Women Who Lead: Fabi Preslar with SPARK Publications

Women Who Lead: Fabi Preslar with SPARK Publications

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.

Fabi Preslar (we’ve learned is pronounced “Faybee”) and her entrepreneurial life fueled by SPARK Publications have been one of perseverance and thriving through opportunities to get to a sparklier creative situation on the other side.

Although it seems like she lost a great deal as a teen, courageously leaping into her own new life eventually brought about a dream life of creatively working with her family, a great company serving high-profile business owners, and receiving national recognition. As a firm, SPARK Publications has won over 250 industry awards celebrating their marketing design and publishing work for clients.

Although little of this came easy, Fabi has been awarded an international 2021 Gold Stevie Award for Chief Happiness Officer of the Year, a national 2020 FOLIO magazine: Top Women in Media, was inducted into the 2019 North Carolina Women Business Owners Hall of Fame, and the 2018 First-Generation Family Business of the Year by the Charlotte Business Journal, and as Woman Business Owner of the Year by NAWBO Charlotte in 2017. 

We had a quick conversation with Fabi about her entrepreneurial life, providing her such a deep opportunity for personal growth while creating a successful business publishing for other entrepreneurial rock stars.

 

You are the founder of SPARK Publications. Tell us how you got to where you are now.

My business ownership story started several generations ago with my great grandfather and numerous other family entrepreneurial attempts. Each one ended with great detriment to the livelihood of our family. My parents immigrated from France to start their young married life. My parents, sister and I lived in many places including Canada, Bahamas, Paris, as well as various places along the East Coast in the United States. The summer before my senior year of high school, the restaurant my parents launched in Columbia, South Carolina, closed, which led us to lose our home and the farm we lived on. A family friend in North Carolina opened up her home to take in my family. Once my parents got back on their feet and started their new lives, it was time for me to start my own life. At seventeen, I moved to Charlotte without family support, no car, no money. I knew no one. I worked three jobs to put myself through Central Piedmont Community College to become a graphic designer. From there, I slowly built a life of creativity, love, and business as I worked as an art-director, general manager, and designer for various firms. While working at the Charlotte Observer, I met and married my husband, Larry, less than six months from when we met. At twenty-two, I gave birth to our daughter, started my first business, and then merged that graphic design business with a small printing company to form a corporate newsletter publishing company. That ended after six years with some really hard business lessons learned.

Today I am the founder and president of SPARK Publications, a twenty-four-year-old national award-winning, publishing firm specializing in custom magazines for trades and association and independently published non-fiction books to help grow businesses, brands, and platforms. Every day I get to work with my husband, daughter, a great team of SPARKlers, and a client base beyond my wildest dreams.

What has surprised you about owning your own business?

My biggest overarching surprises are the depth of what I’ve learned about myself and the amazing opportunities that come my way each year. I launched SPARK Publications with several goals: 1) to spend time with my family (everyone was spending more time with my husband and daughter than I was). I hadn’t placed the proper focus on my role as wife and mother, and I really wanted to. The first six years were home-based. 2) I’d gathered so much knowledge and applied skills as a designer, pre-press tech, the many steps in publishing and customer service, I couldn’t find a position that encompassed all the skills and creativity I had to offer. 3) I had lived life so fast from the age of seventeen that it was time for me to emotionally and spiritually get a better perspective, grow up, and truly discover who I am and how to best live my purpose (be careful what you ask for!).

Ten years into this business journey, my husband joined and at twelve years, my daughter became part of my firm’s full-time team. This enabled us, along with my other SPARKlers, to continue to grow ideas from my heart along with their exceptional talent. I have deep gratitude for these beautiful surprises. Owning a business brings constant surprises. I’m learning to celebrate the fun ones and more easily work through the tougher ones.

What’s something new you’re learning right now?

I love the impact my team makes with our magazine and book clients. Lately, the requests for me to become an entrepreneurial speaker, guide, and consultant are growing. I’m getting to vulnerably and authentically help business owners get clarity to love their life and businesses even more. I’m doing more speaking and workshops around the topics of “Fabulous F WordsTM to Fuel Your Future Story” and the fun concept of “Flailing ForwardTM”. I didn’t think I’d love it as much as I do. My time is currently limited to serve those increasing clients and opportunities while growing and managing SPARK Publications and SPARK Digital Design®. A third venture has me learning to get much better at scheduling my energy and time.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Although most who meet me for the first time wouldn’t know, I’m a deep introvert and still struggle with a lack of confidence. So, I’d let baby girl Fabi know that everything she experiences is going to be of value in a future situation. Everything gets you ready for the next thing and the next thing will be less hard because of the previous hardships and lessons. Be confident that you’re always on the right path for the next great lesson and experience. And have a bit more fun—hard times and challenges are a way of life and so are the good times.

Who are your mentors?

Joan Zimmerman, Dee Dixon, and Sara Blakely (from afar) are some of my business mentors. I was recently selected for a page feature in Entrepreneur magazine. When the printed issue arrived, and Sara Blakely was on the cover and our features were just a few pages apart…that was an energetic nerdy dance celebration moment for me.

Dee and Joan have always been there to cheer me on and provide that needed real-world kick and kindness just when I needed it most. Even with a great family, having mentors that can call you out and cheer you on is priceless. I’m paying it forward now with several amazing women in business.

 

How can you become a good leader?

I think to be a good leader we have to first be a good student of life. We need to be willing to take the time to be the best we can be as a person and take the courage to honor, and at times, rebuild the foundations we previously built that no longer serve us.

Top Private Equity Accounting Mistakes & How To Avoid Them

Top Private Equity Accounting Mistakes & How To Avoid Them

Accounting is one of the most important ingredients of success for private equity firms large and small. 

When accounting is optimized for the best practices of private equity, it becomes an additional catalyst for success. On the other hand, if accounting is not done properly based on the unique aspects of a private equity firm, the results can seriously hinder performance.

In order for private equity accounting to be a catalyst for success, it needs to be competent and actually bring value in several key areas including:

  • Leveraging next-generation automated accounting technologies to enable scale
  • Seizing any and all opportunities to put in place real-time accounting reporting
  • Extracting value from accounting practices to support strategic growth 

While the goals for private equity accounting teams are clear, reaching them can prove challenging. In this article, we want to take a closer look at a few of the most common accounting mistakes made by private equity firms and how those mistakes can be prevented.

3 Private Equity Accounting Mistakes & How To Avoid Them

1. Failure To Scale Accounting Systems

One of the primary accounting mistakes made by private equity firms is the continued use of manual accounting processes while trying to scale growth. If your accounting team is spending most of their time manually performing tasks, the growth of your portfolio companies will be hindered.

The key to avoiding the failure to scale accounting systems is by implementing clearly defined workflows across intradepartmental teams, which are backed by automated accounting technologies. 

There is an increasing number of accounting software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms covering a wide range of accounting functions. It can be helpful for private equity firms to consult with qualified accounting SaaS experts to help build an ecosystem of these platforms for your firm. 

This accounting SaaS ecosystem will bring automation and scale to the accounting operations across your portfolio. Instead of hindering growth, this automation will help scale and empower your firm’s growth.

2. Making Key Decisions Based on a Lack of Real-Time Information

Private equity firm principals and partners need to have the most up-to-date accounting data as possible. 

Prior to the entrance of SaaS accounting platforms, private equity leaders had to rely heavily on the CFO for the pulse on the accounting state of affairs. And often, the CFO themselves did not have the most up-to-date accounting reports. With the introduction of an automated accounting software ecosystem we previously discussed, it is now possible for all leaders of the firm to have access to real-time accounting data. 

This real-time view of accounting reporting and performance is a game-changer for the private equity industry. Leaders of private equity firms can now make the most informed decisions possible about their portfolio companies. 

Often events can unfold rapidly in the mergers and acquisitions world, and vital decisions about the future of a given portfolio company need to be made quickly. In these situations, the old method of having to wait weeks for accounting data to be compiled is a thing of the past. With the current software ecosystems properly implemented, private equity leaders have the key information they need in real-time to make important decisions.

It is imperative that CFOs and accounting leaders avoid the mistake of allowing delays in their accounting reporting systems due to outdated technologies and processes. If these delays aren’t remedied, the leaders of these firms could end up making poor strategic decisions about their portfolio companies and that could prove very costly. 

In order to ensure you are taking advantage of all the opportunities to put in place real-time accounting reporting systems, it is helpful to partner with a consultant that has the ability to understand your unique portfolio and where those opportunities exist. Doing so will result in tremendous benefits for the leaders of your firm when it comes time to make big decisions about the future.

3. Mismatched CFOs

Selecting a CFO for your private equity firm is one of the most important decisions you will make. One of the key roles your CFO should play is in knowing how to use accounting practices to aid rapid growth.

As we discussed earlier, many private equity firms have a growth focus. The mistake that is commonly made is when a private equity firm hires a CFO who does not have robust experience in running the accounting practice to maximize the growth of the organization. 

The reality is many CFOs come from backgrounds that are focused more on accounting for mature companies. In these contexts, the CFOs have not spent enough time in a high-growth environment. They may be very capable CFOs—even coming from very large enterprises. However, if they have not had experience in running a successful accounting operation towards growth, they will likely be unqualified as the CFO of a private equity firm. 

In order to avoid these mistakes, private equity firm leaders should search for CFOs with demonstrated experience in creating and running accounting systems for high-growth companies. 

For CFOs to be successful with accounting practices in a growth environment, they need to have the ability to bring meaningful strategic guidance to the leaders of the firm. This ability to bring guidance can only come from significant past experiences in running the accounting operations in sometimes volatile and chaotic growth environments.

These CFOs are not expecting to show up on day one and have tightly organized systems in place. On the contrary, they have had past experiences taking a somewhat disorganized, rapid growth situation and cleaning up the accounting operations—streamlining and scaling them in order to foster further growth.

The best way to find a CFO who could be a potential fit for your private equity firm is to ask them during the interview process what strategic growth-related guidance they have given from an accounting perspective in the past at their previous organizations.

Let Accounting Help Grow Your Private Equity Firm

At a big-picture level, the accounting practice for your private equity firm needs to be just as growth-focused as the rest of the firm. CFOs with a maintenance-only mindset who lack the ability to bring strategic accounting guidance to the table when it comes to growth, will not let your firm realize its full potential. 

Similarly, sticking with outdated accounting technologies and processes will hinder the growth of your firm as you try to scale your portfolio. Not only should you seek the assistance of a qualified consultant to help you select and implement an accounting SaaS ecosystem, you should also have this advisor help you bring real-time accounting reporting to all the leaders of your firm. 

In the midst of rapid growth, it can be difficult to find the time and resources to take the appropriate steps you need to take to ensure the success of your accounting operation. That is why it can be helpful to find a consultant you can trust to aid you in these important initiatives for the future success of your firm. 

To learn more about how Lavoie can help your private equity firm avoid making the mistakes in this article, contact us online or give us a call at 704-481-6699 today.

Lavoie CPA & Jirav Launch Strategic Partnership

Lavoie CPA & Jirav Launch Strategic Partnership

Lavoie CPA & Jirav Launch Strategic Partnership

Lavoie CPA has added Jirav, an all-in-one business planning software for small and medium companies, to its lineup of preferred cloud solutions for the accounting profession.

At Lavoie CPA, we leverage accounting as a service and cloud-based technology to streamline clients’ accounting, payroll, and analytical processes. Implementing software solutions is critical for improving financial reporting and making businesses scalable over the long term. We work closely with clients to identify the right software solution that supports strategic objectives while making operations more efficient and effective.

Through this partnership, Lavoie CPA and Jirav aim to give clients a competitive edge in their accounting and administrative processes.

Jirav is an all-in-one financial planning and analysis solution that maximizes the collaborative value of forecasting, budgeting, reporting, and analytics so leaders can drive their businesses forward with confidence and speed.

Jirav integrates natively with leading accounting or ERP platforms such as Xero, Quickbooks, NetSuite, and Sage Intacct. With Jirav, you are up and running your forecasts using templates in minutes.

This powerful business planning software helps companies:

  • Maximize Growth: Model the outcomes of investing in sales, marketing, or other areas. Scenario test to optimize your growth strategy and track results to plan.
  • Operate With Financial Excellence: A key to growth is having a plan and measuring against it. Manage detailed KPIs and collaborate with owners to keep the business on track.
  • Focus on Strategy: Finance teams at growth companies lose too much time to spreadsheets and generating reports. Automate the tasks and focus on being strategic.

Contact slavoie@lavoiepllc.com to request a demo today. To learn more about the platform, please visit https://www.jirav.com/.

About Lavoie CPA

Founded in 2009, Lavoie has served as a reliable Charlotte CPA firm that specializes in strategic financial and operational planning for businesses of all sizes. By delivering state-of-the-art strategic support, Lavoie’s clients can focus on growing their business and soar to the next level of greatness. In addition to providing customized solutions for clients, Lavoie prioritizes social justice issues and is extremely involved in the local Charlotte community.

About Jirav

Jirav is a comprehensive business planning solution for small and medium companies that maximizes the collaborative value of forecasting, budgeting, reporting, and analytics so leaders can drive their businesses forward with confidence and speed. The all-in-one financial planning and analysis software offers faster implementation and a more intuitive interface, allowing finance leaders to build financial models in hours (not days) and generate financial reports in minutes (not hours). Jirav is headquartered in San Francisco with offices and teams across the world including Seattle, Austin, and Poland. Learn more at www.jirav.com.

Women Who Lead: Devin Allen with Soul Food Healing Company

Women Who Lead: Devin Allen with Soul Food Healing Company

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.

When Devin Allen’s grandmother fell into a coma, doctors offered a grim prognosis: She would never wake up. But the hospital’s nurses had hope.

“They were a positive light,” says Allen. “They told us, even though she wasn’t interacting with us, that we could talk to her and play her favorite gospel music. They gave us something to hold onto during a very difficult time.”

When her grandmother did wake up, Allen decided that she would provide families with that same glimmer of hope. She would become a nurse. 

Today, as an RN at Atrium Health in Charlotte, Allen’s goal is to help patients be partners in their care, not just participants. As such, she offers patients alternatives to prescription drugs and crafts holistic health products through her business, Soul Food Healing Company

We sat down with Allen to hear more about her approach to wellness.  

 

What’s the difference between traditional and holistic medicine? How did you learn about alternative medicine?

Traditional medicine is what we’re all used to seeing: prescription medications, over the counter ointments, injections, and so on. Holistic medicine is in a realm of its own. Holistic medicine uses acupuncture, healing herbs, teas and syrups, to name a few, that have been proven to help treat common ailments, such as anxiety, headaches, insomnia, and arthritis pain. 

 

Let’s dig a little deeper here: What initially lit the fuse and sparked your passion for holistic medicine?

My niece recently started attending daycare and she was bringing tons of germs home. Well, guess who was catching all of her colds. During this time, my niece would be fine, running around, full of energy, and there I was, completely debilitated in bed, not feeling well at all. So, like most people, I went to my doctor to get a prescription. Often, I would finish the prescription, but I would still be feeling terrible, and in some cases I would actually feel worse than I felt before I took the medication.

After catching several of these colds from my neice, I knew I needed to find an alternative — something I could take that actually made me feel better. Something natural, free of preservatives, dyes, side effects, and chemicals. This was a pivotal moment for me, I began researching and testing out my own recipes. I can recall a specific time when I was sick for two weeks. When I took a dose of the elderberry syrup and turmeric tea I made, I began to feel much better just a few hours after. 

 

What services do you provide through Soul Food Healing Company?

A customer might come to me and say, “Hey, I’ve been struggling to sleep at night. Do you have anything natural that will help?” I might have a tea blend or a syrup that I’ve crafted. Additionally, I have often made recipes that are unique to what my clients are struggling with. 

 

Of course, in addition to being a business owner, you are a nurse. How does owning a holistic healing company affect your ability to provide patient care? 

Having an understanding of holistic medicine has made me a stronger nurse. Now, my mindset has been expanded in terms of options for treating various conditions. Many people have been taking prescription medications for years and have yet to see improvements in their health. There are so many people who are excited to try something different and who often see rapid improvements when they switch to holistic remedies. 

Healing your body through natural foods and holistic medicine has been around for a very long time, but it’s not my job to convince anyone to switch to this lifestyle. My goal is to provide an alternative option for those who are interested, and in most cases, for those who are simply sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. 

 

What unexpected challenges have you faced, both as a registered nurse and as a business owner?

As a nurse, there were many struggles we all had to face associated with the pandemic. We had to learn how to care for patients with a virus that we hadn’t seen before, all while dealing with the constant changes in hospital policies and procedures. Taking time to decompress during the pandemic has certainly been one the biggest challenges. 

As a business owner, my main challenge is meeting the demand — ensuring the products get to those who need them as soon as possible. It’s also important to me to network with other people in the natural health community. 

 

You have been a registered nurse for seven years now. How do you continue to grow and evolve as a practitioner?

I have been intentional about venturing out and exploring a wide range of areas of nursing. Upon graduating, I worked in critical care. This was a significant challenge, but I gained a wealth of knowledge and experience.

Working in critical care also gave me the confidence I needed to start travel nursing. When working in this field, it is critical to be confident in who you are as a nurse. The process is extremely fast paced — often you’re in a new city,  state, and sometimes a new country. Travel nurses often have only one day of orientation before they are out on their own, compared to the 1-3 months most new hires receive. I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to California for a while, during this experience many of my patients were Spanish speaking only. This was very challenging, but it made me a better nurse. Now, I’m able to communicate with Spanish-speaking patients more efficiently. I am currently pursuing my Master’s in Family Nurse Practitioner, while also being involved with committees that work to identify opportunities for improvement in the nursing field. These committees help us progress forward as a profession. 

 

Can you talk more about your committee work? What problems are you trying to solve?

Far too often in nursing we have people making decisions for us, even though they don’t always understand the different challenges that we experience. My goal is to help bridge that gap. 

 

Do you have any other passion projects?

There are many communities in Charlotte that do not have access to fresh produce. These communities are considered food deserts. My goal is to help eliminate food deserts, by providing access to fresh foods and promote improvement in health quality. I have cultivated a community garden that is a source of fresh produce for underserved communities who are living within these communities. 

 

That’s such important work. How did food access become an interest of yours?

Unfortunately, ailments like hypertension and high cholesterol, to name a few, plague the African-American community as well as some other underserved communities. Though these diseases can be hereditary, often disease prevalence is about access — or lack thereof — to healthy foods. 

In nursing school, we had an assignment where we had to spend a day in the life of someone who lives in food deserts, and the journey they must embark on to obtain healthy, fresh foods. Through this process, I was able to gain a better understanding of the struggles of these communities. As a group, we took city buses, evaluated the costs, and so on. This experience sparked something in me. I started to think: How do we make it easier for people to access healthy food? How do we eliminate or reduce some of these common ailments that occur disportionately in these communities?

When caring for patients in the hospital, I see patients on multiple medications who have no knowledge of what their medications are for. 

My dad, for instance, was a newly diagnosed diabetic, I remember him mentioning to me that nobody discussed the importance of changing his diet and exercise, even though this is one of the most therapeutic steps you can take when managing diabetes. The vital importance of eye exams 1-2 times a year and checking his feet daily for wounds, was also not taught to him. 

 

Do you think community involvement allows you to be the best practitioner possible?

Absolutely, connection to the community is one of the most important things to me. It keeps my heart centered and reminds me of why I was called to do this work. It keeps us human. As nurses, if we feel disconnected, a patient can become just a number. Most will stop going the extra mile. It is so important in healthcare to provide people with options and allow them to be involved in their care. Asking people questions such as – “What’s working well for you?”, “What are your goals?”, and “How do you feel about  your current treatment regime?.”  It is my desire to change the healthcare narrative and help people become actively involved in their own care and treatment plans.  

 

What are your goals moving forward?

I’m currently studying to become a nurse practitioner. My goal is to open my own practice after gaining experience upon graduation. Through this practice, I plan to integrate the products that I’ve created within my business. This would be a natural option for patients who are struggling with various medical conditions while providing an alternative to taking prescription medications. 

Women Who Lead: Emma Allen with Emma Allen State Farm

Women Who Lead: Emma Allen with Emma Allen State Farm

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.

Before Emma Allen emerged as a successful financial professional, she was Chuck E. Cheese — the iconic mouse who cheers on children as they win arcade games and eat pizza. 

“That was probably the worst job I’ve ever had,” Allen laughs. “The outfit weighed 100 pounds and kids would knock me over. My teammates thought it was funny.”

Though Allen doesn’t miss those days working at the family entertainment center-turned-pizzeria, she doesn’t regret them. “Nobody wants to be Chuck E. Cheese, but it was on the path to where I needed to be,” she says.  

Since January 1999, Allen has managed Emma Allen State Farm, an insurance agency in Charlotte. In this position, she has helped thousands of families achieve financial literacy. She has also mentored the next generation of financial professionals. 

We chatted with Allen to learn a thing or two about personal finance. We also spoke about how to pursue your dream job, even if you are weighed down by a Chuck E. Cheese costume.   

 

State Farm Insurance does business differently. How do you get that point across to potential customers? 

Our best cheerleaders are people who’ve done business with us over the past 30 years. Because I’ve been at it so long now, people are referring their grandkids to me. That’s really the biggest testimony about who we are and what we’ve done. 

There are a lot of people who get into this financial services business and they’re in it for a year or two. But there aren’t that many people who have been in it for 30 years and have the kind of reviews that we have. That really is our barometer.

 

What specific services do you provide?

We sell traditional policies like home, life, and auto insurance. But we also provide free financial planning for everything from building your basic budget to knowing what things ought to be part of your long-term financial plan. 

 

What about your character has helped you maintain such a long and successful career in this industry?

I would not provide a service for you and your family that I don’t currently provide for me and my family. So, oftentimes, I’ll turn my computer around and show people the products that I’ve had and how they have performed. That makes a difference to people. 

Even when people come to me and are thinking about a financial plan, I say to them, “Shop around. There’s no pressure. If you find a plan that you like better, I’ll review it for you.” Not many people are willing to do that. 

 

Throughout your career, you have held very forward-facing positions. Have you always had a knack for interacting with people? Or did you develop those skills over time? 

It was quite intentional. From the time that I was in junior high school, I saw how people in my minority community were treated by the bankers, insurance agents, and other financial professionals in my town. So, quite intentionally, I decided at a very young age that I was going to be an advocate for financial literacy. 

There’s no question that there are people who have preconceived notions about who they want to do business with. Some of those people are people of color. Some of those people are not people of color. I had to learn to chart my own path. There are people that don’t want to do business with me because I’m a woman or because I’m a woman of color. And I’ve decided to let the success of my clients and their families tell our story for us.

I tell my team, “We are not here for everyone. We are here for the people who are on the same path as us and who want to do business with us.”

 

You have been in the industry for 30 years. What has changed? What do we still need to work on to help underserved communities achieve financial literacy? 

What I’m noticing is that my generation understood the need for savings and the need for insurance coverages, but didn’t have the right distribution sources. They needed people who were willing to teach them about the right products.

What I’m experiencing now is that the younger generation — people in their 30s — seem less concerned about that kind of stability. For example, many people believe that life insurance is just for death. And it’s not. There are many ways to use life insurance as part of a financial strategy. 

 

How has your company pivoted to adapt to these cultural changes?

We’re having to meet people where they are to tell the story. Social media is now a really big part of what we do. My community involvement has also shifted so that I’m in places where I can meet these folks. I’m broadening my horizons so that I capture this generation that, frankly, needs more education. 

We also hire young people in our firm. We want people to do business with people they can relate to and who look like them. So, I’m here to coach, train, and build a new generation of financial professionals. That’s part of my legacy.

 

You’re obviously very passionate about financial literacy. What advice would you give to someone who is struggling to find a passion and leverage it to advance their career?

I’m not naive. I’m aware that people every day have to, for whatever reason, go to a job that they don’t like. There’s no shame or embarrassment in doing work that you don’t like. However, while you’re doing that work, prepare and dream. Write it down and crystalize where you want to be. Be as specific as possible and start working toward that. 

I’ve heard people say, “Oh, I’m going to step out on faith. I’m going to leave this job that I hate because I really want to do this or that.” Well, I’m not going to jump out of a window when I don’t see anything underneath that might break my fall. We need to prepare first, whether that looks like networking or saving six months — though really it should be 18 months — of an emergency fund. All that preparation matters and puts you on the path to your ultimate dream.

 

Can you think of a time when you were dreaming and preparing while working a job that wasn’t your calling?

I’ve had a number of jobs and bosses that I hated. For instance, I managed a call center and that was a job from hell. But I put a date in the sand in my own mind and noted the things that I needed to accomplish.

One of those things was to get a few mentors who were where I wanted to be. It’s so important to be around people that you want to be like, not necessarily from an income perspective but from a personality or internal competence perspective. These folks are always pouring into you. 

 

Do you still have mentors?

Absolutely. Some of the young people in my office teach me things every day. I consider them mentors. I think defining who your mentors and coaches are more broadly is a valuable asset. Some people would say, “Oh, that person has a job that I did 10 years ago. They don’t have anything to teach me.” They may not have anything to teach you from a career perspective, but they may have something to teach you from a cultural or human perspective.

 

What is something you have learned recently from one of these mentors?

I’m somebody who didn’t know how to turn a computer on, so Instagram and Facebook were completely foreign to me. I have learned so much in the last 24 months from my younger coaches and mentors. 

 

Hindsight is 2020. Is there any advice you wish you had given your younger self?

I would have started my financial plan a whole lot earlier. What if I had started right after college, at 23 years old, just putting a little bit of money away? What if I had started buying some real estate? I guess the bigger lesson is don’t wait for the motherlode. Take smaller opportunities consistently because they may grow into something really, really large.

Other than social media, what have you learned recently that has helped you grow and evolve both professionally and personally?

Don’t stop doing good. Sometimes, when you try to do good, people don’t appreciate it or, on the contrary, resent it and hurt you in the process. But don’t let their actions change who you are. Stay on your path. 

Previously, I would be hurt for a lot longer. I would carry it for six months or a year before I could let it go. But now, I move on much more quickly. I don’t have any desire to harm them back or retaliate. I believe that the world does what it does and that karma is what it is. It’s not my job to provide justice. It’s my job to continue to do the good work.

Women Who Lead: Kelsey Mayo with Poyner Spruill

Women Who Lead: Kelsey Mayo with Poyner Spruill

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 an employee benefits attorney at Poyner Spruill in Charlotte, Kelsey Mayo finds the way to “yes.” Rather than discredit unconventional proposals or write off passion projects for lack of time, Mayo pauses to ask herself: “How do I find my way to ‘yes’?” In other words, what compromises need to be made to reach the goal? 

“I like to fully vet an idea to decide whether it’s really worth it,” says Mayo, who graduated from Wake Forest Law School in 2008. “Engaging people in this way — rather than shutting them down — is much more productive, even if you come up with a totally different solution.”  

In addition to serving her clients, Mayo acts as Director of Regulatory Affairs for the American Retirement Association, an organization that advocates for legislative and regulatory matters to benefit America’s private retirement system. 

Despite her packed schedule, Mayo said “yes” to a quick interview during which she shared her personal philosophies on work, life, and balancing the two. 

 

You are an employee benefits attorney. What does that mean exactly?

I work with human resources professionals, legal counsel, and business owners to keep retirement plans in compliance. I generally don’t go to court like traditional litigators. I laugh that what I do is the much softer side of law.

 

How do you juggle working with clients, advocacy, and your other personal passions? 

People joke with me and say that I’m a lot. I always laugh and say, “Oh, you should’ve seen me when I first started.” I was very, very driven and Type A. But I’ve always had a strong desire in life to find the way to “yes.” 

Wanting to say “yes” does lead to a very full plate. People ask me all the time, “How do you balance it all?” A more honest answer is that I don’t do it alone. I have a team–both personally and professionally–and I’ll go to them to ask, “Can we do this?” And then we talk about how we can get to “yes.” Sometimes we rearrange work schedules or partner with someone outside the firm. Oftentimes, they find a way to get me to “yes,” and that’s fantastic. Sometimes, we all regret it in the midst of stretching ourselves to meet the goal, but we get there together.     

And sometimes I do go through the analysis and I know it’s not right to say “yes.” For example, I am routinely asked to do volunteer work for causes I’m passionate about, and I really want to say “yes.” But it doesn’t always happen. I’ve had to learn, particularly over the last few years, to say “not right now.” Then, I’ll offer a way to add value or stay connected in the meantime.

 

“Find the way to yes.” That’s a very interesting mantra. What’s the origin story?

It originated from my mentor within the firm. I had a fantastic partner who retired a couple of years ago. We had lots of long discussions about balancing. When he was counseling me, he always suggested that I needed to say “no” to things. I think during one of those mentoring conversations I said, “I’m okay with saying ‘no,’ but I’d rather find a way to ‘yes.’”

After that, when we were talking about new opportunities, he started to say, “What’s it going to take to get you to ‘yes’?” That would allow me to reframe the question in what do I have to do–to acquire, to give up, etc.–to achieve this goal.

 

So your mantra is a prompt for reflection?

Yes, and I like it because I’m frustrated by “no” people. I’ve worked with folks who, when you come up with an idea, seem come up with every reason not to make it work. They start with “no.” I like to start the other way. I say, “Okay, let’s think about your idea. What does the idea take? What is the result? What does it take to get to ‘yes’?” 

 

After being named one of Charlotte’s 50 Most Influential Women, The Mecklenburg Times asked what your greatest accomplishment was. You mentioned handling a situation in which two partners at your firm had left. Can you talk more about that experience? 

At the time, I was a younger partner. I had three experienced partners, one of whom was very part-time. One of the partners, unfortunately, had a medical incident and left the practice overnight. On Monday, we had to come in and take over his clients. It was a very stressful few months. I worked so much. I woke up as early as I could and worked as late as I could. I went to sleep, and then I did it again. But we did a great job as a team and we didn’t lose a single client due to his departure. 

After seeing this very close friend go through a life-changing medical issue, my other full-time partner decided to make a change and retire. So I went from having two full-time partners to one part-time partner in a matter of months. Managing the work during that time felt like being in a hot forge every day. 

Fortunately, we were able to rebuild quickly. My practice administrator and paralegal really stepped up during the turmoil. I hired the partner that I still work with now, and he’s freaking amazing. Our associate has been with us since that time — she joined us in the midst of all of this — and she’s fantastic. And we’ve had other wonderful attorneys contribute to the team over the years. 

The forge analogy is really fitting–it was a tough time, but we came out stronger and built a brilliant team. We are preserving the legacy of the practice for the firm. It’s one of the biggest accomplishments I can think of. 

 

Wow. During those months, did you ever have moments of doubt? Did you ever question your career path?

In the midst of it, I definitely questioned whether this was what I wanted to be doing. I wondered, “When is this going to end? How long can I sustain this?” But at the end of the day, the firm stood behind me, supported the changes I wanted to make, and I ended up taking over the practice.

 

What did you learn about yourself?

That was the high watermark of my personal tolerance. When anything bad happens now or we worry about what could happen, I always think, “It’s not as bad as that.” If I can get through that, I can get through pretty much anything. 

 

What did this experience teach you about work-life balance?

It’s funny because I don’t know that I have a great work-life balance, but I will go to the ends of the earth to protect your work-life balance. The other side of that coin is that when I do sign off, my team will bend over backward to protect me and give me space to disconnect. My team has created a culture of protecting one another. My team also understands that work-life balance doesn’t mean that you don’t put in the time when it’s needed. It means you take the time when you can.  

No matter our title, we are always growing and developing in some way, shape, or form. With that being said, what’s a new skill you’re learning right now?

I’m a very passionate person and I have very strong feelings and opinions. When I see someone who disagrees with me, I tend to want to convince them of my opinion. But I also believe strongly that we should be able to have robust dialogue and not agree and it still be okay. 

So, I’m trying to be sure that when I communicate my ideas to people that it’s with a very clear intent that we’re on the same team–we both likely want a positive outcome. This is just a discussion of how to achieve a positive outcome. You’ll see my point of view and I’ll acknowledge yours. If we don’t agree, that’s okay. 

Who are the people you are potentially disagreeing with?

I’m on our management committee for the firm. We have seven partners who are on this committee and we’re from very different walks of life. We’re in different practice areas, we’re in different geographies, we’re different ages, and we come at things very differently. But, at the end of the day, we all want the same thing: We want the firm to be successful and prosperous. 

I think it’s really important to have strong, passionate dialogue with people who disagree with you and then to walk away still liking each other and wanting to do it again.

 

Does this want for civil disagreement conflict with your solutions-oriented personality?

It does. Like most people, I’d love it if everyone thought I was right all the time. Who doesn’t like to be right? Disagreeing can be frustrating; it can discourage you from engaging. 

But my law partner has this saying: “You have to remember to question their methods, not their motives,” which I believe he took away from an address Joe Biden gave at Yale. In other words, we’re all on the same team and we want the same things. Just because we have different views on how to achieve those things doesn’t mean you should avoid engaging with someone. In fact, I want to engage more with them because I want to understand where they’re coming from so that I have a better understanding of how to serve. 

When you do have to step up and put in long hours, what makes it all worth it?

The unique nature of our role is that we’re here to serve people. They need us. I will absolutely tell you that part of what gets me up in the morning is being of service. That’s what I love about being a lawyer. Each day, I add value to my clients.