About Catherine: Catherine Blake is the definition of a servant leader, founding the Institute for Executive Women to encourage, educate, and connect female professionals through programs, seminars, and coaching. By bringing women together through the Executive Roundtable, Women’s Edition, Power Breakfast, and Women’s Leadership Summit, Catherine hopes to build a community of women to support, mentor, and collaborate. With a background in sales/marketing, Catherine has worked for Fortune 500s and startups. In 2005, she started her own consulting firm, Sales Protocol International that provides sales strategy and marketing expertise to both small and large companies.
Catherine’s commitment to the professional leadership development of others goes beyond the Institute for Executive Women. While serving as an adjunct professor in sales and marketing at The University of New Hampshire, Catherine founded The Center for Sales Excellence, providing undergraduate students with sales leadership programs.
As an active member of her community, Catherine has spent time volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters, Girl’s Inc., New Hampshire High Tech Council, The New Hampshire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and The Harvard Alumni Association. Catherine’s personal and professional endeavors led her to receive the 2016 Outstanding Women in Business Award from The New Hampshire Business Review.
In this edition of Executive Insights, Catherine sits down with Rudly Raphael to discuss women’s progress towards equality and representation in the workplace, as well as the work that needs to be done.
What motivated you to start the Institute for Executive Women?
I relocated from New England down to Coastal Georgia. When I got down here, I took a look at the landscape to figure out the need for the area. I discovered there were no networking opportunities for professional women. There was no organization to bring women together. There were lots of social organizations, but nothing that focused on professional development.
It's also a calling because I also felt like women were islands. Working really hard with their heads down, really intelligent, and accomplished, but they don't know each other. So, it was the precipice to start something.
What is the goal of the Institute for Executive Women?
This community is open to all women. Our purpose is to bring professional women together to learn from each other, and we can all learn from each other. It's not forcing networking. By bringing a speaker in front of a community, now on Zoom, we give them inspiration during this crazy pandemic. They're hearing stories of positivity, and they're hearing about each other's journeys in life and what they've had to overcome. It's very uplifting and inspiring, and we've had people land jobs and hire each other for professional services. Incredible connections have been made.
We're not political. We don't push any political agendas. We're trying to bring women together. We're also trying to break down racial boundaries. We have women of all backgrounds, all colors, creeds, you name it. We're just trying to get them under this virtual tent to hear each other's stories, to get to know each other and to learn from each other. We intentionally pick speakers who really have a story to tell.
How did you spread awareness to professional women about this opportunity?
We did a news release and let the media know what was happening. I'm also a good marketer; I built my list brick by brick. I did all the research, I figured out who the leaders were, I made a lot of phone calls and found out how to reach them from the ground up. I like doing my own research because I find that one thread leads to another, and the more you read, you start to figure out what the synergies are and what the connections are. We got the word out using Facebook ads, and we packed the room. It was standing room only and really well received.
How are you adapting to the new normal?
Originally it was going to be a regional focus. Before COVID, it started with the Women's Power Breakfast series at a country club where they bought a ticket that covered their meal. We had a series of different local leaders speaking, and everybody could learn from their story and ask questions.
When COVID hit, we didn't miss a beat. We pivoted to running our Women's Power Breakfast online. We also have a weekly Executive Roundtable, Women's Edition, which we moved to Zoom. The Executive Roundtable, Women’s Edition is a cohort of senior-level women. It's both professional development and peer advising. It's a safe place for leaders to share their struggles along with their joys and wins. Truthfully, it's been a blessing because we're able to reach so many more people. And what happened was, we were able to then attract women and speakers on the East Coast into Canada across to the U.K. and down to Africa.
How many members does the Institute for Executive Women currently have?
This has only been going for about a year and is continuing to grow. We launched, and then we have this pandemic. In terms of how many people in the community, we communicate with over 1000 people monthly.
What issues are women still facing professionally?
I think the gap is still there. Statistically, women continue to be paid less than men. Sadly, we also know that there are fewer women of color in the professional workforce in the higher ranks. The good news is, people are a lot more aware of the issues. I think we need more education about why diversity is important. It's proven if you have a board of directors, the more diverse your board is, the better performing the organization is.
What progress have you seen for women professionally in the past 20 years?
Women are on more corporate boards than they've ever been on in history. Also, there are more women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies than there has ever been. There are more women entrepreneurs of small businesses, too. Despite this, there's still a large gap with women receiving investments for startups for those, particularly the tech industry.
Harvard Business School did a study where they came up with a pitch. The pitch was going to be to investors, so they created a slide deck and a script, and they hired a professional actress and a professional actor. The actress was a white woman who was probably 40. The actor was a young, good-looking man in his late 20s early 30s, same words, same slides. They showed this to all the investors, 500-600 people, and for their opinion on where they would invest. All invested with the young man.
How can our society overcome gender bias?
I think we overcome bias by delivering excellence, being good role models, and having good work ethics, but also through education. To really make a change, you have to do it in an inspiring way. For example, people are saying they want to see more women in jobs. If there's not a pool of women who have advanced themselves by getting an education, taking leadership training, and taking some initiative on their own, then there's not a pool of people to promote.
Each of us has to be responsible for being the change agent and being the example for others, but education is also important. I think that men are starting to see their behavior looking back and are going, well, we really haven't been fair to people of color and to women. They're starting to admit it.
How do you inspire people?
People would say I'm a high energy person. I'm not an angry person. To me, if somebody is angry, it doesn't inspire me. Do you ever go to events or hear people talking, and they start yelling, and then you feel like they're yelling at you? I understand the passion, but there's a point where it's no longer inspiring. I think storytelling is inspiring.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about the space you are in right now?
I hope people don't have that misconception about the Institute for Executive Women. Some people might think we're political because a lot of organizations under the auspices of women are political. They put up this front of, we're doing, A, B, and C, but a lot of them end up being lobbying organizations. We are not. We're strictly here to provide professional development, leadership training, and mentoring. We also give 10% of every dollar to help women and girls living in poverty that are victims of human trafficking and partner with Kiva.org to provide microlending.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in your career knowing what you do now?
That’s a tough question to answer. When I look back, I've made so many mistakes. I think that's just part of the journey. It's part of learning, a part of growing up and maturing.
What is your learning style? How does that impact your decision making?
I'm more a visual learner than any other style, but the audio is great because I'm driving long distances regularly. I can knock out two hours of audiobooks in a day easily, whereas, if you were reading the physical book, it would be an inconvenience.
How do you stay on top of industry trends?
I have started to binge-listening to audiobooks because I'm on the road a lot. All the books pertain to content that I will deliver through some of these executive donor development programs. So, I try to stay one step ahead of the groups that I'm leading. I want to deliver new research or just wisdom that they may not have come across. So, I'm constantly filling my brain with this material.
We have time, and time is precious. So, fill your brain with things that are going to expand you and grow you. That's probably been my advice to anyone, no matter how you get the content. But audiobooks are phenomenal. And the second would be, I teach. When you teach others, it also forces you into staying relevant, staying current, and always staying one step ahead.
Was there a life-changing moment for you in your formative years that changed your mindset or career path?
In the Boston area, I got recruited into this startup. And then 9/11 happened, and our funding started drying up. It turns out the founders were not honest people. Our paychecks started bouncing, and they ended up getting in trouble with the Secretary of State for malpractice. So, the whole thing folded, and we all got laid off. I remember waking up one morning, and I felt like nobody. It was a horrible time because it was right after 9/11, and everybody was getting laid off. No one had a job.
So, I read the book, The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. It’s about what God is calling you to do. That totally shifted my life. I was like, you know what? None of this is ours; we are stewards of it all. The money in our bank account doesn't belong to us. We are passing through. We are called to serve other people. After realizing that, the doors that opened for me were places where I felt God put me for a reason. The reason was to shine some light in that environment. To meet people that needed a friend or someone to talk to. It just has sort of evolved from there.
How do you define success?
My definition of success is balance. For me, it's not about money. It's not about material possessions it's really about love and having balance. I'll tell you, it's a struggle. Are we spending enough time with our loved ones? Are we putting in the hours and the time to do a quality job in our professions? Are we taking time out to volunteer in the community? Are we helping other people? Are we spending time in worship? Are we enjoying the arts? It's living a balanced life that is not self-serving.
How do you approach failure?
I look for the lesson in failure. I try to figure out what lesson I'm supposed to extrapolate from the situation, and I trust God.
How do you start your day?
So, I get up, and I take a walk with my husband and our two dogs. We take a 30-minute walk outside in nature, and that kind of sets the tone. Then, we say some prayers and have some good, strong coffee.
Who is Catherine Blake?
What I try to be is a servant leader. That's my goal. That's my purpose. My purpose in life is to serve others.