Do what’s right. Do what’s right even when powerful forces influence you otherwise. Then you can sleep at night. And then you can fight them again in the morning.
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 Louisa Lawless, Chief Strategy Officer for KÖE Kombucha.
Louisa Lawless is an invaluable strategic thinker, a savvy sales professional, a life-long learner, and an incredibly passionate and energetic leader. Originally from Arkansas, Louisa never dreamt of being in the C-Suite. She received a degree in musical theater from TCU, but quickly learned she excelled in sales after taking a job with Red Bull North America post college. She fell in love with brand building, from early concept to maturation, which led to several subsequent roles, including General Manager at Red Bull and Chief Strategy Officer at Core Water. Her current interest in health and wellness-based innovation brought her to LA-based Stratus Group, which has thrived as a platform to develop better-for-you beverage brands including KÖE Organic Kombucha and Perfect Hydration Alkaline Water. As a new parent, Lawless recognizes the impact the CPG industry can have on the future of our environment, culture and communities. During her two-year tenure at Stratus Group, Lawless has put a tremendous amount of time and resources into sustainability and brand purpose. Under her leadership, Perfect Hydration has also become an official supporter of the American Red Cross, to which the brand has donated over 250k dollars in resources over the past year.
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”?
Of course! I was raised in the South and grew up on a kind of faux farm. We had a plethora of farm animals, but didn’t really have the gumption to do anything other than have a collection of pets. We had a comfortable middle-class upbringing, but probably embraced more chaos than most. That could require another separate interview and potentially my feet up on a couch. I pursued theatre and feel like it kept me out of trouble, and helped propel my future course in more ways than I can ever articulate. But I always had aspirations to do more, to see more of the world, and as a young person, wanted to challenge myself in new ways.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
As I mentioned previously, I was a theatre nerd. It took me to Texas Christian University, where I majored in Theatre and Film. I was bound and determined to make it in the biz and move to California, but thankfully along the way I began working for Red Bull in marketing, and was able to leverage that into my future career trajectory. The biz wasn’t quite at all what I had imagined, and prior to the “Me, Too Movement,” it was everything seedy that Hollywood was rumored to be. I was entirely too outspoken and direct to compromise anything for a role, so I decided I had better stick to sales and marketing. I had no idea that I would be playing roles in the business world, and still do every day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
For the sake of brevity, I will sum it up with some of the team building activities I have done over the course of my career: sky diving, bungee jumping, rappelling, parasailing, ziplining, cliff diving, high speed car racing with Porsche and Dodge, impersonating a clown to save money on talent, impersonating a fortune teller to save money on talent, and so much more!!! There has literally never been a dull moment with my career!
Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I feel as though I am every bit of an A+ personality type. I carry that badge with honor, despite it sometimes coming across as being a bit much. But I believe it has helped me in both my professional and my personal life. I am relentless. This can absolutely drive my husband bonkers, but I WILL FIND A WAY. If someone tells me “no,” it fuels me to find a way around, if it matters. But I have also learned to find balance. If I lose a battle to win the war, that is sometimes okay too. But I will win the war, covered in armor decorated with colorful designs and quite possibly, sparkles.
I believe my empathy is inherent, but listening more and talking less helps anyone foster empathy. The more I can understand someone and walk a mile in their shoes, the better I am at problem solving with them. I believe empathy is undervalued in corporate America, yet it is the most valuable tool leaders should embrace.
Laughter, and my ability to make people laugh, has helped diffuse more uncomfortable moments than I can count. At the end of the day, as serious as the mission is, laughing along the way keeps up your team’s engagement and sanity. Take a moment to appreciate the hilarity of the situation, burn some calories laughing your ass off, and then refocus on the mission. It works!!
The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
The premise is not wrong. It is getting better since I came up in the ranks, but I have often been the “token” strong woman in a group of “strong” men. I was always able to navigate uncomfortable situations with humor. That might not be easy or commonplace for everyone, but it was my skill that I honed to diffuse tense or even contentious historical workplace moments. It took me years to truly feel comfortable enough to stand my ground, and feel confident disagreeing with people in a room where estrogen was not only lacking, it was non-existent. At 41, I am comfortable in my own skin, and I find the word “no” to be very powerful. But this didn’t happen overnight, and everyone needs to chart their own course before finding their voice. Once you do… it feels really good!
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
When I first began testing out the use of “with all due respect I disagree”, I was in my mid 20’s. I soon found out that good leaders wanted to hear the voices of their teams and grow together. If you create a safe space where everyone’s opinion matters, you will take and implement feedback and GROW. Otherwise, you wither up and nobody feels like their opinions matter. I now have so much support from my colleagues and an ownership group that it is absolutely refreshing. But throughout my career it wasn’t always that way, and I was asked to step out of more than a few meetings and “cool my heels.” Little did they know I always had boots on, ready to kick the dust up.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
Immediately disarm them. Change the scenery up, go for a bite or a walk and ask about their family. When people truly feel like you want to know them as individuals, their guard immediately comes down.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
Eliminate salary gaps by gender, and promote women into leadership roles so it becomes more commonplace to see a female in a decision-making seat. Women also need to stop feeling threatened by other women. Let’s make room for all of us to grow together. I see this all the time and it makes my skin crawl. Women have to help other women. It’s your duty and moral obligation. Okay I will step off my soap box now.
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?
Absolutely. Ridiculous is my forte. Imagine a spunky 24-year-old going up to present to a group of about 500 at a general sales meeting. I was nervous and excited, and as I walked across the stage the big boss decided to slap my tush as I crossed the stage. I was so horrified and shocked I slapped his butt right back and asked him how he liked it? He was mortified, and I was as red as a stop sign. I took a deep breath and walked over to the projector and did my presentation. It was most assuredly the wrong way to handle the situation, but let’s just say this gent never got handsy again. Again, my methods might be a little unique to say the least, but were effective in 2004. The women in the group later gave me a standing ovation after my boring session on agave. It was our small victory.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women have to learn to measure their emotions and men do not. Passion can be considered hate passion, despite your gender, but men are rarely told to calm down. Their manifestos are encouraged, while we are told to “take a minute to relax.” I have become a lot more balanced with maturity, but my passion to WIN and my passion to defend my team will never be dissipated by anyone discouraging me to stand up for what I believe in.
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 have always worked hard and taken considerable pride in doing so. I also decided long ago that I would NEVER settle for a relationship that didn’t make me a better human. So, I waited… a long time. I dated a lot of weirdos, and I had a lot of heartbreak. But I married the most incredible man, who is so proud of me. He isn’t threatened and constantly encourages me to achieve any milestone I desire. Despite my fear of having kids, we decided to have a little nugget, and I had my daughter at 40. This was quite frankly the hardest thing I have ever done, and some days I question my own sanity. But it further illustrates that women can be THE BEST multi-taskers on planet earth. Having a child, who is a beautiful terror for the record, has made me better in my career and has forced me to create boundaries at work, finally!
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?
I was working from the hospital bed about 10 hours after my C-Section and I made a REALLY bad mistake on email. It was an EPIC mistake. I am wired to never turn work off. My dear boss and mentor forced me to stop working and focus on the health of myself and my baby. A lightbulb went off, and I realized the little human I just brought into the world needed her mama more. Boundaries matter, and I am beginning to learn how to create them.
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?
I am a CPG executive, and own a salon suites concept as well. I feel the lines are blurred with beauty and wellness. I am building two beverage brands in the better for you space, Perfect Hydration Alkaline Water and KÖE Organic Kombucha. I like selling things that make people feel better. Thankfully, both our brands taste good and help people function more effectively in this crazy pandemic environment.
Opening Salon Row was just a natural extension of wellness for myself and my partners too. Massage, beauty services and taking care of my skin were akin to therapy for me. So, while the importance of my appearance has taken a backseat with a bouncy 13-month-old, I will always prioritize the fundamentals of wellness and feeling good by doing things for myself that provides a state of calm.
How is this similar or different for men? Everyone should find what makes them feel good. It’s exercise for my husband and Micro-Derm for me. No judgement!!
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.)
- Be ambitious. Don’t apologize for it. Work hard and grow!!
- Be kind. Don’t ever be a jerk. Nobody likes a jerk. Bring people in and you will thank yourself later.
- Give everyone else credit for every single damn thing they do. Trust me. It is incredibly effective.
- Remain optimistic, even when it feels like everything is going to hell in a hand basket. Everyone around you needs a daily dose of positivity.
- Do what’s right. Do what’s right even when powerful forces influence you otherwise. Then you can sleep at night. And then you can fight them again in the morning.
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.
Dr. Amani Ballour; she is literally risking her life right now in Syria running an underground hospital in Eastern Ghouta. This strength is unabashed and powerful. She can and will change the world. I want her to know how important her work is.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.