You Can Be Sweet, and Be Profitable

This week I took my 7-year-old daughter Sydney to see the taping of a colleague’s KLRU show, Blackademics. My goal was to have fun with her and show her behind the scenes of a TV show, but we both came away with so much more. This season Blackademics is focusing in on telling stories of black youth who are change-makers. My daughter was fidgety during the first speaker. Then when 11-year-old Mikaila Ulmer walked on stage in her yellow dress, Sydney looked up at me with a big excited grin, recognizing herself in this brown-skinned little power-house. Mikaila, as you may know, is the founder of Bee Sweet Tea, and a social entrepreneur. She set out to save the bees and make money at the same time, and made it all the way to Shark Tank, coming away with a deal with Daymond John and a retail deal with Whole Foods.

As I watched her speak, the cynical adult in me thought, "this is rare even for a grownup with lots of skill and connections..” But the dreamer in me was mesmerized and inspired by her. She had command of the stage. She was cute but she was so serious about her work and her mission to save the bees. At the end of her presentation, she stopped on a slide that simply said,

You can be sweet, and be profitable.
— Mikaila Ulmer, Founder - Bee Sweet Tea

For her this was about being a social entrepreneur, working for good and also for profit at the same time. But to me it held an even deeper message. As a female entrepreneur, I struggle daily with the connotations of the word “power” assigned to women. Many of the most powerful women, are arguably not sweet in their public personas. Many have adopted the stereo-typically male approach to leading, to get where they are. Demanding, coercive controlling and not empowering their teams or showing compassion. Perhaps they were once less abrasive, but couldn’t get ahead. Perhaps now, when they engage in the same debate and language as their male colleagues they are called names like “bitchy” and “shrill”. 

I think about my daughter, and Mikaela and so many other young girls growing up in this era, future CEOs of technology companies and creators of new innovative products. I have always thought, there has to be a way to be sincere and compassionate and also powerful as a woman. As a side note - I don’t mean to imply that men don’t struggle with this as well. Several of my closest friends over the years have been men who also struggle to find this balance. And one of the most prolific thinkers on the topic of servant leadership and compassion, Robert Greenleef, is a man. So this is not a male versus female topic in my mind. It’s just that I’m a women - so my heart is in helping change the status quo for women entrepreneurs. 

Back to Mikaila for a minute. As I watched her speak, it was hard not to think of her future. Who will she grow up to become? Will she hold herself back, out of fear of how she’ll be perceived by men? She hasn’t yet learned to fear that some day a man might be threatened by her drive, and it might reduce her pool of “eligible men” to a really small number.  She is just going for it, following her passion and creating change in the world. Unapologetically. To her, and all the little girls like her - thank you for reaffirming me in my pursuit of both sweetness and leadership. Without realizing it, just by being you, your boldness gives me and so many other women courage for this journey.