Reflections: “My Time at the White House” by Lisa Nichols

Our CEO Lisa Nichols shares her firsthand account of the experience at the White House—

In March, our office received a call from the White House inviting me to a roundtable discussion in DC for the next Monday morning. I was out of the office at client meetings that day. The office thought perhaps I was being “pranked” but it was a legitimate invite as I received an email confirmation later that afternoon. When I called the next day for details, I did ask how this came about and Rachael Baitel, who was the primary coordinator for the event, told me that I had come highly recommended from the VP’s office. This was interesting to me as I had just participated in a roundtable discussion a few weeks prior with VP Pence and 9 other STL business leaders at the Fabick HQ. I did not have that much time with VP Pence, but I guess his staff remembered me when they were pulling this group of women together for the White House roundtable and for that I am very grateful.

The Administration had just met in February with Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, for a round-table discussion focused on women in the workforce. There, the two countries announced a joint task force on women in business and entrepreneurship. They talked about the need to remove barriers for women in business. Ivanka Trump helped craft the plan. I think the idea at the time was that as they conducted these roundtables with women business owners and executives, they would learn about the significant barriers that those women had to overcome. Ideally, the Administration could be better equipped to help others in the future as well as set policies and provide resources that are more favorable for businesses in general.

All I really knew about the roundtable discussion was that we would be discussing the challenges and opportunities facing women entrepreneurs. Now… I had a boss from one of the Fortune 500 companies I worked for before co-founding Technology Partners that I learned a lot from. Dave was an ex-Marine and he lead like a Marine. His favorite adage was “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” so I have grown up always making sure to do my homework before important meetings. I spent the weekend doing my research, interviewing other women entrepreneurs and those empowering women entrepreneurs, as well as reflecting upon my own experiences as a woman in business.

We were told to be in the West Wing lobby by 10am on Monday morning to go through security and be briefed. Rachael, the coordinator, gave us an outline of everything that would happen and told us to make sure to rise when the President entered the room and then he would officially dismiss us to be seated. Funny story—Rachael asked us to keep our comments brief when introducing ourselves so that there would be time to really dive into the issues. If you watched the CSpan coverage you probably noticed that it didn’t quite go down that way. That’s what you get when you get a room full of women together. Ha! But that is OK. Although, it didn’t leave a lot of time to do a deep dive on any one issue.

President Trump gave the opening remarks and reiterated the Administration’s commitment to women-owned businesses and women in business in general. He said that we must ensure that our economy is a place where women can work and thrive. He went on to say that women are the primary source of income in 40 percent of American households with children under the age of 15. In addition, he said we know that companies that promote women to senior leadership roles realize significantly better profits, according to statistics, than their competitors.

It is a well-known fact that “access to capital” is the number one challenge for women entrepreneurs, yet women-owned businesses are growing at 4x the rate of our male counterparts. Women-owned businesses contribute $1.6T to the American economy.

Ivanka opened our discussion by saying that everyone knows this and so she really did not want to focus too much on this issue but rather wanted to use the time we had discussing other challenges and how the administration could help.

I want to take the opportunity to highlight just a few of the other challenges discussed. One of the primary challenges that was brought up in the discussion was access to networks and mentors. Often times, women business owners do not feel that they have access to models/mentors at the next level. How do I tap into knowledge, mentorship that will help me take the business to new heights? I know for myself, I have had amazing business mentors during my career, but they have all been men. We can fix this I think by being more aware that we all have a responsibility to pay it forward to the next generation of leaders. Maybe the generations after us will not feel this way. My Executive Assistant Jenny can tell you that I (probably to a detriment) take almost every mentoring meeting requested of me. She must reign me in sometimes. But again, I remember how it feels to just want someone to bounce your challenges and ideas off of and if I can be that for someone, I am more than willing to do what I can.

Further, there was a lot of discussion around the types of education needed by women-business owners and where they go for skill-building. We all know that the customer experience is king in today’s marketplace. There are so many options and if a customer’s experience is less than awesome, they can easily take their business somewhere else. I chimed in and said yes, I do believe that we all need to be thinking about how we can improve the customer experience, but equally so, we need to be concerned with the employee experience. How are we setting our business culture up to retain the people once we attract them? In our world of IT, we must assume that our people are being courted by other firms all the time. This was confirmed to me the day after I returned from my White House visit, one of our top Solution Architects announced that he had been given an amazing offer and as much as he hated to leave TP, could not pass up the offer to grow into a more strategic role. Fortunately, we saved him from going to the other firm but this is a constant and inevitable struggle.

Two hours and a couple of photos later, I am back in my hotel room asking myself what just happened? It was a whirlwind. This I knew— I had been entrusted with an amazing opportunity (a gift) in that only 10 women-owned businesses across the United States were at that roundtable discussion in the Roosevelt Room. I was so proud to represent women, but also, I was proud that our great state had a seat at the table.

For me, I had to think, “What am I to do now? What was the reason I was there? Not just my own story but who else was there?” When you consider the women entrepreneurs in the Roosevelt room and where they all came from, I am truly in awe. I am in awe of the “guts and grit” that these women embraced to get to the place where they are. And when I say grit, I am not talking about the southern kind that I grew up on.

Consider Paty Funegra. Paty immigrated from Peru to the US with a passion in her heart and a vision in her head. In 2012, she founded La Cocina “the kitchen”, as a catalyst for economic growth and sustainability specifically in the Hispanic community of DC. La Cocina provides vocational training in the food and hospitality industry. She employs Hispanics that collectively earn $500K per year and are contributing back $100K into the local tax base of DC. Her future vision for the organization is that La Cocina will become a “kitchen incubator” where other aspiring entrepreneurs can build and test their products in a clean, safe, FDA approved environment. Paty didn’t have connections or extraordinary means when she came to the United States but she did have compassion and a desire to make a difference in the lives of her fellow beings and community. She had guts and she had grit.

Lili Gil Vallenta immigrated to the United States from Bogota, Columbia when she was just teenager with nothing but a suitcase, a student visa and not a word of English. With hard work and perseverance, she earned an undergraduate degree in business as well as an MBA from the University of Colorado. In 2000, she became the youngest female executive at Johnson and Johnson. She took her business experience from J and J and founded Cien nine years later. Cien is a company in NYC that shows leaders how to use analytics to turn a company’s culture into profits. Lili had guts and she had grit.

One last story that I will share is the story of Lisa Phillips. Lisa was homeless with three children in 2008. Instead of focusing on her current station in life, she looked at what she was lacking and determined that for her, it was education. She tapped into the Baltimore Urban League’s Center for Entrepreneurship and started learning about business. In a marketing class, the capstone project was to present a viable business idea. She used a gift basket idea for special occasions and by the end of the class she had 4 orders for gift baskets. Her professor encouraged her to build on her giftedness and start a business. She founded Celeebrate Us (the extra e is for the extra attention she puts into her product). In addition to lifting herself out of poverty, now she employs other homeless people. Lisa had guts and she certainly had grit.

Reflections:

1) It is not always about the things you have been given. It is not always about who you know or the financial resources you have access to. Can those things make it a little easier? Absolutely!!! But in America your station in life that you have been born into is not necessarily where you need to stay. You do need a helping hand every now and then and it is really nice when someone believes in you. You need guts and grit. You cannot succeed without these.

2) My second reflection is this – Only in America, could you be homeless in 2008 and sitting in the White House with the President in 2017.

The United States Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I am proud of the country that we live in. I am grateful for our founding fathers who declared that all men are created equal. I am indebted to the men and women who have fought so that we can have freedom to pursue our dreams. I am empowered by the trailblazers who have gone before us to prove that you can build something out of nothing and now I am emboldened to make my “own dent in the world”. The question that we all must ask ourselves is “how am I to do that”?

3) I am going to tell you a few of the “real things” that I am personally going to do:

a. I am going to continue to advocate for women-business owners and act as a mentor when I can through organizations such as Brazen.

b. I am going to continue to push our Practice Directors toward disruptive innovation for our clients so that their businesses can compete in this global economy and stand-out in the marketplace.

c. I was just appointed by our Governor to be on the MO Technology Corporation Board as well as his Innovation Task Force. I am going to do my research and I am going to bring the best ideas forward that I possibly can to move our great state into a winning position.

d. Lastly, I am going to stop making excuses like, “when I get margin” for a project that I felt called to two years ago. I am taking a month- long sabbatical in July to move the needle forward on this project. It is a bold move for me as it will require me to take my eye off of the primary business for a few weeks. It is something that I have to do as I feel called to the mission.

4) What are you going to do? The world needs your brilliance, your ideas, your talents and your energy.

Lisa Nichols
CEO Technology Partners


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