Women in Business Q&A: Dawn Leaks, Lioness Magazine

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Dawn Leaks’s desire to become an entrepreneur was born in her teens, and in 2015 she became a cofounder, CEO, and resident Life Coach at Lioness, a resource for female entrepreneurs. Lioness educates, elevates and supports female entrepreneurs through a digital magazine, daily news, live events and coaching programs.

Her professional career has included work as the state director of communications at the American Red Cross where she managed public affairs for the organization after the 2011 Springfield tornado and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. She attended North Carolina A & T State University in Greensboro, NC and earned a B.S. in Business from Bay Path University. She has an MBA in entrepreneurial thinking and innovation as well as a Master's in Communication and Information Management from Bay Path University.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I was always involved in a lot of activities growing up, whether it was Girl Scouts, dance lessons, church choir, Junior Achievement, student government or years playing on basketball teams. These activities not only helped me develop leadership skills at a young age but they sparked a passion in me for learning and experiencing new things. I love learning new concepts, having new experiences and exposing myself to new ideas. I'm always reading a new book, taking a class or attending a workshop. While I can't necessarily implement everything I learn at the time that I learn it, I've built quite an arsenal of knowledge that informs my decisions and my leadership style. I'm very open to feedback and trying methods and processes, even if they've never been done before. As a result, we've been able to create Lioness at the intersection of mass media and coaching and development, which is a new concept for publishing.

How has your previous employment experience aided you in you starting Lioness Magazine?

I like to say I've had a liberal arts career. I've done little bit of just about everything. When I was in college I did everything from taking inventory to being a wine server at a banquet hall. After college, my positions ranged from selling Internet advertising for a local newspaper to recruiting teachers for a school district to directing youth programs at a non-profit. At each position I learned an important, transferable skills such as negotiating, pitching media, selling or managing budgets.

The bulk of my career was spent working in disaster relief communications for the American Red Cross of Massachusetts. And for some strange reason, disasters just never seem to come on a schedule! I learned to be flexible and to work in very high pressure situations. Sometimes I had to make important decisions quickly and with incomplete information, which helped me learn to trust my instincts.

During my time at the Red Cross I spent my off-time training as a life coach and eventually opened a coaching practice where I coached female entrepreneurs. It was this step that led me to cofounding Lioness.

What have the highlights and challenges been bootstrapping your startup?

This journey has definitely been a rollercoaster, with many highs and many lows. There's also this constant tension between wanting to go raise money from investors and bootstrapping it ourselves. One of the perks of bootstrapping has been the flexibility to stay mission focused and grow the company the way we want to without outside pressure for high profits. A major highlight is realizing that you've done enough to leave your day gig and support yourself solely through the business.

A big challenge has been managing the amount of work that needs to be done on limited staff. When you're bootstrapping you don't want to bring on more staff too early and end up letting people go because you're not able to sustain your momentum. We've had to develop the patience for the slower growth that comes without outside investment.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

The fact that Natasha was a professional news reporter and editor was a great asset when it came to launching a news organization. Building rapport and securing great interviews went a long way in establishing credibility. If you are interested in taking a similar path, learn about news etiquette, interviewing and becoming familiar with press guidelines such as the AP Style Guide. Journalism organizations like Poynter are here for journalists, editor, reporters and writers. Utilize them.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

You have to be able to look at your people, product and projects with objectivity. Being too emotionally or personally invested in an idea, a staff person or a course of direction can be the end of your business. You have to be able to see what's not working and make the necessary adjustments or you'll crash and burn.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

When Natasha, my cofounder and I first started working together, we were working ridiculously long hours but not necessarily seeing forward movement in the business. As we started to get burned out, we realized that we had to work smarter. We got very streamlined and strategic about what we were spending our time on and not only did we start seeing forward movement, we had more time for other things in our lives.

As far as work/life balance someone on the outside may look at me and say that my life is not balanced because I do spend a lot of time working on the business. But I feel balanced because my life is all about doing what I love, whether that's working on Lioness, spending time with friends and family or just having some downtime reading a book or catching up on Netflix.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

One of the biggest issues is women gaining executive leadership roles. We need male allies to help advocate for women leaders and leadership styles but we also need to close the confidence gap and continue advocating for our advancement.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I haven't had a formal mentoring relationship where someone has agreed to be my mentor and we meet on a regular basis but I have had informal mentors that I've been able to learn from and that's meant a world of difference in my life. There's nothing like having an outside perspective when you're stuck or dealing with a problem that you can't see your way out of. Mentors have helped me to develop patience, effective communication skills, and most importantly given me support and encouragement in times when I wanted to give up.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

I am a complete fan girl of Lisa Nichols right now. I've been following her career and business for a while and had the privilege to interview her for our summer edition. How often do we get to talk to someone we admire from afar for nearly an hour? Lisa was able to overcome living on welfare and being down and out, to build and become the CEO of a publicly traded, multimillion dollar company. Beyond that she's very willing to open up and candidly talk about her struggles and the specific steps she took to find success. I also love the fact that she doesn't pull punches. She let's you know very clearly the mistakes you're making and what you need to change in order to get the results you want.

What do you want Lioness Magazine to accomplish in the next year?

Right now we have a global audience and engaged members. In the next year I want to establish Lioness as the voice for female entrepreneurs, leading the conversations that are most important and relevant to female entrepreneurs around the globe.

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