Raymond Lewis is a business mogul in the truest sense of the word. This Harlem native is charismatic, sharp, professional and a jazz lover who never forgets a name.
Lewis’ larger than life persona is what draws so many to his events. He says he was not always this way, sharing, “ I was shy.” It’s hard to believe that this multi-hyphenate strategic relationship professional once identified as an introvert.
Lewis is from Brooklyn with roots from Eleuthera, Bahamas and South Carolina. His ability to bring people together is an invaluable skill he learned from his maternal grandmother. She was the “center of everything” in the Lewis family, a star at entertaining and hosting family, friends, and important members in the community as he was growing up in New York.
Lewis began his undergraduate studies at Binghamton University in New York and later attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. He returned to New York and later launched a successful public relations career. He loves to entertain and enjoys food, like his maternal grandmother.
He has worked in the arts for many years and, in 2000 launched RP Lewis & Associates, where he spearheaded events for the Obama administration. Lewis also launched annual The Harlem Holiday Jazz Tree Lighting which takes place in December where attendees have “a shared experience of joy” and past guests have included actress Kim Fields and fashion icon Dapper Dan.
Tell us about you and your background and how you got started?
I’m from Brooklyn originally. My mother’s side of the family is from Eleuthera, Bahamas. My father is from Charleston, South Carolina. I have relatives in both places. I’ve been to The Bahamas. I don’t really know them. Most of the people I knew were so much older, and by the time I reached my tween years, they were gone.
My great-grandmother was very old; she died when I was born. She got here in 1891. My grandmother was the center of everything. I was very close to my grandmother. I went to Morehouse where I studied business. I returned to New York and started working in arts administration and development for local artistic nonprofits.
When did you start RP Lewis & Associates?
In 2000, I was working for UniWorld advertising. I was their director of entertainment and marketing. I was working on a pharmaceutical contract. In advertising, when the client leaves, you have an interview with other brands to see if you can get picked up. Pepsi-Cola was coming to the firm. I pitched [to them] and they loved the idea. I came up with the idea to do an event for them. They asked to continue to work with me.
Byron Lewis, chairman and CEO of UniWorld advertising, the largest Black advertising agency in the country, agreed I could work exclusively with Pepsi-Cola. I did the event and came back and [Pepsi-Cola] said, “You did a wonderful job,” and they asked, “What can we do for you?” I said, “I always wanted to own my own company.” They said, “We’re going to give this full contract to you.” Overnight I was in business.
It was a pretty big contract. I did all the diversity events for them that they sponsored, particularly the whole trio with Black Enterprise, The Golf and Tennis Challenge, The Ski Summit, and Entrepreneurs Conference. I had that contract for eight years. In the course of that, I met everyone. Different people would see my work and want me to do work for them.
Have there been experiences where you had to overcome roadblocks and challenges in your career?
I was afraid to present. I would get very nervous. I would stumble over my words. And nobody believed it. I was really, really shy.
There was a “Social Raymond,” and then there was a “Business Raymond.” So what I did was when I would present in front of a corporation, I was sweating bullets. I thought I was going to pass out. I had to figure out something to do, so I looked and took all the bills, and I put them in a folder, and I carried the folder to the interview, and I laid it down, and I pulled out my book so I could take notes. They would ask, “What is in that folder,” and I would say, “Oh, nothing.”
Every time I got nervous, I would look at those bills [and say], “If you don’t talk, they’re not getting paid,” and I would get past it, and that is what I needed until I didn’t have to do it anymore.
I used to have a fear of public speaking. My client from Pepsi had a surprise reception for me, and he said, “I couldn’t believe you were so shy.” All these people were there for me, and I didn’t know what to do. Call me now [laughs]. I’m not shy anymore, that’s over [laughs].
What’s your proudest moment as an entrepreneur?
Oh, I have so many. I had a major influence in my life, Mrs. Charlotte Ottley. She moved to New York from Saint Louis. I was volunteering at NBC; she came in as a senior vice president of public affairs. We met on her first day, we liked each other, and I helped her get acclimated to New York. We became family. When she left NBC, she started her own PR, public communications firm.
I was working at the Village Voice doing multicultural marketing and targeted marketing and special events. We were just getting into sponsorship. I helped present the first AIDS check for them. I was very popular in the Village at the time, because everyone knew me from The Voice. You get a call to your next level. I had outgrown the Voice. They knew it, and I knew it. She [Mrs. Ottley] asked, “Are you ready to leave on a new venture with me?” I said, “I think I am.”
She made me an account coordinator. She assigned me to American Urban Radio Network and to Chase Bank. My first assignment was to go to the Congressional Black Caucus. At the time, they became the first Black radio network [American Urban Network] allowed into the White House Press Corps, a Black radio network. Nelson Mandela did an interview with President Clinton. They had a press conference. This is a week later and I’m sitting in the White House. I couldn’t believe it. That was very special.
My second one was when I started my company. I had the honor to produce the Red, White and Blue Ball for President Obama’s second election. I also produced two birthday galas for civil rights icon Dr. Dorothy Height and then I coordinated the launch event for the General Motors dealership in Harlem.
What projects or partnerships do you have in mind once COVID-19 settles?
I am pitching technology companies because that’s the move forward. I am pitching engagement marketing, strategic partnership. There’s a lot of goodwill that’s got to be done right now. People are dying. Communities are hurt. People of color communities are impacted significantly. They need an entree person into those programs.
Who are some of your mentors you’ve relied upon throughout your career?
Oh gosh, there’s so many. Charlotte Ottley because she introduced me to business. Ruth Clark, CEO of CUP Temps, she was one of the first Black millionaires in the city, she gave me my first job on Wall Street.
Harriet Michelle was the head of National Minority Supply and Development. I loved to watch her speak. I practiced public speaking by watching her speak. Frank Savage, first CEO of Alliance Capital International. We would have one on one talks. There are so many different people, Linda Spradley Dunn, CEO of Odyssey Media. Tonya Lombard, vice president of multicultural engagement and strategic alliances of AT & T, elevated my experience in government and community relations engagement.
Reverend Al Sharpton gave a sermon [at the House of Justice] on not allowing people to put you in your own place. You put yourself where you want to be. I walked in there discouraged, and I walked out empowered. He inspires you individually by his perseverance, his bravery and his courage. He wants to see all Black people win.
Tell us about networking since that is the core of how you operate.
I never had a website until two years ago. It’s always been word-of-mouth and relationships. I do a lot of engagement, and I used to entertain a lot.
We say that business is a mixed bag of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Knowing this as a seasoned professional/business owner, what would you tell yourself as a young entrepreneur today?
I always say, “A setback ain’t nothing but a setup for a comeback.” I would have been more prepared. I was blessed and sort of fell into business. It sort of happened for me fast. I realized that was supposed to be part of my journey. I was not prepared for it as much as I would have liked to have been. I had to learn that.
Things I would have done differently. I would have invested more. I was resistant to change; change is always hard for me. I had to learn you have to change, and you have to be prepared to change at any moment. Who would expect we would be going through this? Who would have thought that a plane would have run into the World Trade Center? Who would have thought someone would be bold enough in 2020 to put their knee on a man’s neck and set off a movement that would change the course of the world, our country and race relations globally.
You got to be ready. It’s important to be ready and always have a backup plan. There were a couple times in my life I didn’t have a backup plan, and it was a very hard transition for me. I got through it.
Don’t trade your excellence; make them pay you for it. You are not a charity, and you are not a favor. You are a professional. This is what I have learned. It’s a cost to it. I chose to be an entrepreneur. Over the last 30 years, I have learned to love this life.
Keep up with Lewis online at RP Lewis Associates as he is always seeking to make new connections and create community wherever he goes. Lewis’s next event is his 5th annual The Harlem Holiday Jazz Tree Lighting on December 4th.