A Conversation with: Lisa Calhoun, CEO, Author, Mentor

It’s not often that a successful entrepreneur, author, venture capitalist, and CEO will take time out of his or her vacation to talk with a chatty lady from Wisconsin. However, Lisa Calhoun, who wears all of the aforementioned hats (and more – minus being a chatty lady from Wisconsin…that’s all me) took the time to pace outside of an Arizona golf course to have a conversation with me about natural bias, the redundant narratives surrounding successful women, how millennials are changing the workplace, and how she takes many lessons from Buddhist teachings in balancing her hectic life.

As we talked over the phone, this conversation only exists in podcast form. Take a listen!

Her readiness to take time to speak with me is one example of Lisa’s overall emphasis on serving others. She approached her college education with the desire to figure out  “how can I best serve others” rather than “how can I best serve myself.” This commitment to service is one of the reasons she has been so successful as a venture fund capitalist, and was the first woman to start a venture capital fund in Georgia. She is an expert at finding opportunities to help her clients; not only that, she is dedicated to creating spaces in the workplace for those whose voices might not be as recognized in the traditional business market.

Along with her impressive achievements in the venture capital world, Lisa also started Write2Market, a tech public relations firm. She is the author of How You Rule the World: A Female Founder’s Survival Guide, an advisor to Women Who Code, and an Atlanta Techstar mentor.

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I am constantly curious if individuals who are extremely successful and highly motivated always have a clear idea of what they want to do early on. I asked Lisa if she knew what she wanted to do when she entered college, or if she was very career-focused early on. She replied with a very resolute “No.”

Instead of obsessing about potential career paths, Lisa took college as an opportunity to explore things she was passionate about, and take a break from working. As Lisa had a full-ride scholarship, she was faced with a bit less of the financial stress of school, and freed herself to enjoy school (although she did work four jobs to pay for expenses outside of tuition). She studied Professional Writing and Russian at Baylor University, and went on to earn her MBA from The University of Texas at San Antonio. She discovered a lot about herself in the process, including honing in on her desire to serve others.

As the founder of Valor Ventures, Lisa serves her customers by finding them profitable investment opportunities.  She also started an initiative called Startup Runway Atlanta that aims to stimulate entrepreneurial opportunities for women and minority groups. Data from the US Census indicates that Georgia is number one in the nation for yielding female entrepreneurs, and number two for yielding black entrepreneurs. Lisa explains that much of this is due to the state’s demographics; Georgia’s population is 30.5% African American. The national average is 12.6%. However, she suggests that there is even a more prominent reason for the emergence of entrepreneurs from minority groups and from women.

When individuals from these groups do not feel as if they are allowed a space to succeed in the traditional business market, they carve out unique spaces where they can succeed. This is where entrepreneurship happens. This is good for Georgia’s business climate, but also indicates that the traditional system isn’t adequately including all demographics and groups.

“I think there is, in a conservative business climate, the feeling that African American entrepreneurs and women can’t get ahead as fast as they’d like to…that exists. And it creates this different landscape for a minority entrepreneur in Georgia to say ‘I can’t change the culture. But I can do my own thing!'”

In explaining this phenomenon, Lisa used the term “natural bias.” Lisa describes how people want to surround themselves with people who are like them. They want their opinions mirrored and supported, to share somewhat similar backgrounds with their coworkers, etc. As the working world is a bit (or overwhelmingly) run by white men, business professionals want to surround themselves with those who are similar to them, creating an isolating environment for minorities and women. Yet, white men are certainly not the only individuals who are influenced by natural bias. Lisa says she has been guilty of this herself. She recognizes a certain dynamic when she is in meetings or conversation with all women, and how that can shift when a man enters the room. She fights this natural inclination to create a team where she is similar to her C-Suite or employees by actively striving to foster an inclusive workplace. And ultimately, she explains how this creates better ideas and improves the business overall.

Listen to the podcast to hear more about the statistics surrounding diversity in today’s workplace, and the tangible benefits of promoting an inclusive office culture. Here’s a start:

  • Ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform their respective national industry medians. Source
  • Gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their respective national industry medians. Source

We also touched on the redundant narratives surrounding Lisa’s accomplishments as a woman in the business world. I hesitated to ask her about the environment for women in her field because I knew it had to be a question she was asked in every other interview….ever. So instead, we talked about why that question is consistently asked, and what might be appropriate and less predictable questions to replace it. Basically…I asked Lisa to come up with a question she should be asked. I’m literally outsourcing my one job as The Conversationalist.

She explains how gender really doesn’t have anything to do with how successful one will be, but perspective has everything to do with that.

“This isn’t about your gonads, this is about training your mind.”

Also, I’m nominating that as the quote of the year. Find that on bumper stickers soon when I start selling merch for The Conversationalist.

We also touched on millennials in the workplace, and how they can change the narratives surrounding employment on their own terms. Finally, I asked Lisa about work-life balance and her definition of success, which led to a conversation about her respect for and engagement in Buddhist practices.

We cover all of this and more in our conversation, so take a listen to this podcast to hear more of what Lisa has to say, with some supplementary background research on my end.

Thank you for listening and reading!

Speak to you soon,

-Nora

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