As a part of our interview series called “Women of the C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Nachemja-Bunton.
Stephanie Nachemja-Bunton is the COO and Co-Founder of Meaningful Gigs, a marketplace connecting skilled African designers with companies seeking high quality digital design. As the daughter of an adopted father and a mother who was raised in Honduras by two Holocaust survivors, understanding people’s sense of purpose has driven her throughout her life.
Before co-founding Meaningful Gigs, Steph spent over a decade as an educator working in DC Public Schools, where she restructured, developed, and taught teachers how to use curricula; additionally, she created social studies assessments district-wide for grades 5–12. Steph also worked for multiple educational non-profits, spearheading initiatives such as redesigning a writing competition where students could win equipment for continuing their education.
As a former educator, Steph’s expertise lies in upskilling, a critical component of Meaningful Gigs’ designer community. For designers who are not quite ready to work with enterprise clients, Steph has designed the content for the company’s Designer Upskilling Platform, including a course on soft skills. As Chief Operating Officer, Steph acts as a bridge between designers in Africa and clients in the US. By building relationships between the designers and active clients, she ensures that each supports the other throughout their work together.
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 career path?
As the daughter of an adopted father and a mother who was raised in Honduras by two Holocaust survivors, understanding people’s sense of purpose has driven me throughout my life. I studied anthropology, history, and psychology in undergrad because I was super curious to understand why people do the things they do. I decided to get a Masters degree in Teaching Social Studies from Columbia University, because I wanted to work with students to help them understand what they wanted to do with their lives and to build the skills they needed to accomplish their goals. I spent the first decade and a half of my career working in education, teaching secondary students, and working with central offices and non-profits to create more student-centered learning.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I’d like to share a story about the impact we’ve had on one Design Partner:
Kenn is a graphic designer, illustrator, and art director from Kenya. He has been working as a designer for 7 years and said that working with Meaningful Gigs was “the best experience I’ve ever had in my life,” adding “this work has changed my life.”
In addition to the extra income Kenn earns, Kenn has been able to build his resume and portfolio. His improved portfolio has helped him secure 7 or 8 additional jobs, and companies continue to ask him if he is available for additional work.
Kenn has worked on 3 large projects so far and was delighted to be challenged and see that others valued his work. On one project he created the brand identity for an international brand, including their logo, fonts, colorways, social templates, motion graphics, website guidelines, and general collateral. Kenn notes that such projects are helping him to build not only his access to opportunities, but also his confidence and skills.
But Kenn was not the only one to benefit from Meaningful Gigs and our Enterprise Partners. With the extra income, Kenn was able to take out insurance for his daughter, who is currently 2 years and 8 months old. He also took out insurance for his wife, noting that before this extra income he “was living life on the edge.”
Now Kenn can spend about 50% of his extra income on investments for his design work, such as a new laptop, tablet, and phone, as well as some things for his home. He saves about 50% of his income, which he would like to use to build his own house in about 5 years’ time. He also does not currently have a car, so he hopes to buy one in the future as well.
When factoring in Kenya’s savings rate of about 5.4% and the fact that Kenn is currently spending 50% of his extra income, we see that for every $1 that Kenn earns there is $9.26 of wealth generated in his community. This means that the exogenous spending multiplier (ESM) is 9.26x, and there are a myriad of social and human benefits that accompany the economic benefits of injecting cash into Kenn’s local economy.
*for more information on how we calculated the ESM, please request Kenn’s Case Study from [email protected]
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?
The first time my cofounders and I sat down to create goals for our company. We wanted to think big, really big. We were using John Doerr’s OKR philosophy from Measure What Matters and wanted to create stretch goals. So, we said we’d aim for 1 million transactions by the end of the year. Boy did we not have any idea what we were in for! We learned a lot about how to set meaningful goals that would help us grow and push ourselves to do our best, rather than completely ridiculous and unattainable goals. We will one day reach that goal but to start from nothing and hit 1 million in a year was certainly laughable in retrospect.
None of us can 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?
Honestly, one of the most helpful people has been my mother. She just retired last year after almost 40 years leading teams and mentoring women as she made her way up the corporate ladder to being a top executive at a large insurance company. She’s always been an inspiration, and even started her own company to support women in getting jobs that were typically set aside for men in the 1970’s. There was some coaching she gave me around communication that really changed the way my ideas are shared and received in our company. I worked with her to remove my ego from my ideas and developed a structure for conversations that creates more space for questions and discussion within a set timeframe. Through this work, I communicate my ideas in a way that my team is more receptive and we’re much more efficient.
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?
Releasing and relieving stress is super important to me and something I regularly advocate for on our team. I’ve built a regular practice of yoga, meditation, and movement and try my best to make sure I’m doing at least one of those things every day. I’m lucky to live within a few steps of a beautiful park with miles of trails and find myself there multiple times a week, especially when there’s something big, I need to work through or a high stakes meeting. I find that focusing on the rocks and roots as I let my mind go helps me make connections that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ll bring a little notebook so I can stop to write every so often, but otherwise I just focus on where I am without trying to think too hard. It seems counterintuitive to try not to think to work on strategy, but I find that by the time I get back to my computer things have found their way into an order that makes sense.
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?
Diversity in leadership brings the experiences and perspectives of employees, customers, and prospective customers to the table as decisions are being made. The more perspectives applied to a problem; the more innovative possible solutions will become. This broader awareness of experiences creates new opportunities. Seeing new opportunities in problems further develops a growth mindset which allows people to see every opportunity as something to learn and grow from.
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.
Every person has things in common with every other person. Looking for these similarities brings us together so we can understand each other better and utilize our differences to make positive changes.
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?
The main difference between executives and other leaders is the distillation of the company’s vision and decision-making. All leaders serve as a guide for other employees and support their growth. However, it’s the executive team that determines the direction of the company and creates the path on which everyone else moves forward.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being an Executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Executives, like everyone else in the world, don’t have it all figured out. Before starting our company, I too expected that the leaders of companies would know what the best decisions are. We can only make informed choices based on what we know. We certainly have more information than others in the organization, but it’s still a matter of testing and iterating. Just like parents don’t have all the answers, there isn’t a clear guidebook or path that all executives follow. With so many variables for every individual decision, we’re bound to make mistakes and the true test is how well we take accountability and bounce back.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
This may be a little controversial, but I think it’s our emotional response to things. I was talking with one of our employees today who received some difficult news this morning and I began tearing up. Our intuitive response is often led by our emotions, which is most often a strength, and an underrepresented one. It can also be a challenge when we’re trying to move fast and get sh*t done.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Most of my focus is on how our employees and the designers and clients we work with feel. I thought it would be more focused on outcomes and metrics, and it certainly is, but those too are driven by the way people feel while doing the things they do. Personally, I love this difference. It’s a big part of what drives me to reach our goals.
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?
I believe that people can be anything they put their minds to. One of the most important traits of an executive is self-efficacy, one’s belief in their own abilities. This is different from confidence because confidence often comes with an inflated ego, whereas self-efficacy focuses more on a realistic, even humble acknowledgement of one’s abilities. This means that people are more likely to seek help and insight from others and be open to new ideas. To become a successful executive and to remain one, people must believe in themselves, despite the odds, and be open to others all along the way.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be respectful, supportive, and have high expectations. In order to support the growth of our team, we must respect what they bring to the table and support their shortcomings and challenges, yet still maintain high expectations. This creates an environment where people can build their belief in themselves about what they currently bring to the table while also being a safe place to honestly receive feedback and improve. The high expectations sets the bar for where we want to go and demonstrates that we, as leaders, believe it’s achievable. Sometimes, people need someone else to believe in them in order to believe in themselves.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Daily, I get to talk with African designers and connect them with opportunities that they have dreamt about. By working with my team every day, we’re literally making people’s dreams come true. And those dreams aren’t just impacting the people we’re getting work, but their families and their communities at large.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. It’s ok to cry.
Sometimes things get overwhelming, and I just feel like crying. That’s ok. In fact, tears contain cortisol, the stress hormone, and crying literally releases it from the body. It’s a great way to move on so you can focus on what counts.
2. Everyone is trying to figure it out.
When the pandemic hit in 2020 and I saw leaders around the world scrambling to figure out how to handle things, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Everyone is trying to figure it out. There are always so many variables and rarely is there just one right answer.
3. Not everything you think is important is important.
I focus on people and have an internal drive to champion them that sometimes gets in the way of long-term thinking. I can be so passionate about our designers that I let go of larger business goals at the moment. What I’ve learned is that truly listening to others is like suspending disbelief when you’re watching a movie. You need to let go of whatever you think is the most important thing and really listen. Once you get it, then you can integrate your perspective and see what the best outcome is.
4. Follow your gut, it’s right most of the time.
In 2019, my cofounders and I decided to focus our attention on Africa. We weren’t sure of the market, or the level of designers we would find, but sitting around a dining room table we all dug deep in our gut and decided to fully commit. All of us, our designers, clients, and employees are more dedicated to the cause than I would have imagined. What started as a gut decision based on our values and personal missions has become the single best decisions we’ve made.
5. Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is nothing.
When you’re building a company, you’re never done. “Done” just means done for the day. Creating boundaries that allow you to shut off and let go of the work is crucial to productivity the next day. Our brains need to have time to make connections between all of the new information we’ve absorbed throughout the day. Sure, we do a lot of that while we’re sleeping, but doing things like taking a walk, spending time with family and friends, really anything other than the work, allows us to make better decisions, be more creative, and ultimately increases our productivity.
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.
The movement I would like to inspire is for people to zero in on being the best version of themselves. We spend so much time focused on how we project and what others think of us when in reality we can’t show up for anyone else if we’re not taking care of ourselves… And the best we’ll ever be able to do at anything is totally dependent on really listening to who we are, our values, and aligning our decisions and actions with that.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” (Henry Ford) I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome, confidence, and self-efficacy and internalizing the sentiment in this quote has given me the power to change my mindset on things I’ve wanted to accomplish. When I’m able to wrap my head around what it would look like if I did the thing, I’m able to believe in myself and take the steps toward accomplishing it.
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.
Brene Brown is a leader I have long looked up to. Her vulnerability in her own struggle and understanding of anxiety and personal growth has inspired me immensely. I yearn to be an empathetic leader like she is and when I demonstrate the qualities she writes and speaks about I see people open up in whole new ways. I aim to integrate these skills into our community and how we work with and train our designers.