Handling Her Business!

It is rare that one truly thinks about how sweet success can smell, but Anne Sempowski Ward does. As CEO of CURiO, artisans and curators of premium bath, body and home fragrance, Ward has successfully transitioned the company to a new generation of leadership.  In six years as CEO, she has led the company through a highly successful investor transition and doubled the company’s size and profit through organic growth and a major acquisition.

Ward’s career started as a mechanical engineer with Procter & Gamble, then jumped to strategy and brand management. At P&G and Coca-Cola, she worked on major brands and initiatives, earning a reputation for innovation and her intrapreneurial approach.

A significant portion of her passion and career at both companies was also focused on authentically speaking to multicultural consumers and communities. She also performed turnarounds at Fashion Fair Cosmetics and Johnson Publishing (home of Ebony and Jet magazines) before striking out on her own as a consultant in search of family and professional balance.

As an experienced CEO who has spent more than two decades in major corporations, mid-sized companies and as an entrepreneur, Ward specializes in building and transforming businesses and has raised over $5OM in capital to fund multiple M&A transactions.

Ward’s achievements have been written about in numerous magazines and The Go-Getter Girl’s Guide: Get What You Want in Work and Life. She has been a frequent speaker to professional groups and has appeared on television shows and networks such as The Steve Harvey Show, The Balancing Act, and HSN.

She is also a personal mentor to many individuals and has always had a special interest in helping women and minorities be successful in their careers and life. A Duke University alumna, Ward has been very active and currently chairs an alumni board at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

A native of Detroit, Ward currently resides between Minneapolis and Detroit with her son and enjoys traveling and music.

PIVOT had the pleasure of catching up with this C-Suite dynamo to gain her insight and perspective on mentoring.

PIVOT:

For many corporate professionals, reaching the C-suite is their goal.  Tell our readers how you effectively navigated your career to become the Chief Executive Officer of CURiO Brands.

Ward:

My story is rather unique in that I am one of only a handful of Black female mechanical engineers turned CEO. It’s important to say that I never had the C-suite as my goal. That may be hard to believe because I achieved it so early in my career, but it’s true. I have navigated my career from the age of 22 by staying focused and intentional about what I love to do rather than the title of a role I want to have.

For example, I love to solve big problems, figure out how to make things work better, challenge the status quo, and lead people. Every career and life choice I’ve made starting from college has aligned with those things.  When I took my first job out of engineering school I chose one that solved manufacturing process problems but also relied on working with people instead of just machines and technology.

When I created a director role for myself leading multicultural marketing, I did it because I wanted to change the conversation and lead multinational companies to think differently about consumers like me.  When I decided to take my first C-suite position it was because I could work on a brand I was personally passionate about while solving the significant business challenges it faced; all while leading a passionate group of dedicated employees.

While the enhanced titles and responsibilities were nice, those were not my primary drivers for choosing those roles. It was about the growth, challenge, opportunity, and alignment with what drives me personally.  And to this day, when people ask me how they can become a CEO, I always say, don’t focus on being a CEO.  Decide whether you love looking at business from every angle, solving BIG problems, leading many different people and processes, developing an inspiring path for others to follow, and making tough decisions. If you do and your good at it, you won’t have to look; a C-suite role will find you.

PIVOT:

Did mentors play a part in your career trajectory?  If so, how did you convince them to mentor you and what did you see as the goal for the mentoring relationship?

Ward:

Certainly! I have always believed that you can learn something from everyone. To hear a different perspective, see additional possibilities, and be exposed to new experiences is my goal in any relationship – mentoring or otherwise.

I’ve been fortunate to have many mentors, but I have never asked anyone to be my mentor. I have instead formed authentic and organic relationships with people I admire and connect with naturally and learned from them along the way.

Many of my mentors have been people you might not expect, and several have been mentors without even knowing it. I also don’t look at someone as a mentor because they have a specific title or have been deemed successful by societal or corporate standards.

In fact, one of my most valuable mentorship moments came from a wonderful woman who cleaned our offices each night at P&G.  She didn’t know much about my career, but she knew about life. And my late nights at the office afforded me more than a few moments to soak in her wisdom.

PIVOT:

What are your thoughts on the concept of “virtual mentors” in today’s career development landscape?  Many are looking to establish mentoring relationships with people online or through social media.  Is there some value to these types of arrangements?

Ward:

This is a tough one. I love technology. I am also pretty active on social media.  However, I naturally gravitate towards and get more out of a human connection; one that includes a conversation with facial expressions and vocal inflections.

I rarely accept blind invitations to connect virtually without some type of human interaction or introduction first. That said, I do see a lot of power in the online social groups that have formed with like-minded people who share common interests. They often provide a wealth of relevant advice.

What I like most is that when you find the right group(s) it can be a fast way to gain a lot of different perspectives on a subject. And you can also share knowledge, too. It helps eliminate the one downside of focusing on individual conversation: you only get one perspective. These broader social and virtual groups provide multiple perspectives in a pretty rapid fashion.

PIVOT:

What advice would you give to our readers as they consider moving their career to the next level? What advice has worked well for you in your career?

Ward:

Choose opportunities that keep you agile. The number one necessity for navigating a career today is to be able to transition easily into a new strategy, new team, new role, or new environment. You have to be able to “pivot” when what you are doing is no longer the highest value to you or your company.

Every time you consider a new opportunity, you should ensure you will learn a new skill, gain new knowledge, and/or expand your horizons. If you are just going to do more of what you have been doing, your agility will atrophy.

What that means is you will become so specialized and such an expert at something, your ability to see new paths for growth or problem solving will wane.  Some of the toughest discussions I have had with people who have worked with me have been with those who neglected to learn new skills over several years and suddenly they were unable to keep up with the demands of their growing and evolving companies. Never stop learning and use every career move to gather new skills.

PIVOT:

As Chief Executive of CURiO Brands talk about what the company is a great place to work and should be consider an Employer of Choice.

Ward:

I am very proud of the team and culture we are creating here at CURiO. I am energized by the many unique characteristics of our team. Having been in the minority for most of

my career, I think a lot about how to ensure we have a diverse and inclusive working environment.

I am excited to say that all of my executive leaders are women, 72% of our total employees are female and our commitment to women in STEM careers is clear with all five of our chemists being women. 50% of our employees are people of color and predominantly African American, and 40% of our employees are millennials under 35.

We have LGBT families and support our working parents through flexible schedules.  But even more than demographics or the benefits we offer, I take pride in our culture as a family. It’s not every day that you can go to work and be surrounded by people who love what they do, and you genuinely enjoy being around.

The ability for everyone to grow and progress in our environment is evidenced by the tapestry of our team of directors. They range from millennials to boomers, new recruits to homegrown leaders, and both men and women. Our entire team is filled with passion, a commitment to excellence, and care.

Lastly, our results speak for themselves.  We are cultivating great brands in Capri Blue and Thymes. We have more than doubled our business in 2 years and are on pace to continue growing double digits due to the hard work of our employees. Our greatest strength is our ability to solve even the most difficult challenges – together.

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