An Entrepreneur’s Side Hustle Becomes Her Second Act
Job losses and financial setbacks are no match for Alethia Brown’s tenacity.
Alethia Brown, 57, is an author, film producer, screenwriter, project manager, business analyst, motivational speaker, and podcaster. She’s also unstoppable.
In the 1990s, the native of Queens, New York, established Mahogany Productions LLC, an independent film company formed to produce documentaries; she wrote her first screenplay at 22. “I was trying to do my Spike Lee thing,” she laughs, adding, “It worked out better for Spike Lee than it did for me.”
Over the course of 30-some years, Alethia has held a wide range of jobs, hoping to eventually make Mahogany Productions her main source of income. But as she watched a pandemic-fueled recession wreak havoc on small businesses — and especially on women entrepreneurs — she realized her dream also included helping other women stay afloat.
So Alethia created a subsidiary of Mahogany Productions called AMB Design and Marketing Services, a consultancy that helps small businesses promote their products and services. And she decided to take the steps necessary to turn this side hustle into a full-time gig.
In 2021, she joined the first cohort of aspiring entrepreneurs who applied and were accepted into AARP Foundation’s Work for Yourself@50+ Incubator Program, a collaboration with Bridge for Billions that provides people over 50 who have low income with substantial hands-on support so they can successfully launch and grow their business. Now in its second year, the program is currently accepting applications for both entrepreneurs and mentors.
“It was a different approach: breaking down how I should structure myself as a business, the services that I offer, and how I communicate those and find my clientele,” she says.
Key to the Incubator Program is the matching of entrepreneurs with volunteer mentors. The expertise and coaching the mentors offer is invaluable. Alethia says of her mentor, “She was awesome! She helped me put together presentations and flyers and helped me create my pitch. She worked with me through everything, from beginning to end.”
A Way Out of No Way
Alethia knows a little bit about beginnings and endings. She left New York for Charlotte, North Carolina, because, she says, “as a single mother, I wanted a better place to raise my daughter.” But when the financial markets collapsed in 2008, she lost her job as a project manager at Wachovia. “I went from making almost six figures a year to nothing.”
She and her daughter survived on her savings and 401(k) for a while, but those ran out by mid-2009. In short order, Alethia lost her car, her townhouse, and the “dream home” she had started building in 2007, where she and her daughter had put their handprints in the foundation. She tried to apply for loan modifications in hopes of keeping one of the houses, but without a job she couldn’t qualify. By that point, all she had to live on were her unemployment checks.
Then Congressional squabbling held up extended unemployment benefits for six weeks, leaving Alethia with zero income — despite the fact that she had an offer letter from Wells Fargo, which had bought Wachovia and was bringing back project managers like her. But an offer letter wasn’t a job, and it wouldn’t sustain her until she was formally hired and began drawing a paycheck.
Alethia applied for housing and food assistance for herself and her daughter, only to be turned down because a social services officer deemed her ineligible, saying she was “employable.” She was stunned. “I said, ‘I'm not even getting unemployment right now. And you're refusing me housing, you’re refusing my daughter support, because of what my potential is?’ Make it make sense!”
Out of options, Alethia sat in the social services office pondering her next move. “I had nowhere to go,” she says. That’s when a woman approached and handed her a business card and told her to call the number, leading her to a program that provided shelter for women with children through a rotating roster of churches. Less than two weeks after entering the program — “11 days, 18 hours, and 16 minutes,” Alethia says with a laugh — she secured an apartment with her offer letter and $300 provided by the program.
On the Path
Since then, she’s changed jobs several times, each time expanding her skill set and her income. And when the COVID-19 pandemic brought another layoff, she turned her full attention to Mahogany Productions, relying on her severance package and unemployment benefits to pay the bills. During this time, she produced a documentary — Unmasked: Exposing Inequalities — that was an official selection of the NY International Arts Festival and the Queens Underground Black & Brown Film Festival. She currently has several other documentaries in development and pre-production, as well as a podcast that she started during the pandemic.
And, of course, there’s AMB Design and Marketing Services. Applying what she learned through the Work for Yourself@50+ Incubator Program, she’s continuing to build her newest endeavor while helping other women take their businesses to the next level, including her own daughter. “I’m nurturing her growth as an entrepreneur,” Alethia says proudly.
Of the Incubator Program and its results, she says, “If you haven’t had exposure to what it really takes to start a business, this is where you want to go. It’s gonna structure you. It’s gonna organize you. It’s gonna make you think outside of the box as to whether or not this is the path you want to be on — and how to stay on that path.”
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