Laura McHolm: “Joy brings success”

Joy brings success. Follow your joy. Celebrate the big successes and the little ones. Empower your team to do the same. This is something I am actually better at than Ram, he is quick to feel bad about the downs and slow to feel great about the ups. We attract and create more when we […]

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Joy brings success. Follow your joy. Celebrate the big successes and the little ones. Empower your team to do the same. This is something I am actually better at than Ram, he is quick to feel bad about the downs and slow to feel great about the ups. We attract and create more when we come from a happy blissful state.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewingLaura McHolm. One of the few women at the helm of a moving company, Laura McHolm had a unique entrance into the world of entrepreneurship.

Laura began university at the age of 16. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, she taught basic programming on Apple computers, then worked in marketing for Atari while the company was still in its infancy. After law school, she worked at Intel as a corporate intellectual property lawyer. In the mid-1990s, she moved away from the Fortune 500 to fulfill her more creative, entrepreneurial spirit and co-founded NorthStar Moving® Company in Los Angeles.

Today, NorthStar Moving is the largest independent moving company in California, executing over 8,000 moves a year and is the go-to mover for A-List celebrities, world leaders, and landmark institutions: The Getty Museum, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Angelina Jolie, Derek Fisher, Eva Longoria and more. The company has built a national reputation featured in top publications such as Vanity Fair, Fortune Small Business, NBC National News, and has earned over 100 awards for their community work, green practices, leadership, and growth.

Through Laura’s out of the box marketing tactics, she has single-handedly crushed the dim view consumers once held about the moving industry. She coined the phrase “eco-luxury moving services” and is changing the way we move by selling the eco-conscious red carpet treatment. Laura and her team are setting out on their next big move — franchising.

As a marketing consultant, public speaker, and business owner, Laura uses the podium to spread her unique outlook and share tactics on how to disrupt your business and industry for positive change. Recently, Laura was the lead speaker at Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s LA Women’s Entrepreneurship Day 2019. She is also a regular contributor to multiple media outlets including Huffington Post and Thrive Global.

Featured in Ladies’ Home Journal as one of “16 Women Making the World a Happier Place” and on the Los Angeles CBS segment “People Making A Difference,” Laura has broken the long-held notion of moving and storage as burly men doing one job — lifting heavy things. She has built a company and a life focused on helping others and lifting up those in need. Through her steadfast commitment to exemplary customer service, the well-being of clients, team members, and responsible corporate citizenship, Laura strives to do her small part in making the world a happier place.

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?

Thank you for having me! I am honored. I love Thrive Global and truly believe the world needs more women leaders. A world accustomed to having women in the leadership equation will allow everyone to have more balanced and fulfilling lives. We all need role models we can emulate. Women working together to build each other up and lift each other into the future is what the planet needs to get us all on the right track. And, complete diversity will make a sound foundation for building a happier, safer, cleaner, balanced, and productive workplace and home.

My mother was a cookie baking feminist and my father was an entrepreneur. I had so many advantages, the biggest was to be brought up to believe I could do anything I put my mind to. All children should be afforded that luxury and adults should create a world where all children can truly accomplish their goals.

I came from a Berkeley, Oxford, Fortune 500, legal, and marketing background and wanted to do something absolutely unexpected. I love the service industries and I chose moving (business )because I found the moving industry to be the most male-dominated of all the service industries. And, it was a service industry that wasn’t actually about being truly of service to its customers. Even today, 25 years later, there aren’t many women running moving companies. I also wanted to create a business from scratch. A company dedicated to making a difference in its team members’ lives, its clients’ experiences, and the community. I love the unexpected.

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

Well, the first thing that pops into my mind is some A-List celebrity stories, but we take our NDAs seriously. We use multiple decoy trucks scattering in every direction to throw off the paparazzi, and use walkie-talkies and clandestine maneuvers in the middle of the night to keep foreign heads of state security equipment safe. We work in the non-public rooms of the Getty Museum under watchful top-notch security. Many moves turn out to look like something out of a James Bond movie more than the stereotypical images of big burly guys carrying boxes. We have moved everything from Miss Piggy to Picassos.

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?

It’s the same mistake many people make who have spent years in academia. We think life evolves like a class schedule. Advanced Trig follows Beginning Trig; graduate school follows undergrad; chapter two follows chapter one. It’s very linear and tidy. And I LOVE organization; a place for everything and everything in its place. But, progress, creation, doing something new, isn’t a straight line. I had to learn to trust my gut and give into the curvy flowing road of progress. Allowing inspiration in an unexpected direction is what allows true creation to occur. For example, looking at the service you get at a Ritz Carlton Hotel (back in the day when folks could travel…) and thinking that’s how people should be treated when they move. Anticipating people’s needs before they even know they have them, and offering a menu of solutions to solve everything happening in someone’s life when they move.

Nonlinear thinking allowed me to see moving as more than carrying boxes from point A to point B. Life doesn’t stop for those families because they are moving. In fact, life just got way busier; and the to-do lists just got way longer. Why not be the moving company that really helps the entire family move. Have nannies for the kids, dog trainers for fido, chefs for the first night in your new home, feng shui artists to set up your new place just right, organizers to help you sort out what stays and what gets donated, have easy ways for folks to donate their unwanted stuff to charities like Miry’s List and get the extra non-perishable food to the food bank. When I would say that’s what a moving company should be doing, the push back I got was huge. That’s not the moving industry. EXACTLY. That’s what the moving industry should be. Twenty-five years later, we are still the only ones doing it this way. And, we grew to be the largest independent moving company in California and maybe in the country. We have won awards for everything from our green practices, service, growth, best places to work, community service, etc.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

I didn’t really start my business thinking “oh, I am going to be an executive or a CEO.” I don’t think success works that way for me. My partner Ram Katalan and I wanted to create a business where we wanted to go to work, where other people would want to work, where clients would be happy, and where we would have a positive impact in the community: where we were green and giving back. I love how millennials are using their dollars to purchase products and services that share their values. For over 25 years, we have been making sure our company reflected our values and we love that the world is moving in this direction. Companies with a conscience are the future.

I wanted to be the change, I wanted to do the things to make the change, and I wanted everyone who was touched by our business to have that experience. It wasn’t “oh, I want to be a leader,” it was: “I want to get this done like this, come on let’s go!”

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive 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 true leader, a true CEO, is where the buck stops. They envision and build a framework for the culture, they show others how to create in that culture, and they are responsible for what happens in their culture. They listen, they tweak, they adjust, they steer, they empower, they give ownership, sometimes they get out of the way, and they keep everyone going in the same direction.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I am lucky to have found the sweet spot in life where there is no difference between work and play. I love what I do. Ram, my partner, jokes that if either of us won the lottery, he’d just buy more trucks. I might want to do my job from a lovely little island somewhere, but honestly, I think if you love what you do, and if you’re really giving back and making a difference in people’s lives, what more could you ask for? You’ve created joy. It’s that simple. You get to create joy every day.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

There is no one to blame but yourself. Lol! Even if someone else screws up, you hired them or you hired the person who hired them. You have to take ownership, to learn, to grow, to find out what’s next. Some people might not like how consuming it can be, but honestly, as I said before, there is no difference between work and play. So, for me it’s all good clean fun.

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

Some CEOs have made inordinate amounts of money and underpaid their workforce past the point of unconscionability. So there is that horrifying stigma, but we’re hardly in the same class as those folks. I think the more prevalent myth is the CEO as the weekday golfer, the Mad Man Don Draper, the cigarette smoking, cocktail at lunch crowd. The arriving late and leaving early CEO. That is not what true leadership looks like. You cannot build and maintain a successful business like that. A true CEO is a type of team member they want everyone else to be, every day.

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

Women still carry the bulk of the responsibilities at home. Even if they are fortunate enough to have help, for the most part, women are still making sure the business at home is handled: child care is scheduled, Johnny is scheduled for soccer camp, the cleaning lady has the keys and knows what day to get in, the groceries have been ordered, etc. She’s managing two businesses. Most men may be “helping” but they are not driving the business of managing a home and a family. And, if they aren’t fortunate enough to have outside help, women are the ones who are making the house a home. They are juggling. They are not afforded the luxury of only wearing one hat.

But, unfortunately, this is not the only differentiator. Women to be the best, have to be unquestionably the best. There was a study published in the Harvard Business Review about six years ago which speaks volumes about the issues women face in the job market, it looked at a Hewlett Packard study that found women only apply for a job when they have 100% of the qualifications, but men will apply even if they only met 60%. But, as the article points out, it may not just be as simple as women lacking confidence that holds us back, women are also conditioned to be risk-averse (studies have shown that women recover slower from a failure than men do, so why risk it?) and girls are conditioned to follow and play by the rules. We need to learn the rules in business are not as strict as we might believe and as Shirley Chisholm said: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

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

When I began the business with Ram, I thought it might get boring after a few years. And, I would go on to something else. Okay, it’s up and running, now what? But, nothing could be further from the truth. As you grow you face new challenges and have to create something new. The business grows, and so do you. It’s fun!

But, the totally unexpected does happen. Like in March, when businesses were closing down for COVID-19, we had to pivot on a dime. Our business is considered “essential” so we needed to get our guys personal protective gear (a plethora of phone calls with vendors: “No, we aren’t hospital workers, NO don’t take their masks, but can we have some too? No, not the N-94s.”), our trucks needed new cleaning routines, our crews start times needed to be staggered, temperatures needed to be taken, the office team needed phone systems and computers to work from home, and it all needed to happen fast. All the while, we were so thankful we were allowed to continue to serve the public and so concerned for all the restaurant workers, shop owners, etc. who were needing to close down. So, this year my annual Let’s Send Hunger Packing Food Drive has even more meaning to me. For the past eight summers, we’ve been raising food for the LA Regional Food Bank because when schools are closed many kids go hungry. One out of four kids in LA will go to bed hungry tonight and they won’t get their school lunch tomorrow. With the unemployment numbers skyrocketing, now, more than ever, the LA Regional Food Bank needs our help to keep everyone in Los Angeles fed. I think everyone’s job now is to take care of each other.

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

Not everyone wants to create something on their own and then live with the consequences. And some people really do enjoy having life compartmentalized, leaving work at work; drawing big lines between work and play. And, really that’s okay, you’ve got to find out what brings you joy and bliss. I think the trick is knowing what makes you happy and finding a way to do that.

When I speak to young women entrepreneurs, I often say: Everyone knows you have to love words if you want to be a writer, but you also better love periods, commas, and semicolons. Because you’re going to be living in the minutia, the fine points, and the critical details. If you don’t love all of those you aren’t going to love being a writer. So, it’s the same for being an executive. Do you love showing up every day as the type of team member you want everyone else to be? Do you want to have ownership and be where the buck stops? Do you have a vision? Do you want to build a framework for the culture, then show others how to create in that culture, and be responsible for what happens in your culture? Do you listen, do you tweak, can you adjust, can you guide, empower, give ownership, sometimes get out of the way, to keep everyone going in the same direction?

If the answer is no to any of those questions, it really is okay, but maybe you don’t want to be an executive. Maybe you want to be something else? Have a defined area you are responsible for and thrive there. Because truly when we are doing what we love, not only are we happiest, we are the most productive and successful.

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

Listen to your team. You never know where a good idea is going to come from. Even, the person whose ideas are always off track can have a good idea. So, keep listening. Hear them on any topic, the idea to make our trucks biodiesel didn’t come from the operations team, it came from my assistant. Cross-pollinate. Open the door, (in the age of covid) open phone line. Anyone can speak directly to anyone about anything.

Teach your team to listen to your clients. Whether you’re making widgets or providing red carpet service, your clients/customers are your biggest barometer on how you’re doing.

Guide your team. Make sure everyone knows what you expect from them, what their area of responsibility is, and what success will look like for that part of the project. Make sure they know where the resources are; and if you are the resource, make yourself available to them.

Empower them! Don’t hover, cut them loose. Let’s see what they can do on their own. They are bound to surprise you. Then circle back, access, tweak, and direct.

Check-in regularly. Not only check in with your team but also have your team members check in with each other. I have had a weekly Zoom meeting for years with my direct report marketing team. Each team member updates the entire team on their projects. The team member is asked if they need anything from anyone, and we also ask if anyone on the team needs something from them. It keeps everyone on track, informed and, especially when you’re all now working remotely, it allows you to actually feel like a team.

Ask your team members what they care about and see how the company can get involved. Environmentalist? Fantastic, we’ve been green for 25 years, but how can we get greener? Dog rescuer? Great, we work with Paws for Life and Karma Rescue, what else can we support? Need glasses as a kid and got them from a charity, great how can we support that charity?

We won ten consecutive best places to work awards and I think it’s because we truly value our team, and our team really values the work we do in the community. The charities we help, the food drive, etc. They know they are valued, they are making a difference and the company is making a difference. We’re all about spreading happiness.

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

Oh my, if this was the academy awards the music would be playing to get me off the stage and I would just be getting started. I am sure I would not be where I am today, without a wonderful partner Ram Katalan, an amazing team (insert 200 names here because I would want to say them all), my assistant Karyn Gatt who has become family, my PR Rep Carrie Callahan who has become family, my friends and family (insert many names here) who have all become family, my teachers and my parents (Helen and Bill).

I think my parents gave me a wonderful gift by telling me repeatedly that I could do anything as long as I put my mind to it. They believed that our words and our deeds, shape our lives. They believed in the power of education; of being open-minded; that laughter was the best medicine; that kindness counts; that diversity is a strength; no one wins, when someone is left out; the value of travel to experience other cultures and discover they have as much, or more, to offer as our own; and that we are all so extremely lucky to be on this beautiful planet.

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

My life and our company is actually committed to making the world a better place. From day one we’ve been giving back to the community and I guess our work is actually making a difference. I was named one of “16 Women Making the World a Happier Place” by Ladies Home Journal magazine, which I have to say is one of my proudest accomplishments. I was featured in a CBS television segment on “People Making a Difference” and this past year the National Association of Women Business Owners gave me the Community Leader award. I had quite the week in April 2019, in six days I won that Community Leader award, the LA Business Journal named me Entrepreneur of the Year, and Miry’s List gave me an award on World Refugee Day for my work assisting families who are recent vetted refugees (now new arrivals) from countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. And in November, Mayor Garcetti also had me speak at LA City Hall for International Women Entrepreneur Day. I was, like holy smokes, what’s happening here. I have just been doing this work all along, quietly, and had no idea it would put me in the spotlight.

Here are some of my passion projects:

I am the Chairman of the Board for Claire’s Place Foundation which is a grassroots 501c3 charity assisting families with cystic fibrosis. I met a young girl named Claire Wineland who just came out of a coma, we were granting her wish through our work with Make A Wish Foundation. I fell in love with the spunky little firecracker buddha Claire and her family. I saw that magical “it” spark in her and turned my marketing and PR team on her. When Claire at 13 years old founded the charity, she asked me to be on the board, that was ten years ago. I have been the COB for the past four years.

I love Miry’s List for their amazing work with “recent arrivals.” Not only do they help families feel at home in their new country by making crowdsource lists of needed items to fill refugees empty apartments, but they also set up a community to help the family transition into American life. They are what truly makes America great, they are the ultimate welcome wagon.

My Stuff Bags is also an extraordinary charity that assists vulnerable children who are removed from dangerous home life situations. These kids often have nothing but the clothes on their backs. My Stuff Bags give them a backpack with age-appropriate items to make them feel like they are not alone.

And, as I mentioned above, I am hosting my eighth annual Let’s Send Hunger Packing Food Drive to raise much needed financial support for the LA Regional Bank. Even before COVID, the horrible shocking truth was that one out of four children in LA County will go to bed hungry tonight. It breaks my heart, as I am sure it does yours. Now, with massive unemployment, the need is only growing. The food bank is so overworked they can’t even accept canned food donations due to social distancing concerns for the food sorters. So, the best and only option is to donate money. Just 25 dollars is enough for 100 meals to feed children, families and seniors. Right now, everyone’s job is keeping everyone fed. Please help as much as you can.

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

Only FIVE, okay… well, let’s see.

  1. You are never done. Forget about being done. Relax and enjoy the process.
  2. Don’t let perfection stand in the way of progress. I love to make things absolutely perfect, and that’s an elusive goal, you might not ever get to perfection, which means you’ll never get anything done. Thankfully, my partner Ram is much more pragmatic. Getting something out that is almost where you want it to be, is way better than missing the opportunity altogether.
  3. Remember what you learned in math. A tiny 5% or 10% shift can add up to a big difference. Quick example, if you just book 5 % more jobs, or you just do something 10% more efficiently, the slope of growth is spectacular.
  4. Joy brings success. Follow your joy. Celebrate the big successes and the little ones. Empower your team to do the same. This is something I am actually better at than Ram, he is quick to feel bad about the downs and slow to feel great about the ups. We attract and create more when we come from a happy blissful state.
  5. Meditate, eat healthy, exercise, your body is your temple, work hard, play hard, and above all things, be kind to yourself and all living things. I know we’ve all been told those things over and over again but, I am afraid, most of us just hear the words and don’t live in the reality of those words. My life gets sweeter the closer I get to living in that state of bliss. But, as I said in 1, 2, 3, and 4: you will never be done, don’t worry if it’s not perfect, a 5% change can make a difference, and joy truly does bring success.

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.

Oh, wow, that’s a cool question. I have been wanting to change the world for a long time… Here’s a simple movement:

Every single child is told every single day, that they have absolutely everything it takes to create the exact life they want to live.

Every single adult is told every single day; prove it to all children.

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

My father, who also was an executive,, told me if you build your business focused on being of service to people, the sky’s the limit. Don’t think about sales, think about solving people’s problems.

My partner and I have built our business on this principle of kindness. I hope my answers above show we have implemented this way of thinking into our daily business practice.

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

Oh, there are so many spectacular folks out there making a difference in the world. I would be happy to have a meal with any of them.

After watching AOC’s ten-minute speech to Congress yesterday about the sexist degrading language used towards her, I have to say I was empowered by her eloquence, her ability to speak truth to power, her incredible skill at seizing the moment, and turning it into a teachable moment for the world. I would just like to thank her.

I would love to have lunch with Jane Fonda. Who wouldn’t? She’s an incredible role model for all women. Some of her quotes that I love are:

“To be a revolutionary, you have to be a human being. You have to care about people with no power.”

“But the whole point of liberation is that you get out. Restructure your life. Act by yourself.”

Ms. Fonda is brilliant and accomplished on so many stages. Acting, of course, but also as an activist and she is an extremely successful businesswoman. She has lived her life so publicly and allowed all of us to go on her amazing journey. I think of her as a true feminist, she has walked the walk and talked the talk. She stands up for what she believes in and has always worked to make the world a better place. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear how she keeps herself empowered, because she’s been empowering all of us for years.

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

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