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.
For decades, women have been unknowingly suffering from PSD and intergenerational trauma, but now Dr. Valerie Rein wants women to reclaim their power through mind, body and healing tools.
As women, no matter how many accomplishments we have or how successful we look on the outside, we all occasionally hear that nagging internal voice telling us to do more. We criticize ourselves more than anyone else and then throw ourselves into the never-ending cycle of self-care, all in effort to save ourselves from crashing into this invisible internal wall. According to psychologist, entrepreneur and author, Dr. Valerie Rein, these feelings are not your fault and there is nothing wrong with you— but chances are you definitely suffering from Patriarchy Stress Disorder.
Patriarchy Stress Disorder (PSD) is defined as the collective inherited trauma of oppression that forms an invisible inner barrier to women's happiness and fulfillment. The term was coined by Rein who discovered a missing link between trauma and the effects that patriarchal power structures have had on certain groups of people all throughout history up until the present day. Her life experience, in addition to research, have led Rein to develop a deeper understanding of the ways in which men and women are experiencing symptoms of trauma and stress that have been genetically passed down from previously oppressed generations.
What makes the discovery of this disorder significant is that it provides women with an answer to the stresses and trauma we feel but cannot explain or overcome. After being admitted to the ER with stroke-like symptoms one afternoon, when Rein noticed the left side of her body and face going numb, she was baffled to learn from her doctors that the results of her tests revealed that her stroke-like symptoms were caused by stress. Rein was then left to figure out what exactly she did for her clients in order for them to be able to step into the fullness of themselves that she was unable to do for herself. "What started seeping through the tears was the realization that I checked all the boxes that society told me I needed to feel happy and fulfilled, but I didn't feel happy or fulfilled and I didn't feel unhappy either. I didn't feel much of anything at all, not even stress," she stated.
Photo Courtesy of Dr. Valerie Rein
This raised the question for Rein as to what sort of hidden traumas women are suppressing without having any awareness of its presence. In her evaluation of her healing methodology, Rein realized that she was using mind, body and trauma healing tools with her clients because, while they had never experienced a traumatic event, they were showing the tell-tale symptoms of trauma which are described as a disconnect from parts of ourselves, body and emotions. In addition to her personal evaluation, research at the time had revealed that traumatic experiences are, in fact, passed down genetically throughout generations. This was Rein's lightbulb moment. The answer to a very real problem that she, and all women, have been experiencing is intergenerational trauma as a result of oppression formed under the patriarchy.
Although Rein's discovery would undoubtably change the way women experience and understand stress, it was crucial that she first broaden the definition of trauma not with the intention of catering to PSD, but to better identify the ways in which trauma presents itself in the current generation. When studying psychology from the books and diagnostic manuals written exclusively by white men, trauma was narrowly defined as a life-threatening experience. By that definition, not many people fit the bill despite showing trauma-like symptoms such as disconnections from parts of their body, emotions and self-expression. However, as the field of psychology has expanded, more voices have been joining the conversations and expanding the definition of trauma based on their lived experience. "I have broadened the definition to say that any experience that makes us feel unsafe psychically or emotionally can be traumatic," stated Rein. By redefining trauma, people across the gender spectrum are able to find validation in their experiences and begin their journey to healing these traumas not just for ourselves, but for future generations.
While PSD is not experienced by one particular gender, as women who have been one of the most historically disadvantaged and oppressed groups, we have inherited survival instructions that express themselves differently for different women. For some women, this means their nervous systems freeze when faced with something that has been historically dangerous for women such as stepping into their power, speaking out, being visible or making a lot of money. Then there are women who go into fight or flight mode. Although they are able to stand in the spotlight, they pay a high price for it when their nervous system begins to work in a constant state of hyper vigilance in order to keep them safe. These women often find themselves having trouble with anxiety, intimacy, sleeping or relaxing without a glass of wine or a pill. Because of this, adrenaline fatigue has become an epidemic among high achieving women that is resulting in heightened levels of stress and anxiety.
"For the first time, it makes sense that we are not broken or making this up, and we have gained this understanding by looking through the lens of a shared trauma. All of these things have been either forbidden or impossible for women. A woman's power has always been a punishable offense throughout history," stated Rein.
Although the idea of having a disorder may be scary to some and even potentially contribute to a victim mentality, Rein wants people to be empowered by PSD and to see it as a diagnosis meant to validate your experience by giving it a name, making it real and giving you a means to heal yourself. "There are still experiences in our lives that are triggering PSD and the more layers we heal, the more power we claim, the more resilience we have and more ability we have in staying plugged into our power and happiness. These triggers affect us less and less the more we heal," emphasized Rein. While the task of breaking intergenerational transmission of trauma seems intimidating, the author has flipped the negative approach to the healing journey from a game of survival to the game of how good can it get.
In her new book, Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Barrier to Women's Happiness and Fulfillment, Rein details an easy system for healing that includes the necessary tools she has sourced over 20 years on her healing exploration with the pioneers of mind, body and trauma resolution. Her 5-step system serves to help "Jailbreakers" escape the inner prison of PSD and other hidden trauma through the process of Waking Up in Prison, Meeting the Prison Guards, Turning the Prison Guards into Body Guards, Digging the Tunnel to Freedom and Savoring Freedom. Readers can also find free tools on Rein's website to help aid in their healing journey and exploration.
"I think of the book coming out as the birth of a movement. Healing is not women against men– it's women, men and people across the gender spectrum, coming together in a shared understanding that we all have trauma and we can all heal."