Power Women: Tamra Johnson of Liquid On How To Successfully Navigate Work, Love and Life As A Powerful Woman

An Interview With Ming Zhao

Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine
14 min readNov 25, 2021


The willingness to be the author of your own story. Look at my career and progression: it’s a story of lots of different things, and it’s the story that got me here. I believe that with respect to Liquid (the software product we’re building) and the future of our work, we should all be the authors of our own stories. We shouldn’t feel like we have to fit within the constraints of how companies and work have been structured, which historically haven’t been great for women.

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 Tamra Johnson.

Tamra Johnson is the COO of Liquid, which provides simplified contracting, payments and controls for agile businesses and their global vendor networks. Additionally, she founded FlexTeam, an on demand business consultancy powered by a workforce of MIT graduates. Tamra was previously the CEO and Founder of Dryad Communications, a broadband provider for rural and underserved areas, including Native American Reservations, in Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota. Before that, she spent 10 years in project management and systems engineering at Northrop Grumman, creating and delivering space systems.

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 come from rural Texas, outside of San Antonio. I was the oldest of four and the first person in my family to go to college. My parent had met in high school, didn’t go to college, and had me soon after. But my parents were entrepreneurial, and I grew up seeing business happen in front of me every day. They owned an automotive repair shop a hundred yards away from the house, so I’d get off the school bus, say hi to my dad, then walk home and get a snack. It was an environment where work life and family life were integrated, and that was normal to me. We were a family where everyone helped everyone out.

When I was in school, I was always really good at math and science. I knew by high school I’d be going to college, and at some point someone told me I should be an engineer. I honestly didn’t even know what that meant, but I started to learn about it. I had planned to go to Texas A&M because it was a good school in Texas, but then one of my dad’s customers suggested I should apply to MIT. So I applied and got in, and started my studies in aerospace engineering.

Growing up, I was always fascinated by space. It was the ’80s, and NASA and the Shuttle program were a big deal. I loved the idea of exploring and doing something so few others had been able to do. I’m pretty competitive with myself, and I think the difficulty inherent in space flight and exploration attracted me to it. The summer after my freshman year I came to California for my first internship in the field, and then moved to LA to work full time after graduation.

Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?

I spent the first ten years of my career working for Northrop Grumman, and I got to work on five or six different cool and interesting programs. From doing propulsion system design, to designing spacecraft to go to Jupiter, to actually sitting on the console during rocket launches, I got to take part in a variety of programs.

But like I said, I’m attracted to a challenge. I went to graduate school, and got a masters from Stanford in Management Science and Engineering and an MBA from UCLA while working full time. And maybe it’s because of how I grew up, seeing the blend of work and professional life, but I felt drawn towards the idea of working for myself and being more entrepreneurial.

I had seen a few women at the top of the organization during my career, but very few women in the middle. I wanted to work on something that provided more flexibility for mid-career women to keep working while also tending to the other demands of life during your 30s, 40s, which could be having and raising children, helping your parents, or whatever those other things are. The full time corporate structure makes it hard to adequately take care of those things while also pursuing your professional career, and there needed to be more flexibility. That was the seedling for FlexTeam: I wanted to come up with an idea that helped women work flexibly while also being able to utilize their intelligence and experience.

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

When I left Northrop, I had the inkling of something I wanted to do, and that was it. I began consulting in the meantime, and one of the consulting projects ended up turning into a business partnership and my first company.

We were providing internet service in rural, underserved parts of America, and had acquired the rights to transmit on the lower 700 MHZ band for the state of South Dakota. It used to be used for TV stations, and then was repurposed for cellular phones. We ended up selling the spectrum license to T-Mobile. Pretty cool that suddenly you’re acquiring an asset like that, then dealing with T-Mobile. During this time was also when my first son was born, so we were in negotiations with T-Mobile, and I hadn’t told them I was pregnant because I didn’t want them to know that I was on a timeline and for them to use that against me. Literally, the day he was born, I had missed calls to talk about this deal.

Once we sold the spectrum to T-Mobile, part of the business wound down, and we eventually selling the remaining assets. This was 3–4 years into my entrepreneurial journey, and I began to realize that no matter what you work on, it’s going to be hard and present a lot of challenges. This became the impetus to check in with myself and ask if I was really doing the kind of work I had left Northrop Grumman to pursue. If I was going to have to put in hard work regardless, then I should do it for something I’m passionate about.

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?

I think initiative is extremely important. When you’re an entrepreneur, by definition, you don’t know what you’re doing or how to do it. And you’re trying to do something nobody has done before. The way to do that is you just start working hard and put your head down and figure it out as you go.

When I worked for the broadband company, I lived in California at the time, but our service was in South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska; it’s where the market was and where we had access to the spectrum. We literally got on planes and went to some place we didn’t know to meet people and make stuff happen. You just start doing it and that’s how things happens.

Another thing I’m good at putting myself in other people’s shoes and understanding immediately what people are doing and what their longer-term goals are. It’s empathy combined with big picture thinking. That’s been a key for me, in my business now and when I started working in aerospace engineering.

I’ve known Saujin Yi (founder and CEO of Liquid) since college. We had both gone off and had our respective careers for thirteen years. After the spectrum sale, she and I were talking, and she was also at a transition point. In the beginning, we were honestly just talking about different ideas and bouncing things off each other. The more we talked, the more we realized: you care about this, and I care about this, and you bring these skills, and I bring these other skills. We did some angel investing together, and then we just started doing things that turned into the beginnings of FlexTeam.

And for a third character trait? Confidence. That I’m the right person to make this happen and knowing I’ve got something of value. I think having that in your mind is crucial, it sets the right tone and the way you’ll be interacting with people. People can feel that.

During the first half of my career in aerospace, there were many times I was often the only woman in the room. I remember there were these “take a seat at the table” moments, and I learned how important it was not to hold yourself back. You have to take ownership of your right to be there.

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?

Because women haven’t been in positions of leadership for centuries. Women historically, societally, have been in a support role and have been there to help make the lives of others better and easier. We’re not used to it and not comfortable with it.

But the workforce, and women’s role in it, is changing. The experience of someone who’s even ten years younger or just finishing college right now, there’s a big difference than when I started. We’re seeing change happen in our own lifetime.

Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?

There have been a handful of women who, even with the amount of responsibility they had, mentored me. But generally, the women who were in power didn’t have kids, or they had a husband who took care of the kids. They were a woman in power, and they were essentially performing a male role. It was hard for me to aspire to that kind of position. For someone who was very driven, I couldn’t see how I could be a self-motived Type A person and also have the family I want.

What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?

Ignore it. It’s easy to keep replaying the conversation where you think you’ve done something to make someone uneasy. But don’t fall victim to it. If someone is literally uneasy because you’re assertive and powerful, ignore it. There are other good people in the world to be spending your time with.

What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?

The more women we see in positions of power, the more society is going to get used to it. That’s why my sister, who is 29, has a different experience than I do. Women should be given opportunities for power and not be held back.

In a very tangible way, one of the ways to make a big difference is for more women to receive funding for their businesses. The more we see of that, the more women in power we’ll see.

There’s also policy-related solutions on the federal level that should be implemented. Right now, there’s no federal family leave policy, and we as the U.S. can, and should, do something about that right now. The fact is women are the ones having babies, it takes a significant amount of time, and then when the child is born, it’s hard to have a newborn and be working and deal with the stressors of finance and healthcare. This is harming powerful women.

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?

It’s the little jokes or comments that get made that they think go under the radar. I was in a meeting with executives, the only female in the room, and part-way through the meeting, they were talking about their customers who are women and that some of their buying decisions had been based on gender. They were having these conversations that were belittling women’s experience and dismissing what they had faced. And you realize these are the conversations that are being had when you’re not around.

Being the only woman in the room, you feel like they’re generalizing those same opinions around you as well. Or is this your burden to take on — the added workload nobody else is willing to take on to change the perception of women? But if you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

The decision, in addition to doing your job and the things you’re responsible for, of whether you also want to take on the workload of changing culture? Of changing perception? Of calling people out?

I think we’re also in a place where the pandemic revealed the disparity between the way women and men are treated. When the kids are at home, women have the larger responsibility of managing the household and also taking care of outside work. Women then have to face the question of maintaining the bandwidth to do the bigger, creative thinking, and not being so cluttered with the details of everyday life.

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’m lucky to have a fantastically supportive husband. But there’s still a percent of things that are my responsibility that I have to take care of. When one of my two boys, who are seven and four, wake up, it’s Mom they call for.

But I went off and wrote my own playbook and story because I didn’t see a way in a typical nine-to-five job that I could integrate my career and family life. I didn’t want them to be separate.

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?

There wasn’t a tipping point for me. Starting from the time I ventured out to author my own career, I’ve structured everything to how to make this all work together. I’m literally building companies to give people the control they need to work and live life the way they want. I believe it can be both. There’s no “I’m done with work”. It’s blended. Do I take two days a week to step back from work early in the afternoon because I’m coaching both of my boys’ baseball teams? I do! But for me, that’s not stressful. I get to keep pushing forward on the things I care about.

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 think you have to look presentable and pleasant. It affects how you’re perceived, and I think it’s important to wear the right professional attire. People react to what they see, especially when you’re a leader. I actually place a lot of value on being in shape. I care more about whether someone is taking care of themselves more than I do makeup or a particular hair style. Part of it is I enjoy it and being in good physical shape.But it could also be part of my drive to continually challenge myself as well.

And it gives me confidence. Do I think I look good or look strong? Yeah, I do think that.

How is this similar or different for men?

Women are for sure held to a higher standard, and people are way more willing to point out if a woman’s not dressed appropriately. They’ll comment on women’s appearance, but not men’s appearance. I can’t think of someone making an off-handed comment about what a guy looked like, ever.

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.)

1. The belief that you belong there and that you are the right person to be there. Often times, I think women will hold themselves back or think they need to be a hundred percent sure about something before putting themselves forward. Where guys are always like “pick me!” even if they’re not qualified. If you’ve found yourself in a situation and in a role or job, a seat at the table, you have a right to be there. Go do your own thing. There are so many other factors and challenges that will make what you’re doing hard anyways, so don’t let yourself be one of those things. Have that confidence.

2. A supportive partner who shares your goals. That’s been critical for me. My husband was supportive of me leaving Northrop, and we adjusted our lifestyle and budget so that I could have an infinite runway to do my own thing. It was financial support in the beginning, and more generally having a cheerleader who believed in me and what I was doing.

3. The ability to be good with people. At the end of the day, everything is working with and through others. If you understand what motivates people, then you can support and empower them. Telling people “here’s a task” is limiting, but when you work with a team that’s motivated and shares your vision, that’s how you can really make an impact.

4. Endurance. The ability to keep going. I don’t mean to suggest you should live in a way where people remark, “all she does is work all the time”, but it’s not giving up. To keep trying and keep at it. You can look at my story, where I left Northrop Grumman with an idea, and ten years later I’m still working on that idea! The whole idea hasn’t been realized. But I’m realizing different parts of it and unlocking things I never would have imagined. Right now, we have a venture-backed software product we’re building that’s reaching more people in the world and moving money internationally.

5. The willingness to be the author of your own story. Look at my career and progression: it’s a story of lots of different things, and it’s the story that got me here. I believe that with respect to Liquid (the software product we’re building) and the future of our work, we should all be the authors of our own stories. We shouldn’t feel like we have to fit within the constraints of how companies and work have been structured, which historically haven’t been great for women.

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.

Elizabeth Warren came to mind. Not because of her politics, but because when I read her biography, it was clear she’s a person very ahead of her time. She wrote her own story. She went from having to figure out how to make her career happen while also raising her kids and getting the support of her community. She shows up every day with passion and a desire to make change and make the world better.

I remember, I think it was the New York Times asked presidential candidates how many hours of sleep they got. And she said eight hours, where everyone else was trying to look like a hard-ass and only giving themselves four hours. She has set her own rules and followed her own path, and she’s extremely successful in doing it.

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



Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine

Co-founder and CEO of PROVEN Skincare. Ming is an entrepreneur, business strategist, investor and podcast host.