Publisher Reflects on Formative Years at
Edenton and Winston-Salem Weeklies and RJR
By Laurie D. Willis
When the first edition of Black Business Ink magazine rolled off the presses 15 years ago, Richard L. Williams had a fairly good idea the publication would be well received.
“My sister Vernetta told me it looked like ‘a real magazine,’” he says. “I took that as a pretty good endorsement.”
Today, Black Business Ink is firmly rooted in the Triad. The colorful, glossy magazine with the design and panache of a national publication offers monthly profiles of African American businessmen and businesswomen on its cover, giving locals the type of editorial treatment often reserved for Wall Street tycoons or red-carpet celebrities.
“Each month when we produce a new edition of Black Business Ink, our goal is to make it better than the previous one,” Williams says. “We take pride in what we do. If we’re going to take the time to do it, then we’re going to do it right. We embrace that challenge because one of the interesting things about the printed word is that it has a shelf life of … forever.”
Williams, 58, knows about the printed word, having received journalism awards from the New York Chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Newspapers Publishers Association, the latter for which he received a congratulatory letter from former President Bill Clinton.
Following stints at newspapers in North Carolina, New York and Washington, D.C., Williams arrived in Winston-Salem in 1993 as the newly mined editor-in-chief of the Winston-Salem Chronicle. After 18 months at the helm of the weekly that caters to the African American community, he joined the public relations department at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. where he spent time as a spokesman and worked on several on the company’s popular cigarette brands from 1994 to 2000.
‘gives the community hope’
Black Business Ink was not Williams’ first entrepreneurial venture. He parlayed nearly 20 years of corporate and journalism experience into first forming R.L. Williams Communications Group in 1999, a few months before resigning from the tobacco giant to go into business for himself.
Williams says he was doing quite well operating his public relations agency when he began thinking about ways of addressing some of the political, economic and healthcare issues African Americans throughout the state were dealing with. So he decided to create the 2003 State of Black North Carolina Conference and established Black Business Media LLC to produce it.
He and his staff, operating at the time from an office at the intersections of Cherry, Marshall and High streets near Old Salem, spent nearly nine months planning the conference that ultimately brought more than 50 speakers to Winston-Salem over three days. It was also at the 2003 conference that Black Business Ink was introduced into the marketplace.
This month, Black Business Ink celebrates its fifteenth anniversary by hosting the 2018 State of Black North Carolina Conference and an awards gala in Winston-Salem. The awards gala honors the magazine’s first naming of the 50 most influential African Americans in the Piedmont Triad. Performing at the gala are comedian Michael Colyar, The Hamiltones and Greensboro native Vanessa Ferguson from “The Voice.”
Al Spain, who has been a Winston-Salem business leader for more than four decades, remembers when Black Business Ink first rolled out. He says his appreciation of what the magazine means to the community continues to grow.
“From a personal standpoint, having a magazine like Black Business Ink gives the community hope,” says Spain, who works at Flow Automotive. “It’s always good when you can sit at your barbershop or beauty shop or sit in your doctor’s office and see a magazine that’s got someone on the cover that looks like you or looks like my sons or looks like my wife or my daughter.
“Fifteen years ago, who would have thought that 15 years later it would be one of the leading magazines in our area?” Spain adds. “Everybody knows Black Business Ink.”
‘not surprised by success’
When asked whether he is surprised by the success of Black Business Ink and the manner in which it is received and viewed by readers in the Piedmont Triad and beyond, Williams ponders before answering.
“I’m not surprised by the success of the magazine although I had no idea it would last 15 years – particularly the way the market is changing regarding print media,” Williams says. “Our publication is unique and well received by our readers because it is a quality product, featuring high-quality businesspeople, packaged in a compelling and aesthetically pleasing format.
“Many of the people we feature in Black Business Ink produce quality products and offer outstanding services,” Williams adds. “But it’s seldom you’ll see these businesses written about in publications other than ours. We’re offering these businesses and businesspersons the platform they deserve.”
Williams says he is extremely appreciative of the support of advertisers over the years. He did not want to single out any particular advertiser, but did mention there are some who believe so firmly in Black Business Ink that they do not advertise elsewhere.
Thomie Douthit, owner of Douthit Funeral Services, sees an even brighter future for the publication in the next 15 years.
“Black Business Ink is certainly one of the better magazines in the area,” Douthit says. “What Richard is doing and has done for 15 years has not just been a level pathway but an uphill journey. He has done much to make it even better with regard to minority businesses. His magazine has helped my business tremendously. I have had people call me from places like New York and Atlanta who want a copy of the magazine because they like what they see, they like what they heard, and they like what they read.
“When you sit down and talk with Richard, you realize he is a man that is knowledgeable and caring,” Douthit adds. “So as you turn the pages, you will see quality, character, and the results of hard work from a man that has a vision for the future. Black Business Ink is in the trilogy of time: the present is fine, the past was wonderful, and the future will be even greater. “
Williams says one of the things that sets Black Business Ink apart from other publications is its writing and storytelling.
“The writing is excellent, the editing is stellar, and we tell interesting, compelling stories about people,” he says. “People always enjoy a good story.”
first African American reporter
Williams grew up in Edenton, the youngest of 11 siblings. While attending North Carolina A&T State University, he secured an internship at the Chowan Herald in his hometown, becoming the newspaper’s first African American reporter.
“I did not look at the experience at the time as being groundbreaking,” says Williams, who also earned an MBA from Wake Forest University. “I was a student at North Carolina A&T trying to get some practical experience because that’s what our professors encouraged us to do. I had written several articles for the college newspaper as the sports editor, so I showed up at the Herald with copies of those articles and the editor asked when I could start working.”
Williams says he fondly recalls the early years because they helped make him the professional he is today.
“I remember my time at the Chowan Herald as an opportunity to grow as a student and budding journalist,” he says. “I was given a lot of responsibilities during that summer that in hindsight I probably was not prepared for. I was blessed to land the position, and I challenged myself to do an outstanding job. I was too young and confident back then to have any doubt about doing the job well.
“I look back at those formative years and think those experiences had a significant impact on me professionally because I began getting more print internships and part-time jobs at newspapers in the Greensboro and Winston-Salem areas,” Williams says. “I was mostly interested in broadcast journalism at the time, but the strength of my writing – along with the Herald internship and internships at the Chronicle and in the sports department of the News & Record – kind of cemented me in print journalism.”
Black Business Media has one other fulltime employee, Kiah Ruffin, the office manager who is responsible for social media and event planning. She is a former student-athlete at Winston-Salem State University who coaches softball at Smith High School in Greensboro and is the reigning Miss Winston-Salem USA. The company also has two interns, Kimberlee-Mychel Thompson, a Reynolds High School senior who will be attending Hampton University in the fall to study journalism, and Jaylen Jeffreys, a recent Reynolds graduate who just completed her first year as a public relations major at N.C. A&T.
“We look at internships as being vital to early professional development,” says Williams, who was a lecturer in mass communications at Winston-Salem State from 2001 to 2009. “In journalism or public relations – particularly journalism – it’s important to have hands-on experience when you’re set to graduate college and enter the workforce. I can’t think of any employer who’ll allow you to learn to write on the job. Those are skills you can acquire through working as an intern in professional environments.”
In addition to publishing Black Business Ink, Williams and his staff provide services in public relations, event planning, video production, advertising, graphics design and political consulting through BBM Marketing.
Encouraged to Dream
Williams is a charter member of the Winston-Salem African American Chamber of Commerce, the recipient of a Kwanzaa award for outstanding business, has received the Black Achiever in Business and Industry Award from the Winston Lake Family YMCA, and recently received the Minority Business Award from the same organization.
He is a former board chairman of the Winston-Salem Urban League and the Winston-Salem Masonic Order. He also chaired the Mazie S. Woodruff Center Advisory Board, the AARP African American Advisory Board and the Carolina Donor Services Minority Outreach Task Force, and served on the boards of Partners for Homeownership, LISC, and the WSSU Small Business & Technology Development Center.
Williams is a 33rd Degree Prince Hall Mason and as the worshipful master of Salem Lodge #139, he helped raise funds to create the Salem Lodge/Robert A. Miller Scholarship Endowment Fund for students to attend historically black colleges. He also was initiated in 1985 into Omega Psi Phi National Fraternity, Inc.
When he’s not working on his business ventures, Williams, a bachelor, enjoys exercising – whether it’s a rugged weight-lifting regimen or an intense in-studio cycling session. An avid reader, Williams last read “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The last movie he went to see was the Marvel comic blockbuster “Black Panther.”
Williams says he knows there are a lot people to whom he can contribute much of his success, including his siblings and his parents who instilled in him the virtues of hard work and treating all people fairly. His father, Luther Lee Williams, Sr., died in 2008 at the age of 98. His mother, Annie Missouri Williams, celebrated her 100th birthday earlier this year.
“They sacrificed a lot for me to be where I am,” Williams says. “They encouraged me to dream big and chase those dreams with all of my being – dreams they were denied. The least I can do is not allow their sacrifices to be in vain.”