As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Wilson.
Lisa Wilson’s experience in business covers a full spectrum of fields and backgrounds. From starting a company at her dining room table, being the only woman in corporate board meetings, and selling a profitable company Lisa has learned business principles and methods from millionaire entrepreneurs. She has experienced firsthand what works and what doesn’t when it comes to leading teams.
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 my first child was born, I decided to go back to school to get my Bachelor’s Degree from Stetson University. During that time, I’ve worked very hard to earn my degree in three and a half years while also being a single mom living on food stamps with student loans. Immediately after I graduated, I took a job as a caseworker assisting families in crisis for a year and a half. That job taught me the importance of organization, prioritization, and the empathetic side of work. I reached a stage of my life where I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I took that as an opportunity to start a business from my dining room table. In under a year, I was paid to close that business down and begin a brand new company as a subsidiary of a national corporation. I learned how to conduct quarterly board meetings, investor presentations, and how to run multiple offices around the country. I also learned what I wanted to be as a leader and who I didn’t want to be. I eventually sold back my shares in that company and returned to working on my own. I swore off ever having business partners because I refused to lose my voice again.
During my time working on my own, I taught business leaders how to build a more robust customer service department, how to construct better marketing strategies, and how to put SOPs into place to make things run smoothly. As I was running my own company, I met Mike Millet, my current business partner, through his girlfriend, Angela, who handled promotional products for my company at the time. Angela kept insisting that I meet Mike as he and I had the same ideas surrounding good leadership and a passion for making people’s businesses better. Mike and I had a natural chemistry, so we started a leadership company in January 2020. Our “Why” centers around making work better for every individual. The backbone of our teaching principles rested squarely on people’s ability to get together in groups, so when Covid hit, it hit us hard before we could even get started. We lovingly refer to Mike as our G.I. Jones (a little bit G.I. Joe and a little bit Indiana Jones) because he is a retired Army Ranger and is one of only a hand-full of people in the world who handle expedition-level risk for TV & film. Mike repels into volcanoes, tags tiger sharks, and a laundry list of other things. By June 2020, TV & film productions were trying to come back to work, and Mike was turning down so many opportunities because he couldn’t handle it all. We had the idea of starting a company that could handle the expedition-level risk as well as the Covid Compliance because, ultimately, we were still able to satisfy our “Why” of making work better for every individual. This was our chance. Epitome Risk was born.
Now, one year in, we have helped many organizations get back to work. We have also started our own clinical lab, FourthWall Testing, which handles point-of-care Covid testing which offers a new test that measures your body’s response to the Covid vaccine, so people can get back to work with confidence. I’m thankful for the path that led me here. My faith has been restored in having business partners because I found some pretty incredible people with whom I run these organizations. I love what I do and I have so much passion for getting people back to work in a way that makes them feel like they don’t have to sacrifice anything. I’m proud of what we have built and who we are as an organization
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I have had the privilege of working alongside some of the most intelligent scientists in the world who are leading the way in Covid research. The way I came upon them is a crazy networking story. I was on the event board for the Susan G. Komen More Than Pink Walk Orlando in both 2020 and 2021, and while I was there, I met Deborah Hausman, who is an absolutely electric networker. While speaking one day at a committee meeting, I was telling her what Epitome does in handling Covid Compliance for TV and film. Her response was, “I have to introduce you to my husband, Marvin!” I was so tired of waiting on outside labs to get Covid results back to my clients in a timely manner, so I wanted to start our lab. Deborah’s husband is an immunologist who was doing research into neutralizing antibodies post-infection. We met and the rest is history — FourthWall Testing was born. We now offer point-of-care Covid testing and a neutralizing antibody test that measures your body’s immune response post-vaccination. I have learned that you never know who you are talking to, so if you have a need, tell as many people as you can because you never know what their network is.
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?
This is definitely the “cringiest” mistake I ever made. During my first year of leading a large group of people, I was confronted with a challenging male employee. Unsure of the best way to handle this dynamic, I asked my direct supervisor for advice. He advised me to tell the employee that he needed to listen to me because “I’m the boss and I don’t owe any explanation for the decisions I make”. I went to the employee and had the most awkward conversation of my life only to find out that he went to my direct supervisor to complain about the way I handled it afterward…. my supervisor told him he had no idea why I would’ve behaved in such a way! I was absolutely mortified because I went against my gut in the way I should’ve handled it. I took horrid advice from a poor leader and had no one to blame but myself. As uncomfortable as that memory is, I’m so thankful for the learning experience it was, and to always stay true to who I am.
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?
My husband, Brett has always been so encouraging. He’s my biggest cheerleader and sound board when I need to think out loud. He left a six-figure job and took a leap of faith to come work for Epitome and support my dream of running a successful business. He takes on so much of the responsibility with the kids when he is home and will also going off on productions for months at a time when the company needs him. He never complains and is a source of inspiration for me every day.
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?
I love doing breathing exercises and envisioning how great I will feel when the meeting is over and I’ve succeeded in what I set out to do. If it’s a high-stakes meeting, I always try to take some time to think about how the other side might be feeling or what a win would feel like to them. It allows me to better prepare and foresee some of the sticking points might be. Then, right before I am ready to walk in to the situation, I put my hands on my hips in a hero’s pose. It gives me that last jolt of confidence I need.
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?
We all grow up with different life experiences, different perspectives, and different lessons. It’s difficult to run a company with only one demographic’s perspective because you will always have blinders on to things you never experienced.
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.
1. Self-Educate. Read books and observe stories produced by people of other cultures and backgrounds. It’s especially important to make sure the stories you read by people of color haven’t been white-washed in any way. So often, black voices are molded to be more “palatable” for a white audience, so their stories are told through the lens of a white perspective. We are robbed of learning when this occurs. The same occurs when female characters are written or produced without any women having input into our actual struggles and insights. Do research into what you are consuming.
2. Be Part of the Conversation. One of the ways I most enjoy being part of the universal conversation surrounding my interests is through Clubhouse. There is so much diversity and fresh perspectives present that it blows down preconceived ideas of stereotypes. Venture into rooms but go in to not only tell your story, but to also listen to other people’s life experiences and journey.
3. Research. It’s so important that we all work harder to learn more than just surface information. When new topics come up, it is tempting to let other people do the research and report back to us what their take-aways were. The only way to learn something is to do the research yourself and draw your own conclusions. In my line of work, I see that so many people are uneducated as to what is going on because they don’t read the peer-reviewed articles written by scientists or do any work beyond the headlines they see as they are scrolling. Do research into things like gender theory, world history, and human origins.
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?
Leadership expert Simon Sinek speaks about the need to change the title of CEO to “Chief Vision Officer.” He argues that the CVO is in charge of “setting and ensuring that the company stays on the path of the vision”, which is a sentiment that I couldn’t agree with more. The daily running of the business makes it challenging to keep your eyes on the bigger picture, so companys need a strong visionary to keep the ship pointed in the right direction.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
So often we look at CEOs of organizations as having all of the answers to every situation thrown at their company when the truth is that the role is a lot of trial-and-error along the way. Strong CEOs understand the importance of deferring to their team members in solving complex problems because we don’t always have the best solution in mind right away.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
We have been told for so long that our way of relating is not conducive to successful business strategies. Women are socially conditioned from the time we are young to communicate and express ourselves through connecting. For a long time, business has been a stereotypically masculine landscape where collaboration, cooperation, and non-confrontational communication were looked upon as weakness. It took me a long time to realize that the way I wanted to run my business, which is through collaboration, empathy, and cooperation, was the right way for me. I didn’t need to run it in a way that a man told me was the correct way. Any time I have tried to run my company under the advice of a man telling me I was wrong; I always made a bad decision and wasn’t being true to myself.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
My job is a lot of relationship-building. When you are first coming up in business, you think that the CEO is constantly living in spreadsheets and CRMs, but the reality is something very different. I spend my days building relationships and linking people to each other. I was on a conference call once while my eleven-year-old was listening from the back seat of my car. When I hung up, he said, “Mom, I love listening to you on work calls because you don’t only just talk about work. You talk about so many other things that have nothing to do with work.” Maintaining strong networks has become my main objective and role within my organization.
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?
I believe that humility is the most important trait. When you manage people and processes, you are never going to make decisions that will make everybody happy. You need to be able to hear the negative feedback from those that were affected. Understanding that you may have made an error in judgment and having a willingness to admit it is the most important attribute for a true leader. That’s what separates the leaders from bosses.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Listen to your own instincts and check In with yourself often. The best decisions are made with a clear head and a deep breath. Allow for autonomy within your organization. If you can’t trust your people to do their job, then they shouldn’t be in their position. Resist the temptation to micromanage your team. Autonomy fosters creativity and freedom to come up with new ideas. It’s important to have a team with diverse perspectives so you can keep things fresh.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I feel that our work within the Covid realm has helped people get back to work with confidence so they can earn a living without sacrificing their health. We are attempting to change the way people view medicine and how they can advocate for themselves medically.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Be Patient. I am very much a “Type A” personality who tends to stress when things don’t move as quickly as I would like. It has taken me years to realize that when doors don’t blow open, it’s most often a good thing. I have learned to make the waiting period a time to regroup, find the holes in the system, and make sure the infrastructure is in place for the new opportunity.
2. Network As Much As You Can. It took me a long time to learn this one. The importance of finding the “who” instead of the “how” while trying to solve a problem is incredibly high. I have lost countless nights of sleep trying to figure out how to solve a problem when I just needed to be introduced to the “who”.
3. Only Do It If You’re Passionate About It. As an early entrepreneur, I found myself running businesses that I didn’t feel passionate about merely because they generated income for me, or because I felt a sense of duty to my staff. Because I didn’t have a fire for it, I struggled to have a voice. Taking sales calls really took a lot out of me and having to speak on panels was a challenge. Now that I am doing something I am truly passionate about, people can’t get me to shut up about the topics my business centers around.
4. Decompress. Self-care is a crucial element to success. I should probably be looking in the mirror and repeating this to myself because this is the one I struggle with the most. Daily meditations, breathing exercises when I’m stressed, and massage therapy have saved me when my stress levels seemed out of control.
5. Know The Value of Your Time. I can only speak to this in regard to my experience growing a small business. You reach a stage when you need to decide whether or not you are going to keep doing the work of three people in an effort to keep all of the money in the business, or if you are going to hire on additional staff to take on the day-to-day work so that you can continue to grow and foster the organization as a whole. It’s a scary time because it’s a leap of faith and gamble on your ability to do such a thing. You need to evaluate whether or not your time is better utilized making shipping labels to get your product out to customers or spent in meetings with a prospective client who could bring you thousands of dollars in business. Figure out what your average sale is and how many hours it takes you to land it and make that your estimated hourly wage. Making shipping labels doesn’t make much sense, does it?
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 want the “Mad-Men-Era” way of business negotiations to go the way of the dinosaurs. I believe that the best business deals are done in a way that all ships rise with the tide. One side doesn’t need to suffer so the other side can “win”. I love doing business in a way that is cooperative and collaborative. Everyone should feel like they are winning.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My dad once told me, “Lisa, life is a long time. You need to always do what makes you happy and never regret it.” It’s such a counterpoint to what we always hear people say about life being short. It’s important to remember that we are here to love life and love those around us. Nothing else matters if we aren’t happy. Every decision needs to be made with that in mind.
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.
I would give anything to meet with Sara Blakely. I’m very proud of my company reaching $1M in revenue in our first year, but I am already looking to the next milestone. Sara’s story is so inspiring because she didn’t give up even when she was repeatedly told “no” on her way up. I would love the opportunity to pick her brain about the decisions she made that she believes catapulted her business and the ones she wishes she could revisit.