Digital Chatter Episode #015: Amy Waninger
Eric Sharpe: Hello and welcome everyone to another edition of Digital Chatter. This week I have my, uh, my guest is Amy Waninger, who is someone who I’ve never met before, but she is the CEO of Lead at Any Level. Amy, go ahead and say hi to everyone.
Amy Waninger: Hello! Thanks for having me, Eric.
Eric Sharpe: Yeah, you’re welcome. So, Amy we got introduced actually through through someone who you’ve never met as well, but I started looking through what you do and who you are and I thought you were a perfect example of an entrepreneur and a CEO. I’d like for you to tell everyone a little bit about what you do.
Amy Waninger: Sure. So I work with organizations that want to build diverse leadership bench strength for a sustainable competitive advantage. And My, um, my. I have programs, I’ve written three books, I do live training events and um, yeah. A little bit of consulting and just kind of all around diverse leadership bench strength.
Eric Sharpe: Well that’s a, first of all, that’s a phenomenal 32nd pitch right there. I think you’ve clocked that in just under a 25 seconds.
Amy Waninger: So I probably should have stopped at the ten second mark. I’m working on it.
Eric Sharpe: It’s great. It’s great. So I mean, that’s a lot of stuff. And, and uh, you know, for, you know, for, for someone young like yourself. I mean, that’s, that’s incredible.
Amy Waninger: Bless you for that.
Eric Sharpe: You’ve, you’ve accomplished a lot, you know. Tell me a little bit more about how you got into your business, you know, what, what led you from starting out as the younger version of yourself as to, you know, and lead us along the path as to how you got to where you are now.
Amy Waninger: Sure. So I’ll try to make the long story not so long, but about three years ago, two or three years ago, I went to my first ever conference. And you know, I’m older and I can’t believe I got this far in my career without ever going to a conference. But when I went it just opened my eyes to this whole world outside of, you know, my city and my, um, my company into this broader industry. And I thought, wow, this is amazing. And as I’m watching people on stage, I thought I want to do that, I want to give something back to the industry. And I, you know, I always wanted to be in theater but I couldn’t sing and if he couldn’t sing you couldn’t be in theater because they don’t want you. Right. And I got that would be such a great way for me to be in front of people and kind of scratch that itch of wanting to be on stage and not having to sing, which is excellent. I really wanted to do something. I wanted to create something original. I didn’t want to regurgitate to people books that I had read. And so I submitted for that conference. I submitted a proposal that was accepted and then I had to come up with an hour’s worth of content based on three bullet points, which was terrifying. Right? Because I had never done this before.
Eric Sharpe: Yeah, I mean, so this is your first, really your first chance to do a, I mean, almost like keynote style talk.
Amy Waninger: Yeah. And so I panicked a little bit and I was like, oh, I got to do this or I got to figure it out. So somebody believes in this message. And I knew I wanted to speak specifically about diversity and inclusion because it’s so important in the insurance industry where I was working, um, because there’s just such a talent shortage and we have such a reputation in insurance of being, you know, old white men sitting around a table hurrumphing. And I know that not to be true, but it’s hard to get people to recognize the need. So because the audience was so diverse in terms of roles and responsibilities, tenure and authority, I had to create the topic that was relevant to everybody in that audience. So it might be a, you know, a claims adjuster who was just out of school or it might be someone who was, um, you know, the, the president of an agency or a vice president in a big carrier.
Amy Waninger: So really just all across the board, um, you know, in terms of their responsibilities day to day. And I thought, well, what all these people have in common, they all need strong networks and where better to demonstrate our personal commitment to diversity and inclusion than in our own professional networks. So I set out to write that workshop, um, and what I came up with, um, resulted in an assessment tool that then I realized more people than the 200 I’m going to talk to at this conference really need to see this. Because it, when I went through my own assessment and got the results on the other side, I was sickened by my own behavior, um, and my own lack of inclusiveness in my network. And Yeah.
Eric Sharpe: So you. So you, in fact had created this thing thinking, you know, sure, I’ll pass flying colors.
Amy Waninger: I’ll crush this!
Eric Sharpe: Yeah, yeah.
Amy Waninger: No, I wasn’t. And I thought
Eric Sharpe: There’s always room for improovement and that’s good that you figured that out.
Amy Waninger: Well, and I thought, you know, if I think I’m doing a good job and I’m really on board with, you know. I had been doing volunteer work in diversity and inclusion for years in the company that I worked for, and I thought I had this on lock, and then I realized, no I don’t. And I thought, well, if I thought I was doing well and I wasn’t with all the best intentions, there are probably a whole lot of other people doing at least as badly as I was with no clue. They’re not engaging and connecting across difference. So that became the book and then this horrible thing happened. The conference that I’ve been looking forward to for nine months got cancelled due to a hurricane and I thought, what am I going to do?
Amy Waninger: And then I decided, well, I’ve got this message, it’s way too important to keep it to myself, so I’m just going to have to find another audience for the message. So I started applying to conferences. Just relentlessly. And I got a few lined up and a couple that wanted to pay me and I didn’t want to just put that money in my checking account. And you know, never think about it again. I thought, no, this is the start of something. This is something that people need. So I established my company as an LLC the very next month. Figured out how to do that. And um, started building out, you know, a broader base of programming and a broader client base and really turning it into something that I hope will sustain me for a lot of years.
Eric Sharpe: That’s awesome. First of all, phenomenal story and you, you saw a problem and a need to solve it and obviously people are buying it. For someone who is brand new into the world of being an entrepreneur and being paid to speak is, is tough. Some people wait decades before they get to that point. I’m curious, tell me about your experience of applying to conferences. What was that like? I mean, what were some of the difficulties or challenges there?
Amy Waninger: Yeah. So I wasn’t even familiar with the phrase call for proposals or call for speakers. I had to google “How do you get to speak at conferences?”. Like, I mean we’re talking so basic, you know, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And so, uh, but I had, I had this, I had this foundation, this program that I really believed in and I knew what my objectives were in teaching and I knew what people were going to get out of it because I had gotten that out of creating the content myself. Um, I did a couple of webinars just for friends to kind of practice the content, see what worked and what didn’t. If I was explaining things clearly, if I was going to step on any landmines. Because in the diversity and inclusion space, there are a thousand ways to do it wrong and not a lot of ways to do it right.
Amy Waninger: Um, so, you know, I field tested the work and, and that sort of thing. And then, you know, it was a topic that resonated. It was something that people were really excited about. And I guess I didn’t know how hard it was for people to break into public speaking. I think I did 35 presentations in my first year. I didn’t get paid for all of them, but I got paid for quite a few. And when I started talking to other speakers about my experience and what I was trying to accomplish, they were like, well, you know, that’s going to be really hard. I said, well, yeah, I know, but you know, I, I was successful 35 times this year. And then their heads would turn and they’d be like, and this is your first year. Well, Yeah. And you know, well, how big of were some of your audiences? Well, several hundred. You know, I mean I talked to rooms of six people also, you know, so um, you know, I think I’m onto something and I’m working to grow it and nurture it and make it, um, you know, try to find a place in the market where I can, where I can build.
Eric Sharpe: What advice would you have to someone who’s trying to work up to 35 you know speaking gig a year? I mean seeing as how you jumped in on the deep end, whether you knew it or not. What would you tell someone who’s working their way up to that.
Amy Waninger: So I have a big mouth and I told everybody I knew this is what I want to accomplish. I said in a very public intention and people that I knew through, you know, past work lives, friends from high school, believe it or not. I mean there were all kinds of people who stepped up to help. And you know, to say, Hey, I know somebody who is running a conference or did you know that a call for proposals just went out for such and such conference. Because a lot of times if you’re not specifically looking for a particular conference to announce, you won’t hear about it. And so just having that and then people who heard me speak, would recommend me for other events.
Eric Sharpe: That’s one of the best ways. Obviously it’s the waterfall effect. Once you speak at one gig, then two people say, hey, there’s, you know, we have some other gigs coming up. Sure.
Amy Waninger: Yeah. Yeah. So, um, so I guess in terms of advice, work your network. Tell people what you’re doing and what it’s about. And if it’s a message that resonates, they will find you.
Eric Sharpe: Sure. So, thank you for that. Uh, it, it sounds like you came from a place of passion and, and you know, obviously diversity, inclusion is a passion for you. I’m curious, where did this all kind of stem from? I mean, not, not everyone just jumps into that. Why, you know, why is this such an important thing for you?
Amy Waninger: Yeah. So, you know, it’s an interesting question. I grew up in southern Indiana in a very blue collar area, very small town. So there were less than 20,000 people in my whole county where I grew up, 99.99% white, non Hispanic. And so, you know, I’m probably not an obvious diversity champion, right? But, um, you know, I always felt a little bit like an outsider. I think that comes from being an only child. And I grew up in an area with a lot of, a lot of German Catholic families, so a lot of very large families and I always just felt like a little left out of that. Right little outside of the culture, a little outside. Um, and so I guess as I grew up I kind of latched onto the people that I thought were the most interesting people and they were typically the people who were the most different. Um, you know, people who moved in from other places, people who um, you know, maybe they, they came to visit because we had, we had some like local attraction, any kind of stuff. And I would start talking to them because I’d talk to anybody and um, you know, just kind of strike up a friendship and you know. My house was kind of the hub for people to come and go, because I lived close to the high school.
Amy Waninger: So like we had people in and out all the time at my parents house. So I just always wanted to expand that circle wider and wider and include more people. And then in college I started down the path of actually majoring in African American studies. And because it was, it was the first time that history really meant anything to me. Like when I read the stories, it wasn’t names and dates, it was real people’s experience. And it was something that was, um, that was interesting and exciting and new to me that I hadn’t learned about from a different perspective that I’d never heard before. And so I started taking a lot of African American history and literature classes. I was one course shy of actually graduated with that Major. I decided it wasn’t worth staying an extra semester for, but, but I did graduate with a criminal justice degree with minors in sociology and Spanish. And then later I went back and got a computer science degree. Took me down a completely different path. It took me away from what I was passionate about, but something that paid the bills. And now I feel like I’ve finally come home into work that I, that’s really meaningful for me.
Eric Sharpe: That’s great. Thank you for that. That’s, it’s always a great feeling, right when you, when you combine what you really love to do and something that, you know, it stems from a heart. Right? And it sounds like you’re a magnet just for, you know, different people. You know, being in a smaller town, a small county even, you are naturally attracted to people with different experiences. I mean, you know, obviously people can be different and be from your hometown that can sit across the lunch table from you and be different, but it’s true. I mean, people who come from different backgrounds, regions, they move in, move out. That’s, I think kind of the beauty of the United States and the world is right. The ability to do all that. Um, and I do want to ask you a little bit controversial, but I do want to ask you, what are your thoughts about, you know, building borders and accepting immigrants into this mate of ours?
Amy Waninger: Well, I think the time to, to have rejected immigrants would have been a few hundred years ago. I don’t, I, I don’t have, I don’t have a lot of patience for that. I think that we have such, we have so much opportunity in this country and we have so much to offer. Um, when people come here and want to contribute to that, when they want to help build this country up, um, you know, I think it goes against, I think it goes against centuries of, of precedent to turn them away. Hm, particularly people who are coming from bad situations, from war zones, um, you know. We’ve always had in this country a, a policy of taking in refugees of, you know. The American dream is that you come here with nothing and you build a life and your kids do better than you do. So, um, I, you know, I find it, I find it problematic the way that that whole debate is being structured.
Amy Waninger: Because I think it’s, I think there’s a lot of, um, subversive racism in the discussion. I think there’s a lot of overt racism in the discussion. Um, and it really, it hurts my heart. It hurts my heart for people that are here, that are trying to make their way and feel like they’re being threatened or that they’re not welcome. And it hurts me that, you know, we could be turning away somebody who with the right with the right opportunity could cure cancer. Right? I mean, you just, you don’t know who’s, who’s there and what they’re capable of until they have a chance. And I think everybody deserves a chance.
Eric Sharpe: Yeah. Well, well said. And I, I completely agree with you. Yeah, I mean, this nation was built on the backs of immigrants and unfortunately on the backs of people who were already here, uh, you know. So there’s, the United States is a very interesting melting pot, you know, and at one point in time, you know, Irish immigrants were looked at poorly. I mean, at one point in time, there was a lot of different things happening 200 years ago, 100 years ago, 400 years ago here in this nation. So, uh, well, well said, and, uh, and thank you for being a champion of, of what I believe is the true meaning of the United States. And obviously the opinions on, on, uh, how, you know, how we move forward with all that, that’s always going to differ. And that’s the one I’m not necessarily trying to discuss right now with you. But yeah,
Amy Waninger: And I’m not a public policy expert by any means. But I think if you, if you really get down to the heart of the matter and what people’s intent is, um, you know. If you strip that away and you look at is, is the intent to divide or is the intent to bring people together and I will always fall on the side of wanting to bring people together.
Eric Sharpe: Awesome. You sound like a true midwesterner. Absolutely. You know, welcoming and happy to meet new people. And you know, I, I grew up in Michigan, so I know that when winters get cold, you know, you, you tend to bring people together and you have great celebrations. They’re always indoors and you get snowed in and you get stuck with people. So you have to..
Amy Waninger: You better like them, or learn to quickly.
Eric Sharpe: Yeah, exactly. So tell me, tell me now with your business, let’s fast forward to where you are now. You know, what do the next three years look like for you? I mean, what’s coming up for you?
Amy Waninger: So I’m only a year in. I want to make that abundantly clear. It’s, it’s hard for me to see this far ahead. So I know Eric, that you’re a serial entrepreneur and it’s, I think that there’s a, hm just the way that you’re probably wired. You see a problem, you figure out how to solve it and then you can build a business model in your head that goes out five years and you kind of know what your endgame is. And I have, I don’t have a business background. My background is in IT and you know, solving problems on a very small level. And so this is all new to me. So where I’d like to take my business. So the last year was really about building. I’m building some programs, building some platforms, building some, um, some raving fans, which is awesome. Um, 2019 is really when I want to scale my offerings up so that I can do a train the trainer and licensed programs for larger companies. But still where my heart is is in consulting and delivering this message personally because I love seeing those Aha moments that people get when they’re, when they’re going through the process of this assessment tool. And so, um, you know, for some smaller midsize companies, I’d like to get in and do some programs, do some consulting. Eventually I’d like to scale up to have a team of people that are working with me to help deliver content and um, you know, we’ll see where it goes from there.
Eric Sharpe: That’s great. I mean you. I didn’t realize, you know, you’ve basically been just over a year of doing this, you know, that’s of course to be commended because that’s incredible. Uh, you know, a lot of entrepreneurs kind of sit and stew in the first year and you know, we run into issues, all the tech issues or legal issues or financial issues, cashflow issues, whatever it is. As entrepreneurs, we’re always chasing the next dollar. Not in a bad way, but we’re always looking for, you know, what can we do to improve the core of what we’re doing and what we offer and also get to, you know, better clients, better quality, you know, improving on that. Improving the process of how we do things. And that’s whether you have a product or a service or something combined like that. So you’re, it sounds like you’re on the right track, that’s for sure. Tell me, tell me what you know, what advice would you give yourself five, 10 years ago, before.. Really long before you even had this business, what would you have done differently?
Amy Waninger: I think the advice I would give to my younger self is take more chances. And don’t be afraid to ask. Um, ask for opportunities. Ask for help. Um ask stupid questions. It’s really okay. Um, and you’ll, you’ll make it, you’ll build a better relationship asking a stupid question than asking no question at all. So I, I wish I had learned that earlier.
Eric Sharpe: Would you mind telling me. What do you think was a stupid question you asked back in the day?
Amy Waninger: Oh Gosh. Well, you know, I was so afraid to ask the questions because I didn’t want to seem stupid. I didn’t want people, you know, I was. I felt so out of place in the business world because I grew up not knowing anyone really who went to college. And so when I got into a work setting with all of these people that were professionals that I thought, you know, really had their stuff together, right? For generations, they had their stuff together and here I am and not knowing anything and um, you know, and I, I kinda got into this place where I was afraid to.
Amy Waninger: I was afraid that I would be found out, you know, really bad imposter syndrome. And um, you know, in the last couple of years I’ve learned like everybody’s kind of just figuring this out. There are no grownups. We are all just trying to make a way forward together, um, in the best way that we know how. And I don’t know if it’s age or experience or exposure that got me to that point. But, um, I’m glad to finally be in a place where, you know, I’ll ask stupid questions. Like, you know, I had, I was applying to be a certified women’s business enterprise, um, last fall. And I called a friend of mine who had, who she’s a CPA. And I said, um, they’re asking me for a profit and loss statement. How do I do that? And she started talking to me about debits and credits and what side goes on, what I said, what? I have no idea what you’re talking about. Never had a finance or accounting class in my life. And she goes, I tell you what, subscribe to quickbooks and run the report. I said I can do that.
Amy Waninger: Then I took a class in financial accounting, so now I know what debits and credits are and I know how to do a profit and loss statement, but it’s much easier to just press the button in quickbooks. So, you know, but five years ago I would have been too afraid to ask the question and I would have decided I’m not going to apply for certification. That’s just not for me. And instead I just plowed forward and got my questions answered and ran with it and I did get certified and I’m, you know, I’m looking forward to how I can use that certification to work with some bigger companies this year.
Eric Sharpe: That’s awesome. Tell me, last question here. Tell me, what advice would you give to entrepreneurs out there who are trying to build their network? And you know you’ve, you’ve been very successful with building your following and your raving fans. What are some things that you’ve done to help build that over the past year?
Amy Waninger: So I will always first ask, how can I help you? What can I do for you? What do you need? What are you struggling with? And I may not be the person to help, but I might know somebody that can help or I might be lucky enough to have read a book on the subject in the last five years and remember the book and pass it along. Um so when I’m building my network, number one, I always try to be the first one to offer help. Number two, as diverse as possible with your network because there are people everywhere who are looking for help. Who are looking for connections and the more you can get out of your comfort zone, talk to people who you wouldn’t normally talk to. Talk to people in other industries. Talk to people who don’t look like you. Sit at the lunch table that where, you know, at work even where everybody’s from a different department or they’re speaking a different language or they’re eating food you don’t recognize. Make those connections because those connections are going to be where your Aha moments and breakthroughs really come from.
Eric Sharpe: Perfect. Thank you.
Amy Waninger: Thank you.
Eric Sharpe: Appreciate having you on. And how can we follow you? How can we, you know, do you have something for all the listeners out there?
Amy Waninger: I do. So I have an ebook called 21 insights for inclusive networking and it is available. I’ll give you the link. People can sign up, it’ll add you to my mailing list. I promise I send really good emails and if you don’t like them, just unsubscribe. No big deal. But if you do download the 21 insights Ebook, you will also get in a couple of days in your inbox, the first 50 pages of my book Network Beyond Bias: making diversity a competitive advantage for your career. And that book, although it’s self published and it’s the little book that nobody’s heard of, was named by Up Journey a couple of weeks ago, one of the 24 best business books of all time or best leadership books of all time. So it might be the best book you’ve never read, just saying.
Eric Sharpe: I love it. Amy, thank you. This is great.
Amy Waninger: Thanks Eric so much.
Eric Sharpe: Have a good one. Bye Bye.
Amy Waninger: Bye.