Carnela Renee Hill Discovers Her Voice and Uses It to Bring Change
When you love something so much, and are great at it, why not make it a business? That’s what Carnela Renee Hill’s friends and classmates kept asking her when she was working in the corporate world, but spending all her free time watching interior design shows on HGTV and re-designing her own home.
To back it up a bit, Carnela earned her undergraduate degree in computer science and built a successful career in corporate America. She worked on the operations side of IT doing implementation and product management and then was promoted to district manager, where she managed people, processes and operations.
This management role had Carnela constantly on the road. “I loved what I did, but was traveling all the time,” she recalls. “As I was starting to pursue my Executive MBA, I was also going to the Women’s Business Center talking to women there about starting my own business. They were preparing me for entrepreneurship.”
Dabbling in Entrepreneurship
Carnela soon began dabbling in freelance interior design to break up the monotony of her corporate job. She had a neighbor friend who loved it, too, so they’d hang out, watch design shows and then re-design things around their homes.
“As a child, I remember I loved colors and when my grandmother would buy and sell things to re-arrange the house. I did not think much about it but it really came to life for me when I started my MBA program,” she says. In there, Carnela had a classmate who worked for Stanley Home Furnishings. “She would look at my drawings and say, ‘You’re really talented at this.”
Soon, though, Carnela had another idea. Watching HGTV shows one day, she remembers saying to God, “African American churches and funeral homes really need help, but they’re so afraid to spend money. Can you help me in this?” Her plan was to work on growing clientele in these areas, but another opportunity came around, too.
As Carnela began to pursue her passion more, she picked up clients from work and after she’d help one co-worker, they’d tell friends and things grew from there. She officially launched what’s now known as CR Hill Design Group, LLC in 2000 with a focus on residential interior design.
Taking Her Idea to the Next Level
A gentleman and his family, who lived in New Jersey, contacted Carnela because she had developed a business website thanks to her background in IT. The family was moving to Raleigh, North Carolina, wanted to open a bagel and coffee shop there and needed help with the shop’s interior design.
“They Googled and found me and knew that while I had never done commercial projects, I had managed million-dollar projects in the corporate world,” she says. “He said to me, ‘If you can do this, then surely you can do our small shop. He really wanted to hire me.”
Carnela flew to New Jersey to meet the family. She had friends and clients living there at the time and had been helping them with their homes, so she would often travel there for a week or two at a time while continuing to work her corporate job remotely. “I fell in love with the family, and they with me, and they gave me free reign. That’s how I got into the commercial space.”
After her first commercial project wrapped up, the man gave Carnela one more important thing: He told her that she studied her craft and was so good at what she did that she should get her contractor’s license. “That advice took me a really long way,” she says.
Finding NAWBO Through a Mentor
Along her journey, Carnela found NAWBO, too. She had been at the Women’s Business Center looking for a mentor, and was connected with an entrepreneur who was involved with NAWBO Greater Raleigh. “I fell in love with NAWBO and joined and got the Rising Star Award,” she recalls. She served on the Board, helping with IT and website communications. “NAWBO really became a family for me in the entrepreneurial world.”
Then came 2011. The housing market had crashed several years prior and North Carolina was slow to feel it, but eventually did and this impacted Carnela’s entrepreneurial success. She made the decision to set CR Hill Design Group to the side and work for a local Congressman, doing IT work for his campaign.
Planting the Seeds of Advocacy Work
Carnela eventually became the Congressman’s campaign manager and continued to work for him for six years. The experience taught her a great deal about why advocacy was necessary and how to advocate and expanded her network to include legislative decision makers.
“Working for him really put me in that space,” Carnela shares. “I previously didn’t know how much that skill really mattered. I also went to political bootcamp where I met others who were really great at grassroots work and campaigning. This helped to shape my advocacy life.”
For example, several interior designers in North Carolina around that time were dealing with tax issues so they joined together with different industries to talk about how owners of interior design companies, salons and bakeries were being taxed differently. Carnela was part of these efforts where they “walked the halls and knocked on doors” asking for change.
Focusing Back on Design and the White House
By 2013, Carnela was at it again—watching one of her favorite HGTV shows. It featured the White House being decorated for the holidays by interior designers, florists and other volunteers and she said, “I want to do that.” She applied in 2014 and was crushed when she wasn’t accepted, but knew it was a process.
The next year, Carnela was talking to her mentor about it. She had invited Carnela to join a small group with five women business owners who were interested in scaling and growing. They met every two weeks to work on their businesses. “The mentoring-coaching helped me push toward a different level,” she says.
Carnela told her mentor she wanted to apply for the White House opportunity again, and her mentor suggested she prepare for what might happen after she is selected by redoing her website and hiring a PR professional. Luckily, there was one in her group. “She said, ‘I just feel it, it’s your time,’” remembers Carnela.
Then, she received the letter she had dreamed of. Carnela had been selected and needed to be in Washington, DC on Thanksgiving Day for six days of holiday decorating at the White House. She would get her assignment once she arrived.
At the time, Carnela had a major project with a large church, was starting to work with a university and smaller clients and the pay was trickling in for her. The pay schedule was very slow for certain projects at that time, which now has changed in the design/construction arena for commercial design. The trip was out-of-pocket, so she took the train to DC to save money on parking. When she was having a hard time paying her hotel bill, she reached out to family.
“I was struggling with the ask,” she remembers. “My mom paid for one night, I paid for another and I kept checking my account to see if clients had paid. I wasn’t sure how I’d pay for the other nights, then my brother said, ‘You will not come home, you are representing us.’ Several of my siblings sent money to pay for the hotel.”
At the White House, Carnela was one of more than 100 volunteers, including event staff. She thought to herself, “How is this little Black girl from North Carolina going to stand out in this crowd and I was just myself,” she shares. “When we get opportunities, we just need to be ourselves.”
Still, the work wasn’t exactly what Carnela had imagined. She assembled decorations in an old warehouse and unloaded trucks. “Sometimes you have to do the pre-work before the actual work and I had to do the pre-work,” she laughs. One of the six days, HGTV was in the room and host and interior designer Genevieve Gorder interviewed Carnela.
As the days went on, Carnela began taking the lead with other volunteers and offering design suggestions. She was invited to help decorate the Oval Office as well as other rooms. “Someone is always watching, it really pays off to always try to do your best at whatever you’re doing,” says Carnela, who got a peek of President Obama boarding his plane and was greeted in one room by First Lady Michelle Obama.
Carnela was on cloud nine, of course, from the experience. While riding back on the train, a sister-friend called and Carnela shared she was on the way back from DC. The next morning, a different sister-friend called again saying that a TV station was trying to reach her. Carnela turned them on to her PR person. The opportunity, and resulting publicity, really propelled her business.
“You never know what may happen,” she advises. “Opportunities come just like that and we must be ready as entrepreneurs. Decorating at the White House for Christmas opened the doorway for me. It was my moment and I’m grateful.”
Continuing to Pursue Her Passions—and NAWBO
Today, Carnela is owner of CR Hill Design Group and C3 Impact Strategies—where she consults and instructs in areas of business, interior design, diversity and inclusion, and as a chaplain. She is also a community leader, known for advocacy around issues impacting small and women-owned businesses, interior designers, education and the marginalized. In 2018, she authored the book Walking Afraid: A Woman’s Journey from Failure, Hurt and Rejection to Faith, Wisdom and Triumph and the Walking Afraid Action Plan shortly thereafter.
Speaking of faith, Carnela did another thing in 2018, too—she decided to attend divinity school. During her last year, she remembers sitting in a pastoral care class after the George Floyd murder and they were working on TEDx-style talks. Carnela was supposed to give a talk on illegal immigrants, but she asked if she could give her talk on George Floyd, racism and how people were feeling.
“The plan was everyone would do their talk, post it and the instructor would talk about the post in class,” Carnela describes. “My teacher asked me to play my talk in class. I played it, and the chat box in the classroom went off. Many of my classmates didn’t realize how Blacks and African Americans feel. It started a conversation and made me realize we all have a voice and it’s up to us to exercise it to bring change in the world and community that we live in.”
Carnela has attended NAWBO’s Advocacy Days, participates in the Monthly Advocacy Calls and is a member of the national NextGen Sub-Committee and International Committee. She is joining the NAWBO delegation to Paris this November. Plus, is currently serving in her second term as president of her chapter.
“I feel the need to really do more for small businesses and women-owned businesses, so I’m excited about the work,” says Carnela, who is this year’s recipient of the Gillian Rudd Award in recognition of her advocacy work. “I had been sitting back for a while and now I’m in a place in my life where it’s time for me to rise up."
Her advice for women business owners who aren’t as familiar or comfortable with advocacy? “Just do it,” she says. “Don’t even think twice about it. Look at what you’re doing in life and see where there’s an opportunity to make a difference. If something is irritating you—typically, that’s where it starts—go do something about it. Run for a political office, serve on boards and inquire about being appointed on a government board. Be bold and speak up for change!”