Denise Herd has always had the entrepreneurial spirit. As an undergraduate at Clark Atlanta University, she and some friends had a balloon business for Valentine’s Day, and after doing communications work for several organizations after college, Herd went on to create Herd Strategies, her own public relations firm in Indianapolis. Along with a small staff, Herd creates and implements communications strategies for her clients, as well as crisis management public relations.
It all started with an internship at the Indiana Repertory Theatre (IRT). As a graduate student at IUPUI, Herd was hired in the marketing department.
“I learned everything that I know about PR,” Herd said of her internship. “I ended up getting hired full time and started off as a company manager, which basically you’re like the glorified babysitter to the actor.”
After the marketing director moved Herd into her department, she became the manager of diversity and media relations for IRT, where she honed her skills in writing press releases and creating public relations strategies. After IRT, Herd did communications work for several other organizations, including Indiana Black Expo (IBE). After leaving IBE, Herd wasted no time in starting her business.
“I always knew I wanted to have my own business,” Herd said. “My father always told me, ‘There’s no such thing as a part-time entrepreneur,’ so after Expo, my dad suggested I go ahead and start my own business. … I literally drove to my parents’ house and sat down that same day after this traumatic experience and we started writing my business plan. I never took any time off, I didn’t even look for a job. I didn’t dip my toe in the water, I put my whole body in the water.”
Despite the success of her business — she does work for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, IRT, and Indiana Neighborhood Association, among others — Herd is quick to acknowledge the role that others, namely other female business owners, had in the blossoming of Herd Strategies.
When Herd opened her business in 2011, she was one of just a few Black women to run her own public relations firm, and support was sometimes difficult to come by. Deborah Oatts, founder of Nubian Construction, was the first client Herd cold pitched after hearing she was looking for someone to do public relations work for her company. Herd cites Oatts and Debra Wilson of Engaging Solutions as two women who have encouraged and guided her along the way.
“You have to put people around you who tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear,” Herd said. “We work together on a lot of things and support one another. Those two businesses and ladies have just really been mothers of entrepreneurship for me and put me in places they knew would be good for me. They’ve told me, ‘We won’t let you fail,’ and I really value that.”
That support and encouragement is what Herd tries to give back to others. As an adjunct professor of public relations at IUPUI, Herd said she wants students to know that she believes in them and wants them to thrive in the public relations world. One of her former students, Christopher Mitchem, interned at Herd Strategies while in college.
Herd helped Mitchem advance to other internships, including one in the Indiana General Assembly. Mitchem currently works as a specialist at Bose Public Affairs Group in Indianapolis.
“It was hard for me to find individuals to talk to help me along the way,” Herd said of her early days as a business owner. “That’s when I decided if I can’t find a trail I can travel down, I’ll blaze the trail. … It’s not about me, it’s about the generations behind me, and how I can help pull them forward and give them opportunities and council and advice so they don’t travel down some of the paths that I did.”
In the decade Herd has had her business, Herd Strategies has grown considerably, particularly when it comes to visibility in the community. Each week, the company publishes a blog from staff members, as well as a “Friday Feature,” highlighting someone in the community. Herd said she’s proud of the work she and her team did during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to use social media to connect community members with resources including testing, food access and Wi-Fi access for those working and learning from home.
Herd recognizes every business owner will make mistakes from time to time, but she hopes her story inspires others to take the leap into entrepreneurship, and to just enjoy the ride.
“I want people to know that there’s no wrong in your journey,” Herd said. “There’s twists and turns, but it’s all your journey. It’s yours. You don’t have to be afraid or embarrassed, the best thing to do is own it and celebrate it and grow from it. … If there’s something you desire, go for it. If it’s meant to be, it will fall into place.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848 or email at BreannaC@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.