From Mechanical Engineering to Marketing Consultancy – Building Businesses Through Analytics
As an author, speaker, and self-taught programming and data whiz, Pierre DeBois is an excellent example of a driven, self-motivated African American entrepreneur thriving in a field with few
visible minorities. According to a recent Pew Research report, African-Americans and Hispanics account for about 27 percent of the American workforce, and just 16 percent of the entire STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) industry. Yet DeBois’ company, Zimana Digital Analytics & Marketing Services, which provides digital marketing analytics services to other businesses around the world, has been thriving since 2009.
“The services are a mix of consultancy and web development,” says DeBois. “Zimana’s mission is to offer analytic services to small or enterprise businesses with strategic guidance on their digital
marketing or data-influenced projects,” he says. “Zimana helps clients cover various analytics needs, from installing analytic tags for digital marketing to guidance on SEO, digital ads, and social media marketing.”
Recently, he shared the story of the journey from engineer to the founder and CEO of a growing marketing and analytics firm.
From Mechanical Engineering to Data Analytics
DeBois begin his career as a mechanical engineer at Ford, but left to pursue an MBA when he decided to develop a career in venture capital. Then his plans changed.
“My original career pivot was to help black-owned business through venture capital,” he says, but he soon found that finance conversations were occurring too late to effectively help his clients.
“It’s hard to tell someone a technically right answer — you need X, Y and Z financially — when they are near broke,” he says. Instead, DeBois began focusing on marketing and analytics issues such as strategy, cash flow, and business branding discussions. He soon discovered these were things business owners could implement quickly to see a difference in their operations. He knew he was on to something. “Analytics allowed for a better business conversation with clients when they really needed it.”
Formal Education vs. Self Education
DeBois’ says his formal education helped lay the groundwork for his self-education.
“Many of the concepts I learned during the MBA, plus my engineering background helped me to develop systematic steps in filling up any knowledge gaps,” he says, adding that education offers a platform to learn before you get overwhelmed, and “you will be overwhelmed running a business.”
To solidify his newly acquired analytics knowledge, DeBois began writing articles on these topics for various websites and online magazines. “Writing allowed me to explain what I learned with specific business audiences in mind.” He says that doing so helped him bring disparate technologies together succinctly to better explain their benefits — a valuable tool in crafting marketing messages and carrying on client discussions.
Mastering Business Marketing in a Digital Age
DeBois has focused on growing a “remote” business by making the most of his own online marketing and social media platforms. Zimana’s active social media accounts include Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. In addition, DeBois contributes to online media sites like CMS Newswire and InformationWeek. He says an online presence is important for most businesses today — and especially those with African American and Hispanic target markets.
“African Americans and Hispanic populations index for higher smartphone usage than other segments, with subsequent metrics like social media usage and video indicating opportunities for conscious consumerism,” he says. “Having a digital presence is the modern way to support Black businesses.”
While DeBois encourages online marketing for today’s businesses, he stresses the importance of projecting a professional image at all times, and cautions against online rants, especially for owners of online businesses.
“The open mic of social media can turn people against you for petty ideas,” he says. “You should examine what you are communicating and why.”
The Need to Embrace Technology
DeBois is a big believer in harnessing the power of technology to grow small businesses, and his recommendations are valuable for all business owners.
“Become a superuser of the tools you use every day to boost the productivity in your business. In 2019 — and years ahead — every business [will be] impacted by the cloud and by managing the programming frameworks that run your software.”
While detailed knowledge of programming languages probably isn’t required for success, DeBois cautions that it’s important to have at least a basic understanding of what’s driving technology decisions in your business — the reasoning behind selecting one software solution over another, or the cloud capabilities of your software programs. Not having a good grasp of which tech resources your business uses and why could hamper your strategic business decisions going forward.
“The biggest advice I would tell black business owners is to develop the tech resources in your business if you are looking to grow — most people are gaining ground not just by launching a software solution, but understanding what it takes to manage the solution.”
Succeeding as a Visible Minority Entrepreneur
In the digital marketing data analytics industry, DeBois says being black has been “an identifier.”
“In fact, Zimana may easily be the first small business analytics firm with an African-American at the helm,” says DeBois.
During the early years of Zimana, DeBois recalls a client who said he wanted to show only white people on his site images — even though his construction team was black.
“He wanted to appeal to ‘mainstream’ customers when they first came to his website,” says DeBois. “Those sort of compromises aren’t necessary … and yes, I told him so!” DeBois suggests business owners view these kinds of challenges as opportunities.
“Black business owners have an unprecedented opportunity to serve a broad variety of customers and yet still develop services for the community, so appeasing racial fears is not a good idea,” he says.
For DeBois, the field of data science is an exciting place to be these days, and he encourages professionals of color to jump in. “I’m also enjoying the discoveries of data science — there’s now data that can be used to model social justice concerns,” he says. “And given that machine learning can have bias in the models, more black and hispanic professionals should jump into the data science field to guide future AI uses that will impact our communities.”
Editor’s Note: Pierres story is one of a six-part series celebrating black small business owners throughout the month of February. Check out the other inspiring stories in the series: Turning Shakespeare into Rap into Revenue, Overcoming a Hurricane of a Problem, and Pioneering Metrics of Diversity and Inclusion.