By   – Data Editor, Memphis Business Journal

Jerry Redmond Jr. often found his roles as an entrepreneur and educator intertwined in the early days of his business.

His design, marketing, and interactive agency – Redmond Design Service LLC – is a quarter-century old now.

He has three employees in Memphis — the office is located in Midtown at 1460 Madison Ave. — and one in Jackson, Mississippi. He hires additional contractors as needed.

But, in the beginnings of the firm, Redmond balanced multiple roles, including managing a nascent business and teaching college courses.

“In 1996, I established a sole proprietorship for [my] design service,” Redmond said. “And, all of that was while being a full-time [college] instructor in two different states.”

He taught graphic arts at both of his alma maters – as a full-time professor at Mississippi Valley State University (MVSU) and as an adjunct instructor at the Memphis College of Art (MCA).

“I had a full-time job because I didn’t have a $150,000 line of credit with a bank to start my business and go through the whole business plan module,” Redmond said. “I used my own money to start [the company], which is typical for most minorities in business.”

Redmond was offered a position as coordinator of graphic design at what is now Southwest Tennessee Community College. Shortly after that, he began as an adjunct instructor at LeMoyne-Owen College.

He had traded two college teaching positions, at MVSU and MCA, for two new ones, all the while his business was gaining traction.

“As the agency was growing and as I started to certify as a minority firm, we were getting contracts. And, I was getting asked to do pitches and major proposals,” Redmond said. “I had to make a decision.”

Southwest later offered a buyout, which Redmond took in 2010, leaving behind a tenured associate professor position.

He used the buyout proceeds as “seed money” to organize his agency and hire staff.

Redmond’s ties to higher education helped fill out his staff roster. He hired students and provided internships so they could gain experience.

And, his penchant for higher education would play a more central role for his business as it matured and he found opportunities lacking for Black-owned businesses.

Opportunity cost

As he began to scale up his one-man design shop, Redmond checked off many of the prerequisites for networking and building a business. He joined his industry’s association, served on the board of Leadership Memphis, and obtained necessary certifications.

His agency’s tagline is “Design with return in mind.” But, the certifications he worked hard to obtain didn’t deliver, at least not to a degree worth pursuing to build a core of his business.

“I followed the traditional route of getting my minority certifications, getting the label put on me [as a disadvantaged business],” Redmond said. “The fact that I had a business license, had overhead, and had staff — that wasn’t enough. You need to be labeled as a minority. … I had to assume that label to be afforded the opportunity to go after business. … I realized I wasn’t going to get a chance unless I did it.”

In the early 2010s, Redmond Design hit its employment high point with an eight-person staff.

But, over time, the difficulty of chasing large contracts became apparent.

And, what Redmond views as flaws in the minority- and women-owned business enterprise (MWBE) certification and contracting processes eventually changed the type of work he went after to build his business.

“You had Archer Malmo, Thompson & Co., and everybody here going after the big contracts: the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority [and others],” he said.

Redmond Design hit Memphis Business Journal’s annual largest advertising agencies list in 2011-13, at No. 22 and No. 23.

On the MWBE contracting side, Redmond said that certifying agencies — such as the Black Business Association of Memphis and the Mid-South Minority Business Continuum — have been great resources.

However, there are layers between Black-owned firms and the contracts they seek to sustain and grow their businesses.

He advocates for a more direct connection to some of Memphis’ largest companies — and the transformative contracts they can offer to Black-owned businesses.

“An [MWBE] certifying body [says]: ‘International Paper, FedEx, Medtronic, ServiceMaster, and other corporations: You want to do more business with minorities? You’re currently doing 5% and you want to take it up to 30%? Then give [us] those contracts and give [us] those [needed] qualifications so [we] can match you with those kinds of companies that we have that are certified to us to do this work.’”

Instead, Redmond said, that effort gets generalized into programs such as expos where Black- and minority-owned firms pay for a booth and marketing materials and then vie with one another to get the attention of large corporations in need of an MWBE to do work.

“There’s no true substance connecting the dots in what [certifying agencies] are doing [in getting MWBEs matched to contracts],” Redmond said. “But, if that gets heightened and stepped up, you’ll begin to see a major impact.”

HBCU niche

Forging relationships with some of Memphis’ largest companies proved difficult.

Instead, Redmond relied on his ties to the Mississippi Delta and to higher education institutions for business opportunities to grow his firm.

Redmond was raised in Darlove, Mississippi, a rural area near Hollandale off Hwy. 61.

He went to an all-Black high school, then to MVSU – an historically Black college and university (HBCU).

Redmond has mined the HBCU niche over the past seven years, including design work on materials for fundraising and marketing and for student recruitment and retention.

“What’s [sustained] my business is … instead of casting a huge net [and] having 100 clients I don’t know and have to figure out: Is this a one-hitter, quitter type of client?” Redmond said. “I just took my time, molded and shaped about 15 clients that I know what they’re going to do on the calendar year. … I’ve learned in my years of being in business: It’s about who you have the relationship with. The trust is there, and the commitment is there.”