How I Built a Profitable Business While Raising Daughters

Kim Estep has worked in the commercial finance industry for over 22 years and attributes her success to understanding and adapting to the male professional psyche. Her husband, Scott, has been a stay-at-home dad to their two daughters, who are now both in college. Kim worked for her father for 10 years before buying the […]

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Kim Estep has worked in the commercial finance industry for over 22 years and attributes her success to understanding and adapting to the male professional psyche.

Her husband, Scott, has been a stay-at-home dad to their two daughters, who are now both in college. Kim worked for her father for 10 years before buying the business from him in 2008. By 2012, she had grown profits nearly 5x.

When she graduated from Sweet Briar College, a women’s college in central Virginia, she had no idea she would someday be involved in high finance and macroeconomics. But that’s her passion and it’s served her well. She’s met numerous financial experts and dignitaries over the course of her career, from President George HW Bush to Howard Marks, Liz Ann Sonders to David Zervos, and many more. She has a giant passion for big ideas and big solutions. It’s this passion that has led her to create Women Nation™.

Although she was an equestrian from her childhood to her college years, in 2004 Kim discovered a new passion: racing cars. Her husband had gifted her a “day at the track” in their street car at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut, and after only an hour she was completely hooked. Driving on the track began as a hobby but she progressed quickly, and by 2011 she was buying a race car and competing on the Porsche Club of America amateur circuit. 

So, when she’s not involved in interest rate discussions and economic events, Kim is working to find the secret recipe to empowering women as much as she was empowered. In building the Women Nation network as the network of women’s networks, she hopes to use her personal stories, her business acumen, and her relationships to lift up other women and give them the confidence to step outside their comfort zone and achieve financial success.

What is your background?

I’m the oldest of 2 sisters born in the 1970s to a finance entrepreneur and a nurse-turned-Vietnam Vet-turned housewife. My dad started a financial consultancy in the very early 1980s and my mom stayed home to raise my sister and me. My parents were old house freaks—and they tore our house apart bit by bit to uncover its 210 years + historic alterations. We never had friends over because we didn’t have a regular family room or even a kitchen until I was in middle school. So, my sister and I started a horse hobby that entertained us at a local barn and kept us away from the dirt and dust at home. I was good in school but loved riding so much that I chose Sweet Briar College to get a good education and continue riding.

Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?

It was completely unexpected. After college, I made my way out to Boulder, Colorado, and held a few different jobs in customer service and sales. I met my husband where I worked. He and I had a house built and only seven months after moving in and beginning to really settle down, my dad called me and said, “sit down I’m about to ruin your life.” He asked me to move back to Connecticut to learn his business and eventually take it over. There are a bit more sordid details to the story and his resulting divorce from my mother, but obviously, we took the chance, moved back to Connecticut, and I eventually bought the business from him—during the financial crisis, no less.

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

Try to find another woman who was hired to take over a business and then had to fire her father, so he got out of the way during a messy divorce! It was not a good time. But he underestimated me back then and I prevailed. Even after his non-compete was up and he tried to steal all of my (his former) customers back, I prevailed. I’m still going strong today.

What traits do leaders need to have to be successful?

I hate saying you have to have balls—but you have to have balls. I don’t mean testicles, either. I mean you must have the confidence, the guts, and the fortitude to stand up to what you believe in and stand against what could harm you, your family, and your livelihood. I can give an example of standing up to my father (then the boss) when he locked me out of the office filing cabinets until I signed my rights away in the company. I can give examples of how my co-racers mouthed off to me in the racetrack pits because they blamed me for something they had done. I had been hit from behind by another very powerful and wealthy racer, and he said it was my fault. He told the stewards it was my fault. And he told all of Porsche Club social media it was my fault! But I knew it was his fault and that by continuing to race, I would show the other drivers that I was as talented as they were. That took tenacity and stoicism—two other character traits that have contributed to my success. Finally, you must have empathy. It took me a long time to figure this out since my parents are so unempathetic. But my recent success in racing and business has come from a deep understanding of myself and how I like to communicate vs. other people’s personality styles and their preference for how they like to receive information and how they view their world.

The main focus of this interview assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong and powerful women. Why do you think this is so?

This is a weird question because I’ve viewed life from a strong woman lens since I was born. It’s not as if I “became” strong; it’s just what I am. I saw “society” embracing me or not embracing me, but I never thought it was because I was too strong. I didn’t care. Maybe that’s another important character trait: not caring what other people think of you. I didn’t last long in corporate America. I did battle with my father here and there. He put me in my place and I pushed back because I’m strong. But he always said to succeed on or with Wall Street, I had to be tough and had to have a very thick skin. I’m a no bs person. If others perceive me as too strong, that’s their problem, not mine. I’m going to continue being me.

Without mentioning names, can you share a story from your own experience?

So let’s go back to the story of the guy who hit me in my first race. First, I had a rookie “X” on the back of my car warning other drivers that I was not an experienced racer. It was 9 am on a cold April morning in Connecticut. My tires were cold. The track was cold. So, in my first two laps, I wasn’t going to drive 10/10. I began at 6/10 or so. And the rookies went out later than the experts, so we were a lap or 2 down by the time this incident happened. The way I remember it, I went into the first turn a little wide but never expected someone to pass me on the inside there. But he did—and missed the space window—and hit me in the right rear, sending both of us off the track with broken cars. Do you think he apologized? Heck no. He said I should have let him through, and it was my fault for not getting out of his way.

What should a powerful woman do when she feels that people are uncomfortable around her?

Fortunately, I seem to have a filter for other people’s feelings. I just don’t feel them. Other people have to tell me when the people around me are uneasy. It’s a gift…or a curse…I don’t know. As I said, I’m trying to be better at it. But if I try too hard then I overthink things and I get in my head.

How can we change this dynamic?

I guess so. Or we need those powerful women to take a “don’t care” vitamin or something. Powerful men can put other people at ease or can scare them. It depends on their goals for a situation or circumstance. Obama and Trump achieved things using different tactics. Women can too.

Have you ever had to endure a situation where you felt uncomfortable around men?

Oh, I think men get into uncomfortable situations too. Rookie traders on Wall Street are abused daily, but if they survive the rookie ridicule, they can become very successful. This happens in Frats, on sports teams, in groups of friends…you know the “bro culture.” The successful ones learn to not take themselves too seriously. They learn how to motivate via competition. There aren’t many female traders on Wall Street, but they must endure the same hazing the guys do. They have to take that don’t care vitamin daily. If they can run with the tough crowd, they’ll be very successful. They need thick skins.

What are the biggest challenges and issues women encounter that men don’t?

Motherhood, of course. The mental stuff, the physical stuff, the caretaking…guys can get 50% there but not 100%. We are tough and make great bosses, mentors, etc., but some days our bodies are not working with us. Or our hormones are wacky. Or we’re worried about a doc appointment for one of our kids. Men don’t get PMS or postpartum blues like we do. They don’t leak from their boobs! And they have off days but not cyclically like we do.

Was it difficult for you to fit your personal and family life into your career? 

I had it made. My husband is a high empath, is super organized, likes a clean home, and learned to cook really well. I never had to compromise the family life for work. I enjoy both. I think finding the right mate is so important! I lucked out, but I was conscientious too. I made my own career from a family opportunity, for sure. But I could have really screwed it up. Some days I brought work home. Some days I took family struggles to work with me. I was fortunate to have a father that pretty much understood when I was having a bad or difficult day. And because it was just the 2 of us, we did the best we could at understanding each other. Dad helped me be more empathetic for Scott.

What helped you achieve a greater balance between your work life and personal life?

Ha! I put the girls in college!

No, seriously, life is much easier when one of your kids can drive because they become independent and responsible for the younger ones. It’s like having an extra helper in the house. It takes some of the pressure off. Plus, they’re more responsible at 16+ and they’re not sick as often.

Is beauty superficial? Can you explain what you mean?

You only get one chance to make a first impression. I don’t fret over what I look like, and I don’t wear heels because I’m already six feet tall. I have opinions and I’ll share them, and I hope people remember me for how I think and not for what I look like.

How is this different for men?

It’s hard to stand out as a guy. Especially in mortgage banking! They all dress alike. Like little banker clones or minions. And most guys reach a certain age (bald) and they all look alike. Dad bods, navy blazer, khakis, golf shirt. The ones that make a big deal about their appearance are insecure. They’re easy to spot. They have a platinum smile, and they use hair products.

What does it take to be a successful and powerful woman?

  1. Never overpromise and underdeliver. I always keep a little in my back pocket when doing a deal because customers love to be delighted with more than they expect. Managing expectations is 80% of my job, and I have to keep all the parties in the transaction rowing in the same direction. I find ways to help each one of them achieve a little more than they’re expecting, and never promise them I can do more than I can. I just do it.
  2. Admit and own up to your mistakes. Guys rarely do this because it bruises their ego, but a woman can do this with strength and can command a lot of respect. I once misquoted a deal and later, on a call with the attorneys, I admitted my mistake and corrected it. The attorneys were spellbound. They told ME they were impressed because nobody ever admits mistakes like that. I earned two new clients from that law firm because I was honest and owned up to my error.
  3. Praise others. Maybe it’s your Amazon delivery guy. Maybe it’s your spouse for doing something simple. If you’re showing gratitude for what you receive, you’re going to get in the habit of showing gratitude for much more. It comes across in your voice. People trust people who praise others and who are grateful.
  4. Treat your job as if you were the owner of the company. Too many people don’t believe in doing things that are outside their job description. I say that’s wrong. If you can help your department or your company better by suggesting and implementing changes, or staying late, or making a pot of coffee, or whatever, you’ll be noticed. Owners remember people who act like they have the power to keep every customer happy. Owners like people who respect the bottom line and try to contain costs. If you’re looking at the clock and bolt out of the office at quitting time, you’re not going to be well liked by the people who can help you be more successful. Watch the other successful people and mimic what they do. Maybe they’ll mentor you on how to get where they are.
  5. Practice being more open and straightforward. It comes naturally to some of us, and others need some coaxing. You have the right to let other people know how you think. Maybe you have a great solution for a workplace or business problem! If you never speak up, you’ll never be asked for your opinion. So speak up! Being shot down is OK. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so take a shot. And then take another one. Being powerful and successful is a process, not a goal. Earn it though. Nobody will bequeath power because of time served or title alone. You must earn it. And then you must help other women learn how to earn it.

Who are your role models?

I have many but the main ones are Viola Davis, Shonda Rhimes, Oprah, Diane Von Furstenberg, and Meryl Streep.

Connect with Kim at WomenNation.com.

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