Make meetings shorter and require that recommendations/suggestions are a part of the process. I book meetings in 15 minute increments. It forces the employee to think about how to communicate the issues efficiently. I find that employees appreciate this tactic because they prefer to get work done instead of sitting in meetings all day.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Raquel Graham, Founder & CEO of Roq Innovation. Raquel is a female inventor and entreprenuer from Chicago. She created two products — Headlightz® and NEKZ® — aimed at solving problems in her own life. Both products have achieved great success and she has three more products ready to launch in 2019 Q1.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Sure. It’s a bit of a zigzag road. After unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant with my second child, I decided to apply to business school and work on my career track in corporate america. During the first month of attending Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University I found out that I was pregnant. I worked full-time while going to school and building a house. In the next 18 months, I had a new baby, a new degree and a new house.
My son was premature and my priorities quickly shifted. Instead of aiming for the corporate track, I switched to having a goal that would allow me to spend more time with my family. I left my high paying job at Ebony Magazine and starting a marketing consulting company until I could figure out my next steps. Then the polar vortex hit in Chicago in 2014 and that is where my entrepreneurial journey began. My children would NOT wear scarves during the polar vortex and it created chaos in the morning. My son would cry and take it off or lose it daily. My daughter wouldn’t wear it either. It was quite a standoff every morning.
I decided that I would scour the Internet to purchase a few alternates to make the morning routine more smooth. No such luck. There was almost no alternative that would work. I listened to their complaints about the bulkiness and scratchy feeling of a scarf. With no retail background, I went to the fabric store, selected a few fabrics and cut and glued prototypes together. After a few iterations, I had them try the sample on. They loved it so much; they wore them in the house. I knew I had a winner and I named the product NEKZ® and the rest is history.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Yes. It happened recently. It happens to be something that I talk a lot about. When I first started my Company, I had very specific benchmarks that I wanted to achieve. One was landing on the O List. Though this was a goal, it seemed pretty hard to achieve. I reached out to many people to see what might be the RIGHT way to achieve this goal. I deliberated for years and never attempted because I didn’t think that I had the perfect “in”. I feel very strongly about strategy but I also caution against “Analysis Paralysis”.
So year after year, I would think of a way to get in the door and then never execute because I did not think it would work. Finally, I had a friend that said “Just send the damn thing in. You never know. Just do it and maybe something will come of it”. She told me that there were open submissions for the O list and gave me the due date. I almost didn’t send it in because I had two days to pull it off and I wanted the submission it to be PERFECT. PERFECT letter, PERFECT packaging, PERFECT handwriting, PERFECT colors etc.
This year, I did just that. I worked all day running around getting all of the right tools and supplies. I finally created a package that I thought could work but it was not dream packaging, but I was determined to get a submission in this year.
The package arrive to The Oprah Magazine office on a Wednesday and that night — I received an email from her staff saying that they loved it and wanted to possibly feature it in a future O List. Literally the same day. Here is a scoop — The issue comes out really soon and I can’t wait to see it! I followed my own advice and it works!
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?
Oh this is easy. I had a concept and started selling it without knowing how to produce it. I made an assumption about how fleece material could be customized — printed and dyeing — without experimenting. I landed a big account at my first trade show and the turnaround time was short. When I started trying to dye fleece in the United States — it was a nightmare.
I assumed that fleece could be printed on a printing press. I was so wrong. Little did I know that the fleece printing process is quite complicated and mostly done in China with very high minimums. I figured it out quickly. Due to the complicated dyeing process, I delivered a part of my order late because the production time was longer than I expected and I had to build in shipping time to transport the fabric from China before sewing in the final product in Chicago. Since then, I panic when I know I have to customize fleece even though I have figured it out,and haven’t had a problem since. That experience definitely left a scar.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In my Roq Innovation’s case, I think that as the CEO, I am relatable to entrepreneurs (they see themselves in me) and my products are problem solving products that everyone can use. Every time I am at a speaking engagement or on a panel — I am always shocked at how many people have ideas, want to bring their ideas to life or just want to take the leap to a different point in their lives. This may sound dramatic but it seems as if that desire is reaching epidemic levels. My story is the same as many entrepreneurs. I made the leap and my dream is happening. I think my story and company are both inspirational and aspirational.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes. I plan to launch three new products next quarter. Once again, these products were developed because I needed them and they were not on the market. These innovations, as always, are aimed to make like easier and are therefore — the products that seem to touch the nerves of the consumers. The products are intuitive and easy to understand. The feedback is usually the same — “I love this!” “What a great idea!” “Where can I buy this!”
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I think female leaders have an edge in creating a successful environment because women tend to be better communicators and have deeper innate intuition. It’s just chemistry. By building on those tools, we can create a different type of work environment that feels inclusive to all. I strongly believe in creating a work culture that you wish you had during your career OR that you were lucky enough to have. Employees thrive in a safe place — that doesn’t mean that the workplace is La-la land. It means that employees need to be heard and valued. Once that Company value is established and enforced– you have a sincere edge over your competitors. Too many people hate their work environment. I think female leaders, over time, will reshape how Corporate America feels.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Managing a team is one of the toughest jobs imaginable — large or small. Juggling personalities, tasks, strategy and revenue simultaneously is not easy — period. It may be hard to do but everyone needs to feel that they have your ear. All employees want to be seen, heard and acknowledged. I think too much separation from the Top is never a good idea. You must have a strong managerial team, so that you can spend the time to create the culture of your Company. No one else do that for you. It is rare that you can find multiple managers that will agree and execute in the same way to drive values and corporate culture. Be mindful and work to make this a priority.
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?
Hands down — Jim Reynolds from Loop Capital. He has been a friend and mentor for many years. When I started my business he would inquire about my progress as we would touch base a few times a year. We happened to speak the day after I landed the HSN account. HSN/QVC was always one my target dream accounts. HSN had just placed a $175K order and I literally had two weeks to fund production and some operational costs. He set up a meeting with his team immediately, I pitched my business and I had the money within a week.
It was a risk because sales were not guaranteed. I am happy to say that I launched and sold out in 20 minutes. There is NO WAY that I could have found the money in two weeks.
Since then, he has watched my company grow and continues to provide financial help when I have cash flow challenges. As a result of those cash infusions, I was able to weather the storm until my company was able to grow and stand alone. He saw that I was selling tens of thousands of units in minutes — but I would have to wait for months to get paid. In most cases, the reorders were happening so fast, I could no longer wait for disbursements to hit my account.
Roq Innovation would have folded in the beginning without a few critical cash infusions from Loop Capital. Due to my success, Loop is now leading my capital raise as I scale my business. It’s a great time and I am very grateful to Jim for giving me a chance when no one else would.
Have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Yes but I plan to more. Social impact is very important o me and I working a long-term strategy to deploy with the next 6 months. I have ALWAYS and will continue to hire people that are not the traditional hires for most business. The “invisibles” in our communities. I don’t hire with intent of hiring the cheapest workforce available. I hire and constantly assess how a person can grow with my company. Some positions require some experience but for the most part, if the desire and good intentions are there — I try to train from the ground up. Every move is not cost driven. For instance, when I first started my Roq Innovation, I hired the mentally challenged for fulfillment and to apply metal logos on my products. The process took a bit longer with this Company than a traditional fulfillment house BUT the intention was to hire a demographic that is often overlooked.
Today, two members of my warehouse staff are men with autistic children that are very involved in their children’s lives. As a result, their schedules are flexible to accommodate these special needs.
I strongly believe that ACTIVE INCLUSION is a requirement in corporate culture. INCLUSION is not PASSIVE — it takes work. It’s also not easy. Inclusion, to me, is inviting people to the table that would not otherwise receive an invitation. Then when they show up at the table then you give them the tools to work and succeed. Inclusion is a deliberate intention that must become the norm in corporate culture.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
a) Find what motivates an employee and gear rewards toward their desire. I used to work for John H. Johnson at EBONY magazine. The greatest reward at EBONY was being able to sit with Mr. J for any amount of time. Even five minutes would be equivalent to a year of business school. He was a very wise man. That day he told me a random story about understanding what motivates an employee and that is how you get results. He said, “One may want power, the other money and the other status. If you figure that out, they will be with you for life”. If you review the history of Johnson Publishing Company — very few people ever left. It was a company of “Lifers”. I really miss that man!
b) Hire the smartest people that you can find and let them do their job. I love finding smart people that are great workers that I feel confident will get the job done without my constant input. I want a team to feel confident that I trust them. I encourage all of my employees to share ideas that will improve any area of the business. “Share it and we will explore it”.
I just hired an incredible social marketing team that is in the process of revamping and strategizing the Roq Innovation’s digital presence. This team is all-female, uber-smart and great communicators. After a while, as leader, you can immediately spot a team that will bring great success and is the perfect fit for your Company.
c) Ensure that you understand the scope of work before delegating so that you can monitor and set the right expectation.
When I started Roq Innovation, I was adamant about understanding and initially executing every task at my company before hiring for that position. That allowed me to understand the full scope of how each job, how long it took, what type of person would be a good fit for the job, how to pay and scale accordingly.
Recently, I opened my own warehouse and I handled all of the fulfillement for the first week. I understood how to work the EDI transmissions, how to close out the orders in the system, interface with UPS, troubleshoot around the printers that were jamming and over heating. I went through five printers before I found the right printer that could handle the volume and troubleshoot around the challenges. Sounds small but it was a critical part of our operations that had to be correct. I no longer perform those tasks, but if the staff is sick, I can fill in or hire anyone to handle.
d) Implement timelines around project management to avoid “Analysis Paralysis”. Make meetings shorter and require that recommendations/suggestions are a part of the process. I book meetings in 15 minute increments. It forces the employee to think about how to communicate the issues efficiently. I find that employees appreciate this tactic because they prefer to get work done instead of sitting in meetings all day.
e) “Give credit where credit is due” and reward for “above and beyond” behavior. This is so important. In life, whether professional or personal, people need to be seen. People want to know that they matter and the what they are doing counts. This goes both ways — praise and critique are critical because, either way, the employee will know that they are seen and their success or failure has an impact.
You are a person of great 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. 🙂
I would love to galvanize a culture that is ruthless and adamant about being watch dogs and gatekeepers against unhealthy eating being spoon fed to the public in our country. A powerful movement where we are in unison — not separate interests i.e vegan vs. organic vs. politics vs. corporate financing etc.
A collective cry that demands the prevention of the sale of foods with known bad ingredients and foods that are bad for overall health. The first stop would be to demonize sugar they way that nicotine was demonized in the 90s. This takes a strong collective effort across many platforms — advertising, research, grassroots marketing, politics and media. The way nicotine has been demonized has had a monumental impact on the way the United States viewed smoking.
Sugar and it’s lack of regulation is criminal. There is more than enough evidence to prove the negative impact that sugar has on our health. This would take a complete change in our culture. Imagine if we made eliminated all candy at the check outs and substituted it with healthy fare or nothing at all. No sugar cereal commercials. No sugar advertising allowed on KID channels or any media — like Nicotine. How about charging a big premium on all soda, candy and anything with harmful knowing ingredients like hydrogenated oil etc. Best of all — commercials that feature real life horror stories related to the consumption of sugar and chemical ingredients — similar to the Yul Brenner nicotine commercials of the past.
I fantasize about living in world where people are so vigilant about their health and even more watchful about what is allowed to infiltrate our universe that causes harm to our bodies. To stand up against the idea of “Cheap unhealthy food” and Expensive good quality food’” — that is my fantasy movement!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Every disappoint is for a good”. I grew up with my Dad saying this quite often and now I say it all the time. When I started my business, I took took disappointment pretty hard but now that I have much more experience that it rarely affects me. Over time, I have seen and witnessed that what I wished for and didn’t get was a blessing at times. Either I was not ready to handle the reward, or the deal was not beneficial for my business or something that I dead set on did not come through.
In many cases, in hindsight, I was happy that it didn’t happen because either something better happened or it turned out that what I wanted would not have been a great deal. I can accept that things will always work out and that outlook comes with experience.
Some of the biggest 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 🙂
The most popular answer to this question has to be Oprah. Oprah stands above the rest not because of her wealth, but because of her journey. She is a walking miracle who does nothing but put goodness into the world. She is a shining example of humanity. The fact that she is a billionaire is secondary but people love when the “good guys” win — and that’s her.
No silver spoon, honest to the bone, vulnerable, a teacher, a leader, compassionate, passionate, confident and kind. The level of respect and love that she has gained is God given and I don’t think we will see another Oprah for a long time.
I am certain that the takeaways from one lunch with her would last a lifetime. I love the success stories from individuals that have had a hard road that came out on top. I have very few idols — but she is one for sure. However, if Nelson Mandela were still alive — he would have been my #1 choice.