Female Founders: Sonia Jackson Myles of The Sister Accord Foundation On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Share your dream, carefully. The first thing I want to say is be mindful of who you share your dreams with. I remember telling leaders at my company that I wanted to change how girls and women interacted and explaining that the negative behavior among girls started as early as the age of four. Honestly, they couldn’t wrap their minds around what I was saying or why it was relevant to the workplace. I think it took me longer to make a move because I got discouraged by their reaction.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sonia Jackson Myles.
As an advisor and executive coach to Fortune 500 companies and startups, Sonia Jackson Myles, and her firm, The Accord Group, LLC, work with CEO’s and their teams on leadership development DE&I, unconscious bias training, women’s initiatives, change management, employee engagement and creating a culture where employees can thrive. Sonia is also the founder of The Sister Accord®, a 501c3 organization focused on educating girls and women, enlightening girls and women to the power of sisterhood, and eradicating bullying and violence against girls and women.
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?
I started my career at Ford Motor Company after graduating with both my undergrad and MBA from Florida A & M University. Although I had studied marketing, I started in the purchasing field with Ford Motor Company and stayed there for 13 years before moving to the Gillette company. About a year into my tenure at Gillette, Procter & Gamble announced that they were going to acquire the company. I had to decide whether I would go with the company or stay in Boston and find a new job because my family and I really loved Boston.
The people at P&G made my decision easier when they asked me to lead part of the transition and integration of Gillette into the company and actually created a role for me — Global Media Sourcing Director. P&G was the largest advertiser in the world at the time and there was no way that I could pass up such an amazing opportunity so early in my career. My family and I relocated to the Cincinnati area, and I led the integration and the designing of the Global Media Sourcing Organization and then led the global group. My last role at Procter & Gamble was buying all of their packaging globally. In all, I spent a little over 20 years in corporate America and managed over $20 billion of spending.
I had a wonderful career in corporate America and would have stayed, but I knew that there was something else I needed to do. Throughout my career, I saw women not supporting each other in the way that I thought they should. Women were interacting with each other in negative ways and I wanted to use my voice and my experience to change that.
That’s how The Sister Accord®️ Foundation was born. It’s my mission to have a billion girls and women learn how to love themselves and each other. Because when we do that, we begin to see each other as collaborators versus competitors and we can literally change the world.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I have practiced meditation and prayer every morning for many years. One of my “go-to” artists is Grammy Award Winner Yolanda Adams. So, imagine what an honor it was to begin working with her as part of Disney’s Dreamers Academy for coaching, entrepreneurship, and leadership work. It’s hard to articulate the out-of-body experience you have when you meet someone whose talents you have appreciated and admired for so long.
Yolanda invited me to be on her radio show and that one act of kindness had a huge ripple effect for my business. One of her listeners in New York City heard my story and invited me to keynote her inaugural conference — in Jamaica! From there, we partnered to bring The Sister Accord Leadership Development Program to New York City schools.
I think this is a wonderful example of how love and support among women can make such a significant impact in our lives and our businesses.
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?
Years ago, I was going to lunch with my mentor and I “dressed to impress” in one of my best suits. Which was great at the beginning of the lunch, but the restaurant he took me to was wonderful and let’s just say, I ate quite a bit. Halfway through the meal, I decided to unbutton the top button of my skirt to be more comfortable. Well, when we got up to leave, I forgot that I had unbuttoned my skirt and it began to fall. Luckily, I caught it in time and he did not notice.
It was like an episode from a tv show, for sure. There are two good lessons for me: don’t eat so much at a business luncheon and never unbutton your clothing without remembering to button it again before standing!
But, in all seriousness, if you don’t mind me adding to my answer, there is another mistake that I see women make which I don’t know that you would call funny, but I think it’s a common mistake that women founders make and worth mentioning — overthinking. Like so many women, I was plagued by overthinking during the pandemic. My overthinking caused me to pause on one of my signature programs — The Sister Accord®️ Leadership Development Tea Party. This was a big mistake because people really needed the love and inspiration that are cornerstones for these events.
To go back, The Sister Accord started in 2013 with our very first Leadership Development Tea Party in Cincinnati. We’ve held 24 Tea Parties since then. They are very high touch, very beautiful in-person activations. People always leave saying there was so much love in the room. When COVID hit, I was concerned about whether we would be able to replicate those feelings of love and inspiration without physically being together. So, I paused for quite a long time, thinking and overthinking and thinking some more.
Eventually, I decided to move forward and hold virtual events and they were great. The feedback from people — both folks who had never joined a Tea Party before and those who had been to our in-person events — was overwhelmingly positive. They said they were laughing, and crying, and dancing, all in their living rooms. They were truly engaged.
I kicked myself a little for doubting that I could replicate the core and essence of what this organization stands for in any environment. I learned once again that I need to trust my instincts, trust my gut, and not allow the overthinking to get in the way of serving with excellence.
None of us are able to 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?
I’m a night owl. I have to force myself to go to bed because my mind comes up with all these amazing ideas in the middle of the night. Early on, I would basically pull all-nighters right before one of our Tea Parties. I’d stay up finalizing all the little details, all while knowing that I had to be fresh at the event. I’d think, I’m 25 and I have to remind myself that this is only in my head. Right before one of my Tea Parties, where I was pulling yet another all-nighter to make sure every detail was ready to go, I took a break to answer a call from my sister, Connie, one of the most incredible human beings on the planet. She is always there for everyone in my family and has been like a second mother to me. After talking with me for five minutes (where I almost literally fell asleep), she stepped in. Connie saw that I was making the mistake that most women founders/business owners make…we try to do it all. Here I was arranging the details, when a few hours later I was going to be hosting and overseeing my event, and I was basically running on fumes.
From that moment on, she became my Chief Operations Officer and handled every detail/organization of the Tea Parties from that day to now.
People like me can be a little type A, a little intense; we have the vision and we want to see it executed a certain way, so we try to do it all. But that never works. You have to surround yourself with people who have the expertise and skills that can help you move to the next level. And you have to ask for and accept help. This was not easy for me to do. Connie’s involvement has helped immensely, and it brought my mother so much joy when she was alive to see us working together.
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 has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I spend a lot of time with young women, middle-aged women, and more seasoned professionals. They’ve had all of this wonderful experience, and have brilliant minds and so many positive things to share, but I think too many of them simply don’t believe they have what it takes to start a business. Of course, this comes from years of society basically telling women that they don’t have what it takes. Too many of us have internalized this and it’s holding us back.
The other thing that too many women face is a lack of resources to get their business off the ground and scale it up. That’s the impetus behind The Sister Accord®️ Accelerator Initiative, which I launched this year with Jean Freeman, CEO and Principal of ad agency, Zambezi. The Accelerator is designed to fuel the growth of existing female-owned businesses by providing monetary support, business education, and mentorship — the tangible tools needed to scale a business. We awarded $10,000 to each participant of the inaugural cohort.
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?
One of the things that was very important for Jean and me as we launched the new Accelerator Initiative, was to make the application process simple. Often the application process for this kind of grant is so cumbersome and long that people don’t even bother to apply. It’s important not just that we make money available, but that we make it easy to find and apply for these grants.
It’s also important that we don’t put too many rules around grants. Obviously, we want to support people who are serious about their businesses, but a lot of grant programs judge this by whether a person has quit their job and dedicated 100% of their time to launching their dream. In many instances, that’s simply not possible for women. They may be the head of their households or providing for their extended families. The side hustle should be welcomed because these often grow into great businesses.
The other thing that is incredibly important is mentorship from other women (and men) who have started successful businesses. Providing guidance, a sounding board, and a safe space where women can talk about their dreams without the fear that someone’s going to steal their ideas is critical.
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?
The first reason is the dream. I think passion is more of a driver for success than we realize. I want women to recognize that they can be successful by focusing on the things that they really care about.
I also believe that entrepreneurship is the way for women to truly establish our value in the marketplace. The way companies are structured and the way succession planning works, many women may not get salaries that are aligned with their value proposition or what they bring to an organization until later in their careers. I want women to recognize this as they are thinking about establishing a business.
I think the third reason is around health and wellbeing. I am living with a level of joy and satisfaction in my life that I think a lot of women don’t have because I am doing what I believe I was created to do. Whether your passion is launching a fashion label, establishing an education program, or creating a company that improves other people’s health and wellness, I believe that when people are doing what they feel deep inside of them, they are both happier and healthier.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
I think that social media perpetuates a myth of this glamorous life associated with being the boss. This idea of “the boss lady,” who looks fabulous and spends her day telling people what to do can be attractive to some people, but they don’t recognize all of the work — most of it not glamorous at all — that goes into founding a company. A lot of times you just have to sit in silence alone as you’re putting your strategy together and thinking about how to expand and grow. I don’t think social media ever captures this. Entrepreneurship can sometimes include feelings of loneliness. It’s important to surround yourself with positive people who you can interact with while you are building your dream.
The other problem with the “boss lady” image is that it doesn’t feel rooted in kindness or compassion or humility. I want people to recognize that as they’re building their business, they’re establishing a culture and an environment that will become part of their company for years. It’s so important to make sure that we establish cultures of compassion and environments of excellence.
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?
The real question is whether everyone is willing to do what it takes to be a founder. Everyone has brilliance. Everyone. But I think that there’s so much that comes with being a founder, that some people just may say, “you know what, I’m not willing to do that right now.”
I didn’t think I had the desire to be a founder. I never had being an entrepreneur on my bucket list. I thought I would stay in corporate America for 30-some-odd years and then retire. Honestly, that would have been fine. It can be a wonderful thing to be an employee of a company and find a place where you can use your gifts and talents and grow within the company.
What I would really love to see is for people to stop judging the choices and paths that others take. I see so many stories that are meant to be motivational and say thing like “I left that nine-to-five and you should too.” We all have different paths. I loved my corporate America experience. I loved the world of business. I learned so much and made life-long friends. There is nothing wrong with a nine-to-five job.
As for specific traits that it takes to be a successful founder, I think it starts with the dream. You need to have a sincere desire to address a pain point or issue that you care so much about you go to sleep thinking about it and wake up thinking about it. That’s how it was for me with what I saw in the workplace as it related to women interacting with each other. The other trait is a tremendous amount of perseverance. I don’t want to call it supernatural, but it is certainly extraordinary. You have to be a person that is willing to hold out for the yes even though you’ve been told no a million times. That one yes can literally change the trajectory of your life and your business, but you have to have the perseverance to get there.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Share your dream, carefully. The first thing I want to say is be mindful of who you share your dreams with. I remember telling leaders at my company that I wanted to change how girls and women interacted and explaining that the negative behavior among girls started as early as the age of four. Honestly, they couldn’t wrap their minds around what I was saying or why it was relevant to the workplace. I think it took me longer to make a move because I got discouraged by their reaction.
- You will hear “no” — a lot. You are establishing something that’s different and unique and people may not understand it. When I started a lot of people told me, “I’ve never had anyone come to me and talk about the things that you’re talking about.” That’s good — we want to put forth our most original ideas — but oftentimes it means it’s challenging for people to understand what it is that you’re really doing. And people can’t say yes to what they don’t understand. Expect a lot of “nos” but keep going.
- Know your pitch. One of the important steps in getting to yes is getting very clear on what your message is. What are you focusing on? Why? Some people call this an elevator pitch. I call it sharing the vision. For me, I had to get very clear about what I was focusing on with The Sister Accord®️ Foundation and be able to explain it to people succinctly — even those who challenged it. You have to get clear both on the problem you’re trying to solve and the solution you’re offering.
- Pivoting is okay. Keep asking yourself if the language you’re using and the actions you’re taking resonate with the people they need to. When I first started, one of my girlfriends asked me if my program was just for Black women because, as she said, Caucasian women don’t call each other Sister. I told her that as a Black woman my hope was to inspire people who look like me, people in my community, but that my real vision was to knock down all of the walls that have been established that tell us we’re so incredibly different from each other because I believe we’re more alike than we are different. I believe The Sister Accord®️’s work will be an important solution in bringing communities together and healing a lot of the pain and hurt that different groups may feel about each other. It’s a big undertaking but one that is necessary as we look for solutions to our greatest issues and problems here in the US and around the world. When I started, I was solving for what I believe to be a universal insight — that girls are socialized to not like themselves and each other — but I needed to make sure that all aspects of the strategy that I was putting together really resonated from that perspective. I wish someone would have told me early on that pivoting in what you’re doing or how you’re explaining it is okay because at the time it felt like a form of failure.
- Asking for money is the hardest thing to do. Everyone who starts a business will at some point have to ask people for money. I wish someone had told me how hard it is. I don’t know if that’s because it is taboo in our society to directly ask for money or if it’s because we’re socialized as women to question our worth. I guess this goes back to the idea that you will hear “no” a lot, but it’s simpler than that. I just wish someone had told me that asking for money is really hard but you have to do it anyhow. Because I started my non-profit (501c3) first, I had to ask for money or we would have ceased to exist. I had to move out of my comfort zone — I was always used to being the giver.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I guess my answer here might be a little different than some other founders because I really believe that my work is making the world a better place. The goal of The Sister Accord®️ Foundation is to help a billion girls and women around the world learn to love themselves and each other. I’ve been fortunate and blessed to be able to witness some of that in real time. I don’t think that even I truly understood how much the world needed this message of love and cooperation when I started down this path, but as I hear from the women who attend our Tea Parties and receive our scholarships, I see the power of the organization to save and transform lives. And, with our new Accelerator initiative, we’ll be able to help women entrepreneurs jump-start their success and scale their businesses quickly. We have already heard feedback from our Sister Accelerators that they are experiencing increases in their businesses and we just started the program last month in April! I’m so humbled and honored that my dream is making such an impact around the world.
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 Sister Accord®️ Foundation, and its message of loving each other and leading with compassion instead of competition, is a movement. I hope that the Accelerator initiative can launch a movement of its own. I think one of the ways we should address poverty and pay inequity is through entrepreneurship. Women starting and growing businesses will hopefully allow a new wave of women to take care of their families and make a difference in their community. I have wanted to make this kind of investment in women founders for years because I know what can happen when women are engaged in their passion and driving success for themselves and their families. It’s a powerful thing to be able to see them getting the mentoring and coaching they need to be able to think about the core and essence of what they’re doing, expand their ideas, and deliver excellence. And the ripple effects are huge. People have said to me that our programs have not just helped them dream again, but it’s trickling down to their children who are designing their own future businesses.
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.
Right now, I would love to sit down with MacKenzie Scott. She is the ex-wife of Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos and, according to what I’ve read, was instrumental in helping Amazon become the giant it is today. I would want to talk to her about what she envisioned in the early days of that company which I’m sure has surpassed all expectations. She has also recently emerged as one of the nation’s top philanthropists. Since pledging to give away half her fortune in 2019, Scott has given over $12 billion to not-for-profit agencies and has pledged another $3.9 billion. I truly admire the spirit of generosity and compassion that she is embracing in her philanthropy.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.