Inspiring Women: On Integrity - EleVen by Venus Williams

Inspiring Women: On Integrity

Central to EleVen’s values is a core tenant:

The best is just a moment. Better is eternal.” To celebrate the spirit of “better” in honor of Women’s History Month, we’re profiling inspiring women in the EleVen community about personal motivation, challenges, and everything in between. Each of these women reflect EleVen’s core values: Excellence, Teamwork, Entrepreneurship, Generosity, Integrity, and Wellness. From artists to scientists, nurses to corporate execs, these women embody growth and renewal amidst the honest realities of living life in 2021. 

EleVen Core Value: Integrity

Liesl Leach

Occupation: Entrepreneur/volunteer/neighbor/friend/traveler 

Age: “I have passed the 50 mark.”

Current locale: Falls Church, Virginia

Via: I was born in Cambridge, England and grew up there with [a few] years in New Guinea because my dad was an anthropologist. Then back to the U.K., then moved to Falls Church, Virginia in high school. Where am I from? Maybe here, but it doesn’t feel like it. My parents are both American. I used to have a British accent. Mom was from Alabama and Dad was from rural Virginia.
Follow her: LinkedIn 

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of still being able to sit here. I’ve been through a divorce, job changes, career pivots. I’ve had lots of down moments and down periods. And I’m still here. Maybe I’m most proud of my resilience. I’m also proud of my friendships and the relationships that I’ve had for a long time. Family and friends really matter and I’m proud of my family’s history, proud of my zany family. I like all that stuff.

What motivates you?

Doing something that matters. Helping people, building something from nothing, doing hard things, helping others reach their potential. What I really like is when people don’t think they can and they actually can. I think I’ve discovered that in myself and there’s something in everybody everybody bar none.

Have you made any career pivots?

Oh, have I ever. How far back do I want to go? 

My parents were peace corps volunteers -- they were actually the first Peace Corps volunteers from the state of Alabama. When I left college I was relatively new in the United States and I wasn’t sure what the heck I was supposed to do; I saw people going off into this thing called investment banking and I just decided ‘I’ll apply for the Peace Corps.’ I got in and it was one of the most fortunate things. I was in Thailand -- which was phenomenal -- and I did that for two years. When I came back I did a little traveling and continued in the vein of humanitarian stuff. I ended up working in the House of Representatives; I joined the Select Committee on Hunger on the Republican side because that was where the job was. It was tremendously eye opening to see how Congress really works. They could smoke in those days. I was writing speeches, I got to go to Haiti, met with [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide, I was even an observer for the elections after the Ethiopian election.  

After a couple years I figured I needed to go back to grad school -- I wanted to make an impact with the most people. I got a public policy degree at the Harvard Kennedy School and that is where the first pivot after the humanitarian experience came. I took classes at the business school and started to become aware of other things I could do out there. I had made very little money for a long time, I kinda thought, ‘I wonder if there’s another way where I could take what I want to do, solve problems, help people, set things up new, but do it differently,’ and that’s where I learned about consulting. I decided I was going to throw myself into the pool of people who were going to go into consulting. I didn’t know how to use a computer and I remember learning how to use Excel for a final exam the day of. I was a total neophyte, Even though I didn’t fit the mold of other mainstream consulting candidates, I told myself that all I needed was one offer to get me started. I ended up taking an offer with Oliver Wyman in New York. A friend of mine, we both moved to New York, and that was the beginning of my private sector, totally different type of career. 

I learned all about banking, I learned it not through training but through talking to other people. I lived in Canada, Phoenix, I went to Thailand again, helped one of the big banks in Thailand rescue itself, went to DC, worked for IFC. Consulting was awesome, all the traveling was sexy. Some of my best friends were formed in the trenches there. But ultimately it wasn’t the work that was the problem, it was the lifestyle: I was traveling sometimes five days a week. The allure of waking up at 5am on Monday morning wasn’t that fun. I would come back to my apartment in New York and try to keep up with the bills, but I found that I wasn’t as happy anymore, it wasn’t satisfying. Four years in, I thought, ‘Do I want to make the gamble to become partner?’ Frankly, there were no female partners. I felt that I always had to hide because I wasn’t an engineering, physics, or math geek. I was good at strategy and seeing the big picture thing. 

I ended up leaving. Next pivot: the thing that’s carried me for the last twenty years. A friend from grad school called me and said, ‘I’m one of the first employees at this Internet startup creating portals for universities and colleges. I want you to come out and be the Head of Marketing.’ Initially, I thought, ‘Are you crazy? Marketing, I don’t know anything about Marketing.’ He was in Utah, I was living in Manhattan. It would be a massive pay cut because it was a startup. But off I went, and I drove across the country from New York to Salt Lake City, and I worked at the startup. I didn’t know anybody. It was stressful: you’re the head of something you know nothing about and you just learn. I thought, ‘I’ll rely on the people who work for me, and I’ll do what I know how to do: strategy.’ There were many long phone calls with people in New York while I was trying to learn. I was there for just about two years. It was the first time I ever worked in a tech company, first time I ever worked with software engineers. From that time, I’ve loved tech and digital ever since. 

That said, you definitely don’t want to be a single New Yorker in Utah who’s not Morman. We were supposed to IPO,  we didn’t IPO, and I left for another job in another startup. That folded. I decided at some point: ‘I know banking and consulting, I’m now back in New York and I want to stay here. What’s going to enable me to do digital tech banking?’ I started to work for banks at this point. 

And now I’m in another pivot. I’ve always wanted to do my own things. I’ve always created new things and I really would like to do it for myself. The opportunity is now to do this for myself and really give it a go. I may end up flat on my face and poorer as a result but I’m energized by the idea of leaving a big corporation and moving into something else.

What have you learned recently?

I have learned or relearned how soul-satisfying it is to hang out with good friends and talk and catch up. I’m learning to have faith in the sense that I don’t know what the future is going to hold. A few months ago that was terrifying, and now it’s acknowledging we’ll do it one step at a time and see where it goes. It feels like I’ve rediscovered the joy in trying a bunch of different things. I feel like a little bit of a kid again, I don’t have to be anybody’s particular idea of success.

How do you find your eleventh gear? 

Reading something or listening to something that truly inspires me, that gives me the oomph to go the extra mile. Ideas and the notion of possibility are fuel for me: hearing peoples’ stories, the kinds of stories about overcoming great odds.

Written by: Emily Schwartz


Written By: Stephanie Morimoto
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