harris e1488915573658
harris e1488915573658

Leadership Lessons Every Startup Founder Should Know

La’Wana Harris went from small town girl to leadership in a Fortune 500 company. She gives Lioness readers leadership lessons to live by.
La’Wana Harris
La’Wana Harris

The likelihood of a small town girl from rural North Carolina growing up and traveling the world, functioning in a global leadership role for a Fortune 500 company, engaging in international philanthropic projects and launching her own business sounds like the makings of a modern day fairy tale. Being surrounded by women who modeled strong leadership despite facing insurmountable challenges gave La’Wana Harris the strength push past the fear of failure and unleash the Lioness within her.

This month Harris shares pearls of wisdom for leaders that she has gleaned from her grandmother. She said she is grateful for the many phenomenal women that have mentored and supported her in her professional and personal endeavors.

Harris is committed to helping others achieve their best selves. She is an author, coach, speaker, humanitarian and global leadership development professional. She is the founder of America by Train Books, a partnership with Amtrak that recently launched an illustrated children’s book series celebrating the rich history associated with our railroads. She has also authored an inspirational children’s book series featuring her grandson, Jaden Israel, as the main character. “You Are Still Good” is her most recent book and shares a powerful testimony of faith and hope. She is also active in numerous non-profit organizations, and serves as a passionate activist with 26 years’ experience in facilitating civic engagement and collective action. Here are leadership lessons she shared with Lioness.

  1. I can because they did

“If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Sir Isaac Newton

Like many small town girls, I had very humble beginnings.  However, I never experienced lack as a child due to the ingenuity and uncanny leadership of my grandmother. I can’t help but smile when I think about my grandmother who only had a 6th grade education, but to this day remains one of the smartest people I have ever known. My grandmother taught me many lessons about life, leadership and goal setting. My level of success and ability to do things that my grandmother never had a chance to do is a direct result of standing on my grandmother’s shoulders during my formative years.

As a leader, it is imperative that we recognize and celebrate those around us who pave the way for us to soar to heights that they may never obtain. It is also our responsibility to then seek out budding leaders that are coming along behind us and sow into their future success.

  1. Cultivating an inclusive environment is essential

My grandmother was a well respected leader in her home, church and community.  She demonstrated the power of building a strong sense of community and belonging where everyone was appreciated. Her home was always open to anyone who needed a place to stay or a warm meal.  She even bought a van and created her own version of “Meals on Wheels” for children in the community.  She supported, challenged and mentored a diverse range of people from all walks of life with open arms. Everyone was her “favorite” and she treated everyone with a high level of respect.  Known throughout the community as “Mrs. Mildred,” she remains a revered member of her small town years after her passing.

She instilled the need for inclusive leadership behaviors in me as a child. Inclusive leaders have a competitive advantage as entrepreneurs in an increasingly diverse marketplace. We want people to want to work for us and with us.  We also want to create a culture where people can be themselves, celebrate their differences and tap into their creative genius.

  1. Be honest and relevant

Phrases like “authentic self” and “keep it real” have been in the forefront of leadership discussions in recent years.  I encourage you to add another layer to being real—be honest and relevant.

My grandmother went on to be with the Lord before the social media age.  She did not experience trending topics, hash tags, or going viral.  But she understood with her innate wisdom the critical need to lead with a high level of connectedness to people within her sphere of influence.  She would conduct business with everyone from local vegetable farmers to investment brokers.  Everyone knew her and she was treated like the unofficial mayor of the township.

My grandmother and I would go to local farms and “pick on half” which means you get to keep half of what you pick out of the farmer’s fields in exchange for helping them harvest their crops. She was teaching her valuable skills as she operated her own bartering service. I still cringe when I remember those hot summer days spent picking peas in white five gallon buckets.

My grandmother was a shrewd business woman despite her lack of formal education.  She not only ran the affairs of her home and her local church; but she also dabbled with investments.  She introduced me to simple financial principles and had me invest in CD’s, savings bonds and annuities before I graduated high school.

One day after leaving the bank, Grandma Mildred looked at me and said, “Wana, you’ve got to always have your long money and your short money.  Your long money is the money that you put away where it can grow and make more money.  You have to put it somewhere that is not easy to get to if you get in a pinch.  Now your short money is money you save or invest , but it needs to be where you can get to it quickly if you really need it.”  She had a very simple, pragmatic way of explaining pretty much anything.

As entrepreneurs we wear many hats and interact with a broad array of people.  We will have stronger connections and greater success when we operate as our true selves and allow others around us to do the same.  Authentic leadership is a valuable attribute in today’s climate, and relevance to our audience amplifies our impact.

This is only a portion of the legacy that my grandmother passed on that has made me the leader I am today. Here are some ideas I’d like to pass on to the next generation of Lionesses.

  1. Honor your faith and values without compromise.
  2. Treat people with respect and help others celebrate their uniqueness.
  3. Make relevant and valuable contributions to future leaders.
  4. Challenge leaders to push themselves to the point of discomfort and then lean in to that discomfort and keep moving.
  5. Embody the “Servant Leadership” philosophy.
  6. Encourage scores of people to unapologetically own their destiny while empowering others to do the same.

About the author

Lioness Staff


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  • Congratulations on such a telling and thought-provoking writing and story. I will share this with my college students. We are now discussing the subject, Diversity, and I think this is a good piece to share.

  • What a great example and powerful woman for you to have as a grandmother. Also, you show that you paid attention to her and now you are providing direction and guidance in a great way. This is great !!!

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