Business profile: How Janice Torres built an agency that leads with social impact
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Diverse voices are a critical component of creativity. Janice Torres knows this truth well, and she’s built a thriving communications and social impact consulting business upon it.
Torres, a Taíno from Brooklyn, launched The Brand Phoenix in 2014. While she says she’s never wanted a large agency, that doesn’t mean her impact is small. The New York City-based agency has worked with industry giants like Lexus, Jack Daniels and Proctor & Gamble, as well as mission-driven organizations like Hip Hop Public Health and the Bronx Children’s Museum.
She prides herself on understanding the cultural currents that dictate trends, and because she is passionate about supporting small businesses, uplifting diverse voices, and activating strategic partnerships for deserving causes, social good is an essential pillar of her work.
So it’s no surprise The Brand Phoenix is on the planning team for the largest gathering of Native Americans on the East Coast, Indigenous Peoples’ Day New York. It takes place Oct. 9-10, at Randall’s Island Park in New York City. Over the past few years, Torres has helped highlight Indigenous Peoples’ Day to local and international media and recently facilitated an alliance between the non-profit collective and the Americans for the Arts.
Despite her success, securing funding for her business once posed a challenge. She credits her success to her supportive community and the right education. Here’s the story of how Torres turned her skill and passion into a prospering agency.
What was the beginning of The Brand Phoenix like for you?
In 2013 I left a high-stress and low-pay agency gig to freelance. I credit the launch of my company to a village of women who lifted me and told me to price hire and be available for opportunity.
It was a woman executive at HBO that encouraged me to make my business official with an Employer Identification Number. A female friend in finance helped me set it all up. I never took out a business loan, although at times I felt I should have sought out a grant for my advocacy work.
I never desired a large agency. My work is too personal. Just give me the internet and a space to think, and I am good.
Why do you focus on historically marginalized clients?
The right publicity can save a life or make history. I am part of many movements, including efforts that made Juneteenth a federal holiday. Not everyone is a client — I am usually showing up as a community partner.
I’m proud of the work that I have done, which helped Taínos save a pre-historical Puerto Rican ceremonial ground from the perils of privatization. The hip-hop community is the best example of turning the tables on the oppressor. I’ve seen how empowering our music is for causes related to public health awareness and voter participation.
Each effective effort hyper-focuses your eyes to see more community “bat signals”. When it’s your own, you do what you can do. Each drop counts for the building of the ocean.
This work is not for the weak. I had to go private on social media to avoid negativity when I became the first publicist to campaign for major retailers to rename their Columbus Day sales to Fall.
Can you describe the economic struggles that Indigenous peoples have faced and why it’s important to you?
Being “othered” is a challenge. Hawaii and Puerto Rico are absolute case studies.
Natives that have been stewards of the land for millennia can hardly afford to live on their ancestral land. It’s called colonization.
The struggles of Indigenous peoples also span between environmental crimes, cultural appropriation and displacement. You might see the biggest fashion houses inspired by the stitchings of Indigenous women who work in their factories, which are set up in countries where colonization and environmental warfare has devastated their groups.
What does Indigenous Peoples’ Day mean to you?
It represents a new dawn for the people of North America and helps others reimagine the world united. It starts with reflection and the sharing of cultural values, and it advances through equity solutions. I have never experienced an event as special as Indigenous Peoples Day New York at Randall’s Island.
Do you think many in the small business Indigenous community have fair access to necessary financial resources?
No. The equity is simply not there, but it’s getting better. I remember one of the top agencies in the world asking me to put together a panel of Native speakers. They heard them speak on the issues they faced in their communities, which in some cases include reservations, and the executives completely backed out of it. I think they felt they were in over their heads.
Many brands are part of the problem. Fear makes employee groups shy away from connecting with native communities. They often don’t know how. Our collective has been working tirelessly to change that.
What about your own experiences with credit? Have you had any struggles?
I grew up in a household that said, “credit cards are bad.” I graduated from high school when it was legal for credit card companies to have tables at the entrance of the school to poach youngsters.
For this reason I did not take out a credit card for years, which did harm obtaining a business credit line the first few years. I did not have debt or bad credit — I just had insufficient credit. I teamed up with financial advisors that put me on the right track.
Is good credit important to you, and if so, why?
Good credit is so important!
I have had emergencies with pets, [necessitating] life-saving surgeries for my cat, and needed to up my line of credit at the drop of a dime. Just as in my line of work, social impact and activism, things pop up that we did not plan for. Be it a hurricane, some sort of issue that requires travel, or funds to support a community in need.
You need to have credit to live today. Life is so unpredictable. Your passion or these emergencies should not be catastrophic to your cash flow. Yes to great credit!
Which credit cards do you have? Do they have benefits that you like?
I previously relied on my TD Bank checking account before having a financial advisor guide me with a business account, which I opened at HSBC.
When traveling and supporting client events, I also heavily use the JetBlue Card, which is issued by Barclays Bank. (This co-branded travel rewards card has no annual fee, and cardholders can save 50 percent on inflight cocktails and food when they fly with JetBlue and use the card for purchases.)
Looking to the future: Where do you see the Brand Phoenix going — and who do you want to take with you?
I enjoy the freedom of being able to scale my business according to the rhythm of my life and plan to keep my shop boutique and nimble. My goal is to step into the cause-advertising ring, offering up creative social impact concepts to deserving causes, like the Ad Council.
The Brand Phoenix’s mission is to help tell stories that haven’t been told. This includes cultural preservation efforts with organizations like the International Salsa Museum and securing partnerships with other cultural institutes.