Exclusive: Miss USA Contestants Talk Female Empowerment, Entrepreneurship, and Brains


Throw a quick glance at your television during the Miss USA competition and you’ll probably notice the voluminous hair, dripping evening gowns, and a constant supply of super fit, beautiful women. You may even engage in the age-old stereotype of “brains or beauty,” flip the channel, and assume that’s all these women have to offer.

Look closely, though, and the diversity, charisma, and intelligence exuded by the 51 contestants is undeniable. They boast seriously impressive backgrounds and career goals, and many have a lot to say about women in business and in leadership roles, and about female empowerment, in general. SWAAY was backstage all weekend long to talk with the women, including the crowned winner, Miss USA’s Kára McCullough, a scientist with the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

On Female Empowerment and Entrepreneurship

Miss Kentucky’s Madelynne Myers, who just graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in molecular and cellular biology, argues that contrary to popular belief, pageants help propel women and their communities further.

“Organizations like Miss USA are a great stepping stone in women’s rights, equality and empowerment because it provides an opportunity for us to impact the entire world through our platforms,” she told SWAAY. “Even the contestants who aren’t crowned Miss USA or Miss Universe understand we have a responsibility to go back and change our homes and create more opportunities.”

Chhavi Verg, Miss New Jersey USA 2017. Patrick Prather for Miss USA

Miss Alaska’s Alyssa London, a top 10 finalist, agrees. She’s a Stanford graduate and entrepreneur who advocates specifically for women in the business sphere. She’s also fiercely proud of her multicultural background as half native American Tlingit and half European, and has managed to seamlessly combine the pride she has for her heritage with her entrepreneurial tendencies.

Kára McCullough, Miss District Of Columbia USA 2017. Photo courtesy of Patrick Prather for Miss USA

“I gained my entrepreneurial mindset while attending Stanford, and then after graduating I worked at Microsoft where I did partner marketing for small businesses,” London told SWAAY. “I was working with women in technology businesses specifically, and helping them market their businesses and promote their stories so that we would get more women who own businesses in the Microsoft partner channel.”

The skillset London developed at Microsoft allowed her to launch her own personal business as a motivational speaker, conference host, and television host.

“In my motivational speaking, I talk about how awesome it is to design your career and your lifestyle through entrepreneurship,” she said. “I help women think about what they’re actually passionate about and turn that into a business for themselves. I believe that if you feel like you can be independent and self-sufficient with your finances, then that trickles down to having strong families and strong communities.”

Her second business is called Our Culture Story, a platform that celebrates multiculturalism and being strong in your identity. London launched that business by selling a product in Alaskan galleries and gift shops that tells people about her Alaskan native heritage.

On Brains Versus Beauty

There were so many molds broken at the 2017 Miss USA competition. For starters, seven of the top 10 finalists were women of color, including the runner up, Miss New Jersey’s Chhavi Verg, and the crowned winner, Kára McCullough. And the previous Miss USA, Deshauna Barber had everyone in prideful tears when she graced the stage flaunting an afro in her late mother’s memory.

Over the years – and especially this year – the contestants have also been diverse in their career backgrounds. Verg is studying marketing and Spanish at Rutgers University, McCullough is a black scientist with the United States Nuclear Regulatory,

Miss New Hampshire’s Sarah Mousseau is a speech pathologist, Miss Kentucky’s Madelynne Myers just graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in molecular and cellular biology, and Miss Tennessee’s Allee-Sutton Hethcoat is working on her law degree while also modeling.

If the above isn’t proof that brains and beauty aren’t mutually exclusive, what is?

“Saying that you can only have beauty or brains is a stereotype I’ve been hearing since I was a little girl. I always just assumed I wasn’t pretty because I would go to school, and I really liked school,” Myers told SWAAY. “I’ve learned that as a modern woman, you don’t have to be just one thing. Women can go into whatever field that want – science, law, education, military. If the world isn’t utilizing half of its resources, that’s a problem.”

The reigning Miss USA agrees, and had a bit of advice to offer to women who live that stereotype every day.

"To people who say you can’t have both brains or beauty, I would say, ‘Why are you so small minded? Life is very intricate and it’s never one sided, so expand your horizons,’” said McCullough, adding, “A person’s character is truly defined by how they use their traits for the betterment of the people around them. You can’t let people who are close minded affect you. Just be so sure in the gifts that you’re given, and so sure about the way in which you share those with the world.”

Kára McCullough, Miss District Of Columbia USA 2017, Patrick Prather for Miss USA

We also asked the current reigning Miss Universe, Iris Mittenaere, about her take on the “beauty versus brains” stereotype.

“It’s really important to say to the young girls that you don’t have to choose between being beautiful and smart,” she said. “You can be a princess and be a doctor. You can do exactly what you want to do. It was my dream to be a dentist, and it was my dream to be a princess, and I didn’t choose. I did both.”

3 Min Read

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.