She Was the Only Black Woman in the Room. So She Decided to Become the Best in the Business
They say it's lonely at the top. But here's what they don't say: Knowing how to go it alone is the secret to getting you there.
When Athena Technology Acquisition Corp. listed on the New York Stock Exchange earlier this year, I became the only Black female CEO of an NYSE-listed SPAC. When I launched Xtreme Solutions in 2002, I became the only Black woman CEO of a cybersecurity company.
Before that, I spent 22 years in the Army, including three stints at the Pentagon, where I was often the only Black woman in the room when crucial decisions were being made.
Being "the only" in any situation can be lonely for some, but it doesn't bother me. Some of this year's Inc. 5000 honorees are "the only" in their fields, and, as they likely know, it's a unique position with distinct advantages. There have been more than 820 SPAC IPOs since 2009, but Athena is the only one with a Black woman as CEO--so everybody knows who I am. I embrace the opportunity to share a perspective others don't have.
Several colleagues on Athena's leadership team have also achieved notable firsts as "the only" in their positions. We want to enable other women to wield real economic power and social impact by investing in, leading, and growing their businesses. To that effect, something I try to pass on to other "Onlys" is that it's all about the game.
People often talk about business and finance in sports terms, because there are so many parallels. I think of most aspects of life as being about the game. And if you understand the game, even as an Only, you get to play it--but it requires courage, strategy, confidence, and understanding.
To gain an understanding of any game, you have to first be a student of it. Finding qualified people who can coach, mentor, and advise you is key, as is learning about the rules and common plays. You have to identify the strategies that will work best for you, given your strengths.
When I was 19, I left college early and joined the Army, intending to serve five years and see Europe. I ended up staying for more than two decades, specializing in cybersecurity issues. I had strong female mentors along the way, including a great brigadier general who made everyone feel a little intimidated. When I had to brief her on something one day, she told me, "Never lose your confidence." That was an aha! moment for me as a leader--it helped me recognize my potential and made me want to improve my game even more.
Later, when I founded my own companies, I wanted to be the greatest of all time--the GOAT--in my field. When I assumed leadership of a SPAC, I wanted to become the GOAT in the SPAC world, too. I set my sights high, because the GOAT always has a strategy, always looks to see who's playing better, and always seeks to improve her game. If you're aiming to be anything other than the GOAT, you're less likely to be around when decisions that count are being made.
There's one other factor that's important to every player in every game: character. It always opens doors. I've been able to recruit top-notch talent because my character spoke for me. If there's ever a moment when you find yourself in a room where others--or maybe even you--are questioning how you got in, know that your character went in first and helped earn you a spot at the table.
And if you've played the game well enough to land a spot as an Only in the room, rather than looking at the situation as a lonely one, embrace the advantages it gives you and use your position to pull others into the room with you. Maybe one day, you'll look around and see a few of your "first and only" peers on the Inc. 5000 next to you, changing the game today so that others will play by your example tomorrow.
BY PHYLLIS NEWHOUSE, FOUNDER AND CEO, XTREME SOLUTIONS, INC