Go for what you want. My success is a product of feeling like no work is beneath me, and nothing is too big for me. I did not achieve executive roles by sitting back and waiting for things to happen. Create a pathway to success by putting yourself in places to learn new things and meet new people. If you don’t have a seat at the table, bring your own.
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Brandi Holder.
Brandi Holder is a Marketing Consultant and Business Coach hellbent on inspiring her clients to take action, aim higher, and achieve runaway success. Brandi is a thoughtful problem solver and creative force with a 20-year career in industries that span economic development, housing, public safety, technology, trades, mental health, and education. She specializes in brand voice consulting for startups and growth companies and coaching women on the come up.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
It’s funny looking back. I’m not sure that my younger self could have ever envisioned that I would hold executive positions or build a six-figure business.
I was raised by a single mother. But by a mother and grandparents that cared deeply about education. They made me participate in after school activities, read, and attend camps and summer school. They also sent me to the rich kid’s school system, and it was horrible. I didn’t have the right clothes. We didn’t have a fancy car or a big house. I couldn’t talk about trips to Aruba or the Bahamas after winter break. Fitting in was tough. As a result, I was terrible at creating relationships, which later led to challenges in career building and business.
I think that for some kids who grow up without access to wealth or influence, that becomes a great driver of success. For me, it didn’t hit until I was about 30, and I decided that the statute of limitations had run out on my early circumstances.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
In 2012 I was rounding the corner on a ten-year career in multisite property management that had spanned locations in three states. The hours were long, and the demands were many. One evening, the man I was dating told me he didn’t understand why I was working like crazy for someone else when I could put that energy into my own business.
At that time, I couldn’t imagine working for myself. But that seed grew until I could no longer ignore it, and I went back to school. I wasn’t quite sure what the end game looked like, so I dabbled. I worked as a freelance journalist, a media assistant, and in health care IT software sales. I used my internship to work in intragovernmental economic development programs. I also volunteered as a small business counselor with the SBA’s SBTDC to learn business skills and coaching.
After I graduated, I tried to get into federal service, but the hiring pathways were closed. With no jobs in my small town for a person with a management background and super fancy master’s degree, I decided to hang out my shingle as a writer.
In the middle of all this, I married the man I was dating. Forty-four days in as newlyweds, we found ourselves sitting in the doctor’s office talking about liver cancer.
Suddenly, I was charged with carrying both of us on my income. I had to put my foot on the gas pedal and figure out my business offerings and who I served. That’s how I ended up working with CEOs and coaching small business owners. I needed a place where I could be fully immersed in building something fun and exciting.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
How different things look today from where I started! What do you do when 30 doors slam shut, and there are no windows? You kick down a damn door and make your own way.
I mentioned briefly that I tried to get into federal service about five years ago. I was excited about shaking up stale housing policy and sassing the federal government. When Trump entered office, he froze the federal hiring pathway knocking out my applications and closing the special qualification window available to recent graduates. So I set that dream aside to start my business working with startups and growth companies.
Earlier this year, I delivered the welcome address to the nationwide public safety community and policymakers in Washington DC for 9–1–1 Goes To Washington. It was an honor to represent my client, speak up for 9–1–1 telecommunicators, and directly address the audience I wanted to be part of so badly five years ago.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Curiosity! To get to the next level in your career, you have to think five steps ahead about where you want to go and how your industry will change. Do your research and be open to information that will reshape your ideas.
Second, you must have persistence. As I mentioned in the previous question, just because your journey doesn’t look like you expected doesn’t mean you won’t get there. Roadblocks are an opportunity for creative thinking.
Third, moxie–a spirited determination and unwavering courage. When I think of persistence, I think of a baseline state of mind where I have decided to achieve some goal. On the other hand, moxie is when you have the guts to aim higher than your goal and then act boldly to achieve it.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
First, when people talk about Condoleezza Rice, Marie Curie, and Margaret Thatcher, WE as a society remind them these are women in politics or science. In contrast, men are celebrated strictly for their accomplishments, not their accomplishments in light of gender. You don’t hear people referring to the male CEO or the male doctor. When women achieve success in a high-profile role, and we call this out, it has the implicit underpinnings of “yes, they did good for a woman.”
The second component is deeply ingrained gender bias resulting from women being largely absent in high-profile roles. It’s harder to model what you can’t see.
The barriers are many, and the women that make it through act differently because they’ve been at war trying to get there.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
I date older men because they are generally less threatened by the prominent place that my career holds in my life. Strangers sometimes assume that I am with an older man for money, and I get a little kick out of the look on their face when they learn that there is more to me than meets the eye.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
I’m tempted to say not care! But the reality is if you feel it is creating roadblocks in communication, examine it. Clear the air instead of living in assumptions.
There is this great thing going around TikTok right now where the woman says, “I’m not intimidating, you’re intimidated…” It’s a whole thing about how we have to reframe the other person’s words. We should not be shrinking back because of the way that people feel.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
Well, it’s not like we are going anywhere. First, women need to own their space regardless of how others say they feel about it. Second, those who have reached positions of power must mentor and teach the next generation of leaders. Our youth need to understand how to access networks and harness their abilities to drive success.
In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
It has always felt like I must work extra hard to be heard and seen as a power player. I have had to do a better job of censoring my language. And not in the way one might imagine… I’m not talking about the f-bombs that pepper my parlance. I’m talking about being direct, speaking up, and being seen in places of power.
Access to a network is one of those things that can make success easier to achieve. In a recent HBR article, “How Venture Capitalists Make Decisions,” Sara Kunst of Cleo Capital noted that networks are a reflection of where we work and live. Because of how these networks cluster, the adverse effects for those consistently underpromoted, underpaid, and without peers to appoint them to boards and committees can be devastating to future success.
In my early 30s, when I decided to make a better life for myself, I did not have access to a network of successful people. So, I sought board and committee appointments. Serving on a committee did two things for me: it expanded the people I knew, and participation gave me greater confidence in voicing my opinions.
At the time, I was working for a growing property management company. I did not want to be stuck onsite in a property manager job; I wanted to travel and work in marketing. Each time the company president would come to town, I made sure to get ten minutes with him to ask him questions about his background and the industry. I learned a lot from him, and those conversations helped me stand out when more significant opportunities became available.
I didn’t have a seat at the table for most of my early career, so I had to bring one. It takes a little longer this way, but when you don’t have access to people in places you want to be, you have to build the bridges yourself.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The confusion of bold action with flirting! When I am interested in working with a company, I am direct in my approach with a CEO or founder. Some of them have taken that directness as an invitation to flirt. For example, I recently came across a company with all the right stuff–a competitive landscape, a great product, and a missed positioning, so I messaged the CEO. After a brief chat, he requested that we move the conversation to text. Using a text app is not all that uncommon with busy executives, so I agreed. The conversation immediately turned to what do you do for fun, and oh, by the way, “my wife and I are in a nonmonogamous relationship, so I am free to vibe with other people.”
It’s always disappointing when men in power can’t see a woman for the expertise she brings. Had I been a man approaching this particular CEO, there is no doubt I would have secured a meeting. These situations make me think deeply about the company cultures that men like this create.
Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?
I am not a fan of hustle culture that says you should work 24×7 and that there is some badge of honor for not sleeping or taking care of yourself. But I would be lying if I said I was not guilty of working six or seven days a week on countless occasions.
I love what I do, so my work is also one of my hobbies. When I am in hobby mode, I’m usually exploring a creative idea, reading, or researching trends. Which is the fun stuff, but that fun stuff usually means I never leave my desk. Never getting away from work is not good for creativity or your relationships.
One of the things that helped me tremendously was hiring a fitness coach that catered to busy executives. He understood my work schedule was sometimes out of my control. So, he set me up with a structured but flexible plan and required that I block off time for self-care.
Make time for what matters, block it off in your schedule, guard your time fiercely, and be ok with the fact that balance will come in cycles.
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
About three years ago, the work-life balance problem took a particularly challenging twist when my late husband was diagnosed with cancer while we were raising our fledgling businesses.
Caring for a loved one with a terminal illness was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I was ill-equipped for the job. At that point, all I really knew how to do was be a worker bee. I could put in long hours and solve problems at work. But what Tim had, I couldn’t fix with market research or some extra hours to design a better user experience.
In a way, a glimpse into the brevity of life was a gift for me; it put things in perspective. At the time, I was on an executive contract and working a ton of hours. Yet somehow, we managed to fit in so much fun stuff. We traveled to northern Michigan, Florida, D.C., and the east coast. We danced at weddings and holiday parties. When I didn’t have time to cook, we went out to fancy restaurants and ordered cocktails and desserts for dinner.
When time is precious, you learn to let the unimportant fall apart so you can let some better things come together. You learn more innovative ways to do something and how to delegate. You also understand the importance of self-care.
We must have things in our life that bring us pleasure and joy, even if it is something as simple as five minutes of meditation, a walk around the block, or reading a book in the sunshine. No matter what kind of work or life challenges you are facing, acts of self-care are essential. That’s how you get energized to go back in there and kick some ass.
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
Although looking nice is part of the polish for my brand, I notice that I command the most attention with my words.
I think beauty has more to do with confidence than looks. When you address the things that chip away at your confidence, such as feelings about your weight, stress, imposter syndrome, etc., you feel better and command a room better. I genuinely believe that your ideas, innovations, and what you bring to the table outshines looks every time.
I do think it is important to make special mention of being present in video chats. I fought pretty damn hard to have this seat at the table. I want others to see that they can be here as well. We do that by being seen and heard in the same space as other influential people.
Women feel uncomfortable on video, often citing that they don’t like how they look on camera. To that, I say, do whatever you need to do to get over it. Good lighting and a little practice will solve most of your problems.
How is this similar or different for men?
I don’t think it even enters their mind! Or, if it does, men don’t verbalize it in the same ways. Most men I have worked with who gave any pause about their image made jokes about needing make-up or something about their (lack) of hair. But then they move on, perhaps because it doesn’t feel socially acceptable to be hung up on their looks. I’d be interested in hearing from the men in the audience about this question!
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
One, be direct. You get where you are going faster and with more support when your colleagues and leadership team are confident in your decision-making skills.
Whether you are addressing the board or your team, you need to take out “I think,” or “in my opinion,” and “maybe” out of your vocabulary right now.
When I am doing something like totally revamping a brand, I can’t come at the CEO and board of directors with “I think we should change the colors” or “this is just my opinion.” Part of the job of success is taking ownership. You do that by erasing doubt and recognizing that decision-makers get paid to make decisions. Don’t instill doubt where you can inspire confidence.
Two, go for what you want. My success is a product of feeling like no work is beneath me, and nothing is too big for me. I did not achieve executive roles by sitting back and waiting for things to happen. Create a pathway to success by putting yourself in places to learn new things and meet new people. If you don’t have a seat at the table, bring your own.
Three, know it’s ok to step back and let some things fall apart. You cannot do it all. When my late husband was struggling with his cancer treatment, I was juggling his care, a huge commitment at work, and all the things that make a household go. I was exhausted. My family reminded me that it is ok to let some things go. And they were right. Sometimes you have to let the lesser stuff fall apart so you can concentrate on what matters. Times like this were when my robot vacuum and meal delivery came in super handy.
Four, don’t show up wearing everyone else’s judgment of you. People tell stories because it makes the packaging convenient. Brandi the widow, John who has mental health problems, Mary who got fired from that big corporate gig. Do not take on other people’s stories and judgments. When you do that, it’s like wearing a big fur coat in the summer. It’s heavy and doesn’t offer you anything but discomfort. You are a badass that has been through some things. Most successful people have. Leverage that.
Five, surround yourself with people who care about you and want you to succeed.
Look at the three people you spend the most time with. Do they support your efforts? Do they understand what you are trying to achieve? If you don’t have successful and supportive people in your life, find them.
When I was building my business in 2015, one of my best investments was joining a board to get to know a couple of people doing what I wanted to do. One of those people opened some doors for me and is still a trusted mentor to this day. Find your people, even if you must seek them outside of your network.
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.
Simone Giertz is an inventor that the internet dubbed as the “queen of shitty robots.” In her initial claim to fame, Giertz built robots for everyday things like serving soup and applying lipstick. Most of the time, the robots are hysterical failures, and she ends up with lipstick on her face or soup on her shirt.
Giertz builds stuff, not caring what she looks like or how often she fails in a public forum. What an inspiring and powerful way to give permission to others to do the same.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.