During her successful career in the music business, where she worked with everyone from Janet Jackson to Sean Combs, Sheila P. Coates learned a key lesson: Everyone has a brand. Coates turned that lesson into the platform of her new business, Be Your Own Brand, a firm that focuses on helping individuals define, hone and project their own personal brands. Coates has run her 20-person training sessions for executives at companies such as Neutrogena and Macy’s, as well as for youth organizations and women’s groups. Participants in Coates’ sessions emerge empowered with the tools to put their best foot forward in every situation or, as BYOB’s tagline puts it, they can “speak volumes without saying a word.” Of course, person-to-person interactions are a major factor in personal branding, a fact that holds true not only for BYOB clients, but for Coates herself. Winning the Business Opportunity Grant enabled her to not only get out and meet potential clients, but also to promote her own personal brand.

What made you want to continue to work in branding when you left the music business?
At the time, I knew I wanted to leave that industry, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next, and when I really thought about it, I realized that I had truly loved the process of branding individuals. I loved empowering people to get across what they wanted to get across; I just didn’t want to do that in the entertainment industry anymore. And so I decided to take what I used to do for entertainers—figure out their particular brand and market it—and do it for other types of individuals. I started working with corporate people first, then other types of groups. And then I did the Macy’s tour last year. My passion is working with youth, empowering them with the knowledge that, whether they like it or not, they are brands. Within the first 30 seconds of meeting, people form an image of you, and you can control what that image is.

What made you apply for the Business Opportunity Grant?
A lot of my friends are also entrepreneurs, and we’re always sharing links and tips. In the case of the British Airways grant, a fellow entrepreneur sent me the link and something she said about it made a lot of sense. She said, “Contests are a great way to practice explaining your business concisely.” And it’s true, you know, because they usually only give you 100 words or so to say what you do. So, I took it as a challenge and a way to work on concise messaging. I didn’t even think about winning! But of course, travel is very much tied into what I do—meeting with people is crucial, but so is getting out of your comfort zone, seeing new things, being inspired.

How has winning the grant affected your business?

In terms of specifics, I wanted to go to South Africa and work with young people, and I was able to do that. While I was there, I visited the Oprah Winfrey Academy, and presented BYOB to them and they liked it. More generally, that experience and the ability to travel more made me realize, “Well, I can do business internationally,” and that was a great push forward. Sometimes you’re only in your own little window and can’t fathom doing business globally. This inspired me to think beyond my backyard.

What are some of the other benefits increased travel brought to you and your business?
Being able to travel more allowed me to move forward, and really take my business to a different level. It’s not always about the client or potential client you’re meeting at the destination. I’ve actually found that I meet more people on the plane than anywhere, and partially that’s a benefit of being in business class. I met a gentleman on a plane to Cairo, and we got to talking, and he had some suggestions for people he thought would be interested in my services. Now we’re Facebook friends and he’s referring people to me. It also just helps to get out of your regular routine. Entrepreneurship is a very lonely life sometimes; I can’t just walk down the hall and talk to someone and bounce ideas around. So for me when I travel, I get out of my space, meet new people, see different ways to do things and it really breaks me out of that routine and helps me to gain new insights.

Can you think of a specific time when a face-to-face meeting made a major difference in your business?
I can think of hundreds, but most recently, during my trip to South Africa, people I met introduced me to other local businesspeople, which not only led to some potential business but also to my being interviewed by the local CNBC affiliate, all things that would never have happened if I wasn’t there. A face-to-face interaction was crucial to the Macy’s project as well. I had an idea for them for Black History Month and I eventually found the woman in charge of multi-cultural marketing. She liked the idea too and wanted a presentation and more details, which she asked me to email. I said, “sure I can email you some things, but I’d love to present them in person, and I’ll be in New York soon so let’s meet.” Of course, I made a point of going to New York for that. Then the day we were supposed to meet she called and said they were moving her office and downsizing her department and so she wouldn’t be able to meet. I said, “They’re going to move your office anyway, whether you’re there watching them or not. If I were you, I’d get out for some lunch.” She laughed and agreed, so we had our meeting. That lunch lasted two-and-a-half hours and we only spent about 20 minutes talking about the proposal, which she ended up loving. Would she have loved it over email too? Probably. But we built a relationship over that lunch that proved to be instrumental in the success of the campaign, and that could never have happened over email. I can’t say enough about the power of human interaction; every time I make the move to meet with people in person, I close the deal. There’s really no replacement for it.