Women Who Lead: Cheryl Butler with StudioEast Styling Salon

Women Who Lead: Cheryl Butler with StudioEast Styling Salon

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.

Cheryl Butler’s parents were perturbed by her pivot in her new career. At least at first.

After studying accountancy at Johnson C. Smith University and securing a full-time position at a credit rating business, Butler became restless. She was living the American Dream, but she felt bored and disinterested. And so, after seven years, she quit her corporate gig to pursue her career as a full time cosmetologist and open StudioEast Styling Salon.

“My parents couldn’t fathom the idea that I would leave this job with a salary, benefits, and stability to style hair,” says Butler. “That’s how simple it was for them.” 

Today, nearly 20 years later, StudioEast is thriving. That’s because Butler, a “master stylist,” offers much more than haircuts and highlights. As a small business owner, she feels a certain responsibility to mentor other aspiring female entrepreneurs. We sat down with Butler to hear more about woman-to-woman mentorship, cosmetology, and passion.    


Where did your love for hair come from?

I grew up in a hair salon. My sister is a hairstylist and she’s about 17 years older than me. When I got to high school, I started working with my sister. I would assist her by blow-drying or shampooing clients. Those skills just stuck with me.

Then, when I was in college, I started using my skills. I started doing friends’ hair and those friends became paying customers. I had a small, but not necessarily legal, business in my dormitory for about four years. It kept some change in my pocket.


You earned a degree in accountancy and were living the American Dream at a corporate job. Why did you leave that behind?

I have more passion for serving others by doing their hair than by crunching numbers. But it took me a long time to open my salon. Right out of college, I went to work for a credit rating company called Moody’s Investors Service. I enrolled in cosmetology school part-time a few months after I started that job. Then, after I graduated from cosmetology school, I started working part-time in a salon while still working full-time in corporate America. I did that for seven years between two salons. After the sixth year, I realized that I just wasn’t passionate about my corporate job in the same way I was about the salon.

I could be creative and innovative in the salon even after working for eight hours at Moody’s Moody’s Investors Service. I had a second wind. It was like I was starting my day all over again. My clientele was growing so much that I would go to the salon at 6 a.m. before my 8-to-5 job. Then, I would go to work. At 5 p.m., I would rush back to the salon for afternoon appointments. It was just common sense — I could see that I had so much more passion for hairstyling.


What about your corporate job didn’t jive with your personality and lifestyle?

When I was in corporate America, I enjoyed the people, but I never developed a passion for the job. It was just that — a job. I was crunching numbers and I knew the product. I had even grown in the company, transitioning from an analyst to an editor. But I realized that the job was no longer interesting to me. It was the same thing, month after month after month. It was the same information, the same data, the same timeline. Nothing was ever different.

Another thing that bothered me about the corporate world was that I had to wait a whole year for someone to tell me that I was doing a great job. There was no instant gratification. But in the salon, it’s all instant gratification. When a client reschedules with me, it’s like they’re saying, “Hey, I appreciate you.” When they send a referral, it’s like they’re saying, “You’re doing such a great job that I want everybody to experience what you have to offer.”


Did you receive pushback from friends and family when you left your corporate job?

I most certainly did from my parents, who paid my tuition and put me through school. They were concerned about security. They wanted to make sure I could provide for myself. It was hard to tell my parents that this was what I wanted to do. The saving grace was that I didn’t rush. I didn’t just jump into it. It was definitely a leap of faith, but I planned. I didn’t have to move back home or sell my car. I was still able to take care of myself, and that helped.

My friends didn’t judge because they saw me working so hard. They saw me working two jobs. They saw my social life diminish to nothing. They saw me working in the morning and the evenings. They saw that I couldn’t accept invites for events. Sometimes, if I did go out, I would just fall asleep because I was so tired. But I had a goal and a purpose.


Tell us about the early days of your salon.

When I first started, I was working part-time in a salon as a booth renter. It was a small space for a reduced price. It was pennies — maybe $75 a week. I worked there for four years and then I went to a spa as an independent contractor. Then, in 2002, I opened StudioEast Styling Salon in a 1,200-square-foot building. I was there until March 2020. I downsized just before things closed because of COVID-19. I’m in a salon suite now.


You’ve owned your salon for nearly 20 years. How do you ensure that your business doesn’t stagnate?

In 20 years, I did sustain and grow a great business it was definitely not completely stagnated by the change in our community around us. 

Marketing and branding were an expenditure we could not afford to work without. We ran commercials on Time Warner, annual print ads in the USA Black Pages and a sponsorship walk with “Bottles and Bottoms.  I continually provided advanced training to new and existing stylists.  I offered business training and coached stylist to assist them with growing their own strong clientele.  We traveled to trade shows and participated in community events like “For Sister’s Only” to build a strong team that worked well together. We even sponsored a Live Television show here in the Queen City “Give Me The Mic Charlotte”, I drove for a teamwork environment that would promote our business and better service our clients.  We also used exclusive professional products only that set us apart. Providing a warm, clean and welcoming professional environment was a huge part of our customer service. The environment around us changed over the years. 

I did stagnate, out of fear. I knew for a while that I needed to relocate my salon. The environment around it was changing. There was less foot traffic of potential clients and more panhandling. A lot of people were hanging around and they weren’t always pleasant. The experience that occurred on the inside of my salon didn’t match the outside.

I needed my stylists to feel like this was a place where they could grow. I knew that it was time to make the change. I dragged my feet because the location was convenient to my home and my son’s school. I wish I had moved forward faster.


Small business owners are constantly growing and evolving. What’s something new that you’re learning right now?

COVID-19 was unfortunate overall. However, for my business, it was a blessing. It gave me time to reorganize and restructure. For a while now, I have wanted to become more of a business operator. I have wanted to get out from behind the chair and run, manage, and grow the salon. But that has been hard because I wear so many hats.

While we were home from March to June, I was able to reorganize my business by making calculated decisions. I looked at my time — how much time I was spending with a client and how often the client came to me. I also looked at my products. There are only so many services or clients I can do, so retail is important. I needed to make sure I was offering my clients products that could help them. If they aren’t going to buy hair products from me, they’re going to buy them from somewhere else. I reimagined my business plan completely.  My advice, trust the process, be prepared to pivot, plan, prepare and move forward when the need arrives.


As a female business owner, what do you think needs to change to help more women become entrepreneurs?

In this industry, female hairstylists have more many challenges because we’re mothers, we’re homemakers, and we’re caregivers. We’re more stretched than our male counterparts when it comes to home/work balance in many cases. My fiancée works for himself as well, our work loads are somewhat different when I get off work at the end of the day than his home responsibilities. The long hours and the 7-day work week required to grow a strong business in the beginning is challenging if you have a family and you are a mother. That might be because when women are more focused on business than family, it’s judged. Women support groups and more shared responsibility all the way around would even out the playing field.  

Also, when I talk to people in this industry, they’ll say, “Oh, it’s hard to work for women.” Or they’ll say, “Women are so catty. I’d rather work for a guy.” That’s something we need to improve on. We need to respect and honor the leadership of women in business.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I’m so passionate about this industry, particularly African American salons.  It is my dream and hope to see more licensed cosmetologists retire successfully from this industry. People like to sit in the chairs of people who look like them. Multicultural salons would add such value to the artistry of our business. So, I offer training for others, one-on-one sessions, and mentoring. I go to beauty schools and give back because it’s something I enjoy doing. I want to inspire other stylists who want to do this as a career.

Women Who Lead: Minji Ro with Evolution of Sports

Women Who Lead: Minji Ro with Evolution of Sports

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.

Minji Ro is not who you would expect to see on Wall Street. She’s Asian, gay, and a woman. But she’s never been too interested in maintaining the status quo. 

Ro, who studied mathematical methods at Northwestern University, worked in sales and trading for over a decade. She started her career as an analyst at Merrill Lynch in 2006 but left eight months later for a position at Goldman Sachs in part because of the homophobia she encountered. 

In the years to come, Ro would focus on helping the underdog— recruiting and mentoring other young professionals who didn’t fit the white, heteronormative mold. In 2016, she partnered with coworker Bill Shelton to provide career coaching to professional athletes who would soon be transitioning out of their sport. The program was so successful that both Ro and Shelton quit their day jobs three years ago to make it a full time endeavor. 

Ro is now the Co-Chief Executive Officer of Evolution of Sports, an organization that works to change the future of athletes all around the world. Ro also co-founded Parity, an online marketplace that matches professional women athletes with social media marketing opportunities. Ro took time out of her busy schedule to talk basketball, equity and inclusion, and progressive workplace policies.       


You’re an avid basketball player — a four-time rec champion, no less. Have you played basketball your whole life?

Yes! I started playing when I was five. I was never good enough to make a go of it and I didn’t have the financial means to really take it seriously. I was also a huge nerd. But I continued to play in high school and then I played on the club team at Northwestern University. I continued to play as an adult in the New York City Gay Basketball League. I think it’s the greatest sport ever. 


Why do you think basketball is the greatest sport ever?

Basketball is nearly non-stop. There’s always something happening and it’s relatively straightforward. You try to get the ball into the hoop — that’s it. 


What skills has basketball taught you that you’ve taken off the court and into the office?

There’s a bunch of research that shows how a huge percentage of women CEOs and executive leaders have played sports. So that question is spot-on — there are many parallels between sport and work. Basketball, for instance, is a team sport. There are positions on the court. Every player has a job and every job is different. Being good at basketball can mean a lot of different things. You need somebody who’s very tall. You need somebody who’s dedicated to defense. You need somebody who’s going to be vocal and organize everything. Basketball and work are alike in that you don’t want five of the exact same person on your team. Intelligence comes in a lot of different forms and understanding the ideal mix of people is key. 

In NYC Gay Basketball League, you volunteer to be a captain and, if you’re a captain, you draft your team. So on draft day, all the new players come into the gym and run a bunch of drills. All the captains are there watching to see what those players’ different skills and styles are. You can see people’s personalities come through in terms of how they play.

When it was time to draft your team, people had all different strategies. Some people only picked their friends. I took a totally different approach even though it was just rec, because I wanted to win.  So I always tried to draft the best available players who played team basketball. 


Circling back to your last answer, you mentioned that women who play sports are more likely to fill senior leadership positions. Why do you think that is?

90 percent of women C-suite execs played sports at some point in their lives and more than half played sports at the college level. As to why, I would say that being on a team and understanding what that means is valuable in most professional settings. If you’re a CEO, by definition, you’re running a company. You’re working with a bunch of different people and trying to figure out how to work towards a shared goal.

Second, you’re always being coached as an athlete. You’re always getting feedback. There’s always somebody telling you how to be better. I think people who can receive feedback and grow from it are probably more likely to succeed anywhere in life. 

Lastly, I think women who play sports are likely to have a shared interest with men. Professionally, senior-level roles are still mostly male-dominated so I would imagine playing sports helps women network with men. It gives you something to talk about and makes you approachable. Networking is a big factor in helping people have successful careers. 


Tell me about Evolution of Sports. How did that organization start?

I founded Evolution of Sports with my co-CEO. He’s my BFF and we’ve been working together for nearly 15 years now. We were the most unlikely duo, especially in finance. I’m Asian, gay, and kind of irreverent. He’s a 57-year-old giant, black, bald guy. We went against the grain a bit on Wall Street generally because we didn’t look like the typical person you would find working on the trading floor of Goldman Sachs.

He and I have two big things in common. One, we’re both sports nuts. Two, because of what we look like and our backgrounds, we’ve always had this very intense focus on not just perpetuating the status quo. On Wall Street, that involved a lot of recruiting and mentoring. We wanted students to know that people can look different and still be successful. We wanted to make sure that we were constantly bringing in different viewpoints. So that’s what really cemented our professional relationship and then, eventually, our personal relationship. 

He and I started Evolution of Sports while we were still working full-time. It was just a passion project that we worked on outside of work hours. At that point, it was a career coaching and mentorship program for professional athletes who can’t be professional athletes forever. He was on the board of USA Track and Field and we both had a ton of experience in resume writing, interviewing, networking — all of those career transition skills.

When we started, it was very manageable. The program just involved ten athletes and we were being paid by USA Track and Field. It went really well and they wanted to increase the program to include 30 or 40 athletes. At that point, we had to decide to either shut down the company because we couldn’t manage it while having a day job or quit our day jobs. That was three years ago. 


When it comes to creating an inclusive culture, are there things you can do now that you couldn’t do when you worked on Wall Street? 

From a recruiting standpoint, there were a bunch of guidelines and processes in place at the banks. For example, when we were reviewing resumes to fill summer internship slots in finance, there was a recommended GPA cutoff of 3.5. You had to have something really extraordinary if you were below that cutoff. There were also target schools that we were very focused on hiring from.

Now, one of the biggest changes is that we hire whoever we want to hire. Do I really care that you have a college degree? No, not really. Do you have a lower GPA because you had this really cool side project? That’s what I actually care about. The more interesting you are, the more appealing you are to us. At the end of the day, I care that you can do the job effectively, not that you rowed crew at Harvard. 


Your hiring approach parallels your drafting approach with the New York City Gay Basketball League — you pick people who will help you win. You’re playing by your own rules.  

Totally. That’s a very succinct encapsulation. 


So besides hiring who you want, what other freedoms does running your own organization afford you?

I have to decide what the thing is going to look like. I’m starting with a blank sheet of paper — a totally blank Google search bar. For instance, I have to decide how often we do a performance review. Well, we actually don’t want to offer performance reviews because we want to be giving feedback all the time. You shouldn’t be waiting every six months to get a sense of if things are going well. You should know every day. That’s a specific example of what we try to do differently. 

Obviously, gender equality is also something that’s important to us. So we wrote our parental leave policy from scratch. The finance industry actually has one of the most progressive maternity leave policies but it has a terrible paternity leave policy. What’s typical is four months paid for birthing mothers and two weeks paid for dads. That made no sense because parents are parents. We believe having a kid is a big deal and you should spend a lot of time with your kids, even if you’re not the woman giving birth. We landed at four months paid for moms and then two months for supporting parents and want to extend it as our company grows. 


What’s another progressive workplace policy you would like to implement?

I’m definitely intrigued by the four-day workweek. Obviously, you have to see the data and understand how they’re collecting it, but it seems like the four-day workweek is eminently doable. That’s definitely on my radar. 


What female athletes inspire you?

There’s a woman on my team at Evolution of Sports and her name is Kara Winger. She’s literally the best javelin thrower our country has ever produced. Kara has been throwing for 14 years and, out of those 14 years, she’s been the national champion eight times. All the other times, she’s either been second or third. 

Kara reminds me of this quote that says, “Being great is just being good every day.” I love this quote because a lot of people have a string of amazing days but then they drop off the face of the planet. They’re completely unreliable, but they have these magical moments every once in a while. They draw you in and let you down. Kara is the opposite. Kara is consistent and reliable all the time, which is what makes her excellent. 

My other pick, which I’m also certain you’ll never have heard of, is a basketball player named Jasmine Thomas. She’s not a super high-scoring all-star or the face of the WNBA but if you watch her teams and how they play, she’s the glue. She’s the organizer. She’s that quiet consistent force. She shows up the same way every single game. Reliability and consistency are things that are really important to me.


No matter our professional titles, we never stop growing and learning. What’s one skill you’re continuing to hone today?

Compassion for others but also for myself. It’s really hard but it’s something that I need to figure out. 

Women Who Lead: Shelly Domenech with I.C. London Lingerie

Women Who Lead: Shelly Domenech with I.C. London Lingerie

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.

These days, we’re obsessed with self-care. We use pricey face masks, book appointments with acupuncturists, drink ceremonial cacao, and download meditation apps. But Shelly Domenech, owner of I.C. London Lingerie in Charlotte’s SouthPark, is suggesting a new approach to personal improvement. 

“Bra fitting is life-changing for women,” says Domenech, “especially for women who’ve never worn the right size in their entire life.”

Since 1992, when the award-winning lingerie boutique first opened, Domenech has emerged as a bra fitting expert — an artisan and entrepreneur whose life mission is to make sure women (and their bosoms) feel cared for. We sat down with Domenech to hear about how she rocked the Queen City with high-quality bras and panties.   


Where did your passion for women’s fashion come from? Not many kids want to grow up to own a lingerie store. 

It’s funny because it actually started very early on. In high school, I was part of the Distributive Education Clubs of America program and one of the things we did was study fashion merchandising. So I was working in a little boutique and this woman came into the shop. She was surprised that I was still in high school. She told me, “I would like for you to come work at my new lingerie store.” 

I worked for Barbara through college. I was taking marketing classes at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and thought I’d soon be working for some big Fortune 500 company. But three years into my job with Barbara, she announced that she was selling her store. She had young children and didn’t want to continue the grind of retail. I came home and told my parents this news. My dad just looked me in the eye and said, “Well, why don’t we buy the store?” I was like, “Yes! I’m 20 years old. I can do this.”


Wow. That’s very young to dive headfirst into a business. 

I laugh now. I had so much confidence for only being 20 years old. I had been working hand-in-hand with Barbara for several years and was getting ready to graduate from college. So we bought it as a family business and my sister and I ran it. When I graduated in 1991, I came to Charlotte for graduate school and left the store behind in our hometown. My mom and sister were going to run it and I was moving on to the next phase in my life. 

Since I knew how to bra fit, I decided to go around Charlotte to the lingerie stores and look for a part-time job. But there were no lingerie stores. So this idea started to formulate in my head: I should open a second location in Charlotte. I thought I could let my sister have the one in our hometown and I would start a new one. But my sister, who now owns a hair salon, soon told my parents that selling lingerie wasn’t her cup of tea. 

At that point, I had been in Charlotte for a year. I was going to graduate school, writing my business plan, meeting with bankers, and getting turned down left and right. Nobody wanted to invest with me at the time, which just made me all the more determined to do it. Finally, in the fall of 1992, I packed up and moved the store to Charlotte. Our original location was in Dilworth. We were there for ten years. Then I opened a second store in the Ballantyne area of south Charlotte. 

Throughout that whole time, the Dilworth store had continued to grow. I started with 1,000 square feet and then, in 2008, I doubled the square footage. Of course, in the fall of that same year, the stock market crashed. 


The Great Recession was a turning point for many entrepreneurs. Was the same true for you?  

Looking back, it was probably the biggest struggle in the history of my 28 years in business. When the recession happened, a lot of people — especially in the Ballantyne area — were living good lives. They had beautiful homes and beautiful children. But they were hit the hardest when the stock market crashed. They were the ones who just stopped shopping. Wives would come into my Ballantyne store and say, “I can buy one bra but it needs to be very basic. Please don’t tell me about anything else because I can’t afford it.” 

We saw a big downturn at my newer store. My older store fared a little better, but business went down overall. The very next month after the stock market crash, my sales were down 40 percent. We didn’t start recovering until 2011. So for three years, I barely scraped by. At the same time, I was a mom of two kids in preschool. My husband was trying to hold on to his job. It was crazy stressful.  


How did you adapt to ensure your business and family came out on the other side?

Because I had been open for so long, I had great relationships with my vendors. I contacted all of them immediately and said, “This is the situation and these are my sales.” I kept the communication lines open and would send what money I could each week. They would send me small orders in return. That’s how I sold my way out of the hole. 

I also came up with a crazy idea to offer a customer loyalty card. Customers would buy the card for $40, and it would give them 20 percent off every purchase they made for a year. I really do believe the customer loyalty card saved me because, even though I was losing 20 percent of the sale, customers were spending money at my store instead of going to a big-box retailer.

But those were still very tough years. When we finally started coming out of it, the leases at my two locations were coming to an end. I told my husband, “Once these leases are done, we’re scaling back.” I was going to close my Ballantyne store and scale back the Dilworth store to 1,000 square feet. But as I was literally packing up the Ballantyne store, a leasing agent from SouthPark came by to tell me about a spot she thought would be perfect for me. I took my husband by the place and he said, “You belong here.”


Is it safe to assume that consumer shopping preferences have changed in the nearly 30 years you’ve been running this business? If so, has your business model changed in response?

Gosh, in 1994, a friend of mine came to me and said that computers were one day all going to be connected by what was called the world wide web. He asked if he could build me a website — I didn’t even know what a website was back then. So my first website came out in 1994. I’ve tried other eCommerce sites throughout the years. But I do old-timey bra fittings, and I need that one-on-one connection with people. 

When Amazon came along, people’s expectations of what a website should be like changed. People now think merchandise should always be available and that it should be shipped out in 24 hours. For me to have an eCommerce site, I would have to constantly update the online inventory. That’s not feasible. If I can’t do a website well, I’d rather not do it at all. So I haven’t had an eCommerce website in over five years. 

Everybody thinks I’m losing out but I’ve focused my energies on making my store the best it can be and cultivating personal relationships. For example, I have a lady that was a Charlotte resident but has lived in Florida for the past five years. I still do business with her. I’ll send her a photo of a bra I know she’ll love and then ship the bra directly to her. I communicate with customers all over the country via text or phone. I did this even more during COVID. 


As you’ve mentioned, your business is better suited for a brick-and-mortar setting. So was it challenging to sell lingerie over the phone during the pandemic?

Oh gosh, yes. A lot of people’s bodies changed during COVID. They were home and they gained a little weight, so I did a lot of virtual bra fittings. Since I’ve been in the business for 30 years, I know my brands well. I can say to someone, “I see from your profile that you were a 34J. Now you’ve got some spillage and it’s tight around the back. Let me send you a 36JJ. Try it on and if it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, send it back.” I did a lot of that last year. 

People had this strong desire to support local businesses. Customers wanted me to survive this. So in April, when we were closed, I ran a gift card special. For every $50 they spent on a gift card, I would add $10 to the value of the card. I would call customers and ask if they would like to buy a gift card. That way, when they came back into the store, they would have $60 waiting for them.  


That’s such a customer-centric approach. To adjust to such a high level of personalization, did you have to add more staff or add more hours to your day?

I went into COVID with two full-timers and one part-timer. Of course, I laid everybody off right away because we closed in March. We were following mall guidelines, so we didn’t reopen until early May. For those few months, I would go into my store every day with sweatpants on and work the phone. We also weren’t receiving any shipments, so I was in my store looking at what products I did have and calling people who I thought might be interested. 

I also did so much on social media. I was taking my mannequin, dressing her, and snapping photos. I was just trying to engage people. Customers were so sweet. They’d call me and be like, “Do you still have those flamingo pajamas?” And then they’d pull up the store, open their trunk, and I’d stick the bag in their car. I did that until May 10 or so. When I reopened, I was working by myself because there just weren’t enough people shopping for me to bring back employees. 

There were many days when I pulled some crazy, long hours between being physically at the store and then doing billing or answering emails at night. But you do what you have to do. The crash in 2008 gave me the skills I needed to survive the pandemic. I learned how to adapt — how to be an entrepreneur. 


What advice would you give your younger self?

When the store had been open for seven years, I wanted to sell it. I was so sick of working six days a week and never having any money. I was envious of all my friends who were in careers and getting paid vacations. I felt like I was tied to my store. Then I met with a business broker and he told me the assessment of what my business was worth. I was so insulted but it lit a fire in me. I remodeled my store that year. I changed my merchandise selection. I repainted. I created a logo. That fire continued for the next ten years until I opened my second store. 

Like other young entrepreneurs, I wasn’t patient. I wanted it all right away. I saw everybody being successful and I was frustrated. So I would tell my younger self to be patient. It will come — just continue to work hard. Don’t expect to become an overnight success.


What is one skill you’re learning right now?

Social media is one thing that I’ve had to learn over the past couple of years. I’m always looking for inspiration within my own industry for a better way to communicate, especially because I’m always searching for new customers. When you’ve been open as long as I have, customers who were in their 50s at the beginning are now in their 80s. So I’m constantly trying to look for a 20-year-old to become my customer. I want to go through her marriage with her and be there for her first baby. But I have to figure out how to coax her away from a big-box retailer. 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


Why is it important for professionals to give back?

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


How have your philanthropic efforts changed you as a leader?

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

What advice would you give your younger self?

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

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

Women Who Lead: Tera Black with Charlotte Checkers

Women Who Lead: Tera Black with Charlotte Checkers

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


How would you describe your leadership style?

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Women Who Lead: Grace Lightner with Unbox the Dress

Women Who Lead: Grace Lightner with Unbox the Dress

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

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

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

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


What’s the origin story of Unbox the Dress?

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Do you have any advice for other female entrepreneurs?

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

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

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