Podcast Ep. 75: Entrepreneur Kendra Bracken-Ferguson on Innovating Social Media Efforts for Ralph Lauren, AT&T and More

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson

In this episode of “This Is Purdue,” we’re talking to successful entrepreneur Kendra Bracken-Ferguson (BA communication ‘02), founder and CEO of BrainTrust.

Listen as Kendra describes the early days of social media, blogging and influencing, and how she used platforms like Myspace to transform top-tier global brands. You’ll hear about Kendra’s journey as Ralph Lauren’s first director of digital media and why she eventually left to start her entrepreneurial career.

Kendra also dives into how her time at Purdue – between taking the field as part of the Purdue Golduster Dance Team to working at the Black Cultural Center to interning with the Indiana Pacers – shaped her into the woman she is today.

This Boilermaker uses her platform to support Black-owned beauty and wellness brands, and she’s partnered with superstar actress Halle Berry on her health and wellness company, rē•spin.

This dynamic interview highlights a Purdue alumna who is dedicated to promoting diversity, equity and inclusion and innovating new ways to use technology.

Full Podcast Episode Transcript

Kate Young:

Hi, I’m Kate Young, and you’re listening to This is Purdue, the official podcast for Purdue University. As a Purdue alum and Indiana native, I know firsthand about the family of students and professors who are in it together, persistently pursuing and relentlessly rethinking who are the next game changers, difference makers, ceiling breakers, innovators. Who are these Boilermakers? Join me as we feature students, faculty, and alumni taking small steps toward their giant leaps and inspiring others to do the same.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

That was so important for me, to be able to give back. The more I progress in my career, the more I want to give back, the more I want to be part of things, the more I want to be part of the history and the legacy of moving Purdue forward, especially through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion for women, for Black women, for students of need. I’m personally committed and I’m personally passionate about being part of the fabric of Purdue.

Kate Young:

In this episode of This is Purdue, we’re talking to Kendra Bracken-Ferguson, successful entrepreneur, founder, and CEO of BrainTrust and proud Purdue alumna. I first had the chance to meet Kendra at the 2022 Purdue for Life Women’s Conference last summer. She was a keynote speaker, and the room was captivated by her story, not to mention her energy and passion. From Purdue Golduster, to Ralph Lauren social media innovator, to entrepreneur, founder, and investor, Kendra has a very unique story.

You’ll hear Kendra discuss her career journey from the very early days of social media and pitching the use of MySpace, who remembers MySpace, to promote global brands, and to later becoming one of the first 100 Black women in the country to raise over one million dollars in funding for her first company. I found it particularly interesting how Kendra describes the time period when social media was just on the cusp of becoming big. I mean, it’s hard to remember a time without social media, a time when top tier brands weren’t using social media for their marketing.

Kendra dives into stories on how she partnered with bloggers to wear Ralph Lauren and post about it, AKA the very earliest influencers, and how she used ringback tones to promote and market popular bands. All of this really spoke to my millennial heart. I remember these days of MySpace’s top eight and my Katy Perry ringback tone like it was yesterday.

Kendra also shares how her time at Purdue, between taking the field as part of the Purdue Golduster dance team, to working at the Black Cultural Center, to interning with the Indiana Pacers, shaped her into the woman she is today. This Boilermaker also uses her platform to support Black owned beauty and wellness brands, and she’s even partnered with superstar actress Halle Berry on her health and wellness company called Respin. The company is based on six pillars, including strength, nourish, and connect, and it offers workouts, plus information on fitness, nutrition, and health.

Kendra has been featured in media outlets such as Forbes, the New York Times, Shape Magazine, HuffPost, and many more. She was named one of Essence Magazine’s 17 inspiring Black executives redefining the face of beauty and was included in LA Style’s most influential list. She also has her own podcast, Business of the Beat, where she explores topics like diversifying the beauty industry, the steps of building a brand, choosing the right funding channels, and redefining the influencer role.

This dynamic interview highlights a special Purdue alumna who is dedicated to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion and innovating new ways to use digital media. Here’s my conversation with Kendra.

Kendra, thank you so much for joining us. We’re so happy to have you on This is Purdue.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

Oh my God, Kate, I’m so excited to be here. Thank you for including me. I love Purdue, so I’m just honored.

Kate Young:

Okay, so tell us a little bit about your childhood, your background. How did you first find out about Purdue University?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

Oh my gosh. So the funny thing is that I grew up in Texas, but my parents and my in-laws, I should say my mom, are actually from Indianapolis, and so I knew a bit like traveling, but I wasn’t just like, oh my goodness, Purdue, Purdue. But because I grew up in Texas, I knew that I wanted to go to a Big 10 or a Big 12 school because I was a cheerleader and I loved football.

So when I was in sixth grade, the president was giving a speech and someone handed him a piece of paper. And I turned to my mom and I said, “Who is that?” And she said, “The press secretary.” And I immediately said, “Oh my goodness, that’s what I want to do.” And so I said, “I’m going to go to school for it.” As I got older and started looking at schools, I remember applying to, of course, the Texas schools, and at the time, Drew Brees, being from Texas as well, announced he was going to Purdue. And he was a year older than we were.

Funny enough, I had been dating my longtime boyfriend, who played football, and he had scholarships to go to different schools, and so we were like, oh my goodness, we can go to Purdue. And so I applied. I got an academic scholarship because I was out of state, so that’s how I was going to go. And then we literally broke up right before school, but because he played football, it was easy for him to declare another school. And I was like, “Well, I’m going to Purdue. I have family in Indianapolis, and it’s a Big 10 school.”

And I knew I wanted to do communications. And so while a lot of my friends were going for engineering, I am proud to say that I was part of the School of Liberal Arts and got my degree in communications.

Kate Young:

That’s amazing. And I know you were really involved at Purdue. You were a Golduster.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:


Kate Young:

Did you work at the Black Cultural Center, I believe you said?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

I worked at the Black Cultural Center and I helped change the newsletter. I became a senior editor at the Black Cultural Center. I was part of Jahari Dance Troupe. I also interned in the athletic department, so I was part of the athletic promotions team. I worked at Piercing Pagoda. I was the president of my sorority. When people talk about not having a great college experience, I can’t relate. I’m like, I don’t even understand what you’re saying. I loved school. I was in every club, everything. It was just great.

Kate Young:

How did you balance all of that? Because Purdue has tough academics, and then between all of these different things you were involved in, what was that like?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

Well, because I was on an academic scholarship, there was no playing around with school. And I love school, actually. I’m like, in my next life, I’m going to be a lawyer. I loved it. And it was always about, we can play hard, but we have to work hard. And that’s really just kind of been my mantra. I see it so much even in my professional career, but I would always say, “Guys, we can play hard, but you’ve always got to go to class. You’ve got to show up for class.” And that was my purpose for being there.

And one of the things, I talk about being in sixth grade and wanting to do comms, I was always thinking about what’s next? When I was in elementary school, my mom’s like, “You were already planning for middle school.” So my intent with Purdue was to not only get a good education, but to set me up for my career.

And I had always said, “I want to be the youngest VP. I want to do all these things.” And so in my mind it was, how do I make sure that I’m exposing myself to everything that I can? How do I do the things that I loved? I mean, I cheered, did gymnastics my entire life. I danced. So being able to be part of Jahari and the Goldusters, that was really fueling me. And then I always loved writing, and so when I saw the opening, I literally freshman year saw the opening at the Black Cultural Center, and I worked there all four years.

And so there were all these moments where I knew what I needed to do, but it’s also like what do I want to do and what drives me? And being president of my sorority, I remember thinking, I want to join a sorority. It’s kind of what you do. But I loved the experience, and just as you’ll hear as we talk, being the fact that I’m an entrepreneur and own companies and I’m Type A, I’m like, of course if I’m going to be in a sorority, I’m going to be the president. So it was just-

Kate Young:


Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:


Kate Young:

I love that. That’s amazing. And did you intern at the Pacers, as well, during your time at Purdue?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

I did. So I was working in the athletic department as a promotions intern and I ended up meeting Kathy Jordan. And Kathy Jordan was the first Black cheerleader at Purdue. And I was telling her that I was thinking I wanted to get into sports, I knew I wanted to do comms, and she was working at the Pacers, and so she said, “Why don’t you come do an internship and see what you think?”

And so I was literally going between Purdue and the Pacers every week, multiple times a week, to do this internship. What happens was my now husband, who I actually met my freshman year of college, and my best friend Brandon, who I met the first day of college at Purdue, actually works for me now. So essentially Kathy said, “Come do this internship at the Pacers.” I’m going back and forth, back and forth, and there was an opportunity to apply to get my master’s in sports administration.

And so I was like, actually that’s what I want to do. I can still do comms, because I was working in community relations, and all the promotion work I was doing at Purdue, I loved it. And so I was like, this is a great mix. So I applied, I won a scholarship to get my master’s in sports administration, and at the same time, the year before, I did an internship in New York at FleishmanHillard. So I literally am sitting here. I had done this internship the year before in New York. I spent the year working at the Pacers. I end up winning this scholarship to get my master’s, and literally Fleishman called me and they said, “We have an assistant account executive role, but you have to be in New York in two weeks.”

I was just like, “Oh my gosh,” but that’s what, you know, sixth grade, I’m like, I want to do comms. I go to Purdue for comms. I’m doing all these things. And so I literally said, “That’s what I want to do.” I gave my scholarship back. I talked to Kathy about it, and I of course talked to my family. We didn’t know anyone in New York. We also weren’t a family where we could just be like, “Yeah, here’s your apartment and here’s your driver and here’s your first class ticket.”

So I did all this research and found the nuns had professional housing for women at the convent, and so I literally called them, they had a slot open. I got all my paperwork, and within two weeks I had moved to New York to start my career at Fleishman.

Kate Young:

That is amazing. And so what was it like living with the nuns exactly?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

Well, it’s so funny because the beauty of college is you’re living with your parents. From my perspective, I know not everyone has this experience, but from my experience, living with my parents, great, super active, doing everything, and then going to Purdue, living on my own in Meredith Hall for the first time, and then actually three of my roommates, we ended up getting an apartment, but I was always around friends. And then the protection of campus. I think that’s what makes Purdue so special, is that you’re truly in your own sphere of people who are there for the same reason you’re there for, you have all these activities, you have a dining hall. It’s just your own little world.

And so I at least had the experience of having my own apartment, having to pay the bills, but then going to New York by yourself, this major city, it was quite a lot. And I’m originally from Texas. I graduated from Round Rock High School. It was such an interesting moment. And the nuns were very grounding because we had a curfew, you had to make your bed, you had to get up at a certain time, and so it really kind of set the tone, but it was a different experience. But I’m glad that I had that stability, being in New York and starting my career there.

Kate Young:

Yeah, absolutely. And what a big change, from Texas to New York City.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

Yes, and I remember, it’s so funny because growing up in Texas, I was in Round Rock, Texas, and I also lived in Houston and Abilene, but we didn’t have snow. If it got too cold, everything shut down and it was like, oh my goodness. And so even though my family lived in Indianapolis, I would only go to Indianapolis for holidays or in the summer with my grandparents, but I never lived there. So I remember my freshman year, and it was snowing and I literally just sat down on this wall on campus and was just like, get me out of here. It’s snowing. What is this? It was traumatizing.

Kate Young:

I thought you were going to say, “Oh, I was enjoying the snow.”

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

No. I was like, what is this? Get me out of here. It’s one thing to visit the snow and it’s all fun and you’re throwing snowballs at your grandmother’s house and it’s Christmas. It’s another to live in the snow and have to navigate your life in the snow. I remember just looking at campus, and it was so great, and I was like, I don’t know if I can stay in the snow, but alas, I did, and it was fine and all the things.

Kate Young:

That’s amazing. We want to hear maybe a favorite story, a favorite memory from your time at Purdue. You probably have a thousand.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

Oh my gosh. You know what? One memory that always is just so powerful, and there’s a lot, but being a Golduster and marching onto the fields with Purdue Pete and the band, because we would line up and then you’d have to practice the kicks. And being able to just walk around campus and then walk into the stadium on game day, I still so vividly see that experience in that moment, and it was just fantastic, especially as someone who loves a good tailgate, who loves a party. That moment was great.

There’s all of these moments, even at the Black Cultural Center, I started when the Black Cultural Center was a small house on the street. Now the Black Cultural Center is so beautiful and pristine. So even seeing that transition was just amazing. And being back on campus, oh gosh, I’m going to mess this up. I just won an award. I won the Pioneering Women Award, and then I was also just on campus for the dorm recognition. It was just fascinating to see what has happened because I remember when the BCC was moving, so that was an amazing experience.

I think the other things too, just my sorority, that was just amazing, and the ability for just people who don’t know each other to come together and to make something happen because we had to do so much volunteer work. You’re really organizing yourself. You’re running a mini company within the school. And having to get the request to use the space and rent, all of those memories I think about in business today and how it so has informed how I show up in business, how I run my business, the memories I have.

And of course, class, it’s so interesting how when I was in school, we didn’t have cell phones. We ended up having pagers, and then at the end, they were big. And we also didn’t have laptops. So going to the computer lab, and then in the end, my roommate finally had one. It was always like a party in the computer lab, even though everyone was doing work. So it’s so different now because the students, they have their laptops, they don’t have to do that communal aspect of school in that way, which I think about now how much I enjoyed it because of the communal aspect.

I loved going to class, and you were with everyone. And it’s so funny, Kate, oh my gosh, I have my mortar boards, which I should have brought. I’ll take some pictures so that you have them. But I’ll go back and look at my mortar boards and be like, oh my gosh, I was so organized back then.

Kate Young:

That does not surprise me at all. I always laugh too, because I’m in the really weird age where we had cell phones, but I didn’t have internet on my cell phone, so when I was out, I was out. I wasn’t on Facebook and on Instagram, but you could still text people. So it was like this weird in between.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

Oh my gosh, that’s so funny. You’re right. And it’s so crazy to think now the students have cell phones and laptops, and they’re virtual and they’re doing all these things, and we were laughing about that, going from the pager into the cell phone, and I hadn’t even thought about not having the internet. That’s right. And then you were just out.

Kate Young:

You know, you mentioned Goldusters and you were part of athletics. How has it felt watching Purdue sports? We’ve had some wonderful sports victories lately. What have you been? Have you been keeping up, I guess?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

It’s funny because when I lived in New York and LA, but New York was such a, I don’t know, there were so many Purdue alumni and everyone would meet at the bar and you could watch the game. And even when I see people in Purdue gear here, I’m like, oh my gosh, Purdue, Purdue. So it’s a different experience.

And also I think too, in New York, I didn’t have a child. I didn’t own a home. It’s a different life stage. But now we’re always watching the games because I have so many Purdue friends that are in LA with me. So we talk about it, we cheer [inaudible 00:18:00] on. It’s great to see the wins and the successes across all of the different categories, and especially on the basketball side. So it’s great. I’m so happy.

Kate Young:

Okay, so I know you interned in New York City and then you got a full-time position. You were really at the forefront of this influencer marketing and blogging, and I know you spent time at Ralph Lauren. So walk us through that phase of your career.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

Oh my goodness. It’s so funny because it’s the things in life that happen and in the moment you’re just moving, and then you look back and you’re like, oh my gosh, I was part of something that was so revolutionary in terms of media consumption and consumer behavior. So at Fleishman, when I was an assistant account executive, we had, and this is early two thousands, so we had [inaudible 00:18:52], Black Planet, and Asia Avenue as clients, and they were the original social networking sites.

And it’s funny because there’s a term in marketing called the Riches or in the Niches. And so when you think about the fact that those were the original sites and they were niched audiences and communities. So I had the opportunity of working on those platforms and that was pre-MySpace, pre-Facebook. I remember when MySpace launched and we were in this conference room, and I’m like the only Black person, young female, and literally the team is trying to figure out how to increase the market share of the youth audience for Cingular Wireless.

We don’t even have Cingular now. We have AT&T. But we were sitting there, and I raised my hand and I said, “What about MySpace?” And everyone’s like, “What’s MySpace?” And I’m telling them. And so my boss said, “Well, let’s go meet the team at MySpace.” So we fly from New York to LA, it’s literally five guys in this little room, and they’re talking about MySpace and the bands. And so we came up with this idea to create a mobile music studio, where we took the unsigned bands on MySpace, we turned their music into ringtones, and they became ringtones on Cingular.

So when I’m sitting there and I’m like, okay, so I’m working with the first social networking sites. I’m working with Cingular, which is now AT&T. And we created ringtones. In the moment, and I just remember us being like, “Oh yeah, and then you show your phone and then you get into the concert for free.” We did this 12 city mall tour, and it’s funny because JoJo, who’s like a star now, was so young and she was our opening act for this mall tour. That was literally my first kind of, wow, you can monetize social content, because everyone was making a rev share from the music. You can do something really cool with bands. And we’re using this interesting technology called a cell phone to do ringtones.

And I just remember, you know, we talk about mentors and allies in business, and I mentioned being the only Black female, and my boss was an older white man, and he always gave me a voice. And so literally we sat down and he said, “Tell me all your ideas.” And so I’m telling him the ideas, he’s telling me his ideas, we come up with this great plan, and he presents it to the president of Fleishman.

Now, Fleishman at the time was the largest PR agency in the world, owned by Omnicom, offices everywhere. So he presents it, and he gave me credit, and by him giving me credit, it opened the door for me to have a voice and to be able to really start sharing my ideas. We ended up going to the CEO summit in Beijing. We went to Hong Kong, Korea. We would go all over Europe and Canada, doing these bootcamps about what we call digital communications, which would later become social media. And I worked on MTV for the Video Music Awards, going into message boards and forums and chatting with the bands. So it was just such an amazing experience, and all of this and Facebook was like, when Facebook launched, it was still a .edu. So we were doing all these things before Facebook became open to people that didn’t have a .edu address.

So fast forward, I helped build the digital practice group at Fleishman, and it was fantastic. We worked with so many different clients, from PNG to Avon, which was so funny, to Mary Kay and everyone in between. And I remember thinking, okay, my boss at the time ended up creating his own social media, kind of like SMS agency, and he said, “Do you want to go or do you want to stay?” And I said, “I want to stay.” And I became the youngest VP, which was my dream from the beginning.

And then I got recruited to go to Ralph Lauren, and I was always the go-to one for anything beauty, anything fashion. And so at Ralph, they had this position for the first director of digital media. At that time, this was in 2009, there weren’t many of us who had been around but were still young and of the generation and could navigate corporate. So I became the first director of digital media, and I reported into David Lauren, the head of corporate communications, the head of marketing, the head of advertising. And then I would have to sit with the CFO of all of Ralph Lauren public company and talk about how much I was making from Facebook ads.

And so the experience was dynamic because I’d sit with David Lauren for four hours. We’d just be looking at all the different blogs and all the different sites, and they were called blogs, pre-influencers. And then because I was part of the corporate communications team, I was also navigating the content and the copy. I went to the Olympics and was literally taking photos of the athletes and posting it, but then I’d get back and I’d have to be in this big meeting with the CFO, giving my numbers.

And so it was such an amazing experience. And I’ll say this one other thing, is that that experience and the experience at Fleishman and at Purdue, redoing the newsletter, being the president of my sorority, all of those were the stepping stones that took me into the world of being an entrepreneur. And when I look back, I was an intrapreneur because I was building things within a company, but that was the journey that led me to be an entrepreneur.

And I remember I sat outside of Ralph Lauren’s office, and I was in a board meeting with Ralph and the team, and the conversation was around buying back his licenses and his wealth management team was there. And I’ll never forget being like, I want a wealth management team. I want to own a company. And that was such a trigger for me. And literally within that year, I met my first business partner and we started our first company.

Kate Young:

Were you nervous, it doesn’t sound like you were, to take that path of it’s kind of these corporate jobs, I’m sure it paid really well, it’s kind of risky to become an entrepreneur. What was your comfort level, and how did you ultimately make that decision to leave these jobs where you were doing the coolest stuff imaginable?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

Oh my gosh, I have worked on that so much in terms of fear to faith. And I’ve always lived by this mantra, even Purdue, before Purdue, of carpe diem, because you always have to seize the day. And I’ll never forget, I met my business partner because she had a beauty brand that she was selling on HSN. She was freelancing for Club Monaco, which was owned by Ralph Lauren. I knew her for two months. I was thinking about her, thinking about her, texted her Saturday morning, she called me immediately, and I said, “I have an idea to manage bloggers.” And she said, “Me too.”

And we put up a website that day, got our husbands together for brunch Sunday, filed for an LLC Monday. I went to David Lauren, and I was like, “I’m going to manage bloggers.” And he was like, “As long as they’re wearing Ralph Lauren.”

And every Friday we would meet at the Standard Hotel in the meat packing district of New York, and we would meet with all of these amazing bloggers. And that was in 2010. And I was still working at Ralph Lauren and everyone knew, and it was like the bloggers were wearing Ralph Lauren. And then it started getting real. We started having more clients. We ended up helping Tiffany & Co. and Tory Burch with their social strategy. And it quickly became, like it’s time to move.

Karen and I were so nervous because we didn’t have these huge bank accounts. We didn’t have pre-seed money. We were making money and putting it into the business. We didn’t have this 30 page business plan. We just knew that these bloggers were going to be the next big thing. And we also knew that we had clients on the other side. So when I went to resign, David and I kind of didn’t speak for a few weeks, and David said, “I want you to meet with our chief of staff. She’s going to talk to you.”

So I meet with the chief of staff, a Black woman who was one of the only Black women in a senior leadership role back then in 2010. She said, “Well, tell me what you want to do. Tell me what you want to do. Everyone is up in arms.” So I explained it to her and she says, “It sounds like you have a good plan.” And she said, “And your last name isn’t Lauren.” And she said, “So the beauty is that if it doesn’t work, you can always come back or you can always get a job, but if you don’t try, then you’ll miss the moment.” And so with that, I was like, “Yeah, my last name isn’t Lauren, and I’m smart. I can always come back.” And so with that, we left, or I left, and we just started growing the business.

And it was great. We were very fortunate because Ralph Lauren became a client of our agency, Digital Brand Architects. And so we still kind of had that through line of connectivity. And I always tell, especially people who are working in companies and want to start something, you just can’t burn that bridge. You always have to make sure that you’re above board and transparent with what you’re doing. And that was such a great lesson for me.

So fast forward, we end up growing DBA, we got investments, we opened an office in Hong Kong, we licensed the business in Italy. It was a phenomenal experience. It was scary. There were times where we were like, oh my gosh, what are we going to do? There were times where of course we didn’t pay ourselves. So it’s definitely, I say it’s not for the faint of heart or the weak in spirit because you have to believe beyond the shadow of the doubt that you’re going to be successful, which makes entrepreneurs slightly a little over the top. But I think that that’s the mark of it.

Kate Young:

And then where was Instagram in the midst of all this? Was that coming to fruition as you were leading this company?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

So it’s so funny because when we launched, there was no Instagram or Pinterest. Instagram came shortly, right in that timeframe. Pinterest came later. YouTube, all those things were later. And so I remember when we launched our Power Pinner division, so representing power pinners and the evolution of what that was, different from just straight bloggers. And it’s funny because so many of the talent that we represented back then, Something Navy, the majority of them are just doing so well in their careers. I mean, you look at Something Navy, who we were working with Ariel in the beginning. Now she has her own clothing line, her books, her this.

And so our whole thing was always from the perspective of you may not be a blogger posting pictures of yourself forever, but you are a brand. And what is your book deal? What’s your TV deal? And so for me, what I learned about myself building DBA was that I am really good at brand building. I’m good at brand strategy. I’m good at looking at and finding the white space of innovation. And prior to that, I never would’ve been able to say this is what I’m good at with confidence. And it’s such a psychological kind of movement in your career, where especially as women, we can proudly say, “No, this is what I’m good at. This is what I know I can do well.” And that’s protected me whenever I have these moments of fear and doubt.

Because since then I’ve started three other companies. I’ve raised money, sold a company, built a team. I’m now starting a venture fund. So I always go back to what are you good at? What did you learn? What has this journey taught you? Because there’s no one in the world who never has a moment of fear and doubt. It’s how do we overcome it? How do we get ourselves to the other side, and how do we make sure that we know that what we’re doing is greater than the fear that we have? And I always say I turn fear into faith. And for me, the faith is what carries me because I know I’m going to be all right.

Kate Young:

I mentioned at the beginning of this episode that Kendra was one of the first 100 Black women in the country to raise over one million in funding for her first company. Kendra shares more about what this means to her and what she’s doing to support Black founders in growing their businesses.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

Well, here’s a funny thing. We raised two million, and I didn’t even know that that was a stat until recently. I didn’t know. I knew the Black women, we are the least funded in terms of our companies. There’s all these stats, less than 0.02%. But I didn’t even think of it that way because I was just marching. You know what I mean? You’re in it, you’re working. And we had to raise money or the company would’ve gone under. And so it never occurred to me until later.

And now I started BrainTrust Founders Studio. Well, I guess in between that, when I left DBA, I started a company called BrainTrust. And I remember sitting in my office and thinking, what have I learned? What do I want to do? And one of my really good friends said, “It’s okay to move past something. It’s okay to outgrow something.” And so I’m sitting there and I’m like, okay, the one thing that I know I love, I love being around smart people. I love smart conversations. Everyone is smart in their own right. And I also love working in groups and community.

The thing that I learned from my first company is that as aligned as you may be in terms of an idea, if you don’t have trust in your business partner or you don’t have trust in your team, there’s only a matter of time before it just goes awry. And so I said, I love being around smart people and people that I trust. And so I named my company BrainTrust, with this notion that with smart people coming together, we can do and accomplish and solve any problem.

And so for that company, I was able to leverage clients. I didn’t have to raise money for it. We were moving along. And it was interesting because as we started to grow and expand, I was always thinking about, do we raise money? Do we not raise money? What do I want to do? And so fast forward, we ended up doing an acquisition deal with CAA Global Brands Group, which at the time was fantastic for us. It wasn’t necessarily the right path for the agency or the right direction. It’s hard to take an entrepreneur and then put them back into corporate, but still keep them as an entrepreneur. For me, it was really hard.

And so I ended up buying that company back, which took us into COVID. And during COVID had so many founder friends who were just struggling. And when you look at the stats, again, I’m looking at the stats of Black business owners. We are creating more businesses than any other group, but yet our businesses are failing at higher rates. And at the same time, I won an award as one of the top women in beauty by Essence magazine. We did this amazing cover. It was great. And I was approached to do my podcast, Business of the Beat, focused on diversifying the faces we see in the beauty and wellness industry.

When I started talking to founders about raising money, how do you fund your business, I saw this huge need and gap. And so in October, we created BrainTrust Founders Studio to provide community mentorship education for Black founders of beauty and wellness companies. And as part of that, I always wanted to figure out how to invest. I’m a comms major, I do have an MBA, but that’s quite a different path than investment bankers and economics majors and people who trained. And so I always wanted to do a fund. And then again, people were like, “You can’t do a fund. You’ve never done a fund,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

My business partner, literally, I ran into her. We had known each other for 20 years, and she immediately was like, “We can do this.” That’s part of this journey too. I think about Alan, my first ally, I think about Lisa, and after DBA and my partners there, I was like, I don’t know if I want a co-founder ever again. There’s always this thing of do you get a co-founder? Do you not? And so when Lisa and I reconnected, the magic was there for us to say, let’s be co-founders in this fund and studio.

We launched our fund, and it’s been amazing, being able to launch a fund and then invest back into founders, especially when I think about the stats and I think about what I went through in my journey. If I can make the path a little easier for the next generation of founders, that’s my mission and purpose in life. And I’m using the gifts and the tools that I have in terms of what I’m good at to be able to do that.

Kate Young:

And were you always passionate about the beauty and wellness space? I know you’ve worked in fashion, you’ve done a lot of amazing things, but why the beauty and wellness space, and why is it important specifically for African American women?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

So I realized my mom, so my mom was always in these senior jobs. I used to travel with her, which is where I get it from. My daughter travels with me everywhere. I was like, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But my mom was always the head of HR. She was always doing amazing work, but on the side, she would do Mary Kay and she would do [inaudible 00:36:01] because she just loved it. And my mom always has so much makeup. She has every palette.

And so I remember I used to get to be her model, and so she would do the makeup and I was like, “Oh, I love this. I love this.” I never even thought about the industry, though, of makeup because I just didn’t know. And so when I got to Fleishman and I got to work on all of these different beauty brands, I was like, oh, this is great. And I just passionately loved it. So fashion, beauty, everyone came to me.

And then at Ralph, as much as we were fashion, the fashion shows, it’s such a beautiful curation of hair and makeup and glam. I love glam. And so many of our clients, just because of my history, were in fashion. And then we started moving into beauty. And then I also was a shareholder in Beautycon, which was the largest beauty festival. The funny thing is that when I started the agency, so many of our clients were beauty and wellness and fashion, which made sense in terms of my background. And so we were naturally in this space, but because of my connection to Beautycon and Moj, the founder, we were doing so much there.

And I became a shareholder in Beautycon because I just, Beautycon was the largest beauty festival in the world. It doesn’t get more magical than seeing people in their true self with glitter and hair and makeup and everything. And I’ve had such a love for it. And during COVID, Moj and I started a nonprofit called Beauty United. We brought together everyone from Bobby Brown to Lisa Price to the Lauders, to Gwyneth Paltrow, really just the titans of beauty. And we came together in a way of just trying to solve for what do we do? How do you get PPP? How do you do this? And we ended up raising money for frontline responders. We donated over two million in products to frontline workers. It was just an amazing time of just having so many people who were normally competing in beauty come together.

And so we’ve been able to grow the nonprofit arm, really focus on diversifying beauty. We have created this amazing mentorship program for BIPOC and indigenous founders and entrepreneurs and even executives. And so that really was, oh my goodness, you were truly squarely in beauty. And so at my company, on the BrainTrust Agency side, we primarily work with beauty, wellness, fashion. We have a lot of activewear clients, which are important to me from a wellness perspective. And then of course with our BrainTrust Founders Studio, we are solely focused on supporting Black beauty and wellness founders. And it truly is my expertise. It’s my lane, it’s my team’s lane.

And when we think about the wellness aspect of it, there’s all of the stats in terms of Black people and diabetes, our risk for diabetes, our risk for certain types of cancers, high blood pressure. My grandmother has experienced diabetes, which led to Alzheimer’s. So I always think about wellness in the sense of how do we make sure that we are looking at wellness through the multiple lenses of culture, of people, of demographics.

I mean, Kate, you saw me this morning. Every morning I have green tea, I have lemon, I have my eight greens tablet, I have vitamin C. It’s like my thing. And I have my Glow Drops. So I am always thinking about it. And I think that it’s so important. And especially now, there’s so many great and brilliant people who are trying to solve for chronic illnesses. And so that’s really where I believe I can have the most impact and provide the most value.

Kate Young:

Okay, I want to bring it back to Purdue, but first I am curious, where do you think the influencer space and the beauty, wellness, fashion space is heading towards now? Because we have TikTok. It feels like stuff’s always coming at us, too. What are your thoughts on that?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

I put on my list this year that I was going to really get involved in web three and the Metaverse and NFTs. I’ve been able to have clients in that space, and to really start to look at it, I am in no way an expert. I am trying with my open [inaudible 00:40:11] in all of these things. I think that there is something there. I think that of course the beauty brands, [inaudible 00:40:16], there’s been some great work happening. I think that beauty, fashion, we’re all going to have to look at the metaverse and how we can leverage it, especially with this kind of convergence of online and offline, what that looks like.

We’ve been looking a lot at ingredients. And so what is clean and vegan and natural? What does that really mean? What do you really need? And what’s the evolution of that? Because it feels like everyone’s doing it. What’s the governing body in our industry that protects us in knowing? We’re doing a lot of work, looking through the lens of digestibles and what does that look like in relation to topicals in terms of natural skincare?

I’m excited about virtual shopping, and there’s always been the QVCs and the HSN. We partnered with a company called Talk Shop Live, and we did this Black beauty bazaar. And so we had our founders who were live selling, people are live shopping. Walmart does a great job. There’s a lot of people doing that in the space. YouTube just is doing their partnership with Shopify, and the shopping aspect. Of course, TikTok shopping. So I think that we’re going to continue to see innovation. There’s always going to be a tie to revenue in terms of how is everyone making money? How are we buying and selling?

I mean, look at Glossier, going into retail, our darling D2C brand. So I think that there’s going to be a convergence. And I also think people are ready to get out. As safe as we have to be, it’s not as though retail is slowing down. Yes, shopping habits have changed. And so I think that as a brand founder, we are constantly looking at where are all the places my product needs to be, based upon where my consumer lives. And so when you think about where your consumer’s living, that they are consuming TikTok five hours a day, that they are doing YouTube shopping, you have to be able to create an ecosystem for your brand that exists in multiple places. And then leveraging the innovations in technology to help you work smarter. Like the metaverse, how do we leverage that?

So it’s an exciting time. It’s really wild to be working, to have a career that didn’t have all these things, and then have all these things, but still be so squarely focused on the innovation that’s happening in my lifetime, in our lifetime. It’s exciting.

Kate Young:

Absolutely. Okay, so we’ve talked about Purdue, we’ve talked about walking in as a Golduster into [inaudible 00:42:42]. What does that Boilermaker spirit and that community mean to you?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

Oh my gosh, it’s so great to be part of it. And it’s so much pride. I was just keynoting the Purdue Women’s Leadership Conference, which we were at. And it was amazing. I mean, I literally walked in and saw Jessica, who we went to school together. It was just like, oh my gosh, look at us. And she was a speaker. All the amazing women that I met, and we were all connected through this notion of Purdue. It’s great.

I mean, even being back at Purdue for the Parker Sisters dorm commitment, it was like to be part of that and to say, oh my goodness, look at how far the university has come and I’m part of this history, it means so much. And for me, when I think about just the spirit of Purdue, it is this sense of community. It was just my sorority’s, the centennial hundredth anniversary and [inaudible 00:43:38] two weekends ago, or a few weekends ago. And we were all like the Epsilon Gamma chapter. It’s like wow, to be part of something, like we’re not going to see a hundred years of something in our lifetime, but we have that connectivity through Purdue. We have that connectivity through our sorority, and it’s always amazing to be part of something greater than yourself.

And for me, I am a lifetime alumni of Purdue, I have an endowment at Purdue for a Black female college student in the School of Liberal Arts. That was so important for me, to be able to give back. And the more I progress in my career, the more I want to give back, the more I want to be part of things, the more I want to be part of the history and the legacy of moving Purdue forward, especially through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion for women, for Black women, for students of need. I’m personally committed and I’m personally passionate about being part of the fabric of Purdue.

Kate Young:

That’s amazing. I love that. Purdue is known for engineering and that math and science, that STEM, and then here you are, this incredibly successful person in fashion. I love all that. Well, how did per Purdue tee you up for this career?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

So it’s so interesting because the comms world, I mean, it’s so much fun. And I remember because we were such a smaller school, everyone was engineering, I’m going to be an astronaut. And we were writing papers, we were storytelling, we were interacting. I do so many speaking engagements, and that’s because I was doing speaking at Purdue.

There’s so many life skills that you get outside of the classroom, inside the classroom. And then it’s just the general coursework. I mean, no one knew when I was in 98 a freshman at Purdue that there was going to be MySpace and Facebook and TikTok and YouTube. But what we did know is how do you write correct grammar? How do you tell a story? How do you write a press release? Even though I’m not in the day-to-day of PR, I just wrote a press release the other day. And I can go back to my AP style guide. Like, there’s skills that even if the output and the tools are changing of which you communicate, it’s still the basic foundation of how to communicate, how to write well, reading a synopsis.

So there’s definitely those components that no matter what happens in the world, Purdue has set us up to be able to go out into the world and be successful if we receive it and we do the work on the other side.

Kate Young:

Okay, last question. What makes Purdue unique in your eyes, and why are you in LA proud to be a Boilermaker?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

I think that it’s that experience and that community. I think about talking to other people who had different university experiences. And I know I keep saying I didn’t have that experience, but I do think that it was, I mean, the professors at Purdue were encouraging. I remember my counselor talking about how we’re going to navigate the environment, the school setup. There is so much just school pride, when you can walk on campus and see your colors.

So I think that those are some of the differentiation points, like how the school supported students, how we could come together as community, all of the different activities. If you don’t want to be in a sorority and you don’t want to work in the athletic department and be a Golduster, there’s archery. I mean, you could even create your own and you would be supported. And so I think that for me, it was such the stepping stone between you’re in high school, now you’re an adult, and that bridge from starting to be an adult to being an adult, and everything that was informed by my time there has been such a catalyst that I will always keep with me.

Kate Young:

Well, we can’t thank you enough for joining us. Is there any last minute advice or anything you want to share with our listeners?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

Oh my goodness. I mentioned carpe diem. I think that carpe diem, you always have to seize the day. You always have to be ready. What I’ve learned in my career is people will tell you how you should be, how you should think. You always have to go deep, listen to yourself, listen to your gut. I always think that you have to take everything that you do and reflect on it in terms of what did you learn and how is that going to inform your journey and carry you forward.

And the other thing is that it’s not always going to be easy. And so we really have to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves, that we have self-actualization to understand when we need the time to pause, when we need our friend circle. But at the end of the day, keeping the faith that it’s going to be all right and that we’re all going to make it, that we’re here together, and that with hard times come good times. So I just think carpe diem and go for it and never look back and learn from everything that you do.

Kate Young:

I love it. That’s amazing.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

Thank you. And boiler up. I have to say boiler up. Boiler up and up and up and up and up. Boiler up.

Kate Young:

We got a performance out of this, too. I love it. They love it. That’s amazing.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

Yes, we did.

Kate Young:

I cannot wait for our listeners to hear this episode.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

Thank you so much, Kate. This is great. Thank you for doing this and telling the stories and bringing everything to life. It’s fantastic.

Kate Young:

Thank you so much.

Couldn’t you just feel Kendra’s energy through this audio? It was such a pleasure talking to her. Something that really stuck out to me during this interview was her mantra, carpe diem. It’s very clear Kendra has adopted that seize the day energy throughout her entire life. She’s the epitome of a Boilermaker, persistent, innovative, balanced, inclusive, intentional. The list goes on. I can’t wait to hear what Kendra’s next giant leap in the beauty and wellness industry is.

If you want to watch our video clips with Kendra, head over to our new podcast YouTube page, youtube.com/@thisispurdue. And remember, follow us on your favorite podcast platform to never miss an episode. This is Purdue is hosted and written by me, Kate Young. Our podcast video lead is Ted Shellenberger in collaboration with John Garcia, [inaudible 00:49:48] Boone and Humsa Saed. Our social media marketing is led by Ashley Schreyer. Our lead podcast photographer is John Underwood. Our podcast design is led by Caitlin Freeville. Our podcast team project manager is Emily [inaudible 00:50:00]. Our podcast YouTube promotion is managed by Megan Hoskins and Kirsten Boris. And our podcast research is led by our This is Purdue intern, Sophie Ritz.

Thanks for listening to This is Purdue. For more information on this episode, visit our website at purdue.edu/podcast. There you can head over to your favorite podcast app to subscribe and leave us a review. And as always, boiler up.

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