As a part of our interview series called “Women of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Melonie Carnegie.
As CEO of UpstartWorks, Melonie Carnegie is focused on advancing e-commerce commercialization for industrial brands by helping companies optimize sales on leading marketplaces. A vision-driven executive leader with more than 25 years’ experience, she is passionate about industrial B2B products and leading teams to achieve excellence. Carnegie earned a bachelor’s degree from Jackson State University, her MBA from Clark Atlanta University, and her Master of Science in Sales Leadership from William Patterson University. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband.
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?
I stumbled upon this career unintentionally, as a lot of us do. I started out in automotive (Ford Motor Company) and moved into industrial sales, which eventually led to leading a sales team and managing half a billion dollars in the HVAC space.
Working with Grainger, and with other companies in the industrial space, I began to witness a shift in the end-user mindset within B2B and B2C. Consumers were moving into a less loyal, more convenience-focused model of e-commerce — and it intrigued me. Customers, generally speaking, did not care where a product came from; they cared more about when they would receive it. I saw a tremendous opportunity to help optimize the purchase experience — I jumped on it! I was excited by the innovation and transformation unfolding.
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?
I have an entire tribe that supports me. There are several leaders with diverse backgrounds and experiences who have inspired me. However, it’s powerful women who stand out the most, and who have helped frame and encourage my career along the way.
But, I have to take it all the way back and point first to my mom. She told me I could do anything, and I simply believed it. I’ve held on to her words my entire life; her encouragement made me feel unstoppable.
I’m also grateful for my husband, Rohan Thambrahalli. His support is unmatched. Back in 2016, I was increasingly frustrated in my career. At that time, I felt the weight of working in a male-dominated industry; it was challenging and frustrating to see women’s voices suppressed, including my own. I thought: “I shouldn’t be internalizing this.” Rohan came along side me and supported me in believing I had a greater professional destiny. Together we looked at these challenges as temporary stumbling blocks versus a final destination. He encouraged me to break through and used his network to position me for a better, more rewarding opportunity. He’s always got my back no matter what and I adore him for that.
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?
Having a workout regimen in place is a priority. I schedule my workout routine as if I’m scheduling a financial planning meeting. It’s important for me to have balance, and this is where I find myself most level-headed.
I am an amateur competitive body builder. Body building shifts my mode of thinking and inspires my competitive nature in a different way than my work. It’s been a way for me to release stress and push myself.
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?
I am at the intersection of two marginalized groups as a black woman. My experience is that in some corporate cultures women and minorities are not granted the space, credibility, and platform afforded to others. However, for me, this was a two-part equation because I also had to challenge myself to gain the confidence to step into my own voice and assert my insights.
Look, I think companies leave talent on the table when they are not focused on diversity. People may think of diversity as someone who is different or represents another point of view, but while that is important, the bigger picture is that there are exceptionally talented, innovative professionals that have a great deal to offer. I think the question is this — Is a company limiting itself when it stops listening to a range of voices? Of course, it is — and to really hear innovation requires doing more than perpetuating biases.
And diversity is not a subtraction of something; it can create more cohesion within organizations. I have used my intersectionality to empathize, connect and support team members with removing their own obstacles — ultimately to drive individual’s and teams’ performance.
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.
There are a lot of ways to address equity, but I think, for me, it starts with listening to people and investing in them. Let me give an example: One of the initiatives I helped put in motion was coffee chats — open, safe forums where members of my team could share what was impacting them. This spanned culture-political-societal issues that were interfering or concerning them. In the context of the most controversial or hot-button issues, including the murder of George Floyd, I facilitated an open forum of dialog. When people carry around resentments or misread one another it is unproductive and highly damaging to teams. By being open, and not judgmental, we were able to talk freely and build trust. For true equity, we need to hear one another, get it on the table, and ultimately prove through our willingness to listen to one another our commitment to each other’s success and well-being.
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?
As a CEO, I’m focused on crafting the strategic vision that will help the company achieve long-term growth. CEOs need to look across all functional areas to make sure there is alignment and a balance of resources. Every cross functional area must be aligned on a common vision and clear on the corporate strategy. As the CEO, you’ve got to be strategic, while also removing barriers and obstacles for your team so they can execute in the market. As I’ve mentioned, to remove barriers, that means diving deep and listening.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
CEOs are often thought of as unapproachable, or all-knowing superheroes. This is just not true. My style IS approachable. I’m not going to change who I am — I engage with people. Another myth is that CEOs are perceived to be the smartest people in the room, but in reality, they surround themselves with smart leaders who can execute business plans and drive the company forward. If anything, a CEO needs to listen to their team and support execution, not take it over.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
One of the biggest challenges women face in the C-suite is ensuring they have a voice and accessing it. For me, and other women executives, there is this feeling we must work harder to be perceived as credible. I have been in circumstances where my insights were not taken as seriously as male counterparts. This, in turn, drove me to question myself. But, in time, I came to the point where I was ready to bring all of my authentic self and lean in to be heard.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I thought I would be more focused on financials; however, I tend to focus way more on processes and creating efficiencies.
Is everyone 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?
Just because someone is good at delivering results does not mean they would make a strong executive leader. We look for leaders that have the right balance of head, heart, and guts. If a person is too hardwired in one category, they will not be a good leader. Having that balance between the three is essential to any executive’s success.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Leaders must win the hearts and minds of the people and set the vision. A leader should present the compass and empower their team.
Another piece of advice is to dive into peer recognition — Observe and recognize when a job is done well and let team members know they are appreciated. Doing so goes a long way within business. This also allows leaders to get to know their colleagues personally and helps establish trust.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Top 5 Rules I live by?
- It’s okay to make mistakes.
- Fail and fail fast and recover quickly.
- Trust your people.
- You must take time to care for yourself, physically and mentally. Even though I work 90 hours a week, I still find time to sustain balance through working out.
- Always be focused on innovating.
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 create a community of health and wellness education for single parents, especially singles moms. Being a single mom, while balancing work, school and the pressures of life can be a daunting task at times. I’m a strong believer of “moms needing a village” to help support, uplift and encourage. I would create a community of support through exercise and educate women on total body health to inspire and lift their sprits.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” — Maya Angelou.
At my core, the essence of who I am, is wrapped in this quote. I’m competitive, I’m passionate about my craft, and I’d like to think I have a lot of style.