05 Jan Reaching New Heights
Sheila Ellian Lewis of Pivotal Ventures is turning her marketing and business prowess toward social justice issues
By Tanisha A. Sykes
Sheila Ellian Lewis is a strategist and problem-solver. That’s exactly what Pivotal Ventures was looking for when it brought Lewis on board in June of this year.
Founded in 2015 by Melinda French Gates, the 90-plus person company focuses on advancing social progress in the United States by funding and partnering with change-makers. With $1 billion already committed to advancing women’s power and influence, Pivotal has positioned Lewis to help ensure it has strong foundations in place to increase impact for years to come.
For more than a decade, Lewis climbed the corporate ladder, leveraging her skills in marketing innovation at Fortune 500 giants such as Visa and the Quaker Oats Company. Then, she pivoted to entrepreneurship.
In 1997, she hung out her first shingle, launching Flyin’ West, a strategic marketing consultancy. In 2012, she folded Flyin’ West into a new venture called Ashton212, a business transformation consulting agency that guided clients in driving growth, for which she served as CEO.
“By then, my consulting work was focused on helping clients figure out how to grow, prepare for growth, and implement their growth strategies,” says Lewis. “When I sold Ashton212 in 2019, I was invited into the social impact space by Tides in San Francisco, a $1 billion social change accelerator, to help enhance and elevate the work and visibility of their marketing team.”
Lewis knew the Tides’ role was an interim opportunity. Eager to remain in the social impact space, she joined Pivotal in June of this year. “My job is to ensure [the organization has] the capacity to drive greater impact,” says Lewis. “It means anticipating and having the processes, systems, and culture to support and sustain the organization and drive our work forward to maximum impact.
“Sheila is an innovative leader and a collaborative colleague and is deeply committed to our work to remove barriers to equality,” says Brooke Anderson, senior managing director for operations at Pivotal Ventures. “With extensive experience in the private and nonprofit sectors, she’ll help us optimize Pivotal’s impact and strengthen our team culture of equity and belonging.”
Lewis offers career climbers sage advice on leadership, advancement, and how having both corporate and entrepreneurial experience can be a lynchpin for success.
Diversity Woman: What made you decide to take the leap to Pivotal Ventures as director of cross-organization operations?
Sheila Ellian Lewis: I didn’t think about it as a leap, more of a natural progression of the work that I’m called to do. I started in marketing and gained traction organizationally in part because of the perspective I bring with an MBA in marketing and finance. I’ve always had a natural curiosity about the quantitative and qualitative aspects of business and how organizations infuse best practices for innovation and growth.
DW: How does that relate to what you do today?
SEL: Well, from a marketing perspective, it doesn’t, except for the aspect of storytelling, which is critical to the communication of ideas and the opportunity to spur change. The continuing thread of my work is strategy and problem solving. My brain is oriented to think about systems, processes, and problems, and to address questions like, What does the information we know to be true tell us about what we’re supposed to be doing? That’s the through line from my marketing work into what I do today.
DW: Describe your leadership style.
SEL: I’m a coach and a servant leader. I don’t sit on people’s shoulders and tell them what to do. Instead, I lead by asking questions and empowering my team to try and make mistakes, both of which create important learning moments!
DW: What type of employees best thrive under servant leadership?
SEL: All employees can thrive in that model. My job is to clearly understand the capacity and skill set of my teams, identify what success looks like for them, and nurture that into the existing culture. I also seek to create avenues of learning because sometimes people assume promotion is the only form of advancement. However, learning is advancement, experience is advancement, and creating places for people to contribute is advancement.
DW: What are your biggest career lessons from your corporate experiences?
SEL: In corporate, one lesson was the importance of having an advocate. Often, as I was leaving an organization, a leader would say, “Oh, you were the one who we thought was going to be really good and advance.” I would reply, “Well, wouldn’t it be nice to tell me while I’m here?” Always make sure to have a champion who is helping to position you for success.
DW: What about as an entrepreneur?
SEL: One of the biggest learnings on the entrepreneurial side was having an advisory board. I encourage entrepreneurs to find five or six people whose life’s work provides them with perspective and insight in specific areas of their business before making critical decisions. These people are not legally accountable to their organization, but they are there to help them think and lead better.
DW: Research shows that Black women have the desire to make it to the top of their profession, yet are less likely to receive the support needed. What advice would you give to women, particularly women of color, to advance into leadership?
SEL: My advice for anyone is to know your craft to ensure you are adding value all the time. Also, collaborate with others because that’s where people see your genius. In addition, use your voice to learn about the strategic goals of the organization and to understand how they drive the success of the company. Be curious about where your organization is going. Is there a new division being created? Then go talk to someone about it! Don’t be shy because knowledge is key. Then ask yourself: How do I see myself being a visible player in that growth?
DW: Can you provide an example of Pivotal Ventures’ commitment to innovative and diverse approaches that expand women’s power and influence?
SEL: We must get more women in positions to make decisions, control resources, and shape policies in their workplaces and communities. This is an important step toward gender equality and a key area of focus for Pivotal Ventures. Through the company, Melinda French Gates committed $1 billion to help accelerate progress by 2030 in areas such as increasing the number of women who are graduating, investing, and leading in technology. Programs such as Gender Equality in Tech Cities support the development of inclusive tech hubs across the US. In addition, we launched the $40 million Equality Can’t Wait Challenge to identify the most compelling ideas to help expand women’s power and influence in the US by 2030 and named the awardees in July of this year.
DW: What is your proudest career moment?
SEL: I actually haven’t achieved it yet but growing my second business certainly sits at the top right now. Some 15 years into my first business, I was reaching an age milestone and my older brother said, “You need to grow your business.” Until then, I resisted. “I can’t do it,” I said. He reminded me, “You do it for everybody else, do it for yourself.” Both of my brothers have been my biggest cheerleaders for years—always speaking truth to power, so I did it. I went from being a solopreneur to building a 40-person, multimillion-dollar consulting firm. So far, it’s my greatest career accomplishment.
DW: What excites you most about joining Pivotal Ventures?
SEL: I am incredibly fortunate to work in an organization that prioritizes social progress via gender equity. My role drives efficiency, encourages collaboration, nurtures culture, and ensures organizational sustainability, and every day I show up unapologetically as myself. That feeling is what I hope to help create for everyone at Pivotal.
DW: Any other gems you want to share?
SEL: Yes! Know your values, lead from your heart, and trust your gut. DW
Tanisha A. Sykes is an award-winning careers, personal finance, and small-business writer in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @tanishastips.