As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Celeste Frye, CEO of Public Works Partners.
Celeste Frye co-founded Public Works Partners, a WBE-certified urban planning and consulting firm, more than a decade ago out of a passion to help mission-driven organizations increase their positive impact on local communities. Specializing in developing programs grounded in data analysis, management practices, and financial sustainability, Public Works Partners helps organizations identify ways to improve performance and measure impact and success. An urban planner by trade, Frye has extensive expertise designing and implementing multi-stakeholder initiatives and building strong connections across the government, nonprofit, and private sectors.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
After holding several positions in New York City government, I knew there was a necessity for consultants who both understood the needs of public sector clients and shared their goals of increasing programmatic impact in the communities they serve. Public Works grew out of the union of these two ideas — providing high-quality services that build stronger neighborhoods and communities.
We began as management consultants focused on strengthening our clients’ internal operations, evaluating and improving program outcomes, and identifying and implementing strategies for sustainable growth (focus areas that are still core to our work today). But, as a trained urban planner, I knew that sound management was just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to building equitable, opportunity-filled communities. Another key piece is advancing physical infrastructure that responds to community needs. We began expanding our urban planning practice to really engage communities throughout the planning process — giving them the tools and platforms to advocate for their futures. Today, these two service areas work hand-in-hand to support our clients and the communities they serve.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
2016 was a time of significant change in my own life. The business that I had co-founded with two partners had grown substantially and I was beginning to think through what the next steps might look like. I set an intention — written down, but not articulated to a single other person — that I wanted to be a CEO and drive a convertible.
At the time, I assumed that this was roughly a five-year plan and would likely require me moving to or starting another firm, as my partners and I governed Public Works Partners collaboratively. To my surprise, six weeks later, my partners independently decided that they were each ready to move on to new challenges. Suddenly I had to choose to close the company, or to be CEO. I dug into that well of intention I had set and decided to become sole owner and CEO. A year and a half later, when the company became profitable again, I bought my convertible.
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?
As a busy parent and commuter, I always tried to work from home as much as possible and never wanted to get much office space. But I realized this was not necessarily what the rest of the team wanted. Sometimes, I would come into the office and find people having to practically timeshare desk chairs! For young staff with urban apartment lifestyles, having a comfortable space where people could choose to spend time and collaborate became an important draw. I believe it will become so again, at least part-time, after the pandemic.
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?
There are so many people who’ve helped along the way! I have to give a shout out to my husband, who has been a steady rock of support for me and my business, even when I had to invest my own salary back in the company. I also have a core group of mostly women business owners who are my ‘people.’ We can call or reach out on a moment’s notice for advice or help, but also to celebrate the wins. During the worst days of the pandemic in New York City, my friend Anat Gerstein of Anat Gerstein, Inc., a PR firm, and I walked each other through applying for PPP loans and managing our teams and offices, gut-checking the hard decisions we were making to ensure our businesses survived.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
My most important rule of thumb for preparing myself for a stressful or high-stakes meeting is to write down what I want to say and key points I want to make, in my own words, and then practice them out loud a few times. If you have heard yourself say the hard thing already, it is easier to deliver it to an audience. Often, I don’t use my notes once I am in the moment, but having them helps me feel and act confident.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Having a diverse senior team means that we are regularly exposed to and asked to consider multiple perspectives on everything we make decisions on, from the clients we collaborate with to staffing decisions to the language we use to describe our work. This translates into processes and end-products that hold more meaning and potential for a greater number of people because, even from the highest level, we approach it through the lens of diverse-lived experiences.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
This is what we strive to do every day at Public Works. I think the key for each is informed engagement and active listening. The first step is identifying a focus, doing your research, and understanding what has stood in the way of inclusivity, representation, and equity. From there, you have to go to the people impacted by these barriers and truly collaborate to design solutions that work for them. This is where the engagement and listening comes in — you can develop highly innovative, well-intentioned strategies to counteract inequitable systems, but they will only be effective if they are accessible to those they aim to support.
An example of this is the M/WBE contracting program, which I can speak to specifically in New York City. Public Works is a proud Woman-owned Business Enterprise (WBE), a certification that has opened the door to many opportunities for us, especially to large, City-led contracts. However, as a small business, the payment structure of City contracts often stretches our capacity and is a major barrier to businesses without significant lines of credit. This means that even with the participation opportunities afforded by the M/WBE program, qualified businesses cannot compete for contracts because they cannot carry the overhead. Opportunities and programs like this are essential, but they have to be informed by the lived-experiences of those they aim to serve in order to ensure that they are practical and effective.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. 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?
Great question. Ultimately, the CEO is the final decision maker, particularly about where to invest our hard-earned profits to enable the company to thrive and grow. We are responsible to the wellbeing of our employees as well as the success of our services or products, and our customers’ satisfaction.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
There is an abiding myth that the CEO has to do everything, or at least know how to do everything. As a consultant who advises clients on how to manage their organizations, I am particularly prone to this fallacy. As I gain experience and confidence in what I am doing, I realize that it is better for the team and the firm for me to empower each person to do what they do best. We all succeed better together.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Commanding the attention in the room is always a greater challenge for women, especially if the room is dominated by men. When I had male partners, clients often gravitated toward them as the assumed leaders. It has honestly been a relief since I became CEO that now it is only me. If you don’t want to deal with a woman CEO, we are not the right firm for you. On a personal level, trusting yourself and taking up the mantle of the leader can be harder for women. My parents would say I’ve been a “leader” all my life, bossing my toys and friends around, but that early confidence often gets lost in the confusion of growing up female in America.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Lucky for me, making decisions is one of my superpowers, so the job is easier than I thought it would be. I am making decisions all day long, informed by recommendations and research, and I am able to decide and then move on.
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? Can you explain what you mean?
You must be comfortable, even happy, with making a thousand decisions every day and then letting them stand. If you second-guess yourself, you will work twice as long. It is also essential to be willing to have the hard conversations, from giving constructive feedback to apologizing when you have done wrong. I’ll admit, I am still working on the hard conversations. Finally, you have to have a curious and constantly learning mindset — this role will humble you.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Find a bank and a banker who believes in you and supports you, and ask for money as often as you can. The best way to support your team is to pay them what they are worth and give them room to grow. Build and believe in a diverse team, treat them all with respect, and watch them learn from each other. Model the behaviors and beliefs that you want your team to hold.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Both personally and professionally, I invest in my community. I am an active volunteer and leader with local nonprofits, especially related to my kids’ schools and activities. I’d like to do more, but I know that giving back looks different over the course of your life. Because I have kids at home, organizing my volunteering around them makes the most sense right now. Through Public Works Partners, we also support our nonprofit clients, partners and colleagues through annual giving, sponsoring events, and employee donation matching. A commitment to equity and anti-racism runs through all of our work at this time.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Own your own knowledge and expertise.
You know your business better than anyone. Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself and your business and trust that your knowledge is real.
2. Give yourself time to think.
Give yourself permission to relax. Time away gives you the freedom and flexibility to process your ideas and approach them in new ways.
3. Ask for help.
Don’t be afraid to make that call to ask for advice or help. People want to be asked. You are able to get the support that you need, and it builds relationships. Helping other colleagues is reciprocal and will come back around.
4. Know the value of your time.
Know the actual dollar value of your time and allocate it to what is most important. Hire others to do what they do best so you can do what’s in your wheelhouse.
5. Let your mission be your guide.
Stay true to the mission — this helps you make all your business decisions, from hiring the right people to conducting yourself ethically to choosing the right projects. Remember why you are doing the work you do when times get difficult, and double down on achieving your mission.
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.
I would start a revolution in service to others (see my life lesson quote below!). In past generations, religious institutions and civic organizations such as Rotary Club, while not without problems such as segregation, served to facilitate and organize Americans to do good work in their communities. As the influence of those organizations has waned, we need new forms of channeling and supporting people’s human impulse to help others.
Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson” quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. — Margaret Mead
This quote is popular for good reason. Many of us were raised to believe that people with authority make the decisions — from elected officials to those in uniform to corporate leaders. Community-based efforts and solutions can feel like they are not going to make a big change. But the power of the racial equity #BlackLivesMatter movement is that it is thousands of local efforts, individual people, who are creating change in their own communities.