Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs of the Week: Kijafa Vick and Blair Sandlain, Owners of PNK Elephant

11 Sep


Kijafa Vick, 30, and Blair Sandlain, 28, launched “PNK Elephant” in 2010 with a mission to provide affordable accessories and clothes to women. They initially started out with a web store but in 2011 transitioned PNK Elephant into a trendy clothing boutique in Philadelphia.

Sandlain and Vick (who is the wife of NFL Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Michael Vick) purchase clothing and accessories from wholesalers and select fashion designers. With prices ranging from $20 to $200 for clothes and $5 to $50 for accessories, PNK Elephant generated over $775,000 in total retail sales during the first two years of the store’s operation. The company grossed $240,000 in online sales revenue.

This is the second time around owning a boutique for Sandlain. She ran a retail store in Detroit but had to close shop when things didn’t work out financially. But a friend encouraged her to continue with the business. Sandlain was introduced to the owner of “” and decided to set up shop online, reading various books such as, Million Dollar Websites, as a resource for running a web store.

It was about three years after Sandlain’s Detroit boutique closed when she met Vick through a fashion designer and mutual friend. When the two signed on as business partners, they agreed to open a store in Vick’s hometown of Philadelphia.

After going down several paths, the ladies found success online and offline, creating a huge fan base, referring to their customers as “PNK party girls.” They also created the “Hustle Hard” campaign, which includes their line of “Hustle Hard” t-shirts featuring different city names on them. They donate proceeds from sales to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Philadelphia chapter. The business partners used the word “hustle” to represent women in a strong sense, whether it’s working two jobs, maintaining school, or holding a household together. Other philanthropic ventures include their PNKdress Foundation, which is dedicated to helping teen girls who can’t afford to attend their prom. This past spring the foundation gave away 15 prom dresses. interviewed the duo about their entrepreneurial journey.

Does PNK Elephant have any outside investors or is it totally self-financed?

Sandlain: Before we opened, we spoke with a lot of potential investors. Some that were interested and many that didn’t believe in our business plan. It was difficult in the beginning because we wanted to offer our customers so much more, but we had such a small budget because we were using in-house funding.

Why did you open another brick and mortar store after what happened in Detroit?

Sandlain: At the time, financially, I could manage an online store. Call me old fashion but I still love the in store experience. I like to visit stores and try on things there.

What made you settle on your current store location in Philadelphia?

Vick: I am from Philadelphia. The city is supportive of me and the brand. There was a big demand for PNK Elephant to open a brick and mortar store here. The city kept its promise and supports us 100%. We have a large customer base in Philadelphia but I also wanted to add jobs to the market. I knew South Street would be the perfect place for the store, because it is a popular area where young people hang out, to go to bars and restaurants.

What have been your biggest challenges running the business?

Sandlain: It was a struggle finding employees for the boutique with real work ethic. Now we have four full-time employees who work in the boutique and three freelance employees who mainly work on the website. Another challenge was compromising and splitting the responsibilities. I’d like to think of myself as super woman. It’s really hard for me to delegate duties to my staff because I like things done a certain way, even down to the way our money faces for nightly deposits.

Was it the same set of challenges for you?

Vick: I’m learning to communicate better and trust the people who are helping the business grow. My challenges were different because of my personal life as a wife and mother (trying to find balance between work and life). I have two daughters. My children are still young and need me. Some days I would stay at PNK Elephant all day, and my family would need me home to make dinner.

How have you grown PNK Elephant’s customer base through social media?

Sandlain: Social media is the new age and way of advertising; but even with social media you still have to be honest and true. People can smell a fake from a mile away. We post at least five to seven times a day whether it’s clothes or pictures of our personal lives.

What are your plans to grow and expand the business?

Vick: We started off with Blair selling things from her car. She stuck with her vision and now we have a beautiful 2,500 sq. ft. store in Philadelphia and a booming, e-commerce business. We are moving into a new warehouse for online because we out grew our old location, and we are also opening a new retail store by the end of 2014.


Watch Out! Cyber Criminals Preying on Small Businesses in Growing Numbers

11 Sep


Cyber criminals are going after small businesses more than ever, with startups at the greatest risk. Targeted attacks on small businesses increased 42% in 2012 from the previous year, according to a new report by the $6.9 billion security software giant Symantec Corp, headquartered in Mountain View, California.

Symantec’s 2013 Internet Security Threat Report, Volume 18, highlighted cumulative data of attacks in 2012. One of the main findings was that 31% of all targeted attacks are directed at small businesses with less than 250 employees. Moreover, cyber attackers target startups as quickly as two months after a new business sets up its website and exchanges its first emails and instant messages. Within 10 months, most startups have been infected with malware, the report states.

Small businesses are easy targets for cyber criminals for several reasons; one being the lack of security practice. Small business owners are mistaken in believing they don’t have what cyber attackers want and thinking that they are immune to attacks targeted at them, says Kevin Haley, director of product management for Symantec Security Response, a worldwide team of security engineers, threat analysts and researchers.

What cybercriminals want most is money, which they try to get their hands on by collecting various information including bank account numbers, customer data, and intellectual property. According to Symantec, this information can be accessed when cyber attackers use sites to redirect users to malicious sites, or when they send emails with links to bad websites. The threat report further showed that roughly 32% of all mobile threats steal information.

Criminal activity is often driven by crimes of opportunity. Attackers know small businesses are less careful in their cyber defense than larger enterprises and they use this to their advantage. Symantec’s threat report also revealed that attackers use small companies to lure in larger companies. Being that a larger company’s defenses usually stop attackers from gaining access to their data, they often target a smaller business that has a relationship with a larger company in order to gain access.

Haley offers the following six tips on how small business owners can protect their companies from cyber attacks:

1) Know what you need to protect. Most businesses have customer information that would cause harm to the business if lost or stolen. Others have intellectual property. One data breach could mean financial ruin for a small business. Look at where your information is being stored and used, and protects those areas accordingly.

2) Use a reliable security solution. Antivirus alone is not enough. Small businesses need to leverage security solutions that employ a defense-in-depth approach, relying on multiple technologies such as intrusion prevention, browse protection, and behavioral-based malware detection in addition to traditional signature-based protection. Today’s solutions do more than just prevent viruses and spam; they scan files regularly for unusual changes in file size, programs that match known malware, suspicious email attachments and other warning signs. At a minimum, you need a solution like Norton Internet Security or Symantec Endpoint Protection. If your company manages its own network make sure you have appropriate security at the gateway and the mail server.

3) Stay up to date. Be sure to keep computers up-to-date with the latest patches and updates to increase resistance to attacks. Unpatched systems give attackers easy ways to force themselves into your environment. And a security solution is only as good as the frequency with which it is updated. New viruses, worms, Trojan horses and other malware are born daily, and variations of them can slip by software that is not current.

4) Educate employees. Develop Internet security guidelines and educate employees about Internet safety, security, and the latest threats. It’s essential that employees learn to spot the telltale signs of social engineering tricks, which include undue pressure or a false sense of urgency, an offer that is literally too good to be true, a bogus “officialese” in a attempt to make something look authentic.

5) Enforce strong password policies. Using passwords with eight characters or more as well as a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols (e.g., # $ % ! ?) will better help protect your data.

6) When in doubt, throw it out. Links in emails, tweets, posts, and online advertising are often the way cyber criminals compromise your computer. Get rid of anything that is out of the familiar.


4 Tips to Manage Your Student Loans

11 Sep


One of the happiest moments in most students’ lives is crossing the stage at commencement and receiving their degree. However, this joy can quickly turn into dread once a steady flow of notices start pouring in, announcing the first student loan payment is due. This can be the ultimate nightmare, especially if you have little knowledge of how to manage student loan debt.

Heather Jarvis, a student loan expert, once owed $125,000 in student loans from Duke University School of Law School and was facing 30 years of $1,200 monthly payments. Fortunately, Jarvis sought help and was able to pay off her debt through the school’s loan-repayment assistance program. As a result of her experience, Jarvis focused her professional work on reducing the financial barriers to practicing public-interest law. She also dedicated her professional efforts to advancing public-service loan forgiveness. Jarvis emphasizes that students who plan to depend on student loans to fund their education need to know the importance of managing that debt upon graduation.

“Realistically estimate how much you can afford and borrow no more than you need. The federal government has unparalleled collection powers so it’s important to stay on top of your loans,” warns Jarvis.

As of July 1, the interest rate for federal student loans doubled from 3.4% to 6.8%. However, Jarvis says federal loans are still less expensive and less risky than private loans. She also says deferring student loans isn’t the best option.

“Deferment gets expensive because interest adds up over time. The income-based repayment options can provide an affordable alternative.”

Student loan borrowers can also receive help from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB offers guidance to borrowers seeking tips on dealing with debt collectors or reporting violations made by loan servicers. The CFPB posted sample action letters on its website for borrowers to consider using when corresponding with debt collectors.

Jarvis says the CFPB advocates fairness for and transparency in the system and provides excellent information for student loan borrowers.

“You can log complaints if you encounter problems with lenders, servicers, or collection agencies,” Jarvis says. “They also have some great tools for understanding your options.”

The letter topics range from requesting more information on debt, to filing complaints, to notifying a loan servicer where and when to contact the borrower. The CFPB will respond to complaints made by borrowers within 15 days and settle any complaints within 60 days.

Here are four tips from Jarvis on how to manage your student loans:

Get a clear inventory of your debt by visiting the National Student Loan Data System.
Consider income-based repayment plans if needed.
Understand that the longer it takes you to repay your loans, the more you will pay in interest over time.
Avoid private student loans whenever possible; look first to federal loans.


The Fellowship Open Continues to Inspire Youth

11 Sep

The Fellowship Open Continues to Inspire Our Future Entrepreneurs
Black Enterprise Teenpreneur Conference shows kids a ‘brighter future’

Fellowship Open

The Fellowship Open Continues to Inspire Youth

The Fellowship Open, one of the country’s largest diversity charity golf outings, has raised more than $800,000 in support of more than 60 organizations that have made a positive impact on the lives of young people. The 13th annual outing is scheduled for August 16 at the Silver Spring Country Club.

The Fellowship Open’s efforts include sponsoring a teenager to participate in the Black Enterprise/Teenpreneur Conference, which encourages youngsters to pursue and realize their dreams, and particularly consider careers in business. At the conference, the teens heard from successful entrepreneurs and participated in workshops that gave the teens advice on how to run a successful business, and make their business reach their maximum potential. By the end of the conference, the youth developed and presented a proposal for their business idea. According to the Fellowship Open website, the teens that are chosen to attend the conference will later share their experience, with their peers.

ReDonna Rodgers, director of the Center for Teaching Entrepreneurship and coordinator of the Fellowship Open/Black Enterprise Teenpreneur Conference partnership, says they select which teen will attend the conference through recommendations received from teachers and community associations, for students who are in business programs in school, church, or a community organization.

“Students are interviewed to ascertain their knowledge of Black Enterprise/Teenpreneur and what value they believe such an experience would offer,” Rodgers said.

Alex James, was operating his own lawn care business, “Year Round Yard Work,” when he was selected to attend the event. James said he gained a lot from the Fellowship Open.

“I have been able to see things I never thought I would, such as the BE Entrepreneur’s Conference, and also meet people I never would have like Judge Hatchett and Keith Murphy,” James says.

According to James, the BE Teenpreneur Conference helped him open his eyes to a brighter future outside of the daily struggle.

“I’ve pretty much always had the entrepreneurial spirit, but being in that environment just added fuel to the flame.”

As a recipient of the Fellowship Open scholarship, James was awarded a cash prize which he used to buy new business attire for the conference, as well as pay transportation costs.

James Kirk, who was also a member of the Center for Teaching Entrepreneurship, was chosen by the Fellowship Open to attend the 2011 conference in Atlanta. Kirk said it was wonderful to see so many black business owners and power shakers; and the event broke the stigma that all business owners are White, Arabic, and Asian.

“I’ve dedicated my life to serving my community and encouraging my generation to step it up and follow your dreams. Seeing and being a part of this reassured me that my hard work is not in vain,” Kirk says.

Kirk described what he gained from the Fellowship Open is “mind blowing,” and seeing people share both their wins and losses encouraged him to do the same. Since the conference, Kirk has started a new organization, “Man 2 Man Youth Development,” in which the youth meet powerful, educated, and determined individuals; who come from the same community as them.

Alonzo Kelly, a mentor of the Fellowship Open youth mentoring program, was Kirk’s mentor. Kelly, as a mentor, was also inspired by the conference. He said the advice he took from it was, “go for it.” Kelly also said Damon Dash inspired him to launch his own merchandise website called, “My Own Truth.”

‘Soldier of Finance’ Book Guides You to Take Charge of Your Finances

11 Sep


Do you feel out of control when it comes to your finances? Then maybe what you need is a financial drill sergeant by your side. Certified Financial Planner Jeff Rose offers a “soldier’s handbook” to help you take charge of your money and invest in your future–the military way.

In his new book Soldier of Finance, Rose uses his military experience during basic training and combat missions in the U.S. Army to form financial drills to help readers attack their debt, start an emergency fund, and invest in their future. If you’re thinking this is a run-of-the-mill budgeting handbook, it’s not. Rose is sure to keep you intrigued as he shares his personal money stories and the stories of people he has counseled.

Key takeaways from the book:

Don’t dwell on financial missteps. Rose says the biggest point he wants readers to get from this book is to not dwell on bad money decisions they’ve made in the past. You can’t change what has already been done, but you can make wiser decisions going forward.

“We’ve all made bad financial choices in our lives, whether it was paying for stuff we shouldn’t have bought with a credit card, or taking out loans when we really couldn’t afford to,” Rose says. “While we still might be suffering from the consequences of having to make payments, it doesn’t mean you can’t choose a better life and strive to achieve it,” Rose continues.

Find a financial “battle buddy.” During basic training in the army, Rose says soldiers are required to have what’s called a “battle buddy” to confide in if needed, and keep them on track. Encouragement from a supportive friend will help you stay focused on your goals and move toward financial success.

Let close friends and family know about your mission to improve your finances. Sometimes, friends and family unintentionally discourage you from reaching your financial goals. Rose encourages readers to make those close to you aware of what you are trying to accomplish.

“If you’re trying to get out of debt and [your friends and family] have no clue you have mounds of debt but now you’re committed to paying it off, it’s going to be hard for them to understand when you tell them you can’t do some of the things you used to do,” Rose says.