This single lady (with cats) found her purpose teaching women how to build a successful business without sacrificing their quality of life.
“I’ll never get more than two cats because guys won’t date you,” says Ali Brown, the founder of Ali International, the company she created to mentor women who want to become successful entrepreneurs. “If I ever get more than two cats I’m going to hide the third cat.”
She’s joking, of course. She couldn’t care less if men don’t like the fact that she has felines, but it does take a secure man to hold his own with a self-made millionaire like Ali Brown. “It’s strange,” she says. “I’ve dated older, younger and all that, but it still brings up some of their issues. It’s really interesting.”
She turned 40 this summer and looks 30. Sitting in a patio chair on the balcony of her home that overlooks the canals in Marina Del Rey, Brown, by all appearances, is the quintessential California girl.
Inside her tastefully decorated home, bold colors mix with textures of faux fur and suede. An assistant bustles about; a hair-and-makeup artist sets up for a photo shoot; an enormous yellow cat snoozes on an office chair; another one is temporarily MIA, and out there in the world is an unseen team of women who work for Ali International from their homes. Many are moms with kids scampering beneath their feet.
Brown tried marriage in her early 30s — three years to “a nice guy, but the wrong guy.” A few years ago, there was an engagement ring on her finger until she called it off, realizing she’d been swept away with the excitement of being engaged, rather than the reality of being married. In between were some interesting dates with men up to the challenge of courting a woman who is drop-dead gorgeous and can kick ass in the business world.
Like many singular women, Ali Brown gets those well-meaning queries from people who can’t comprehend why she’s still single. “I get it all the time,” she says. “You know, ‘Oh my gosh. You’re so pretty! Why aren’t you married?’” But as far as she’s concerned, being single is just fine. “I think we need to see more single, successful women being out there,” she says. ”If people see me as a role model for that, great. I’d be delighted!”
Not to say she doesn’t enjoy having romance and masculine energy in her life. She even took courses with relationship guru Alison Armstrong and, in the process, discovered she needed to tone down her “make things happen” mode when on a date. “I used to be a little too much man,” she says. “I’d just march right up to the hostess and be, like, ‘Table for two.’ Not good.” So nowadays her pre-date ritual includes a bubble bath and a glass of wine to help her tune in to her feminine side. “I think the worst thing for girls to do is to go out on a date when they’re in their work head,” she says. “There have been times when I’ve started coaching my dates. That’s so bad.”
She says she might try marriage again someday, but has reservations because she’s always growing. “Forever is a nice idea, but honestly, I don’t know if it’s realistic,” she says. “I’m not saying that from a jaded place … I value relationships and you learn something from every person you’re with, but it’s a challenge because both partners are continually evolving. It’s the reason my own marriage ended. We realized we wanted different things from life.”
Brown moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast with her former husband some 12 years ago, after falling in love with the California lifestyle. “I was so excited that I could rollerblade out onto the Strand,” she says. “It was December and I was wearing a little top and shorts, and drinking a smoothie. I remember thinking we had to live here.”
But as Brown began to realize her potential as the CEO of her own marketing communications firm and a budding entrepreneur mentor, the stress cracks in her marriage were hard to ignore.
“I remember coming home from a seminar and being very excited about some possibilities of a business we could build together,” she says. “He said to me, ‘What’s wrong with the life we have now?’ That’s when I knew. It was the best thing for both of us — to go our own paths.”
Although her decision to divorce may sound easy, Brown was devastated at the time and felt like a failure. “My business was starting to take off so I was feeling guilty. I thought I should have done more work on my marriage,” she says. “One night, I just started praying …”
It was the start of a spiritual journey that these days makes it possible for Brown to embrace risk and take necessary leaps — confident that even if she makes a mistake, she’ll still be all right. Her beliefs draw from a variety of influences, ranging from her Methodist upbringing to other religions and philosophies. “I like learning from different types of faith,” she says. “I think they’re all basically saying the same thing. Most people believe in a higher power of some type, no matter what you call it.”
She even nods to the concept made popular in the video and book titled The Secret, but says, “I see a lot of people into the law of attraction stuff and they don’t get off their ass. You can’t just sit there all day thinking about the shiny red car you want. You need to get in motion. Motion beats meditation.”
Despite some challenging setbacks, including her divorce and later, the death of her father, Brown is sure she’s living her destiny. With her books, her CDs, her courses and her annual Shine conference attended by over 500 women entrepreneurs, Ali Brown is teaching women how to become successful business owners, change their perception of risk, work through their fears and to use the tools she developed as a marketing communications professional to grow their businesses.
“They’re ready to finally do what their heart has been calling them to do — to break out on their own for the first time,” she says. “They come to me because they want to increase their income — that’s the bottom line — but we end up working on the head stuff because that’s part of the process, more so than with men.” She believes the road to success is different for women. “They have to work through courage, self-esteem issues and the fears they may have,” she says. “Women won’t move forward when they feel unsafe. They’ll stay where they’re at. All that stuff comes up when you’re working on going up to the next level. It’s such a personal journey for women.”
Of course, Brown knows not everyone wants to be a business owner, but as far as she’s concerned, she wouldn’t have it any other way for herself. “I remember being so excited, even in those first few years when I was eating bagels for dinner and listening to Anthony Robbins tapes over and over,” she says. “I was so thrilled to be working for myself. It was this independence thing.”
Growing up as the eldest of three children in a suburban, middle-class neighborhood in Connecticut, Brown had no idea she would end up being an entrepreneur mentor. After high school, she went to Simmons College, a small women’s school in the heart of Boston, and graduated with a degree in communications. From there, with no clear career plan, she stumbled into a series of what she calls glorified secretary positions with advertising and publishing companies where, in between fixing the fax machine and making coffee, she worked on newsletters for clients.
“I wanted to change everything,” Brown recalls about her early days as an employee. “It drove me nuts. It drove my bosses crazy. They were like, ‘Sit in your cube and do your work.’ And I’m saying, ‘But we can do this with a client and I found this new technology … ’”
The resistance she got from her higher-ups motivated her to start her first enterprise. “I knew I had good ideas because when I’d tell the clients about them, they would get back to my boss and be like, ‘Well, Ali came up with this great idea,’ and my boss would be like, ‘Oh God …’ That’s when I started thinking, ‘Gosh, maybe I could do this for myself.’”
She tells the women she mentors that if they’re feeling dissatisfied, it could be a sign they need to strike out on their own — exactly what she did when she quit her last job when she was 29 and started AKB (acronym for Alexandra K. Brown). Her plan was to find clients who could benefit from her marketing communications experience. “All I knew was that I wanted to work for myself and pay my rent,” she says. “That was my dream.”
The timing was perfect. Brown was on the ground floor of what would become a worldwide e-mail marketing explosion. She eventually earned the moniker The Ezine Queen for her expertise at developing Internet-delivered newsletters for such clients as New York Times Digital, Adweek Magazines, Scholastic Books and Dun & Bradstreet.
Her next step was the creation of her first e-book, Boost Business with Your Own Ezine. Encouraged by the positive response when orders started rolling in, she expanded her offerings to include courses, programs, seminars, events and mentoring, and by the time she was 35, Ali Brown was a millionaire.
Looking back, she says, “I believe I was brought in at the right time for a reason. I was leading the way for a lot of women in Internet marketing. I’d be invited to speak at seminars and be the only woman on the stage. I thought it was great, but I wanted to bring women with me so we could change the model.
“Today, it’s all about relationships and that’s what women are all about,” Brown says, commenting on the advent of social media. “Women make great marketers because we realize it’s all about the relationship, and with more flex time and more opportunities to work at home, you’re going to see a lot more women rise to the top.”
Liz Murphy, who lives in Boston, is a perfect example. She met Ali Brown 12 years ago when Brown hired her to be her virtual assistant. Married with kids, Murphy lives a very different life from Brown’s singular world. “We met on the phone and we hit it off right away,” Murphy says. “I said to my husband, ‘This woman is going places. She’s going to be successful.’”
As Murphy took on more and more responsibilities, Brown offered her the opportunity to become her business partner and the COO of Ali International — not a typical career path in a world where “once an assistant, always an assistant” is the usual truism. “Ali is a big believer in empowering people,” Murphy says. “She always treated me like a partner even before it was also my company.”
Baeth Davis, a former Ali Brown student, has become a close friend. “I credit her with being the game changer in my own business,” Davis says. “I knew I could do better and went to her workshops. What she taught me allowed me to go from making $65,000 a year to making over $1 million in just four years ― and I’m a slow learner!” Davis calls Brown an entrepreneurial genus. “I’ve never known anyone like her,” she says. “If you do what Ali says to do, you will succeed.”
And to think it all started with Brown being willing to step out, take a risk, get up when she fell down and try again, confident that no matter what, she would be OK, believing that her life had a purpose far beyond whether or not she had a boyfriend.
“In the beginning, I didn’t have a big vision,” Brown says. “But every step along the way, when I saw an opportunity, I just stepped into it and the vision was revealed to me. I tell people who are afraid they don’t have the right plan to look at the best choices they can make that day. Look at the best decisions you can make for yourself. What is your highest good — right now, at this moment?
“Then just keep taking those steps, and little by little, you’ll be shown more by the universe. You’ll see where you should go.”
Words: Copyright © Kim Calvert/2011 Singular Communications, LLC.
Photos: Copyright ©Todd Young/Young Studios.