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“5 things I wish someone told me before I became a CEO” with Aliza Sherman

An Interview with Phil La Duke



Hire the right people. Not everyone is comfortable with the ups and downs of startup life. You need people who are resilient and determined as well as possessing skills and abilities you don’t have or able to do the things you shouldn’t be spending your time doing as you grow your business. I’ve learned a lot from my hiring mistakes — namely, not everyone is honest about what they can do so check references!


As a part of our series about strong Women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aliza Sherman. Aliza is an Alaska-based author of the book Cannabis and CBD for Health and Wellness, with Dr. Junella Chin, and the CEO of the global authority on women and cannabis, Ellementa, Inc.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was the girl who had the science project “Close Encounters of the Worst Kind” that said “Marijuana” was a gateway drug to Heroin. That is what we were taught in the 80’s.

It wasn’t until my 50’s that I learned cannabis was a medicinal plant and could potentially help me with chronic pain and insomnia. And it worked. The discovery that everything I had been taught about cannabis was a lie was mind blowing to me. As a writer and public speaker, I made it my personal and professional mission to dispel myths and help combat the deeply rooted stigma based entirely on propaganda and falsehoods.

What is it about the position of CEO that most attracted you to it?

I became CEO partially by default. The idea for Ellementa sprung out of my initial company, Spark the Creative, a digital agency focused on cannabis, and a website I created called HerCannaLife.com. When I asked my friend and colleague, Melissa Pierce, to join me in building a major cannabis brand focused on women and cannabis wellness, we divvied up the roles. She became CTO and COO, we shared CMO duties, and I became CEO.

Being CEO requires both vision and strategy, and I am comfortable with those responsibilities. Melissa and I complement one another’s skills. We also brought on a third business partner, Ashley Kingsley, who brings her own set of skills and a unique perspective having lived in Denver, Colorado through legalization.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

A CEO sets the vision, the tone, and helps map out bringing the vision of the company to fruition. They help set establish the culture of the company. Good CEOs hire smarter and build people up internally to grow and succeed within the company. They get buy in and foster a sense of ownership so everyone feels they are an integral part of a larger whole.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being a CEO?

The vision — setting the vision and looking at the big and the small pictures at the same time to chart a course for fulfilling a mission with an eye toward growth.

What are the downsides of being a CEO?

Feeling the weight of responsibility for others. While the success of a company isn’t solely in the hands of the CEO, it is a heavy role to take on when there are others depending on jobs with your company for their livelihoods.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO. Can you explain what you mean?

The myth that the CEO has to know how to do everything and do it perfectly. I think that too many CEOs don’t know how to delegate or let go and allow others to do what they do best. I used to be guilty of redoing the work of my staff when I didn’t feel it was up to snuff. But that was demoralizing and undermining. CEOs are not perfect. Today, as CEO, I always ask how I can improve and listen to feedback. I don’t know it all, can’t do it all, and am far from perfect.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women CEOs that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

From my personal experience, getting access to capital is a major challenge — and even asking for money. With far fewer women than men in top power positions in corporations or on boards as well as far fewer female investors and venture capitalists than male ones, the playing field is not level. We tend to gravitate toward someone “like us,” and male investors tend to invest in male-run endeavors. I think we’re all challenged with centuries-old, deeply embedded biases that tend to put women in different categories and sets of roles than men.

We’re also wired differently — partly nature and partly nurture. I wasn’t brought up to be competitive. I was taught to cooperate, to be nice, to nurture and take care of others. That doesn’t always translate well to “battling it out” on a competitive business landscape. I am strategic and shrewd but also do not like confrontation or to “hurt” someone else’s feelings. Firing someone is a real challenge for me as a CEO, and I’ve been known to hold on to the wrong people in a company because I don’t want to cause someone else distress.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I always find the “breakthrough moment” as being both fascinating and thrilling. When you start a company, you tend to need to “pound the pavement” to build your brand, make connections and drum up business. I remember the week that we began getting inquiries from potential event sponsors and consulting clients. Emails started trickling and then pouring in. Suddenly we weren’t knocking on doors but were fielding calls. Our hard work and diligent outreach began paying off. Even though we knew we had spent months cultivating leads, it felt like an overnight shift. A challenge of getting all of these business inquiries coming in at once was a stress test for our growth plan and the processes we put into place to scale. Not everything worked as planned, so we quickly added new software and systems to handle the increased workload. Call me a geek, but I found all of that very interesting!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m not sure how funny this is, but it is certainly odd for many people with whom I’ve done business. I’m based in Alaska and most people don’t know that Alaska has its own time zone called Alaska Time: one hour before Pacific Time. A mistake I made often, was getting the time zones wrong when I scheduled appointments with others in the “Lower 48” as the contiguous states are called up here. The not-so-funny part is that I’d miss call appointments. I used to speak in the other person’s time zone but had trouble tracking that. My remedy has been to speak in Pacific Time when scheduling because everyone can do the calculations.

The lesson this taught me is that you need to always find a “universal language” or a middle ground where everyone can come together. You can’t expect people to always know or remember your “language,” and it can be challenging to always get the other person’s “language” right. Finding an acceptable mid-point where you can both come together and get in sync can be an effective way to cross barriers — in this case, something as simple but influential as a time zone.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

While being CEO requires creativity, it isn’t a creative job. I was hoping I’d have more time to write and produce multimedia content, something I love doing and do well. But as CEO, my creative brain is spent solving problems, overcoming obstacles, and dealing with others who require a lot of time and attention. I cherish the time I can carve out in the early hours of the morning, before the emails start pouring in or the phone calls happen, to write.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be a CEO. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful CEO and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be a CEO?

Flexibility while maintaining focus is key to being a successful CEO. Business landscapes are not fixed or set in stone — they morph and change depending on everything from current events and politics to trends and cultural shifts. Being inflexible can be detrimental for an executive and for a company but the same goes for being indecisive or lacking in focus and a clear direction.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

For women, I’d advise embrace your power and believe in yourself and your vision. I’ve found over the years that even very successful women tend to worry that they aren’t good enough, strong enough, or smart enough. That feeling of lacking can push a lot of women to be more driven and ambitious but it can also get in the way and be a barrier. I’ve struggled with self-confidence all of my life and watch less qualified people leap over me in business because their inner confidence gave them an edge.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

In business, I always point to my mentor, Terry Wheatley, who pushed me to think about money. Any time I have had a great idea, she always asks, “But how will you make money?” I really respect the fact that for every new brand and business she successfully builds, she always looks for ways to give back to the community and embeds that right into the fabric of her companies and brands.

I remember the first time we met. We were at the same conference back in 2008, and I was showing people the virtual world “Second Life” on my laptop and explaining how brands could market on it.

She looked over my shoulder and asked, “But how do you make money?”

I can’t remember what I said to her, but it didn’t convince her to use Second Life to market her company. It did, however, convince her to reach out to me when she was looking to build an online community of female consumers to introduce her new products. She has been supportive of my business ventures — and of me — ever since.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

My entire company began with the premise that if you empower women with better information — in this case about cannabis for health and wellness — you can change people’s lives. You positively affect not just the women you serve but their families, their friends, their communities. As our company grows and we achieve success, we know it is built on not just good business but helping others take charge of their health and take better care of themselves and their loved ones.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Hire the right people. Not everyone is comfortable with the ups and downs of startup life. You need people who are resilient and determined as well as possessing skills and abilities you don’t have or able to do the things you shouldn’t be spending your time doing as you grow your business. I’ve learned a lot from my hiring mistakes — namely, not everyone is honest about what they can do so check references!
2. Fire the right people. Holding on to the wrong people in the early stage of your company can send you down the wrong path or keep you stuck — or worse: bury your company. Know when to let go. I find letting people go incredibly difficult and have sometimes held on too long for fear of the confrontation of parting ways — and my company has suffered because of my hesitation.
3. Have a Plan B. Always be ready with a contingency plan. Nothing happens as quickly as you think it will, including sales or getting paid by clients. Have backup plans and reserves in the bank to weather the delays. For every deposit you put into the bank, add something into a savings account. That “Rainy Day” fund can save you in a cash flow crunch.
4. Don’t sit back and wait. Even when you’re loaded with work or sales, you need to be hustling, marketing, and making inroads to more of what your company needs to grow and thrive. The times you have a lot going on are the times you really need to be selling. Even when I’m overwhelmed with work, I try to get sales calls done every week.
5. Don’t give up. The first few years of business can be stressful but perseverance can pay off. Surround yourself with smart people, treat them well, and take care of yourself.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Kindness. The movement that would bring the most amount of good to the world is being kind to others. There is a lot of anger, hate and cruelty in the world, and we need to be both kind to ourselves and kind to others to fundamentally shift from bad to good.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Life is Short. Do What You Love.”

Every time I’m afraid to do something that I would like to do or that I know is the right thing to do, I think about how little time we really have here on Earth and how fear keeps so many of us from pursuing our dreams. That quote gives me courage and puts things into perspective for me. It can guide me to make better choices.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 
Oprah Winfrey. She transformed her life and then transformed television and talk shows, and demonstrated how a powerful woman can influence others in positive ways. She has built a media empire and her endorsement — of books, products, causes, you name it — can catapult something into the mainstream. I’d like to ask her how she feels about everything she has accomplished and learn what her dreams are for today and the future. I also want to ask her about her failures and how she persevered. And, of course, I would like to tell her about my company, Ellementa, and present her with an opportunity to be involved with us to transformed.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

— — — — — —

About the author:

Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 350 works in print. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke

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