People 25 November 2016
If you knew only her childhood background, it would be hard to imagine that Debbie Frazier could have built a corporation responsible for more than $100 million in sales annually. But that’s exactly what she’s done.
An Unlikely Industry
Frazier's beginnings were humble to say the least. She grew up in the transient mobile home community, but harbored a deep desire to rise above her situation to see success during her lifetime. Her work ethic was honed at a very early age. At 14, she told employers she was 16 to get a job working at a local hamburger restaurant. She received a scholarship to college, but due to an accident that had landed her father on disability, her family needed her income and she was forced to decline the scholarship. Her family moved to Texas, where Frazier got a job as an office clerk working for a company in the lumber industry.
The male-dominated construction industry was a rocky place for a young woman and Frazier was the only female in the office. She spent several years as a clerk before taking a big risk by asking that they consider her for an open salesperson position with the company. The CEO, bemused by the request, told her she needed to train on the front lines of the business for two full weeks before they would even consider her for the role. She traveled to their wood processing plant in Greeley, Colorado, where she worked in the mill for 12-hour days, sawing 30-pound, 2’X10’ pieces of wood in half with a rip saw. She cleaned the plant at night and was tasked with shoveling snow from the driveway each morning. When she needed a break, there wasn’t even a woman’s restroom to be found in the plant. Eventually Frazier earned the position as the company’s first female sales representative, making exactly half of what her male counterparts did. But she didn’t let that stop her. Her first year in role, she outsold all her (male) peers.
After leaving the construction industry, Frazier went to work for a travel agency whose ethics and business practices didn’t sit well with her. Frustrated with her company, she set out on her own, founding etc group in 1993 (then known as Executive Travel Consultants). Turns out, a business that began with less than $1 million in sales and three employees has today morphed into a $100 million business with 27 full-time employees. Through Frazier's remarkable leadership, the etc group has withstood the test time, continually reinventing itself to remain relevant in today’s crowded marketplace.
Despite the uphill battle of a woman in a then man-lead industry, nothing could detour Debbie’s tenacity to launch and maintain etc group as an industry leader in every facet of the company. What Debbie lacked in formal education, she made up for with heart, spirit and chutzpah.
Frazier is a testament to the fact that old fashioned values still thrive in today’s Millennial world. The tradition of doing business with people still matters today – she’s incredibly passionate about serving and being true to her word. With this old school attention to detail, equality and fairness, Frazier sits on the Advisory Board for the Dallas Stars—alongside twelve male CEOs.
Frazier's business now brings in more than $100 million in revenue and is ranked in the top 50 woman-owned businesses in the U.S., etc group is a private, minority-owned company built on her personal beliefs of service, integrity, persistence and creativity.
After bearing witness to unpleasant business practices at her former travel management company Frazier knew she could put a team together to do better on behalf of and for the corporate traveler. While eight weeks pregnant with her second child, and determined to turn her passion into reality, no obstacle was going to stop her.
By staying nimble in the ever-evolving travel industry, Frazier has continued to grow the business. After their first year, the company grew revenue and profits by 10% and has continued to enjoy both revenue and profit growth in every year following, with an average of 20% year-over-year growth. This year, the company will post an unprecedented 30% growth rate.
Initially the company was singularly focused on providing travel services for clients. It has since evolved into a multi-tiered corporation with several unique lines of business.
Even as recent as the last year, Frazier knew there was still the opportunity to evolve her business – with the ever increasing emphasis placed on conservation and sustainable resources. So she expanded the Branding Solutions division to include “every thing conscious" – focused on regenerated apparel created using recycled water and excess cotton remnants that would otherwise be taking up space in landfills both in the U.S. and overseas. Because, as Frazier says, “sustainability is not someone else’s problem.”
Bringing the apparel line “every thing conscious" to life was no small undertaking. Frazier partnered with the only company in the industry with the patent pending to provide the material, sourcing and shipping of the product.
This new venture grew the Branding division of the company by 50% in the last year and these products are used as uniforms for a several national retail chains. Etc group serves clients such as 7-11, Pier 1 Imports, Cash America, D.R. Horton Homes, and Dean Foods.
Under Frazier's leadership, etc group established a charity and foundation team committed making a difference within the DFW community – supporting a new cause or event each quarter.
The travel agent role is one typically held by females and many of Fraizer's first employees were single working mothers. As a working mother of two, she understood firsthand the delicate balancing act required to do a 24/7 job. To this day, Debbie answers her phone at any hour of the night, in order to "protect the sacred client relationship." Because her staff was completely female, Debbie took advice from the words of makeup maven, Mary Kay Ash, and offered jewelry as a gift for milestone service anniversaries. Diamonds, to be exact. Much like the legendary pink Cadillacs, these precious stones are displayed with pride and serve as daily reminders of how precious each of her employees is to her.
During her tenure as CEO, Frazier has encouraged growth and promotion from within. By helping employees find their true passion in serving their clients, she creates a true win-win for all involved. She is also working with Ernst & Young to get more women on the panel that selects the winners of the contest each year. She never stops.
Frazier doesn’t tell her story very often, but what a remarkable one it is.
5 Min Read
Like so many millions across the globe, I deeply mourn the loss of one of our greatest real-life superheroes, Chadwick Boseman. To pay tribute and homage to him, my family rewatched his amazing performance in Black Panther. T'Challa was one of Boseman's most important roles both on and off the screen, as his portrayal of the heroic warrior and leader of the people of Wakanda inspired viewers of all ages.
Re-visiting the futuristic city of Wakanda on screen caused me to reflect on how Blacks in America once had our own version of Wakanda: Black Wall Street. Black Wall Street was the name given to the wealthy, thriving, Tulsa, Oklahoma neighborhood of Greenwood in the early 1900s. The nearly 40 square-block neighborhood had more than 300 businesses and over 1,000 homes, including several stately mansions. Like Wakanda, Black people in Greenwood built their own hospitals, schools, theaters, newspapers, churches, and everything needed for their community to flourish.
Tragically, he lost everything he built, as did the entire district of Greenwood, in the largest, government-sanctioned race massacre in U.S. history.
With only 42 years separating the moment Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and Greenwood's founding, the amazing feat of Blacks building Black Wall Street is something that required supernatural acts of real-life superheroes the likes of which we see onscreen in Black Panther.
One of these real-life superheroes and leaders of Black Wall Street was my great-grandfather A.J. Smitherman, owner and editor of the Tulsa Star. The Tulsa Star was the first daily Black newspaper with national distribution and was a source for Black people to stay informed about issues affecting them throughout the US. A member of the first generation of Blacks born free in the late 1800s, Smitherman attended La Salle and Northwestern Universities. After receiving his law degree, A.J. began his career in community activism, politics, and the newspaper business.
A fearless leader in the Black community not just in Tulsa but throughout the nation, he dedicated his life to empowering his race in all categories of life in every way: morally, economically, physically, and politically. A.J. fiercely and courageously used his newspaper and the power of the press to end a myriad of corrupt operations and develop his community. As one of the most influential founding fathers of Black Wall Street, his contribution and investment in Greenwood was and is immeasurable. Tragically, he lost everything he built, as did the entire district of Greenwood, in the largest, government-sanctioned race massacre in U.S. history.
Unlike Wakanda—the fictional land hidden in the mountains of Africa, mostly invisible to the outside world and protected from foreign threats—Greenwood was exposed. Greenwood was not only visible, but the 11,000 residents and their luxurious lifestyle were a constant reminder to their poor white neighbors across the tracks that Black people had surpassed them in economic empowerment and success. Eventually, the jealousy, greed and contempt for the growing Black economic and political power ignited a horrendously evil act of domestic terrorism by white Tulsans.
A.J. fiercely and courageously used his newspaper and the power of the press to end a myriad of corrupt operations and develop his community.
On May 31st, 1921, thousands systematically looted and burned down Greenwood in a 36 hour-long massacre resulting in the murdering of over 300 Blacks. Thousands more were detained in concentration camps where they remained for months through the freezing Oklahoman winter.
In a recent interview, I was asked what goes through my head when I see the racial unrest taking place today and compare it to what was happening 100 years ago leading up to the Tulsa Massacre. The short answer is that I am incredibly sad. I'm sad for so many reasons. One of the things I am saddest about is knowing that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother sacrificed everything for the betterment and empowerment of their race. And after all of these years, the struggle continues.
I believe that now, more than ever, it is so important to maintain not only our hope but our faith.
A.J. Smitherman's writings in both the Tulsa Star, and thereafter in the Empire Star, a paper he founded later in New York, reveal a man full of hope and ambition to make a difference and contribute to his race and his country as part of the first generation of Blacks born free. He worked tirelessly to this end until the day he died in 1961. Tragically, A.J. died still a fugitive of the state of Oklahoma, having been unjustly indicted by a grand jury for inciting the massacre. This is another point of tremendous pain and grief for me and my family. It is a travesty that he never saw justice in his lifetime, and he furthermore never saw his dream of racial equality.
But perhaps what saddens me most is the fact that I truly believe that in his heart, he still had hope that America was on a path to find its way out of its dark past and into the light of a new dawn. He hoped that the nation would one day become a country where his descendants would no longer be subject to racial hatred, discrimination, and economic disenfranchisement. And I'm certain that he believed the days that Black people would fear being lynched would be long gone by now.
One of the things I am saddest about is knowing that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother sacrificed everything for the betterment and empowerment of their race. And after all of these years, the struggle continues.
I can feel A.J.'s blood in my veins, and I feel a responsibility to carry the torch of the light of hope. I believe that now, more than ever, it is so important to maintain not only our hope but our faith. I'm very grateful for the attention being brought to the legacy of Black Wall Street and A.J. Smitherman. Knowing their story of success and triumph and how it tragically turned to massacre and destruction is vital to insuring history doesn't continue to repeat itself 100 years later.
One thing I know for certain is that building a brighter future will require all of us to summon our own inner superhero, like A.J. Smitherman and Chadwick Boseman before us, and work together to continue to fight for our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.