Michelle Tartalio - Research Director, Enlight Research

Episode 31: What Role Women Play in Business Success with Michelle Tartalio

Who is Michelle Tartalio and the key takeaways in this episode?

Gender equality has been one of the hottest debates in recent years. But as more and more women are taking the helm in leadership roles, it’s becoming even clearer and more obvious that women are no lesser than their male counterparts. In this episode, we’ll talk to Michelle Tartalio. Michelle is the Co-Founder, Research Director, and Chair of the Advisory Board at Enlight Research, LLC. We’ll dig into her experience of running a company that’s run mostly by women, and a couple of other topics including:

  • A look at one of the best things they’ve done as a business
  • Her personal thoughts on how office layout and design drive teamwork and collaboration
  • Her advice to companies who want to attract millennials into their firms
  • How their company culture is impacted by being a mostly “female” run company
  • Why she thinks figuring out your marketplace and focusing on your revenue engine are the two critical aspects of business growth

The Questions

[4:21] What role do you feel women play in the success of your business culturally?
Answer: It’s an interesting dynamic that we have in Enlight. It’s mostly female-run; the majority of the ownership structure’s female as well. So I think that’s definitely unique in our industry around corporate governance and the boardrooms where we’re operating. I don’t know if that specifically plays a difference, well, in the culture that it’s female majority.

[7:55] What advice would you give an entrepreneur that was trying to build a brand, build a company, and attract quality members to their organization?
Answer: One of the most important area to focus on, this assumes that you have an idea for your product or you know what kind of company you want to run, which is probably the trickiest part, is figuring out the marketplace. But assuming you have that in place, the biggest challenge and sort of piece of advice that I would give to entrepreneurs getting started would be to focus on the revenue engine, so figuring out what the right approach would be in order to get your customers and your sales pipeline lined up. It’s one of the hardest things for entrepreneurs to focus on in addition to getting your product right or getting the service right, whatever the type of business it is, and it’s also one of the most critical things, setting up to fix that. So, every business and every business model has a way to do that, but I think knowing that it’s a critical part of the model from the start, and really focusing on whether or not you need somebody with that expertise to come in or how you invest, how much you really, realistically need to invest on your customers, and thinking through that revenue model really carefully, and getting a lot of other people’s input on it, free consulting from friends and family and people who would be invested with either emotionally or financially on your business and help set things right.

[16:06] What company do you admire the most as it relates to their culture and why?
Answer: This is a tough question because I feel like culture is one of those things that are really hard to know about a business unless you’re there and operating in there. So I would have to pick Enlight Research. I admire the culture that we built here and our current company. Clarkston Consulting, a lot of the core values from Clarkston have spread into here. That’s something that I am proud of and excited about. But it’s one of those questions that are tough to answer because it’s hard to know from the outside, the true culture of the company.

Culture According to Michelle:

So, culture, to me, is the attitude and perspective of the team and is tied very closely to the mission and values of what you’re trying to do, so I feel if your company is trying to build and support a mission that is honorable and ethical then that’s something that your employees and the whole community can get behind. And it shapes the culture of the organization as well.

Book Recommendations:

  • Blue Ocean Strategy by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim

What Michelle Wants Her Company to BE:

  • BE Smart
  • BE Honest
  • BE Great

Links and Resources Mentioned in this Interview:

Where to Find Michelle Tartalio:

Connect with John on

FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

John:   Michelle, welcome to BE Culture Radio.

Michelle: Thank you, glad to be here.

John:   So glad that you’ve joined us. She’s down, as I refer to it, in the beautiful North Caroline and here we are in New Jersey. It’s still cold up here. I think the high today was 39 so she probably has shorts on, gang, so just all my listeners know. It’s 70 degrees down there. My parents are from there so if I sound a little envious, Michelle, it’s only because I am.

Michelle: It is a beautiful day. I’m working with the sun shining on us right now.

John: Good Lord. We’re going to jump into the interview but before we do that, can you share with us your story about how you arrived at the entrepreneurial success you have today and what really shaped you?

Michelle: Sure. Well, there’s been a long history of things that have shaped me into becoming an entrepreneur but, really, I had a great upbringing by parents who worked hard, who, although they didn’t own their businesses, definitely set a great example for how to work hard at something and really focus and energy around something. They used a lot of those skills and best practices that I learned when I was young doing jobs around the house, around the neighborhood, and I’ve just always had a love and a passion for working and making a difference and that stems from the early years.

John:   You have gotten into this incredible entrepreneurial adventure, as I like to call it, and my listeners would like to hear about it. Can you tell us your story about the leadership team and Enlight Research and how that all evolved?

Michelle: Sure, absolutely. So I was really blessed with an amazing opportunity to create Enlight Research and it started through an evolution really. I had been consulting for about 7 years with executives with link buying and the consumer products industry with Clarkston Consulting, which is a firm here in North Carolina. And I had been spending a lot of time traveling and on the road, working on different business problems but actually, I came to a crossroad in my personal life where I was ready to start a family and didn’t necessarily know what that would mean for me and for my career. And so, Clarkston offered the opportunity for me to come in and identify an unmet need in the marketplace that I felt could help their clients with issues that they were having, and they laid out some parameters so we knew we wanted focus on research. We knew we wanted to focus on providing a solution for boards of directors but beyond that it was really a blank canvas and the objective was to identify an unmet need in the market, and try and solve that problem.

John: So the idea that drove this entire process, take us through that a little bit.

Michelle: Sure. So I spent about 6 months researching the market, talking with individuals that I had worked with previously, friends of the consulting companies, friends from Clarkston, clients from Clarkston, and asking them, “How can we improve information in the boardroom? What gaps are there? Tell me about unmet needs and research requirements,” and so through that process, which took about 6 months, I came away with a very clear business pitch. There was a need for independent custom research for boards of directors that was delivered by a third party. So the way most boards of directors make decisions today is that they take information from their management team, they use their own experiences and they probably do some of their own homework too, right? Like, they’ll use Google Alerts and other types of tools to help them be informed about the competition and about the industry, so we felt like we could really automate that process for them when they’re doing their own homework and help them get the best information in a real-time way if we create a technology solution to help them do their job a little bit faster, and hopefully a little bit better as well.

John:   Was there a monumental moment or a tipping point when the company was evolving?

Michelle: I don’t know if there was a tipping point necessarily. We had a lot of good successes along the way but they were more incremental than a tipping point necessarily. But certainly, our first client and the first check that we received were exciting. We were able to use that funding to help establish new customers in new areas and generally build out our network of people who support the concept as well as the product. But it was more of an evolution than a revolution.

John: Now, I want to shift gears a little bit. I want to talk about culture, if we could.

Michelle: Sure.

John: To start with, can you define for our listeners what your definition of company culture is?

Michelle: Sure. So, culture, to me, is the attitude and perspective of the team and is tied very closely to the mission and values of what you’re trying to do, so I feel if your company is trying to build and support a mission that is honorable and ethical then that’s something that your employees and the whole community can get behind. And it shapes the culture of the organization as well.

John:   Can you perhaps share a story with us and our listeners where the culture helped accelerate your business, the culture you guys have developed?

Michelle: Yeah, absolutely. So, one of the best things that we’ve done as a business over the last year has been to establish an advisory board. All of the people who have volunteered, essentially, to join our advisory board at Enlight have been individuals that I have not have a previous relationship with. Nobody within our organization knew them personally but we reached out to these folks because we felt that we have a common mission and a common goal with the things that they were talking about in the marketplace. These are really influential individuals, very smart and experienced people, who really add a lot of credibility to our business as we’re getting off the ground. The fact that they were willing to put their reputation behind what we were building, really, I think talks to the type of culture that we built here at Enlight Research because we’re serving out. We’re entrepreneurial, we’re a startup and they believed in what we were trying to do as individuals and the culture that we’re building enough that they would put their reputation, their brand and associate with us.

John:   Michelle, you have a leadership team and there’s Tom, and Emily, and Jackie, yourself. Tell us, share with us a little bit about the culture that you guys came together and decided as a startup. And how did you go about that?

Michelle: Well, we all are very different types of individuals. We all have different skill sets and experiences and so one of the things that is important to me and really to all of us, is to make sure that we focus on the areas where our skills are best used. We try not to overlap if we don’t have to. We’ve got a small leadership team. We have a lot of ground to cover as we’re building our business so we give a lot of authority and autonomy to areas where they excel and what they do well yet we’re always available to give input, provide direction, and we collaborate on most of the major issues and items that come up on a pretty regular basis. So it’s a great teamwork approach but, at the same time, with individual responsibilities around our areas of expertise.

John:   Now, a lot of people talk about the physical part of the business, the facilities, the image, the brand. How do you guys see that, for your company, as you grow? How do you use that to retain the good people you have and attract the people you want to get?

Michelle: Yes, so we’ve got a great office space layout here in Durham. It’s a very modern design for our space that facilitates and is driven to enable teamwork and collaboration, so although we have our individual phone calls that we need to see to in some quiet space, we generally work together as a team in order to do a lot.

John:   I think that it’s so important in this environment that brings up another one of the issues as we all build companies and drive forward. We have this new labor force called the millennials that are coming into the business and they’re coming into everybody’s businesses. They look for a different type of environment than perhaps people who were baby boomers. Have you experienced any of that?

Michelle: Absolutely. So we have a pretty regular staple of intern that work here throughout the year, and especially in the summer we’ll have 4-5 interns from some of the local universities come and help our team, and they work completely differently than the rest of us. So they would like to take their laptop and go work outside if it’s a nice day and if they can find some shade in North Carolina, it’s probably warm. They’re very mobile. They like to use the sceneries. Sometimes they want to be by themselves; sometimes they like to work together. And I noticed that most of us that are not millennials are not fully interested in moving about the office but yet we want to appeal to those individuals, and they love the layout and the space and the airiness of being able to spread out and work remotely throughout the office building.

John:   Now, Michelle, what advice can you give an entrepreneur that’s trying to build their business and they’re in the startup and they’re trying to attract the millennials into their firm? Is there any advice you can give them?

Michelle: The most success that we’ve had with the interns and new hires out of college has been when we really give them a lot of responsibility and ownership around the work they do. So for me, it’s making it compelling and interesting work where they can really feel like they’re adding value. Because it’s not like it used to be where you hire somebody out of college or hire junior resources and you sort of expect them to help build your one input into the product that everyone’s building. They really like to have ownership and I think that’s especially true in a startup. I don’t know about traditional businesses but we have had a lot of success when we can give interns and new hires real products they take ownership of and they really rise to the challenge and it attracts more. So we have a great funnel of students and new hires that are coming through this process because they’re hearing about what a great place it is to work, how your work that you’re doing really has an impact. And going back to what we talked about earlier with culture, you can offer something unique. We feel like we’re changing the marketplace for the better by providing independent information to the boardrooms. There’s a greater purpose and mission that the team is focused on as well, which feels good, and millennials really seem to respond to that.

John:   I also note for our listeners that you are on the Board of Directors for Easter Seals and United Cerebral Palsy of North Carolina and Virginia. So how do you weave the philanthropic part into your business? Because to a lot of startups, it’s all very important to us that we’re not single-sided, that we are not all business, that there is the – we give back to where we came from, we give back to our communities. How do you guys do it culturally?

Michelle: Actually, each of us on the leadership team has a dedicated mission to support a non-profit that is important to us. Whether we’re on the board of the non-profit or whether we are running teams to do the fundraising, we’re all involved in some way in giving back to the community. And I think it’s important for business in general, to give back to communities where they operate. I think we all have major expectations of government and other forces to try and address the fundamental issues that are evident in our society, but if we look at it as, “Oh, it’s somebody else’s problem,” then we’re not going to be able to really move the needle. So we try and take some of that on ourselves; we accommodate meetings and schedules to enable our employees and our teams to get active in community service and giving back to the community where we live.

John:   That’s great. Hey, Michelle, let me ask you this question, crystal ball question, so go with me here. 24 months from now, what does Enlight Research look like? What does it feel like? What is the culture like as you grow this? Because you have a lot of momentum right now, you guys are doing great. So take us down that path.

Michelle: Yeah, so 24 months from now, we’re at a really exciting time right now. We’re evolving our business model to be more focused on enabling scaleability of our research, so what we’d like to see in 2 years time is really successful software platform for individuals and for boards to subscribe by signing up online and instantly having access to customized information related to their business, their industry, their company. And I believe in that time, as we grow in terms of number of users on our platform, and number of believers, that there is an important need for this type of information to be accessible by Boards of Directors, that we can help many businesses be better. If they have better intelligence, they have better business and better Boards, at the end of the day. And I really feel like we can make a difference in that phase.

John:   To do this, do you guys need to go out and achieve additional funding? Or does it happen by itself organically?

Michelle: At this point, we don’t have any plans to go out and raise more money for the business. We feel like we’re in a good place to build the next version of our product, bid it out to the market and with the users and subscribers that we have today and with some additional investments around marketing and sales, we believe that in 2 years time, the funding that we have will take us to that successful place.

John:   All right. I’m going to ask you a cultural question. What role do you feel women play in the success of your business culturally?

Michelle: It’s an interesting dynamic that we have in Enlight. It’s mostly female-run; the majority of the ownership structure’s female as well. So I think that’s definitely unique in our industry around corporate governance and the boardrooms where we’re operating. I don’t know if that specifically plays a difference, well, in the culture that it’s female majority, but it…

John: I think it does.

Michelle: You think it does?

John: I have 6 sisters.

Michelle: I haven’t really thought about that before.

John: No, no. I think it does. I grew up with 6 sisters. My wife is our CEO. One thing I’ll share with you, my perception is, women fight fair and it’s a different type of discussion when you find a woman in business, a majority-owned business. It operates differently, it feels differently, the culture is different. And that just may be the nature of what a strong female brings to the business, which I find to be very positive. And I think it helps an organization to better understand who they are, that each individual matters. For us, one of our philosophies is, “Everybody matters. It doesn’t matter if someone is paid more, it doesn’t mean you’re opinions matter more, just means that you are paid more but everybody’s opinion is 100% valid and everybody matters equally, and we’re all in this together.” So, I think it’s really cool when we’re able to talk to co-startups, and companies that are emerging like yours that have embraced the difference because for so long, there weren’t opportunities for females, there were not opportunities for minorities, there were not opportunities for everybody that didn’t fit a certain mold. As we move forward, there are always these new opportunities and your company’s a perfect example of that.

Michelle: Yes, absolutely. I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about impacts, about having majority female-led business, and the difference is, I guess I never really considered what this business would be like if it was all women running this show necessarily, but I think they bring up an interesting perspective.

John:   Now, what advice would you give an entrepreneur that was trying to build a brand, build a company, and attract quality members to their organization?

Michelle: One of the most important area to focus on, this assumes that you have an idea for your product or you know what kind of company you want to run, which is probably the trickiest part, is figuring out the marketplace. But assuming you have that in place, the biggest challenge and sort of piece of advice that I would give to entrepreneurs getting started would be to focus on the revenue engine, so figuring out what the right approach would be in order to get your customers and your sales pipeline lined up. It’s one of the hardest things for entrepreneurs to focus on in addition to getting your product right or getting the service right, whatever the type of business it is, and it’s also one of the most critical things, setting up to fix that. So, every business and every business model has a way to do that but I think knowing that it’s a critical part of the model from the start, and really focusing on whether or not you need somebody with that expertise to come in or how you invest, how much you really, realistically need to invest on your customers, and thinking through that revenue model really carefully, and getting a lot of other people’s input on it, free consulting from friends and family and people who would be invested with either emotionally or financially on your business and help set things right.

John:   Michelle, you’ve shared with us earlier you’ve had a background in consulting. You have your current business. Is there a common thread of missteps you see people making as they start their journey in the entrepreneurial world? Is there something that repeats itself and you’re like, “Wow. I’ve seen this a hundred times. I wish I could just reach out and say, ‘Stop. Don’t do that anymore.'”

Michelle: I don’t necessarily think so. I think as time has evolved, there’s been so much change even since I’ve started in consulting. I guess if there’s one thing to point out as an area that people make mistakes in over and over again, it’s not adapting and being aware of the latest and greatest tools out there to help you be more efficient and do your job better. So, everyday, we are setting up a continuous learning environment and finding new ways to do things that we thought we had an answer to 3 years ago but things have changed so quickly in terms of technology and different solutions and keeping together new ideas that on a constant basis on learning about some new type of innovation or technology that could help maybe more efficient in the products that we serve and the way that we interact with customers just as individuals. I think the attitude of thinking that you have everything figured out is problematic because from day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year, everything else is changing around you no matter what kind of an expert you are in the space that you’re operating in.

John:   Now, Michelle, as you go through your consulting roles and a lot of times, people bring you in and they ask advice and want to know, “How do we get from A to B to C to D?” And you’re looking at a leadership team and I would imagine one of the hardest roles you have to play from a cultural standpoint is being able to explain to the leadership that they don’t have alignment. And we talk about it a lot in our show, alignment is for us. When your core beliefs and your goals don’t line up, so your behaviors, your core beliefs are out of alignment, it’s very hard to move forward. How do you approach that issue? I’ve teased in a lot of episodes, “How do you tell the emperor he/she doesn’t have any clothes on?”

Michelle: [Laughs] Yeah. It’s one of the most interesting phenomena that I’ve seen in my time in consulting especially when we run a survey or do interviews with our clients and ask them, “What are the core values of your company?” or “What do you see is the most important part of your role in the organization?” and “How do you understand your strategy?” And you get all of the information back and you see that there is no alignment, as you say. It’s highly interesting for a management team to see what those responses are and it would be interesting to run a study or to know if there is a state of being, you know, which type of company is actually going to have perfect alignment, you know what I mean? Answering what’s the company’s state, what’s the view? I believe that it’s going to be a problem that can be completely solved. It’s certainly leadership, communication, direction top-down, turn up the top but also turn up the bottom, have those together, for the leadership team to focus on the operating line and how close together is the perspective and how do you institutionalize some of those relationships in the communication channel?

John: Wow. We could do a whole show just on that.

Michelle: [Laughs] Yeah.

John:   Hey, Michelle, I want to take you to the lightning round if I could. Is there a book that changed your life?

Michelle: Not that it sort of changed my life per se, but I would say Blue Ocean Strategy, it’s a book about how to create anything and test it in the market space and is definitely something. It was a book that was a major driver in the creation of Enlight Research. So because it would help create Enlight Research, it changed my life in that way.

John: Do you have a quote you go to for inspiration?

Michelle: Not really. Not so much a quote that I use for inspiration. I try to get inspiration from the team around me.

John:   Very good. What company do you admire the most as it relates to their culture and why?

Michelle: This is a tough question because I feel like culture is one of those things that are really hard to know about a business unless you’re there and operating in there. So I would have to pick Enlight Research. I admire the culture that we built here and our current company. Clarkston Consulting, a lot of the core values from Clarkston have spread into here. That’s something that I am proud of and excited about. But it’s one of those questions that are tough to answer because it’s hard to know from the outside, the true culture of the company.

John:   And if I were a young person coming out from school, why would I want to work for Enlight Research?

Michelle: You would want to work here because we’re making a difference. We’re changing the way people get intelligence, information, and data. We’re putting it in context for Boards of Directors and it’s an exciting time to be able to make a change in the industry.

John:   Okay, here we go, big question, big finish. Now, Michelle, if you had to describe the culture of Enlight Research using three words, start each adjective with the word ‘BE’ as in BE Culture Radio, what would it be?

Michelle: It would be, be smart, be honest, and be great.

John:   Be smart, be honest, be great; super answers. Now, Michelle, how can our listeners connect with you?

Michelle: They can go to our website at www.enlightresearch.com, it’s a great place to start to learn more about us and you can also give us a call at 866-900-002-NEWYORK.

John:   Perfect. Michelle, I can’t thank you enough. Before we finish, I never end an episode without sharing with my guest my favorite quote from Maya Angelou, which is, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel.” and we certainly hope that we made you feel welcome and valid and part of our tribe today. And thank you so much for coming on and I wish you the very best, and be well.

Michelle: All right. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

John:   All right. Bye-bye.