Success on Your Terms


When I started my corporate career at the Quaker Oats Company, now part of the Pepsico portfolio of global brands, I didn’t really have a plan. However, I knew that I wanted to work hard enough, be good enough, and be acknowledged at all the right times to reach the highest ranks of marketers in corporate America. It didn’t occur to me that this might not happen. I had achieved academic success, earned my MBA with highest honors, had some years of work already behind me, and held leadership positions for as far back as I could remember. What I didn’t bank on was not being a good fit for that environment.

It was the time in corporate when women were really just beginning to see opportunities “up” the line and people of color at mid- and senior levels were hardly present at all. Being all the right things was both an advantage and disadvantage. In some ways, I was what they wanted and in other ways was totally unexpected. It’s surely how women in Silicon Valley feel today having all of the credentials, tools, attitude and behavior but somehow making others uncomfortable because of that.

So, after 15 years in increasingly more challenging jobs at companies that all looked and acted the same, I took a calculated leap and started a marketing consultancy. It was the perfect time and place to find out if I was good enough to put a price tag on my brain. Interestingly, around that same time I received a birthday card from a dear friend in Philadelphia that read … If you ask me how I came to live my life, I came to live it out loud. The reality was that corporate America had steadily sought to quiet my voice, but I rejected that notion. I understood that I couldn’t let the world tell me who I was. I had to tell the world.

My mother used to say that as a child I always had something to say! She was right. Whether I spoke it out loud or internally, my words had power and purpose. The thought of being unsuccessful, at anything, wasn’t mine to own and I set about defining the next phase of my seemingly unplanned marketing career.

Fifteen years later, that consultancy grew into the company I started with my business partner in 2012. Over the years as an entrepreneur I’ve learned far more than I ever would have had I chosen to maintain my corporate career. When you are truly surviving on your talent and ingenuity, the learning comes fast and frequently, if you’re looking for it. What I know for sure is that while there is no secret sauce to small business success, the ability to achieve is within anyone who tries.

More than anything, I peg my success on 10 principles that have served me well and I tie them all up with two ribbons—courage and gratitude. From my experience with both of my firms I’m certain that starting a business is one thing. Growing it is another and requires a different set of skills and instincts. As I made plans to start my current firm, I knew that in order to reach my new goals that it was critically important that I take an honest look at myself to determine what skills and behavior were clearly evident and readily available to me, and what might be missing.

It’s humbling to undertake a personal inventory, and even more so when you invite others in to help. You must be unafraid to peel back the layers to find what truly exists inside you; to identify the “stuff” that you’re made of. It’s there that you’ll find the essence of the person who shows themselves to the world every day. You’ll discover the personal values that frame how you choose to live your life. You’ll identify the deal breakers that will assist you in making important “what’s next” decisions. You’ll find your center, the place that you’ll come back to frequently as you encounter the myriad challenges of getting a bigger piece of the pie.

These following 10 principles are a part of me. I live them every day and have for as long as I can remember. And while doing them, and doing them well, is important, how I do them is equally important. That’s another story so let’s stick with the principles for now!

  1. Start with a vision … know where you are going and how to get there.
  2. Have a strategy … think it through.
  3. Move forward with passion … believe it and commit to it.
  4. Have high expectations … show up every day.
  5. Own your responsibility … stand up to every opportunity and challenge.
  6. Maintain high standards … be known as one who consistently delivers.
  7. Operate with integrity … stay true to who you are.
  8. Collaborate … mix it up for a better solution.
  9. Create sustainable processes … make it work.
  10. Be civil … care, kindness, respect and grace will keep you humble.

My niece recently asked me what was my definition of success and whether I thought I have achieved it. I responded, “Success for me is achieved when I accomplish a goal and I celebrate each and every one of them! Yes, I have achieved success in my career and I’ve also experienced failure. When you’re in the midst of a failure you truly understand the powerful spirit of success and you appreciate it more the next time you find yourself there.”

As I work with seasoned women entrepreneurs, and coach those in the early stages of their companies, I am often struck by the self imposed limitations that they put on themselves. They often stand in the way of accomplishing their dreams. They let real and imagined fear and others’ perceptions take them off course, or even worse, keep them from getting on a course.

There is no better time than right now to unclutter your thinking and set about crafting a plan for a business that says to the world, I came to live out loud. By the way, I still have that birthday card!


About Sheila Lewis

A 20-year entrepreneurial veteran and corporate escapee, Sheila is the co-founder and CEO of Ashton212, an Oakland-based consulting firm. Ashton212 provides strategic business guidance that drives optimal organizational performance in the areas of business transformation, strategic marketing, and customer experience. The firm also provides real-time contingent and full-time talent to clients whose skills complement their current staff.

Sheila is dedicated to exhibiting and teaching solid leadership principles and characteristics with a particular focus on women and people of color who own businesses or desire to do so. She has held several volunteer leadership positions, is a sought after speaker on the topic of successful entrepreneurship, and serves as an emcee for several Bay Area events.


  1. Sheila Lewis says

    Thank you Cecile! Hope to see you this week! Sheila

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