Power Women: Sheares ‘Banki’ Benjamin Of Banki Designs On How To Successfully Navigate Work, Love and Life As A Powerful Woman
An Interview With Ming Zhao
Persistence — “In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins- not through strength but by perseverance.” H. Jackson Brown — This is my favorite quote because it reminds me of the many times I failed along my journey and I did not give up, I kept going.
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Sheares ‘Banki’ Benjamin.
Sheares Benjamin, affectionately known as Banki, is a mom, visual artist, and die hard serial entrepreneur. She is the founder of Banki Designs, a Toronto-based creative agency offering branding solutions, graphic/web design and social media content management services to small to medium size businesses. Banki is one of the workshop speakers at Meet The Motivators: Celebrating Women in Leadership Conference and Gala, which takes place May 21–22, 2022 in Toronto, Canada.
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 childhood “backstory”?
I am the youngest child in my family, with two brothers, two sisters and loving parents. When I was a child, I moved around alot — I was born in Trinidad, then at the age of six I moved to Grenada and then came to Canada at the age of nine.
In Trinidad, my aunt had a convenience store and in Grenada my grandmother had a rum shop. At a young age I watched both of these incredible and inspiring women run their own businesses with pride and joy. I believe it shaped me into wanting to have businesses of my own.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
As long as I can remember I’ve always enjoyed art. I remember drawing as early as five years old. In high school, I designed my school yearbook cover, and after high school I volunteered for a magazine called Your Time Toronto as a reporter. It was during that time when I made friends with a graphic designer for that magazine who was mentoring my brother to also be a graphic designer. I was about 21 years old when I saw my brother’s photoshop program open on his computer. I started playing around with it and I was literally on it for hours. My brother’s friend was over and saw my passion, then asked me to design a cd cover for his DJ mix tape. I knew at that moment I was in love, and that’s how my journey with Banki Designs Inc. began.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It’s like I was living two lives at the same time. In the daytime I was an administrative assistant in the corporate world, and at night I was a graphic designer running my own business part-time. When I became a mother, it became even more difficult to take a risk to run my business full-time. It was hard to give up a job that paid really well with great benefits, and a great pension. I had great plans to do what I loved, but I kept telling myself I was working this 9–5 for my son until I reached my breaking point. I had been working as an employee since I was fifteen years old and I was tired of dealing with employers who just didn’t recognize my value. When my employer presented me with a payout, it gave me the opportunity to follow the path I always wanted to take. I needed to do what I loved to do from this point forward and I was under pressure to be successful as my son’s future depended on it.
I had so many painful experiences with unfair treatment by co-workers along with systemic racism in many of the places I’ve worked. I knew if I was going to run my business full-time, then I would be in the position to make better business decisions, so I started a support group on facebook called Business Takeout — where I could connect with like-minded individuals. Business Takeout supported Black entrepreneurs who wanted to become better entrepreneurs and make better decisions in various business situations. In this support group, we were able to learn from each other, share each other’s experiences, celebrate milestones and utilize each other’s products/services. After COVID-19, the ‘Business Takeout’ Facebook Group transformed into a non-profit organization, a social enterprise whose mission is to increase Black wealth and empower Black entrepreneurs.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
As a business owner, I have been very consistent with social media marketing. As a result I became a finalist for the ByBlacks.com People’s Choice Award for best Black-Owned Marketing Company in Canada. Although I didn’t win the award, being a finalist speaks volumes to the results of my consistency and hard work on social media.
When I created the Business Takeout Facebook Group, a lot of women reached out to me, many of them needed help outside of business. I remember one of my members was in an abusive relationship and she had no friends. She felt safe to speak to me about what she was going through in her personal life. I listened to her, I gave her the best advice I could and provided resources on where she could go for help. I believe helping others without expecting anything in return brings blessings in other aspects of your life. She was a stranger who saw me in a bigger role than I saw in myself. In that moment I was glad to inspire, impact and help someone move forward in their entrepreneurial journey by simply being a resource.
If you can see it, you can create it. My success thus far has a lot to do with the goals I set for myself. Having a five and ten year plan matters! I had no idea what it was like to hold an event when I started my full time entrepreneurial journey. Nor did I know anything about podcasting. I looked at realistic dates on when I wanted to launch these projects. Then, I set goals for things I needed to complete in order to achieve the bigger goal. Without a plan and execution I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
I have so many thoughts about this.
Society is generally afraid of change. I am afraid of change at times, it’s why I’m still working on improving my diet. lol!
The old gender norms say women should always be femine. What’s wrong with being both? Why is it that when a woman shows masculine traits it comes off as intimidating? Older gender norms allow our capitalist system to run efficiently, but as the roles of women evolve into more of a producer instead of merely a consumer, everything changes.
Times are changing, but wage gaps still exist. The idea of a patriarchal system still benefits men. Some men feel displaced, and these men do not know how to share strength with women. In the process there is a loss of identity. Some men do not understand what their role is in society anymore because they feel that women have replaced them.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
I resonate with these questions so much. By being my own graphic designer from the early 2000’s, which was a position men typically held, I didn’t know any Black female graphic designers at that time. It was challenging because I always felt undervalued and not taken seriously as a business woman. In one of my consultations, I had a potential client who felt like he could charm his way into a discount, it was weird. I found it offensive that he kept complimenting me on my physical appearance and instead of talking about his project, he wanted to know if I was seeing someone. I felt that it was rude and unprofessional. After the proposal was sent, he wanted to discount my price because he knew someone else who could do the job for a cheaper rate. I had to set boundaries and honour the value I put on my work.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
Nothing. Hahahaha. You can’t change how anyone feels, but you can promote the behavior you would like to see in others. People generally like to feel useful, so empower them and give them praise for the work and the behavior you want to see more of.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
We need to rebuild trust by concentrating on equity and inclusion. There are many benefits of having a woman’s perspective on the team. Collaboration and consideration of differences can bring about novel opportunities and solutions. Recognizing the strengths of everyone’s contribution keeps equity and inclusion at the center. If we focus on embracing everyone’s gifts, then we can have a more impactful and productive community.
In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
I find that the lines are continuously blurred with respect to the personal and the public. I have to constantly assert my boundaries with some male clients who attempt to convince me that they have more to offer than business. On many occasions I have built friendly relationships with clients, and with a lot of my male clients they will see this courtesy as an opportunity to engage in more than just business. They initiate conversations outside of business hours speaking about things unrelated to our projects. I learnt early on that setting boundaries is very important when it comes to business; it can become really awkward when you have to choose between losing a client and maintaining your dignity; I do not feel like men go through these same challenges.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
When women are scrutinized it seems more personal, we are generally chastised for things that are intrinsically tied to us as women, i.e. having children, career/family balance.
Maintaining success in a high profile position while struggling to have a healthy work-life balance, becomes challenging when the expectations of taking care of family responsibilities is constantly called into question. It can look like a lack of efficiency when it is simply the ‘old gender norms’ wanting to maintain its seat at the table. There are some men who feel highly superior to women because of their freedom of movement and can therefore undermine a woman’s contribution when she has to prioritize other responsibilities over her work.
Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?
I had many struggles as a business woman. Setting boundaries was big for me because it affected other areas such as: meeting deadlines, fighting fatigue, and moments of low mood and energy. Being a mom has made me more creative in my approach to time management. I had to learn when to not overextend myself and set boundaries so I could achieve that ideal work life balance — this is still a work in progress.
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
I had to learn to prospect my clients. By knowing the type of clients I wanted and the ones I needed to turn down, helped me to achieve personal and business success. Also, my business coach helped me in so many ways to not only prospect my clients but to stay focused on my goals and not stray from my path just because someone presents an opportunity.
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
I play to my strengths, the fact that I am a beautiful woman is an asset. I also think being beautiful is beyond physical appearance — it is who you are as an individual. I am a Branding and Design expert and YES, I believe how you put yourself together matters, but how you treat others matters even more. Just like in business your logo and brand colours matters but your customer experience matters even more. Your values, your life mission, your patience and understanding and confidently being who you are authentically is what makes you a beautiful and powerful leader.
How is this similar or different for men?
It’s definitely not different for men.
Imagine being an actor, auditioning for the role and you show up to your audition with only the outfit your character wears, but not the personality or emotion of that role? Do you think you would get the role? Probably not. You have to do more than just dress for the part you want to play in your life’s journey. You have to embrace the emotions and characteristics that come with the experience. Your gender designation doesn’t matter when it comes to being a good person and/or powerful leader.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
“In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins- not through strength but by perseverance.” H. Jackson Brown — This is my favorite quote because it reminds me of the many times I failed along my journey and I did not give up, I kept going.
2, Trust in yourself
I had to trust myself and take a leap of faith to become a full-time business owner. This wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t trust in myself. I had to bet on myself when everyone was telling me to go back to a 9–5 job. I enjoy my freedom with no regrets.
People look up to you. You have no idea who is watching you and how you are inspiring them. You are responsible for upholding the values you live by, to empower others who see you in a positive light. I’m a mother first, I know he is watching what I do and I always do my best to be the best example for my son.
I saw a vision and I brought it to life for both my businesses. I honestly believe that if you can see it in your mind anything is possible, even a better version of you. If you see the vision, create the plan, and follow through, then reality here I come!
5. Knowing and operating from your worth
Know your price and discern when to be flexible. Knowing my worth allows me to take myself seriously and improve the growth of my business and life path.
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.
Oprah Winfrey — that would be a dream come true! Oprah’s journey of becoming who she is today has a lot to do with listening to her inner self. She has been true to herself from the very beginning. She showed the world her perseverance, taking personal responsibility and ownership of what she feels is right. She is an amazing woman.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.