What (black) women want: Local network serves ladies of color nationwide

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Ola Jackson, founder and CEO of the Onyx Woman Network, was recently told that she has her hand on the pulse of what black women need to hear.

Twenty years ago, OWN started out as a newsletter delivered by Ms. Jackson, her husband and her son to the doors of Pittsburgh churches and businesses. It was designed to be a tool for black women to use as a means of professional support and career development. Today, OWN reaches thousands of black women and women of color throughout the country, creating a web of professionals to exchange ideas, showcase businesses and provide networking opportunities via its website, e-newsletter, magazine, and seminars.

"Other women are their greatest instrument," Ms. Jackson, a graduate of Robert Morris University, said. "I didn't have a lot of role models to go to when I started out. I needed some guidance. Because I didn't come from a family with connections and experience in the business world, I had to find my own way. Now we try to be that guidance for other people."

OWN was the answer to the question poised by Ms. Jackson after her son, Armon, was diagnosed with autism: Now what? She said that she needed a schedule that could incorporate her son's care with her work, and so she turned her home into an office, penned press releases and scanned newspapers for potential freelance writers.

Later -- once Ms. Jackson discovered through a survey that OWN's members wanted to learn more about business, financial literacy and entrepreneurship -- OWN shifted its focus and started reaching out to include other women of color.

"There have been several studies about the disparity of wealth between blacks and whites. The diversity of the city is very poor. Many of us are head of household and we need the motivation, inspiration, and information.

"And with growing up in the inner city with a mother who was poor, I want to help other people," Ms. Jackson said.

Part of that motivation stems from the small things. Every Monday, Ms. Jackson makes sure her members start their week with a motivational message.

Ms. Jackson's employees consist of a small army of independent contractors. Kirsten Womack, a virtual assistant for Ms. Jackson, said the CEO's personal approach is what makes OWN unique.

"It's an honest sharing. I think women open up and share exactly what they're going through and other women will come and let you know you're not alone. Support is there via direct support of the members or direct support of the organization. If you're in a struggle, there's people there that have experienced it," Mrs. Womack said.

Support isn't the only thing that is shared. With a base as large as OWN, women can be sure that their businesses and skill sets are being seen.

Ms. Jackson said OWN tries to emphasize that success happens gradually, not overnight.

"The attendance [at seminars] at first was awful. We'd get five people, but then we grew and grew. I'm driven. I kept believing that one day it was going to be successful. Even during the hardest times, I kept telling myself 'one day.' I kept believing 'one day.'"

Rod Doss, editor and publisher of The New Pittsburgh Courier, said OWN does an "outstanding" job of recognizing female entrepreneurship. Mr. Doss was recognized by OWN as a distinguished business owner at the event A Legacy In Black in August 2011.

"[OWN] lifts women up and showcases their many qualities and pursuits. Ola just seems to have a vision for what the magazine is supposed to be. She celebrates people in a way that allows the vision of the magazine to be showcased and their attributes as well," Mr. Doss said.

The significance and impact of OWN is that it tells the stories of the women involved, according to Mr. Doss: "Some stories are more complicated than others, but ... telling their story and the field of endeavor they are in really gets the point across. OWN does a commendable job of showcasing the positive participation of African-Americans in Pittsburgh."

Faith Cotter; fcotter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413


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