When Eric Seals made the jump from freelance videographer to business owner, he knew exactly what kind of equipment and cameras were needed to be successful. But he was less sure about his needs when it came to accountants, lawyers, insurance and bankers.
“When I started, I just went to the bank I was personally banking at. I didn’t understand the different relationships between personal banking and business banking. I was denied and didn’t understand why,” said Seals, owner of Digifé, the video production company he founded in 2012 that will produce, film edit and deliver creative video content for any medium, with an emphasis on diverse storytelling.
Seals, who started his career as a video editor at ESPN out of college, fell in love with the work when his father, who studied broadcasting in college, came home one day with new equipment and gear. “I was blessed, at the age of 16, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
While he honed his craft and learned a lot about the industry during his two years at ESPN, the job he’d dreamed about landing wasn’t the holy grail he’d imagined it to be. “Connecticut wasn’t my thing,” said Seals, who returned to Chicago and spent a few years freelancing before starting his own business. Several years later he was hired to produce a video series highlighting some of the local Black and minority-owned businesses that work with Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives Micro Finance Group (CNIMFG), and he met Erica King, its president.
“I was interviewing people and listening to Erica talking about what they do, and I said ‘Erica, I never do this, but can we set up an interview to talk?’” And the rest, as they say, is history. She reviewed his budget, provided technical assistance and helped him apply for and secure his first loan through CNIMFG. As a community development financial institution, CNIMFG provides small business loans to low- to moderate-income individuals and entrepreneurs on Chicago’s South and West Sides – 92% of which are minority-owned, including 82% Black-owned.
“I didn’t even understand why I needed access to capital,” said Seals, who learned the importance of securing a loan before he really needed it. “That loan came at the perfect time. We had the opportunity for a new project and that loan was sitting in my bank account. The money is there when you need it.”
Seals got approval for his second loan recently – one that CNIMFG said was made possible by a recent $1 million donation it received from U.S. Bank to support small businesses. The donation is the latest commitment in more than a decade of investments in Chicago’s South and West Sides.
“It excites me to be able to help a business grow,” King said. “Eric has been with us for a while and we’ve seen him grow from a start-up business. And that’s essentially the business we’re in.”
Like many businesses, the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic brought uncertainty for Digifé; he told his Pilsen-based team in March there was a good chance he’d have to cut payroll or let someone go. As it became clear that neither COVID-19 nor working virtually was going away anytime soon, his business exploded with the increased demand for video, and he’s added a fourth and fifth employee this year.
“This has probably been one of my most stressful years. And it’s been my strongest year. We’ve grown by 40-50 percent. I’m blessed and glad we’re adding new people to support that.” He's had the working capital to support that growth and purchase cameras needed for some newer opportunities and larger jobs that are coming in thanks to CNIMFG, and indirectly, the $1 million grant it received from U.S. Bank.
“The funds from U.S. Bank came at a great time – it’s one of the largest grants we’ve received,” King said, referencing a greater need right now because of COVID-19 and civil unrest. “It’s been instrumental to have that additional capital available for businesses in our target market that are without other options for funding. And it’s capital we can be flexible with and meet the needs of those most vulnerable right now.”
As a kid, not only did Seals have that exposure and access to the recording equipment his dad brought home that day, he also recognizes how he benefitted from his father’s career at IBM.
“To grow up and always have a computer in the home is a privilege,” Seals said. “I didn’t know everyone didn’t have a computer until much later. And for him to encourage us to play with it…that’s what opened my doors.”
He also credits Beverly Price as a mentor; she’s an award-winner producer, director and writer who recommended Seals for jobs when he was starting out as a freelancer. “She said don’t pay it back, pay it forward,” Seals said. “Introduce people, especially young Black men and women, into the field.” And he’s done just that. Today, Digifé has an all-Black team.
“I’ve been on a lot of sets and crews where I’ve always been the only Black person,” said Seals, who understands the importance of diversity in documentary storytelling, and the difference it makes to have someone on set who can relate to how the person in front of the camera may be feeling. “Our beliefs as a team are directly connected to how we make a living and it’s important. There’s a lot for us to care about before we get to an actual shoot.”