Have a business plan that not only articulates your mission, but designates goals and objectives, assigns tasks, and defines benchmarks for success. Without a plan, it’s easy to lose your way and spend valuable time on unessentials.
Asa part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Levine.
Deborah is founder and editor of the American Diversity Report, Forbes Magazine top Diversity and Inclusion Trailblazer, and award-winning author of 15 books. Through her company, Deborah Levine Enterprises LLC, she consults, speaks and trains for corporations, universities, government agencies, and healthcare organizations. Her work as a Diversity Futurist is based on the neuro-communication design that she invented decades ago for fostering inclusion, boosting emotional intelligence, and managing bias.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Inthe 1960s, I planned on studying languages, history and poetry at Harvard like my father, a first generation American born Jewish immigrant, had before becoming a US military intelligence officer assigned to interrogate Nazi prisoners of war in World War II. I thought my mother would agree as she’d been a pioneer in special education and believed in young people’s self-determination. But in HS, my mother told me that I should take the newly offered course in matrix algebra, the basis for computer programming. When I said that I’d rather focus on being the choreographer for the HS dance company, she informed that computers were the future and this was a command, not a suggestion. I complied and have combined all of the above over the years.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company? 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?
When I first created the American Diversity Report, the dean at a local college offered to host a reception to launch the project. When he stepped up to the podium and began by extolling me personally, I was taken by surprise. I am an introvert by nature and hid under the stairwell and wouldn’t come out until he was finished. I have since learned to develop a public presence and refined that presence until it became natural, and even entertaining. But I make sure to take time to revitalize the introvert within by insisting on daily quiet time. That’s a must for all introvert entrepreneurs.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Several years into the development of the American Diversity Report, it was hacked and death threats were left in its place. The threats likewise replaced all of the websites on my webmaster’s server. He invited me to go on my own and I thought about just giving up. But I persevered and have been my own “webmaster” ever since. To this day, I continue to be targeted by neo-Nazi blogs. But the older I get, the more determined I am to make a difference in this world. My determination comes from my faith, sense of purpose and the example of my father who worked even on his death bed at age 85.
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?
For several years, I hosted a Women’s History Month Storytelling event, wrote interviews showcasing diverse women and arranged a stage for telling their stories. One year I focused on Women in STEM and invited an engineering professor to tell her story. When Dr. Neslihan Alp became Interim Dean, she hired me as the College of Engineering & Computer Science’s first Research Coordinator. I used my business to feature technical writing strategies, feature interviews with STEM women and create a classroom manual, STEM Women Guide. I gained support from many women in STEM, some of whom serve on my advisory board and continue to assist my work.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When you embrace your difference, your DNA, your look or heritage or religion or your unusual name, that’s when you start to shine.” — Bethenny Frankel
I was the only Jewish little girl growing up on the British island of Bermuda. I was 1 of only 3 girls in HS in Advanced Placement Math, English, and Science and the only one who also studied French, Russian, and played the violin. I was the only female Harvard freshman in my classes at Harvard Divinity School. I was the first IT director of my organization in the 1980s. I created a Women’s council on diversity after 9/11 that eventually became my city’s Lean In chapter. Yet it took me years before I fully appreciated the uniqueness of my journey and stopped trying to fit in. When I accepted and embraced the reality that I would always be different — I was able to be truly creative, innovative, and appreciative of what I am.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
My company is focused on fostering inclusion and counteracting hate. The creative resources and virtual training apply neuroscience strategies to maximize the potential of diverse leaders and teams and minimize unconscious bias.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Being seen as a pioneer has been a tremendous asset whether as a ‘mature’ woman with computer expertise, a Diversity & Inclusion Trailblazer as named by Forbes Magazine, or an inventor of my neuro-communication Matrix Model Management System. The American Diversity Report that I founded 15 years ago before I transformed my business into a LLC, is an internationally recognized part of my business. It stands out with more than 800 articles and podcasts to followers around the world.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am designing proposals for companies to revise their current diversity programs. Using my STEM background as well as my expertise in urban planning and cultural anthropology, I’m able to provide sustainable and replicable designs and training adapted to a COVID-19 reality.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech?
The number of Board members of Tech industries who are women is woefully inadequate. The pipeline for advancing women managers in these organizations is minimal at best. I have written articles about this situation, calling attention to the “Just One” syndrome. The problem begins early in the socialization of women who as children, if they do not have parents in STEM fields, are unlikely to take that path. Also, my experience as Research Coordinator at a College for Engineering and Computer Science revealed that many young women who do go into STEM fields drop out or switch majors before graduating. Mentoring at all stages does help, but has not reached the C-Suite.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Young women are less likely to have early exposure to Tech and less likely to have women mentors whom they can emulate. This means that they are continually making the path as they walk it. Help can come from organizations like Million Women Mentors can assist in providing STEM mentors. Companies can tap into groups like Girls Inc. to offer internships. Foundations can have a program focusing on scholarships for STEM women and heavily publicize the winners of these scholarships, including videos that can be shared online.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
My best advice for those who are stuck refers to branding and re-branding by telling their story. I have done this myself and helped several STEM women write their stories and publish books. The product gives them a substantial path to boost growth and creates a sales tool that has multiple uses and applications. In addition, the transformative process of writing their story energizes their creativity and crystallizes their goals.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
The art of selling requires relationship building. This means that each member of the sales team needs three basic skills: 1) knowledge of the cultural context, 2) awareness/sensitivity to the red flags of that culture, and 3) emotional intelligence to deal with possible challenges. The combination of skills will give the team flexibility and agility in working with both familiar customers in stressful times and new markets.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
I have found that the most effective way to attract customers has been to establish my expertise along with standing out as a one-of-a-kind in my field. I have done this by establishing the American Diversity Report and given dozens of experts a voice with me over the past 15 years. I also use my writing to articulate what I do and to record the strategies I use in successful projects. My 15 books, which are written for easy reading with inspirational stories, add to my visibility and credibility. While I have often used personal contacts to broaden my reach to the right customers, I have found that eventually, they find and reach out to me. During this COVID-19 period, that has been especially true.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
I always customize my training and presentation for each client. I have a phone call with the leadership prior to the event and provide them with a written proposal. I make each event interactive, taking questions from the participants. And I provide supplemental material in the form of books, articles, and/or podcasts.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
My policy is to only take on clients that I can engage with effectively. I emphasize that engagement throughout the project. When the project is complete, I maintain the personal connections that I have made during the process. I may wish them happy birthday. I let them know of any upcoming events and public seminars that they might want to have their teams attend. I also let them know of any specials and discounts on my books, particularly during the holiday season. My goal is not only to retain customers, but have them recommend me to their colleagues.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Define your ideal target audience/market: age, region, gender and other diversity categories. That definition will allow you to effectively promote your business. I’ve seen businesses that hope to appeal to everyone end up appealing to no one.
- Articulate your mission and the WHY for your business: What is the problem that you aim to address? Try saying your WHY out loud and get feedback from friends and colleagues on its effectiveness.
- Assemble a team that shares and is passionate about your WHY and be clear about how their role relates to the WHY. If it’s not clear, don’t be surprised that their work misses the mark. Understand that the lack of communication is on your part, not theirs.
- Be short and sweet! Define your work in 1–3 short sentences that express your expertise and uniqueness. Attention spans today are only seconds long.
- Have a business plan that not only articulates your mission, but designates goals and objectives, assigns tasks, and defines benchmarks for success. Without a plan, it’s easy to lose your way and spend valuable time on unessentials.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Since serving as Research Coordinator at a College for Engineering and Computer Science, I have wanted to create a national movement for teaching technical writing to high school students. They need these skills to pass their college STEM courses. Too many drop out because they are unable to complete the lab reports and essays required. The national movement would not just target schools, but religious institutions where many families send their children for learning. This will enable more graduates and also assist them in publishing their work which is key to advancement in their careers.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and founder of Lean In.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!