Former hip-hop star rises to media mogul, president of NAWBO


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Business owners don't often associate the creativity, congeniality and persistence that's required to build a brand with building a rep in the rap game. But for Donna Baxter, the new president of the National Association of Women Business Owners Greater Pittsburgh, a 10-year transition from emcee to entrepreneur followed a natural course.

"[Hip-hop] taught me to be confident on stage speaking to people. It taught me to always be ready at the drop of a dime," she said. "Just like you have to be ready give your elevator pitch to pitch your business, you have to be ready to pitch your music."

Sitting in a home office adorned with magazine covers featuring Ms. Baxter's rap group, Misfits in the Attic, and covers she designed for her latest venture, Soul Pitt Quarterly Magazine, she acknowledged her path toward tech entrepreneurship took a few non-traditional turns.

Shortly after the Johnstown native came to the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, she snagged record deals with companies in California and in Pittsburgh. When being a part of the Misfits led to radio play, television appearances and a grueling schedule that divided her time between tours and mid-terms, she ended up taking a short break from her studies.

By 2000, after Ms. Baxter had earned a bachelor's in communication and media from Pitt and a master's in education and instructional technology from American InterContinental University, the buzz surrounding the Misfits was dying down and she was ready to brand herself beyond the stage name Ms. Chevious.

Hoping to pair a love of black Pittsburgh's social scene with a passion for digital technology, Ms. Baxter launched TheSoulPitt.com.

Using information from fliers, promotional club handouts, church bulletins and a heavy dose of word of mouth, she built a database of events that revealed just how much there was to do for a population that regularly bemoaned the region's lack of social opportunities.

"When I first started doing SoulPitt, I noticed that nobody on the North Side told anybody else what was going on. Then I noticed East Liberty stayed to itself," she said.

Ms. Baxter figured a little crosstown mingling could help everyone. "I saw how we segregated ourselves as a whole and said if we came together it would be bad," she said, sliding easily into the slang common to the music business.

Five years later, TheSoulPitt.com is the anchor product of Soul Pitt Media, a multimedia force featuring Soul Pitt Quarterly magazine, weekly online radio show SoulPitt Xtra and Soul Pitt TV, which streams videos and advertisements through Adobe's Flash Player to avoid workplace firewalls.

Combined, the products have grown what was once a personal project into a six-figure business, Ms. Baxter said.

Although the initial $25 investment for the domain name and hosting that went into launching TheSoulPitt came out of Ms. Baxter's pockets, she made it clear her accomplishments didn't happen in a bubble.

She used a $3,000 loan from her parents to launch the first edition of Soul Pitt Quarterly and attracted sponsorship from Pittsburgh insurer Highmark by connecting with Rhonda Johnson, Highmark's medical director, health equity and quality services, after the first issue came out.

Additional connections with Pittsburgh NAACP president Constance Parker and the help of Ms. Baxter's longtime staff members helped Soul Pitt Quarterly grow to distribute 10,000 copies to more than 100 regional locations in a little more than a year.

Growing and using professional networks is just one practice Ms. Baxter hopes to emphasize during her tenure as president of the Greater Pittsburgh chapter of NAWBO.

With more than 7,000 members in 70 chapters across the country, Washington D.C.-based National Association of Women Business Owners is one of the nation's largest organizations supporting women entrepreneurs. Founded in 1977, the Greater Pittsburgh chapter is the fifth oldest chapter in the country.

Following in the footsteps of former president Mary Pam Kilgore, Ms. Baxter said she hopes to diversify the chapter and to focus on goals surrounding wealth creation, innovating business culture, building strategic alliances and making a mark in the public sector.

And while Ms. Baxter won't be moving NAWBO crowds in the same manner as she did when she was backed by bass-fueled '90s tracks, she said everything she has learned from that moment has prepared her for what's comes next.

"I didn't become Queen Latifah, but [hip-hop] has prepared me to become Donna Baxter, CEO," she said.

Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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