Willow Spotlight: Smaiyra Million on Female Entrepreneurship

Smaiyra Million has spent her career building world-class luxury service businesses, including as CEO of Millennium Partners Sports Club Management.

Now, she's dedicated to helping other women build their visions by positively influencing the entrepreneurial ecosystem of women-founded or -owned businesses. She does this through her work as the Director of both the Butler Institute for Free Enterprise through Entrepreneurship and the Diana International Research Institute at Babson College, as a board member to several organizations, and as a founder of her business consultancy, soaVentures.

Willow Founder and CEO Lacy Garcia spent time with Smaiyra to ask her about female entrepreneurship and leadership, the most important piece of financial advice her father gave her, and how she advocates for herself and other women.

 

Watch the full video interview with Smaiyra below, and scroll down to read the full transcript.

 

 

 

Lacy:

Smaiyra, so good to see you, and I’m really grateful. Thank you for doing this.

What is one piece of advice you would give to women who are looking to advance their careers?

 

Smaiyra:

I like to tell women who are on a trajectory, whether it's director, senior director, or CEO: start acting like that role at the beginning.

Don't wait until you're one step away from the C-suite to figure out that you need to change something in your behavior. So you want to be the CEO? Start acting like the CEO when you come in, even at the entry-level. And what I mean by that is, if you feel like you need to carry yourself in a certain way, or not talk about things that are confidential, or dress in a certain way, or show up at a meeting in a certain way—do it from the beginning.

Don't wait until you think you are at the threshold of that position that you're looking for. Start early and people will see you that way from the beginning.

 

Lacy:

What do you wish every woman knew before starting her own business?

 

Smaiyra:

This one is a little bit of a cliché, but I say it all the time, which is, you're gonna run a marathon and you're going to be able to fly to the moon. Any woman worth her salt can do both. She just can't do them both on the same day.

So when you’re looking to start your own business, it's a marathon, right? You're going in it for the long haul. And you may have days that are like a moonshot that you need to just take off. You just can't do both at the same time.

You've got to juggle. You've got to know what your priorities are. If you're trying to juggle a family, that's another ingredient. If you're just juggling a partner, that's another ingredient. Whatever it is that you're juggling, just know that you're going to have to keep doing those things in balance, but not all on the same day. There are going to be days that are going to be way off balance for one particular thing. And that's okay.

 

Lacy:

That's so true. I mean, one day I'm on the moon, and the next I'm like literally under the earth.

 

Smaiyra:

Digging yourself out the next day.

 

Lacy:

It’s true, but you need to maintain the same confidence, calm, confidence, poise, and your team needs to think every day is shooting to the moon.

 

Smaiyra:

Every day, every day, but you're still running that marathon.

 

Lacy:

What has been one of the most surprising things you've learned about female entrepreneurship during your time at Babson?

 

Smaiyra:

What I've been surprised at is the amount of data that shows hardcore results for women leaders. There's just research after research that says, if you're a woman leader, or if you have women on your board, or if there are women on your investment team, whatever correlation it is, your ROI goes up.

And even though those women are underrepresented in the funding pool—we know those numbers, under 3.5%—the results are profoundly favorable for women entrepreneurs, leaders, investors, etc. Before I came to a research Institute or an academic Institute, there was a gut about that for me, but for the world to catch up and see the data, I was surprised.

 

Lacy:

That's true on so many levels.

How do you advocate for yourself?

 

Smaiyra:

Being very direct and very clear. I'm not afraid of uncomfortable conversations. I think that confrontation is kind of overrated. It's not confrontation.

It's advocating for your needs, understanding what your needs are, and articulating them. And if you find yourself in a situation where those needs are not being met, understand how to either maneuver around it, or leave. Because there's no sense in staying somewhere where you're not heard.

So understanding my situation, my environment, how to articulate it, and knowing not to stay in a place where those needs can't be met—that's how I advocate.

 

Lacy:

How do you advocate for other women and why do we need other women to be our advocates?

 

Smaiyra:

Coming into academia was a very purposeful step for me because I knew that mentoring and helping women grow was a part of who I was as a CEO or as an investor.

But coming to academia, I could catch them a little bit younger as they were developing—certainly with our undergraduates, but even in our professional development executive ed programs.

So I advocate by teaching. By understanding where the gaps are, by pointing them out, by giving them tools, by telling them that it's okay to be unclear, uncertain, or afraid, or to ask questions—creating space for them to voice their weaknesses or concerns.

That's a way of advocating because a lot of times women are told, “You’ve got to act like you've got it all together.” There's no place to go. There's no questions to ask. There’s no safe space. And so I think I've created that safe space and those relationships.

 

Lacy:

Amen. The person that suffers by you pretending like you've got all the answers is you.

Do you have a mentor, a guide or a coach? If so, what are some of the most valuable things that you've learned from them?

 

Smaiyra:

I've been in positions where I have been the only woman in the room for a long time.

But there was a woman at Ritz-Carlton early in my career who's probably about 15 years my senior who absolutely became my mentor. We're still very, very, very close friends. And by watching her, I really learned a gracious strength. She was very articulate, very strong in her beliefs, really demanding and held you accountable, but she is a lovely and sincere Southern Belle.

I learned to try to be as gracious as possible when you're talking to people, always understanding that you never know where someone's coming from. So using that empathy and emotional intelligence to lead was something that I learned from her early in my career.

 

Lacy:

That’s exactly on point. Why I named the company Willow was because the Willow tree is the tree that's able to bend entirely without breaking. We're symbolic of that grace but with strength and flexibility.

 

Smaiyra:

It's a great metaphor. And I think a lot of women need that metaphor because we're socialized in a different way, either to be very accommodating and overly gratuitous, or trying to be like a guy and be super demanding and not understanding.

Whereas, the magic that happens when a woman has high EQ and understands how to be gracious and strong at the same time, knocks people out.

 

Lacy:

That's so true. And it's also about finding your authentic self.

What does it mean to you to be an empowered or modern woman today?

 

Smaiyra:

I think it means limitless opportunities and possibilities. There are so many paths that women can go down—even as recently as watching vice-president elect Harris. How do you just want to levitate out of your chair and feel like, “Oh my God, there is going to be a woman in the White House.” And she looks like some of us, and she comes from a place of immigrants. It’s amazing, right?

But it also means that there are modern and empowered women who say, “I choose to raise my family. That's my authentic self of being empowered. I'm empowered to say that this is the path that I choose.”

So I'm not necessarily just advocating that a modern and empowered woman is all about the career and climbing the corporate ladder. You can choose where you want to go and it will be accepted both ways and it can happen at different times in your life.

 

Lacy:

I think one of the best pieces of advice I got, which didn't have as much meaning for me back in my twenties when I received it, was, “You can be anyone and everything and accomplish everything that you possibly want. You just can't do it all at the same time necessarily.” There are going to be times where you're going to really lean into your career and there are going to be times where you really need to lean into your family.

 

Smaiyra:

That's exactly right.

 

Lacy:

What's the best personal financial tip that you've ever received?

 

Smaiyra:

Do not live on credit. My dad taught me that and so I pay off everything every month.

I have no outstanding bills on my credit card. The only debt I have is my house, which is kind of crazy. But that's how I sleep at night. So if I can't pay for it, I don't do it, or I save.

When I was growing up, they had credit cards on table tops in the college. And all you had to do was take a pen and sign your name and they'd hand you a credit card. And kids were going off and, in a matter of a couple months they were a thousand dollars in debt and they just didn't understand. “Oh, that's 21% APR. Oh, what does that even mean?”

So not living on credit was the best piece of advice I got, and I just have been very conservative all my life.

 

Lacy:

I got the same advice from my father, who’s a Cuban refugee. I didn't even actually have a credit card until I was 25, which was a problem because I had to build credit. I think it took me til I was 30 before I had really good credit.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

 

Smaiyra:

I think it's just amazing that this platform is being created. Like you said, women are inheriting more money and they're looking for guidance, and to have a platform where they can be heard and find trusted advisors? I think it's brilliant. I want to congratulate you.

And it's nice to see that the engagement is there and that people are finding and actually using Willow.

 

Lacy:

Thank you. I mean, I was a private banker, and I didn’t even know that something like this existed. I didn't even know that there was financial coaching, or that you could get these questions answered. And despite our excellent educations and families, there wasn't this space right? There wasn't that openness and it wasn't okay to be vulnerable and ask questions. I thought you have to pretend like, you know what you're doing.

 

Smaiyra:

Right. Right.

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