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Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: Aunia Kahn of Rise Visible On The 5 Leadership Lessons She Learned From Her Experience

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Own what you do. In leadership of any capacity, it is important to stand by your convictions and also be open to feedback and help from others. However, in times that you may not have the support you need, stand strong on your own beliefs and do so unapologetically.

As a part of our series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Aunia Kahn.

Aunia Kahn is the CEO of Rise Visible. With 24 years in the field, she is a highly sought after digital marketer, strategist, public speaker and digital influencer. Rise Visible has been named Top-Ranking Woman-Owned Digital Agency by Clutch, Best SEO Agency in Eugene 2022 by Expertise, and is a certified disabled and woman-owned business. She is also an internationally recognized and awarded visual artist, photographer, author who has shown in over 300 exhibitions in over 10 countries; at places such as San Diego Art Institute, iMOCA, and the St. Louis Art Museum. She founded Create for Healing and the host of the Rise Above Be Visible Podcast. Aunia also identifies as a disabled business owner surviving and thriving with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (Type 3), Mast Cell Disease, Dysautonomia, and POTS, PTSD, etc.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I did not expect to be or plan to be a disabled woman in tech. That was not where my passions were leading me. I had deviated from one path to another one — which is where I am today.

I still think about being a therapist, but I know I just care too much and would have a hard time keeping distance without emotional investment. So, it is good the other road showed up — as unexpected as it was.

This path led me to move from Michigan to St. Louis in 2001 and was studying psychology. In Michigan, I worked as a dental assistant to pay my bills while in school, so I continued this occupational direction and applied for dental assisting jobs once I arrived in St. Louis.

I had a hard time finding the office since I was new to the area but once inside the medical office, I felt strange. I think most people who start a new job feel a little weird for the first few days or even weeks as they settle into the new setting.

Within an hour of being there, I heard someone yelling from the break room — this was 9/11. As everyone sat watching the TV in disbelief, I became more and more uncomfortable surrounded by strangers. So, I asked to leave and never came back. In one day, one moment, my life changed its trajectory most unexpectedly.

Trying for months to find work after the events of 9/11 was nearly impossible. To add to the difficulties, my health was also failing and I needed to figure out how to navigate that as well.

I started thinking about the secret skills I had that I had never even considered as a career path. Going back to 1998, I was given a computer with a ton of computer programs on it and learned website design, graphic design, and marketing. I did it for fun and had a pretty extensive portfolio.

An unforeseen opportunity had presented itself to me and I reached out to a few people I knew in the industry. With that, I was able to secure an interview at a local agency. It was a quick no. I felt crushed. Yet, I still had the fire to find a way to drum this type of work up as something that could perhaps make me a living and help me balance the care I needed to have for my declining health. I began to ask friends, family, and people I knew for referrals. In time, my business started to grow to a tiny solopreneurship.

This brought me where I am today. 25 years later and with many more unforeseen twists and turns under my belt, I could not be happier. This might not have been my original career path, but sometimes the universe takes you off your path and puts you right where you are supposed to be. Right here and now.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

I think the most interesting story is now — this very moment. Over the last 25 years of my career, I spent those years surviving, not thriving.

In the last 2 years, I have had the biggest change in my health and business. I had been previously diagnosed with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. Finally last year, I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and Dysautonomia as well as a plethora of other wonderful health issues. Thank you gene mutations! However, with this diagnosis and treatment, my whole world has changed and expanded for me.

I started to step into owning being a disabled business owner, especially as a disabled woman in tech, which was something I hid for a very long time. I felt it left me vulnerable. The truth is, for me, hiding this fact was not healthy. Being able to open up about it has brought me much vitality and the ability to connect with and empower a community I am honored to be a part of. The disability community is filled with some of the most amazing people because sometimes just making it through the day is a victory and not everyone understands that.

So, my current story is my most interesting to share because so many exciting things are happening, and I am incredibly grateful to be where I am right now.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. 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?

I feel for many of us, just starting out in business is much like learning to ride a bike. There is this confidence that comes from removing the training wheels and going at it on your own. People cheering you on, the cool breeze in your hair as the confidence mounts and you lift your hands up off the handlebars into the hair, and BAM! — the reality of hitting your first rock on the road.

As for what is funny, I feel a lot of it is in retrospect. Perhaps not a specific moment but when I think of how many times a project was not evaluated correctly in my early days, or not understanding my value or even the role I played with clients and colleagues — it can be painful but a bit of humor goes a long way.

For me, this is looking back at all those moments of novice errors and saying to myself how big and unexpected the world of entrepreneurship was and how many things I would do differently. Whatever this means to me or someone just starting out, I would say that there are going to be some embarrassing moments but with those moments come valuable lessons. Just try to keep in mind that perseverance and a little humor will get you through and they may make for a funny story someday.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Rise Visible has evolved into a company that stands for DEI as well as extended that further into the realms of community service in our Pro Bono ventures, for example. We also find great importance in setting an example to our community in how we include and share our altruistic vision.

I feel being a disabled woman in tech presents that sense of responsibility but to have a company where our values and standards are at the front-facing aspect of all we do is very important to how we do business now and also how we will continue to do business and help others rise and be visible in the future.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We have just launched our Rise Visible Pro Bono program which will offer the ability for small businesses and nonprofits to be able to gain services such as website design and development, graphic design, content creation, and digital marketing through donors that keep this program funded..

We believe the value of implementing this program will benefit those that greatly need it in the communities where women, people of color, those with disabilities, and other marginalized groups of people require and deserve equal opportunities in elevating their business to those they serve within those communities.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

The number of women in STEM is still around the 28 percentile and the growth has been far too slow for far too long considering all the advances and opportunities for women over the last 30 years.

I would like to see that number grow exponentially in the next 5 to 10 years and believe it can globally with the right initiatives and also by having women already in STEM use their voices to foster and advocate for greater mentorship and opportunity-building platforms.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Over the last several years, research on this subject has shown there are a couple of key factors that need to change to reduce these challenges. One is the low retention rate for women in STEM based on career advancement, particularly in leadership roles.

Another challenge is the lack of mentorship in the career-building process. When you have such a great gender gap ratio, it calls for more programs, and initiatives within the workplace and even at the educational level that involve a long-game approach to mentoring, career building, and further education within the fields of STEM to strengthen the opportunities going forward and reduce such challenges for the next generation.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

I still believe that there is a misconception that women do not or do not want to work in STEM. With such a myth lingering, it can be misleading to the leaders in the field to help adjust this for women entering STEM as well as young women thinking about options in the field of STEM. Without reinforcement to help dispel these myths, how will an entire generation not see what is actually possible?

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

There are “musts” I try to convey to anyone starting out in business, particularly a woman in STEM.

1. Own what you do. In leadership of any capacity, it is important to stand by your convictions and also be open to feedback and help from others. However, in times that you may not have the support you need, stand strong on your own beliefs and do so unapologetically.

2. Set the example and bar high. Women coming up in the next generation as well as those who are looking to you as an example of a leader and mentor. The responsibility we accept in this field is great but the impact that can span a generation or more is humbling and simply put, it is a duty and honor to do so. I always think back to my younger self and think of what was possible or what I was told was possible. Now I can take some of those impossibilities and make them possible for others and I encourage others to do the same.

3. Know your equality. The pay and the perceived value you as a woman in these industries may not be felt the same by all. That’s unfortunately been proven to be quite obvious. Know your worth. Ask for your worth, even demand that worth. Again this sets an example to others who may be looking to you to understand their own worth. Doing so opens those doors at a greater speed and with more voices.

4. Stand your ground. This is something I say often as not a point of defiance but to empower yourself and those who look up to you in a leadership position. To be confident but fair, to be influential and diplomatic — all of these things require you to stand your ground when it is most necessary for the benefit of your journey and other women in your industry as well. One stands strong and others stand with you.

5. Find your tribe. The lesson here is that we do not always know who our tribe is. We are tribal by nature as human beings. When growing in a community or excelling in business, we need those we can count on and those that support us and vice versa. There are other women out there just like you ready to take part in your tribe or you in theirs. A tribe is a resource and a place of unification. Whatever and wherever yours is, go out there and find it.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

The importance of women in STEM outweighs the challenges. It is a hard thing to say and not want to challenge that statement in itself but there is a need to show what is possible through resilience and leading by example.

As more and more women show and share their resilience in the face of challenges in their given field, they are making it evident to those watching that women are valued, needed, and hold great hope and opportunity for women in STEM in the future.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Value your time and your team’s time. I would also add to that, the fact that communication is an invaluable and ever-changing skill set.

Become a great communicator that sets the example for your team. The time and effort involved in anything will be greatly affected by how well you communicate.

The idea of communication can seem simple to many, but communication is complex and it is a skill that we keep on having to adjust and learn about daily. Be open to being wrong, not understanding someone and having miscommunications. They are part of any business culture — as well as life.

When we realize we are always learning, nothing is seamless, we all make mistakes — we learn that communication is one of our best tools in working through those challenges.

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 would not be doing what I am doing today without a chance encounter with a friend that changed my life. TIn 1998, that friend gave me the computer with all that software I have been able to build on for the last 25 years.

When having to find a way to work around my disability and still take care of myself, those tools were life-changing for me. Plus, I always have had an entrepreneurial heart.

It seems like a simple gift, but this is where I learned that even a chance encounter can change your life forever. I am deeply honored.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We started to add social impact opportunities on our business website.

First, we choose a monthly charity each month to donate a portion of our sales. We keep each month’s charity on our website and give clients also the opportunity to directly donate to the causes we care about.

Second, we just launched the Rise Visible Pro Bono Program. Our program focuses on marginalized populations, small businesses/start-ups, or non-profits that are in need of support for their business and want to make an impact in their market.

We offer free-of-charge services such as SEO, websites, graphic design, content creation, digital marketing, and marketing consultations

We work to directly improve the lives of women, people of color, those with disabilities, and other marginalized groups. We believe businesses deserve the most effective tools to foster equal opportunity and advancement for everyone.

Third, we are outspoken advocates for DEI and accessibility in the real and digital world. We believe in Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility. We are committed to making sure everyone feels represented, respected, and included.

Lastly, we worked with and wrote for various publications to bring visibility to disability in business as well as chronic illness awareness.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I feel if a movement of Altruism in Business could exist, I would lead that movement of good to the greatest amount of people. There are so many lives that could become success stories if only more people used their influence or abilities to offer compassion and help to those who cannot do it alone. To be able to carry unified values to help others succeed as we succeed ourselves sounds kind of perfect.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Nana korobi, ya oki” is a very powerful Japanese Proverb that means fall down seven times, get up eight. Falling down is inevitable, but where we gain power is when we get back up.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 :-)

Joe Dispenza is one of my all-time heroes. He went from a traumatic injury that could have cost him his life to helping himself heal and has helped others heal. Changing the lives of many people.

With a better understanding of neuroscience and brain plasticity, we are learning that we can heal ourselves in ways we never knew we could — with scientific proof! As well as that we can make ourselves sick, but we can change that too.

Just listening to him speak is an amazing experience. He is kind-hearted, smart as a whip, and revolutionary for his time. His book “Becoming Supernatural” is one of my favorite books. He’s remarkable and it would be a dream to spend real human time with him.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

825 Followers

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.