She Got Her Own: Shameeka Ayers, CEO, The Broke Socialite & Sugar Coma Events
Passion for fashion transformed into a lifestyle empire
In this series, we're profiling women who have left their corporate jobs behind and launched their own businesses in the recession. They are balancing children, careers and relationships and manage to make being their own boss look good.
Shameeka Ayers's husband has always had a sweet tooth. More like sweet teeth. So she brainstormed and started Sugar Coma Events, dessert extravaganzas where attendees can sample the best pastries, cakes and cookies their city has to offer. She's taking her tours to London and Paris in the fall, gearing up for the release of her first book, and continuing to run lavish! a conference for lifestyle bloggers. In the midst of everything, we asked how she does it.
Loop 21: Tell me a little bit about your career prior to striking out on your own.
Ayers: I "retired" from corporate America in April 2010 when I was with Oracle. A lot of my responsibilities were technical, technical writing and things of that sort. And it didn't work with the creative side of me. That is really why I started the blog, The Broke Socialite, in 2006.
I didn't know much about the different platforms and the rationale for even having a blog. I was goaded into it by my girlfriends. I've always been the type to go to Marshalls and find a Gucci bag for $200. I know how to make it work. So it was cathartic to have an outlet, that brief escape. That's how the Broke Socialite was born.
Loop 21: So why did you take the leap from your comfortable, six-figure salary to being out on your own?
Ayers: In the fall of 2009, I had this idea. We live in Atlanta and while it's a great place to live, we kind of got bored. My husband has this nagging sweet tooth and we thought, "What if there was a dessert crawl (kind of like a pub crawl) for a date night?"
So we created what is now Sugar Coma Events. We had our first tour in January 2010. And then I organized another one in February. Both tours had sold out. It did not take me very long, based on the response, to realize I was on to something. I realized this might be my window of opportunity to exit stage left from corporate America.
By March I had started producing two tours a month. I was spending every waking moment in production mode and my work was falling by the wayside. I was not the best employee at that time. Once my husband and I crunched all the numbers, we planned for me to leave corporate America in Dec. 2010. But I just realized one day, sitting in my cube, I could be making the same money at my corporate job with these events if I kept going. So I put in my notice early.
It was a tremendous leap of faith. I knew if I didn't make that leap, that I might not get that opportunity again.
Loop 21: Does your husband work with you?
Ayers: My brand is basically my baby. My husband has been a wonderful sounding board. I am your standard Type-A personality. As we like to say, I am the accelerator and he's the brake. It's been an emotional roller coaster, but he's really been that support system. I keep him in the loop; we have financial meetings because they can impact our personal finances. He's been more of a trooper than I think I would have been.
Loop 21: Is there anything you would have changed during your first couple years of business?
Ayers: In terms of growing pains, I went into it trying to be everything. I thought to myself, "If I can do a Sugar Coma Tour, I can do an appetizer tour or an ice cream tour." But I should have just focused on strengthening the dessert model.
When I started, it was just like a pub crawl concept -- I'd have 20 people on a bus and we would visit different bakeries. But in November 2010, I produced my first Sugar Coma festival, to have all those vendors in one venue. I was able to bring in the masses and I wasn't limited to how many people could fit on a bus. Now I could host 200 people to come have a "taste and stroll." The festival model really made a difference. But you don't know what you don't know. I've been making it up as I go along. It's mostly successful but there are also perils.
Loop 21: You are now taking your events international, with the first Sugar Coma event landing in London and Paris in the fall. Are you excited?
Ayers: I've just always appreciated the foodie and dessert scene. I've read about the bakeries and patisseries in Europe and I thought it was a great opportunity to leverage my brand. To take people's passion for dessert to the next level. It's another one of my wacky ideas that I thought I would see if there was any interest. I ended up with 15 people, so we will travel and experience all that London and Paris have to offer, together.
Loop 21: Your book, Instantly! How Quickly I Realized I Hate My Job, is coming out this summer. Tell us how that came about.
Ayers: Writing this book has made me feel like an elephant. I have been pregnant with it for two years. I really feel like it was my duty to write Instantly. It has been in me for as long as I've began to loathe corporate America, starting around 2007. I started putting pen to paper and it was just therapeutic to vent creatively. I like to say the book is an intersection of Who Moved My Cheese? and The Devil Wears Prada. I know the frustration of the person who doesn't know what their next steps are. I'm really, really hopeful that the story will resonate. It calls you to action.
Loop 21: You have an older son who is off at college now. Are there any particular challenges or benefits of launching a business and having older children?
Ayers: As long as I've been in business, he's been in college. He has been really supportive. He gets it and he even provides very sound feedback. I just want him to see that truly you can do anything you want. I want him to stay in college, of course, but I want him to be empowered. He seems empowered by the fact that I've created this brand and he shares it with his friends. We are still in parenting mode and very hands-on, but it's a bit easier for us because we have an empty nest. All my new endeavors have kept me busy enough to help me get through the transition.
Loop 21: Do you believe in work-life balance?
Ayers: I would if I had it. [Laughs.] I would like to believe in it and experience it. I run a business out of our home mostly. As the business grows, it's time to deliberately focus on separating church and state. At home, I'm always at work. I think [my husband and I] work through it well, but that has been a challenge to our marriage. My husband made a comment to me, "You check email in the morning before you say hello to me." I was engaged in social media before I focused on the person sitting beside me.
I'm Pollyanna-ish enough to believe it can work, but I'm a solopreneur. I have to figure how I can be productive but then be available at home. I think that's a constant struggle. It's just a constant battle to get it all done. Before I'm a blogger, writer, author, I'm a wife. I'm a daughter. I'm a mother. There's a lot going on that people don't realize. Being pulled in so many directions is a challenge but you have to be deliberate about trying to balance it all. It's tough.
Loop 21: Any advice for female "solopreneurs"?
Ayers: My granddaddy used to say, "Study long, study wrong." Don't get me wrong, I'm a champion of planning as much as you can. But I really believe that women are our own worst enemy. We all have the intuition that tells us when we should make a leap, make a difference, just start. But we don't because we're fearful. I would encourage women who are paralyzed by fear to counter that by doing. You can only plan so much.