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Doing What You Love, with Suzie Williford

Doing What You Love, with Suzie Williford

Episode 140: Doing What You Love, with Suzie Williford

Getting her start in a male-dominated kitchen and bath industry, Suzie Williford, Executive Vice President of Industry Relations & Chief Strategy Officer of National Kitchen and Bath Association, soon realized how important it is to love the work she does. From answering phones to executive leadership, Suzie talks about the hardships she faced, the importance of mentorship, as well as the progress the kitchen and bath industry made in closing the gender gap. She also opens up about the feeling of inadequacy at work and how to find a career path you are truly passionate about.

Episode Transcript

00:13 Kristy Wallace: Welcome to the Ellevate Network Podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace with my co-host, Maricella Herrera.

00:20 Maricella Herrera: Feel like we need a ding-ding, some sort of musical... [chuckle]

00:25 KW: Every time I open up the podcast, I want to say something different, and yet I continue to revert back to, "Hey, Maricella, how's it going? How are you doing today?" [chuckle] We've been in three hours of meetings so far this day today, and yet here I'm like, "So hey." This is our catch-up time.

[overlapping conversation]

00:43 MH: Right, we haven't actually talked of anything else that hasn't been work for the last three hours.

00:48 KW: Yes.

00:50 MH: But hi.

00:51 KW: Hi. Oh, my goodness. So I am feeling a little overwhelmed right now that 2018 is almost behind us.

01:02 MH: Don't, don't get me started.

01:04 KW: Yeah.

01:07 MH: This year has been... I don't even know what this year has been, that's I think the best way I can put it.

01:14 KW: It's been a year of many ups and many downs.

01:18 MH: It's been a roller coaster for sure.

01:20 KW: Which is hard to navigate.

01:21 MH: The cyclone is just not...

01:24 KW: And many whirly-cues and flips and all that stuff that I think as a human being it makes it really hard to know how to show up every day because it's so... It fluctuates, life fluctuates so much, so it's... But it's also been a time where I've seen people in my life, people I admire, that I work with, and that are my friends and family really show up in some meaningful ways, and I've been inspired by what they've done. So I don't know, it's... 2018 is definitely one for the books, but it's almost over.

02:03 MH: I feel like we say that every year, though, but I feel like this year has been about showing up. I feel like the last couple of years have been interesting, have been a whirlwind, have been full of ups and downs, but I feel like this year we're seeing more people show up, more things happening, and that's good, that gives me hope. [chuckle]

02:34 KW: Yeah. The conversation has really evolved into one... In a day and age with social media and more transparency, it's really evolved into a conversation of not... You can't just be the outside observer, you have to take action around the things you care about, and add your voice to the conversation, and really being advocate for others. Which is important because not everything that happens in our world may directly impact us due to our geography, or our demographic, or our interests, but it more than likely impacts someone that we care about. And so how can we support them and vice versa? So that is an emotional roller coaster, just like the year has been that roller coaster of understanding for yourself what is your voice, and how to use that voice, and how to move outside of your comfort zone because a lot of this is tough, and a lot of the rhetoric has been tough.

03:42 KW: But yeah, I agree, we are hopeful and we are honored. For some of you, we are honored to be surrounded by many really spectacular women in the Ellevate community and women leaders in our society. And on the podcast today, we have one of them, Suzie Williford, who is the president of the National Kitchen and Bath Association, which may not be what you immediately think of in the context of this conversation, but Suzie's story is really inspiring. She talks a lot about the discrimination she faced earlier in her career, some of the challenges that went alongside of that, and the ways that she's really looking to transform career opportunities and workforce development in ways we're not typically thinking about it.

04:41 KW: The National Kitchen and Bath Association spans everything from designers to the workers who are installing baths or doing a lot of the labor, and that's a really important conversation to have because each one of those individuals plays such a key role in that whole industry, in the progression of that industry, in making the impact that many of us want to see in the two most important rooms of our house, the kitchen and bath. But it doesn't come in one size or shape; it's not so uniform. And it's understanding how individuals show up in their best way in the workplace, and how do we define that narrative of what success in work looks like, in professional success, and really create a more inclusive economy for all people to do what they love to do and overcome those barriers.

05:41 MH: I love it. I can't wait to hear the conversation. I can't wait for every one to listen to what you guys talked about, and listen to some of Suzie's stories and some of her... And all of her experience 'cause I think it's gonna be really valuable. And as you were saying all these things, and as we're talking about this year, and people showing up, and redefining success, and... Which you know, funnily enough, that's how we began the year, that was the theme we started with in 2018, redefining success.

06:13 KW: Full circle.

06:14 MH: I can't stop thinking about something I'm very excited about in 2019, which is we're already working towards our summit on June 21st, which is all about taking action, showing up, being an ally, showcasing different voices, and redefining the work culture, and redefining everything.

06:37 KW: Yeah, well, and the future of work, too, is evolving at such a fast rate that even the conversation of redefining work culture needs to start thinking about not just entrepreneurs but gig economies, and remote work, and many other nuances across the board, so it's an exciting time moving into 2019. We're hopeful, we're looking forward to engaging in this conversation, and we hope that you'll continue to join us. So we'd love to hear from you. Tweet at us, EllevateNtwk, or shoot us an email We'd love to hear from you and know your thoughts, what you're looking forward to in 2019.


07:34 KW: Suzie, thank you so much for joining us today on the Ellevate Podcast.

07:39 Suzie Williford: My pleasure.

07:40 KW: It's really great to have you here, and I am so excited to hear about your story. Would you mind sharing a little bit about what got you to where you are today?

07:49 SW: Oh, it's been a very fun and long road, kinda by accident. I started in the business, this industry, when I was 24 years old. My family bought a business and it was bought for the legacy of the men; it was my brother, my brother-in-law, all the guys. And they asked me to come answer the phones because in those days that's what we did. [chuckle] And they paid me $2 an hour, and I answered the phones. And 18 years later, all the guys were gone, and I was running the business. So it was me and my dad, and that's where I got started and where I cut my teeth and learned the business. It was fun.

08:32 KW: And what is the business?

08:35 SW: I'm in the kitchen and bath industry. So we do anything related to the two most important rooms in the house: Plumbing, hardware, countertops, cabinets, appliances, all of it. It's a wonderful industry, and the industry is very comprehensive because it's design, and it's construction, and it's remodeling, and it's fabrication, so we touch all aspects of it.

09:00 KW: And how has that industry evolved over the years? [chuckle] It sort of feels... You would imagine, oh, we've always had kitchens and baths, or at least in the modern day, but I know that there's been a lot of just innovation and evolution that's happened.

09:14 SW: It's amazing. And there was a time where kitchens and baths were just... You got what you got. And then as it started to grow, many beautiful products started coming. And then it became all different levels, everything from the reasonably priced to the extreme high end. Some of the bathrooms that I've had the pleasure of doing when I was still selling in the industry and actually in the showrooms... I now am with the Association. It was amazing how the industry and the products, technology, all the wonderful things evolved.

09:52 SW: And then the other thing about it is how the industry has evolved in the world of men and women, because in the very beginning it was more dominated by men. I had a lot of funny stories that happened to me back when I started probably about four or five years in the business, and I had learned it, learned every part of the business. And two gentlemen came into my store, and they wanted to know something about some plumbing. And when I walked up to them on the counter they said... They looked at me and they said, "Would you please go get one of the men that can help us with our problem?" And I said, "Sure." I wasn't gonna embarrass him. So I walked back in the back and I got a guy by the name of David Rodriguez, and I said, "David, would you please come up and help these guys?" So I went and stood there as if I was going to learn. So they asked David the question and David was like, "I have no idea what you're talking about. Suzie, could you help them?" And I did. And that in my mind made me realize that we had a place. And so I made sure that everyone in my business, men and women, were trained alike, and we started to really gather steam in this industry. And so now for women, it's a very strong workplace. It's a great career for women.

11:13 KW: And do you see that across the... You're saying within the industry there's much more gender parity that's occurring. Does that also happen within some of the sub-specialties, like you talked about there's contractors, and there's plumbing, and there's design, and... Or is it a little bit... Women tend to go into some more of the specialized areas?

11:34 SW: Well, there was a time where women spent more time in design. Now you can find them easily in the manufacturing parts in corporate America where they're running some of these larger companies. In the skilled labor part, you'll find women in the trades some. I think it's going to be growing, it needs to grow. It needs to grow a lot because there's so many of the trades that women are capable of doing, they just haven't quite yet got comfortable in it. And there is such a shortage of skilled labor in the US.

12:07 KW: I know...

12:08 SW: We wanna have all these jobs here in our country, but we've gotta have people to do the job.

12:12 KW: Yeah.

12:13 SW: So there are a lot of opportunities for women in the trades.

12:17 KW: And I'm sure it's also difficult for women to look at an industry that may not be diverse and see a place for them there, and so it's how do we tell the stories of the women that are already working in those areas and provide that inspiration and that welcoming environment?

12:35 SW: Well, it is an inspirational industry. Once it's in your blood, I have to tell you, I've had the best time. And it's easy to get into, which is another great part about it.

12:46 KW: As the head of the Association, what are some of your key initiatives?

12:51 SW: Well, I'm actually not the CEO of the Association, and I work for a visionary; his name is Bill Darcy, and he's the CEO. But as CSO and EVP, our association is focused on membership, certification, and marketplace, and I break that down by saying of course we wanna grow our membership and make sure that we deliver the very best benefits to all of our members to help them grow themselves individually and to grow their businesses. And then under certification, we do have a certification for our designers, and we're growing what we're offering so that we can help people gain the credibility that they need, they understand better how to do the right kitchen and bath. It's a lot of stuff behind the walls, it's a lot of electrical stuff, very expensive investment, so it's great to have a professional.

13:48 SW: And then marketplace is we own the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show, which brings the industry together. It is a huge show and well-attended, everybody can see product, learn, have a great time. But also marketplaces, events that we do throughout the year, regionally and in Canada, and we've recently started what we call Global Connect, where we are taking our association outside of the country to start connecting the kitchen bath industry worldwide. We've been to Shanghai, London twice, Milan. We are planning a trip now to go to IMM Cologne in January and to Paris.

14:30 KW: Why do you think that's so important to have this community both domestically and globally as well?

14:38 SW: Because it's a global industry. A lot of the products that are made here are exported over there, a lot of the products that are made in other countries are imported here. The design world likes innovative products, and that means some of the design world over there wants to see what we have and vice versa, as well as designers that wanna come across the pond to our show and see what we have to offer. Interestingly enough, when we were in London last year, two designers came over to our show and realized that it was easier for them to buy product through the US to ship to their jobs in Russia and other countries than it was for them to buy it in their own country, so it's... We know it's global, and we know that the world's getting smaller every day, and we've also... Through our website they can connect with people in the industry and throughout the world. So we're really excited about that initiative.

15:36 KW: I love that because it's... Here you're talking about interdisciplinary within the industry, working together, driving innovation, how that taps into a global marketplace, opportunities, growing businesses, driving those relationships forward, and it's really this microcosm of just progress and impact and serving customers, which is obviously supported by the work that you're doing and the platform that you've created.

16:08 SW: It's important because we often say the kitchen is the heart of the home. And when I was still in the showroom part of the world, I always would tell the people I worked with, "You know, if you do a good bathroom, every morning somebody's gonna get up and take a shower and they're gonna think of you and think, wow. But if you do a bad bathroom, they'll never forgive you [chuckle] because every day when they get up they won't like it. Same thing with the kitchen. The kitchen used to be a place where people cooked. But now the kitchen is where they do homework, and they visit, and where parties are. They surf the web, they pay their bills. The kitchen is now just another living area in the house, so it's very important that it's done by a professional with great products that'll last. And we do... We're very proud we get to bring all these people together.

16:58 KW: Wow, that's amazing. As someone who's thinking about redoing my kitchen, I'm loving this conversation. You shared earlier about your leadership journey, and which is a powerful one, and starting within the family, and how you got to where you are today, and I'm just amazed by what you've accomplished. But what are some of the qualities that you see in yourself and in other leaders that are really helping leaders to thrive and to grow?

17:32 SW: Hard work. Nothing substitutes hard work. You can have a master's degree, you can be tremendously educated, but if you don't have the passion and the fire, it doesn't work. I think that I found a passion, I was lucky enough to find a passion, and that was the kitchen and bath industry. And then I kinda got double lucky because I got involved in association that I realized if I stayed involved in it and volunteered my time, whatever I gave I would get back tenfold, which became very true. And so I volunteered, I volunteered on a chapter level, and then on the national level, and in 2009 I was lucky enough to be president of this sizeable association. And then when I decided I was done working in the business itself, I was lucky enough to be hired by the Association, so now I have the opportunity to really give back and make sure that we deliver the benefits that I know people need and to make them grow. If one person can have as good a ride as I've had just because I touched them, my life will be worthwhile.

18:55 KW: And I really appreciate that, it's something we don't talk enough about when we talk about strong leaders, which is that compassion that understanding and the desire to help others because unfortunately today, not enough women are getting into these positions of influence and power and leadership and the more that we see the women like you who are there doing the work to get other women up to change an industry to support all people, it's powerful and that it can really create that change in that evolution that so many of us are looking for.

19:32 SW: I think part of it is, is that in our quest sometimes to be equal, which if you go back, and I know that there are many cases where people still don't think there's quite the equality, but if you go back to the 35 years I did to where we are today, it's a big change, and I think that we are progressing and I hope that women, especially women, never forget the responsibility to mentor and develop because I was lucky enough along the way to have some people that helped me and developed me and taught me how to do the right things, and I think that we have a responsibility and it's not just for young women but young women and young men to take what we've learned and give back and develop them so they can... So, they can progress because you hire people, you look at their resumes and you look at their education, their job experience. That's all very important, but when someone becomes part of your team, they have a responsibility to come to work every day and do their job but they're giving you a good portion of their life. So you have a responsibility to them, to develop them and help them and nurture them to be successful in your business, whatever it is. And if you do that, you'll have a dynamic team.

21:00 KW: As you were saying that, I had this mental picture of... And I so agree this concept of, the employee and the team and they give... So it's a third of our life, at least in terms of hours that we're spending on the job. So, here you're having such an influence there as an industry leader, as an employer, but then on the flip side, and we think when we're home, how much time we spend in the bathroom or the kitchen. And so you are just like in there you're touching every aspect of...

21:29 SW: Like I said, it's been so much fun, I've been so lucky.

21:32 KW: I mean my goodness it's like they'll never, they'll never get enough of you.

21:37 SW: I don't cook much anymore though, so it's kind of like just a blessing to be able to work with all these people and our association is very big, we have 14,000 member companies, which represent about 50,000 people in the industry, and when we have our show, we co-locate with the International Builders Show from NAHB, which is another dynamic show. So this year in February, we will have right at million square feet of exhibit space. You can imagine how many products that is, and we should have about 100,000 people that come through. So it's a really great opportunity for these people to network and find opportunity to buy new product, meet new people. Learn, both of us put on great conferences. So it is, for me, like the Super Bowl, it's the most fun that I have getting to see old friends and people that have helped me along the way and people that I've helped along the way.

22:39 KW: Can consumers go to the show.

22:41 SW: No.

22:42 KW: Okay.

22:42 SW: It is a trade only show.

22:44 KW: Got it, got it.

22:46 SW: But you could maybe... I could maybe help you come... You got it in...

22:47 KW: I mean I've got it in, I mean I have it in now, it's all about the network right. I mean now I can come in...

[overlapping conversation]

22:51 SW: It's a worth to see. It's a worth to see.

22:56 KW: Oh my goodness, I can only imagine, so much fun. You mentioned earlier in our conversation, some of the challenges you faced earlier in your career, particularly around being a woman in this industry, but what's the biggest career challenge you faced and how did you overcome it?

23:14 SW: Not having an Education, unlike most people that end up in the C-suite. I'm a high school graduate so I have no college whatsoever. Now I was lucky enough that my dad was VP of a large corporation, a very large corporation and when he retired, we worked together for 18 years. He gave me my own master's in business, which was a huge advantage for me. But when you get out into the work place, not having an education is a bit challenging. And I overcame it with extra enthusiasm always worked a little harder to learn what I was doing and made sure that I volunteered and gave back because a resume is more than just your education. The first two or three opportunities I think that really matters. But then once you get the work behind you, no one should ever be afraid to say, "I don't have an education, because you can get wherever you wanna get without an education, it's gonna be a little harder in the beginning, but with hard work and a resume that you build with volunteerism, understanding your community, being a part of it. You can get anywhere you wanna get. I'm a living proof.

24:27 KW: Thank you for saying that. I mean, thank you so much, we hear so often from women in the community and beyond that just an ongoing feeling of either inadequacy or insecurity because I don't have an advanced degree or I didn't go to a top school, or maybe I didn't graduate or all of these I didn't, I didn't, I didn't and I don't. And we hold ourselves back by saying, "Okay, because you didn't reach some determined by whom, a level that that means you're not going to succeed or you're unworthy and that's not true and you are a living proof of that.

25:06 SW: You are so... Let me tell you how right you are. When you ask me what my biggest challenges, of course, I know exactly what it is, but I had to hesitate for a minute to see if I had the guts to say into this microphone that I didn't have an education, now I've already gotten where I wanna go and I served as president of our association. I've had an unbelievable ride. But even today, I had to breathe a little bit before I said that, because I thought maybe somebody would think less of me, that's wrong and... It's just all wrong it's, it is important to get an education, but your education can be on-the-job training, it can be a college degree, it can be vocational training VO-Tech that's... That's why we have the shortage in the skilled labor right now is because everybody felt they needed to have a college education, that's what they're told.

26:00 SW: Consequently, you've got kids coming out of school anywhere from 52 to $100,000 or more worth of college debt with the general degree making $35,000 and they'll be paying for it until they're 50 years old, where you can get a kid that goes to VO-Tech and comes out with an apprenticeship, and is making $60,000 and no debt. So I think we can't... We've got to change the landscape and the perception and you've got to realize that, yes, that's very important to do that. And I made sure, both my kids went to college and got degrees that meant something and paid off for them. No general degrees in our house. Because if you're gonna go spend that money come out with something you really wanna go do, and if not, just don't do it for the sake of doing, you get some job experience and work hard, and you'll get wherever you wanna go. Do what you love most importantly, do what you love and the rest will take care of itself.

26:54 KW: Yes, yes. Oh, I so agree with that. So what is... I would love to end. There's so much great stuff in here, but I would love to end with advice that you maybe have for some of our listeners, maybe those who wanna get into the kitchen and bath industry, or even just find that purpose, that doing what you love, how do you... So how do you find that? Because often times, we've been fortunate. It sounds like you and myself that it's found us in many ways, but that's not always the case. And what are some ways to get out there and test the waters, if you will, and really find that passion?

27:35 SW: Well, I think everybody instinctively knows what they like and what they don't like. Some people really love numbers and some people really love reading and some people love art. Find something that you like, if you're a people person do something that brings you to people, whether it's sales, if you're a person who loves the hunt, sales is a great place to go.

27:58 SW: Our industry is really nice to get into because it is so diversified and you can find so many things to do because one thing that's interesting about the kitchen and bath designers is there's a lot of people that start young. We have a group that's called 30 Under 30, and it's not just designers, it's CEOs and all these people in our industry that are young and choosing the industry at a young age, which I'm so happy about. But we also are a great second career industry because it allows a lot of freedom. It's great for working mothers. If you're gonna be in the design community, you pretty well can work out of your house or work for a company. It's a little freer. I think that to find your passion, you have to really stop and be quiet and think about what it is that you know you love and don't fool yourself.

28:52 SW: Don't try to say that I can be a gymnast, I'm done, I'm not gonna be a gymnast. You have to find something that you know you're capable of doing, but more importantly, something that you know you love to do and when you figure that out, then what you have to do is divide it into the sections of the industry, because there's so many different industries that offer opportunities. And try it, try it, but if you don't like it, don't stay. I think there are so many people that get into something and they're afraid to walk away from it because they, it's paying the bills or they're afraid that if they leave, they'll fail. It's easy to try nothing and succeed. So if you don't like what you're doing, try something different because don't waste a day of your career. Don't waste any time doing something you don't like, find something you love, do it and do it well, and the rest will take care of itself.

30:04 KW: You mentioned your two children and when you came in earlier you... You talked about your daughter, as she also listens to the podcast, which I'm really excited about. What would they say if I were to ask them why they're so proud of you, what would they say.

30:22 SW: Maybe because... Oh, that's very interesting. I'm a good person. I would hope that that's what they would say. I don't... They don't need to think I'm smart or successful, I just want them to think I'm good. And we raised good people, so I love that both my kids, give back. They both volunteer, they're both successful, they turned out being really good kids and I'm proud of them, and I hope that they're proud of me just because I'm a good person.

30:56 KW: I'm sure that they are. Thank you, Susie, it was really great to have you on the Ellevate podcast.

31:01 SW: This was so much fun. I appreciate you having me.

31:07 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out, subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast, on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @EllevateNTWK, that's Ellevate Network. And become a member, you can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website,, that's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E Network dot com. And special thanks to our producer, Catherine Heller. She Rocks. And to our voice-over artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much and join us next week.


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