People 16 January 2018
Megan Kvamme has made it a habit of breaking down traditionally male-dominated industries from finance to distilling whiskey to tech. As a female investment banker, in Silicon Valley, Kvamme was named the first female partner in 115 years. From there she became CEO and Chairwoman of Popcorn Sutton's Distilling (her twitter handle is @distillingdiva).
Then, after discovering a data analytics gap in the business intelligence world, she leapt from finance to tech, starting her own data tech company, FactGem. She did this, not in Silicon Valley, but in Ohio, where a growing startup scene provided new and invigorating challenges. The only question that remains is where will this fireball blaze her next trail? What follows is an equally inspiring and revealing look into what Kvamme has done and what she has learned.
What was it like being the first female partner at the oldest public finance firm in the United States?
It was 2002 when I started my career at Seasongood & Mayer after a short stint at an investment banking firm in Florida. I became the first non-trading investment banking partner in 2007. I grew up and learned a tremendous amount in those five years. I'm incredibly grateful for my experience there as it really taught me how to find my own voice, and to use it effectively. It taught me how to be tough, but more importantly, when to be tough. It taught me how to negotiate, how to be a great project manager and how to compete.
I had a phenomenal mentor there who pushed me hard to work stronger and go further to reach my potential while he also provided a voice of encouragement. My mentor was pretty progressive too. This was 2002, and the industry was like an old boy's club. I came into a fraternity and there was, of course, some hazing. The whole experience nurtured my grit and resilience. I was working 100-hour weeks, driving all over the place to meet with customers and prospects.
People think managing projects is easy...it's not; it's hard. Managing people is even harder. More important then getting customers and growing revenue, is maintaining it all. So, getting the experience to bring the hard work, focus, project management, people, and the revenue generation all together- I learned that it all happened here. It was the gift of a lifetime.
You traded finance investment banking in Silicon Valley for distilling whiskey in Tennessee. What motivated that courageous jump?
I am a Midwesterner, born and raised, who went to school at UNC Chapel Hill and then worked in New York City and Florida. When I started FactGem, I had my own investment banking firm based in Columbus, Ohio. It was there that this idea of FactGem was born. The company itself was stealth for the first few years, and at the same time I was managing the liquor portfolio on behalf of our family office. At the time, I was searching for a way to bring together disparate sources of data to provide the insights that would help me to inform my customers and drive business decisions effectively. It didn't take me long to realize that the liquor business had the same challenges and also needed better solutions.
Liquor companies and distributors are sitting on a tremendous amount of data. I have to sell to a distributor who sells to a retailer who sells to a customer. This is in post-prohibition America. I can't sell directly to a customer. The issue came when I wanted to ask what I thought were simple questions: How's our product doing? You have disconnected data sources... There's no easy way to get that answer... The numbers that you do get, lag in coming to you... I want to know depletion numbers (how fast is the product actually selling to the customer) so that I can control production. I don't want to make a product that no one is interested in, and I want to make sure that I make enough or more of what customers are buying. This was similar to my financial services experience. Getting information a quarter late is maddening!
This reinforced for me that many organizations are dealing with the same problem. I don't think that it's any coincidence that I started FactGem and see this problem in this other, seemingly dissimilar business. For me, FactGem is not a domain or industry play, it's a solution that applies everywhere.
When you assumed the role of CEO and Principal Owner of Popcorn Distilling, in June 2013, what was the single greatest challenge awaiting you?
The biggest challenge for most companies is distribution. When I started at Popcorn, there were really only two major distributors in the country. Now there's only one. That distributor is dealing with their top 10 customers.
We're not Bacardi, so how do we get the information we need? When you do find someone who can help you, they're digging through spreadsheets for numbers. The data is disconnected for them so it's very hard to get answers to the questions I want to ask that can help inform our business decisions.
Do you enjoy Popcorn Sutton's whiskey? I'm a scotch drinker, so how might you convert me to Popcorn Sutton's Tennessee elixir?
It is not only a double distilled liquor but it is also one of the best mixers out there. You can mix it with anything. The best thing about Popcorn is that he meets my favorite test-authenticity. He is one of the legends-no different than Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. Popcorn was one of America's finest moonshiners. You should try it just to have a better appreciation for what legendary tastes like.
How much of the whiskey market do women make up?
Sitting at tables with investment bankers reminds me of sitting at tables in the liquor business-it's mostly men. The number of female executives in the whiskey business is disproportionate to the number of women consumers-gone are the days when only men drink whiskey. I'm absolutely afforded an opportunity. Women have a voice, and I guess that I'm giving them one here. Women are a big part of the consumer market though, more than I think most realize.
You're now the CEO of FactGem, the first hyper-dimensional data web. Would you explain, in layman's terms, what that means?
FactGem helps companies rapidly integrate data so you can get to insights when you want them. Businesses think in terms of “entities" or “relationships." I have customers, customers submit orders, orders contain products, products are stored in warehouses, and sold to distributors, who sell to customers, etc.
So, in the case that I described above, we have customers, orders, products, warehouses, distributors, and all these entities relate to each other in different ways. As a business person, I want to ask questions regarding those entities and relationships. But the data has been stored in disconnected ways across different applications, creating disparate islands of information. We commonly refer to these islands as “data silos." These data silos do one thing, and do it well. There's a system for managing customers, there's a system for managing products, there's a system for, etc.
But when I want to ask questions from data stored across those systems, it is very hard to do. The software that companies purchased mapped the entities and relationships into some storage mechanism specific for that application or technology and getting the systems to talk to one another can be complex, expensive and labor intensive. Doing these types of integrations usually becomes an exercise in programming for IT. FactGem solves this problem with an out-of-the-box application.We allow you to whiteboard the entities and relationships you care about in our visual model builder. You start with the business questions you want to ask of the data and this informs the model you create in FactGem. You only model for the entities and relationships that you care about. Then we allow you to map your silos to the model, and pull the data in, all through visual applications-- NO Code Required. We turn the whiteboard model into a physical, cohesive model that you can then query or connect to BI tools on top of to get your insights on the now connected data. We do all of this without disrupting the existing silos or requiring anyone to write any code to get started.
It's very exciting! We're now doing this for customers in retail, healthcare, and manufacturing. Everyone has a common problem, and we provide a common solution.
Knowing what you know now, if you could go back in time, what might you have done differently?
I wouldn't. The way that I operate in my life, I believe things happen as they should and I learn from them. Rather than thinking about what I can change in the past, I try to look at what I can do better in the future, based on what I've learned from my experience. FactGem wouldn't exist without my own frustrating experiences with data in banking. The idea and motivation wouldn't have been there. And now, look at where we are, what we have created, and the difference that we are making!
How did being a competitive (NCAA Division #1) collegiate track athlete help to prepare you for the everyday challenges in the corporate world?
Well, I love sports. There's an individual and a team component. You learn to think about what you can do better individually, as well as how you are adding to the team. The experience gives you a sense of self, within the context of the greater whole. We come together as a team with: here's who I am in this partnership, here's who you are, we don't fight, we support each other, we win together. We don't win alone.This absolutely prepared me for the corporate world. I look at my relationship with Clark Richey, my Co-founder and CTO, and it is very much as I described. In four years we've never had any big arguments. We're a team, we respect each other, and we know that we need each other to work together to win. So, personal accountability and balancing personal awareness and responsibility with being part of a team, this definitely translates to building companies. You learn to partner with people inside your organization and out, to solve problems and succeed.
What advice would you give to recent college (women) graduates with choosing a career path similar to yours?
I'm not a believer in comparison. I'm a believer in looking at your own self. What gives you a sense of gratification? For me, it's contributing something positive to the world and leaving a mark. But ultimately, find your happiness. Find that thing that brings you inner joy and this will lead to success. So, take a hard look at yourself. And remember, you have options. If something changes, and you want to make changes, you can
People get into a rut of, I'm an engineer, or I'm a teacher, and I can't be anything else, and that is not true at all! Remember your possibilities and try to take steps to embrace them. Don't focus on your limitations. There's a world of possibility out there waiting for you. If something interests you, go for it! And see what happens next!
What are you most passionate about?
Making a difference. It's so important to me. How did you make the world a better place? How did you inspire people to be their best? These are the questions I ask myself and I'm measuring myself by. It's not just about my success, but everyone else's too. We live in a culture of limitations, which I dislike.
So, how do you help people see their own possibilities? How do you help people to take the steps toward that possibility and not be thwarted by their own limitations? I believe in being loving, being kind, and being brace. How do we inspire someone to be their best self? Sometimes that takes courage.
Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.