Lessons From the Immigrant Hustle: Sandi Webster
Dr. Sandi Webster is a second generation immigrant from Jamaica. She immigrated to Brooklyn, NY as a child in the ’70s., and continues to live in Canarsie, Brooklyn — “The best place on Earth for immigrants!”
What’s your name, company name, and title?
My name is Sandi Webster and I’m the co-founder of a new company, Pandi, with my business partner, Peggy McHale. Pandi is a communications company that creates compelling content and actionable materials that help entrepreneurs achieve success. I’m currently the Chief Learning Officer as I work to create the curriculum for some of our workshops and seminars.
Pandi is the second company for my business partner and myself. Consultants 2 Go (C2G) was our first company and they are a management consulting company that provides marketing and analytic consultants to Fortune 500 companies in financial services, telecom, retail, and insurance. We created, built and sold C2G in 2016. At C2G, I was the Chief Operations Officer, heading up all Human Resources, Marketing, Billing and Compliance.
The assets that we did not sell were placed into our current company, Pandi. In this company, we will accomplish a few things: 1) create and deliver workshops, podcasts, seminars for business owners, 2) write books and screenplays regarding women business owners — including our published book, Black and White Strike Gold: Practical Nuggets to Grow Your Business from the Women Who Launched Consultants 2 Go, a Multi-Million Dollar Company, 3) invest in small businesses, and 4) give back to our community.
Which country did you emigrate from?
I was born in the small town of Hayes in the parish of Clarendon in Jamaica, West Indies. The town was made up of mostly my relatives. I knew most of the people, and everyone knew me. I permanently came to Brooklyn, New York when I was in public school. I remember seeing snow for the first time and thinking it was really cold but so much fun — I spent a lot of time with my friends making snow angels. However, my best memories were of going back to Jamaica for summers. It was typical in those days to make the trip with a stewardess or to have an older relative escort me. I became accustomed to traveling all the time.
In New York, I lived in the mostly-white Canarsie neighborhood in Brooklyn where they burned crosses on the front lawn. I already had a lot of relatives and friends in Brooklyn so I never felt like a stranger — I merely felt like I lived in two places. I also assimilated extremely fast simply by being around other children who spoke the Brooklyn version of English. There were only a few African-American children in my school and I got into a lot of fights because of racial comments or ethnic slurs. When busing became prevalent, I took the brunt from both sides — from the African-American kids who said I thought I was better than them because I lived in Canarsie, and from the white/Italian/Jewish kids for not being one of them either.
Later, my family moved to East Flatbush, which was a Jewish neighborhood in the late ’70s. I realized my mother only picked neighborhoods with the best school systems regardless of the location. Education is the key to doing better in America.
Why did you or your family decide to immigrate?
My mom immigrated from Jamaica because she felt she would get better work in the U.S. She was a teacher and a seamstress in Jamaica, WI and left to become a live-in housekeeper and took care of a family with approximately 11 children in Chicago.
The better life never materialized and she worked as a piece worker in the garment industry while holding down several jobs at a time. She later moved to New York. I came to this country as a child in the NY Public School system. It was my mother’s intention to bring her children to this country for an education. She strongly believed that education was to key to a successful life.
What was the most difficult thing you faced when you first arrived in the US?
There is a tie for the most difficult thing(s) that I faced:
1. Mean children — laughed at my accent — that was a first since I was unaware that I had an accent; telling me that I came off the banana boat. I learned to give as good as I got very quickly and made friends.
2. The weather — I came in October. I had never been colder in my life. The temperature was in the 40's.
What was your very first job?
I’ve worked since I was about 5 years old. I come from a family of seamstresses where they paid me $1 for hemming wedding dresses — I had tiny hands which made the stitches almost invisible.
My first job outside the home was babysitting at the age of 10 years old. I learned the most from this job, and it set the tone for all my future work. I went from babysitting individual children to having groups of children. That was my first taste of entrepreneurship. I learned a lot — customer service by making people happy, how to work with people older than me, how to manage money, and best of all learned how to leverage those skills into opportunities in future jobs.
Why did you choose to become an entrepreneur? (c.f. What triggered you?).
As long as I could remember, I had a business. I turned on lights for Jewish people in my East Flatbush neighborhood, started babysitting at 10 years old, sewed clothes for my classmates, crocheted baby layettes, etc. I always wanted to have my own money as well as to help my mom.
I started my most successful business, Consultants 2 Go (now C2G Partners), with my business partner, Peggy McHale, after we were laid off from my corporate financial services job following 9/11. While we worked in corporate, we identified an untapped niche in the marketplace. We realized female marketing executives were leaving the workforce in droves, particularly after having their second child. They were torn between taking care of their children vs. rising through the ranks of the corporation making six-figure salaries. They always chose to leave the workforce. We started hiring these ladies to work on our teams as freelancers.
After 9/11, we started our company, in 2002, being marketing consultants to corporations. We then hired our friends who had left the workforce to return and use their expertise to complete short- or long-term projects. They could choose the length of the project they wanted, work virtually or go into the office part-time and they had time for their families. It created substantial savings for corporations because they needed the job to be done but could not afford to hire someone as a full-time employee after 9/11. The consultants were able to make an excellent living, stay relevant in the marketplace while having a more fulfilling home life.
How did you raise the money necessary to launch your business? (e.g. did you find an investor? Did you borrow from the bank? Did you save money by working a 9 to 5? Please tell us your story).
I did not borrow any money — I started the business with a computer and a phone. To set up home offices, I contributed $2000 from my savings and my business partner did the same. The business was only the two of us and, besides identifying a need in the marketplace, what appealed to us was that it had a very low barrier to entry since anyone with the right expertise could become a consultant.
However, we realized in the early stages of the business that we needed to create a key differentiator to stand out from the crowd. Our excellent talent was our differentiator. All clients loved when we were on billing and we ensured that every consultant we placed on billing were well-known and respected in the marketing industry — their reputation preceded them.
Mental health, stress management and staying positive are important factors in entrepreneurial success. What are some things you like to do when you feel overwhelmed or down?
I exercise and to make sure that I follow a routine, I have a personal trainer who comes to my home. For mental health, I use the weekends to ensure I get some quiet time. I also work a lot in “after hours,” meaning after 8 pm when the phone is not ringing and I can think. I send a lot of emails late at night or early morning, and I do a lot of my writing (like this) after midnight. I also love to go to the theatre since I attended a performing arts high school. Thankfully, I live in a city that has Broadway and I get my fix by going at least 1–2 times every month. I also support my local community theatre or college performances.
What advice do you have for newly arrived immigrants that want to pursue the path of entrepreneurship?
The advice depends on a lot of things — which country are they coming from, what is their level of education, etc. Overall, newly arrived immigrants have a much better chance of starting a business and succeeding, more than ever. Numerous free programs abound, particularly for women. Those programs were just being put in place in 2002 when we started. They can also work easily across borders as many countries are looking to do business with companies in the US.
Take advantage of free classes, make sure you have good accounting and pay taxes, get a mentor, don’t be afraid to ask plenty questions, take calculated risks, keep your day job until you can strike out on your own and when you make that decision to start your company, fully commit to it.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Following are my social media links:
Thank you for doing this interview!