Women Who Lead: Melissa Sutherland with Best Impressions Caterers and Duvall Events

Women Who Lead: Melissa Sutherland with Best Impressions Caterers and Duvall Events

Each #WomenWhoLead feature will be showcased on a wall mural in South End Charlotte. If you know a woman leader who you want to feature on the wall, please click the button to nominate her.

Melissa Sutherland didn’t see what was on the horizon. None of us did. So when she left her executive-level position at Bank of America in 2019 to serve as COO/CFO of Best Impressions Caterers and Duvall Events, she unknowingly stepped into an industry that would soon be rampaged by COVID-19.

“In March 2020, we slammed the brakes on everything we were doing,” says Sutherland. “Zero exaggeration here, we went from being the largest and best caterer in Charleston and Charlotte to doing nothing. We’re still in recovery mode.”

Sutherland weathered the storm by remembering to “enjoy every moment” and volunteering to better her community. We spoke with Sutherland to hear more about her career in corporate America, her transition to the hospitality industry, and what it takes to find success professionally and personally. 

 

Can you talk about your career before coming to Best Impressions Caterers and Duvall Events?

I was with Bank of America for almost 28 years. I did a number of roles there. I started in finance and when I retired I was the Senior Vice President of Corporate Services. That position involved managing corporate travel,  meetings & events, food services, corporate aviation, and other corporate services that supported all of the bankers.

When I retired, I decided to make a career move. I knew I wasn’t the type of person who could just sit around but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Then this opportunity to grow a small company came up. It was the right time. I went from a very large corporation to a very small company. It was a culture shock to start with, but it has been great to get into something more targeted.

 

You’ve worked in the banking world for decades and are now a CFO. Have you always been passionate about finance?

It’s funny. When I was first trying to decide what I wanted to do when I grew up, I wasn’t interested in finance at all. But in high school, I started doing a lot of the invoicing and payables at a company. One day, the man who owned the company sat me down and said, “Look, if you get your accounting degree and go down that path, there’s huge uptake.” He helped me think about my career trajectory.

When I later started at Bank of America, it was actually North Carolina National Bank — a very small, North Carolina-based bank. I started as a clerk. The company then did many acquisitions and I was able to grow with it. But honestly, I’ve never applied for a job in my life. Every single position that I’ve moved into was presented to me. I was in the right place at the right time.

 

Being at the right place at the right time may have helped, but surely you have a secret for climbing the corporate ladder?

A lot of it has to do with work ethic. You have to care about what you’re doing because it shows. If I think about the type of person I want on my team, it’s somebody who gives 150 percent and who cares about what they do. So that’s how I have always presented myself. If I was going to do it, I was going to give it 100 percent and more. Quite honestly, that’s why people have sought me out for roles during my career. 

 

Can you provide an example of when you went above and beyond?

More than long hours or late nights, I was just passionate about whatever I was doing at the time. I immersed myself in whatever my responsibilities were. People would say, “Just give it to Melissa and it will get done.” I became that person.

 

Would you agree that finance is a male-dominated field?

Definitely. But today, you see more females than ever before who have the support of the companies they work for. They are filling roles that, in the past, were entirely male-dominated. You never used to hear of a CFO who was a woman. It was very rare. But the world has changed so much. We still have a ways to go — there’s no question about that — but women have a lot more respect today than they had in the past.

There’s also a clearer understanding that you can be a mom and work. You can do both and you don’t have to feel bad about it. Companies now recognize the need for balance and will work with you. Technology has helped tremendously because now women can work from home if they need to. When my kids were born 27 years ago, it wasn’t like that. I felt guilty a lot — if I worked late or went in early or had to miss a school function. Now, there are ways you can stay connected without being right there in the office.

I have come to realize that we need to be more flexible with people, both with moms and dads. Some of the advice I always give my mentees is that you need balance. While I put 110 percent into everything I do, I still need balance so I don’t get burned out. I need balance so I don’t miss the important things in life.

 

Earlier you mentioned that it was a culture shock moving from a large corporation to a smaller company. How did you adjust and adapt?

It took time to understand the new environment. When you’re in a very large corporation, there’s a huge work structure that you don’t necessarily have in a small business. I wasn’t used to that. I had to learn how to do things with a much smaller team. I also had to understand that just because it worked at Bank of America, didn’t mean it was going to work here. I had to listen and push back where appropriate, but also be a team player.

Of course, there are very positive aspects of a smaller team. It’s a more intimate setting. You get to know people on a more personal level. Compared to working with 10,000 people, it feels like a family.

 

Listening is such an important but underemphasized skill, especially in the business world.

Definitely. In my situation, it was about listening and slowly making changes. It took time to get people on board with the change. It was important for employees not to feel like I was doing this to them but rather with them. That made a big difference.

 

Why is it important for professionals to give back?

You should share your success and experience somewhere it is needed but can’t necessarily be afforded. I always encourage other people to get to know their community.

 

How have your philanthropic efforts changed you as a leader?

They have given me perspective. Working with the Kidney Foundation, for instance, has shown me that there are people who are on dialysis and waiting for a transplant, yet are still trying to work. Volunteering helps me better support the people in my work life because you never know what’s going on outside of the office. I was able to see that after having been involved in different community efforts.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Enjoy every moment that you’re in. Remember that work is important but so is life itself. I’ve immersed myself in work and put in long, hard hours. There have been times when I felt like I missed out. But I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t do that. So the biggest piece of advice is just to strike a balance.

I also encourage other women to get involved with nonprofits or community efforts. I try to stay involved. I chaired the board for the Kidney Foundation for nine years and, about a year ago, started the North Carolina State Highway Patrol Foundation. I worked with the colonel to start the foundation because there’s such a need for support. For example, there was an officer who had been shot. The family was there at the hospital with the officer and was spending the night. But you can’t use state funds for hotel rooms or even, in this case, to buy the family a meal. We’re now fundraising to support fallen or injured officers and their families. We’re also fundraising for equipment and training.

Women Who Lead: Tera Black with Charlotte Checkers

Women Who Lead: Tera Black with Charlotte Checkers

Each #WomenWhoLead feature will be showcased on a wall mural in South End Charlotte. If you know a woman leader who you want to feature on the wall, please click the button to nominate her.

Tera Black sells fun for a living and has for the past 15 years. 

She doesn’t own a toy shop nor does she dress up as a birthday clown. Rather, Black is the Chief Operating Officer of the Charlotte Checkers, a minor-league professional ice hockey team based in the Queen City. 

“We’re the place where people come to take a break from everything else,” says Black, who previously served as the Chief Operating Officer for the San Diego Gulls. “I want people to feel entertained from the moment they walk into our building from the moment they walk out.”

After all, the rink is one of few places where kids and adults can bang on the glass and “use their outside voices for three hours straight,” says Black. In her opinion, the rink is also a place where women in the sports industry can fight for diversity and inclusion. 

We sat down with Black to hear more about her life on the ice. 

 

In 2016, you won the James C. Hendy Memorial Award for being the American Hockey League’s most outstanding executive. Months later, you received the Game Changer award from Sports Business Journal. Then, in 2017, you were named a Women in Business honoree by the Charlotte Business Journal. Considering all of this recognition, what accomplishment in your professional career are you most proud of?

That’s an easy question. Awards are wonderful but they don’t happen alone. I think something I do really well is surround myself with great people. For my entire career, I’ve had the privilege to build wonderful relationships. That’s what I’m most proud of. Every single one of my staff members is better at what they do than I could ever be. They work so hard and are such leaders in their respective fields. Make no mistake, any award I get is simply by putting all my team in the same room together and watching them shine.

 

You’ve been with the Charlotte Checkers for more than 15 years now. Have you stayed because of those relationships?

Yes. In sports, you’re typically in a place for five-ish years and then you move along to the next team or the next position. That’s the way the resume grows. But the ownership of the Charlotte Checkers is second to none and has provided me the opportunity to do great things in this great city of Charlotte. They’ve allowed me to do things differently. 

At the AHL level, we have the autonomy to be really creative. We can embark on a lot of philanthropic and charitable ventures. The player access is very liberal. They’re working hard at becoming good, solid members of the community while also becoming great athletes. They are building their community resume as much as they are their professional hockey resume. 

So there are lots of reasons why I’ve stayed with Charlotte Checkers — the ownership, the people, the city, the athletes and most importantly the front office team that we have assembled here. . 

 

You mentioned that the ownership of the Charlotte Checkers has allowed you to “do things differently.” Can you provide an example of how you have gone against the grain?

We work hard to recognize that every season is different and that what was successful one year, might not be the next. We rely on our employees to bring the great ideas to the table that will translate to successful opportunities to sell the sport that we love so much. In my opinion the game will sell itself, but getting people to try it the first time is up to us. The ownership has done a great job of giving us the autonomy to try new and different things in our market. Several years back we had a midnight game for example. The owner, (Michael Kahn) also is not a micromanager, so he’s open to unique ways of creating entertainment and just lets us do our things. We also had a flex work schedule long before Covid introduced the concept that people can truly be productive while not being glued to their office chairs. In this industry, the schedule can be grueling, so we really try and recognize that our people need the time to refresh.

 

How would you describe your leadership style?

I am not a micromanager. Each of my senior staff members runs their department like their own small business — they’re accountable for everything that happens within their department. I find that having each leader to make those decisions, rather than getting me to approve literally everything in the organization, works 99 percent of the time. When it doesn’t and a mistake is made, we all learn from that. 

I try to create an environment of trust. If they want to work from the moon, they can work from the moon. I know that they’ll get their jobs done. I love that because each department has a different approach. I don’t say, “Here are the guidelines.” They do it their own way. Out of that comes a really nice compilation of people and strategies that sometimes crossover. 

For instance, our whole staff is involved in planning the entire season. When you have 36 home games, it’s like planning 36 weddings. That being said, every single person is included in that process and has the opportunity to bring ideas to the table and see them through. 

 

Are there any challenges that come with offering your staff so much flexibility?

There’s a lot of responsibility on me and our senior staff to hire the right people who can work in that type of environment. There’s nothing wrong with it, but some people are very structured and need a certain set of guidelines and rules. I’m more fluid in my approach to leadership and try to understand how each person likes to be managed rather than applying a blanket approach across the whole organization. Everyone is motivated differently.

 

On an unrelated note, you’re a registered member of the Cherokee Nation, correct?

Yes. So there’s the North Carolina Band of Cherokee Indians and then there’s the Oklahoma Band. I am a member of the latter. My ancestors were full-blooded Cherokee Indians but clearly I’m not. My mother has Swedish heritage so that’s where the blonde hair and blue eyes come from.

I spent a lot of time in Oklahoma with my grandparents growing up learning about and absorbing the culture of the Cherokee Nation. It’s opened up a lot of perspective on where this country has come from and where it’s going. It’s a privilege to be connected to such an important part of our country’s history. I still have so much to learn.

 

Do you think that experience colors your filter of the world around you, specifically the business world?

For sure. That part of my personal history changes my perspective but so does the fact that I’m a female in a very male-dominated industry. I’m the only woman on the Board of Governors in my position. So when we’re talking about things as a league, it’s typically coming from the male perspective. It’s been a really awesome opportunity for me to suggest changes that otherwise would  have been seen through a predominantly male filter. My colleagues in this industry, specifically in the AHL have been so supportive of me in my career. I’m very lucky that way. 

The same goes for having a Native American history. It’s just another unique perspective that lends itself to being very open-minded to how we can shape our sport to serve a much bigger population. 

 

What’s something in the sport that you would personally like to see changed?  

Hockey is very focused on improving the diversity of our game. You’ll notice that hockey attracts a population that has grown up in traditionally non-diverse areas so exposing the sport to different cultures is something that the NHL and AHL are both working very hard on. 

Hockey is a relatively expensive sport to participate in. Just take Charlotte, for example. We have three and a half total sheets of ice in the marketplace. When you want to play, you have to rent the ice and typically it’s in the $350 an hour range. Then you’ve got the skates and all the protective wear. It’s all expensive. There are a lot of programs developing to help people get involved in the sport whether that be street hockey or roller hockey or intro to hockey for really young kids. The First Goal program is one of those and it costs just $250 and includes a full set of gear, 6 lessons and two tickets to a Checkers game for kids ages 5-9.

On a related note, I would also say that there are relatively few females in executive roles in professional hockey.  It’s not an easy industry to be in, especially during your childbearing years, because of the time that’s required. I went through this myself. I had two kids during the hardest part of my career. 

If we want to populate our industry with great women who are talented, we have to be aware of the fact that females need the latitude to have flexible schedules in the years that they are growing their families. Flexibility gives women the opportunity to be great mothers, great spouses, and great executives. 

 

What’re some other examples of how you’ve changed your company’s culture to accommodate mothers? 

I’m taking this approach with both men and women because they share the responsibility of parenting and it is very important to me to support them through the years they are growing their families. It is also very helpful in helping me retain their talent. For example, one of our male executives has three young kids and another has two. They never asked about paternity leave because they didn’t have to. I have told them from the very beginning, “You are extraordinarily important to this team and this is a really important time in your life. Time is a currency you cannot earn more of, especially when it comes to raising your kids. So do what you need to do to be good at both.” 

A dad’s work-life balance is important too because his responsibility as a father is equally as important as his wife’s responsibility as a mother. Our environment is all about the opportunity to be a great parent and have an enjoyable productive working environment. 

 

That’s wonderful. Speaking of talent retention, you have been with the Charlotte Checkers since 2006. How do you stay engaged after having been with the same company for so long?

My philosophy is this: Life is the pursuit of happiness created by a collection of experiences.. And I have enough, right where I am. I am very, very happy.  I’m in a unique industry. We can be very creative with how we design our games and our entertainment opportunities. Every year is different. We’re always thinking about different ways we can use sports to not only give people a break from reality, but also to unite people. It has been a remarkable career for me thus far. 

Of course, it’s up to me to not become stagnant. It’s not up to my employer to keep me happy and motivated. It’s up to me. And I have enough — I love it here. 

 

That’s such a nice reminder that job satisfaction doesn’t always translate into dollars. 

Definitely. I have a quote on my wall from Marlene Dietrich and it says, “Earning a great deal of money does not necessarily make you rich.” You need to make money — that’s how this world works. But filling your life and your environment with all of the other things that bring you joy makes that monetary quest far less important.

 

What’s a new skill you are learning right now? 

My husband is teaching me how to play chess. I’m at that age now. I’m starting to worry about brain health and my mom has Alzheimer’s. Chess is just helping my gray matter to be a little bit less rigid. It requires so much dynamic thinking. There are so many things happening on the board while you play. It’s like a microcosm of life.

How Outsourced Accounting Can Benefit Small Businesses

How Outsourced Accounting Can Benefit Small Businesses

When you start a small business, you’re driven by passion and grit. But as your business grows, so do its demands. 

Many entrepreneurs make the mistake of wearing too many hats, seeking to cut expenses by handling their own bookkeeping and financial needs. These activities are necessary, but they can extinguish your drive and steal attention from the revenue-generating activities at which you excel.

Outsourcing your financial needs to an accounting firm lets you get your head back in the game and brings a wide array of other benefits as well. 

In this article, we’ll explain some of the ways that outsourced accounting can benefit small businesses.

1. Outsourced Accounting Helps Small Businesses Access Expert Advice

Staff accountants tend to be generalists, not specialists. This deficiency can make it difficult for business owners to hire a financial staff capable of keeping up with business regulations and providing expert guidance for the company’s financial future.

At an outsourced accounting firm, you’ll find entire teams of financial professionals who live, eat, and breathe their profession. 

These financial gurus have often spent considerable time taking additional classes and seminars to stay current on business regulations, new technologies, and other economic developments that impact the small business community. 

When you outsource your financial needs to a panel of experts, you can have the confidence that you’re receiving the most knowledgeable, objective financial services the industry has to offer.

2. Outsourced Accounting Helps Small Businesses Adhere to Compliance Requirements

Every entrepreneur understands the frustration that comes from navigating the ever-changing sea of business regulations. 

Violating these regulations can leave you facing penalties and fines and slow your momentum as you bring your company into compliance.

Partnering with an outsourced accounting team can help you avoid these penalties and stay up-to-date with the regulations and requirements that govern your business. 

These accounting experts make it their duty to stay “in the know” on the latest industry requirements and monitor evolving laws so that they can provide comprehensive guidance for every small business. 

This persistence helps you adhere to existing compliance requirements and provides peace of mind that you can adapt to any future changes that come your way.

3. Outsourced Accounting Helps Small Businesses Lower the Cost of Accounting

Hiring an in-house accountant can take a significant bite out of your business. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical rate for a CPA is $40 per hour. 

These rates can increase based on the accountant’s experience, area of expertise, and the work you ask them to perform. 

Even a basic bookkeeper can run $20 per hour, and on top of these fees, you may have to provide benefits, a workspace, and that’s to say nothing of the time you spend in the interview and onboarding process.

Admittedly, outsourced accounting costs will vary by the needs of your business, but these rates are typically much, much lower than adding an accountant to your staff. 

Plus, by relying on the expert-level guidance of an accounting firm, you may be able to optimize your cash flow and improve the profitability of your business.

4. Outsourced Accounting Helps Small Businesses Leverage the Right Accounting Software

The right tools make all of the difference. Outsourced accounting firms rely on the latest technology and software platforms to serve their clients. The very best companies give their clients total access to this financial data. 

With Lavoie, for example, our software gives you real-time visibility into the performance of your business, and this information can help you manage your cash flow and optimize your business strategy accordingly.

Using the right accounting software naturally demands airtight security. Outsourced accounting can protect you from data loss or privacy breaches without compromising your sense of ownership over your business data.

Best of all, the integrated software platforms used by today’s firms allow you to better share data between functional departments, which can streamline otherwise disconnected processes as your business grows.

5. Outsourced Accounting Helps Small Businesses Spend Less Time on Accounting Processes

No business owner should be spending their time clicking around in QuickBooks. For that matter, neither should your valued employees. 

One of the greatest benefits of outsourcing your accounting processes is that you and your team members can spend time where it belongs: growing your core business and attending to your customers’ needs.

Outsourced accounting is, therefore, an investment. The return on this investment comes from the revenue-generating activity you and your staff can focus on while a team of professionals handles your finances.

One of the reasons entrepreneurs sink their own time into their books is because they want better control of their company’s finances. 

But as we noted above, the advanced software offered by accounting firms like Lavoie give business owners real-time access to their company data. 

This service means that you’ll be getting more control over your company by partnering with an accounting firm, not less.

6. Outsourced Accounting Helps Small Businesses Tackle Employee Fraud

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 75% of employees have stolen from their companies, and nearly 1 out of 3 businesses fail because of employee fraud. 

Forensic accountants have special training to ferret out bookkeeping irregularities and other financial crimes, which can protect your business from being victimized by unscrupulous employees.

An outsourced accounting firm can help tackle various forms of employee fraud, and their presence may even act as a deterrent to prevent employees from attempting fraud in the first place. 

If a fraud investigation should result in litigation, it often helps to have the impartial reporting of a third-party financial professional to strengthen your case.

7. Outsourced Accounting Helps Small Businesses Avoid Delays in Accounting and Payroll

Staff accountants can introduce delays in their parent company’s accounting and payroll processes. 

Some of these delays are simply a matter of an accountant taking a vacation or a sick day. In other cases, a staff accountant can merely get behind in paperwork, causing delays in financial reporting or even causing paychecks to be delayed.

Outsourced accounting can keep the wheels of your business running in sync and prevent these sorts of delays. By relying on a team of financial professionals, you’ll have the confidence that your financial needs are consistently and accurately met.

8. Outsourced Accounting Helps Small Businesses Keep Up with Growing Finances

One of the more unusual challenges for any business owner is how to handle their success. As your business grows, it’s important to learn how to manage your cash flow to sustain your business and provide manageable growth. 

An accounting firm can help you strategize and plan, offering financial forecasting and reporting that can help you refine your approach and optimize for the future. 

This advice means that the best accounting firms grow with you. At Lavoie, for example, we aim to build long-term relationships to serve our clients’ needs over the long haul.

Conclusion

At Lavoie, we believe that today’s small business owners can become tomorrow’s industry leaders, and we’re committed to you every step of the way. 

We’d love to discuss how our customized financial solutions can optimize your business and provide innovative solutions to give you an edge in today’s competitive marketplace.

Contact us today. We’d be glad to hear about your current needs and tell you how our team might meet them. 

Women Who Lead: Grace Lightner with Unbox the Dress

Women Who Lead: Grace Lightner with Unbox the Dress

Each #WomenWhoLead feature will be showcased on a wall mural in South End Charlotte. If you know a woman leader who you want to feature on the wall, please click the button to nominate her.

Not every bride wants to wear their mom’s outdated wedding gown with puffy sleeves and sequins from the 1980s. But many wives-to-be do want to preserve the memories associated with that garment. That’s where Grace Lightner comes in.   

In 2017, Lightner founded Unbox the Dress with her mother, Lorraine Stewart. The company helps women redesign wedding dresses, whether that be their own or a family member’s, into heirloom gifts that last a lifetime. Customers can select from dozens of product options, turning sentimental fabric into baby booties or holiday ornaments. 

The business concept has been so wildly successful that Lightner expanded to a 4,500-square-foot production studio and design facility during the pandemic. We spoke with Lightner to hear more about what it took to wade into the waters of entrepreneurship as a woman in her 20s. 

 

What’s the origin story of Unbox the Dress?

I grew up in a very entrepreneurial family — my grandparents ran a local brick and tile manufacturing plant and my mom started her own consulting practice. I’ve always had that itch to start something of my own, but I was just waiting for the right idea to give me the confidence to take that jump. 

I was helping my mom clean out my grandmother’s house and we found a few boxed wedding dresses. Of course, when you’re cleaning out a house you’re in a very get it done, donate or trash kind of mindset. But when we came to these wedding dresses, we just stopped dead in our tracks. 

Since the dresses belonged to my aunts, we called them to see what they wanted us to do with them. The emotional reaction they had in response to these dresses that they hadn’t even seen for 20 years fostered a lightbulb moment. We realized these dresses are more than garments — they have all this sentiment tied up in them and yet they’re not serving any purpose. We asked ourselves, “What else could we do with this beautiful fabric and lace?” That was the impetus for Unbox the Dress. I started the business with my mom and it’s just grown like crazy.

 

Many people warn that you shouldn’t work with family. What has the experience of launching a business with your mom been like? 

I’m very fortunate that I have a positive relationship with Lorraine. We had a good foundation and knew that we could work together well. I think a lot of that comes from our complementary strengths. While I’m a little bit more creative and action-oriented, she’s more planning-oriented and data-minded. We’re able to listen to each other and then push each other in a good way.

 

Before founding Unbox the Dress, you worked in corporate marketing. What was it like learning how to launch your own endeavor?

That’s a fair question because I’ve learned so much. You have to like the learning process. I’m a person who likes change. If you’re someone who takes comfort in doing the same thing every day and going really deep and perfecting your skills in one area, starting a company isn’t the right choice for you. What I was doing six months ago is completely different from what I’m doing today and what I was doing six months before that was completely different too. It’s always changing, so you have to love learning and love changing your role.  

For example, our team is growing so lately I’ve taken on more HR responsibilities. I’m figuring out how to engage a larger group of people and orient new people to the team. I didn’t do much of that at all in our first couple of years.  

I definitely built on my background in marketing and advertising. The kind of business we decided to build is so tied into storytelling and we always knew we were going to be a digitally savvy company. So, of course, that foundation was very helpful but I think it’s more the propensity to want to learn and grow and create something from scratch that makes you a good candidate to found a company. 

 

What motivated you to take that leap and leave your corporate job? 

I’m really thankful for the period of time after college when I had a steady corporate marketing job because I was able to learn a lot and develop my skills. I know some people start a company right out of school, but I’m happy that I had the chance to learn from different mentors. 

At the same time, I had been experiencing a lot of migraine pain. I’m a chronic migraine patient and my lifestyle of working 60 hours a week and living in downtown Chicago wasn’t allowing me to really care for myself. I re-evaluated what was important to me, and ended up moving from Chicago back home to make that change. It was definitely a scary leap. I didn’t take a salary for a long time as we grew the business. You have to believe in your idea and get personal fulfillment from the process of building a business from scratch. 

 

What’s something you can do now as an entrepreneur that you couldn’t do working a 9-to-5?

I’m a night owl but corporate America requires a set schedule. There were many times when I would have a migraine in the morning and not be able to work, but then I was able to pull myself out of it and have a substantial chunk of work time in the evening. I’m a firm believer that it’s more about what you accomplish, not how many hours you put in each week. 

 

You opened your first production facility during the pandemic, correct? 

Right. Previous to that we were working with a network of subcontracted seamstresses, but we always knew we wanted to have everybody under one roof because it’s more efficient and more fun. That’s what brought us to North Carolina in the middle of a pandemic. 

 

Wow. That must’ve been difficult. What skills or tactics have you used during these challenging times to stay focused and motivated?

Whether you’re leading a company or managing a department, it’s really easy to get caught up in the tactical stuff that can fill up your plate. So I think it’s important to make time for the high level, big impact, energizing kind of work. It’s important to give yourself permission to take a half-day and just dream big because that’s what gives you the gas in your tank to go the distance in the long run.

 

Have you encountered any barriers as a female business owner that you didn’t expect?

We decided to grow the business through venture capital and it’s no secret that the percentage of venture capital funds that go to women-owned businesses is pretty abysmal. I think it’s like three percent. There are some emerging funds in the community to try to catalyze investing in minority owners and women owners, which is wonderful, but it has been a challenge to communicate our value to people who aren’t necessarily in our target market.

We primarily serve women customers and they understand the powerful connection between sentimental gifting and connecting generations of women. I’ve definitely pitched to audiences of just men. Are they really going to believe in the idea and see the potential in the same way that a group of women would? Maybe, maybe not. 

This is something to be aware of and it’s something I hope to improve in my career because I think women make fantastic owners and leaders. We bring a whole different set of experiences to the table.

 

Earlier you mentioned that your mom owned a consulting firm. Can you talk more about that? Is it fair to say that she inspired you to branch out on your own?

Absolutely. My mother had four children and started a consulting practice that basically helped major companies find the right advertising agency suppliers. I don’t know how but Lorraine did it all. She was so involved with her children but then we were able to see her put on her suit and go do amazingly well in her own career working with incredible companies from all over the country. 

She was just like superwoman to me. I’m so thankful to have her. From the very beginning, she was someone who said, “Yes, you know you can do this.” She helped point out the indicators that we were onto something that was striking a nerve. It’s so important to have someone who believes in your dreams the way that you do so that in those moments when you have doubt, you have someone else to say, “Stay the course.”

 

What else did your mom teach you growing up that made you into the leader you are today?

I’m very free-spirited and very action-oriented. I think that my mom helped me find ways to methodically move toward the goals that I set, even from a really early age. We poke fun at her but even in middle school, she helped us have goal-setting sessions. She would ask, “What do you want to achieve by the end of the year? How do you think we can do it?” It could’ve been anything — creative or academic. 

 

How has your leadership style evolved as Unbox the Dress has evolved?

In the very early days, I did all aspects of the business. I was very, very involved. But now as we’ve grown, I’ve had to take different aspects of what I once did and hire people on as the experts. If you’re doing a good job at recruiting your team, you’re hiring people who have more experience and better skills for that specific piece of the business than you do. For example, my production manager comes from a background in theatrical costume design. She managed a student theatrical costume department at a university and is much more technically skilled than I am. She’s so great at coaching our sewing team. As the business grows, I have to rely on my team and make a safe space for them to tell me what they need. 

I try to create a safe space and say, “If there’s a piece of equipment you need or a person that you need on your team or if you have an idea for how to improve a process, please come tell me.” I no longer have the capacity to be as deeply involved in all areas of the business. Establishing those trusting and open relationships with key team members is something that I’ve been working on and enjoying because it’s rewarding to see people embrace your mission just as much as you do.

 

Creating a safe space sounds very important to you. Is that something you experienced in your previous workplaces? Or is that something that you lacked but now want to foster for your own employees? 

It’s a mix of both. One reason why I love the startup world is the fact that a good idea can be implemented very quickly. In my personal experience in corporate America, a good idea is often heard and recognized but almost always put on the back burner because of resources or just other burdens. But at a startup, you can apply a good idea as soon as you come up with it. I love that about where we’ve come from and I hope to make that a part of our culture even as we grow bigger. 

 

Do you have any advice for other female entrepreneurs?

Something that has helped me stay the course and ride the waves of entrepreneurship has been an alignment in my company’s mission and values. In addition to obviously being a very joyful company, we are focused on two core pieces of the business that motivate us to do what we do.

One is connecting generations of women — just creating those unique experiences that help a grandmother connect to her grandbaby or a mom and a daughter connect on the morning of the daughter’s wedding. The second is sustainability. More and more, we are serving modern brides who have seen how wasteful the wedding industry can be and want to make a sustainable and green choice by taking a garment that would usually be worn once and repurposing it into something they can enjoy for their whole life.  

Those two things align with my personal values and get me excited, so when there are challenges or hiccups, I can stay focused on what I’m bringing into the world. That gives me the motivation to keep going and to keep building a more beautiful business. I’d encourage anyone interested in starting a company to look inward and figure out what excites and motivates them, and then try to align their career with that. 

Women Who Lead: Jenny Moates with Moving Ideas

Women Who Lead: Jenny Moates with Moving Ideas

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In 1994, brothers Bert and John Jacobs started the Life Is Good company, an American apparel retailer founded on a relentless belief in the power of positivity. Ten years later, freelance graphic designer Jenny Moates did something similar. 

Hoping to provide more value to clients, Moates and her husband, Brian, established Moving Ideas in 2004. Just one year later and with opportunities in front of them, Jenny invited Yvette Salerno, her lifelong friend and a marketing executive with Bank of America, to join forces as her business partner. At face value, Moving Ideas is a strategic marketing and graphic design agency focused on providing astute brand communications. But like the Life Is Good company, Moving Ideas also spreads the word of optimism. 

“Positivity is a core philosophy personally, but it also drives business results,” says Moates. “When you have a positive attitude, you’re going to have better ideas.”

We chatted with Moates, whose official title is Chief Possibilities Officer, to learn more about the role of positivity in graphic design. 

 

What motivated you to open Moving Ideas?

I wanted to grow beyond a freelance business and, in 2004, it felt like the right time to do that. I was already working with other partners — folks who are contractors who we still work with today. The whole thing was starting to feel much bigger than me. It evolved to require a team effort. 

Opening an agency also gives your clients access to a larger talent pool. As a freelancer, you’re just one person. But as a business, you can do so much more with a group of people. As with any business, the success of what you offer is 100 percent about the people involved. That’s why I don’t like titles because, at the end of the day, it’s about who produced the best ideas and the best results, no matter their title.

 

Speaking of titles, you’re the Chief Possibilities Officer at Moving Ideas. What does that mean?

Technically on legal documents, I am the president but that doesn’t say a whole lot. We prefer to have more creative titles around here, so I’m the Chief Possibilities Officer which fits my role as essentially the creative director. 

My business partner, Yvette Salerno, is the Chief Reality Officer. We have a lot of fun with that because it fits our dynamic. She and I have an amazing balance. The things that she’s good at aren’t necessarily the things I’m good at and vice versa. Our clients benefit from a very well-rounded approach. 

 

What lessons have you learned as a business owner?

One piece of advice that was given to me — and it’s been rock solid since the very beginning — is that you should always be a cash business. Don’t go into debt. Borrowing money was something I could’ve easily done over the years, but being strategic about the money we spent allowed us to hold on during the very lean times. It’s good to embrace challenges like the recession and the pandemic, pull the team together, and say, “Okay, how are we going to keep moving forward?” 

I also believe in this principle: give more in value than you take in payment. If you always do that, the work will come. Our group has always been that way. We have retainer clients that go above in terms of monthly hours but we’re okay with that because we want to give more in value than we take in payment. Many creative agencies aren’t necessarily invested in the business results of their clients. But to me, good design is just a baseline — it’s expected. Driving business results is what separates us from other agencies. More importantly, it’s what gives value to our clients.

 

Your website describes you as someone who leads with an “optimistic approach.” Can you unpack that? 

I just have an overarching philosophy in life that optimism leads to more success. I believe that having a positive, can-do attitude will get you through difficult times. If you look at kids who are in the hospital suffering, for instance, it’s positivity that pushes them past those hard things.

Optimism is also a key cornerstone of any good business. One of the books that I’m reading right now is called “Life Is Good.” It’s by the two brothers who started the Life Is Good brand. Their whole brand is built on optimism, and they’ve been so successful because the world craves positivity. We need positivity.  

 

What’s your secret to staying positive even when times are tough?

I’ve had people ask me, “How are you happy all the time?” And I say, “Well, it’s better than the alternative, right?” But here’s the thing you must understand: Optimism is not necessarily happiness. Optimism is just a positive outlook. As I said, a child in a cancer ward isn’t necessarily happy but they can still be optimistic and hope for a positive outcome. It’s not false happiness — it’s just a way of looking at the world. 

One of the things I love in “Life Is Good” is that the authors suggest saying “I get to go to work” instead of “I have to go to work.” It just completely changes your mindset. I get to go to work. I get to go to this amazing place and work with my best friend. I get to have fun. I get to be creative. I get to do this and get paid for it. That’s so crazy, right? 

I will say that my hope is fueled by my faith. I’m a very faithful Christian, and I believe that God is with me and in me. He’s the one in control. I’ve seen him move mountains in my life personally and professionally. That gives me tons of optimism.

  

Continuing to learn and grow as a leader is essential to providing those outcomes. With that being said, what’s a new skill you’re developing right now? 

I’m always learning how to better use technology. I’m a big believer that technology can make you more efficient, it can make your life easier, and it can create better results for your clients. So that’s an ongoing learning process for me. When I was a kid, my grandmother would say, “If you stop learning, you’re dead.” I think she’s right. You should always be reading and talking to others. 

Listening to other people’s perspectives is a great way to learn too. In 2017, I published a book called “50 Coffees.” It was a social experiment to meet 50 people a year over coffee as a way of building community. In doing so, I learned a lot about the importance of relationships. I wrote a book so I could help other people who are like me — people who are good at what they do but not so good at building community. 

 

Over the years, how have you balanced being a business owner and a mother?

I don’t feel like my family has to take a backseat. I’ve never felt that way. I think you can be a good example for your children while doing good things in the business world. I have three kids — one is a junior in high school, one is in seventh grade, and one is in sixth grade — and I don’t feel like I’ve had to sacrifice anything. That’s mainly because I have flexibility here. We’re a culture that embraces family values. 

You’re never going to look back on your life and wish you worked more. So while I want to do good work and serve our clients, family comes first. We even have an employee’s kid who is homeschooled and goes to school in our office. She’s grown up with this business since the very beginning. She knows what clients are and will even look at logos and say, “I like this one, but what if you changed this?” Family is just a huge priority here.    

As the leader of an organization, do you think you have cultivated a culture where optimism prevails?

I would say so. It’s also what I look for in people. I’m not looking for people to be just like me — definitely not. But it would also be hard for me to work with somebody who is a pessimist. That would be tough. My business partner and I, for instance, have very different personalities. We’re different in who we are as people. But at the end of the day, we are both optimistic and we both want the same thing: good outcomes for our clients.