Tara Dowdell is no stranger to competition. In 2005, while still employed as an executive with the Port Authority, she was invited to join the third-season cast of Donald Trump’s hit show, The Apprentice. Although she was not hired by Trump in the end, Dowdell remained undeterred, leveraging her newfound spotlight from the show and a buyout offer from her employer to launch a consulting venture that would eventually morph into what is known today as The Tara Dowdell Group. We recently caught up with Dowdell for her take on how she rose from an apprentice to a boss.
Hashtags + Stilettos: When you joined The Apprentice, was your goal to work for Donald Trump long-term or did you have a larger vision for yourself?
Tara Dowdell: I definitely had a larger vision for myself, but unfortunately I have to admit that I did not have a strategy to translate that vision into reality. Luckily, I am a big believer in learning from my mistakes and course correcting, which is what I did.
H+S: While on the show, you were employed with the Port Authority. What was your role there?
TD: I worked for the International Shipping arm of the Port Authority, where my primary responsibility was to develop and implement a communications and government relations strategy for the multi-billion dollar redevelopment of the seaports operated by the agency. It was a massive infrastructure project, and I was the first African American to hold my position.
Prior to joining the Port Authority, I served as the Director of Appointments in the New Jersey Governor’s Office. As Director of Appointments, I ran the office that managed the selection and nomination of gubernatorial appointments to over 550 statewide regulatory boards and commissions. I was the youngest person and the first African American to hold this position.
H+S: What year did you launch the Tara Dowdell Group?
TD: I started consulting in September 2005, and formally incorporated the Tara Dowdell Group in March 2006.
H+S: Did you launch your business immediately after leaving the show?
TD: No, I stayed at the Port Authority for several months after appearing on the Apprentice. I ended up leaving after the agency offered a buyout package to all employees, which I decided to take. I then used the money from the buyout to launch my consulting business.
H+S: What is the Tara Dowdell Group and who are your primary clients/customers?
TD: At a basic level, the Tara Dowdell Group is a strategy firm. We help clients develop and execute strategies to grow their businesses, organizations or brands. We have a pretty diverse array of clients ranging from an award winning real estate development company to a local government agency.
A big part of our business continues to be relationship building. Specifically, we help our clients get meetings and build relationships with key decision-makers in their target market. We also assist our clients in marketing to government agencies and organizations.
H+S: How has your original vision for the Tara Dowdell Group changed over the years?
TD: My vision has definitely changed. It has changed out of necessity, experience, and maturity. When I first started the firm, I primarily worked with real estate developers and finance companies, but due to the financial crisis I obviously had to diversify my client base. I have also expanded my firm’s services to include more bread and butter marketing services such as helping clients to create compelling brand messages, website development and design services.
H+S: What was the toughest part about going from employee to entrepreneur?
TD: Someone once told me that when you work for yourself “You eat what you kill.” This candid insight proved very true and was the hardest part of the transition for me.
H+S: How has the economy volatility impacted your business?
TD: At first, it hurt my business, but I took [the advice I’d normally give my clients] and stepped up my marketing and aggressively leveraged my network to increase my client base. This economy has also forced me to work smarter. So I am happy to say that now my business is currently doing well despite the weak economy.
H+S: You appear on TV several times a week to discuss the political issue of the day. How did you break into TV and how do you leverage your appearances for your business?
TD: I began doing political commentary on a larger level after being recommended to a producer by the emcee of an event for which I was a speaker. She told me she wanted to recommend me to the producer of a cable news show that was looking for more political commentators. I followed up with her the next day, and she sent an email introduction to the producer who called me for a phone interview. Based on the phone interview she booked me pretty quickly and then continued to book me. I began doing the show weekly, which ultimately led to me getting booked regularly on several other cable news shows. Currently, I appear weekly on Fox News, Fox Business and MSNBC.
Appearing on television helps my business in a number of ways, but most importantly it helps me to expand my professional network, which is critical to the relationship building part of my consulting.
H+S: Can you provide some examples of campaigns or projects that you’ve worked on that you are proud of?
TD: Currently, my firm provides business coaching services to the Essex County Bonding Readiness program in New Jersey. This program helps small business owners in construction-related industries get bond lines so that they can undertake government or large private sector construction projects.
My firm works with these small business owners to help them improve their operations and marketing so that they can qualify for bonding. Most recently, we helped a woman contractor who was denied bonding to attain a quarter of a million dollar bond line.
H+S: What do you consider to be your biggest success?
TD: I am most proud of my success in being resilient.
H+S: What about failure? How have you dealt with that?
TD: I have had a few failures, but overall I channel my disappointment and anger into focus and drive. I always give myself a short time to be upset, and then I develop my plan to come back better and stronger.
H+S: What advice would you give someone that was interested in starting a consulting firm?
TD: Do your homework first and make sure you learn about not only your industry but, the industries in which you wish to consult.
Invest in your business. Do not be cheap when it comes to business cards and other marketing materials. Lastly, build relationships.
H+S Is there any universal advice that you give all of your small business clients?
TD: I emphasize how critical it is for them to stay front-of-mind with their potential clients because out of sight equals out of mind.
H+S: If you weren’t in politics or business strategy, what would you be doing?
TD: I’d be an FBI Profiler.
H+S: What’s next for Tara Dowdell?
TD: Growing my business is really my main focus. However, I have a few other tricks up my sleeve, but it is still too early to announce. You can follow me on Twitter @MsTaraDowdell for future updates.
This post originally appeared on MadameNoire.com.