be great maybe to look at doing it even three or five years from now because the world is in such a fast change mode. I’ve never seen so many changes like this just overnight.

INTERVIEWER: That’s a good idea so maybe someone will get in touch with you in about five years.

DONOVAN: Absolutely.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Have you ever had a client ask you to do something that made you uncomfortable, you felt it might be somewhat unethical—has that ever happened?

DONOVAN: I’ve had clients make me feel uncomfortable, which is all the time. No, not all the time, but a lot of times they can make you feel uncomfortable. Thank God I have not had a client ask me to do anything unethical. I’ve had clients make me feel uncomfortable when I question them, but I say a journalist is going to question you so I have to—this is just a part of the process. But thank God, I have not had that in my business yet.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. I’m going to ask you—a personal kind of story if you can think of something that you might want to share. What was the greatest challenge in your professional life?

DONOVAN: My greatest challenge is—and I guess yeah, you’re going to get into the personal because I believe whenever you have a challenge, in order to overcome it professionally you have to overcome it personally. It may bring up certain things within yourself, and it goes back to the kind of do-it-all attitude I have. I’m a business owner; I have five employees; I have four contractors who are always looking for work when my employees are packed up and inundated and I have a lot of people asking me for stuff. I also am a single mother in New York City, so I have to run my home life and I have to run my business life. I have a teenage daughter who’s 13 and I have to also, at this time, steer and run her life. Not in a Mommy Dearest kind of way, but steer it in the right high school, the right social activities. So there’s three different components of trying to run things, trying to provide for people and I always feel like, oh gosh I have a lot of people just kind of hanging off me.   I know that when I take on that role, but I think a lot of people, when they decide to be an entrepreneur, really don’t realize the weight when you carry people. My team, they’re just like children. Sometimes they give me more headaches than my own child with the bickering and whatever—she said this—and it’s arguing by email now and after a while I’m like, “Get on the phone and just yell at each other for 10 minutes but don’t cc me on a bunch of chain mails because I have 10 other emails I need to look at and I don’t want to read your drama because it goes on for a day and a half. Just hash it out by phone, call if you don’t like her and get it over with but don’t keep going by emails for a certain point.” And I just have all these different components and I’ve got my daughter’s emotions and so forth and just being a single parent. She’s in her teenage years and trying to make that time to do it all in my professional life and do it the right way, do with the best integrity that I can operate in. Because I think we all have lapses in integrity from saying—oh, I’m not home to whatever. Being ethical and being someone that not just my clients but someone that my daughter looks up to – and that may be two different people – your clients look at this and what you have on and how you carry yourself and how hard you work. You know, your daughter may just look at how you simply can laugh at her silly jokes. And so, it’s juggling all of that, and then figuring out and thinking about my client’s media campaign, but also my daughter’s future. So, that is the number 1, hands down challenge. And sometimes making that call when work is not that important, my daughter and then the client is upset and juggling all those balls and wanting to be good at all of them. Why? Because I get personal satisfaction from my professional life, but I also get satisfaction from my daughter, because she helps me not take my professional life too seriously. That’s kind of why I like the humor. But then I look at the aspect of my daughter and how do I juggle my personal and professional life. That’s my biggest struggle all the time.

INTERVIEWER: Well you have a very full plate.

DONOVAN: We all do though. It’s not just me, we all have that as a challenge and I think we need to stop expecting people to be perfect. I also think we need to give people the real 24-hours. I think with email we’ve almost hit that—I texted her two hours ago. And I even have to catch myself from doing that, sometimes people are busy. And so I think that whole aspect of utilizing technology to be efficient and do great business but at the same token, realizing that it’s humans that power everything and there’s going to be a lot of mistakes.

INTERVIEWER: Well, we could look at the other end of the continuum on that. Rather than your challenges, what accomplishments are you most proud of and why?

DONOVAN: Wow. And we’re just talking professionally? I guess this would go both because I think with an entrepreneur it’s really tough to not be personal about your business. And every entrepreneur I talk to whether it be—especially public relations people, we really have to be passionate about what we’re doing in order to take a client in a media campaign. I find that I’ve worked better off of passion than I have off of money when I found something that I really liked in a client that I was really interested in, as opposed to a client that paid me more money. It’s just one of those things. So I think the greatest accomplishment I’ve had is that I’ve been able to duplicate the good parts in other people and then teach people how to duplicate the good parts in me and then take out the bad parts of me. And I’m starting to see staff, even interns that have moved on and I’m still in touch with, take pieces of what I’ve done and do it better. And I think when you can see a good duplication model, or yourself duplicated in others, that’s a great accomplishment, because it can help fuel your passion when it’s all burnt out and you’re tire. So I think that’s a great accomplishment. I honestly think the fact that I’m able to employ people and feed my daughter and take care of her and send her to prep school and actually laugh and have fun and run a business and live in New York City, which is a very difficult city, and I’m not homeless, I actually consider that the best accomplishment ever. That as a woman and as a minority woman that not only am I able to take care of myself but I’m also taking care of others. I really hate the stories when you see—they’re on welfare…disparity and the comments more particularly towards black women having children, not taking care of them, being on welfare. That’s not the reality or my world. So I kind of—not that I live my life to dispel the myth, but I kind of pat myself on the back and say look, I’m dispelling the myth. Why don’t people take a look into my friends and my world because it’s not a stereotype. There’s so many others that are just not stereotypes, including Inez Kaiser, who I knew nothing about until I got this write-up, and I was so fascinated because you do not hear about back…I don’t remember what year it was… Just some time ago, she’s the first African American woman to start a public relations firm and I look at Robin Beaman whom I looked up to, who I still look up to, who after she left Oprah has her own firm. And she has some great accounts. When I look up to so many of those before me, I go wow, it can be done. And you can do it and not be stereotyped and typecast as a, oh you just handle people when they want to do minority outreach. Inez Kaiser, people like Robin or whoever, handle other mainstream accounts. And I think that there’s a powerful message in that and I think that I’m really proud to be a part of that story and have my firm as a part of Inez’s legacy.