Female Founders: Shirley Leigh-Wood Oakes of Mezcal Campante On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Allow your emotions to be there and allow yourself to understand them. — What makes woman incredible Founders is that they are emotional, there is nothing wrong with that, but it is essential to understand your emotions especially when it comes to making decisions. Make decisions that are right for the business not right for your ego. And always act like the woman you are not the man you think others think you should be.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shirley Leigh-Wood Oakes.
Shirley Leigh-Wood Oakes is a successful female founder who is a venture partner at Brandville ventures, Partner and CEO of Mezcal Campante and an Advisor for leading consumer brands. She has had a diverse career in marketing and as a female founder has experienced the continuous journey of discovery one takes to be the truest leader you can.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?
From an early age, I trained as a classical and contemporary dancer, it is where I derive my sense of poise, discipline, and focus from — core qualities of a good leader. Creativity whether I express it physically, verbally, or in the written word is embedded in the soul. A love of aesthetic beauty, elegance, and grace fills me up immeasurably. A quick jeté into the world of film, following in my grandfather’s footsteps, and study at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York was another limb on the path to the universe of marketing which began in my mid-20s. A dear friend was opening a new hospitality concept in London, and he asked me to join the team and that’s where the path turned toward branding and public relations. In 2013, after working for several brands in the luxury realm, I co-founded an agency, which quickly became one of the top brand influence agencies in the UK and Europe. It was while working with brands, corporate clients, and entrepreneurs to position them for success in their respective marketplaces that the passion ignited within me for brand building bringing me to where I am today. I am a partner of Mezcal Campante, an advisor and board member for several companies and I work closely with Brandville Ventures, a venture capital, and private equity firm. At Brandville Ventures, we’re helping to build, finance, and reimagine businesses and launch them into the very discerning arms of consumers everywhere. We set off with a mission to build brands that shift categories and add value to people’s lives. The creativity that is required for building a brand is much like producing a corps de ballet, it is an ensemble work that is well-choreographed creating a beautiful result visible to the consumer.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Our lives are a crazy quilt of interesting stories, each segment stitched together with another to form a person’s experience. Narrowing my focus to one that stands out as we began the adventure of Mezcal Campante is the first time we visited the Palenque where our mezcal is made in Rio Ejutla close to the city of Oaxaca. Considered one of the largest energy vortices of the world, Oaxaca and its surroundings emit a magical, and powerful vibration of history, culture, community, and creativity, one that washed over me like a tidal force. We drove 90 minutes outside of the city to the farm where I watched in awe as four generations of the Rodriquez family worked together to handcraft our spirit imbuing it with heritage, terroir, love, and history. A true romance between the land and the mezcaleros was unfolding right before our eyes and I felt an incredible shift within.
Not long after, I found out that Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s most ethnically mixed States including people of Aztec, Mayan, Zapotec, Mixtec, Otomi, Totonac, and Tzotzil ancestry. One through-line among these cultures is that women have not only a say but elevated standing in the economic, governmental, and agricultural activities, an equality that doesn’t exist as such in the other 30 States. Watching the women work side-by-side with the men in the fields and the offices inspired me in so many ways and drives me to keep this tradition alive and nurture it into the present and beyond, from the field to the copper stills to the ultimate consumer.
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?
It is only when one is active and productive that mistakes are made and I have made many, and still do. Most, to be honest, are not funny at all, but with time you learn to laugh at them, or yourself for the mistake. You have to it’s the only way to keep moving forward. I always want to get it all right — I’m a perfectionist. But you can’t. You never will and the moment you start to realize this the easier life becomes. So instead of a funny tale, I’d rather share that when something goes awry, try the STOP technique from Mindfulness training. S stands for stop or pause for a moment or two. T is for Taking a few breaths. O is for observation — check in with yourself. Check-in with the situation. P is for proceeding once you have given yourself the time and space to find a good solution.
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?
My partner, in business and life. He is my biggest supporter, my biggest critic, and my biggest inspiration. He pushes me to my limits, lifts me when I am low, hugs me when it gets a bit much, and applauds when I’ve achieved more than I thought possible. Our story is, well, unusual. No swipe right or blind date. He started as my client and now he is my partner in life and business. We have gone on to build a life together and this is only the beginning.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still must be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience, what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I grew up in a family where women have a very strong leading role, so I have been surrounded by this energy my whole life, but at home, that wasn’t always the case outside of the home. Many reasons hold woman back from founding companies from limited investment opportunities for women to insufficient childcare programs to support women. The differing styles between men and women are also holding back the evolution. Kindness, compassion, and emotionality are not valued in the business world and women fight hard to hold these qualities back. This creates inauthenticity, frustration, and a sense of powerlessness that stops women from taking the leap into leadership. The hurdles are endless and at every turn for women which makes it difficult to often comprehend the possibility of founding a company as a woman. This is changing but not fast enough.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Let’s start at the beginning, where the minds of future female founders are formed, at school. Introducing young students, female, and male, to female founders and leaders is essential. I emphasize that this needs to be male students too as this will dramatically shape their understanding and vision of equality between the sexes. Hopefully, as these young men grow up, intuitively they will encourage the women around them. At home, I’d like to see lessons of non-judgment based on appearance and the many factors that go into appearances. When each person is taken for who and what they are and not how they look and the preconceived notions that accompany this then equality will gain a better footing.
Financial support, whether it be from private funding, venture capital investments, or government support needs to have a much clearer stream for female founders.
As an individual, taking the time to connect with women in business at all levels. At a certain stage in your career, you are only interested in meeting those at the top, we often forget to look at those around us, beside us, and maybe coming up behind us. All these women and men are important, and we should take the time to talk to them and share ideas, hopes and dreams because we can all help each other.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
We, those who identify as women, are 50.08% of the population, 85% of the decision-making consumers, and without us, the other 49.92 wouldn’t exist! But statistics aside, we as women see the world from a different perspective and I think this makes us vital in the consideration of how companies operate and are led, what they produce and what imprint these companies are making on the world.
Naturally, we are problem solvers and innately intuitive, we look for different ways to conquer a problem while always taking into consideration the various aspects. We listen to our gut and hear our emotional responses. This is something I notice that men often call out as a negative aspect of womankind. We are often positioned as ‘too emotional’ but that is what makes female founders so beautiful. We are emotional, we are moved deeply by things and that is fantastic — and pure emotion is undervalued in the workplace. Ironically, we play on consumers’ emotions; we try to trigger them to take action based on an emotion whether it is FOMO or perceived need, and we create exciting advertising and marketing to drive the bottom line. However, we stop short at listening to the emotions that drive our teams in the workplace.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
I’d like to dispel the myth that founders are male, and that of what a founder looks like. Ageism comes into play here as well. I look forward to the day when people don’t comment about my youth, my appearance, or my being female with a look of amazement or amusement when they hear I am the founder of a company.
A founder is portrayed in two ways; struggling and suffering to the end, or an overnight success. It is rare that the experience of a founder is portrayed as it should be, a journey of constant discovery and evaluation of the balance between success, achievement, and struggles.
There will always be struggle, but it should only be a small part of that journey and not the entire journey. I know and admire successful entrepreneurs who understand when the time was right to pivot or change and these are the ones out there beating the odds and breaking down the myths and barriers.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
No, and that’s okay. Because to be a founder you need employees, without them you cannot be a founder. A founder is only as successful as the team that they built around them. Success is not achieved by oneself, never. If we were all founders nothing would ever get achieved!
There are different traits for different types of founders. It’s a tightrope up there and it you are happy to walk it, take the risk, conquer the fear, and understand the fall, then maybe being a founder is for you. But you must be ready to fall and jump back up, sometimes daily! There is also an element of rebellion to a degree, especially as a female founder, a refusal to cave-in to the so-called rules. Naturally as founders we push for more, that can be a dangerous trait, but it is what makes us founders. The ability to lead a team, but not any team, one that you carefully curate to make it as strong as possible and with that comes a huge amount of understanding in human ability and personalities that work together, especially within start-ups. And finally, the ability to understand our mistakes and to avoid repeating them. Easier said than done. With all this in place, you may be on the road to being a great founder.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
You can’t be excellent at everything
Know your skill set and your strengths, identify your weaknesses. Once identified, map out what your company needs to succeed and then hire the necessary people to fill in the blanks. You can’t do it all, it takes a village to build a brand or a company, and when you realize this, you are one step closer to succeeding. My weakness was Finance, so I always hired a good finance manager from day one so that they could teach me but also allow me to trust that area of the company was being managed so I could focus on my area.
Listen for the signs of burnout
Burnout is common in Founders and knowing the signs is very important. If you don’t rest and look after yourself, you are no use to anyone. You need to be a wide-awake leader, and you need to be in good form to do so.
Constantly learning and educating
Surround yourself with people who inspire you, not just cheerleaders, not “yes” people. People you can learn from and who can open your eyes to new ways of doing things.
Allow your emotions to be there and allow yourself to understand them.
What makes woman incredible Founders is that they are emotional, there is nothing wrong with that, but it is essential to understand your emotions especially when it comes to making decisions. Make decisions that are right for the business not right for your ego. And always act like the woman you are not the man you think others think you should be.
Is only as strong as how you make them. Be patient and always kind. This was something I had to learn, I was not always the most patient, as I expected my team to work at the same pace, but in the end, you learn that everyone is different, they will get there with encouragement, guidance, and motivation. Instill confidence and self-efficacy in others. Push your team to exceed performance standards.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Realizing that giving of my time, even 40 minutes, can change a person. As an adult we lose dedicated time with people, pure one-on-one time with someone you trust, or admire, or aspire to be like. As a child you had that time with your parents, or your teachers. It was fundamental in your growth. But as we grow up that reduces considerably to time one-on-one with maybe a friend or a partner, not a mentor or someone who can help lead you. I am not talking about an hour with a performance coach or a session with your shrink, these are important commitments too. I mean time with someone else. Giving that time to someone is powerful, not only for the receiver, but also for the giver, you will learn so much during that moment together.
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.
Kindness. It took me a long time to understand the power of kindness and how much it can change a human. I have been a tough leader at times, more than I would like to admit, but over time I have realized the benefit of kindness. It doesn’t cost a thing but can change someone completely.
I grew up at school thinking toughness was what got your through and made you who you were going to be. Greatness came through only if leaders were tough and put pressure on you, something from my dancing days. But that’s not true. There are many moments that I wish I could go back to my younger self and whisper ‘be kind at this moment,’ to those around me…and, mostly importantly perhaps, tell it to myself.
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.
Where to start! There are so many people I’d like some one-on-one time with and for so many different reasons. This is what makes female founders so compelling, we are so multifaceted, and we allow that to come shining through. You can be attracted to a prominent figure for many reasons not just their success in the board room. If I had to pick one woman, I think it would have to be Mellody Hobson. As president and CEO of Ariel Investments and the Chairwoman of Starbucks Corporation she has had a most interesting journey thus far and much more to create and share with the world. As a woman Mellody has accomplished many firsts, first black woman to be chairperson of an S&P 500 Corporation, first black woman to head The Economic Club of Chicago and so much more. Give her a Google if you aren’t familiar with her achievements. In my opinion this is because she is a woman, because she is whip-smart, because she works hard, because she gives back, and she does it all married, wearing heels and dancing backwards. She has so much to share, and her trajectory seems limitless, what I wouldn’t give for a cup of coffee or a glass of mezcal with her.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Female Founders: Shirley Leigh-Wood Oakes of Mezcal Campante On The Five Things You Need To Thrive… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.