Business 20 September 2018
At only 17-years-old, Alexa Carlin was a CEO. And at 21-years-old, she had only a 1% chance to live. Both incredibly improbable, but both were Carlin’s reality. The now 26-year-old takes it all in stride and uses her experience to empower other women to make their entrepreneurial dreams a reality by hosting Women's Empowerment Expos.
Carlin grew up South Florida and earned a Bachelor's in Business Administration from the University of Florida. She is the Founder & CEO of the Women Empower Expo, as well as a frequent public speaker, and the creator of BeAPublicSpeaker.com
She says that she’s wanted to be a CEO ever since she was a little girl. “Even though I never knew what CEO actually stood for,” Carlin says. Still, “There was this knowing, internally, that I was meant to create and lead.”
In fact, ever since she was a kid, Carlin says she’s been an entrepreneur, always creating businesses and turning ideas into reality. Her first true entree into entrepreneurship was when she was 17 and she became the sole licensee to design jewelry for the L.A. based fashion company, OmniPeace. She even donated a percentage of proceeds to help build schools in Africa.
Since then, she’s been on a mission to use her entrepreneurial endeavors to create positive change, for one person, for her community and for the world. Her work with OmniPeace led to her next passion project, a blog called Hello Perfect. The site’s mission was to “redefine perfection” and garnered support from Mark Cuban, Michael Kors, Rebecca Minkoff, Steve Madden, and Whitney Port among others.
Carlin’s future was a bright one. Until it took a very dark turn.
When Carlin was a senior in college, just a few months before graduation in fact, her body went into septic shock and doctors placed her in a medically-induced coma. She was given a 1% chance to live. Six months later, she was then diagnosed with an autoimmune disease which she now lives with every day.
Carlin says she believes “things don't happen to you, they happen for you, and when you can learn to perceive your challenges as hidden opportunities, everything changes. I decided not to wait until my life changed but rather change my own life.” That, Carlin says, is how she overcame a health crisis that had a 99% chance of ending her life. That is how she came to found WEX.
Women Empower Expo (WEX) is a one-day event comprised of workshops, panels, breakout sessions, a pitch competition, a networking lounge, a woman-owned marketplace and the like, designed for women entrepreneurs and thought-leaders. The mission for WEX is “to empower, educate and equip women with the knowledge and community to create and grow
successful businesses.” At WEX, women can “learn from industry experts and female leaders, network with entrepreneurs and change-makers, discover tools and strategies to take your business to the next level, and feel empowered to create a positive change.”
Photo Source: Women Empower Expo
While speaking at a variety of companies and women's organizations in her local community, Carlin became aware of the huge disconnect between women. “All of these women were doing amazing things but no one knew each other. Everyone just stayed within their own membership group or industry.” Obviously, networking with and connecting to women from different industries and backgrounds is vital for both entrepreneurs and business leaders. That, Carlin says, was the inspiration behind WEX, “to create a community of women who felt empowered to connect and collaborate and create real change in their own lives, in their businesses, and in the world.”
Carlin says she has always been passionate about making a difference but it was never focused on women until she created her first blog, Hello Perfect, in 2011. She was in college, interning in NYC one summer, and she became very aware of how common it was for women and young girls to criticize themselves and one another.
“I hated how self-doubt and low confidence was a common thing among young women, and I wanted to change that. That's when I began really focusing on instilling confidence in myself and young women and from there my passion grew to really make a change for women everywhere,” she explains.
To start WEX, Carlin took $2,000 from her savings and put a down payment on a venue. “I didn't know how to put on an event of this size or even how I would pull off getting 2,000 people to attend. But I believed in myself and in my mission so I went for it and learned during the process.” Carlin believes that waiting is what kills most people’s dreams. “You must execute your ideas if you believe in them.”
Carlin says that seeing thousands of women come together for the first time to collaborate, learn, and grow was unlike anything else. “It was truly remarkable. Not only seeing my idea turn to reality, but to see how much of an impact it was having on the women in attendance. It's what drives me to keep going still to this day.”
Delegation and finances are the greatest challenges Carlin says she has faced in terms in getting WEX up and running. “I've been an entrepreneur for ten years now, running my companies as a one-woman show. But for an event of this size and how fast we are growing as a company, I knew I needed help to take it to the next level.” Carlin says she finds delegating difficult for her as she wants to ensure that everything is set to the brand’s standards. “But it's been the best thing for me as an entrepreneur and for the company in general.”
Naturally, she says, the other challenge is funding. She owns 100% of the company and has supported it since the beginning. “We have been profitable but with any growing company who needs to bring on staff. It's always a bit challenging in the beginning years.”
Carlin says there have been many happy moments, but the happiest have been the stories she hears from attendees after she’s done speaking. Attendees tell her how much she has inspired or impacted their lives. “One of the happiest surprises was when a few people that have been following me online for years now showed up at WEX and they were wearing my bracelets I had created or brought me the cookbook I wrote to sign it for them, sharing with me how I've made a difference in their life.”
Carlin says her health crisis actually helped her to discover her greatest potential and, she adds, “It changed my perspective on everything. It made me realize how strong I am and just how capable we all are of achieving anything we dream.” When she looks back at that 1% diagnosis she received while in a coma in a ICU she thinks, “If the odds were that against me then, it doesn't matter what the odds are moving forward, in business or life, because I am the 1%.”
Carlin now calls her health challenges a blessing because, “I now get to share them with others and through this experience, I found my passion for public speaking.” Although Carlin says she never imagined herself running these huge events or even being a public speaker, she did know deep down that she’d be running her own company.
Looking toward the future, Carlin hopes to meet some with whom to share her life; to get her book published; to continue growing the Women Empower Expo to multiple cities; and to “see a shift in the way things have been with women, equal rights, school shootings, and leadership in government.”
When it comes to women turning their dreams into their realities, Carlin says that mindset, community, and execution are the keys to success. Confidence in yourself and your dreams is imperative, as is surrounding yourself with people who “inspire, empower, and believe in you.” Massive amounts of action is required as well, she says, and although you may never feel 100% ready, you have to simply, “Go for it. Don't wait until outside circumstances change. You have everything you need right now to achieve what you want in life. It is your job to find a way.”
3 min read
Earlier this year, I was speaking at an event and walked into a small auditorium which held no more than 250 seats. I gathered my notes and carefully got situated on one of the high-top chairs trying to remember what Kate Middleton would do. To cross or not cross the ankles, that was the question.
I quickly surveyed the room. And the first thing I immediately noticed was that the front row was entirely empty. Each and every chair. Alone and just waiting to be occupied.
People trickled in and climbed over each other to get seats in the very back. Others asked colleagues to move down the row to make other seats available. Two individuals even came in just as we were about to start and sat in the aisle. And by the aisle, I mean the floor, right on the steps.
And the front row? Still entirely empty.
"Plenty of seats up front everyone. I don't bite, come on down," I joked. Attempting to make eye contact with those on the floor of the aisle. And they would rather sit on the dirty floor than sit comfortably in a chair.
Because anything but the front row. I'll sit on the floor, I'll stand in the back, or I'll even stand in the hallway listening in through the door. But please, no, not the front row. I can't. I won't. I don't.
Why don't we want to sit in the front row?
"I don't sit in the front row" or "I don't do front rows" was my mantra for much of my life. I always sat in the back row in college and then in graduate school (except for when they assigned seats which was just terrible.)
Early on in my career, I would enter the empty room before the meeting or workshop started, and there I would be, marking my spot in the back corner. I would even get there early so I could sit in the back. And if I had to leave to use the bathroom, I would be sure to mark the chair with my black cardigan. Just in case someone tried to sneak into my back-row seat.
The back was safe. I didn't always have to pay attention. And let's be honest, I didn't want to have the attention drawn to me.
I was introverted, and I was shy (which are two different things) and afraid of having to contribute. Afraid to use my voice. Afraid I would say or do the wrong thing. And for someone who saw herself leading and making impact in corporations, I had to start to tackle this fear head on.
"I don't sit in the front row" or "I don't do front rows" was my mantra for much of my life.
As I found mentors who helped me with my fear of speaking up – and I mean speaking up in meetings, speaking in front of leadership, and speaking in front of a large audience - one mentor encouraged me to think about where I chose to sit and why. She advised me to always sit at the table, and to pull up a chair to the table if necessary. And to always sit in the front row.
"Pull up the chair for others to sit at the table," she coached me. "And bring a colleague along to sit in the front row with you."
Because when you sit in the front row, we all make a physical commitment. To be present, to be seen, to be noticed, to be engaged, to be supportive of whoever is speaking. To make eye contact, to smile, to nod our heads in agreement as the speaker shares their knowledge. To build our confidence. And to maybe, just maybe, work our nerves up to ask a question or even make a comment.
Why don't we want to sit in the front row?
We don't want to be called on, questioned, or asked to contribute. We don't want to have to use our voice. Because some of us are still working on finding our voices. Some of us are afraid if we use our voice, and say the wrong thing because others will judge us. Some of us are disconnected and disengaged. We are just trying to get through the day. It's just another meeting/event/workshop on the calendar to attend.
Some of us are scared. Because if we sit in the front row, we might actually be seen. And whether we want to admit it or not, we are trying hard not to be noticed and get by.
Because when you sit in the front row, we all make a physical commitment to build our confidence.
Next time you attend a meeting, sit at the front of the table. Sit in the front row. Be seen. Be noticed. Let people know you were in the room, in that meeting. Let your voice be heard. And bring someone along with you. Don't let that front row continue to be unoccupied.
Please don't sit in the back row. And for that matter, when an actual chair/seat/spot is available, please don't sit in the aisle either. And certainly don't sit on the floor.
This article was originally published September 30, 2019.