Hello and welcome to this Epic-sode of the Dreamers Succeed Podcast. You’re in for a real treat because, today, coming to us from Knoxville, Tennessee, we have Catherine Porth Cahill. She is an amazing consultant, helper of businesses to get on their feet, and creator and founder of Let Her Speak. For those of you who do not know what Let Her Speak is yet, I promise you that you will. It’s an organization that I’m extremely fond of and proud to be a part of in some small way and extremely honored that Catherine who is super busy all the time could join us today on this podcast.
Hi, thank you so much for having me.
I’m so happy that you’re here. SO we’re going to get right into it because, as you know, time is a limited resource and Catherine is as busy as they come. I want to honor her time but I also know what a blessing it’s going to be for all the listeners to really hear her message – what she’s about – and how she’s impacting the world. I’m telling you guys; when you talk about impact… she is making an impact. So, Catherine, tell us a little bit about Catherine Porth Cahill. Newly married! Still in the bliss of the smile and the beauty!
Yep! That was quite an introduction. Thank you! Yes, so, I am originally from Iowa. I’m an Iowa girl. I grew up around entrepreneurs for most of my life; farmers. Most of all of my family are entrepreneurs. My dad was an entrepreneur. My grandfathers – both – were. So when I decided to go to school, I actually went to the University of South Carolina, planning on focusing on marketing and international business. I wanted to do global business and travel constantly, but while I was there, I actually found the entrepreneur major, which I didn’t realize was a thing when I was 18. That kind of decided my fate.
I was actually 19 years old when you decide what actual major in the business school was going to be. I ended up doing marketing and entrepreneurship and just instantly fell in love with working with these people that had these visions and these innovations and these creations that they were just not quite sure how to build a business around that and how to tell their story and speak to their value. Right from the get-go, I fell in love with doing that and after school when I graduated was at the height of the recession. Entrepreneurship was very difficult to do at that time. Starting any sort of business was very, very difficult. I actually decided to do the safe choice and went into corporate America and worked in insurance and financial services for a while. I moved back to Iowa since there was a lot more job security back there and built up my career in sales and customer service.
I was still working with people, helping them out with solutions, talking with them, and I segued from financial services into commercial workplace interiors, which is much closer to what I love to do. I love doing creative things. I got to essentially work with a lot of mom and pop companies. There are a lot of companies out there that do furniture but they’re very, very small. It’s usually a husband and wife team or a solopreneur that’s running this team. I got to become an extension of their business and help them out with their sales strategies and business development but also help them design interior spaces. I originally wanted to be an architect so I got to live out a little bit of my design dreams.
So after I was in corporate America for a while, I decided that I wanted to truly work with a small business. I was in a transition period where my then boyfriend – now husband – was working in Knoxville and I was in a good spot that I decided I’ll move from Iowa down to Knoxville since he had a really good opportunity to continue with his research that he does as the lab.
So we moved down here, started working for a small business. During that time, I had this vision of – there’s so much more that I could be doing but I need to start my own thing. I need to be working on my own. So I decided to leave the full-time position I had when I moved down to Knoxville and went back to school to get my MBA. And through my MBA I started during that whole time… I actually became much more connected with the Knoxville entrepreneur center.
The summer before I started my grad program was when I had the idea of Let Her Speak. When I moved down here, I didn’t know anyone except for my husband. I started going to a lot of networking events. Being in corporate America you go to networking events all the time. There’s always things to be doing to get to know people. I was continuously – I guess the best term would be “disappointed” – with not being able to truly connect with people.
The more I dug into the research into how you formulate meaningful connection with people… how you are able to work with people to start driving new ideas and innovations… it became very clear that the way we put together networking events does not wholly take care of either of those needs. So with Let Her Speak… I basically started it with a little bit of an idea of I know how I prefer to connect with people, and it’s generally not at a forced networking event. It’s usually organically. I also wanted to hear from other women. So that entire summer before starting grad-school, I interviewed women – five women a week – as many as I possibly could just to sit down and get to know their stories and get to know where have they struggled, where have they succeeded? What are the gaps and the barriers that they’re still seeing?
Most all of them were women in business. Either they worked for a company or they were starting their own business or had a successful business. I started collecting all of this information. The more and more I thought about it, the more I realized that, while there are a lot of female organizations out there and there are some that are geared towards women that are trying to climb the corporate ladder or women that are trying to start their own businesses…. most of them center around the exact same framework.
Usually, that framework is “We’ll give you some networking events, but it’s up to you to go up and try to introduce yourself to people. Or we’ll do events where we bring a speaker in that’s someone that’s really well known or someone who travels and does a lot of speaking engagements. You’re usually sitting in an audience. That person is up on the stage telling their story.
By the end of it, you might feel very empowered and very exhilarated from the event, but afterwards that luster fades away a little bit so you go back to doing the same old thing that you have been doing. That was one issue that I saw. The second issue is this thought that – a lot of times when you’re sitting in this audience, it seems like it’s unreachable to be where that woman on the stage is. And it’s not! It’s entirely possible to get to the level that you want to be at. As women, we’re all in this together. We’re all working on our own things, and there’s still that issue of animosity and the mean girl effect that happens in most situations.
One of the best ways to overcome that is to truly understand each other’s stories and understand where we’re coming from. There are those posts that you see all the time to be empathetic and forgiving of another woman because you have no idea what she’s going through. There’s a lot of things that could be happening underneath that she’s just not comfortable talking about and she’s reacting in a certain way for a reason. So with the programming for let her speak it started as an idea for a one-time event that it would be all women from the community that would come together and share their real stories of letting down the veil – the façade of what they think a woman in business should look like – and just be a human being and talk about these things that make them who they are. Ultimately, that drives what they’re doing in their professional life.
The other part of that was that giving time for every attendee to be able to think and process what that story spoke to them. What about it can they connect to? What about it have they never fully experienced themselves? But maybe there were other women in that audience that did connect with that and they can help shed light on what that feels like.
So the way I developed the program was – for one thing – all women are on the same plane. There’s no stage. Every woman is equally there. Also, there’s the women who are speakers are women who have a connection to that community. It’s not someone that flies in and the next day flies out and you never really see them again. They’re women that you could easily reach out to more and get to know those women more.
Keeping it to a small, intimate group. Let Her Speak usually doesn’t have more than fifty people there. There are studies that show that once you get above that it’s less likely that people feel like they could share something with the group without feeling embarrassed or without feeling like somebody might not agree with what they say. Every woman sits at a round table with a small group and they rotate chairs after every couple of speakers. So by the end of it, you truly become friends with everyone who’s there. You get past the typical “this is my name, this is my company, this is what I do.” And you get to “this is who I am.”
What was really encouraging after the very first Let Her Speak was – shortly after that there was actually a study that came out from Northwester University. It was studying students in grad school that were pursuing their MBA. What they found was that when women were more focused on growing their personal network of other professional successful women and utilizing that network to help support them and help them raise up in their careers that they were extremely successful. It shows that the way that networking has been in the past it works very well in males (and this is what that study was showing) – it was showing the type of way that males usually are networking and it’s based more on, “oh, you know so and so.” I might never have interacted with this person, but the fact that this person says that this guy knows what he’s doing – okay I’ll give him a try.
I see that there might be some possibilities vs in women we’re more likely to recommend and sponsor and advocate for someone else when we really get to know who that person is and we trust them. Then we’re willing to raise them up. So that’s what this study was about. That was really what I build Let Her Speak around – this more of a connection and real conversations.
And two things that you spoke about… I went to my first Let Her Speak event last year. Number one, now it makes so much sense. I walked into this beautiful venue and it looked like a set from Alice in Wonderland. It was just – every detail… everything was so beautiful. And now I see by what you’re telling me that creative side of you... you just wanted to bless the women that were going to be there with that extra, “you’re special, you’re here. Let me just pretty this place up.” It was just beautiful.
Aside from the event being exactly what you described… one of the things that really stood out for me (much more than a networking event of any kind or even a workshop that I’ve attended) was the safe place for us to be vulnerable and for us to be real. And that it was okay. I can tell you, Catherine… I left there with friendships that I know they’re going to be friends for the rest of my life. They were women that I met that one day and we connected and reconnected and we had coffee. When I’m in Tennessee… I had an issue last week and wasn’t there as much as I typically am.
You get to go deep. It’s not just, “Here’s my card, here’s what I do.” I know that you’re so dedicated to adding the value and so dedicated to being a stand for what you want to represent for these women for no other reason than to be of service that you are very research-based. You will go out and do the work and do the research to make sure that you can be a stand for what they need. Where does that come from? Is that just part of your background?
Naturally I’ve always been a very curious person and I’m curious about people. I love to understand where people are coming from. Why do they think the way that they think? So I can connect and understand where they’re coming from. I think another part of it too is that my dad is a very analytical person. He was always – if I was arguing or something that I thought I should be able to do like a class that I wanted to take or a place that I wanted to travel to. He would always ask me to do the research and making an argument for my case was a part of growing up. I think because I always had to have some kind of research and facts and proof behind my decision to do something. That just carried through into my adult life. So yeah.
Everything I do – you’re right – I try to come at it at an angle of in my gut I think this is the right thing to do but especially working in corporate America there’s obviously a very, very big growing ever since big data and big analytics became as big as it is now that there needs to be some evidence based or data enablement to decisions that are being made. There needs to be a research component to it to instill some sort of change and to be very focused on what I’m trying to do.
By doing this, this is the outcome that I’m expecting. Is this the outcome that happened? So I’m always collecting feedback from women. Just this week, I launched my women in business of East Tennessee study. Essentially, East Tennessee is going to be my pilot test to see what kind of information can I gather to utilize to create Let Her Speak around what people actually need. I usually don’t come at it from a point of “this is what I think they need.” I have those instincts, but if I’m told otherwise, then I’ll segue and pivot to what women are actually telling me that they want.
And that makes all the difference in the world. A lot of times, we have an idea. We go out there and we want to launch the idea. Then we’re thinking, well, we think it’s a great idea. Why is nobody coming? Why is nobody showing up? And it’s just not what people need. We need to be able to get in solution mode. What results are we bringing? Instead of focusing on the product and what we want to bring to the table, we want to make sure that there’s that light at the end of the tunnel for people. I know that that’s time-consuming and it requires a certain pause. When we’re go, go, go – especially you who is driven and determined and you’ve been able to achieve what you have because of that. But then you sort of have to take a pause and sit back and sort of say, “Let me just make sure that we’re doing this right. Let me honor that end-user and those women that are going to be at these events.
And what you’re going to curate around that, which I know is going to be a huge blessing. But I’m curious because you mentioned it earlier. They say, “I have this idea and have always wanted to do this. But I don’t quite know how to turn that into a business.”
When you talked about the entrepreneurship and the course of study and how you helped these people. Is there even a way to describe steps for what that looks like? For what people should be thinking when they’re in that mode?
Can you shed some light on that?
Yeah. That’s a good question. It does depend on the type of idea that it is. Whether it’s a tangible product. Whether it’s a service. Whether it’s technology-based vs something that’s more in a retail location – something like that. There are different ways to go about going after that. I’ve been working with a couple of women the last few weeks that are going through a program to help them get their businesses launched. One of the best things (and this comes out of silicone valley) is focusing on what the most valuable product is. Always focusing on I know you have this big, big vision and this big dream for what you think this could be. I’ve been there – I am there. I know where this can go, but at the same time you need to take a step back and say “What is step one?” What is the most viable, smallest way that I can get this started? Maybe I can boot-strap it? It doesn’t require a huge amount of up-front investment.
Some ideas, that’s just very, very difficult to do. My ideas do require a lot of upfront investment. In those cases, you have to do the work. You have to really focus on getting as much feedback as possible. Maybe starting very small.
I have a cousin who loves to develop videogames, which is a huge investment. His way of ensuring that the game is something that people are enjoying and people want to (play), is that he’ll start it off with something that’s very simple. He’ll utilize something as simple as a card deck. He’ll attribute different things to what that card deck is to try to help people go through – essentially – what the essence of the game is going to be. It’s easy for him to sit down with people, almost like a focus group, and beta test these people going through this game and collecting feedback while they’re doing that before he even goes towards the investment of all of the technology requirements that go into developing an actual videogame.
It’s the same with services. I’m working with a woman right now who has this huge dream of helping women that are in the healthcare world. Right now, she and I have sat down and talked about, “what is the smallest and most viable thing you can do to test this first?”
We’ve worked on what a very, very small focused event would look like. Where it could be, how she might be able to get some sponsors to help her with covering the costs. Her goal for this one is not to make a lot of money right now. That’s the eventual goal – you need to have a profit and a revenue stream in order to maintain yourself. But, at least break even and to test and to iterate and to get constant feedback. So it’s the constant cycle of what is the minimum viable product that you can do, what is the feedback from that, how are you going to test it? How are you collecting that feedback? And deciding to iterate from there.
A lot of times when we have this big idea, we come in with, “This is everything that we want to do.” I do that a lot. When I have people come to the office, we’ll have a strategy session, just to start and see where they are. Very often these strategy sessions are three hours long. I love it, because I had a whiteboard designed – one wall that is just a giant whiteboard and we play. I call it a dream board. We get in there.
Did you watch Frozen 2 already?
(Gasps). It’s so good. So good! There’s a song in there. I’m not going to give it away – that’s called “The Next Right Step.” What you’re saying is, “start where you can start.” Sometimes we’re looking at this huge picture. Beautiful! I’m a big dreamer. If you see my vision board… my husband, every time I do a new one, he’s just like, “oh my god. How much is this going to cost me? How long are you going to be gone? What is happening here?”
So I believe in having big dreams and big vision. But sometimes, I notice that people can get overwhelmed. They try to – how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Now when you’re consulting businesses, do you notice that it’s hard to reign people in to get there, or do they get it when you articulate that?
Usually, yeah. Once I articulate it and break it down for them… one thing that I use – I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book “Bird by Bird.” It’s something that was given to me when I graduated high school. It’s still a book that I refer back to whenever I notice that I’m starting to get too caught up in the big picture and not focusing one frame at a time. It’s mainly focused on if you’re trying to tackle writing a novel, but writing a novel and trying to start a business with a gigantic vision… they’re very similar.
She talks about, like you mentioned, you have this gigantic picture and instead of looking at this gigantic picture just trying to make sense of it all, pretend that you’re looking at it in a one-inch, by one-inch frame at a time. Once I usually mention that to someone. You have all these things that you want to do, what is step one? We need to clearly understand step one, what are we doing?
I did this for myself, too, when I decided to leave my fulltime job and to focus on growing Let Her Speak and trying to go after this vision that I have for it. I wasn’t going to leave that full-time job until I could commit to day one on my own, what is the first thing I’m going to do?
And once I clearly knew day one, these are the things on my list to do on that first day. And that I knew how to build today to and keep going and going and going from that, but it started with, “I need to clearly… as long as I can clearly tell myself, “These are all the thing that you need to do on that first day,” then I felt secure enough that I would be able to build from there.
I just added it (Bird by Bird) to my queue. I love getting a recommendation of something that sounds so cool. Reminds me a lot of “The Compound Effect.” I don’t know if you’ve read Darren Hardy. It’s that. It’s, listen, baby steps, and consistency, and sticking to the plan.
I’m just wrapping up the five AM club. And it’s really a very, very powerful book. Really very powerful. So I have an accountability buddy, and we’ve been speaking with each other every Monday. We do accountability on Trello. We’ve become really good friends for the past three years or something like that. He’s a fellow coach, as well.
I was reading it, I recommended the book. It’s all about habits. We decided to start this 5 AM club. Every morning, we wake up, we take a picture of our watch, make sure it’s five o’ clock (or close to) and then we have to send a video of our affirmations and intentions for the day to each other. He’s just decided to make this a thing. Let’s invite other people… these are the rules. Listen; sometimes by 8 o clock, I’m almost done with my day. It’s crazy. It’s really effective. Highly recommend it. But now Bird by Bird is in my queue. Thanks for recommending that.
Can you talk to me about what is next? What’s the future? I know you think a lot in terms of what you’re going to bring through Let Her Speak and through everything that you’re doing with your consultancy and how you’re helping businesses and startups in the Knoxville Entrepreneurial Center.
What are you looking at now?
So with Let Her Speak, specifically, I – for the last two and a half years – have been focused on building this community; focusing on a community that’s built around face-to-face interactions and real conversations. I’m just now starting to do more things through social media and building a website. One of my steps with the community building is I’m going to work on a project and I’m code-naming it Let Her Eat. Granted, I need to do more research on this but my instinct in growing up with a grandfather who is a chef – and I have a cousin with a chef as well – this connection that women have to food. And the most vulnerable conversations we have – usually there’s food involved.
With Let Her Speak I’m always very particular about I want really good food at these events. It’s always a small business in the area that provides it. Usually a woman-owned business that I use for the foods at these events. I got to thinking a couple of weeks ago, talking to my cousin who’s a chef, that we grew up with these cook books in Iowa that every farm community had. It was passed down from generation to generation. They were very plain cookbooks – no pictures… nothing.
That’s what we used to learn how to cook. Most of the time it would have just the name of the person who submitted it. A lot of times when I was looking through an old one, it doesn’t even necessarily have that woman’s name. It’s usually Mrs. (husband’s name). That’s how old some of these are. I got to thinking that there are so many stories and so much deep connection to food that we have and to these recipes, whether it’s a memory of working the kitchens with our parents or our grandparents or learning how to cook something for myself for the first time when I was on my own.
There are so many stories connected to these recipes. Start building a community digitally, not just in these events that I host throughout this community. To start interviewing women that aren’t necessarily chefs, but they have this recipe that they connect to. And these recipes come from all diverse backgrounds and all different types of people.
Not just collecting the recipe from that woman, but working with that woman on understanding what would the recipe for her life look like. Juxtaposed with these recipes, just so you understand who this woman is, depending on the recipe; here’s the recipe for what her life is.
That’s what I mean. It’s your complete commitment to offering and bringing and support and adding value and bringing women together and just creating a sense of togetherness, which I think is what Let Her Speak – what really stands out to me – and I just love it.
So there’s an event coming up next March – super excited about it. Tell us about how we can find out, if there’s still space. I know that you limit it so it’s nice and cozy, but tell us a little bit about it.
I’ll do some hints. I like to have a little bit of a mystery to it to kind of be a good sport about it. The Let Her Speak Annual Women’s summit is going to be on March 25th in Knoxville Tennessee. It goes from 8:30 AM till 2:30 PM. Tickets are on Eventbrite and Facebook. They’ve been selling quicker than they have in previous years. It always sells out – usually a few days to a week ahead of time. This year I decided to have an over-arching theme.
Every woman who tells a story, I give her complete creative license to do whatever story in whatever manner she wants to tell her story. I really try not to give too many limitations for the women. All I tell them is keep it to about 15 to 18 minutes, otherwise it’s your story to tell however you want to tell it. But the overarching theme is moving from a focus on success to focusing on the significance and the legacy that we want to leave. I know a lot of times… everybody defines success differently, but your most common definition of success is either a title that you get or a paycheck that you bring home.
I completely understand – those can be very important things. But the significance of what is the story people are going to tell when you’re no longer there to tell it is really what I, myself, am trying to figure out what I’m doing with Let Her Speak is what is the story that people tell when I’m not around and when I will no longer be around.
This year, each of the women come from very different backgrounds. There’s Angela Howard, who has started several businesses in the area; a very successful woman. She will primarily be focusing on, as she’s grown and aged, this focus on sometimes needing to be a little self-centered. But also what can happen when we’re no longer being empathetic to our sisters – the women around us – and how that leads to mean girl effect. So she’ll talk a little about her story with that.
Jaylen Baker, who is a photographer in the area, did this incredible exhibit last year where she was collecting not just the portraits but the stories of immigrants in East Tennessee. She’ll be talking about that journey that she went on from being a photographer that did weddings, all types of photo shoots, worked with Altered State, which is a retail clothing company. To realizing that there are other things she could be doing with her craft and stories she could be sharing with people.
We also have a poet who does marketing and branding. She’s an extremely talented woman. She’ll be more than likely sharing a story plus a poem that she’s written. I’ll be talking about the study and the research that I’ve been able to collect and really share. Then you are helping me out with a very special activity. I’ll just give a hint: it’s essentially going through an activity of what will your vision for moving forward… what you want to do that will leave a legacy that you want to leave.
That was a good tease. And you know what? Legacy is such a powerful word. We don’t hear it enough, but I love that you’re taking something where women expect that they’re going to come to an event that you put together and they’re going to talk about these things that are going to move them forward. But I think what you’re doing with the legacy is just taking it to a whole other level. That gives a big picture view.
I’m thinking of that song in the Hamilton soundtrack, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” What are they going to say? Not that we’re worried about what people are going to think, but really we can’t take anything with us. All we can do is what we leave behind. I was sharing with you before that I lost my Mom in November. I remember the time leading up to when she passed as she got sick – I realized that my mom was just this person that was always serving. She was wherever she needed to be after she was retired.
If anybody needed her, she was there. She was just making deposits into people’s hearts her entire life, never expecting to get anything in return or expecting to make a withdrawal, but man it shows up. People would come and bring her food because she didn’t want to eat. They came and prayed. Her legacy was just her being in service of people all of the time. Not expecting anything in return. And the story that people talk about her behind her back now is just this beautiful rendition of their version of what she meant to them and there’s a very common denominator. That’s all we get to take with us is what we leave behind.
I love that you’re inviting us to go there because we’re not going there. Legacy might be considered in some circles such a man word. We talk about legacy and what they’re leaving behind, but holy crap… women are the ones. But whatever. We’re not going to get into that because we know and we don’t have to show it off. I just love that you’re doing it and inviting us to play in that arena, because that just sets us up for a whole different way of looking at things. I, for one, am grateful, as I know everyone at the event is going to be – and everyone whose life you touch. So that’s what it’s called on Eventbrite: Let Her Speak?
Let Her Speak Women’s Summit.
They can find you on social media under the handle Let Her Speak?
On both Facebook and Instagram it’s at Let Her Speak US. But if you just search for Let Her Speak you’ll see the logo of the profile of the woman with the flowers behind her.
So tell me how newlywed life is. I’ve been married 32 years so I don’t even remember.
We already kind of had a married mindset when we moved in together, so it’s basically now we have a joint banking account.
But your wedding pictures were just beautiful. You’re just still wearing the happy, which is always so nice. I love it.
I actually used a little bit of what I use with Let Her Speak. It was a very small intimate gathering of just family and friends. We just shared stories and ate food.
So if we looked you up in the dictionary, what would it say?
No modesty. I can’t let you play with modesty. Everyone’s always lifting you up and speaking you up.
Well the first thing that came to mind was “Someone who tries as hard as she can to do everything that she can possibly do.”
Extremely accurate. That’s why the say the first answer that comes to your mind is the right answer. And I really do see that, Catherine. I know you’ve been a blessing for me and for everyone that I met at Let Her Speak that we’ve kept in touch. It’s been, what, a year now almost? It’s just been… everybody says the same thing. I think you just have this light about you that you’re just bringing everybody with you and all you want to do is shine your light and help them shine their light and I think it’s just a beautiful thing.
So, before we go… I want to thank you again for being her. I want to know – and you’re still young so this will make more sense than if I had to look back to 18. If you were giving advice to your 18-year-old self, what would you say?
I would say that in order to really evolve and grow, you’re going to have to be okay with facing a lot of difficult obstacles. Stay the course and it will all make sense in the end.
Powerful. I love it. I’m waiting for your book. I’m putting it out there because I know how the universe is. But guys, see? This is what I mean. Please look up Catherine and look up Let Her Speak and try to get involved and try to find out what she’s doing. Anybody in Knoxville, in Tennessee… anywhere! Listen. I’m in South Florida and it’s only a 12 ½ hour drive. It’ll be worth it. Thank you not only for being here but for what you do and for how you support and encourage us and always push us to more.