Women Who Lead: Kristin Cagney with Summit Seltzer

Women Who Lead: Kristin Cagney with Summit Seltzer

Kristin Cagney sees the silver lining in rejection. 

As the owner of Summit Seltzer, the first producer and purveyor of hard seltzers on the East Coast, Cagney is used to hearing the word “no.” When she first sought financial backing for her Wesley Heights seltzery, she was denied by not one bank, but 50.   

“I had just turned 27 and never owned a business before. They weren’t taking me entirely seriously,” says Cagney, who drafted her business plan while pursuing her MBA at UNC Charlotte. “But I’m optimistic. I never let ‘no’ get me down. I grew from my mistakes and grew from constructive criticism. I treated everything as a learning opportunity more than a failure.”

Today, a year after Summit Seltzer’s grand opening, we chatted more with Cagney to see what it takes to tap into a niche beverage industry.       

 

Opening a business is hard. No one will deny that. But what was it like to open the first seltzery on the East Coast?

Luckily, I had worked for breweries in the Charlotte market for a while, so I was able to get a foundation of what the seltzery might look like when we opened. The real hurdle was convincing other people that a seltzery was a good idea. Fortunately, one of my MBA classes focused on market research analytics and a team of five of us dedicated the class to researching seltzery sentiments — what people thought about the industry, what they thought about seltzer, and where they thought the future of seltzer might be. I was able to use this research to create a bulletproof business plan and finally convince a bank to fund it. 

That was definitely the biggest challenge of wading into an unknown industry, but I had full faith in seltzer as a product. In 2018, when I was drafting the business plan, the market was going toward healthy, low-carb, and gluten-free. And when I worked at breweries, I can’t tell you how many times people asked for something that wasn’t beer. I was on the frontlines and I saw that trend emerging. 

 

You drafted Summit’s business plan while studying at UNC Charlotte’s Belk College of Business. So which came first — your passion for business or your passion for seltzer?  

My passion for not being in the corporate world came first. After college, I worked in corporate finance until I had a quarter-life crisis and just randomly quit. I didn’t have a plan. That’s kind of my MO. I’m a nomad. I’ve moved probably seven times in the last five years. I’m also a big believer in doing what makes you happy, even if it’s unconventional, and I was not suited for corporate life. I wanted to focus on something I was passionate about and I wanted to give my entire heart to it. 

I’ve always worked in restaurants, so when I quit my job I just started bartending again and I realized that bartending is what makes me happy. I loved everyone that I met. I loved the culture. I loved the camaraderie. But I had quite a bit of student loan debt from undergrad that I needed to work off, so I decided to go back to school at UNC Charlotte and get my MBA. I was just like, “Hey, I’m doing something else.” I didn’t know what until I noticed that seltzer was becoming super popular. I joked around for a few months about starting a seltzery until one of my buddies convinced me to write a business plan. 

 

And today, your business is family-owned?

Yes. We’re 100 percent family-owned. My parents and little brother are like my best friends.

 

How does that influence Summit’s brand and culture?  

In a very non-cliche way, we’re not overly concerned with getting rich. Money is not everything. For much of my life, I’ve been bartending because breweries and restaurants are my happy place. But I can’t count the number of times, especially when I was younger, that I wasn’t treated like a human by the owners. A lot of people don’t treat bartenders and servers with respect — it’s a very thankless job. 

I wanted to make sure our culture was focused on our employees’ wellbeing and that we felt like a family, which we are. We have the best staff on the planet. We wanted to hyperfocus on that — we didn’t want to just think through a lens of dollars and cents. I wanted to have empathy for our staff. 

We also wanted to treat the Charlotte community and all of our customers as family. We’re intentional about creating an inclusive, loving environment 

 

You are a business owner in your late 20s. Do you consider yourself young to be making such waves in the Charlotte business community?

I never really saw my age as a hurdle because when I was 27, originally trying to pitch this business concept, I had been working in restaurants since I was 16. Sure, I was young but I had been familiar with the industry for 11 years. Plus, if anything, my age helped. I was the right demographic for breweries and bars downtown. I got insider information because my friends were all going to these places. I was just surrounded by it.

I do get questioned all the time, “If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?” I have a baby face and don’t really wear makeup, so I look young. But if you have confidence in yourself and in your skillset, it doesn’t matter how old you are. It’s more of what you do with your time and how you educate yourself in different capacities. There are so many different outlets to learn — from Google Analytics tutorials to videos on coding.

 

Speaking of learning, since you entered the food and beverage world at 16, you’ve been learning how to navigate this industry. But what is something you are learning right now, a year after the opening of Summit?

There are 1,000 different things I’m learning every day from our software system to tracking our inventory to managing the nuts and bolts of production to knowing where to buy the best produce. I am learning the most random things like that I need to go to Food Lion on Tuesdays and Whole Foods on Thursdays for the best deals. Or that strawberries from U.S. Foods are way too expensive, so I am boycotting those. It’s just the stupidest things. But I am also learning how to manage relationships with sales and how to run a distribution department. We have about 45 accounts right now. Each day is wild. 

 

That sounds like a juggling act. What is your recipe for success?

Tenacity. I never let “no” get me down. I learn from my mistakes and learn from constructive criticism. Obviously, no one loves constructive criticism but it’s supposed to be just that — constructive. Taking it and applying it to whatever you do next is big. That’s the most important thing.

So is staying optimistic. I look at the positives of everything. A lot of people are like, “Oh man, that sounds really hard.” And they will just stop. But I always know that there are, not necessarily loopholes, but ways around the roadblock. Just because it’s not mainstream, doesn’t mean it’s not possible. You just have to stay optimistic and get creative. 

 

You lived in Colorado previously. Why root your business in Charlotte?

I lived in Colorado for ten years and that is where the Summit brand is from — its foundation is outdoor adventure. And for a long time, I felt drawn to Colorado. I felt like that’s where I belonged because it’s so outdoorsy. It’s a mecca for that stuff. But something kept calling me back to Charlotte. Maybe because Charlotte is probably, hands down, the best city I’ve ever lived in. 

People here are so friendly, so nice, and so awesome. People here help each other — there is a sense of camaraderie that just isn’t present in other cities. Asking for help here is okay. So building Charlotte’s culture is really important to us at Summit. Being really proud of Charlotte and where we live is super important to us too.

What does the future hold for you and for Summit?

We actually just ordered more kegs and are tripling our production. By mid-summer, we hope to ramp up distribution. That is the next step. I’d also love to have another location that has more room. We’re tiny right now — we’re only 4,000 square feet. But to get funding, we needed to start small and move forward with organic growth.

Plus, the more space, the more production, the more money you need. I come from a very modest family. We definitely don’t have a ton of money. Unfortunately, when we first opened, that was a common misconception. I read some articles that were like, “Oh my gosh, she must have gotten so much money from her parents.” But that’s not the case.  

Women Who Lead: Cristina Wilson with Mood House

Women Who Lead: Cristina Wilson with Mood House

It’s a feeling we can all relate to, the one where you open an unpleasant email from a client or boss. You panic. You feel controlless. Cristina Wilson experienced this a lot in her career as a journalist and president at Charlotte Agenda (now Axios Charlotte). But instead of bowing down to the tailspin, she decided it was time to confront it head on. She realized that when she felt grounded, she could take back control of her emotions and actions in those stressful situations. This was her inspiration to start Mood House, a massage spa where you can “recharge your body and mind so that you can show up the way you want to for your family, career and life.”

We sat down with Wilson to talk more about how stress is inefficient compared to calm collectedness and how she practices what she preaches as a business owner. 

On your website, you talk about how you had it all together but one bad email could send you spiraling. I’m curious what kind of emails were those and in what ways did you feel yourself unraveling? 

In my time as an editor at The Charlotte Observer and in my time running the business at Charlotte agenda (which is now Axios), you do a lot of client-facing work. I feel like people can relate to this in so many different industries, but when you’re dealing with clients directly in any shape or form, it’s so easy to let their mood dictate your mood. If they aren’t happy, then you shouldn’t be happy. You take that burden onto yourself regardless of whether you’ve actually made a mistake or not. And so I just felt like I was in a place where I was pushing myself so hard to make everyone else happy that I wasn’t grounding myself in what makes me happy or where I get my own sense of pride and achievement. So if something went wrong or there was a mistake or someone wasn’t happy, instead of having the tools to calm me down and keep a bigger perspective, I would be thrown into a tailspin. 

What did that tailspin look like? 

Ironically, it was a feeling of not being able to continue to be productive and stay on track. Which is ironic because instead of feeling like you can work harder and make up for it, those feelings end up being a real distraction. I feel like when you’re in that low emotional place, you kind of take it to the extreme and have that negative self-talk. And you actually can’t even take steps to fix the problem as efficiently as you could if you felt more centered, even, and calm.  

You also talked about feeling like you had to justify the time to relax and recharge. Why do you think that is? 

I think in startup culture, it’s all hands on deck. It’s mission over everything. And that’s not a bad thing. Some seasons, that’s okay. But it just depends on how long that season really is. Because all hands on deck is just not sustainable forever.

So you realized that maybe you needed a solution to the spiraling. So how did you arrive at that solution? 

I feel like when you take the time to relax, reset, and remember that there is a world outside of work, when you do that on purpose and upfront, that practice bleeds into everything else you have going on in a positive way. 

And if you don’t do it up front, then you’re basically going to do it but in the reverse order where you get to a breakdown point and you either mentally have to shut off or you’re going to feel sick and end up taking some days off. 

So if you choose the time upfront, even in small ways, if you mentally are making that time for yourself, then you’re just setting yourself up for success. Even if it’s a one-hour massage a month, which objectively isn’t even that much time. 

I’m thinking back to that image of the dreaded email. How is the experience of reading that email different after you give yourself time to recharge? 

For me, I feel like it helps me navigate what’s happening and what action I can actually take to improve the situation versus just listening to the yelling in my head about things going wrong. I think that you can’t have that clarity, or the ability to slow it down and look at things more rationally if you’re running out of fumes and everything seems like the end of the world.

You started as a journalist and then made your way to the president of what is now Axios. Then you started your own company. That decision must have taken a lot of courage and passion. 

Some days it felt like a big leap of faith, and some days it just felt inevitable. At times, it felt like I was heading toward this big unknown cliff. I was pretty good at talking myself through all the worst-case scenarios. If this absolutely goes horrible, what would I do? As long as I was okay with those answers, or felt like I could at least map out what I’d do, I was okay. And on the flip side, some days you feel like everyone totally gets your vision and excitement and you’re like, “There’s no way this is gonna fail!” You have to believe in your vision; you have to have that confidence in order for other people to believe in it too. But it’s also a lot of hard work. So you kind of swing to those extremes.

A lot of successful people get asked about the secret to their success. Most times, the secret isn’t a secret at all; it’s just hard work. I was just curious if that’s been your experience. 

Yeah, totally. You just have to go through it, even though it’s pretty painful. In terms of the amount of work and the fear you have in the beginning, you have to choose to go on the roller coaster of it. Once you get on it you’re pretty locked in it. So, if you’re not willing to lock yourself in and just go through it, then you’re not going to come out the other side with something that you’re proud of. I do think it’s that simple. 

And as a business owner, are you practicing what you preach? Are you finding time to recharge despite wearing all the hats? 

Yeah, absolutely. I really want to take this business to the next level. I can’t do that if I’m in that cycle I described at the beginning of our conversation.

Now is the time to figure out what that cycle looks like for me, what are the breaks that I need, what are the boundaries I need to set, what are the things that I need to delegate. I just have to let go of some perfectionism there.

As the owner of your own business, what skills do you feel like you’ve finally mastered?

A million different client scenarios can come up and you just have to know a million different variations of what your response would be. You need to know when to break the rules and when to follow them. One of my employees asked me how I learned to troubleshoot so quickly. I feel like that rapid-fire decision-making process, and being able to make decisions quickly and confidently, has been formed by just years of experience dealing with different situations. It felt good to have someone ask “How do you know how to make the right call?” It’s just years of practice! 

Women Who Lead: Yolanda Hemphill with NTT Data Services

Women Who Lead: Yolanda Hemphill with NTT Data Services

Most people don’t love working with project managers. “We’re literally stalking people to make sure they do what they need to do on time,” jokes Yolanda Hemphill, Principal Consultant at NTT Data Services. “We’re basically low-key harassing people. Let’s just call a spade a spade!” 

But Hemphill has a unique approach. “People say, ‘Okay Yolanda, I’ll get it done but only because you’re nice!’” 

It’s not just that Hemphill is nice. It’s that she leads with empathy. She prioritizes letting her “light shine” (more on this later). And as a result, Hemphill has reached some exciting milestones, including being named a Charlotte Business Journal Top 40 Under 40 and National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) Southern Region President of the Year. 

Hemphill sat down with us to share her hopes for the financial industry and how she blends her personal passions with her professional ones. 

 

Did you always know that you wanted to work in finance? 

I did not. When I initially got to college at Mississippi State University, I was majoring in computer engineering. I took my first computer programming class and quickly realized it was not for me. I switched to business because my mom always told me, “You can never go wrong with business.” I took my first accounting class at the College of Business and it came naturally to me. So flawlessly, in fact, that I was like, “Maybe this is meant for me.” I went on to get my undergraduate degree in accounting and my master’s in accounting. 

 

What do you hope the future of finance and accounting looks like and what do we have to do, or continue doing, to get there? 

My ultimate goal would be for the future of finance to look like the community that it serves. It would be great if the community receiving financial resources could see themselves in the people who are providing those services. How do we get there? I think we continue to do what we’re doing. We have a ton of allies that are helping us do the work, people who realize the issues and the concerns that people of color have and realize that a change needs to happen. As long as we have those allies, I think the future is very positive and finance is going to reflect the community in which it serves.

 

I can tell you’re very passionate about what you do professionally. I can also tell that you’re passionate about diversity and inclusion. It can be hard for professionals to blend their professional and personal passions together in a way that feels meaningful. How were you able to achieve that?

My passion is helping people. Fortunately, accounting and finance are ways to help people. Everyone needs those services. 

When I started my career, there weren’t many people that looked like me in my field. So when my company audited minority-owned corporations and businesses, clients would box me in and say “Wait, what are you doing here? Are you auditing our finances? Wait, how did you get started?” They always wanted to know my story. I quickly realized that’s the part of accounting I liked. Interacting with people, learning about them, and having them see themselves reflected in a position black people typically didn’t possess. 

You have to help your clients make or save money, but it’s ultimately about those people you can touch and share your story with. I truly believe the more people we share our story with, the greater our impact. 

It sounds like your approach to professional development has been focusing on what you’re good at and where you can have an impact. And as a result, opportunities have opened themselves up to you and you’ve been open to them in return. You seem to go with the flow. 

Exactly, that’s exactly it. Let me tell you a secret: I plan every other aspect of my life. But my career journey, my volunteer journey, has always been happenstance. It’s because other people have seen the light in me and given me opportunities. 

Earlier in my career, I had very little experience with implementation and project management. If you told me at the time I’d be responsible for implementing new systems, that would’ve blown my mind. But I landed a job doing just that, even though I had no idea how to make that happen for myself. A recruiter contacted me and we had an amazing conversion. She said, “You know what Yolanda, I submitted you for this role.” I quickly said, “I don’t have the qualifications.” She answered, “You have every qualification for that role. Your people and soft skills overshadow the hard skills that any of the other candidates presented.” I’m not one to turn down a great opportunity so I decided the least I could do was go for an interview. 

I beat out five other people for the role that had project management experience. The hiring manager told me, “You’re going to come in with that Southern hospitality and smile and people are going to do whatever it is you want them to do.” And surprisingly, that worked! I’ve used that charm with all of my following roles.

 

So how does that translate into advice that you give your mentees? 

I tell them to do what they love doing and the rest will fall into place. That’s it. If you allow your light to shine bright, people are going to need shades to block it out. They’re not going to be able to deny it and will recommend you for opportunities. They will want to invest in, mentor, and/or sponsor you. Typically you don’t have regrets when you try something new. At the very least, you can decide you won’t ever do it again! That’s literally the advice I give. 

What do you mean by letting your light shine? 

It means to live in your truth. So whatever that is, be confident in it. 

I haven’t always had natural hair, for example. Since I was little, I had been getting relaxers in my hair to chemically straighten it. And that’s what my mom told me I needed to do for people to respect me more. Straight hair is more accepting.

Eventually, I decided I wasn’t going to let the perception of my hair define me. I wanted to be natural. I didn’t like getting relaxers because it burned my scalp. So I cut all my relaxed hair off (which is the first step to going natural) in 2011. I felt like I didn’t look very feminine with my small afro. I was very insecure, which is how my flower clip fashion statement started. I started putting them in my hair because I thought no one could mistake me for a man while wearing flower clips!

What I quickly learned as my hair grew out was that, “Yolanda, you’re beautiful no matter what your hair looks like because you allow your light to shine.” And so I continue to wear the flower clips in my hair to remind myself that I am beautiful. So that’s me living my truth. Owning whoever it is you want to be on the outside and the inside, and allowing that to be your story. 

 

I think among professionals there’s a fear that you have to conform (to some extent) with the company culture to get hired or promoted. Is that an unfounded fear? Or is it a reality and the trick is to look for the right working environment where you will be accepted? 

Yes, all of the above. Sometimes you’re overlooked because you’re not in the right clique or you haven’t made the right connections with the right people. Sometimes it’s because your company doesn’t see your true value or you march to the beat of your own drum. Everyone’s not going to value your value but it’s our responsibility to know it and not settle for anything less. 

So if you’re at a company and you’re doing all of this work but they don’t appreciate you, you know your worth, so leave.

However, if you like the company and you feel like they do see your worth, then maybe you need to change your strategy, meet with some of the senior leaders and collaborate on ways to change the company’s culture to be more accepting. 

 

You are very passionate about seeing more people of color in professional financial roles. How has the cause of increasing diversity within your industry evolved over your career? 

A lot. When I started out, there may have been one or two people of color in a room. Now there are more people that look like me in the room. One of the biggest changes I’ve enjoyed is the increase in the number of employee resource groups (ERGs). So now, you not only have black employees you hope to run into in the hallways or the elevator that you can speak to, you now have your own organization where you can connect and feel included. You’re surrounded by people that look like you and support you. That’s part of the reason I started the black ERG for our Carolinas team at my company. It’s specifically for our black employees here in the Carolinas so we can get together and have open, candid conversations about anything that affects us and how it makes us feel.

Sometimes if you’re the only one on your team that looks like you, you may feel intimidated to talk to people about what you’re going through because you’re afraid they may not feel the same way. But if you have a safe space, you can say “Okay someone in this room feels like I feel and even if they don’t, I’ll be supported. They’ve had similar experiences so they can relate without judgment.” I would say that’s a big change because, in the early part of my career, ERGs weren’t common. 

As far as where I want to see the industry go, while there are a lot more people of color in this industry, most of them are in entry-level positions. Most of them are not in the senior leadership roles. And that’s where I would love to see more representation. If people of color make up let’s say 2% of a company and all are in entry-level positions, how did that happen? Why is that? Things are most certainly changing and I know it’s only going to get better. 

 

What advice would you give your younger self? 

Always be true to who you are, because the people you feel you need to please right now are not even going to be in your life later. I spent so much time and money through school wanting people to like me. And I don’t even talk to those people anymore! So I would love to tell my younger self, “Queen, you are perfect the way you are. Don’t change a thing. The skinny legs you got? They won’t be that way forever, okay? You are amazing and will do amazing things, continue to be you.” 

What is a new skill you’re learning right now? 

This probably sounds super cliche, but COVID has taught me patience! I did not realize that my patience was lacking until COVID hit and I had to be patient about going outside, traveling, and meeting up with my family and friends. 

As for the skills I’m working on professionally, I’ve been taking a lot of leadership courses. Being over a non-profit board, being over NTT DATA’s THRIVE Carolinas ERG, I feel like it’s easy to assume you’re doing everything right. But I’m human just like everyone else, and there are so many things that I can improve on. I don’t want to be a great leader. I want to be an empathetic leader. I want people to look at me and say, “Wow, Yolanda is going to listen and support me because she truly cares.”

Women Who Lead: Brooke Faw with Bespoke Sports & Entertainment

Women Who Lead: Brooke Faw with Bespoke Sports & Entertainment

Eight years ago, Brooke Faw posted a picture of Mary Tyler Moore on her Facebook page. In the caption, she talked about how she knew she was going to make it after all. Earlier that day, Brooke met Mike Boykin (her current boss) at an event. (Boykin was running a different agency at the time.) “I said to him, ‘One of these days I’m going to work for you.’”

One year later, TimeHop resurfaced Faw’s Mary Tyler Moore post. It was the same day that Faw called Boykin to accept the offer and work for Bespoke Sports & Entertainment

“I am a very emotional person so I started crying,” says Faw. “I called Mike and I’m babbling about Mary Tyler Moore, and he’s like ‘Did she die? I’m very confused.’ And I’m like, ‘No! Mary Tyler Moore! I’m coming to work for you!’”

After joining Bespoke Sports & Entertainment, Faw transitioned from manager to director to her current role as vice president. We spoke with Faw about her decision to join an up-and-coming agency and her experience working in sports.

 

You started your career as a kindergarten teacher and a high school basketball coach, is that correct? 

Yes. 

 

And now you’re the Vice President of Client Experiences. When I look at how you got from point A to today — from teaching to working for a nonprofit to working for a hospital —it seems like you’ve always had a passion for community. 

You know it’s funny, I’ve never put it that way but that’s actually the perfect way to put it. 

Yes, I’ve always had a passion for helping in any way that I can. Obviously being a kindergarten teacher, there’s a lot of that that goes into it. Then, I was a director of a nonprofit for Earth Fare and we did a ton in helping people live healthier lifestyles. Later I moved over to running sports partnerships for a hospital system in which one of the best things was bringing athletes to our Children’s Hospital. 

Now, on the agency side, I love the fact that I can work on multiple projects, and everyone always kind of rolls their eyes when we’re in brainstorms because I’m like, “Okay, and what’s the charity component of this?” Everyone’s like, “Here comes the community relations girl.”

But you know, every brainstorm and every client that I work on, we do something that gives back or helps people or sends a message that just makes this world a better place. Because, why else work if you’re not trying to work towards that?

 

Is it fair to say that you’ve also always been in love with sports throughout your career? 

So, I will tell you a personal story that hopefully the women reading this can learn from. Learn from my mistakes! 

When I went to college, I wanted to be an ESPN reporter. I love sports. I love to talk. Put them together and it’s perfect. That’s what I was going to do, that was my dream. 

At the time I was engaged — yes, engaged at 19, don’t judge me — I was engaged to a guy who just really wanted the white picket fence and the yard full of kids. When you grow up in a place like I grew up in, in Indiana, I was like, “Absolutely.” So I changed my major to teaching. 

We subsequently got married and tried for several years to have children, but I was told that I was never going to be able to have a child. And so we separated.

So here I was at 24, divorced and having this quarter-life crisis. And I just decided right then and there that I wanted to do something in sports. I wanted to pursue that goal. The 18-year-old in me wanted to do it, but that girl listened to a boy instead of actually doing what I wanted to do. This girl was going to do it differently! 

I moved to North Carolina and found a teaching job. I taught a lot of kids who had parents who worked in NASCAR. And so I started learning about the roles and responsibilities and different things that NASCAR does and started volunteering for drivers and their foundations and just fell in love with that world.

So I met some who introduced me to some folks at Earth Fare, which is how the Community Relations and nonprofit world started for me. That job moved to Asheville. Ironically enough, I’d gotten remarried and had my son and didn’t want to move him to Asheville. 

I took some time off and thought I was gonna be a stay-at-home mom for a minute. That lasted all of about six weeks because that job is the hardest job in the world.

And so I decided to get back into sports. I loved my community relations nonprofit job but I really wanted something in sports to kind of show everyone that I could do it, you know?

So when that sports position became open at the hospital, I was lucky enough to have a lot of people put their names out for me and say “Hey, you really need to talk to this girl.” 

 

When you joined Bespoke Sports & Entertainment, it was an up-and-coming agency. It can be risky joining a small business that’s just starting out, so how did you make the decision to take a leap of faith? 

I take educated risks. 

So, yes, you’re completely correct in that leaving a huge corporation that I loved to go work for two men who basically were footing the build themselves to start up this agency was a very risky picture. 

However, if you knew those two men, and if you knew what kind of men they were and the reputation they had in the sports world, the number of people that were ready to do anything to help them because they had helped others, you knew that it was a risk but it was an educated risk.

I knew even if the agency failed, they would do everything in their power to get me in a position that I would have never even dreamed of because they were so grateful for me coming over and being a part of their team. If I hitched my wagon to theirs, no matter what happened with the agency, it was going to be a good experience. 

So I guess the answer to your question is, I look at the people. The type of person that you work for is so important. If I worked for someone who didn’t have morals or ethics, someone who would undercut people just to make a buck, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. That’s just a personal decision for me. But the fact that I knew that these men were just solid gold, I was like, “I have to go learn from them.”

 

I’m interested in hearing a little bit about being a woman in the sports industry. Women and sports have a complicated history, and I’m sure that plays out in your world too. Are there any barriers that you know are different for women in your industry? 

Forgive me because I’ll probably cry talking about this, but it is something that I am so passionate about.

I was at a meeting out of town and I had a picture of my son on my desktop. I opened my computer to give the presentation, and people were like “Oh my gosh, your son is so cute! Who’s taking care of him if you’re here?” I can guarantee you that had I been a man, not one person would have asked me “Who’s taking care of your son while you’re giving a business presentation?”

So the societal thought that when women have kids they must be at home with them is killing women in sports. There are very few women over the age of 40 in sports. There are a ton of women in their twenties. But as they start talking about having families, they drop like flies to the point where I came into the sports industry at 25 and was looking for that late 30’s woman to be that mentor to look up to and ask, “Okay, how did you do it all?” And there really wasn’t one. And I searched. Hard. 

I asked my bosses, “Find me a woman mentor who is married, who has children, and is still able to be a boss in the sports world.” They found women who were single or who were married without kids. But they could not find anyone that was all those things and still worked in sports effectively. 

And so seven years ago, I set out and said “I am going to be that woman.” That is my path, that is my calling.

Another barrier that women have is the crap we have to put up with just to do our job. 

If you follow a woman who works in sports around for 24 hours, you would be embarrassed at the way that she is looked at, the way she is talked to, the way she is treated. Not by all men — let me be fair, not by all men — but by enough that it is really noticeable.

 

I like hearing how you set out to become the role model that you didn’t have but wished you did. 

I think our biggest issue as women is when there’s a spot at the top, in my opinion, a woman feels like if she brings any other women up with her she’s gonna lose her spot because there’s only one. 

I really think my generation, hopefully, will be that generation that finally says, “No, we don’t want to be the only woman in the room. We want diversity of thought.”  

The general consumer is a woman. That’s who people want to market to. Every company wants the female perspective, but their problem is they go ask a roomful of men for it. And so we need more women, especially in the marketing world and especially in the sports marketing world, to be at the table. Otherwise, we’re going to keep coming up with the same ideas using the same thought process.

What is a new skill you’re learning right now? 

Right now I’m leading a team. When I started I was a team member. Now I’m leading the team and drawing that line between being friends with people and being a boss and making sure people are getting things done. It’s a very hard line for me because I just want to be nice to everybody and I just want everybody to like me. But I’ve learned that being likable is not always as effective as being respected. 

So I’m really working hard on not just giving my team the answer that’s going to make them like me, but giving them the answer that’s going to help them grow. I can’t conquer this world on my own. I need to create a whole bunch of teammates that can think and act on their own, and if they’re always coming to me because I’m not teaching them anything, then we’re never going to get there. I’m incredibly proud of the team we’re building and this is just the beginning!

Women Who Lead: Dr. Shanté Williams with Black Pearl Global Investments

Women Who Lead: Dr. Shanté Williams with Black Pearl Global Investments

When Dr. Shanté Williams was moving through the corporate landscape, she says people probably thought she was a bit of a flake. She would come into position, do really well, get a little promotion, and then ask, “Okay, now what’s next?” 

“People were like, ‘Do you just not have the capacity to stick around?’” says Williams. “I used to take that to heart and then I’d feel bad about moving.” But not bad enough to stop. Instead, Williams continued to explore projects that made a difference, regardless if they were in totally new industries.  

“If you choose yourself, if you choose to cultivate the things that make you happy and that you’re really good at, you can go anywhere,” says Willaims. “You don’t have to be limited by what other people think you’re good at.”

We talked more with Dr. Williams, CEO and founder of Black Pearl Global Investments, about her career moves and her self-titled role as a capital activist.   

 

After reading about your career, it’s very hard to pigeonhole you into any one industry. You started with a Ph.D. in biomedical science. Then you worked in business, healthcare, finance, and now you own and run an investment firm. It can be hard for some people to change careers. How did you work through that? 

I’m glad that you weren’t able to pin me down to one industry. That’s intentional at this point. It was not intentional when I started. 

When starting out in your career journey, you absolutely [pigeonhole yourself], right? And for me, I kept saying “Okay, this is who I am” and then I would quickly hit a ceiling. Changing jobs within the same company, or even expanding your duties [at the same company] can become very very difficult if you learn very quickly. So for me, I just kept hitting that ceiling. 

Then I started saying, “Okay, so maybe I’m not just one thing.” I continued to find job activities and boards that allowed me to pull on more than one lever. 

In business school, they say “You have several tools in your toolbox, which one are you using?” I decided I wanted to be a Swiss army knife and use all the tools and apply thinking and execution to various industries.

It didn’t start off intentionally, but now it very much is. I’m really focused on impact. How can my skills, talents, or whatever I’m doing make the most impact? That’s how I decide what new projects I’m going to take on or what new industries I’m going to get involved in.

 

Moving to new industries takes a lot of courage and self-awareness. You have to trust yourself and your strengths. Did you always possess this self-awareness or did you have mentors to help lead you there? 

I think all of the above. Since I was 16 years old I’ve had what I call “life Sherpas;” people that have guided me to the next step. They would say “You know you can be anything.” I know we say that to everybody, but really having people that meant it [when they said it to me].   

When I was in high school, I was the kid that didn’t necessarily try very hard. I ended up getting all the answers right in a chemistry lab. My chemistry teacher wrote me a note on a little Post-It — I still have it — and it says “I’m giving you a C, not because you didn’t get all the answers right, but because you didn’t try. If you want to achieve anything, it’s gonna take blood, sweat, and tears, and knowing who you are.”

And at the time, I thought this was the world’s most unfair thing. Looking back, I recognize that I was very self-confident almost to a point where it was probably a little bit annoying and maybe a little arrogant. What [my teacher] was trying to do was encourage my confidence but also say “You’ve got to couple that confidence with real substance and effort.”

I feel like I am very confident, but it’s because I push myself out of my comfort zone, whether it’s industry, application, or scale. I’m bringing me to the table. 

And I think that that’s kind of the secret behind a lot of successful women and business leaders. Favoring themselves. They know who they are. They know what they bring to the table. They show up as themselves and not as a version of a CEO that someone else thinks they should be.

Sometimes you don’t hit the ball out of the park on a new journey or a new adventure, but you absolutely swung for the fences. I’m not scared of failure anymore. I ask, “Was my best effort there?” If I can answer yes every single time, then I can be very confident in moving to the next thing or staying where I am.  

Tell me more about this capital activist role you see for yourself. 

For me, capital activism is making sure that I am able to give capital, money, and resources to the places and people that need them and that can create the most impact. It doesn’t matter where the capital is coming from. It’s really about me being able to connect all the pieces and get something funded. 

Being a capital activist is literally saying, “I know about money. I know how to fund a project. I know how to build a project.” It’s making sure that the right people have the right deployment of capital. A capital activist puts money in places where it needs to be in order to make a change. 

 

Listening to you talk about capital activism, I’m reminded that you’ve published a few books, including Black Angels Among Us. Are your books an extension of your capital activist role? 

I get a lot of questions about how I got started, who I invest in, or how I invest. So I started taking all those questions and compiling them. The goal of the book Black Angels Among Us was to share the information and experiences that I’ve had, but make it really easy and really digestible for other people 

I think we need more women investing. We need people of color investing. We really need to equip everybody that we can with knowledge so that they can go out and be their own form of capital activists. 

One of the most humbling book reviews that I’ve ever gotten was someone who said, “Wow, I feel like I can be an angel investor now.” Because, that was the point — to inspire other people to really think about how they can make an impact with whatever funds they have.

In the book, I talk about not being a millionaire and how my first investment was $1,000. That $1,000 went into a small business so [the owner] could buy inventory, and that helped her get ahead. 

 

You talk about the importance of getting more women and people of color investors. What do we need to do or keep doing to make that happen?

Women investors and people of color that want to be investors, both have two very different hurdles. 

A lot of times women investors tend to not feel like they have enough information to move forward or to consider themselves investors, even if they are really well skilled and well versed in finance or banking. I think for women it’s about taking the leap. Investments are risky, which means they’re not all going to succeed. But for women, it’s really just about getting in the game

For people of color, the first barrier really is building up that reserve to be able to invest. That could mean starting your own business, building your wealth, or moving more towards becoming an accredited investor. 

But then after that, once you get to the capital reserves in order to be able to invest, it’s helping people of color fund projects or founders that look like them. 

So for me, being a capital activist is encouraging women to get off the sidelines and then making sure people of color have the funds, resources, and deployment of capital to build their own dreams. 

 

You’ve been recognized by a lot of different organizations, but what are you most proud of? 

When I was just starting out as an entrepreneur, the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance (formerly the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce) awarded me the 2017 Charlotte Chamber Young Professional Entrepreneur Award. And that meant a lot to me because that came right at a time when I had left a very solid, well-paying, corner office corporate position to start my own company. 

I had been working for myself for about three years, and that recognition was like little breadcrumbs to say “Keep going. You’re doing something that’s impactful. Keep moving forward.”

I keep that trophy in my home office now and it just reminds me to start somewhere and that there are people watching, and people that are encouraging you to keep pushing forward.

 

What advice would you give your younger self?

I think the advice I would have given to my younger self is: Don’t be so tied to other people’s opinions of where you should be. 

Honestly, I think a lot of the career advice we hear from people is “Drill down, become an expert, and focus on that.” I would say, be open and explore. Work to identify your talent versus a career field. I think if I had done that, I may have taken a similar route but I may have arrived at the thing that drives me sooner. 

 

What is a new skill you’re learning right now? 

This year, I decided that I wanted to change my own title from venture capitalist to capital activist.  And that’s not a thing. I couldn’t find anybody that was using that title. It’s not a profession. 

I envision myself as someone who can pull the levers of finance, no matter what type of finance — venture capital, private equity lending, angel investing, private investing.

So I’m learning about all of these other areas of finance, all the other sectors of the economy, that I can apply to business growth, to startup growth, to maybe one day launching my own venture again and becoming a FinTech founder. I’m learning about all the other nuances and issues of finance, banking, the economy. It’s really challenging me to think about what I do every day in a different way.