Spotlight: Stephanie Jones, Serial Social Entrepreneur
It’s virtually impossible to put a label on what Stephanie Jones does—because she does it all. Calling herself a cultural heritage tourism consultant and a social serial entrepreneur, she founded the Cultural Heritage Alliance for Tourism (CHAT) in 2016 to create equitable opportunities for small Black-owned businesses in South Florida. But as she started down that pathway, she kept seeing other gaps. So she started patching each hole up one by one, stitching together a powerful network of initiatives all centered around one goal: leveling the playing field for Black and brown communities in the travel industry.
As a marketing and business consultant for more than two decades, Jones has long been at the forefront of the tourism sector, most notably leading the marketing efforts for the opening of the country’s largest Black history museum at the time, the Charles H. Wright African American History Museum in Detroit, and helping a Black theater company in New Jersey win a Tony Award.
But when she moved to Miami and started consulting for the Greater Miami Convention and Tourism Bureau on a business enhancement plan, she was shocked by the lack of attention on the Black heritage areas like Little Haiti, Historic Overtown, and Liberty City.
"Everybody goes to Little Havana because they want to experience a Cuban culture, but nobody goes to the Black neighborhoods, where there's rich Bohemian and Haitian culture and Afro-African American culture that exists," she tells Travelzoo. "That's when I decided to create CHAT."
Her first order of business was creating a series of Black Cultural Heritage Tours, including the Historic Overtown Walking Tour and Soul Food Lunch and Little Haiti Walking Tour and Tasting.
"These tours are designed to create an opportunity for these small businesses to receive consistent tourist foot traffic and dollars while offering transformative experiences for culturally curious travelers," she says of bringing together the restaurants, museums, art galleries, and historic sites that had previously been overlooked. Now they also run tours in the Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach County areas, with a goal of eventually covering the entire nation.
The company has also expanded to multi-day tours throughout the South, most recently launching a Gullah Geechee tour through Charleston, Beaufort, and St. Helena Island in South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia.
"The Civil Rights movement has always been highlighted and told, but beyond that, there's over 400 years of Black history in our country," she says. "So we're telling those off-the-beaten path stories and we are connecting travelers to local folks."
But the tours are so much more than just another option for travelers to choose from. They hit at a time when no one was talking about them.
"Cultural heritage tourism was not a priority of the U.S. market in 2016—it just wasn’t," Jones says. Yet she and her team’s research had shown that it was one of the fastest-growing parts of the industry. "It was just mind-boggling to me because it was such an untapped market," she says. "We saw that, which is why we leaned in." They reached out to two key players that had not been recommending these sites and business to visitors: destination marketing organizations (DMOs) and hotel concierges.
"There was a tremendous disconnect in this industry because there is a fear of going into these communities," she puts it bluntly, adding that Black travelers also weren’t being marketed to because of the misconception they can’t afford luxury travel.
Seeing these discrepancies, Jones decided to bring the two sides together through her next endeavor, the CHAT Summit on Cultural & Heritage Tourism, a professional development initiative to educate small businesses on the travel industry, as well as bring together the major travel stakeholders to understand how to reach these businesses. And it was a hit: more than 400 people attended the regional summits in 2018 and 2019, which was set to expand into a national format in 2020.
"But then the pandemic happened, but also the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement," she says. "It really sparked a lot of interest in the Black experience in the U.S., what's happening from a social and racial injustice lens."
Again, Jones was on top of it. First she responded to the forced tourism pause by launching the nonprofit, the Cultural Heritage Economic Alliance, to help fuel recovery dollars into minority-owned small business ideas pummeled by the pandemic.
Then, as she noticed she was the only Black person in every Zoom meeting she signed onto, Jones launched the National Blacks in Travel and Tourism Collaborative to unite the community at a time the country was having long overdue reckoning.
"That wasn't the first time a Black man died at the hands of a white policeman," she says. "This just happened to be a time when everybody was at home tuned into their TV. I don't give the industry a free pass because a lot more could have been done and should have been done way before 2020 to make the industry more equitable."
But now that ears were listening, she stepped up. "The handful of Black CEOs and VPs in the industry needed to come together and to be part of the recovery conversation, but even more so, so that small Black businesses could see that there was representation of someone speaking on their behalf and advocating for a recovery for them," Jones says. "As more people started tuning in, more DMOs and travel brands started reaching out to say, 'We know we need to do more in our organizations and in our destination, but we just don't know where to start.'"
So she created a three-part DEI masterclass on-demand program called Diversity Tourism Academy—and saw CMOs enrolling their entire teams.
"As much as companies want everybody to get on the same page and to embrace the fact that there needs to be more diversity, equity, and inclusion, everybody's not there because of different backgrounds and perspectives and beliefs," she explains of why it was designed as a self-guided course. "So it helps to allow people to go on their exploration about understanding multicultural audiences and how to engage them."
As a result of the course, she started hearing that people wanted to diversify their staff, but didn’t know where to go, so again, Jones got to work.
"We decided to create a technology solution, which is called the Black Tourism Talent Directory, where we have started aggregating Black suppliers," she says of the guide that includes photographers, videographers, consultants, and even students who are looking for internships with industry opportunities.
And that’s how Jones operates. She pours her passion into one project, which inevitably exposes the need for another, so she goes down that path as well, amassing the long list of titles under her name.
"We are meeting and really understanding where the pain points are and what type of problems or issues around DEI the industry is looking to solve," says Jones, who spoke at 41 events in 33 destinations last year about heritage travel. "We’re also helping the small businesses by giving them a broader perspective about how to make money in this industry so that they can sustain and grow their businesses—and then we create those tangible opportunities."
It’s an unconventional path that demonstrates Jones’ grit and determination every step of the way, heralding an entrepreneurial spirit that she attributes to her cosmetologist mother. As the youngest of 13 kids growing up in Detroit, Jones was impressed with her mom’s refusal to go on welfare after her dad died when she was two. "That drive and tenacity and boldness has just always been instilled in me growing up, watching her work long hours in the salon so that she could put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads," she says.
While Jones did work as her mom’s shampoo girl around the time she was 8 or 9, she had much grander ambitions. "Growing up, I was very driven and determined and very sure about what I wanted for my life," she says. She was also inspired by her oldest sister who worked corporate jobs. "I used to watch her get up and put on her business suit and her stilettos and grab her briefcase and go to work every day," Jones says. "That inspired me so much that in high school, I wore dresses and heels—and carried a briefcase."
By the time her high school advisor asked her about her plans, she was clear: she wanted to own her own public relations agency by the age of 30. (Spoiler alert: She launched Clark Creative Communications when she was 32.)
However, the journey there was filled with nothing but roadblocks. Without any family savings to send her to college, Jones hopped through jobs with tuition assistance, working full-time while also going to school full-time on evenings and weekends to earn her degree in business administration with a marketing concentration.
Armed with her degree, she interviewed at every advertising agency in town and couldn’t land a job. Instead, she sold Pitney Bowes copiers door to door for a few months—including during the harsh Detroit winter—before switching to a temp agency, which happened to place her as an ad agency secretary.
"That was the hardest thing because I worked so hard to put myself through school and I did not graduate to come out to work as a secretary," she says. "But if that's what I needed to do to get my foot in the door, then that's what I was willing to do."
Yet more hurdles awaited. She saw tons of non-Black recent grads rise the ranks above her, and eventually faced workplace racism, being assigned more work than her colleagues and being given harsh reviews.
When she refused to sign the reviews, the unequal treatment grew worse, but she kept ringing the alarm. When HR didn’t respond, she went to the EEOC. When her supervisors didn’t respond, she wrote to the CEO. Ultimately, her office experience taught her an essential lesson: "I don't ever want to have to work for anybody else again."
And she hasn’t.
On top of all her CEO and founder titles, the industry has also come to embrace her as a leader among leaders. She’s on the World Tourism Association for Culture and Heritage Advisory Board, Future of Tourism Coalition Advisory Board, and is a United States Travel and Tourism Advisory Board Member of the U.S. Department of Commerce, among others. And she is constantly looking for opportunities to elevate the Black community in the tourism space, no matter what it takes.
Next up for Jones is the National Cultural Heritage Education Summit and Multicultural Marketplace in 2023, the national expansion of the CHAT summit that’s the "first of its kind BIPOC Mean Business global multicultural marketplace." And whatever new gaps the larger conference exposes, there’s no doubt Jones will be there with yet another solutions-oriented initiative, remaining true to her childhood goal.
"Be true to yourself and what you truly want to do with your life—fight back, push back, don't just sit there and take it," she says. "I've never lost sight of my dream."