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An interview with Sonya Barnes, owner of Sonya Barnes International,“The Brand Ecosystem”

Updated: Jan 14, 2019

When you sit down with Sonya Barnes, you discover a woman who embraces the word unstoppable.

Born in Landstuhl, Germany, Sonya came into the world as the oldest child of a military family. Her father was an Army Master Sargent and her mother a homemaker. Her two brothers and one sister lived in Germany for ten years on and off during her childhood. From an early age, Sonya looked for puzzles to solve. Style consumed her thoughts. Crafting patterns in order to sew an entire wardrobe of school clothes was something she often practiced. It would be the precursor to what would become a career devoted to brand development, centered on style and communication. “Looking back now, I can see how purposeful I was about getting things right. I feel blessed to have a family who gave me permission to follow my heart.”

People of Charlotte brings you Sonya’s answers to our questions. We especially enjoy those on building a brand and on living a purposeful life.

Please assure People of CLT that when you first get up in the morning, you do not look like what is perched in front of me today!

[Laughter] Heavens no! My husband will testify to that. Please be assured that I have two looks: before coffee and after coffee!

How did you get from Landstuhl, Germany, to Charlotte, North Carolina?

Like a typical military family, we lived all over the world and the country. Finally, we settled in Jacksonville, Florida, where my parents retired. In Jacksonville, I graduated high school and fell in love young! I met my husband, Air Force Captain Peter Barnes in 1987. We began our married life with a move to Ithaca, New York, where my husband earned his graduate degree from Cornell University. With his degree completed, we followed a teaching position to Colorado Springs where he was a Professor at the Air Force Academy, his undergraduate alumni. Peter taught while I studied at the University of Colorado. Never giving up on my goal to complete my own education, I earned a B.A. in organizational communication. In 1998, one last job shift brought us to Charlotte were we settled down to raise our two sons. Our recent addition to the family is my 17-month-old grand baby, Duke! He is just delicious and truly the joy of my life!

Sonya Barnes International sounds like a whole lot of stuff going on under one name. Help us understand what you do.

My original company was named Harris & Barnes Image Consulting. A few years back, after surveying established clients, I discovered that people were confused by both names, Harris and Barnes. They thought it was a partnership. Thanks to this feedback, I realized that my content was not communicating a clear message to potential clients out there. Guided by this knowledge, I branded what was in my soul and merged life, style, and branding under one umbrella, effectively communicating my point of view and how I serve clients. Branding is like an ecosystem.

You need to master the layers of
appearance, communication, and behavior.

I consider and explore all of these with each client and educate them on successful execution.

It sounds like a holistic ecosystem. What gets eaten first?

Well, it begins with the question “Who do you want be or who are you?” I ask clients to define this. Next, we look at your life and how you’re living: are you only going through the motions of doing stuff just because someone asked you? Does your life align with your personal mission? Then we move on to deconstructing your personal style: are you creative, are you traditional? We explore and define what your most authentic style is. How do you want to present yourself to the world? I break it down to three simple but important words: appearance, behavior, and communication (the ABCs). From there, we begin the creation of YOU as a brand. This is the most exciting time in the process! We are brands with legs. I help you achieve firm footing! I want people to now that all brands are built. No person wakes up one day, and poof, they have a brand identity. It takes hard work and is very intentional. Now let’s go back to your first question; I do not emerge from my bed in the morning looking like my brand!

You have an affinity for words and how they communicate professional brands. Do you remember when you first discovered your appreciation for the power of words?

Yes, I can. My favorite school subject when I was a little girl was English, specifically writing. I loved to write then and now! It was the perfect vehicle for me to express my hopes and dreams. Every night, I would sit cross-legged on my bed with pillows propped up behind me and write in my journal. To this day, I have a clear image of what my precious journal looked like. It had a green cover and tiny lock on the outside to make sure that all of my hopes, dreams, and even some secrets were secure. I wrote about everything from the boys I had a crush on to places I hope to see one day. Each journal entry was not complete without a picture. My BIC click color pen was one of my most prized possessions. It was so fun to click a color and then draw just the right picture to complete my thoughts for the day.

What did your childhood bedroom look like?

Well, for years I shared a bedroom with my sister. When we settled in Jacksonville, Florida, I was in my early teens. It was there that I had my own bedroom, bathroom, and private phone line. It felt wonderful! My phone was really big. It was the new circular phone that had a touchtone pad and the coolest thing was that you lifted the lever to make a call. I felt like a princess! The walls of my bedroom were pink. My Queen Anne four poster bed was covered with a brilliant white Chenille bedspread that I was so proud of. My life felt so right because I remember feeling clear about who I was. I still remember what my phone number from back them!

Do you have a space now that reminds you of your bedroom as a child?

I do! Crazy, yes. It is my office. As a women, I need a space of my own. A place where I can just be, a sanctuary for my thoughts. In fact, the door to my office is pink (rose quartz). My initials in gold hang above the crystal door knob. My office walls are white, and there is no TV or distractions from the outside world until I am ready to work. I guess you can say that it is a big girl’s bedroom.

Can you recall your first clear memory of what you wanted to be when you grew-up?

Yes Ma’am! I knew I was going to make my mark in something related to style. You see, I learned to sew at a very early age. My cousin and I loved to create clothes with the old Singer sewing machine we had.

What did you make?

What didn’t we make? We made skirts, pants, pillows, dresses, and tops. I practiced over and over again until I was satisfied with the result. It felt empowering to wear what I had made with my own two hands! I learned so much from the giving people around me. I learned about fabric, seam allowance, and garment construction. I could spend hours fitting all of the pieces of the patterns together to create a unique garment.

Hmmm… Your approach back then sounds a lot like the way you approach your business now. You see a puzzle that needs to be solved. You search for and find pieces that fit to complete a puzzle. How does that breakdown in your daily life? Summarize your first hour of the day:

Well, you will be surprised it has nothing to do with work. My first hour is the most vulnerable time for me. I say vulnerable because like all of us, I am an imperfect human being that God put on this earth. My day begins with meditation and yoga. After the practice of both, I make my way to my office with coffee mug in hand, flip some music on and listen or read a spiritual lesson or something of inspiration. One recent morning, I remember a Whitney Houston song floating into my mental space called, “I Love the Lord.” It reminded me that all answers are found in prayer.

You encourage all who will listen to stay present in the moment. What sharpens your laser focus on the present?

I love to read, meditate, and practice yoga. They are vital in my life for staying focused on the present.

What community causes make you smile?

I am pulled toward causes that support women. The Women’s Impact Fund is one that makes me smile. Causes that serve women and children are so important to me. I want to guide women to define their own success! In fact, I made a shift professionally and now work with women primarily and if the opportunity presents itself, a few great men.

What professional projects are you most excited to complete this year?

Woman of Substance, Woman of Style. I am most excited for my podcast and blog. The podcast will be called My blog will be about embracing and defining style and life in a luxurious sort of way, for women of a “particular” age, while giving yourself permission to live all-out.

Looking back on your life, what wisdom would you choose to share with People of CLT?

Feel the fear and do it anyway.

At this point in your career, is there anyone you would like to thank?

My husband for his support, along with my entire family and friends! A special thank you to Lynne Marks of the London Image Institute. She was my mentor for many years, always believing in me and allowing me the opportunity to flourish in a very big way.

What metaphor is the best comparison to your life?

There are only two currencies in life; time and money. My life is like time.

Editor's Note:

Sonya Barnes, of Sonya Barnes International, has been selected as one of Charlotte’s 50 Most Influential Women 2018. Visit The Mecklenburg Times to reference the complete list. If you would like to sponsor the 10th annual awards on Friday May 18, 2018, please contact John Shaver at

Facebook @thesonyabarnes

Instagram @sonyabarnes

Twitter @sonyabarnes



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