Navigating Work, Love and Life As A Powerful Woman: with Camille Nicita
An interview with Camille Nicita, President & CEO, Gongos, Inc. by Ming Zhao
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Camille Nicita.
Camille understands what it takes for Fortune 500 companies to make business decisions on behalf of consumers. She believes operationalizing customer centricity as a strategy for growth and building strong cultural buy-in will have a harmonizing effect on stakeholders. Beyond driving behaviors through impactful communication, knowledge activation, and change management initiatives, she believes adopting an ‘outside-in’ approach to humanizing consumers is essential in a world where data is trying to win.
Camille is the sole owner of Gongos, Inc., a WBENC company that was named a Forbes “Small Giant” in 2020. She and her husband, three children and Westie “Gus” reside in Southeast MI.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in an Italian-influenced family in Southeast Michigan with six siblings. As you can imagine, each of us brought unique trials, tribulations…and of course, talents to the table. But we were all instilled with strong ethics as my father was a judge for the city we resided in. On top of that, I had the advantage of having three strong female role models growing up — not just in my mother, but in my two older sisters.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
Perhaps due to being raised in a family with such a wide variety of personalities, I formed a love of psychology and the study of human behavior. Understanding humans in all their intricacies has always fascinated me. This is undoubtedly why I chose a career in market research and consumer insights. Why people make the decisions they do. How they behave. What they choose and why…there’s so much more to buying decisions than meets the eye, and it’s always been intriguing to me.
But for me, leadership was also an important factor in guiding my personal choices. As mentioned, my father was an elected official and a strong influencer in our community. In fact, he still is today at 92 years of age! And while I don’t think I ever consciously thought, “oh, I want to be like my father,” looking back, I can see aspects of my leadership qualities to be very similar to what I observed in him all those years.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Due to the death of our company’s founder, I found myself as a relatively new business owner, at the age of 43, having to navigate a company through transformative years. Some companies throughout their lifetime will bring new technologies to bear, new products, or breakthrough innovations, but I was determined to bring a new business model to the company. This was not only in response to external market factors such as big data raining down on us, but the evolving needs of our clients. In addition, I wanted to reorient our vision to be more altruistic in nature. So, while our company’s core purpose remains the same to this day, I put into place a new mission that is “to reorient the relationship between customers and corporations to be mutually beneficial.” This has shifted our North Star as a company, and has really enabled our employees to rally around a high-order mission that guides their day-to-day work.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Focus/Discipline: Setting goals is natural for me, and being an achievement-oriented person, I am unafraid to put in a lot of hard work. In fact, I often say, “I’m rarely the smartest person in the room, but I’m willing to work really, really hard to achieve what’s best for our clients, our employees, the industry we serve…honestly, whomever the key stakeholders are.”
- Resilience: I have led through a lot of tough times — from the death of our founder, to an industry in flux, and now a pandemic. But each hurdle has shaped me and not only made me stronger, but more flexible, open-minded, and comfortable with change.
- Intuition: I tend to have a strong sixth sense that often serves me well. I would characterize my aptitude for decision making as a combination of information analysis and instinct. My instincts have particularly served me well when reading people and their energy, irrespective of our relationship.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
Being that we’re approaching the quartile of the 21st century, I’d like to think that we’re beyond the notion of finding women of strength somehow challenging to our society. But as we all know, we’re still fighting legacy beliefs and behaviors that have prevailed for far too long. But this can be said for so many things in society, not just for strong women. Women inherently were built for strength, endurance, and emotional intelligence — created physically and mentally to carry, bear, and develop the next generation. I’m a firm believer in leveraging people’s strengths, and we should be able to apply that to gender and agree that women do possess unique strengths. But where it gets tricky is when women desire to show up in the same way as men show up. I believe women can actually leverage their strengths best by knowing and leaning into their differences.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
Being a qualitative researcher for so long honed my ability to listen and to understand that listening is far more than just hearing with your ears. True listening requires you to be fully present to observe people, their body language, and expressions. It requires empathy and the ability to play back what you think you understood to make sure you aren’t making assumptions. All of this goes well beyond taking in just what people say.
So, generally speaking again, I think women have a higher emotional quotient and ability to empathize. With that, I believe women are often better listeners. Listening can actually become a woman’s superpower. I consider it one of mine. Most people want to be “seen” and “heard” — listening enables people to feel that from me and it becomes the basis for trust, respect, and authenticity. And to me, this is the currency that the world — at least the world I want to live in — runs on. I honestly don’t believe a typically strong man would approach a business relationship, or even a personal relationship, in quite the same way.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
Make the conversation or the situation all about the recipient or audience member. Ask them questions that allow them to tell their personal stories. But make it all about them. In the end, they will feel acknowledged, valued, and important. And don’t we all want that?
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
Being honest, I wouldn’t characterize myself as a ‘powerful’ women. Capable, yes. Effective, sure. And infectious, I certainly hope my zest for betterment is infectious.
But I feel that dropping the vernacular of “powerful” when we frame up women who are successful would be a nice start. Because for some reason, society doesn’t feel the need to put that adjective in front of successful men. And if we do, we tend to conjure of images of sometimes unsavory politicians, dictators, and autocrats…or yes, sometimes benevolent visionaries, too.
In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
I wouldn’t characterize this as ridiculous, but early on in my career there was a certain type of inequity that seemed ever-present. Growing up through the ranks at Gongos, I often felt like I had to try harder “to be seen” than some of my male counterparts. One instance in particular was that our founder inherently presumed that a male needed to be his second in command. While there certainly were several key male colleagues of mine who could fit the bill — and whom I shared highly collaborative relationships with — ultimately, a solid balance of competency, determination, and building trusted relationships throughout the company enabled me to rise to the occasion.
In fact, it is the shared trust that both my male and female colleagues have in me that enables me to be the leader I am today.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Without a doubt, the need to balance family and professional life — which seems completely preponderous in this day and age. But I believe we are discovering that the pandemic has exacerbated this — with many women even opting out of the workforce. In my experience with coaching and mentoring young women, I see their anxiety related to the notion that someday they may inevitably have to choose, before they even “make it.” For whatever reason — perhaps foresight — they often feel they must prepare for the choice between career and family…or be committed to having both.
My advice to all women is it truly doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario when you dispel the notion that you must do it on your own. Women typically have a deep network of individuals who are invested in your success both in and outside of work. My recommendation is to lean into the caregivers and service providers that are available to you. “It takes a village” is real, and there is so much reward in being a part of an ecosystem of people who support one another. For me, my primary advocate is my husband — he’s an amazing partner, and we make a great team. But he has a full career, too. Over the years, we’ve relied on support from a community of friends, neighbors, right-hand workers, and extended family. But again, a woman must nurture these relationships so that they can be mutually beneficial for all parties. As a tangential benefit, I’ve found that my kids have received the profound benefits of flexibility and relatability from having a wide range of individuals influencing them. And as they’ve become young adults, they hold themselves accountable to a wider sphere of authority.
Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?
With three children who span seven years, of course, there have been times that I’ve been challenged with choice. But even with a full career, including frequent travel and many 50+ hour work weeks, I never let my family down, and I still see my greatest accomplishment in life as raising thriving, well-adjusted, and independent children. And that was before I was a sole owner of a company. Even then, I saw my team as an extension of my nurturing responsibilities. But today, I have a heightened obligation to advance the wellbeing of my employees and their families as well. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I have the ability to directly impact so many others’ lives — and that’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly, particularly amid the kind of change that we are all experiencing given the pandemic.
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
I don’t believe I ever experienced a tipping point. Rather, I’ve looked at my professional and personal lives through a give-and-take practice over the course of my life. As mentioned earlier, I’ve always been willing to work hard and consistently at anything in order to achieve it. For me, having a life partner and close-knit family who acted as early role models certainly helped to ground me. The idea of harmonious work/life balance is a fallacy, though. Perfect balance is a position you continually pass through on your way to equilibrium. The key is to detect when you may be veering too far in one direction or the other, and then deploy go-to strategies to get yourself back to a good place.
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
My beauty mantra is pretty simple. I believe that what you put into your body will manifest itself on the outside. I don’t tend to worry too much about my personal style, as it’s my own and not something that can be replicated. But ultimately, beauty is seen in the eye of the beholder, and I see beauty as something that is found from within, through a generous spirit, a candid discussion, or a mind focused on possibilities. That, and getting plenty of exercise and a decent night’s sleep. Even in college, I tried my best to never to sacrifice a good night’s rest.
Beyond these, I believe in setting time for the great outdoors. The Scandinavians call it, “friluftsliv” (my husband is Swedish). To this notion, we tend to spend our free time enjoying the wonders of nature. We book family travel around outdoor activities and adventure, so that we can experience beauty — and feel beautiful — both externally and internally.
How is this similar or different for men?
I’m honestly not sure there is any difference in my case. I believe in taking care of yourself — and this is as equally ownable to a male as it is to a female.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need to Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Surround yourself with great people (personally and professionally).
- Possess both grace & grit (again, find that unique balance).
- Be authentic (even if that means showing your emotions when appropriate… you are human, too!).
- Each day, focus on becoming the next best version of yourself.
- Accept that you will never please 100% of people — be wise, be kind, and at the end of the day, just do your best.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Eckhart Tolle, because he propels me to be still and present, look within, and to embrace my energy and the energy of others.
As published in Authority Magazine.