[This monthly series was created by GrepBeat in partnership with Shawn Ramsey to showcase women entrepreneurs throughout the Triangle and to inspire other women as they choose to follow their entrepreneurial path.]
Meet Kelly Pfrommer, CEO and founder of Cloud Giants, a Salesforce consulting company based in RTP. Focused on helping companies align the Salesforce customer relationship management (CRM) platform to their strategic goals and objectives, Cloud Giants currently employs 30 people and continues to grow with five new positions open at this time.
After holding a variety of roles (business analyst, product owner, project manager and more) with a number of companies including Red Hat, Intervolve, Peopleclick and Credit Suisse, Kelly founded Cloud Giants in 2014.
Cloud Giants has been profitable from day one, successfully following a bootstrap-based growth model with no outside investment. [GrepBeat profiled Cloud Giants in 2019, and Kelly has also been a guest on our For Starters podcast.]
In today’s interview, Kelly (an aspirational Ted Lasso-like leader) shares personal insight about her journey as a leader and co-worker, a mother of two young children and a human being.
Learn more about Kelly and her journey in our conversation below.
S: Please tell us a little about Cloud Giants and its culture.
K: While what we do may be technology-based, we do our best to understand what the business that we’re working with does and what their objectives are for growing their business. We dive into their culture to develop solutions that can grow along with them, and to help them get value as soon as possible. We want to help the people we work with focus on their job rather than data entry.
It’s been fun and interesting. For me, I do better when I don’t HAVE to do something, but when I GET to do something.
As a company, we enjoy the work we do and the choices we get to make. When you don’t take investment money from others you have the freedom to make those choices.
S: The first core value listed on Cloud Giants’ website is “People First.” What does that mean to you?
K: Our core values are everything. They influence the decisions we make, our positioning, our client engagement process, our hiring mechanism, and everything else we do here at Cloud Giants.
The concept of being “people first” is incredibly important in work that is consultative, because at the heart of all of it are people. And the way we earn money is through the time of our people. And if we’re not caring for those individuals, if we’re not caring for ourselves and considering others, then we really can’t grow.
Here at Cloud Giants, it’s truly a collaboration between us and our customers. “People first” is not just how we interact with one another, but how we interact with partners and clients as well. We try to put ourselves in the seat of the company and individuals that we’re working with.
S: I couldn’t help but notice that you refer to individuals who work at Cloud Giants as your co-workers instead of your employees. Where does that come from?
K: If I were to refer to them as “my employees,” that implies ownership, and I do not own anyone. Everyone’s free to own their destiny with respect to choosing our organization to work with. Because it is a choice. I struggled in my previous places of employment where you’re just seen as a resource or a cog, but not as a human.
These are my co-workers. We work together. Freedom is one of my personal core values, and I want that for others. If I take that ownership of others, they’re not empowered to do things.
S: As part of our conversation, you mentioned that you have struggled with anxiety and have recently been diagnosed with ADHD. Are you comfortable sharing more about that?
K: Yes. I think that there should be more awareness around neurodiversity, and I think it can only benefit others to know more about it.
I was not diagnosed with ADHD until now, at 45 years old, but I have always known that I don’t do my best work sitting at a desk. In past jobs, all that time that I was in the shower, thinking about a problem; or sitting in the car, thinking on a problem; or ignoring my kids in the backseat, because I couldn’t turn my brain off—that was time spent working, but was not valued by my management as work. It’s very interesting to me how thinking is often seen as less important than doing. For me, there was a lot of frustration around the sort of rigidity of a big business, in terms of schedule. So, it’s very fun for me to be reading about the current changes in the workplace societally.
Now with post-pandemic workplace discussions, much of what people are asking for is what drove me to leave corporate life and follow my own path. I wanted to spend time with my kids and see their little faces during their preschool pageants. And I didn’t like having to ask permission to do those things. If you’re employing someone who is a thinker or who has education or experiences that are relevant and valuable, expecting them to ask permission to do those little things is just wasteful. If you ask me, it’s the results that really matter.
S: At the International Women’s Day event at The Frontier, you talked about how, throughout your career, you were told to act like a man, that you needed to smile more or that you were too emotional. How did that kind of feedback impact you?
K: Yeah, in my early years, I think that those messages were very loud. I appreciate the importance of acting professionally and in a way that you will be taken seriously, especially in a consulting role when you’re supposed to be giving advice and expertise to others. But at the same time, I think that some of those messages interfere with one’s ability to be creative and be their best selves.
The “playing like a man” reference was common in male-dominated professions. I think I even received that feedback from women, which might be how they achieved success. I can’t help but think that by today’s standards, how toxic of a workplace that all was—with all the comments and conversations you had to ignore or pretend didn’t bother you. I’m really thankful that we are in a place and time where that is unacceptable.
I have to say that the “emotions” part for me was a challenge. I wear my heart on my sleeve—I cry when I’m happy, I’m cry when I’m sad, I cry when I’m angry. I would see men, at that time, being rewarded for their anger and their outbursts, openly shouting at people in meetings. Somehow, that wasn’t a problem, but my tears were a problem.
I think if you have to spend your time worrying about fitting in and looking like everyone else, then you’re not going to be able to do your best work. It gets in the way of possibility and growth.
S: Please tell us how you have evolved as a CEO.
K: Somebody sent me an article recently about this topic, and I’d wish I’d received it earlier. I don’t imagine that it’s specific to the CEO seat or specific to business ownership. The point the article made is that anytime you take a risk and you’re putting yourself in a place where you might fail, and you might fail very loudly and very publicly, you’re naturally going to wonder if you are on the right track or if you are making the right decisions. I don’t think that is good or bad. It’s just normal.
I’m so much more secure than I used to be. But I couldn’t have become more secure without putting myself in a place where I could feel that insecure in the first place. It’s like developing calluses or strengthening your muscles.
It would have been great if somebody had said “you’re not going to know how to be a CEO, and that’s normal.”
S: What are you most proud of?
K: On the personal front, being a parent is pretty amazing and special. It’s wonderful and terrible, all at the same time. I love my children and I love the relationship that I have with them.
Professionally speaking, starting a business is pretty cool. It takes courage when you tell your friends and your previous co-workers that you’re starting a business, and they have these preconceived notions about you or beliefs about what you are capable of. It takes a lot to put yourself out there and say that you’re going to do that. And then keep doing it.
There are times that I lose my breath. Thirty people are relying on the paycheck and healthcare that Cloud Giants provides. When I put my mind there, sometimes I get super stressed out, and I experience a lot of anxiety. For me, it’s not about having a business with my name on it, it’s the courage to show up every day because it’s not always easy. That courage, I think, is something to be proud of.
S: How do you deal with the stress of running a business, especially with young kids and during a pandemic?
K: Well, having support systems is important. During the pandemic, especially during the acute phase, I was struggling. I was very fortunate to ask for a recommendation for a psychiatrist, and I’m still going. I know that a lot of people think of mental health as a disability or a liability. I think that’s silly. You go to the doctor to make sure that’s all good physically. Your brain is a complex organ. And that needs care, too. Having that support has been key to helping manage my stress.
I also talk to my leadership team, sharing the things that I’m worried about. We literally created a list of things that “keep Kelly up at night.” When I shared those with my team, they said “O.K., let’s work on that list together.”
I have started recapturing some of my calendar by blocking out Mondays and Fridays as no-meeting days. That allows me to have more space to think and get into a flow state, with the ability to group the “modes” I operate in – thinking mode, doing mode, relationship mode, etc. This helps me feel more centered. Each time I accept a meeting, it is a choice.
I have also encouraged my team to design breaks into their schedules, and to recognize when they need them. It’s really easy to get exhausted and stressed.
As a company, we have a channel in Slack that’s called “I need help.” Another thing we do is to encourage people to share their failures, to normalize those.
S: What is one thing that readers would be surprised to know about you or a fun fact that you could share?
K: You know, being 45 I feel kind of boring. But I did just recently jump off a 30-foot cliff into the water and I am afraid of heights. The “jumping in” part wasn’t what worried me. It was the climbing back out. The thoughts going through my head included “I’m going to have to get rescued,” “there’s going to be a bunch of people trying to lift me up and that’s going to be super embarrassing,” and “if they have to use a helicopter, then I’ll make the news and I don’t want that.” So, I finally decided I just needed to get myself out of there, and I did.
S: What prompted you to do that jump in the first place?
K: Back to the idea of courage. I think I have directed a lot of my courage and a lot of my energy toward work. My anxiety kicked in after having children. It’s as if the post-partum chemicals rewired me for anxiety. I am now aware that I have been struggling with anxiety in a way that I didn’t even realize, for a very long time.
In a weird kind of way, the blessing of Covid was that it brought that moment I had been dreading as a business owner. We lost 20% of our business in the span of two weeks. I worried that everything was going to be destroyed, that I would have to lay everyone off.
After being in what felt like firefighting mode for months, my stress had gotten so high. I went to the doctor, and now have a program to manage that anxiety and stress. I didn’t even realize how bad it was until I started addressing it during this pandemic.
As a result, I decided that I need to have courage elsewhere, other than just work. When you’re coping with anxiety and you’re making choices in life based on that, are you really, really, really living? Because of my anxiety, I’ve said ‘no’ along the way and missed out on some things as a result.
Jumping off that cliff was one way of reclaiming some of that.
S: What advice do you have for other women entrepreneurs, women thinking about starting their own business, or women stepping into a leadership role?
K: Intuition is often thought of as a female-attributed skill or gift. We are often told to ignore or dismiss our intuition because it’s not data, it’s not science. But I disagree. I think intuition is a sixth sense that we have developed over time, evolutionarily. So why isn’t intuition something to be utilized and valued? It doesn’t mean that we should ignore those other things like data and science. Intuition should be used in combination with these other things. If something doesn’t feel right, you should step back and inspect the situation.
I think there is a place for everyone, there’s an organization for everyone, there’s a career path for everyone. If you are you are operating in a system that isn’t working for you, find a different system.
There are times when I think I could have been more patient. When I think back, I would have been happier if I had allowed for some things to unfold a little bit more naturally and slowly.
Lastly, I think from an advice perspective, I would say to just be curious and ask a lot of questions. Curiosity is a very powerful approach. If you always do what people say you SHOULD do or HAVE to do, you are giving your power away. When you’re curious and ask questions, you can decide for yourself. You are in the driver’s seat. That’s what I would go back and tell my younger self.