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Business Owners

Going After the Big Guys: How One CEO is Using Culture and Grit to Get Ahead


Jennifer Prosek

Jennifer Prosek never had any intention of starting a business. When she graduated college, she just wanted a job in a shiny PR firm in New York City. But it was the middle of a recession, and none of those firms were hiring.

Eventually, Jennifer took a job working for a PR startup in Connecticut — “this was before startups were cool,” she laughs. Her employer was so impressed with her that he told her he wanted to start another communications and PR firm — this time, with her as a 50% equity partner rather than an employee.

The company started out as Jacobs & Prosek, and when her former partner exited, became Prosek Partners. The first 10 years of running the business were tough. “We begged for every single piece of work we got.”

The vision, says Jennifer, “was to build a global financial communications firm. I was twenty-five years old and we were doing crappy little projects in a small suburb in Connecticut. It was a stretch.”

A stretch, perhaps.

But she did it.

Standing Out     

“I had to figure out how to get this nothing of a business to work for the best finance companies in the world,” says Jennifer. Her first step was to get an MBA from Columbia at night, while running the business during the day. The degree helped give her the credibility, confidence, and network she needed to attract powerhouse clients.

Jennifer says the tipping point for the business has come in the last five years, when the first RFPs started to come in from places like Goldman Sachs and BNY Mellon and TD Bank. “They were asking us to bid for their business versus us begging,” says Jennifer. “It’s kind of a powerful feeling when you realize people are now coming to you.”

Jennifer says one of the main drivers of Prosek Partner’s success was building a differentiated brand that felt true to the team’s values.

At the beginning, Jennifer says, “we thought we had to look, walk, talk, and act just like our clients.” But we realized, “we weren’t really like them. We’re more like a tech startup than a financial services firm. We had a diverse population, an open office, we don’t like to dress up — we’re more downtown than uptown.”

“We thought, what if we acted like ourselves?”

The gamble worked. “Our clients, though they were a lot different from us personality-wise, wanted our personality. They wanted creativity and more unexpected ideas. Even today our competition is extremely laced up and stodgy and old-school. We stand out.”

An Army of Entrepreneurs  

Jennifer says Prosek’s “entrepreneurial nature is incredibly differentiated in the world of PR firms.”

The firm eschews hierarchy. When hiring, “we look for people who want to make owner-like decisions versus employee-like decisions. We don’t care what your job title is — you do the level of work you’re capable of. We look for people who crave entrepreneurship and express their opinions, who are the kind who sit in the front and put their hands up.”

A big part of Jennifer’s job is to be “obsessive” about culture.

“I run a talent business, not a PR business,” she says. “In professional services, business is all about people — and you better have a culture that people can buy into. If your culture is strong and differentiated people believe in it and are motivated by it.”

The philosophy has “made the firm much more vibrant and productive.” When employees buy in, clients buy in, and “everything falls into place.”

Living the Dream

“The company right now is where I always hoped it would be,” says Jennifer. They currently have 120 employees and offices in London, New York, and Connecticut.The company brought in $26 million in revenue last year.

“We’re a growth company, and we’re going to grow,” says Jennifer. They doubled the company in the last five years and expect to do similarly in the future.

Even as the firm continues to globalize, Jennifer recognizes its success as a reflection of the American dream. Her mother immigrated from Czechoslovakia and her dad from Brazil; they met in the U.S. and Jennifer and her brother were first generation citizens. “Entrepreneurship is what makes America what it is. That’s hard to replicate in the rest of the world. We have less discrimination, more freedom, a legal system that works most of the time, access to capital,” Jennifer says.

“I started with nothing. And a lot of the people I hire — they don’t graduate from the fanciest schools, they don’t have the best networks. I’ve been able to show them that somebody who doesn’t have much can still achieve as much as someone with all the right things.

“I think that’s uniquely American. If you’re willing to work really hard, and you have a good idea, there’s always a chance of success.”

Jen Prosek was one of 100 CEOs selected as part of Axial’s inaugural Growth 100, featuring the best and brightest CEOs in the middle market. 

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