As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Thee.
Lisa Thee leads Launch Consulting’s Data for Good practice, helping the world’s most innovative healthcare, and global technology companies to improve digital safety, anti-toxicity, and apply machine learning for innovation. As an entrepreneur, Lisa was the CEO and Co-Founder of Minor Guard — an Artificial Intelligence software company focused on making children safer online and in real life, and is doing a TEDx talk in 2021 about “Using Technology to disrupt Human Trafficking in the digital age.” She is the Co-Author of Demystifying Artificial Intelligence for the Enterprise and the host of the Navigating Forward podcast. Lisa also currently serves as an advisory board member for Engineered Medical Solutions, Humaxa, Orchestrated Intelligence, Spectrum Labs, Lately.ai, and Marketplace Risk. She is a Board of Director’s member for 3 Strands Global Foundation, a human trafficking prevention and reintegration focused organization. She has been named to the 2021 Top Health & Safety, A.I., and Privacy Thought Leaders as well as the Top 150 Women in Business You Should Follow lists by Thinkers 360, and is one of the Top 100 Human Trafficking & Slavery Influence Leaders globally.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path? Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I had traditional success in the technology industry as a director of revenue for a $6B P&L, but I was lacking the mission I needed to feel satisfied in my career. As a side project in 2016–2017, I worked with the innovative startups and non-profits to disrupt human trafficking. I found significant satisfaction in providing a voice for the voiceless and bringing resources to bear for vulnerable women and children. When we deployed our solution in 2017 to accelerate the coordinated national response from reports of child sexual abuse material discovered by tech companies to law enforcement from 30 days to just 24 hours in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, I knew I could not go back to being satisfied going back to selling servers.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions.” My first manager would repeat this back to me every time I ran into her cubicle with the issue of the day. It is easy to spot all the areas that need fixing around the office, but not all problems are created equal. I appreciate that she helped me to think through a recommendation before I surfaced an issue. This helped me to determine how big the problem was, how much effort it took to fix it, and assume responsibility if it was something in my control. Thanks Christina Guerrera, you were the best first boss I could have asked for!!
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
“Present over Perfect” by Shuanna Norquiest. I read this book a few years back when I was chasing traditional success metrics for my career while in the midst of raising two young children with my husband. When I am feeling overwhelmed, I still repeat a mantra I learned from the that book, “Every day I wake up worthy in God’s eye. My worth isn’t on the line, I can’t get more of it and I can’t lose it”. This simple but powerful reminder allowed me to shift from a focus on success, to a focus on significance in my career and never look back.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are a female founded software company with a focus on social justice. Being able to scale our technology roadmap into major players in the technology industry by leveraging cutting edge artificial intelligence capabilities to benefit marginalized women and children while making a profit is showcasing that Shared Value is possible. Being a part of this journey has been wonderful and it’s amazing what can happen when diverse voices have a seat at the table where decisions are made.
As a social impact start up we optimized for revenue AND impact. For the first six months of Minor Guard, everything was running smoothly. Then, my technical co-founder was offered an opportunity to return to his prior employer that was hard to refuse. His career change was a turning point to reflect on and evaluate my own core values. What was more important to me: impacting a million lives or making a million dollars?
After some deep self-reflection, I knew I had to focus on impact, as it is a core value of mine. We mutually agreed he could advance our vision for safer platforms for children from inside a phone OEM than trying to influence from outside in our startup. The product vision we set out to achieve is available on the market today and will be the industry standard by 2023, just in time for my own child to get their first smart phones.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
According to a recent survey from Forbes, 61% of women surveyed are planning a major career change post-pandemic. In addition, 1 in 4 women surveyed are interested in starting their own business. Emily Kennedy and myself are successful startup executives who have built our social impact businesses from scratch. We have released an Entrepreneurship 101 e-course series to help accelerate women towards success. Our course is titled Spark Passion, and we demystify the process of founding a company and provide guidance on free resources to launch your business, find your customers, build your minimum viable product, and prevent burnout with community and wellness practices.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
As a diverse leader in tech, I find that the best advice for me often comes from within. I follow a meditation practice and do daily walks to ensure that I have enough space to hear my own inner wisdom. It is good to get input from others, but at the end of the day only you know all the responsibilities on your plate and what is the best choice for your life in the moment. I have never followed a traditional career path to success, it happened when I stopped trying.
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?
Persistence — I am from the Midwest and was raised with the mindset that your word is the most valuable asset you have. When I commit to something, I will see it through in a way that brings along everyone. My mantra is bad news is ok, but surprises are not. Where you have transparency, trust, and the ability to adjust to new information you can drive the change you want to see in the world.
Passion — As a female social impact start up founder, I had to learn that my passion is what makes me memorable. My skills, credentials, and network are what get me in the room; but what closes the deal is people’s belief that I am the right person at the right time to execute the vision I lay out. That is all based on emotion which is triggered by passion, then validated with data.
Connection — I am the classic definition of a connector from Malcom Gladwell “The Tipping Point.” I love people, learning more about what inspires each and every individual I encounter, and how I can remove roadblocks to bring their unique vision to the world. It is an honor when someone truly allows you to see them.
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 C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
C-Suite executives have to be able to see the bigger picture in everything. It is about seeing industry trends as they emerge and aligning your team to take advantage of the headwinds. I have never met a women who has said “I went against my gut instincts and it turned out great!”
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
C-Suite executives have all the answers. Leaders don’t benefit from their teams trying to guess what they want to hear when a decision has to be made. We need your subject matter expertise to guide the conversation and to make sure we are seeing around the corners to make the right choice for the time. Don’t seek to guess what the HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) is, challenge it.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistake I see is people coming into an organization and not take the time to establish trust and respect with their team before assuming they know how to fix issues that they don’t understand well. I notice a lot of “people” problems that end up being “process” problems that wear people down over time. Go slow to go fast in addressing these challenges. Oftentimes, structure and support from leadership can get a team unstuck.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
When I worked in business development in corporate America, I dreaded when the customer deals went to legal for contracting. It often seemed to be a “bring me a rock” game between the parties and I always worried the 6–9 months’ worth of business development work I did to get there would go down the drain because of an impasse. I now value the detail-oriented lawyers on both sides of the table helping leadership to see around corners in case something goes wrong before the work starts. Funny how being a CEO that must write the check for hourly guidance has changed my perspective, sometimes it is hard to value what you don’t pay for.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Self-care is important to maintaining your productivity. And the perfect example of this would be my time with Intel I previously mentioned. The message is so important it bears repeating — perfection is impossible, so strive to be present and active in your life. Be with your family. Get a hobby. Join a cause.
- Shared value between mission and profits is possible. These days, companies that give back and contribute to social good are able to build some of the strongest brands (i.e. Salesforce, TOMS). Profit is not evil, in fact it is necessary to drive sustainable change and solve some of societies most complex and critical problems. If philanthropy alone would solve these issues, they would be fixed by now. We need business with a seat at the table helping drive innovation.
- The power of “No”. In the wise words of Warren Buffett “You have gotta keep control of your time, and you can’t unless you say No. You can’t let people set the agenda in life.”
- Connection is the antidote to shame and helps you get unstuck. When you’re in a rough patch, don’t be afraid to reach out to colleagues that you can trust for advice. I did this when deciding to retire from corporate America and start my entrepreneurship journey at 40, the support and guidance from people I respect and admire allowed me to face my fears and lead.
- Keep a relentless focus on your customer. You need people with different strengths to develop solutions that meet customer needs. Everyone has different skills and temperaments, and you need people who see the same problem from different angles to build a team which is greater than the sum of its parts where everyone feels valued.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
A great work culture comes from fostering an environment conducive to vulnerability, experimentation and learning. Just like machines, we learn much more from our failures then our wins. We need to let our teams feel safe to take educated risks and learn from mistakes; it is table stakes for innovation. You can’t do that in an environment which is not built on trust, respect, and service leadership.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. :-)
The internet is over 20 years old and we are at a tipping point where hoping the tech industry can regulate itself is no longer serving society. With new competitors coming into the market every day, it is important there is an enforceable legal framework in place in order to make it a fair playing field for the industry and a safer space for society. The first versions of the automobile did not include safety features like seatbelts, but there was eventually enough traffic on the road that the need to mitigate risk to the consumers required safety laws.
1. Increase the age on the Child Online Privacy and Protection Act from 13 to 16 with compliance validation. This expands the regulation to protect children during their most vulnerable and impressionable stage of life when they are most likely to fall victim to human trafficking, sextortion, or cyberbullying. Age and identity validation online is currently a weak point that must be addressed.
2. Government Funded digital safety PSA campaigns targeting both children and adults. Education is needed to convey the risks and responsibilities, similar to the tobacco, alcohol, driving, and firearms industries.
How can our readers further follow you online?