Tenacity. You’re going to get a lot thrown your way. When you shine, people are going to start throwing rocks. You’re going to hit roadblocks and bumps over and over again. Tech will fail, people will disappoint, and the other shoe will always drop. The only way you’re going to get through that is with tenacity. You get up and go again. Even when you fail — especially when you fail. When a product launch bombs or a negative review gets shared and commented on — grit your teeth and get back out there. It’s the tenacious ones who stick around.
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 Susan Riley.
Susan is the Founder and CEO of The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, a digital company serving K-12 educators who are infusing creativity into their classrooms. Susan has been featured in Edutopia, NPR, and The US Department of Education for her pioneering work in the field of education. A former music teacher, she now focuses on helping serve students by providing world-class professional development and resources to other educators.
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”?
Sure. I actually grew up on a dairy farm until I was 12 in southern Pennsylvania. My dad and mom were both entrepreneurs. My mom owned a laboratory and my dad started a company selling hay and straw to other farms. I watched both of my parents create something from nothing, hiring a staff of almost 20 — including many of my family members — and eventually get to 7-figures in sales. But when I turned 12, the business and farm went bankrupt. My parents had to let go of all the employees, including my family members, and it was painful to watch everything seemingly disappear. We moved to Maryland and I resolved never to work for myself. I wanted a “stable” career. I was actually a pretty talented singer, but I knew I didn’t want to perform for a living because it wasn’t a guaranteed paycheck. So instead, I went to a music conservatory and majored in Music Education. I became an elementary music teacher and loved it, but still felt like something was missing. Which is how I ended up leaving education to start my own education-based startup. Becoming the entrepreneur I swore I would never be.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
I was in my 5th year as a music teacher and getting so frustrated that others couldn’t see the impact the arts can have on student learning. Especially with those students who typically struggle in traditional school settings. I was also in the middle of my master’s degree program for Education administration and supervision. During the program, I had researched a method of education called Arts Integration. This approach used natural connections between the arts and other content areas to teach students. Things like using music to teach math, or exploring an author’s point of view through a painting. I asked my principal if I could lead an arts integration effort in our school and he agreed to a small pilot. After our first year in the pilot program, our students and teachers were showing such incredible growth that the rest of the school opted to join in the following year. By the 3rd year, our school had won awards from the state and national organizations for our Arts Integration approach. The entire time, I was documenting our implementation approach as a blog. I wanted to let others know what we did that worked, didn’t work, and share the resources I was creating to help lead the effort. Soon, I was approached by a school district in our state to become their county Arts Integration Specialist. It was the first position of it’s kind at a county-level in our state and I jumped at the opportunity.
During my tenure there, we expanded the arts integration efforts to 5 elementary schools feeding to 2 middle schools. I kept documenting the processes I used in that original blog and people from around the country started asking me to provide professional development for their own schools and districts. I couldn’t replicate myself, so I created my first online course on the processes I had developed and sold it for 75 dollars on the website. Within a week, it had sold out. From there, I created the first online arts education and integration conference and we had over 100 attendees. Other bloggers at the time (who have since gone on to start their own education companies) began asking how I created that conference and started their own successful online conferences for their niche. Since then, we’ve been steadily growing and expanding every year. By 2016, I had left my full-time job and was running our website full time. Eventually, we became an accredited Institution. We now serve over 800,000 educators every year on our site and provide a membership, 6 accredited online classes, a certification program for arts integration specialists, and an annual online conference that was recently headlined by Julie Andrews and attended by over 2,000 educators worldwide.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Several years ago, I was asked to keynote a conference at the US Department of Education. The night before the speech, I woke up in a sweat, fearing that my message of the importance of creativity in education wasn’t going to impact these participants. So I opened my email to try and distract myself and found a message from a former student. This student had been in my first arts integration effort and I had selected her for a big part in our upcoming musical. Her classroom teacher had suggested I give her a different part with less lines to memorize because this child was struggling to read. Instead, the child and I worked together every recess and she became the star of the show. It was the whole reason I advocate for using arts integration: because the arts are access points. That night, she had emailed me out of the blue to thank me for that role and to let me know she was now going to graduate from college — the first black woman to do so in her family. It was as if the Universe were confirming to me that the message I was about to share with this room of educators was exactly what they needed to hear. And it affirmed that what our organization does on a daily basis matters — more than we sometimes even realize.
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?
Creativity, Integrity, Service. I feel so strongly about these, I wove them into our Core Values for the company.
- Creativity: Business forces you to not only create, but to embrace creativity — new ideas, originality from team members, and providing real value for your clients. Each time we’ve hit a revenue wall, or a problem with technology, or feel like the world is coming crashing down, Creativity saves us. We look for ways up, around, and over difficulties in ways that haven’t been used in that way before. For example, the idea of hosting an online conference for K-12 educators in the arts hadn’t really been done before. But I wanted to gather practicing educators and respected leaders in one space without the need to travel or have to take time away from their families. So in 2010, we created the online arts integration and STEAM conference. And now, over 11 years later, there are hundreds of online education conferences that teachers can participate in. It’s amazing to watch what a spark of creativity will do.
- Integrity: Sometimes, people feel that ethics and business don’t align. As though, if you’re a for-profit company, you’re always out for the bottom line. I totally disagree. I believe whole-heartedly that a business can hold integrity and still make money. And that making money isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a GREAT thing because it means we can further our missions, support others, offer sustainability in times of great flux (ie: Covid), and continue to work in the best interest of our clients. But I believe that happens when a business values integrity. When you do what you promise, establish policies that help both the client and your business, and you provide others with respect.
- Service: Approaching business with a servant’s heart will get you so much farther than looking at just how a situation can benefit you. At the end of the day, our business is here to serve others and provide value to the lives of K-12 teachers and by extension, the students they teach. This principle guides our decisions in what products to develop, how our customer service team responds to daily requests, and how we structure our team. Looking through this lens will completely change how you run a business, and ironically, the more you focus on serving others, the more revenue you’ll see coming in the door. Because people want to work with others they can trust. And service builds trust.
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?
I think we’ve been conditioned to believe that a strong woman is an exception and not the rule. And when men have been holding the cards for so long, it’s a threat when a strong woman comes along. Especially if that woman has an idea or a method that a man didn’t have or hasn’t seen success with on their own terms.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
Two years ago, I was asked to a meeting to discuss a new business idea a local business owner had to expand his company. When I arrived, I realized I was the only woman in the room. These men began talking about the idea and immediately jumped on how to monetize and advertise it. As I listened, I began to ask questions about the product itself: had it been tested in the market, what were the results, what demographic was the product best suited for, etc. The men looked at me in surprise as if that information was extraneous. They answered in vague terms and went right back to discussing the advertising component. When they started to get excited about placing billboard ads on the local roadways, I jumped in again and asked if they had considered digital advertising on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Google instead. One of the men finally looked me in the eye (after avoiding eye contact all night) and said “I’m a serial entrepreneur and I can tell you those digital ads don’t work. Why don’t you just let the big boys talk?”
At which point I looked at him and said “Well, Mr. Serial Entrepreneur. Have you ever had a successful business?”
He answered that he had recently sold a business idea he had been working on for the past year and a half for 25,000 dollars.
I responded that I had made that much profit in using digital ads for our business in the last 30 days. So he might want to reconsider the qualities of a “big boy”.
This was the first time I had felt the slap of insignificance simply because I was a woman. This person had no idea about my business history and he didn’t want to know. He made the assumption that as a woman, I didn’t play a big enough game in business to even warrant answering my questions, much less entertaining the idea that I might have something valuable to offer the conversation.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
I don’t think it’s our responsibility to make other people feel more at ease. I do think one of advantages of being a powerful woman is knowing we live in the “and”. Own who you are. AND also treat others the way you would like to be treated. Take up the space that is yours. AND offer a seat to another person who also has great ideas. We can use the power of AND to enhance, diffuse, engage, and collaborate with anyone around us — whether they are uneasy or not.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
You know, language and intent are powerful. I am so mindful of the language I use around my daughter, and around my nephews. When boys and girls hear empowering terms used to describe both genders, it influences how they think about their own role in society. I grew up in the generation that said “women can be anything — even the President”, and then continued to use language that degrades or minimizes their contributions. It’s time to not only change our language, but also our intent in how we use the language.
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?
Working in education, there’s definitely a hierarchy in positions between men and women. There are more women as teachers and more men in high level positions like superintendent and supervisors. I often wonder why that is, and sometimes believe it’s because women aren’t always good at taking what they want. They wait and follow the steps. And men will often ignore the steps and go for what they want right away. I’ve done this myself. When I was in Central Office, I asked for a better salary and more job responsibilities. I was told they were going to advocate for a new position for me. But first, I needed to “follow the steps”: put in a year in my current position so no one else thought I was sidestepping the system, earn the job by working longer hours and connecting with the “right” people. I played the game for a year and half, and then was told they couldn’t get the position approved. Turned out, they had never asked on my behalf. I sometimes think about how I would have handled that if I were a man. Would I have followed the steps? Or would I have demanded the job and raise because my previous work showed I had already earned it? We’ll never know, but I DO know how I’d handle it now. And I can assure you: it wouldn’t equal longer hours away from my family and connecting with the “right” people.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
For me, it’s the constant proving. It’s proving that your opinions and ideas are worth as much as a man’s. It’s not just a wage gap that women make “.79 cents on every man’s dollar”. Women are constantly struggling with the fact that their opinions and ideas are also treated like 79 cents on the man’s dollar. The proving is exhausting — and absolutely unnecessary.
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?
Absolutely. When I left my job at Central Office to work full-time on my business, there were so many moving parts. And at the time, I was a solopreneur. I had to create the content, the products, and the delivery systems. I also had to figure out the technology, since I didn’t have the money to hire anyone. Our entire website and online products have been designed by myself and my in-house team. I started working on my business full-time when my daughter entered Kindergarten. I wanted to be there to put her on the bus and be home when she got home every day. And I did that. But the I was working until 9–10PM every night, and every weekend. I was physically present, but I wasn’t mentally present with my family at all. I didn’t have time to cultivate my friendships, other than a quick Happy Birthday post on Facebook once a year. And once we grew big enough that I was employing a full-time staff and we had an office building, suddenly I had more responsibilities than ever and the workload never stopped. I was working in front of a computer 16 hours a day and not moving. So in the span of 3 years, I put on 50 pounds. I had started a business to serve other educators, but I was doing it at the expense of my health, family, and friends.
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?
The day my husband came home and told me he had been having an affair was the day the crazy merry-go-round stopped. I found it so cliche, you know? Powerful woman intimidates her husband and he goes off to find comfort with someone else. I wanted to blame him, but within the first hour after finding out, I knew it went deeper than that. I wasn’t to blame, but I had a role. I had placed my business above my life. My priorities were seriously out of whack and I had known it for a long time. I had been promising to slow down and then I would keep on choosing work over communicating with my husband. And the thing is — my husband and I love each other so much. But at some point, we had both stopped trying with each other. I had turned my focus towards solely building my business and had missed everything else. So I stopped. I gave our business operations completely to my leadership team for an entire month. We went to counseling and put in the work. When I felt like I could handle it, I eased back into work, but placed some significant boundaries on my time: no work after I pick my daughter up from school, no work on weekends, email is turned off each night, and delegating anything that’s not necessary for me to be doing. My husband and I spend that time talking and working through our questions and it has rebuilt our relationship from the ground up. We are happy again — maybe more so than I can ever remember us being. And oddly enough, the business has actually grown faster. It took almost losing everything to know what’s truly important to me.
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 still struggle with this. I believe that everyone is beautiful — makeup, no makeup, power suit, sweatpants, etc. But I will admit that I always put on makeup before I get in front of a camera for a Zoom call. I am very mindful of my appearance before presenting anything publicly. I’ve seen educators be shamed for their personal appearance in professional platforms, and I do have a desire to look put together. I was raised in a home that placed value on that and for me, it’s a part of how I show up to work. For me, it puts me in a different mindset to put on a suit and go to work. When I’m working from home in my sweats, it feels messy. So that’s usually when I do my “messy” creative work.
How is this similar or different for men?
I think men in a professional setting also leverage their appearance for their work. But it’s not the same (I’m not sure how many men in professional education settings are worried about putting on makeup in the morning). For men, attention to professional appearance is an afterthought to how they are being perceived. For women, it can be at the forefront a lot of the time.
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.)
For me, these are the five things I’ve had to cultivate to thrive and succeed as a powerful woman:
- Tenacity. You’re going to get a lot thrown your way. When you shine, people are going to start throwing rocks. You’re going to hit roadblocks and bumps over and over again. Tech will fail, people will disappoint, and the other shoe will always drop. The only way you’re going to get through that is with tenacity. You get up and go again. Even when you fail — especially when you fail. When a product launch bombs or a negative review gets shared and commented on — grit your teeth and get back out there. It’s the tenacious ones who stick around.
- An Abundance Mindset. I never understood why people compete with each other. There’s not one pie that we’re fighting to get a piece of. There’s lot of pies for lots of different people. Knowing that there’s more than enough out there for everyone has the power to totally change how you think about being a powerful woman. Because once you own that what’s meant for you will never pass you by, you’ll start sharing your opportunities with others. Which in turn, leads to more opportunities for you. It’s time to stop fighting for your piece and start being open to baking a bigger pie for all.
- Boundaries. As I shared in my tipping point story, boundaries have made all the difference for me to be able to balance an incredible business with a phenomenal life. Consider what you really want. Is it more time with your family and friends? A different lifestyle? Not to have to worry about money in the bank? Serving your community? Whatever it is, I guarantee that you’ll need to set boundaries on your time, your money, and your priorities to make that happen. Think about what those boundaries look like for you to reach your goal and then stick to them.
- Support. We are not built to do life alone. Even if you’re single and love it, you still have a support network somewhere. Being a powerful woman can be a lonely experience if you don’t actively reach out for support. As a Type-A personality, I always feel like I can do it better myself (or that if I want a job done right, I need to do it myself). But what my tipping point story taught me is that I was delusional. I was never doing this alone. I had a team and a network of support that gave me a net to land on when I fell. Find yourself a mentor (in person or online), cultivate your relationships, and support others around you. We’re always better together.
- Purpose. The one thing I will always remember that my dad taught me was that if you aren’t excited about your work when your feet hit the floor in the morning, you need to find something else to spend your time on. For me, this comes down to having a purpose. A purpose is something that calls to you, even when you don’t feel like it. For me, that’s helping educators reach every child, every day. I believe we can do that in and through the arts. Even on the days when I have to run payroll, sit in meetings, deal with chargebacks, and all the unsexy CEO stuff, I’m still excited to go to work because I’m passionate about my purpose. And one last thing: your passion may change, but your purpose will remain steady. So you might change jobs 20 times because your passions may shift. But if you’re always working in your purpose, you’ll thrive no matter where you are.
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.
Marie Forleo and Oprah. Both of these women inspire and have been mentors for me as to what’s possible with a little grit, a little luck, and a lot of integrity.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.