A Peek Inside Her Agenda: Melissa Dawn Simkins

Melissa Dawn Simkins is the President and CEO of the Velvet Suite and Founder of The She-Suite. As described by Melissa, The She-Suite is ‘a global leadership and lifestyle platform that empowers women and their managers. It’s designed to address the persistent pipeline gap by providing a personal brand playbook for women at every stage of their careers: from launch to lead to legacy.’ As a wife, mom, and CEO, she’s found purpose in all aspects of her life and desires for women in today’s workforce to do the same. Most recently, The She-Suite released its inaugural ‘Why Women Stay‘ report to highlight the important reasons women decide to stay in the workforce and provide organizations with methods to create more sustainable and joyful careers for women. We had the opportunity to talk with Melissa and dive deeper into her purpose with The She-Suite and career-shifting insights from her report.

Her Agenda: Who is Melissa Dawn Simkins? How would you describe yourself?

Melissa Dawn Simkins: I describe myself as a woman who is really in love with purpose. I’m someone who loves people. I love my family; I’m big on family. I love being a mom. I love being of service to the world by doing something that I feel is contributing to my purpose. I love working out. I’m a wife and a CEO, and I love my business, but I also love vacations, spas, Reese’s cups, and really funny videos on Instagram. I love all of those things. I’m always sending my friends funny videos on Instagram, and that’s a part of finding joy in everyday life because work can be heavy and life can be heavy. So yeah! That’s me.

Her Agenda: You mentioned service. I’d love to hear your inspiration for starting The She-Suite and the impact it’s made so far.

Melissa Dawn Simkins: I grew up in North Carolina. When I was about 14, Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Fund, wrote a book called ‘A Letter To My Children and Yours‘ and I remember in that book she said, ‘Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.’ So growing up in my community, I had a non-profit volunteer organization for my high school friends. It was something I did because I felt like it was instilled in me. Everything that I’ve done, I try to be mission-minded about it and make sure it makes an impact. The She-Suite came as an evolution from starting my business the Velvet Suite, the parent company. The whole genesis of Velvet Suite was around leadership innovation and how we redefine leaders. Most people who are experts will say only 10% of the world are born leaders. I never felt like I was ‘born to be a leader,’ but my whole passion and mission is ‘How do I expand the 10%? How do we show that leadership can be accessible to anyone?’ It comes down to how you think about yourself, your life, and your agency. Women became a part of Velvet Suite as I started to have more leadership-focused conversations with women, and they would mention all the things they’d love to do in their career but also have all these things they did in their lives, [having] passions outside of their corporate gig, and [feeling] torn/conflicted. So it became this passion of mine that evolved to help women and it was also helping me redefine my purpose beyond my career. The She-Suite was really birthed from my own challenge of defining my own ‘why’ and how to align my ‘why’ with my work and with my life. That was the genesis of The She-Suite.

Her Agenda: How did you go from having the idea of The She-Suite to actually executing it?

Melissa Dawn Simkins: It was lots of [iterations]. Lots of brand names. Before there was She-Suite there was ‘Women in the Spotlight’ and before that, it was ‘Win like a Champion.’ The first She-Suite Summit was actually called ‘Me Unlimited.’ So, there were all of these iterations of trial and error. Creating something, seeing if it worked or fell flat, getting discouraged, and then convincing myself to try again. It began to take wind when I started to go to my lab (my little bedroom) and master my craft. I had moved to Virginia and I remember saying ‘I want to build an online platform and community’ because prior to getting married, I was traveling and doing my own thing. Then I got married and became a wife, mother, and now grandmother, and I can’t just get up and get on a plane every week. I had to do something different, so I went to the lab and started working on a curriculum that I felt was helping me and could help other women manage through work and wellbeing. I found a developer. We were up at 4 am for like three months just building this platform. Scripting my own content and getting on video to package this curriculum, and that’s where it started. Now we’re a decade later – the accelerator was #Metoo. #Metoo happened right after we launched, so all of a sudden, companies were focused on women, and now a little over a decade later, we’re in 29 countries. It was my baby project because at the time, I was trying to conceive, and I was not having success. So I was like, this is my project so when I do have a baby, I will be present with my child.

Her Agenda:How does it feel to witness what your hard work and diligence have turned into and the number of people it’s impacted?

Melissa Dawn Simkins: I have to step back and look. Especially at the Summit, I had to really step back and appreciate it. I get so busy and sometimes don’t realize that what I’m fussing about or stressed about is what I prayed for ten years ago. I remember when I used to pray ‘if I can just get ten people to show up,’ and now 800 people from around the world show up. You have to step back and appreciate it. So thank you for asking this because it’s so important to do that.

Her Agenda: You hosted The She-Suite Summit on March 8, 2024. What are the biggest takeaways from your event?

Melissa Dawn Simkins: The theme was ‘Your Next Chapter: Success on Your Terms.’ So, conversations were centered around navigating change and transition. In life, that’s always happening! There was a session on hellos and goodbyes to talk about how to say hello to something new and how to say goodbye when closing a chapter. We had a really powerful conversation about some of the hidden barriers for women in the workplace, which led us into the topic of the Queen B syndrome. A lot of women have experienced work cultures where other women don’t support them because they want to make sure you earned it like they earned it. Then, a virtual room of 700-800 people broke out into tables of six and had a chance to talk about the things that keep them from their purpose and what are strategies they wished organizations knew to help women move their purpose forward. Everyone had a mission-vision-purpose we call it the MVP playbook. They got the chance to workshop throughout the day, building out their next chapter and defining a 90-day plan. We had over $10,000 worth of giveaways. It was so nice to give away flowers, and everyone got a 90-day subscription to the Calm app. We also gave away a 4-day trip to a beautiful resort in California. So it was beautiful to lavish on women – show appreciation, recognition, and honor their time. If it were up to me, I would give away more tickets than we sell because this is a seed. There was so much greatness about Summit.

Her Agenda: What do you think is the biggest mistake corporations are making when it comes to helping their women employees progress in their careers?

Melissa Dawn Simkins: They’re making a mistake by thinking all women are the same because we’re all very different. They’re making the mistake of not appreciating women can do a whole lot of things, but oftentimes, they are not fully actualized at work, and there are reasons for that. Number one: Women sometimes aren’t able to actualize their ‘why’ and how their ‘why’ fits into their work. Companies have to have the opportunity to understand insights around purpose for women better, help them accelerate their leadership their lifestyle, and sustain them because the burnout is real. People aren’t just burnt out because they’re overwhelmed. They’re burnt out because they’re not doing what fuels them.

Her Agenda: How do you encourage women even to have the courage to speak up about their ‘why’ to their employer because communicating it confidently plays a big part too?

Melissa Dawn Simkins: Everything in a relationship is trust. You build trust by consistency, authenticity, empathy, and time. A crisis most companies and institutions have is a trust crisis. So, individually – the company, the manager, and the director need to have trust and also have those key factors in place. It requires some foundation of trust to be in place for a conversation like this to happen. I think now more than ever, leadership is realizing they have to build these trusting relationships really understand their team members and who they are wholeheartedly.

Her Agenda: Can you discuss more about the insights from the ‘Why Women Stay’ Report and why corporations should have plans in place to make women want to stay?

Melissa Dawn Simkins: The ‘Why Women Stay’ Report was created because there’s a lot of conversation around women leaving their jobs, but we wanted to talk about what makes people feel connected to their work and why they choose to stay. Some of the insights I found eye-opening were that when women have a sense of purpose, they’re 3x more likely to stay because they really do feel connected to the work. For the women who have gone through our experience, which is a purpose-powered leadership accelerator, these women are significantly more likely to advance. Our big ‘why’ and mission is to reinvent the world of work for women in leadership specifically, and we focus on enterprises. That’s a huge mission that seems daunting to accomplish, but one of the things we see from organizations is that they’re mainly led by men, and women still do not often ascend to higher ranks of leadership. But if we’re seeing women more likely to advance and they’re tied into their ‘why’, which helps them sustain their career, then really we have a shot at changing the outcomes.

Her Agenda: To the point on purpose, why do you think it’s important for corporations to have plans in place to help women want to stay at work? What value would corporations be missing out on if they don’t keep their women in the workforce?

Melissa Dawn Simkins: That’s a great question! If you look at the intent or the purpose of the business, it’s usually to do good in the world, but it’s also to make money. Ultimately, women globally contribute to 70-80% of the purchasing power. We are the number one influencer of purchases. So, just for the health of your business, would you ignore 80% of those who actually buy? You wouldn’t be able to sustain your company. So, not having women in the mix of the conversation to understand how to connect with them isn’t a smart business move. When you also think about women being the driver of family, children, and the community, it’s a pebble in a pond that has a lot of ripples. So when companies limit this to just a DEI initiative like something good they should do, it’s truly missing the bigger picture.

Her Agenda: There’s been a lot of conversation related to DEI and corporate America. What are your thoughts?

Melissa Dawn Simkins: I always said we are a leadership company, so we never prescribed the DEI trend. I think the real root of purpose is what defines our differences. So, when you look at purpose, purpose is universal. Purpose is truly the driver of what creates sustainable systemic change. It’s why we do what we do. If you’re truly an organization that values people, the math doesn’t math if you don’t value women. If your purpose is to be a place where you truly value the people and the outcomes of the impact of your company, then this is not a DEI conversation. We get caught up in the semantics of branding movements versus really owning the accountability for the change. Long story short, my take on DEI is that it’s going to be really telling about companies that are really purposed for their people.

Her Agenda: Can you share more about your ‘Lead with Your Whole Life’ approach and how women in leadership can implement this into their personal and professional lives?

Melissa Dawn Simkins: This is tied to our mission and how we achieve this mission. This modern approach is called ‘Lead with Your Whole Life.’ It’s a lot easier to say in a tagline than it is to implement, but we really are going hard after that to accept that challenge. What it means is I am one woman, but I have many facets to me. If I lead each facet and take agency through purpose, then I am leading in my company, my home, and my church, I am leading when I go back to college – I have the ability to take agency. Leadership is defined as an individual who has a compelling vision that other people will follow. So, I have to create a compelling vision to get my son to eat dinner right; I am leading even though we don’t think so. We have to own that mindset, and when we do, it empowers us to take agency over our lives and time. As women, we need to start seeing ourselves as leaders in every facet. We always make leadership decisions. It’s a strategy that empowers women to lead with their whole life. Our curriculum provides women the tools to do it, such as the MVP playbook, creating a career path, and envisioning what your career looks like. We have tools like ‘Your Perfect Day’ to outline what your time looks like in your day and where you slot the things that matter to you first.