Recently I was fortunate enough to be profiled by #LGBTBold, a division of Pink Banana Media that seeks to highlight stories of LGBT entrepreneurs and what helped them achieve success. In the case of IM Creative, one thread of our story began at the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce's annual LGBT Leadership Conference in 2014 when we took part in their matchmaking activity.
Many of the organizations like NGLCC that support minority-owned businesses (generally defined as being enterprises owned by Women, People of Color, LGBT People, Disabled People, or Veterans) conduct these matchmaking sessions as a value-add for both their corporate partners and the businesses who participate.
2014 was the first year IM Creative was attending the event, and we had no idea what to expect. Upon receiving an invitation to take part in the matchmaking session, we diligently followed the instructions to create a profile and talk about the products and services that we had to offer clients, and why our company was unique. That year, we were lucky enough to be matched with 6 different companies seeking event services, among them was Novartis.
In case you live under a rock, Novartis is one of the largest players in the pharmaceutical space, and back in 2014 we had just begun to set our sights on that industry as one that would appreciate our value proposition and had the budget to pay for it. We were thrilled to be matched with Novartis, and they happened to be our first match of the day. YIKES! Time to go big or go home.
These days of matches are relentless. Corporations accepting matched meetings sit for almost 9 hours straight having 15 minute capabilities conversations with potential suppliers, offering them advice and in-roads on how to form relationships with large corporations.
My colleague Tom and I stood just outside the room where at least 30 matchmaking conversations were about to take place simultaneously, angling to see who from Novartis might be speaking with us. It turns out it was Todd Bittiger, formerly a category manager in Meetings and Events in Novartis Procurement. WIN.
I had my schpiel down. I whipped out my iPad, and with shaking fingers, I brought up the first slide of my short deck, which blares out BEING TOGETHER MATTERS.
At the conclusion of the presentation, Todd applauded.
"You guys did this exactly right. You started with WHY," he told us. Apparently, Todd had read the same Simon Sinek books that we had!
"While I'm no longer sourcing the meetings and events category in particular, I think you guys have something that Novartis needs. Let's stay in touch and see if we can't make something happen."
I feared that this was the same line Todd was going to feed everyone that day, but it turned out not to be. He really did see something special in us. He introduced us to the Associate Director of Supplier Diversity at Novartis, Sheri Shafir.
Sheri is a no-nonsense extravert with passion for supplier diversity oozing out of her every pore, and Todd's endorsement went a long way toward getting her attention, and we did everything we could to KEEP IT.
After a few initial meetings with potential customers and procurement people at Novartis, Todd was transferred to another department, but to this day, he continues to advise (and drink!) with me, and I value his opinion tremendously. But his handoff to Sheri helped result in a year-long, formalized mentorship between IM Creative and Novartis that I'm certain will be a part of our origin story for decades. Sheri Shafir herself took over the responsibility for our mentorship, and she helped orchestrate monthly meetings with members of her team where everything about our approach was looked at critically through the lens of what would work in the world of Pharmaceuticals.
Some days, the feedback was super-positive. Other days, we learned how far we still had to go. Sheri, in particular, has a communication style that assumes you've got some thick skin if you're asking for her opinion, and she doesn't hesitate to tell it like it is. But because we had the chance to understand her affection for supplier diversity, her attraction to a supplier like us and what her comments were intended to do, a year of working with Sheri helped prepare us to dive into the world of Pharma with both feet.
While our mentorship has since ended and a new LGBT vendor has the honor of learning from Sheri how best to work at Novartis, she continues to be one of our greatest champions. Along with Todd and the entire team at Novartis, we learned more in that year than we ever could have in an MBA program. They were honest, direct and caring in a way that is like nothing we've experienced professionally. When you are a child and you have a boo-boo, a parent kisses it. A mentor asks you how you got it, and tells you not to do that again. We didn't need a parent. We needed a mentor, and that's exactly what we got from Sheri and the Novartis team.
While it is explicitly stated that in no way does a mentoring relationship guarantee any business, IM Creative continues to pursue work with Novartis, and is pleased to have made their preferred vendor roster for the next three years... so potential abounds. But even without potential work at Novartis, I consider Sheri, Todd and the entire team at their organization friends that I will treasure for a lifetime given the abundance of love, tough and otherwise, they gave my company to help us reach the next level of success. Mentoring isn't for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned. But it is perfect for the ambitious, the bold, the good-listeners, and those who aren't afraid to change. That's what we needed, and I'm thrilled to have gotten the experience.
In fact, as Sheri and I sat reminiscing about how far we've come together at the recent NGLCC National Dinner, someone wanted to take a photo of the table (yes.. the photo at the top of this post). We all crowded around one side and tried to look a little more sober than we were, and Sheri whispered to me... "Shannon... turn to the side a little. It'll make ya look skinnier!" Once a mentor, always a mentor. Thank you Sheri, Todd and Novartis for a great year together, and here's to an even greater future!
For more information about the NGLCC, click here.
To learn more about Novartis and their commitment to Supplier Diversity, click here.