Women Who Lead: Meggie Williams with Skiptown

Women Who Lead: Meggie Williams with Skiptown

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.

Meggie Williams may be the world’s most successful dog walker.

In 2016, after boarding a few pups in her Manhattan apartment, Williams founded a Charlotte-based dog walking enterprise called The Waggle Company. The business has since rebranded as Skipper, a pet care service and smartphone app with a presence across the southeast. Last year, Williams also unveiled Skiptown — a brick-and-mortar doggy oasis that caters to pups and humans alike. 

Though the company has grown tremendously in just five years, trust has and always will be a core value. “It’s integral to everything that we do,” says Williams. “Our clients not only trust us in their homes, they trust us to care for their pets.” 

We caught up with Williams to learn more about how she made a small dog walking endeavor into a howling success. 

 

Which came first — your passion for business or your passion for animals?

I’ve always been an animal lover since I was a little girl. We used to rescue injured animals, nurse them back to health, and let them go — mostly squirrels and birds, but we also had our fair share of dogs. When I moved to New York, I worked at IBM as a Global Business Services Consultant and couldn’t have a dog. I was in Manhattan and was traveling, but I really wanted a dog in my life. 

So I started a side business that involved me boarding a couple of dogs on the weekend. That’s how I got to understand the pet parent pain points, lifestyle, and needs in a way that was intriguing to me. I saw it as an opportunity and I always had it in the back of my mind. 

 

What motivated you to take a leap of faith and branch out on your own?

When I moved to Charlotte, I joined a company called Move Loot. I started their Charlotte office and then eventually ran the southeast division. I learned a lot about business — how to start one, how to run one, and, ultimately, how to not run one. We ended up scaling too quickly on a model that wasn’t proven and that was part of the reason why Move Loot failed. 

When that company failed and my job was eliminated, it was a great moment of introspection. I was sitting with my husband and I said, “I think I want to do this idea that I’ve talked about since I lived in New York.” I knew that there were more pet parents than ever before and that operators in the market weren’t meeting their needs. There was nothing that accommodated the modern lifestyle. So that’s what we did — we started as a dog walking business called The Waggle Company in 2016. 

 

Technology played an instrumental role in the development of The Waggle Company. Can you discuss this in more detail?

From the very beginning, I knew my business was about one thing: trust. It became so obvious to me. I was getting keys and access to be in someone’s home and then taking care of their dog, which is the most important thing in their life. That was the impetus. We started asking ourselves, “How can we be the most trusted provider for pet parents?” 

But quality control can be hard. At first, it’s easy for pet sitters to manage a block or two but once you scale the quality control, you need to have the infrastructure in place. We knew that to have the impact we wanted to have, we would need to create our own technology. Tech in the pet care space is, as you may imagine, very limited. 

That’s when we raised our first round of funding to support tech development. My husband and I took out an SBA loan. We put all of our personal savings into building out the technology. And then we grew. The tech was a big part of how we built our team and our clientele. 

 

In 2018, the dog walking enterprise expanded to out-of-state markets and began offering other services, right?

Right. In 2018, we got accepted to an accelerator called Techstars, which is based in Austin. We moved to Texas to understand how to frame the business and that’s when we launched the Austin and Dallas markets. At that point, we had three dog walking markets. But we were also learning that there was an increasing need for pet care outside of dog walking. We had been building this whole foundation and driving it toward a very narrow service focus, but people wanted more than that. We realized we could amplify our impact. 

We came to that realization after we started partnering with apartment communities. We were the first company to build on-site daycare and boarding facilities inside of apartments. The largest is still running at The Village at Commonwealth in Charlotte. It’s a testament to how much demand there is, especially in the apartment-dwelling community where more than 50 percent of apartments have dogs but there’s no great infrastructure to support those dogs. They have no play areas or pet relief stations. Sometimes they have dog stations, but they’re not particularly well-managed or supplied. When we started building out these facilities, we realized we could do more to care for pets and their people in a way that’s still foundationally about trust, and then fun and adventure. 

That’s when we took the dive. In June 2019, we started looking for our own facility — a space for Skiptown. When we found the location where we’re at now in South End, we were like, “Oh my gosh. If we could create a dream space in the perfect location in the perfect city, it’s right here.” So we signed the lease and started working on this dream that we could take what we built as a dog walking company and morph it into an oasis for dogs. That was the new vision.

 

How did the pandemic affect that vision?

When we signed the lease, I was on my way to the company holiday party. I was in a nice dress and heels, it was like eight o’clock at night, and I was at the lawyer’s office because we needed to handle it before the holidays. After it was signed, I started raising funds to support the build. Then COVID hit. It was February and I was in California for a work conference when three investors called to say that they were pulling out. Within two hours, more than half the round was gone.

I got on a red-eye and flew back to Charlotte. I pulled the whole leadership team together at like 6:30 in the morning and said, “We need to have a game plan. We need to figure out what is critical path work and we need to do that and only that. Everything else needs to go away.” Our singular focus became building Skiptown. We decided to do everything we needed to do to support Skiptown.  

We majorly cut back on our dog walking. We narrowed the focus to a very small radius and laid off more than 80 employees. Most of them were dog walkers but we also had to lay off several positions in our back office that supported the dog walking. We had to cut expenses down as much as we could. Then we went back out to fundraise with a much different pitch, which was that the pet industry has outlasted a recession in the recent past. In fact, the pet care industry was one of the only industries that grew in 2008. People are here to invest in their pet’s health and happiness despite financial setbacks. 

Once people calmed down a bit, we got the funding in place and moved forward. We launched in August 2020 and pre-sold almost 1,000 memberships before we launched. It was huge because this was in the middle of the pandemic. But we had space on our side. Since we have a large footprint, we were able to provide an environment that people felt good in. 

Ever since we’ve launched, it’s just been more validation that people want and need this, as do their pets. There’s no good space to go to when you want to hang out with your dog. There are “dog-friendly” spaces but are they? Your dog isn’t having a great time and usually you’re not either because you’re worried about your dog. So we created a place where you can relax and have a good time but you don’t have to drop your standards.

 

Your company has continuously evolved since 2016. How did you learn to lean into those changes?

It requires a reframing of what failure is. You usually learn the most when things don’t happen the way you expect them to. I’ve made it a focus for myself, my team, and my organization to  constantly try to predict what’s going to happen in the market. In that mindset, change is the only option. If you’re not changing, you’re dying. We have adopted that as an ethos. 

 

Do you have any suggestions for other business owners who are faced with hard and sometimes painful decisions? During the pandemic, for instance, you had to lay off more than 80 employees. How do you make those calls? 

It’s about not hovering too long in a place of indecisiveness. I think sometimes the wrong decision is better than no decision at all. You need to make the call. That’s just my nature — I’m decisive. But we also hire decisive people. We look for that during the hiring process. We look for changemakers who understand that you need to move forward. 

It’s also the nature of a startup. We’ve always looked at resources like they were finite and operated in a world where we had to pivot. We’ve had to take customer feedback and ask, “Is the product that we’re putting out there the right product? Is the client that we’re targeting the right client?” We’ve always been forced to go back to the drawing board and look at things under a microscope again and again and again. Doing that just puts you into a rhythm.

So when COVID hit, we just went back to the drawing board. We’ve always had an extra big crisis looming over our heads, whether it was running out of money or opening a new market. There has always been an impending sense of doom that we just worked through. 

 

But few people are brave enough to work through that “impending sense of doom.” Who or what made you the person you are today?

First and foremost, I was lucky enough to be well-parented. I was lucky enough to come from a very supportive household where my parents helped me build confidence and autonomy. At a very young age, I felt like I could take risks and make decisions and learn from them. That parenting has done a lot to make me realize that the worst-case scenario isn’t that bad. 

For instance, if my husband and I lost our house, what would we do? Well, we have two sets of parents who would easily take us in. We’ve got a great group of friends who would love to give us their guest bedroom while we figured things out. That network is so valuable. 

What’s the future of Skiptown?

More people than ever before have dogs. Adopting dogs during the pandemic became a huge thing. Everyone was adopting a “COVID puppy,” so much so shelters were empty. So now we’re looking at a world where we have so much demand that we can’t grow fast enough. We’re trying to find another location just to support the sheer demand that we have.

We feel so grateful to be here and so grateful to have made it through the scary times. I wake up every day excited about the opportunities we have to position ourselves to do the best job we can, to be the biggest company that we can, and impact the most pets and people as possible. 

Women Who Lead: Kerry Barr O’Connor with Dress for Success Charlotte

Women Who Lead: Kerry Barr O’Connor with Dress for Success Charlotte

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.

As a young professional, Kerry Barr O’Connor learned to wish carefully. 

O’Connor had always dreamed of becoming a television broadcaster, but when that dream came true – when she spent her workdays covering school closings and tropical storms — she yearned for more.  

“I didn’t like the day-to-day reporting,” she says. “I wanted to get to know the individual. Not the famous people and not the celebrities, but the everyday person and what impact they have.”

O’Connor soon left the journalism gig, volunteering a year of her life to an AmeriCorps VISTA assignment with a food bank in New York. It was there that she realized her knack for storytelling could be applied to different industries, specifically the nonprofit sector.  

Today, O’Connor is the executive director of Dress for Success Charlotte, a local affiliate of a larger global organization that outfits women with the clothes and skills needed to grow their careers. We spoke with O’Connor to hear more about how communities can flourish by rallying around women.   

 

What type of services does Dress for Success Charlotte offer?

Dress for Success Charlotte is an organization that helps women secure employment or advance their employment as a means to achieving upward economic mobility and strengthening their families. As executive director, I oversee the organization which includes job preparedness, job acquisition, employment retention, and career advancement. As part of job acquisition, for instance, we may help a woman develop the tools for the job search including creating a LinkedIn profile and running a background check. 

We provide the full spectrum of workforce development services, but also the wraparound services that we as women often need because we have myriad challenges including childcare and eldercare. Helping them not only secure employment but successfully navigate into the workforce will lead to their success. Research also shows that when you lift a woman out of poverty, as many as six family members may follow.

 

Who is your typical client?

The average client with Dress for Success is a 46-year-old woman of color. She has two and a half children (although I’ve never met a half child), wears a size 16 suit and an 8.5 shoe, and has some college. 

That’s just our average client. We get referrals of more than 800 women every year from ages 17 to 81. Some women even have their Ph.D. What works well for us is treating each and every client with dignity and respect — honoring diversity. Each woman has her own story, so we try to tailor our programs based on what her needs are. 

 

What are the challenges faced by women? Are they universal challenges or are they specific to certain job types and industries?

Childcare is a very big challenge for women, and if the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t shine some light on that, I don’t know what will. For example, in the past year, we’ve had more than five million women leave the workforce. If you look at September 2020 alone, for each man who left the workforce, four women left. 

Eighty percent of the women we serve are mothers. Of those women, 86 percent are the single head of household. These women are not only parenting their children but also grandchildren. But childcare is only back to about 50 percent of what it was pre-pandemic. You can’t enter the workforce if you don’t have that support.

Also, if you look at what has happened over this past year, the industries primarily staffed by women were some of the hardest-hit — healthcare, education, hospitality and tourism. So what are some examples? Let’s look at the woman who has children in elementary school. She has taken a job in the school cafeteria because it works around the children’s schedules and helps prevent the need for childcare. That’s a job that was furloughed during the pandemic. It’s not work you can bring home. Then you have the school bus driver. That’s also work you can’t bring home. Then you have the hostess at a local restaurant that has shut down. You can’t bring that work home. 

Not to mention that, if you’re fortunate enough to have access to technology, your children are online schooling at home. So you can’t even look for a job if you have the skills to secure one. This has really created a horrific situation for women during the pandemic. 

 

Do you think the pandemic has affected all women, regardless of class?  

I do think the pandemic has affected all women. Now, if you have the resources to share childcare responsibilities with a colleague or a friend so that you can piece together a work schedule, then you’re very fortunate. But many women in poverty — both generational poverty and, in the case of the pandemic, situational poverty — lack social capital. They often don’t have a strong family foundation they can draw from to provide some of this care. 

What we need to look at is upskilling these women so they can apply for jobs that they can take home. I don’t know if we’ll ever see another pandemic like this in our lives — I certainly hope not — but we are seeing women who lost their jobs in the recession who are once again in that situation. It’s sad because some of these women were finally starting to build their financial capital. 

We want to get women back into the workforce. Women fuel the economy. Nearly 90 percent of all household buying decisions are made by women, so it’s a win-win to get them involved and engaged in the community.

 

Are there any self-imposed barriers that limit women’s potential?

If you look at any studies about men and women, one thing that you’ll find is that men tend to be more confident. When men look at a job posting and see they only have 60 percent of what the job is looking for, they still go for it. Whether it’s experience or learning a new skill, men are confident they can acquire what they need. Women tend to hold back. They say, “Gosh, you know what? I’ve got one through seven but I don’t have eight, nine, or ten.” They don’t apply for the job.  

 

Is this narrative of self-doubt changing?

Well, when you have a situation like a recession or a pandemic, it sets you back a notch or two. You start to question your strengths, your abilities, and how you fit into the workforce. 

These situations also shine some light on other societal issues. For example, a study conducted back in 2015 by Harvard University and the University of California Berkeley showed that in terms of comparable city size, Charlotte is ranked 50 out of 50 for economic mobility. That’s terrible. 

Poverty hides well in Charlotte. If you’re born into the lowest quintile, your chances of ascending out of that are pretty grim. Your chances of staying in that lowest quintile are 36 percent and, for women of color minority populations, even greater. This is truly an ongoing challenge. 

 

How can women with more resources help to remove or, at the very least, soften some of the barriers that exist for women living in poverty?

We passionately believe that one hour of your time can change the direction of a woman’s life. For example, we have an HR professional who comes in and volunteers to work with our clients on Wednesday afternoons in our Career Center. During one of those meetings, the HR professional has been helping a woman who served in one of the branches of service create a civilian resume. The woman doesn’t know how to identify transferable skills, so the HR professional is helping her build that resume so she can apply for jobs. 

Our model is based on volunteerism. We have more than 1,000 volunteers who help fuel the organization. We all possess gifts that can help others.

 

Did you always want to focus your career on empowering women?

My dream was to be a journalist. I like to write. I like to tell a story. I just had these grand plans of being a famous journalist. But what I found in my first job as a newscaster was that I really didn’t like it. I was very disillusioned, so I left that industry and committed one year as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. I signed on to work with an anti-hunger organization — a food bank in New York. I was responsible for helping them with outreach and fundraising. 

That particular organization helped me understand that while many, many people go without food, 20 percent of the food we’re producing in this country is lost between the field and the table. That’s more than two and a half times the amount needed to feed every hungry American, and yet produce is being plowed under and manufacturing errors are leading to items being thrown out. The food bank worked with companies and producers to put that food into the hands of hungry people. 

That’s how I got involved in the nonprofit world. Then, when we moved to Charlotte 15 years ago, I read an article that the Dress for Success affiliate had shut down. I knew what a fabulous organization it was. When I lived in Ohio, I watched very closely and saw what the affiliate did to help women advance. So after reading that article, I reached out and began volunteering as a board member, helping write a plan to reopen the organization. 

Today, after having relaunched and grown an organization, do you have any advice for other women in the nonprofit sector? 

Surround yourself with smart, passionate people — people who truly have the mission of the organization first and foremost. You’ll always encounter those people who just want to get their name on the letterhead. So when I look at onboarding people, specifically board members, I am looking for people who are actively engaged. And when I look at diversity, I look at more than race, religion, and ethnicity. I look at gender. I look at age. I look at experience. It’s really all part of a package that can take us to the next level.

Women Who Lead: Sara Giles with Anita Goodesign

Women Who Lead: Sara Giles with Anita Goodesign

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 all people see the power of women in business. That’s just one reason 70 percent of senior management roles are held by men. But Sara Giles knew her boss was different. 

In 2013, when Giles started working at Anita Goodesign, an embroidery design company based in Charlotte, she got a “different vibe” from the company’s owner, Steve Wilson. 

“Steve respects women,” says Giles. “He says that we are better leaders than men — that we can multitask and handle more projects. Because of that, we’re essentially a woman-based company.”

Wilson’s progressive attitude created the perfect environment for Giles to climb the ranks. After five months as an event planning assistant, she was promoted to marketing coordinator and then organizational development director. Today, she serves as CEO, managing almost 50 employees and a worldwide enterprise. 

We chatted with Giles to learn more about how hard work, long hours, and a fresh perspective catalyzed her career. 

 

How did you land a job as CEO of the top embroidery design company in the world?

When I started at Anita Goodesign in 2013, I left a job that I had been at for five years. I just wanted a change. I wasn’t quite sure ​​what I wanted to do with my career, so I just started exploring and applying to jobs. I didn’t know anything about this company or embroidery, but I applied for the event planning assistant position. I was the very first person to apply out of like 100 people and they hired me. 

They were looking for someone to organize the whole system itself. Because of my background experience in Excel and just being a super organized person, I was able to listen to what they were looking for and implement it. Whenever Steve Wilson, the owner, asked for something, I was very quick to get it done. 

I just wanted to do a good job, and Steve consistently rewarded me for doing so. That was something I had never experienced. At most jobs, you work really hard and you get a very small pay increase, if any, in return. You have to leave if you want a bigger pay increase or a promotion. But at Anita Goodesign, I learned that if I worked really hard, never said no, and just kept learning, I would be presented with opportunities. Because of that, I was able to become CEO of the company.   

 

Many young professionals hop from company to company in search of higher pay and bigger promotions. From your perspective, what are the benefits of climbing the ranks at one business? 

I’ve been able to do so many different jobs at Anita Goodesign — from sending emails to planning events. Now as the CEO, when my team is presenting problems to me, I’m able to quickly help them come to a conclusion because I have the experience. I’ve been there before.  

Because of my experience, I’m more confident in the decisions I make. I know the customer. I know what to expect. I can guide an employee who is newer to the organization and give them information regarding what did or didn’t work well over the years. When you come from a lower position and move up, you carry all of that great company history. You can guide your team. 

 

After you took the job as CEO, was there anything about the role that surprised you?

I wasn’t expecting to be so involved in the “people” part of business. Since we’re a small business — we have 47 employees — a lot of the HR responsibilities fall under my to-do list. 

People aren’t afraid to come to me, whether they just need a new chair or they’re experiencing something bigger like an issue with a coworker. I hear everything and get a lot of direct interfacing with the employees. But the conversations aren’t just about their jobs. You learn a lot about their families and you also learn to be compassionate. 

 

On a related note, how would you describe your leadership style? 

Hands-on. I would never ask somebody to do something that I haven’t done or wouldn’t do myself. I think that people respect me a lot more because of it. I’m the type of person who, if I see something that needs to be done and there’s no one around to do it, I’ll do it. That’s helped me build a better working relationship with the people I manage because when I delegate a task, they don’t push back. They know I’ll get in there and do it too. 

Being hands-on is 100 percent the best way to be a leader. If you know how to pack a box, you appreciate the employee doing it each day even more. Being hands-on helps you realize that every role is important at the company. 

 

What are some specific challenges you have faced as a woman in business?

At my first job at a fashion company in Charlotte, there was one person who was pretty high up and he would make these very inappropriate comments about what I was wearing during meetings. I was in planning for children’s clothes and he would hold up a little girls’ dress and be like, “Oh, would Sara fit in this?” It was so ridiculous. 

Because I was so young and I was early in my career, I didn’t feel empowered enough to say something even though I totally should have. Older women who worked for that company would even come up to me and say, “He shouldn’t be talking to you like that.” But again, I was young and didn’t want to cause waves. 

From that experience, I learned that men are looked at differently in the business world. It has changed some over the years but women are still underrepresented in company leadership. 

 

Is there any advice you’d give to your younger self, besides maybe to learn to love accounting?

I wish that I had connected with a career coach, even before starting college. I wish I had a better grasp on the jobs that were available because I felt very lost going into school. I had just turned 18. I was still young and yet I was supposed to know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I felt very lost with that.

I did enjoy fashion, so I went to school for fashion merchandising and marketing. I intended to be a buyer and I didn’t end up there. I think some additional career planning or coaching would have helped me understand what I’m good at and what I ultimately wanted to do.

 

So how did you eventually discover your unique strengths and talents?

Honestly, by working at this company and doing everything through trial and error. At Anita Goodesign, I was given the opportunity to learn everything from how to order boxes to inventory. I got to figure out that I’m good at the planning and organization piece — knowing a little about each department, reeling it in, and getting it done. 

Sometimes when you have so many departments working on a project, you need one person who can be the glue to stick it all together and finish it. That’s what I’m good at. I can anticipate what’s coming and get it done.

What’s one way you are continually growing and evolving as CEO?

We recently had a shift in our billing admin roles. I started looking for someone to fill this position, but our business has changed so much because of the pandemic that I decided we don’t need this position anymore. We can instead rely on our accountant and some internal people to complete the job.

We’re all learning the ins and outs of finances, accounting, and taxes — which sounds very exciting. Honestly, in all of my business classes in college, I hated accounting the most. Now, here I am, and I have to do it. It’s part of my job. So that’s a new skill that I’m learning, even if I don’t necessarily want to be. 

Women Who Lead: Vickie Smith with Infinite Beginnings

Women Who Lead: Vickie Smith with Infinite Beginnings

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.

Vickie Smith’s career only truly began when she was fired. 

In 2007, Smith was let go from Brookdale Senior Living after advocating for residents whom she felt were being discriminated against. Jaded by for-profit politics and red tape, Smith dove into the nonprofit sector, supporting children and adults with intellectual disabilities at an organization called LIFESPAN. 

Smith is now the founder and CEO of Infinite Beginnings, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive progressive health services like psychosocial rehabilitation, “hands-on” assistance for persons with mental illness, medication management, and more. 

The need for compassionate caregivers was my primary motivation,” says Smith. “I felt called to provide something different in the world of mental health and substance use.” 

Today, after more than ten years as CEO, we spoke with Smith to see what it takes to provide the Charlotte area with quality care.  

 

Mental health is a taboo in our culture, so what was it like founding a company that centers around something many people don’t even want to talk about? 

It was very much a challenge. I literally had nothing. I had no bank loans. The ones that I did apply for, I got denied. I had no investors. I had passion, a good credit score, and people who knew my character and believed in me. I got lots of mentoring from people within my circle, but as far as logistics, I had no funding other than working a full-time job and my own personal lines of credit.

 

Did you always want to focus your career on mental health? 

I’ve always known that I wanted to be in the helping industry. I’ve always been servant-minded. As a child, I wanted to be a doctor, an advocacy lawyer, a teacher — I’ve always wanted to help people. Landing in mental health and substance use was a natural progression from working with adults with intellectual disabilities as well as personal experiences with veterans, substance use, and mental illness. 

I knew that to make an impact, I needed to dispel the stigma around mental illness and substance use disorder. So ten years ago, I decided this was what I would really focus on — eradicating the stigma. 

 

What freedoms did opening your own practice afford you? What can you do now, as CEO of Infinite Beginnings, that you couldn’t do working for someone else?

I’ve struggled with red tape and politics. The one and only time I got fired was with Brookdale Senior Living. I’ve always been an advocate, so I was advocating and it went downhill. I wasn’t playing by the rules. That’s how I got into the nonprofit world because the for-profit politics just burned me out. 

That was a big motivation for me. I always knew that when I started my own agency — and I’ve always known I would because I come from a family of entrepreneurs — the red tape needed to be eliminated. It gets in the way of providing care. I’ve never been into paperwork. I’ve always been focused on providing the highest level of care to the people I’m serving. 

If one of our clients’ lights are off because they may have, truthfully, blown their money on drugs or impulsive spending, I as the CEO can say, “Okay, let’s get the lights back on and get to the root cause of what’s going on.” Drug use is a symptom to mask something, so let’s really focus on why that person feels like they need to use drugs to numb themselves. That’s one of the biggest freedoms — helping people and meeting them where they are. 

 

For many people, getting fired is their worst nightmare. How did you turn that negative experience into motivation?

I believe everyone deserves to be treated with the same dignity and respect, regardless of their financial means. It was a socioeconomic issue at Brookdale. I didn’t feel like the residents were being treated equally. I was loud about it and they didn’t like that. That’s why they fired me.

When I got fired, I was really mad. I mean, really mad. I was so mad that I emailed the CEO of Brookdale. I felt like they had done a disservice. But he never responded. I always said that I would never be that CEO. I would never be the CEO who refuses to hear employees. 

Today, my organization is primarily funded by Medicaid. What people don’t understand is that someone can qualify for Medicaid because of their mental health status. It’s not about financial means all of the time. We have clientele who come from various backgrounds, not just poverty. But regardless of their socioeconomic status or mental health status, we treat them as people because that’s what people want — to be treated like individuals. There’s no magical formula to what I’m doing. It’s really simple — I just treat others how I’d like to be treated.

 

What advice do you have for someone who is experiencing an ethical quandary in their workplace?  

It starts with your value set. What is your personal “why”? If you’re not clear on what makes you who you are, you’re going to be at the mercy of others. Integrity is my number one core value so I’m not going to allow myself to be in any environment, personally or professionally, that compromises my integrity. That’s always been very clear to me. 

So when anybody is in a situation where they feel their values aren’t in sync with the organization, I truthfully tell them they need to leave. They need to reset. It’s not always about financial means. Sometimes it’s about opportunities and finding what your true calling is. That’s why I got fired — our values weren’t in sync. They were financially motivated and I wasn’t. 

Financial motivation still isn’t an issue for me. I tell my team, “If you take care of the people, the bottom line will take care of itself.” We’re going to do right by people first. People over paperwork. That’s always something that has motivated me. 

 

You mentioned you always knew you would start your own organization because you come from a family of entrepreneurs. Can you talk about that more? 

My mom and dad are both immigrants to the United States. My mom is a citizen now and my dad is deceased. My dad had a third-grade education but he started a business in 1960. My dad wasn’t a man of many words, but I didn’t even know he was functionally illiterate. I always thought he was always wanting me to read things aloud to him because that’s what dads do.

He had a septic tank business and he hired people from all walks of life. If they needed work for the day, he put them to work. He would tell them, “Just show up.” These were people who might have been homeless, might have been struggling with mental illness or substance use. Black or white — it didn’t matter. He gave them work. He required me and my siblings to respect them. The workers were “Mr.” and “Mrs.” Regardless of who they were, we were to treat them with respect.

My dad also taught me about loyalty. He would always go to the same business for everything. Well, one particular business moved 30 minutes away. I was like, “Dad, why are we going all the way up there?” He said, “Stick with the people you know. That’s what relationships are about. You support the people you know.” I always remember that lesson. It’s all about loyalty and respect and building relationships. 

 

How has your father influenced your management style?

At my current company, my employees get paid before I get paid. There have been many days when I don’t get paid. But that’s what you do — you do right by people. My team knows that I’ll give to them before I give to myself. That has created mutual respect and loyalty. They know that they are very important to me and that their families are very important to me. Those principles come from my dad. There were many weeks when there was nothing left over for my family. We had no money. I remember my mom being very upset about that. But my dad always made sure everyone got a little something. He has definitely been my biggest inspiration.    

 

What are some new lessons you are learning today as CEO?

What I’m learning most right now is listening to what God is trying to tell me and how he’s trying to order my next steps. Whenever I’ve needed to make changes, it has boiled down to me being still, being patient, and being obedient. It has worked and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. I’m going to continue to go until God says, “Okay. This is enough.” But he hasn’t said that yet. 

Recently, I’ve also been working on being vulnerable. In the business world, we wear this facade of, “Oh, I’m CEO. I’m invincible.” But there’s real value in being able to say, “You know what? I’m human too.” 

How do you define success?

Success is defined by what makes a person happy. Whatever makes you happy and fulfilled qualifies you as successful. It’s not about material things or titles. It’s about what fulfills your life. It’s about getting up every day and doing what you’re called to do — that’s success. 

Women Who Lead: Danielle Patterson with Family Office List

Women Who Lead: Danielle Patterson with Family Office List

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.

Few women dare dip their toes into the male-centric waters of the financial sector. But Danielle Patterson is different.

Patterson is co-founder of Family Office List, an online investor database designed for clients looking to raise capital. Since 2016, when she and her husband, Warren, purchased the business from founder Douglas Fathers, Patterson has made waves in an industry dominated by men.

“In the financial sector, there are fewer women in management roles,” says Patterson who, as the company’s Director of Marketing and Sales, oversees operations and business development. “But I think change starts within ourselves. We have to change the perception that women can’t assume these types of positions.”

We spoke with Patterson to garner some insight into what it takes to understand the investment objectives of high net worth family offices. We also waded into the topics of technology, sexism, and self-confidence.

How did you get involved with Family Office List?

My husband, Warren, is an entrepreneur. He’s always on the lookout for a particular business model where there’s recurring revenue, low overhead, and flexibility. Five years ago, he saw this business and thought, “There’s a lot of potential.”

My strengths lie in marketing and business development. I get excited about it and I’m able to get others excited too. My husband jokes that I sprinkle my “fairy dust” on it. So, we made an arrangement with the founder of Family Office List to purchase the company.

It was an awesome opportunity. For me, at that time, it was about not being afraid to say “yes” and learn something new that was outside my comfort zone. It’s about being brave and then working your butt off.

 

Can you talk more about why you decided to take this leap of faith?

Warren is the risk-taker in the relationship. I am the details person. I often have paralysis through analysis. At the time, he was going through a business transition — he was selling his company— and when there is uncertainty in the future, you want to protect yourself. This was his backup plan.

Today, Warren and his new partner are completely happy. They’re like brothers. We joke that sometimes they talk more than Warren and I do. But I saw that Family Office List was a great opportunity to make a difference, so I took over right away. I made it my baby. If I am going to work hard and build something, I will give it everything I have.

 

Is your husband still involved in the company?

Warren is a big-picture thinker, so I consult with him, especially when I feel out of my element. He’s almost like a board member now. I come to him for things beyond my knowledge.

But day-to-day, I’ve got it. There are definitely mistakes, but you just learn the hard way. There are days when I have to be patient with myself. We live in such a fast-paced society, but it’s important to be patient and know that it’s a gradual journey. As long as you’re moving forward, you’ll get there.  

 

Have you always been passionate about marketing and sales?

It’s really interesting. Being an art major, I first managed a gallery for a National Geographic photographer. I hosted workshops for him and learned database management and built his marketing outreach. I learned the basic art of crafting an email and doing e-blasts. I wore every possible hat. It was all about having a “can do” attitude and I think I surprised him with my capability. I remember one day he realized that the thousands of books that once lined his shelves were gone. It just hit him. He was like, “Did you sell all of those?”

But sometimes opportunities lead you to different sectors. When we first moved to Charlotte, I was trying to find an art career but it just wasn’t a thriving arts community. I was given the opportunity to do business development for a pediatric dentist, of all things. It took off, and after seven years we had opened multiple locations and doubled the business a few times over. That experience helped me build this arsenal of knowledge that I then could take and apply to anything.

I look back at my professional experiences and think, “They’re so random — they’re not interconnected at all.” But they really are. They all built this foundation and this confidence. They made me capable.

 

Of course, technology is always evolving. How do you ensure that your business is keeping pace?

That’s such a valid question. Even the way our data is being used has changed. It used to be that everyone did email campaigns but then email became so saturated. Then, at the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was targeting LinkedIn profiles. Then those campaigns became oversaturated. It’s about continuously finding ways to think outside the box. I see that our competitors are evolving but I don’t just want to follow suit. I want to be one step ahead. I think, “What can I do that’s different and better?” It’s about reinventing value for our customers.

 

Do you have a community of peers and mentors that provide advice or encouragement?

This is a little off-topic, but early in the pandemic, I joined this group of women who worked out together. We all needed encouragement and held each other accountable. What I loved about it was that the group included women from all different avenues but we could all relate to one another and support each other in positive ways. I now feel encouraged to seek out other females in the financial industry. 

 

Do you have any tips for a female entrepreneur who is afraid to step outside her comfort zone?

What’s helped me get where I am today is surrounding myself with people who can do things that I’m not good at. It’s about admitting your weaknesses and finding teammates who actually enjoy doing those tasks. Then you need to give them the tools to do those things well. Don’t overmanage people. Trust them. Communicate at all times.

Also, don’t be afraid that people won’t respond to who you truly are. Just be yourself, be honest, and work hard. Your path will come.

How are you, as a businesswoman, currently growing and evolving?

For too long, I’ve hidden behind having a male founder. But I’ve been doing this for five years and the company has grown substantially. So I’m working on truly stepping into this role. I need to embrace the position and the title.

Women Who Lead: Mattie Finch with Sage Marie’s Coffee and Tea

Women Who Lead: Mattie Finch with Sage Marie’s Coffee and Tea

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.

Mattie Finch believes your morning coffee should be a ritual, not a routine.

As founder of Sage Marie’s Coffee and Tea, a Charlotte-based purveyor of premium coffee, espressos, teas, and beauty products, Finch takes java very seriously. Eschewing mass production, her all-woman team roasts each bag of beans by hand, just like Finch’s mother did when she was a child. 

“My mother worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston for 45 years in labor and delivery. She started her morning with the best cup of coffee possible — she would get up an hour early each day just to prepare it,” says Finch. “I didn’t understand the big deal, but eventually I got it.”

Other people are starting to get it too. Today, Finch’s customers include the likes of diplomats and scientists attending the Concordia Annual Summit, a yearly conference hosted by the United Nations where Sage Marie’s is contracted to serve specialty drinks. But the brand also caters to regular, everyday people who want quality products. 

We shared a cup with Finch to hear more about how a music major learned to hit the right notes in the coffee industry.  

 

How much did you know about coffee or tea before you started your own business?

I knew a little about coffee roasting. I grew up watching my mom roast coffee by hand and I would say to her, “Why do you do this? It’s so tedious. Just go to the store and buy some.” She would say, “No. There is nothing better than having a fresh cup of coffee.” 

 

What about roasting makes it taste so much better?

It’s an experience. You can get a cup of coffee from Dunkin’ or Starbucks, and it will fulfill the need, but there’s something different about fresh-roasted coffee. It has a different taste and a different flavor. I call it “love in a cup.” When you have coffee prepared the way it’s supposed to be done—the way it is done in Ethiopia, where coffee originated—then you understand. 

 

You are obviously very passionate about good coffee. But which came first—your passion for coffee or your passion for business? 

When I was old enough, I started traveling the world and I would bring my mom coffee from different countries because that was her thing. When I brought her back some beans from Blue Mountain Coffee in Jamaica, she said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just travel the world, buy beans, and roast them for a living?” I looked at her and said, “Let’s do it.” 

I was on medical leave from my job at the time and when I got my first check, it was barely enough money to buy dog food for my dog. I knew I had to do something different. I started watching coffee blogs and talking to baristas and roasters. I decided to go grassroots and learn how to start home roasting. I found a coffee warehouse in Kernersville, North Carolina, called The Captain’s Coffee. So I got out of my sick bed and drove an hour and a half to Kernersville. A lady opened the door and explained that they don’t really have customers show up at their door — they are a warehouse. But I told her my story and they let me pick from thousands of beans. That’s how I got started.  

 

What was it like in those early years? Did you instantly have a knack for roasting coffee beans?

In the beginning, I was roasting beans in a popcorn popper, setting them on fire, and running outside to throw them onto the lawn. My husband was spastic — he was like, “You’re going to burn the house down!” He eventually bought me a roaster because he couldn’t take it any longer. But he also saw my dedication.   

I started to roast using the roaster and taught myself using videos. Then, for about two years, my business partner and I just traveled to learn everything we could learn about beans — the different regions, where they come from, the taste, the notes, all of that good stuff. I started pitching to small mom-and-pop coffee shops around town but many of them were afraid to buy outside of the main coffee bean supplier in North Carolina because it’s such a huge conglomerate. 

But I pitched to one coffee shop on Central Avenue. They were Ethiopian women and they were intrigued. They took me under their wing and did a coffee ceremony for me — which is a very prestigious event in the Ethiopian community and is only done for very important people. When I saw this, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. I was like, “This is incredible. Why are we not doing this more?” It changed the trajectory of how I roasted. I knew I had to figure out how to incorporate hand roasting into the coffee world. Everybody has their own blends and creates their own magic but no one was roasting coffee in the traditional way. 

 

Being self-taught, did you ever feel like you didn’t belong in the coffee industry? Was imposter syndrome ever a problem for you?

Yes. At first, I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously. I studied music — I didn’t come from the coffee world. People often gauge how good of a roaster you are by the awards you win or the places you travel to. I was intimidated by that until we were contracted by the Concordia Summit, United Nations (UN). They came to us and said, “Listen, we have these events we do, and we’re looking for a coffee company like yours to supply our coffee.”

Still, in the beginning, I definitely felt like nobody was going to take this girl who is singing seriously. But you know what? Now I sing and roast coffee, and it’s good stuff. When you hand roast, there is a set of skills you must have. You have to listen, you have to smell, you have to know when to take it off the heat and when to put it back on to get the right roast. So I feel like you can take me seriously or you can choose not to, but when you take that first sip of coffee, I’m pretty sure I will change your mind. 

 

Wow. Can you talk more about working with the UN?

So the UN puts in ther huge events throughout the year. The major one we do is called the Concordia Annual Summit and it’s where all these world leaders converge in New York City every year. We’re given a room and we essentially set up a coffee shop. Between 1,000 and 1,500 people come each day and that’s all we do all day — we serve coffee.

Once people saw what we did at Concordia, we had different branches of the UN contact us for different events. We have had people from all over the world tell us that our coffee is the reason why they came back to Concordia.

 

Besides learning how to make that perfect cup of coffee, you surely had to learn basic business skills, right?

Oh, in the beginning, we made a lot of mistakes. I did everything on the fly. I was literally running around town to get our business license. We had to get insurance, I had to get business accounts set up, I had to call the Department of Agriculture to get inspections. There were so many things we had no idea we needed to run a business. 

We were fortunate that we got this big deal with the UN that made us get it together very quickly. Every time they asked us for something, we delivered. But behind the scenes, we were like the mouse at the wheel. We definitely learned from that.  

Can you briefly discuss what you did professionally before entering the coffee world? What was the appeal in self-employment?

I started in music. I traveled the world, had my own record deal, and did that for a short stint. But when music took a turn, I went to work in corporate America. I knew it wasn’t something I would stay in forever. I felt like I had all of these skills that I couldn’t use the way I wanted to use them. That’s why I say you have the ability to create whatever type of job you want to create for yourself. Because only you really know what’s going to make you happy. 

In the end, I’ve worked in all these places and have seen people that come to work every day unhappy. I want to create an atmosphere where people come to work for us, and they get up every day happy to come in and do the job because that’s what they love to do. I don’t believe that you will reach your full potential until you’re happy.

 

Your business makes you happy. But is it hard to balance running a small business and your mental and physical wellbeing?

In the beginning, it was hard. Unfortunately, when you start off small, it’s your baby. You have to do work when nobody else wants to. Everyone else may be asleep, but you’re up roasting or packaging orders. It was definitely hard in the beginning to find that balance but I just had to figure it out. Because if I go down, who is going to run it?

I now choose one thing that makes me happy and during my day I have to do that thing. I don’t care who needs me or what needs to be done, don’t bother me for those 30 or 45 minutes. For instance, I love naps so I will just shut down for half an hour. Even if I don’t sleep, I will just lay still for 30 minutes and refocus. When I get up, I’m ready to go. 

 

Who inspired you to pursue your dreams?

I got my entrepreneurial spirit from my grandfather. My grandfather came to Boston from Alabama at nine years old with no formal education. He couldn’t read or write, and he didn’t learn until he was in his 50s, but he made something of himself. He was a Merchant Marine and he built his own cleaning business. After he bought his first house, he bought a second one to turn into a rooming business. He took all of that money and invested it in himself. My grandfather created this amazing legacy. 

 

Are there any new skills you’re currently learning?

Well, I’ve become somewhat of a chemist. Our line of beauty products is made all by hand. Everything is natural, so you have to know what goes together, what doesn’t work well together, how much of each ingredient, how to preserve the products and more. I’ve actually been working with a chemist on some of our products because they have to have a shelf life if we get to the point of being in stores like Target.