Who is Tamara Nall?
My name is Tamara Nall. I'm the CEO of The Leading Niche – we are a data analytics and IT company that focuses on financial services and health. Our clients are federal agencies and commercial clients that have real issues that they need to have solved. We operate in about 17 different US states and 12 African countries, and we've been around for 10 years.
I am a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a wife, a woman, an African-American, a mentor, a mentee, a friend, a cousin. And at the end of the day I'm a very passionate person about whatever I do -almost to a flaw. I’m so passionate, in fact, that people don't know what’s serious and what's a priority, but I always feel like you only have one life to live, and in that one life you have to do the best that you can. And that passion often leads to perfection to a flaw, so maybe 100% isn't necessary, maybe 99% will do. I use that in all of my decision-making, all of my communication, and I'm just a person always striving to be ethical and to be better.
Tell us about your career journey.
My career journey just really comprises two different places. I was at a management consultant firm – Booz and Company – for about nine years. There, I advanced pretty quickly and became a Senior Associate, almost Principal, which is one level from partner. And that place really drove who I am as a person and as a consultant because I had so many opportunities to support different customers, and I saw how Senior Executives and Board Members made decisions. But then I got to a point where I was working 20 hours a day and I thought, ”My goodness, if I'm going to work that hard, why not be an employer? Why not build my own wealth? Why not build my own entity?”
So I actually resigned and started The Leading Niche, and that’s been the second part of my career. And those two places have driven everything that I’ve done professionally and The Leading Niche is pretty much the continuation of my work at Booz and Co. Being a consulting firm, helping clients answer their hardest questions, employing people – which I take very seriously – because I know they depend on me and the success of the company to have a lifestyle, and send their children to school, and go on vacation. So a lot of people work at a number of places, but for me it was one company and then The Leading Niche.
What are your top accomplishments?
My most important accomplishments? That is such a hard question because I really feel that I am accomplished because of God – I feel like he's done everything for me in my life. But if I had to pick three, number one would be starting The Leading Niche. There are so many people that start companies that aren’t successful within the first few years, so to be able to have a company that’s thriving, that’s been around for ten years, that’s made the Inc. 5000 list over and over again, that’s made the ICIC 100, that’s made the Fortune 50 Future NY Smart CEO, is an accomplishment for me. It’s not easy being an entrepreneur; it’s not easy trying to manage so many different moving parts. And for that I’m very thankful.
The second accomplishment would be a client that we had in Nigeria. A lot of people think, ‘Nigeria’ or ‘Africa’, and they think that it’s so difficult. But we were able to help a client there, win the work, and do well. We beat a very large consulting firm to win this work, and as a small company – which is like a fly on the wall – that was able to come in and win, and win against a company that probably has over 150 offices, was great. And we won that work because we decided to hire a third of the workforce locally. So it was an 18-member team, and we hired 6 of them locally, and we were able to mentor them. They were able to participate in senior level discussions, and after the contract was over, they either took jobs with the customer, with the government, or with investment firms. It was gratifying to know that we built local capacity in a difficult environment; in an environment that a lot of people weren’t willing to go to, and we were able to do it and be successful. And our client was able to survive the financial crisis there, so we were really excited about that.
My third accomplishment would be getting into Harvard Business School. There weren’t a lot of people who supported me outside of my parents at the time, because people think of Harvard Business School and think, ‘this place – how do you get there, given the competition?’ And it was the only place that I applied. I decided I was not going to apply to any other schools. That I had to get into Harvard Business School. And the reason why I only applied there was because when I was at Booz and Company there were a few African American Partners, and all but one graduated from the Harvard Business School. So as an African American woman who worked at Booz, I was like, ‘Wow, if I want to be Partner one day, the only place I could go to was the Harvard Business School or I would never make partner.” Because there weren’t a lot of us there. And so while other people said, ‘You know what you need to apply to other schools as a backup.’ I said ‘No, because if I don’t get into Harvard Business School I could never make Partner’. And so I applied, and I dedicated three months to head-down essays, GMATs, putting in the application, and I got in. One of ten thousand applications, one of 900 accepted. One of 60 blacks there that year. So that is a huge accomplishment, particularly when I didn’t have a lot of support, and I had a lot of doubters outside of my family.
How has your background influenced your success?
My background has had a tremendous impact on my success. I grew up as an African American in the South, so I spent most of my time either in Birmingham, Alabama or Atlanta, Georgia. And I grew up as one of two daughters of a pastor, who only wanted daughters. He didn't want any boys, surprisingly, because he knew that he traveled all the time and that the two girls could spend a lot of time with their mother. And so I spent most of my time in church. While other kids were playing, and having play dates, and going on trips, we spent that time in church – and it was really, really ingrained in us that you only have one life so you have to do the best you can while you're here. And so that has impacted me in terms of a lot of my decision-making. Every decision that I make is about ‘Is it ethical, is it right, are you treating people with love and compassion, are you treating them how you want to be treated?’ That you have to be the better person in a situation even if you weren't at fault. So I use that sometimes – probably too much, probably extremely – in my company, but it just is who I am. My sister and I were the first to do a lot of things. For instance, we were the first African Americans to attend a private school, and that's when I realized that people are different, and that there is racism out there.
I'll never forget. She and I were taking a sip from a water fountain in the school, and a little boy walked up and he said ‘Ew, I'll never drink that water fountain because,’ then he used the N-word. And we didn't know what that was, but I knew it was something different, I knew it was something strange. So I went home and asked my mother what that word was, and to see the look on her face and to see that she had to now explain to her daughters – who were like six and seven years old – what the N-word was, and explain that sometimes people view them differently but if you love them, then maybe you can change them through your love. So that’s how I was always raised.
I have to break these stereotypes because I'm a good person and my sister is a good person. So that situation, even though what happened was when I was six or seven, has impacted me. And in every environment, I probably do put a lot of stress on myself because I'm often the only African-American, or the only woman, or the youngest, and I always want to prove to people that just because you're a different demographic doesn’t mean that you’re not exceptional. And that desire to be perfect, to show people that I'm a good person and that we are good people, probably is throughout The Leading Niche. There are times people come to me and they’ll say something and I’m like, ‘what’s the solution, how can we get better?’ Maybe what they gave me was good, maybe what they gave me works, but if it's not a hundred percent, I’m like ‘let’s take it back to the drawing board and try to improve it.’ So I'm always constantly looking for ways to be perfect, to improve, to show people that at the end of the day we're humans. We breathe, we love, we sleep, we eat. And if we can find that commonality and take all of that and ball it up into something good, what kind of impact can we make? In our community, in our world, and wherever we are and whatever we’re coming in contact with.
What are your thoughts on the P.O.L.I.N.G.® Principles?
When I think about the P.O.L.I.N.G.® Principles, all of them resonate with me. But I’ll just focus on several. The first is ‘Others’ because it really is around helping someone else, mentoring someone, and we’ve had several situations – many situations – where that’s been the case. At The Leading Niche, we have a program called the Emerging Leaders Program, where we take youths from underserved communities and we allow them to work on real work to develop their skills.
There was a young lady who worked with me who had never worn a business suit, who had never had to put together a professional email, and I took her under my wing and mentored her. She followed me to my meetings, I would ask her opinion about certain topics, I let her do research, and she really developed as a person – so much so that when she left our company, she moved from government assistance, she actually took on a lead role at a non-profit, and grew within that branch to second in command. The thought of her leading a non-profit was just great, and to know that she started with our company. So I feel, as leaders, we have to really focus on that component of the profiling.
‘Others’ is so important because we all should mentor someone else. There’s always been others who’ve been responsible for each of our success – my success. So what kind of leader would I be if I didn’t try to mentor someone else and help them? Also in the P.O.L.I.N.G.® framework, I really like ‘Grow’. Because for me that means not being comfortable with where you are. And at The Leading Niche, we really focus on that. I receive feedback from my employees, I expect feedback, and I don’t take it personally. We’re all trying to move towards a goal of growth, a goal of being a better employer, a goal of giving back to our community, and doing work for our customers. And so part of growing is to know when you can improve. Knowing and recognizing what has gone well, what hasn’t, and let’s all grow together. In fact, that’s one of our core values – growth comes from support. So the fact that that’s a part of the P.O.L.I.N.G.® framework and being able to think about that and think about ‘hey, I actually do implement that at my company,’ is one that resonates with me.
What challenges have you faced because of your background?
A situation where my background helped with my success, really shaped my academic career, was when I was at Emory University and found out about a dual degree in engineering with Georgia Tech, in Atlanta Georgia. And I went to my academic counselor and I was so excited – I had my entire five years mapped out – and I asked her about it and she told me it was not a good decision. Because I was a woman, and because I was African American, I should not pursue a business degree and an engineering degree. That women should really pursue Liberal Arts, and that was where I was going to be most successful.
First it was a shock. But then I looked at her in the face and I said to myself, ‘you really need to thank her. Thank her for her advice.’ So I told her, ‘Thank you’, and I walked out. And that night, I applied to the program and later found out that I was accepted. Had I listened to her, who knows what my career would be like. I’m sure it would have been a successful career, but a different career. Now I run a company and I’m in a cutting edge area – data analytics – everyone’s talking about data analytics. I’m not afraid of the numbers, I love the numbers, and I love getting to the mystery of the solution that’s needed for our customers and for our company.
And so I have to thank her for saying that I couldn’t do it. And that taught me that had I listened to her, that I would have had a different career, a different path. So sometimes you have to pave your own path, you can’t listen to what people say, you have to go with your gut and what you want, and you can’t let people drive you into stereotypical buckets that determine your fate. You just have be better and rise above it.
I feel that one of my missions in life is to break away at stereotypes, for that young person who wants to see somebody who they can look up to. Maybe they’ve never gotten the support that they need, but if they look at me and say wow, Tamara did it – she grew up in the South, she’s just a regular person at the end of the day, who pursued a very difficult academic background –then they can do it too. I also believe you can influence those who have the stereotypes. So for the counselor that told me I should focus on liberal arts rather than go a more technology driven academic career – when she sees that I’ve been successful, that I did it against her advice, maybe she’ll then change her mind about what a woman can do. And that a woman can pursue whatever career or academic passion that she has. And so what I do, I just try to break those stereotypes, whether those that have them, or those that need the encouragement and example to pursue what they want to.
(Challenges – Part 2)
As an entrepreneur, I actually was approached by a very large company for a very large deal. This deal could have really pivoted our company. And after I had the conversation, and during the conversation, I noticed something in my gut that didn’t feel right about it. It was something unethical. I couldn’t put my hands on it, but I knew it wasn’t right. And so I actually told the person ‘Let’s talk later, I need to think about it’, and I thought about it. I called my board and I said, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity that we’ve been looking at, and somebody has reached out to us to go after it. There’s something not right and I don’t think that we should. And in fact, we’re not going to pursue it, and we can’t pursue it until this key person has retired from their position.’
So that was a blow, because it would have been a perfect opportunity for the company. And I later found out, probably about 2 years ago, that this person was arrested and charged with bribery and illegal activity. And had been watched for two to three years, and I’m sure when we were having that conversation, the investigators were listening. And the sad thing is, there was some company out there that probably took him up on his offer, and for all I know can be entangled in this ongoing investigation. But because of my background of being taught ‘do the right thing,’ if it’s not right – if it keeps you up and you can’t sleep at night because you’re thinking about the consequences of what your decision is, don’t do it. And had I not had a moral compass, and a moral foundation, an ethical foundation that was taught to me as a child by my parents, who knows. Maybe I would have taken that offer and could be in prison right now for all I know.
But what I’ve learned is as an entrepreneur you have to know what your ethical compass is. You have to be able to say in a split second whether or not you’re going to do something right or wrong for the best interest of yourself, your family, your employees, and your community. Because people are going to approach you all the time with deals that sound good.
Who are your influences?
Besides my parents, there have been a number of mentors that have been influential to me. Some who know they have and some who don’t know – because there are some distant mentors that I’ve had. But the most recent ones I can think of were those who were at Booz and Company: Reggie Van Lee, Carla Elrod, Gerald Adolph. All of these were strong African American Partners at the firm that showed me that I could, and that I can. They were able to balance work and life. They contributed to their communities, they gave a lot of donations, and they mentored people. Yet they had goals to bring in business, develop intellectual capital, and I just looked at them in awe, like, ‘wow, they are able to balance so much.’ They actually took the time to set me aside; Carla would often take me aside and say, ‘now Tamara, you wear your emotion on your face. You really need to improve.’
She also told me something that was really small at the time, but it had a great impact. And it was how people viewed me. Coming from the South, I would always say ‘yes ma’am, no ma’am. Yes sir, no sir.’ She said, ‘Tamara, you’re in New York now, and we don’t say that. You call Partners – even though you’re at the bottom of the totem pole – you call them by their first name. And don’t use those salutations because they will form a perception of you and your intelligence.’ And I did see a difference. I would go in and mention someone by their first name, and it was just a different way that they approached me and my contributions. And so many people don’t have that opportunity to have someone that will sit them down and give them that type of advice; she also told me I needed to put a little makeup on sometimes because that helped with my look. So I just felt so fortunate to have somebody that was upfront with me and gave me the advice that I needed.
Reggie Van Lee really impacted me as well. When I got an offer from Booz, I did not accept it right away. Quite honestly, I wanted to think about it, as it was a big move from Georgia to New York. And he actually called my parents, and told them that ‘hey, we’re going to take care of her. She’s a very bright person and we really want her to come to the firm.’ And he kept his word. He invited me to a lot of events, he gave me opportunities when there were decisions that were made in the boardroom about who stayed at the firm and who didn’t. Who has contributed to the firm. He and Gerald Adolph were always there to defend me, and I know that my success at the company was because of those mentors that took that time, that were in the backroom – not only being a mentor but a champion.
See, everybody needs a champion. Because a mentor will give you advice, but who is at the table trying to navigate and help your career? Those are those unknown champions. So those three individuals would be people that have impacted me. And If I haven’t told them ‘Thank you’, I am going to call them after this and thank them. But they are the ones who impacted my life the most.
What career advice would you give your younger self?
The advice I would give my younger self is, ‘Go with your gut.’ In every decision that I’ve made that was the wrong decision, my gut told me not to do it. Whether it was hiring someone, whether it was a partnership, no matter what it was, that intuition – that voice within me – told me the right, or the wrong thing to do.
So in terms of a partnership, I’ve had one partnership in particular that didn’t go so well. Had I listened to that voice, had I listened to my gut, I probably would have picked another partner. I would have saved time for myself, as I would have for him. In terms of hiring, I have made some misfires. There have been a couple of people where the rush, the urgency to hire someone outweighed what my gut told me to do. And the person didn’t work out because at The Leading Niche, we are very communication driven. We want to talk through things, we want to make sure we’re moving towards the right goal, and in this particular case I hired somebody that was an individual contributor. And that is great in some environments, but at The Leading Niche, it isn’t. So going with my gut, and knowing our culture, would have told me – and did tell me – not to hire the person I did.
So I would just tell myself to just ‘go with your gut’, because your gut will never ever lead you wrong.