Colleen Birdnow Brown is the founder and CEO of Marca Global, a marketing and technology company which has recently earned a place on the coveted Inc. 5000 fastest growing private company list. She was recognized by NACD as a Top 100 Director in the U.S. in 2017 and as NACD Director of the Year (PNW). Corporate Director Magazine’s lists her as a Top 10 Corporate Director you should know. Seattle Business Journal named her “Outstanding CEO” in 2014.
I had the opportunity to interview Colleen recently. Here are the highlights of that interview:
Jill Griffin: Where did you grow up? Describe your early childhood and its significance on your life.
Colleen Birdnow Brown: I was born in the San Francisco area, but grew up in Northeast Iowa. Our first few years in Iowa we lived on the old farm. There was no indoor plumbing. Overcoming my fear of the rural walk to the outhouse is one of the greatest I remember addressing as a child. It taught me my imagination could be quite vivid and asking for help wasn’t a weakness.
Griffin: When did you first get the whisper you belonged in business?
Brown: After my best friend and I started a baton twirling camp during my high school years. It was great money for a teenager and solved the need for a Saturday break for young mothers. After de-tasseling corn as a summer job, being in the baton twirling business was a welcome change.
Griffin: Was there an early teacher that inspired you? Who and how?
Brown: There were so many teachers in my early years that inspired me to succeed. Mr. Kraft in high school geometry encouraged my interest in math and helped establish an awareness that math was one of my strengths. Dean Burhorn in college gave me the gift of grace, valued to this day. Dr. Nancy Thal remains one of my favorite educators of all time. She made learning an immersive experience through her accessibility, encouragement and real-life lessons we could take into the business world. We remain in touch.
Griffin: Describe a painful setback in your life and what it taught you.
Brown: I lost my mom when I was four. It taught me self-sufficiency, humility and a reason to live for more.
Griffin: As you rose in your career, what obstacles did you encounter and how did you deal with these?
Brown: Being underestimated was always a double edge sword. The leadership would either forget to include me or be significantly surprised when my work surpassed their expectations. It was a constant battle to be taken seriously.
Griffin: What’s a great piece of business or life advice you received, who gave it to you, and how has it enhanced your life?
Brown: Never do anything that will land you on the front page of the paper. Advice given to me by my very wise Grandmother. As a teenager it helped me realize the importance of reputation and character.
Griffin: Please give me the top 3 bullet points in your Personal Leadership Credo.
(1) Leadership is setting an example by your actions.
(2) Leadership is not a hierarchy. It is instead circular in nature. A leader’s circle or wheel of influence starts at the core of the operation and emanates outward. Inertia is overcome by gaining energy from the traction of moving the idea or the work forward so that the wheel picks up momentum.
(3) Lead for a higher purpose. Not just to make money but to make someone’s life better, make a difference or even to enable those around you to succeed.
Griffin: What advice do you have for young, talented, ambitious women who want to rise?
(1) Be a lifetime learner. Be curious. Commit to reading and ongoing education, enjoy mastering new things.
(2) Resilience is key. You will have setbacks, but to be successful you cannot have a “glass jaw.” You will pick yourself up time after time…and it will always be worth it.
(3) Believe in yourself. If you don’t it’s difficult for others to believe in you. Trust your instincts and you will never regret it. Simply because you are a woman you will have much more to navigate. Have confidence.
I am passionate about helping ambitious people to rise. I am an independent public board director, Harvard “Working Knowledge” author; and founder of Jill Griffin Executive Learning. I am passionate about bringing more diversity to the corporate board room. Since 2003, I have served as Board Director for Luby’s/Fuddruckers Restaurants (NYSE: LUB). I am the author of five business books. My latest are Earn Your Seat on a Corporate Board and Women Make Great Leaders I am a Distinguished Alumnus and philanthropist for the University of South Carolina Moore School of Business where I earned my Bachelor of Science in Business (Magna Cum Laude) and MBA degrees. I served on the Board of Trustees for nine years. I enjoy acrylic painting, World War II history and electric biking.