As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Marion Lewis.
Marion Lewis is a results-driven entrepreneur, investor, philanthropist, and business community leader with more than 25 years of successful digital experience. As the founder and CEO of Govenda by BoardBookit, she is passionate about providing best-in-class solutions and modern tools to support organizations’ boards of directors.
In addition to her professional experience, she is proud of her work with the entrepreneurial community. She is a member of the Women Presidents Organization (WPO) and serves as an active investor of NextAct Fund, an angel investment organization that supports women-led companies.
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?
In the early 90’s, I found myself a single mother who needed to find a way to marry my business life with being a sole caretaker for my children. Back then, I found working in a traditional business setting very unforgiving to the demands of family life. So, the impetus to start my first business was to determine my own destiny, both personal and financial. It turns out I worked harder than I ever did in a traditional job, but I could do it on my own terms. I ran my first company for 20 years before exiting. Govenda is now my fourth company, and the first where I have raised outside funding to scale its growth.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I think raising outside money has been the most interesting process while running Govenda. The process of perfecting our business plan, creating a compelling story and investment deck, presenting that story to numerous groups, and then negotiating investment terms, was definitely a growth experience.
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?
Business is definitely a team sport, and there are many people who contribute to a company’s success. The first person who comes to mind is Jeanette Thomas, who co-founded all four companies with me and now serves as Govenda’s Chief Technical Officer. Additionally, I have cultivated a network of female CEO’s who I can lean on when I need advice. I am a long-time member of Women Presidents Organization, a premier peer advisory organization connecting successful entrepreneurs who own multimillion-dollar companies. Out of that group, the most significant is Yvonne Campos, who was the facilitator of my WPO group, one of the first investors in Govenda personally, and the founder of NextActFund, an angel fund focused on women-owned businesses where I am an investor and Govenda was their first portfolio company.
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’m a big believer in adequate preparation for those high-stress situations. I make sure I know my audience, do lots of research, develop an outline of how I think the interaction will go, do some role play on possible questions/issues, and identify some key questions to guide the conversation. And then I just let it go and be as authentic as I can be in the meeting. People appreciate preparation and authenticity.
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?
This is an issue that is important to me from a personal and business perspective. First of all, it’s just the right thing to do. And I think we all have a responsibility to do what we can to correct the disparities in the workplace. From a business perspective, it just makes sense. Diverse perspectives and informed opinions lead to better decision making and improved results. I believe some studies have shown that diverse teams are able to solve problems faster than teams of similar people, and I have certainly seen that across my companies.
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.
As business leaders, just one of the things we can do is make diversity an integral component of our hiring process and expand the definition of diversity beyond race, gender or religion to things like age, disability, and sexual orientation. Whenever possible, we make sure that at least one candidate for each open position meets the criteria for diversity.
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?
In short, a CEO is responsible for the overall success of a business and for making top-level managerial decisions. She is accountable and reports to a Board of Directors. But even more importantly, she leads the development and execution of long-term strategies, communicating the vision and strategy of the business to all stakeholders- investors, customers and employees.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think it is still true that there is considerable bias (both conscious and unconscious) that women face at the executive level, and women often need to outperform men to be considered equal. In addition, women are often primary caregivers in their families and face work/life balance issues in environments that aren’t always family friendly.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I love my job, and it is both more rewarding and more challenging than I thought it would be. Before I founded my first company, I thought there would be a magical moment when I would know we had ‘made’ it. In reality, each milestone is a stepping stone to the next challenge.
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?
In my experience, the most successful executives are those who are life-long learners who thrive in challenging environments. They are well grounded in the fundamentals, but flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. And, they have all been experts in building and leading teams to a common goal.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I think there are a few things that are musts:
- Clearly communicate your vision and expectations
- Hold everyone (including yourself) accountable
- Keep your team a no-drama zone and lead that by example
- Keep your eye on the destination — tie goals and initiatives to the big picture
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have contributed both time and money to many non-profit organizations including board service on organizations like Goodwill Services of Western Pennsylvania and Social Venture Partners International. I also try to make myself available to other women entrepreneurs to share what I have learned over the years.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
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 love to see a world where all women’s work is truly valued and that we all share in the responsibility for the next generation. Imagine the power that could be unleashed if all women were paid a living wage and the road to economic empowerment wasn’t limited by inadequate and/or expensive child care.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve received lots of advice from many people I respect over the years. But my favorite is still the one my father gave me when I was very young — Don’t let yourself be defined by other people’s expectations. Have the courage to forge your own path.
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
Two come to mind. First, Warren Buffet. I’ve always admired his business acumen, how his moral compass guides his business decisions, and his authenticity. Second, Oprah Winfrey. What a great success story across so many different endeavors! And, she has married her personal journey to her success in such an amazing way.
When doing any company searches, with any filters, no information loads into the pick list. Contact searches work fine, though. I’ve relogged in and cleared the cache on my end. Picture attached is how all company searches currently look.