DETROIT – Hajj Flemings is an expert in “personal branding.” When that description draws the inevitable blank stares from the over-40 set, the 41-year-old Detroiter switches gears and explains he helps his clients in “telling your story.”
Think of it, he adds, as a personalized version of the Apple logo on an iPad or iPhone – instant, and positive, recognition.
“What I do is I help people to be able to tell their story so they can convert that into value. At the end of the day, what your personal brand is it’s really how the outside world sees you,” said Flemings. “So what I do is I try to help individuals and small businesses understand how to be able to tell their story based upon their passion, the skill set that they have and their value composition.”
A native Detroiter, Flemings started Brand Camp University in 2008, a national conference series on branding, entrepreneurship and technology. The conferences are hosted annually in Detroit, Las Vegas, Austin, Boston and New York City. His client list includes familiar names: Disney, Ford Motor Co. Skechers Footwear, even the U.S. Department of Defense.
But how does one get started in the “personal branding” business?
Flemings was an engineer by trade – with a degree from Michigan Tech -- working in the auto industry for 10 years while managing his own design business on the side. Over time, though, the side business became the big business.
“What happened was we started working on brand in doing design projects. As I started doing them, I realized people are a brand. People had the same challenges that companies had,” Flemings says. “People have personalities the same way businesses have personalities. People need this information for their own personalizing and professional life as much as they need to grow and develop. That’s when the light clicked on for me.”
Now Flemings is working full-time for Brand Camp University. He says he saw the need to help people manage their identity in social media.
“So what we try to do is have everyone leave with actual strategies they can use that cost zero dollars. It’s just about them putting in the sweat equity,” Flemings says. “It’s critical because, at the end of the day, any career discussion that an employer, a recruiter, head hunter is going to make, they are going to go online. You can send them a resume, an 8½x11 document, but they are still going to go online.
“People are going to be judged based upon the information the individual sees online and their job will be to filter candidates that they don’t think fit. So if you don’t have a strong presence online; if you haven’t thought about your personal brand; what will end up happening is you are going to lose out on opportunities you didn’t even know about,” Flemings says.
Photographer took Brand Camp plunge
Shawn Lee, owner of Shawn Lee Photography, has been in business for 10 years. Lee, who is also the photographer for Brand Camp, says he learned how to better his business by attending the conference in 2009. He branded his company as “cutting edge.”
“I have some international business that I would never have gotten and I would never have met these people if it had not been for social media and the use of implementing social platforms to make connections to people who aren’t in my neighborhood,” explains Lee. “I was on Facebook before but I had no strategy. I didn’t actually know how to apply it or do it so it will work for me. But since going to a Brand Camp conference, I actually started to formulate strategy on how to actually use Facebook and go after these high-end people to get business.”
Devita Davison used to work for Hearst magazines in licensing and branding before opening a “gourmet, specialty food store” in New York.
Hurricane Sandy destroyed her business and home last year, forcing her to move back to her hometown, Detroit. She says the transition has been made less difficult because of Brand Camp:
“I totally credit my experience going through Brand Camp with the successes that I’ve had over the past six months.
“In the six months that I've been back in Detroit, I've been hired to work with FoodLab Detroit on developing Detroit's first distributed network of shared, licensed, commercial kitchen spaces for food entrepreneurs. I'm working with TechTown on their Retail Boot Camp training, and I'm working on an online food 'zine called ‘In.green.dients’ that's dedicated to celebrating the local food movement in Detroit. I'm telling the stories of the people behind the movement to bring good food back to the table and health back to our communities,” adds Davison.
In Detroit, Fleming finds opportunity, chance to give back
Flemings says Detroit was the perfect place to house his business.
“I see tremendous opportunity here. The best time to work on a business opportunity is in a down market. This is the time to be a part of the turnaround,” Flemings says. “The other thing is I see a lot of stuff happening technology wise, but I don’t see enough diversity in terms of it reflecting the demographic in Detroit. I feel like I can be a part of breaking that gap.”
So he decided to further expand Brand Camp University in Detroit by having “more training for entrepreneurs on a regular basis.”
In March, Flemings developed a half-day session where Detroit entrepreneurs could better understand how to develop their personal brand. Professional headshots were also provided for those who attended the event.
Last fall, Flemings started Student Ventures, which focuses on middle and high school students. He primarily works with African-American, Latino and female students as a way to show others the opportunities he sees. During these sessions, students learn coding and how to market their start-up ideas.
Flemings, who with his wife, Kasandra, have a 2-year old daughter, also plans to expand the concept into the other cities that Brand Camp University conferences are held.
“What I try to focus on is what I can impact,” Flemings says. “So for me I feel like the opportunity is to be able to really work with entrepreneurs and work with students locally and be able to help them be a part of the next generation of workers that implement and integrate technology with what they’re doing because I think that’s important for the work force of the future.”
Taylor Trammell is the 2012-13 Center for Michigan journalism student fellow. She is pursuing a journalism degree at Wayne State University.