Business Mentors Helped This KC Marketing Entrepreneur Find Success after Layoff

After a layoff, marketer Brooke Estell decided to start her own business – but then figured out she already had.

“Last summer, I thought I’d do a little freelancing,” Brooke says. “One thing led to another. It was crazy because I was so caught up in how to start that I didn’t realize I had already started.”

Brooke Noel Digital Marketing Studio works with BIPOC- and women-owned businesses. But serving this niche wasn’t just a business decision. It reflects Brooke’s own journey to find her place in the marketing industry – and the mentors who supported her along the way.

Starting a career and finding mentors

At the beginning of her career, Brooke knew what she wanted, but she wasn’t sure how to get there.

“I was always the ‘other’ or the ‘only’ growing up,” she says. “I went to predominately white schools and a white university, and I studied English. I was the only one who looked like me in my classes. I knew I wanted to get into marketing, but I didn’t know what that would look like.”

Brooke joined Lathrop Gage as a marketing assistant. That team included Katie Hollar Barnard, who now owns Firesign Legal Marketing. Katie soon became a mentor.

“She allowed me to learn about everything from business development to communications and PR and everything in between,” Brooke says. “She gave me the footing to help figure out what path I wanted to take in the marketing space.”

Following a stint at Littler, Brooke went on to work at Shook, Hardy & Bacon. There, opportunities and diversity were a welcome change.

“It was the first time I felt like, ‘Yes! I have a ton of different people around me!’” she says. “I want to make sure I’m representing and bringing forth issues of women and Black women and people of color. But none of those people are monolith. It’s difficult to navigate those conversations when you’re the only one.”

At Shook, Brooke was inspired by CEO Madeleine McDonough. And she was able to take advantage of opportunities like the Kay Barnes Leadership Series through the Mid-America LGBT Chamber of Commerce. Brooke also attended the 2017 Women of Color Leadership Conference at UMKC and was moved by speaker Angela Rye, a political strategist.

“Angela stressed that you don’t have to shrink yourself,” Brooke says. “Being the singular person had made me a little nervous to speak up — and I found I was shrinking myself. Angela Rye said I don’t have to do that.”

It was a turning point. That year, Brooke started working on her master’s degree with the Integrated Marketing Communications Program at the University of Kansas. She took note of how women she respected were growing in their careers and even launching their own businesses. And she began to take more risks.

“I mustered up enough courage to go to the marketing director and say, ‘Hey, can I manage social?’” Brooke says. “We worked together to develop a strategy that worked really well. I started to gain confidence.”


A year of change and entrepreneurship

Brooke’s 2020 ended with a layoff and her realization that as a freelancer, she was, indeed, a business owner. But the year started with a new job with a local bank. She was one of the few people of color in the company.

“I started to feel tokenized,” Brooke said. “I realized I was going to continue to feel like this unless I worked for myself or for an organization that values diversity and inclusion not in a performative sense – they want to make it a way of life.”

Her hairdresser asked if she was freelancing. And Brooke thought, “Well, why not?”

Brooke did all the branding for her stylist’s new salon. Then, a former attorney from Shook reached out for design help and running social marketing for a new venture.

“I was working full time, 40 hours a week plus 20-25 hours of freelance on top of that,” she says. “It was insane! I didn’t know how it was going to last. But I told myself, ‘You can do this. You’re doing this. Hold tight. It’s going to pay off.’”

It helped that Brooke was connected with encouraging mentors and role models.  

“I surround myself with a lot of Black women,” she says. “My mentors are women. They’ve helped me believe that I can do this.”

These connections have been a vital part of Brooke’s career and personal growth — at work, in school and beyond.

“Brooke tapped into the power of networking,” says Angie Hendershot, professor of the practice at The William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at KU. “She built lasting connections with classmates and instructors, plus she continues to inspire others by speaking to students following in her footsteps. She learns from each person she meets, and that’s going to continue to make a difference for her.”

Those relationships provided a steady foundation as big changes came Brooke’s way. In November, the bank laid off its entire marketing department.

“After I sat with it, I thought, ‘You’ve been asking for this, this is what you wanted, now you have to do it,’” Brooke says. “It was the universe clearing the path for me.”

Brooke Estell | Photo by Adri Guyer

Embracing entrepreneurship

Brooke decided not to look for a full-time job. Instead, she trusted herself and jumped into Brooke Noel Digital Marketing.

“It’s weird because I don’t feel like a business owner yet,” she says. “I’m still realizing being an entrepreneur doesn’t mean one thing. There’s no one journey, and it’s not linear.”

Because she had started freelancing, Brooke already had clients when she started her company. Now, she’s continuing to network and figure out where she wants to go.

“I think 2020 forced people to realize that we as people are important,” Brooke says. “You need to care for people as a whole, not just one group. This was the year for ‘we’re not going to do that anymore.’ And that was the approach I’m taking with my business – I’m not going to be for everybody. And that’s OK.”

Brooke is dedicated to working with women, BIPOC and LGBTQ clients. And she wants them to have top-notch marketing powering their ventures.

“Small companies and minority-owned companies don’t have access to big ad agencies,” she says. “I’ve studied under the people at these big agencies and worked for some of the greatest CMOs in the country. I want to take those high-quality services and bring them to a level people can afford.”

Advice for new business owners

When it comes to other entrepreneurs just starting out, Brooke’s words of wisdom include macro and micro movements.

“The first thing I did was force myself to change my Instagram category to reflect that I was a freelancer,” she says. “It’s such a little thing. But a few weeks after I did that, a colleague said, ‘Hey, I saw you were freelancing – my boss needs marketing support.’ I think sometimes we overlook those baby steps but they can have a very big impact!”

That small change on Instagram is a way Brooke advocated for herself.

“If you don’t believe in yourself, there’s nothing that’s going to happen,” she says. “You have to trust yourself. And you have to just go for it. You hear people saying, ‘Just jump off the deep end,’ but if that’s not how you roll, you don’t have to do it like that. I work slower – I’m protecting my peace. I’m not a gambler. People should look at themselves and how they operate and understand there’s not a cookie-cutter way to operate.”

Brooke also suggests staying aware of your changing needs.

“I started out as freelance, thinking I was going to do this solo,” she says. “And now I’m thinking, ‘No, I’m probably going to need a team.’ It’s an exciting journey.”

In 2021, Brooke connected with a KCSourceLink Network Navigator for help scaling her business. She learned about SCORE and attended some of the organization’s events. She also received a Personal Action Plan from KCSourceLink designed for her individual needs.

“I’m excited to see what the future holds,” Brooke says.

Photos courtesy of Adri Guyer.

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