By Ramunda Lark Young
Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever is a CEO, trailblazer and lauded sisterhood enthusiast who’s passion for empowering women catapulted her to the national stage where she landed as the youngest ever Executive Director of the National Council of Negro Women, a historic membership organization touching the lives of over four million women of African descent worldwide. She is also the celebrated author of the new book, How Exceptional Black Women Lead, and CEO of her own company, The Exceptional Leadership Institute, a professional development firm that helps established and aspiring entrepreneurs and executives experience accelerated success while building a holistic life they love. In addition to ELI, Jones-DeWeever is the President of Incite Unlimited, a Washington, DC-based boutique firm specializing in diversity consulting, communications strategy and the development and implementation of impactful research. She is affectionately known as Dr. Avis.
Ramunda: First things first – Prince William County Virginia is your home base; how long have you lived here and why did you choose this area?
Dr. Avis: I’ve lived in Prince William County for 13 years and moved here specifically for my boys. I desired a more multifaceted childhood experience for them in addition to quality schools. I’m a data driven person so I researched area school districts and looked for those schools who had a tremendous balance between high performing scores along with double-digit representation of students of color. Being in an environment that was multi-racial and diverse was extremely important to me, and Prince William County provided that experience after reviewing several school districts throughout the Washington, DC area.
Ramunda: You are a prominent figure in so many circles focused on empowering women, what was your motivation to become the former Executive Director for the National Council of Negro Women and do you think this historic organization remains relevant even now?
Dr. Avis: I am passionate about black women, research, and advocacy and my first role at the NCNW allowed me to lead a think tank that addressed issues and policy that surrounded women of color. I eventually rose to Executive Director when the late great civil rights leader, Dr. Dorothy Height, passed. Yes, the NCNW remains tremendously relevant. The NCNW is bigger than any one person and we must have organizations that address the needs of black women and families throughout the nation.
Ramunda: You seem to always have a thread running throughout your career that centers on empowerment and I love that you are an entrepreneur who’s created the Exceptional Leadership Institute (ELI) for Women. Why is this organization important?
Dr. Avis: At ELI, we are inspired to help give women the permission to legitimize whatever ambitious desires they have in their hearts and provide actionable, practical, strategic steps, to make that vision a reality. So many times as women we put our needs and goals to the side by doing everything for everyone else that we lose sight of how to rediscover who we are. The Exceptional Leadership Institute equips women to succeed personally and professionally in that space.
Ramunda: So you’ve worked in corporate America, you’re now on television almost weekly with Roland Martin’s New One Now Show, you’ve created your own firm– essentially you’ve carved out your own lane. Can you share with our audience, what has been the most difficult obstacle in your career, and how you surpassed it?
Dr. Avis: Shifting gears from employee to entrepreneur has undoubtedly been the most difficult obstacle I’ve experienced. It’s a huge mindset shift.
To break it down: With an employee mindset: you are predominately a REactive thinker. You implement goals and objectives that others set before you to achieve. You always have to report to someone or a group of board members no matter if you’re the CEO or a manager, they have certain requirements of you. You remain in a state of reaction. With an entrepreneur mindset: you are a PROactive thinker. No one is telling you what to do. You have to think about your next move strategic, intentionally with the understanding that no one is going to stand over you and demand something. You are the one responsible, the one calling the shots and transitioning from an employee to entrepreneur is a complete 360 degree turn. “If you are stuck in an employee mindset, you’ll never make it as an entrepreneur.”
What helped me to transition was my father who was an entrepreneur with only a fourth grade education and went on to employ friends and family. Also, I had to learn to reach out to coaches and mentors —all have helped me transition.
Ramunda: The entire premise behind Sisters who SOAR is creating opportunities for women to learn about the journey of other women and how they’ve prevailed. Why do you think it’s important for women to establish authentic connections with thought leaders and mentors?
Dr. Avis: It’s critical! Without mentors, you lose so much time simply spinning your wheels, whereas having someone in your corner who’s been there and done that and can teach you how to avoid the pitfalls along the way, they’ll offer encouragement and strategies which are critical to success. I once had a phenomenal mentor who taught me the power of salary negotiation. By learning from her, I was able to have an invaluable financial advantage secure. Did you know that 70% of women don’t negotiate, they simply take what we’re given? With a mentor, I was taught that the first offer is the starting point and not the end. Learning this tip from my mentor had a profound effect on my mindset moving forward.
Ramunda: What’s one way to establish an authentic connection?
Dr. Avis: Be strategic in who you are targeting as a mentor. Not so much of who I “need to know”, instead, flip it around to “who needs to know me?” Who needs to know my name and find out how you can help them solve their problem! By doing so, you’ll always stand out from everyone else who is ASKING an influential person for something, versus GIVING them something.
Ramunda: What would you tell your 12-year-old self about fear?
Dr. Avis: Fear is an illusion! It really is! Fear allows us to tell imaginary tales of what “could” go wrong. It always seems worse than it really is until we do it. The challenge is that that illusion can become a prison if we don’t realize what it is. I’d tell my 12-year-old that my brain is taking you on a fictional journey and you can’t get caught up in the fiction and to make yourself take action instead. We owe it to ourselves to execute.
Ramunda: What’s next for you and how can our audience connect with you?
Dr. Avis: I’ll let you in on a sneak peek. I’m launching a new blog in the next month or two called exceptionalblackwoman.com which will focus on entrepreneurial successes of black women who’ve done amazing work personally and professionally. Additionally, I’m starting a new coaching program with a small, select group of women to help them move from employee to entrepreneur and guide them through the entire process from concept to cash for an entire year.
You can find Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever at avisjonesdeweever.com
This column is a series created by entrepreneur and community leader Ramunda Lark Young and is poised to connect and learn from extraordinary women of color who’ve surpassed obstacles and rose to great success.