After Zarinah Hammen's father passed in 2016, she assumed the role of CEO for Internet Marketing Footprints and as its leader and was named "Marketing and Advertising CEO of the Year" by CV Magazine for 2017. The company was also nominated for a 2017 WeWork Creator award for innovation and was named a 2018 Grant Recipient for the Grow with Google Challenge Program.
She has 13 years of extensive experience in business development as well as handling donor relations, sponsors, and investors. She is a full stack web developer with expertise in web design, software engineering, product development, database programming, mobile application creation, and digital marketing.
Q: If you could explain yourself in a couple of sentences, how would you do that?
A: That's hard… I don't use Chief Executive Officer. I still use the acronym CEO, but I am the Chief Empowerment Officer, of an award winning tech company. I'm also a professional grant writer who has secured over $190 million in the last few years for clients, for small businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Q: That's amazing. Can you tell me more about your business and your role as CEO?
A: Actually, I started out running a writing consultation company. That's why it can be very confusing. I just moved that service over to IMF because, like I said, I've been a grant writer for a very long time. I also got into the world of tech a few years before starting my own business and learned how to code and do a lot of programming and software programming. I never thought in a million years I would join the world of Tech. I hated computer science in school. One day, I realized that no matter what you're doing in this world, the world that we live in, tech is going to be involved. One of my favorite quotes is: “Tech isn't an industry, it's every industry.” So when I learned that, I became tech heavy and structured my business around it.
In 2016, my father passed away and both of us had similar interests. We were very huge into tech, digital marketing and SEO/PPC. When he passed away, I had been running my company for about three years at the time. I decided, for legacy purposes, to dissolve my company and continue his company’s name and services. I assumed his name and his company to keep his business and his legacy going.
It’s been 4 years since taking over operations of IMF. A year after, I was very fortunate to receive the award from CV Magazine for “Marketing and Advertising CEO of the Year” for 2017. This was an honor that let me know that I was on the right track as far as his vision and my vision for his company going forward.
Q: I love that.
A: Thank you. Well, it's always confusing to people when I say, "Oh, the company has been around now for 11 years and I've only been running it four." Or when I say, “I've been a CEO or I've been a business owner now for seven years.” None of those numbers add up. So I usually have to explain that story a lot more than you could imagine.
Q: I know you touched on it, but if there's anything else that you want to add. How did you get into this business and what was the moment you decided to do it?
A: The majority of my career was actually in the nonprofit sector. I've always had a huge passion for it. When I was in undergrad, I was a part of an organization called Circle K, which was the college version of the Kiwanis Club. They are very famous for charity work. I got my degree in political science with a concentration in journalism and politics which involved public policy work and learning a lot of social norms, issues, and policies. Doing that mixed with being in Circle K, it all came to a focus in the nonprofit sector. When I graduated, I joined AmeriCorps, which was a great next step. I was going to do Peace Corps, but I decided I wanted to stay in America and help build our communities.
My expertise is in non-profit and small business development. I was always thrown into a development role. I did not know how to write a grant to save my life, at 23 years old, coming out of college. Then went on to be an award winning, achieving grant writer which was my first indicator that anything can be achieved with focus and hard work.
The tech side came a little later because the last nonprofit organization that I worked for in Washington, DC was a very small development team. There were only four of us. We wore multiple hats and we didn't have anyone on our team that was tech savvy. So I took it upon myself to learn it from there, as I went to build my own business and I decided to become an entrepreneur, I decided to enhance those skills so that I could offer more of a service than just grant writing or business plans.
I could provide people with not only the services of tech and grant funding, but also the knowledge. I started hosting workshops for the National Urban League and the University of Pennsylvania, our only Ivy League here in Philadelphia. So not only just providing the service, but providing the knowledge for people who were like me at one time, who didn't understand the world of tech. My motto is “Those who do...do and Teach” so I like to consult, advise and teach.
Q: Like they say, knowledge is power. People are always like, "What would you have wished someone would have told you when you were in your early twenties?"
A: The simple answer to that is, "Everything."
Q: Exactly. What was your first year like as an entrepreneur?
A: I love telling this story, because it was absolutely horrible, like most. It was horrible in the sense that it was the best year of my life, because usually when you're in that phase of development, especially coming on as a new entrepreneur, a CEO, or whatever, you have to learn to embody, you have to learn it quickly. Most of the things that you learn are through your mistakes. So I say it was horrible in a good way.
I had to make the transition from being an employee to making all the decisions to the decision maker. As an employer, you could blame someone else for when things went wrong. You're thinking, "Oh, well, my director should have caught that," among other things. You've basically gone from a cushion to putting yourself in a position where every decision YOU make, will affect you and everyone around you, whether it's just an intern or someone you're contracting with. Your decisions are key. So that puts you in a very different, unique position as far as developing your professional maturity and integrity.
But then again, deciding exactly what I wanted my niche to be took time. I have a serious issue with following the status quo. I'm already over podcasts. I feel like it's suddenly become over saturated. I am someone who is always looking for something unique because, with the world of tech, even though it's great, things become boring easily. Things become oversaturated. So you always have to, especially if you're a business owner, or an entrepreneur, whatever you're offering, you have to find the uniqueness in the market. You have to find a way to push through the noise.
That was something I had to learn my first year. I spent my first year sleeping on my mother's couch. That's when I was living in DC. I decided to move back to Philadelphia. I was born here. My family left when I was 12, but I was born and raised here until I was 12. I moved back at 31 very “entrepreneur” focused. The move was a part of my strategy because everyone in DC is a consultant or an innovator. It's the culture of DC, where Philadelphia is more of a working class city. The business community is prevalent, but it's small enough where you can move through and navigate it successfully for exposure to your business. I knew I could infiltrate the business community and it'd be more of a seamless process and make the connections and networking and get the business going.
So the first year it was a lot of growth, a lot of change, a lot of sleeping on the couch.
One thing that I tell anyone who wants to start a business is: 1. never do it in desperation. I am not a fan of people saying that they have businesses now because they sell masks. You are addressing an immediate need. You have not created a business. That's a thing out of desperation, and I understand that, and that's fine. It’s supply and demand. I've seen a lot of articles lately of people saying, “Oh, we're in a pandemic, start a business." That's horrible advice, because anyone who's actually started a business can tell you, it's not something that happens overnight. So if you're doing it in desperation or easy money, it will be the worst let down of your life.
The second piece of advice that I usually give people is that, the one mistake that I made was that I quit my job and then started my business. I wish I would have done it while I actually had a consistent amount of revenue and income coming in. It would have given me a lot more flexibility than I had. I was able to do it and do it successfully and make it, but that's usually not the story. I was lucky to have a great support system, as far as my mother letting me sleep on her couch, my friends, my family, things like that. I tell anyone, do it while you are employed. Start saving up money. Start investing whatever extra money you have instead of nights out at dinner, invest it into the company and build it before you quit your job.
Q: Those two points are really good advice. Was there anyone in particular that inspired you or encouraged you to become a business owner?
A: Yes. Actually, ironically enough, my parents. Both of them have been business owners. My father, obviously. He's always had that entrepreneurial spirit, even when I was a child. My mother, she always worked a lot. She was always co-founding businesses and working with other people. She always taught us the importance of positioning yourself in a world of independence.
It's very scary how your parents know you. I remember a conversation she had... I was maybe five or six. We were living here in Philly. I was still very young. I was in the pool with all my friends and all the parents were sitting there watching us at the pool. You know how that looks. My mother was talking about my sister and my brother, I'm the youngest. When she got to me, she said, "Yeah, Zarinah, she's not going to be a worker. She's going to have to invent something or create something because she's never going to be someone who's going to be able to follow directions and work aimlessly." She was saying that when I was six years old. I had no idea what she meant at the time.
I remember hearing her say it. I didn't even know what she was talking about, but I refer to that conversation a lot. She knew even then, even before I knew, that this is who I was going to be. I'm a writer. I don't believe you learn how to be a writer. I think you're born to be a writer. I think the same thing with an entrepreneurial spirit, you're born with it.
So I would definitely say my parents. They always taught us to not only be independent in business, but be independent in our thoughts and our identity, in every aspect of our lives to not follow but to lead.
Also my grandmother, who was a very quiet, patient, Christian woman. She spent her time cooking and going to church and raising her family, like most grandmothers. She always encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be. She never had judgment. I could come to her with the most ridiculous ideas and she would smile and nod, even though she was like, "This is never going to work." Even in her silence, she taught me how to be vocal.
Q: How do you define success for yourself, both personally and as a professional?
A: Personally, being able to inspire. That's why I call myself a Chief Empowerment Officer, not Executive. I don't see the purpose in purpose unless you're instilling it in someone else.
I actually love to work with interns. We offer paid and non paid internships, but I love to work with these people, these kids. I don't want to call them kids, because I know they're in their twenties. They're googly eyed. They're excited. They have this energy. A great part of that is it's a little bit more of a teaching perk because they're just coming into their interests and their industry. But the passion is what I live off of. I like to be able to inspire them and hopefully guide them like AmeriCorps did for me.
One of my favorite professors, who I haven't seen since I was 21, wrote a recommendation on my LinkedIn, and I haven't seen him since I was a kid.
I love being in a position to inspire the next generations of people coming on board. They may not have the experience but they have that energy and that passion and it's amazing. So I think personally for me, any way that I can inspire and influence is a success.
Professionally, it's the same. However, it's showing that success through my compassion, but also my experience and my actions. You can talk all day. You can host as many workshops as you want and be a speaker at a million summits. But if you don't have what there is to back it up, really, what are you accomplishing as far as being an influence?
So when I say things like, "Oh, I've raised $190 million in grant writing," or, "I'm an award winning company." I'm not saying that to boast or sound arrogant.
I'm giving you the reasons why I'm here and the reasons why I want to help and the reasons why you're someone that I would love to work with and I want you to love working with me. So I'm giving you those credentials not to say, "Oh yes, I'm perfect." Not even close. I've been in business for seven years and hopefully it will be seven more and I look forward to learning seven more things in that process. I'm always open to learning.
Q: That's great. Going off of that, what's been the most important skill that you've developed to be a good business owner?
A: Patience, not only with people, but with myself. I've always been a huge, annoying overachiever, which may be an underachievement because I always wanted everything to be perfect. I had to learn the process. Like I said earlier, if you're looking to start a business because you're looking for quick money, you have no idea what you're doing. I wasn't looking for quick money. I wanted to take my time. Just because you want to take your time, it doesn't mean you don't have urgent needs, like bills. So I had to learn patience with everything. I had to learn how to skim and scale back. One day, everything could be soaring high and the very next day nothing happens. Any given day could be different. It could be a completely different outcome and you have to be ready for it either way. So I had to learn patience. I had to learn how to maneuver, how to take my time while also not completely drowning personally and financially. That's a whole other level of patience, when everything rides on you. Every decision, every dollar you make you've earned.
Q: Have you ever thought about quitting? If so, can you tell us the story?
A: Oh my God, every day. Have I ever thought of quitting? I would be afraid of the day that I wake up and I don't think about it. This is not easy. Anyone who can go through and just feel all the time like everything is going to be okay, that's not realistic. I rely on the things that I know. It tells me on one end that I'm doing everything right, but then I still possess the fear that I need to push forward. The day you get too comfortable is the day that you're no longer an innovator. A part of innovation is fear. Every day, every single day, I'm like, "Forget this. I'm going to work at Chili's or something. I'll take some four hour shifts and serve quesadillas because it sounds easier."
I rely on that feeling because it's normal for me. It's my constant reminder.
I can say that the only time it was actually serious, and I was seriously thinking of quitting was when my father passed away. It was too hard, to not only lose a parent, but then try to take over his company and satisfy his current clients. Obviously in a situation like that, especially when you're doing client services, when he passed away, he passed away unexpectedly. There were still jobs that weren't complete. So I'm in the process of planning my father's funeral, trying to go through his computer and find all of his business documents and everything that I would need to keep his business going, and then also having to deal with his clients who he had unresolved contracts with. So at that point, that was the first time where I was like, "I don't know if I can do this." I can physically do it, but on an emotional scale, it's a lot to take on all at once. Losing a parent alone is enough without all the additional stresses. But I made it through and I didn't quit and we're in a good place. So that would be the only story where I would say seriously, I thought that I wasn't going to make it.
Q: What makes you want to keep going when you feel like quitting or what do you do when it feels hard to be a business owner?
A: Laughter keeps me going, if you haven't noticed. I love laughing. Life isn't easy, professionally, personally, whatever. I always tell people, "I don't remember when I was a baby, anyone coming to me and saying it's going to be smooth sailing." I tend to laugh a lot of things off. That always keeps me going.
My family keeps me going. I have a niece and she's 13. She's my life. I like the idea that she likes that she has an aunt that owns her own business. Her mother told me a few years ago that my niece was at Girl Scouts, and they were having, a “what do you want to do when you get older?” session. My niece went up and she explained how she wanted to own a school and how she was going to be incorporated. She goes through this whole thing. She's maybe at the time, 10, and her Girl Scout leader said, "Wow, you're very knowledgeable. How do you know all of this?" She's said, "My aunt, she owns her own business, and she tells me everything." I live for that. That alone is enough of a reason to keep going.
My mother was always really great at business. Like I said, she was a serial entrepreneur, but she was also a mother who raised three children. She didn't always get to the things she's wanted to do. I feel like I'm a replica of her. For example, she's a writer, I'm a writer. We both love business. She's the one I talk to the most about everything. What keeps me going is that I could be the second coming of her and everything she probably didn't get to do, I could do it for both of us and live that for her. What's the point of having kids if you don't see that in your children?
So between her and my niece and, of course, continuing my father's legacy and letting it be a good one. Those are all amazing reasons to keep going.
Personally, for me, I just freaking love what I do. I love the flexibility I have. I love that this week I decided to pause client services and I spent the whole week doing training. I'm part of a three day summit right now that I was asked to join on Saturday. That was such a short notice, but I made it happen. Facebook just launched their Facebook business training and I’ve joined that as well. The flexibility to just say, "You know what, I'm going to put some things on pause to continue to develop professionally." Just being able to do that or being able to have a day where you're like, "You know what, I'm burnt out. I'm just going to watch Sex in the City all day." The flexibility alone is a reason to keep going. I can't imagine going back into a cubicle. I'd rather die at this point.
But going back to when you said, "Have you ever thought of quitting?" Of course. Then I think about that cubicle. That's the scariest image. That's scarier than any horror movie, Michael Myers or Freddie Krueger. That cubicle is the scariest sight of all time in my head. I thrive on the Freedom to make my career whatever I want it to be.
Q: What does the future of your company look like?
A: I'm excited. I'm excited about what we're in the process of developing. We have a podcast that's doing really, really well. I don't want to say too much, but we are moving forward with a documentary that we're going to be creating, which is our first hand in documentaries, but it's necessary. It aligns with the mission of the company as far as tech and tech development. And we have an ebook series coming out. We are going to be relaunching our award winning magazine, Au’loni magazine in the fall. We're also in the process of developing two products on the business side to help in two very core areas of business through FinTech. It's going to be very groundbreaking.
I'm being very broad, I know. We will always provide client services but product development is our focus right now, we are scaling back client services, just a little bit, just making it a percentage. We're still always welcoming clients, but focusing heavily on product development, the funding, the infrastructure. We're in the process of hiring someone to specifically focus on special projects, because we have so many in the works at the moment. If everything goes well and I have no reason to believe it won't... I'm not religious, I'm spiritual, but I believe in God. If it's in God's hands, I think that the future of the company looks very bright right now. We definitely have the passion. We have the talent. We have ideas that aren't just ideas. We can sit around and have ideas all day, but we're actually making the necessary steps to bring them into fruition. So I'm really happy at where we are right now and where we could potentially be in the next six months to three years.
Q: That sounds exciting. It sounds like you guys are launching a bunch of really fun new projects. What's the name of this podcast?
A: It's called Disrupt Tech. It's been around for about two years now, but it's been on and off because with me, I haven't designed a structure to it, as far as a consistency of when we air an episode, only because I didn't want to just get on for the sake and just start talking just to be talking because I said I'm going to release a episode once a week. I get on when there's something that's prevalent. So our last episode is a year in between. Now we're more consistent with it.
Our last episode, it was time for it. The name of it is, COVID-19: How the Internet Got Infected. I don't think people have realized the history that was made within a historical pandemic, where we literally, no matter what stage you are or whether you’re new to tech or you didn't know tech, everyone was forced to put our entire lives into it. We were forced to move our entire lives online.
Then you had issues with marginalized communities where a lot of people didn't have WiFi. It was so much. I make a good point in the episode of, the reason that's historical is because it's not like we haven't had pandemics before. We had something in the 60’s and 70’s, but one of this magnitude has been over a hundred years. The reality is that they still had to do the same thing. They had to quarantine. But they didn't have the internet. They didn't have TVs. So there was no way for the economy to keep going. But we did. Even industries that aren't designed for tech, like the restaurant industry, kept going because of what? Because of the technology, because of apps like Seamless and Delivery.com and GrubHub. It's not even an industry that's designed to be managed online but they did it!
We have a new episode coming out tomorrow. So we're still going to keep it going. We'll have an episode next week as well. We have a special guest coming on with the wake of everything going on, that's going to be talking about diversity in tech.
We had a guest speaker last year. I was in Kenya, and she was from Columbia and we both met in Kenya. She was there because the farming industry uses tech heavily on the fields, so that the farmer's data aligns with people in the office. Who thought that tech would hit the farming industry? We have robots in Walmart now who are janitors. I mean, insane stuff. So we have a lot of people from different industries talking about how tech influences their industry. You don't need to be on every social media platform. You don't need to take advantage of every project management tool. What works best for you in your business? That's the focus of Disrupt Tech, wielding the virtual world to our satisfaction.
Then in addition to the podcast, we also do live-casts. After an episode, if people have any questions or answers, we go on our YouTube channel once a week and we address them, just for further engagement with our audience.
Q: Great, I love it. Thanks for sharing that also. Last question: what would you want to learn from a community of other women business owners?
A: This is going to be a harsh answer because I'm just coming out of an experience with a female organization, female ran, focused on women entrepreneurs and connections and empowerment and all of that crap. I think a lot of women say that. I think a lot of women organizations do a really good job of making that their platform, but in sincerity, they have no idea what that means or how to do it. Like I said, my answer probably would have been a lot more positive a few weeks ago. It's really turned me off.
I just had a really bad experience with a female-run organization, where I guess the president had a personal issue with me and made it professional. So I had already decided that I didn't want to be a part of it, but the new president had convinced me to do so. Long story short, that didn't work out. I was making some really great business connections that she purposely went out of her way to destroy. This is a very ugly situation. I consider myself a good hearted person. I walked away from it. I won't speak of the organization or any of the people. That's just not my style professionally.
I say all of that to say that I would like to find more authenticity in women's organizations. You're making empowerment your platform because women like the words empowerment and feminism, and you're using that to attract the audience but It's really not the core of who you are. That to me is such a lack of integrity and it's overall disgusting to me. One thing I would love to gain from other women entrepreneurs and women entrepreneur groups is authenticity. Really, I love women. I truly love women. I have no idea how we're not running the world. But at the same time, I do know because we do feed at these stereotypes of ourselves. Yes, we're more emotional, but that can be a good thing. It's all about how you channel that kind of thing. The way we could channel it professionally, we could just move mountains. So that's what I want. I would like to find my tribe of women who feel the same way, who wants to progress with each other professionally and not just use it as a platform to have an audience. If anything, that's what I want to learn from the fellow women in my life.
This experience with this organization didn't make me hate women entrepreneurs. It did the exact opposite. It made me work even harder to find my tribe. The people that I knew before that organization... I've been talking to a lot more women entrepreneurs now, more than I did before.
That's what I will want at the moment, from any organization I'm a part of that focuses on women or just any fellow women entrepreneurs period, that authenticity and that common desire to be progressive and not exclusive.
Like I said originally, when we first started talking, a lot of great things come out of bad experiences. I'm looking forward to what comes out of that bad experience when it comes to dealing with women entrepreneurs.