Sevetri Wilson founded her first company, Solid Ground Innovations (SGI), in 2009- just one year after earning her master’s degree from Louisiana State University. SGI is a strategic communications firm that helps businesses grow their presence through advertising, branding and media. However, after seeing that her customers were struggling with the nonprofit incorporation and tax-exemption processes, she started ExemptMeNow a few years later to cater more directly to their needs.
In 2010, Sevetri’s work received the National Nobel Prize for Public Service, The Jefferson Award. The program curriculum and design she created and implemented was featured in the U.S. Senate’s report to the White House on volunteerism in the country. Her work and that of her clients has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CNN, ESPN, Essence magazine, and more. Sevetri is also a 40 under 40 recipient and was named the 2013 Business Woman of the Year by the LA Legislative Women’s Caucus.
Above all, she is driven by the notion that businesses can be successful and “do good” too. However, this involves having a clear vision for the company, as well as the strong leadership necessary to implement that vision. Here’s how Sevetri does it.
Q: What made you want to start SGI, and then ExemptMeNow? Have you always wanted to run your own company?
A: I always knew I’d start something; I was 19 years old when I started my first company, an online blog that brought together college campuses around Louisiana. A few years later on after graduation, I was doing some independent consulting when I realized that there was never going to be a job that was a perfect fit for me. Starting my own company was something that kind of found me, in a way… and I think one of the reasons it’s been so successful is because I was very mindful about the way I began. I put a lot of thought and intention into it. I started working on it a year and a half before announcing it, even.
Q: What do you think are the most important qualities or characteristics that make an effective leader?
A: A good leader has the ability to follow. I think that a strong leader should be able to take in criticism, and not always think that their ideas are king. I also believe that a leader should always be the calmest person in the room. You can express emotion, but it’s not good to be too over the top, because you want people to feel safe around you and trust you.
Q: A relatively new concept in the business world is this idea that, even if you have the best technical skills, but you don’t possess soft skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence, then you can’t really be an effective leader. Do you agree or disagree, and why?
A: I really agree with that. I think that the best thing you can do as a leader is learn to control your emotions. In every situation, you should be asking yourself, ‘Do I need to respond strongly to this? Is it worth it to freak out about this?’ Most of the time, when you stop to think about it, the answer is ‘no’. And one of the traits of a strong leader, I think, is the ability to control your emotions and respond appropriately.
“In every situation, you should be asking yourself, ‘Do I need to respond strongly to this? Is it worth it to freak out about this?’ Most of the time, when you stop to think about it, the answer is ‘no’.”
Q: Do you think that it’s important for a leader to always be ‘real’ with their team, even if that means sharing bad news?
A: Yes, it’s very important for a leader to be transparent with people. If you try to escape delivering bad news, that’s not being a good leader. Sometimes bad things happen, and you need to be able to communicate that to your team in an honest way. This is what leadership is. It’s not always pretty.
Q: Do you think that people can learn to be good leaders, or is it something you’re “just born with”?
A: I believe that leadership in business is something that you learn in the environment. You can read all of the books in the world about it, but good leadership is just something you learn by practicing it for real, over a long time.
Q: How do you make important decisions as a leader and CEO?
A: As a leader, you have to make the best decisions today that will have a positive impact on your company in the long term. The best math you can do is to calculate the future costs of your current decisions.
Q: That sounds challenging. How can you be sure that you’re making the best decisions for your company?
A: It is hard, because you don’t always know the right answer. But I think that in order to make good decisions as a leader, you need to be very mindful of what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and just use sound judgement and focus your intentions on managing people in a respectful, honest, and encouraging way. The other advice I would give is that it helps to look at other successful leaders in your sector. Who else is doing what you’re trying to do? Is there anyone who is doing it particularly well? What makes them so successful, and can you use any of those practices within your own organization? These are all extremely important questions that are helpful to consider when thinking about how to become a better leader.
Q: There’s a lot of talk nowadays around gender and leadership, particularly in regards to women in leadership roles in the business/technology fields. What advice do you have for other women trying to start successful businesses?
A: Although there are barriers for women to take on leadership roles, people are starting to become more conscious about gender equality in the workplace, which is encouraging. When I first started my company nine years ago, it was often hard to get contracts and funding because people didn’t quite take me seriously. In fact, did you know that only 2% of the funding invested in startups in the world is invested in women?
As a woman in a leadership role, you’ll most likely be tested. You’ll be sitting in a boardroom at a table full of men, and they might not take you seriously at first. But it’s your job to lean in, take ownership and refuse to let yourself be diminished. My mom always told me, ‘when you walk into a room, make sure you walk out with the same integrity you walked in with.’
“It’s your job to lean in, take ownership and refuse to let yourself be diminished. My mom always told me, ‘when you walk into a room, make sure you walk out with the same integrity you walked in with.’”
I think a lot of times, a woman doesn’t want to risk being wrong, so often times she won’t speak up. But it’s okay to be wrong. You need to speak up for yourself. And women need to support other women. There’s still a lot to be done, but things are moving forward.
For more advice and inspiration from Sevetri, follow her on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter @sevetriwilson