“Elevate Your Voice” Entrepreneur Spotlight: Gina Wilson Steward

This article is part of a 12-part profile series that seeks to capture the thoughts and ideas of entrepreneurs in Inkster, Dearborn/Dearborn Heights, Ecorse, and River Rouge. This series is made possible through the New Economy Initiative’s “Elevate Your Voice” campaign, designed to help inform entrepreneurship support, and amplify authentic voices in the small business ecosystem. This profile features Gina Wilson Steward, owner and publisher of The Telegram, based in Ecorse, Michigan. 
Can you share a little bit about your business?

The Telegram is an African American-owned newspaper. It was founded in 1944 by J.C. Wall, who lived in Ecorse, Michigan. In 1996, it was taken over by Mr. Ben Wade, and in June 2006, I bought the newspaper from Mr. Wade. When I purchased a paper, it was distributed weekly in Ecorse, River Rouge, and Southwest Detroit. Those were the only cities that received a weekly copy of The Telegram. Immediately after I purchased the paper, we were able to get a contract with the City of Inkster, and we expanded to Inkster the very next year. Once that expansion started, we started filling in the gaps over the next 10 years to not only just cover those three cities we had when we first purchased the paper, but now to cover 13 of the cities in Wayne County, including the City of Detroit. We were strictly a print newspaper when I first purchased it. In 2008, we launched our first website. So we have been online since that time, which is great because now a lot of people read their paper on a computer as well as on the telephone. We have been intentionally not focusing on negative news ever since I've taken it over, as well as before I took it over, focusing on community news, positive news, letting the community know what is going on locally as well as what's going on nationally. We know we're local, we're called hyper-local, but we also realize that people need to be engaged in their city, their state, their county, and the nation. So we try to make sure we have some news about everything that is going on to keep people engaged and informed. 

What would you say inspired you to plant business roots in the Ecorse community? 

I was born and raised in River Rouge, so this is my hometown area. When I went away to college, I attended Tuskegee University, and got a Bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. However, while I was there on campus, I worked at the school newspaper, the Campus Digest, and that's when I got my first taste of working with a newspaper. In high school, I always took pictures. So in college, I worked for the newspaper. I took a lot of pictures, learned how to develop, and then started writing. And when I came home, I retired from engineering after 15 years and then was able to do my passion, which was teaching. So I taught at the River Rouge High School in the career center, and during the time I was working in the career center, helping the students interview and learn about different careers, Mr. Wade, who was the publisher of The Telegram at that time, spoke to the students about The Telegram. Then I started writing columns for the newspaper about different careers and different things the students and the community could be doing to better themselves and get better jobs. Mr. Wade and I formed a relationship, and I started working with him part-time. When he decided he wanted to go home and go fishing and sell the newspaper, he didn't want to sell it to anybody. He wanted someone who could keep the legacy, as you say, going. And he offered me the opportunity to purchase the paper about two years later. I decided to purchase it as a way to continue sharing the news and continue the newspaper because, in our community. 

How have you been able to find or access capital needed for your business? 

Finding the capital for The Telegram was not difficult initially because when I bought the paper, it had a history of success already, so I didn't need to come up with money initially. I used my own money to buy the paper, but then it came with a book of business, which was great. Everybody is not that fortunate, but I felt very blessed to be able to come in after I had worked there a couple of years in the sales and reporting areas, and was able to understand the basics of the business. After my engineering degree, I went on to the University of Detroit Mercy and got a master's in business administration, so learning how businesses actually function academically, and then to be able to put that to work was very helpful for me in making sure we had enough revenue to keep the business going. And then from the relationships that I've built over the years and using all the skills I have from being an engineer and getting my degree, I was able to honor my skills and communications as well as relationship building, and that is how we are able to get the contracts we need to keep our keep our doors open and revenue coming in so that we can always have some funds set aside to give back to the communities by building a relationship with different organizations. 

What are your current business goals?

One thing, when I look at the goals for The Telegram, is we invest highly in our students, college students, as well as high school students, to prepare the next generation of journalists and graphic artists, including everything you need to produce a product, whether it is digital or print. So we work with a couple of the local colleges to get more students involved. And I would say that all of the reporters except one came through the internship route with The Telegram. So they started off as interns either in high school or college, and they were able to hone their skills at The Telegram newspaper. It's like a lot of people say, if you want to work at Oprah or Channel 4, you need to have some experience first. So when I'm out talking to people, I'm always trying to tell them that it's very important to get an internship. So I would say I always want to invest in the community as well as invest in the people, and that would be the students that want to have a degree in journalism. So that's my main goal, is to make sure that anybody who wants to work in journalism, if they get turned down from other places, I've definitely given them an opportunity at The Telegram.

What would you say are some resources you need to achieve those goals?

In order to have the students come, you still have to make sure they're trained so they have to go to some training classes. And then, of course, you still have to pay them. For some of the schools, it is a requirement, so they have to take an internship as part of their curriculum. But you definitely still want to be able to pay them some money. And then besides having the interns and the new employees working, you still have to have some people who can do investigative journalism, which is always harder to find seasoned journalists. Even with the website and social media part. Everybody can't do everything, so now we have to find someone who can get the stories on the social media pages to make sure the pictures are quality. We went to the NRA convention this year in Nashville. I took four for the reporters with me, and they came back and said what they learned from it is that they want to do more podcasting. So we're going to need resources, capital, and they're eager, so they want to learn it so we won't have to get any new talent.Once we get that revenue stream going, we always have to budget and set aside. We just can't say we're going to do it. So we have to either get a couple of more contracts or get another revenue stream coming in another way so that we can have money to pay for that new aspect that we want to add to our media company, which is what The Telegram is now. 

If someone came to you and gave you the best resource guidance for your business goals, what would support from that resource look like for you?

I would have to say access to similar companies that are being successful in the areas that we want to expand. So just like we're trying to do a podcast, I would need to make sure whichever reporters wanted to get that type of experience, they would be able to, so we would have to reach out to different companies or organizations that had that experience, and they would need to come in and teach them or at least have them shadow them so they would know exactly what they were doing. So training would be one aspect that I would be looking for, for the team. And then I would also be looking for avenues for advertising because we still are an advertising-based company. So if someone had resources where we could tap into different businesses like the Chamber of Commerce, and then hopefully from them we can build up some more clients and resources by meeting with them. And maybe a building for more space. Some of our reporters like to work from home, which is great, but we definitely still need to have bonding. We need to have some place where we can go together. A larger space. 

Fill in the blank: ____ has been a really good resource for me. Please share how or why. 

I would say the National Newspaper Publishers Association and the Michigan Press Auxiliary, which are media trade companies. At the conferences we attend in those areas it's all like-minded individuals in the same place for the weekend and we actually learn from each other. And because they have the pulse of what is going on in our industry, the sessions that we participate in are tailored to that. And when we walk away, we are prepared, at least for the next six months because it's two sessions per year: the midwinter session and then the summer session. And as long as we keep going to those, we're coming back ready to take on the next six months of implementing some of the things that we've learned and I think that is very key to our company because that has helped us steer in the right direction of where media is going because they even came up with the name media moguls and put that in our minds that we need to change the way we think of ourselves.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in starting, growing, or sustaining your business? 

The biggest challenge that I have is a personal one because you put information in the newspaper that you know is relevant, and then you have a conversation with some people and they say, I wish I would have known that. And I say, we’ll, you should have read The Telegram. So, I said, how do we get more people to read? We know that there's a literacy problem in Wayne County, butt we still have a product that needs to be read. Which leads to podcasting and another way to get the information out. But the problem is the biggest challenge is getting more people to read. Before I became the owner of The Telegram, I tutored at the Salvation Army, and it was helping young men and old men who had gotten out of prison to take the GED and pass it. And that is when I became so aware of the fact that they're grown people who have a reading problem. They're basically functionally illiterate, and we realized that they are making it day by day just because they basically can't read any books and have no desire to read. So that's the biggest challenge for me, getting people to read because we put great stuff in The Telegram every week. You have to write it at a level so that they can read it if they pick it up to read it. And that's probably not a new challenge. It's probably been there forever, but that's the biggest challenge that I find for The Telegram.

If you met a new business owner in the community, what is the first resource you would recommend connecting them with to help them succeed within your city? Who would you connect them with outside of your city?

I would tell them to be in the community. You can't just go to your office and go home. You have to be in the community. Everybody knows me. I'm The Telegram Lady. That's what they call me when they see me, the majority of them. And that's because when I first started, I was in the community. If something was going on, I was there. So I was making my face known to the community. And I would encourage all new people who want to do business, people will do business with you if they know you, if they don't know you, they definitely are not going to do business with you. And then I would say they should meet up with their local media company, because they're going to want to get some outreach so people will know who they are. If you're meeting people, you're reading about them. If somebody reads about you, they already know something good must be going on because here's somebody who wrote a story about them. So that's a plus. And the next thing I would say is to see if it's any business associations in the community because businesses normally work together. If I'm supporting you, you'll support me. And if it's five businesses that already have a relationship and you come up as the new business, now you probably have five new businesses that would be willing to support you and then you support them. 

What would you say is a shared issue, concern or challenge among the entrepreneurs and small businesses in your community?

I would say a lack of exposure to successful businesses. Knowing the importance of presenting themselves as well as their business. And around here there is still a sense of apathy. We’re kind of in a poverty-stricken area and we have to be able to think outside of the box to come up with things that would be more revenue-generating. But if you haven't been exposed to that aspect of having that additional money, how do you know to shoot for it? So I guess I'm trying to say lack of setting goals because I know a lot of the businesses around here, and I've talked to the majority of them and I see some of the same roadblocks that they have as in maybe just a little bit more educational experience or training on running a business would be very, very helpful to the majority of them. It's not just thinking of your mom-and-pop business you got to really think about what is it going to take for me to get three levels up. And if I fall short, I'd only get one level up. That's okay. But you gotta be more of a visionary to say this is possible. And I'm not 100% sure that that mindset is flourishing in this community out here. We do have problems with administration because I do believe with all of the empty facilities we have around here, there definitely should be some program set aside for small businesses to draw them to the community and to help them out. I don't know if it's many programs set aside for small businesses. And just investing that time to be, you know, to be the visionary part and say, this is where I want to go and this is what I know I need to do to get there. But that also entails being around other business owners that are successful in their fields where you can be a sponge and learn from them.
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