Trimeka Benjamin, founder and CEO of Swim Digital, says she genuinely wants to help other business women.
She concedes she's not where she wants to be, but after running her own company for eight years, she says she's still blessed to reach back and help other women.
Benjamin is launching the Sisterhood of Swim, a program of mentorship that her company is taking on by doing work at a discounted rate for women-owned, women-led businesses and a series of digital marketing workshops in partnership with Working Women of Tampa Bay. The program starts on May 30 in Tampa.
Swim also will serve as the agency of record for The Women's Exchange, an organization committed to connecting qualified women with opportunities to sit on government, nonprofit and corporate boards of directors.
Benjamin recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper about the new initiative, starting her career at NASCAR, believing in the "theory of abundance" and nurturing seeds for the future.
What's the inspiration for wanting to help more women?
Sisterhood of Swim was something that I've always wanted to start the moment that I had the opportunity to. It's important to me because when I started my career, I worked in so many male-dominated industries. A lot of the things I didn't understand, when I asked, it was a sign of weakness. When I didn't understand how to develop a digital strategy, when I didn't understand marketing activation compared to a strategic marketing plan, I couldn't ask the men in the room because it was a sign of weakness. Those questions were asked in the locker rooms, those questions were asked in the bathrooms and places I obviously wasn't invited to go to.
On the golf course?
The golf course, exactly. I've been blessed since 2009 to own Swim. Since then I've worked really hard to surround myself around really amazing women that support one another. Owning this digital firm gives me the opportunity to make sure that women who are in women-owned or women-led businesses are able to come and get the support from Swim. Not only to get the short-term deliverables of a mobile app or a web site developed, but to understand how the sausage is made. So when they're going back into the room — whether it's a male-dominated board or a CEO who is male and their counterparts are male — they're able to come to the table with that product and actually be able to explain the validity of that product other than the fact it's pretty. I wanted to develop this sisterhood so they had this opportunity to ask those questions and — without being too tongue in cheek — to be able to swim on their own and without having to come back to an agency as a crutch. I want them to have those tools.
Is that one of the biggest challenges you face leading your woman-owned business.
When I started in the industry, I started at NASCAR and I worked in consumer marketing. The entire time I was given projects here and there that introduced me to the digital space and the importance of digital content and digital strategy. But I always had the struggle of putting all the pieces together over time. Because I was very, very lucky, I traveled all over the country and met some amazing women who took me under their wing and helped me understand I had a pretty profound understanding of the digital space. Without them, Swim wouldn't be here and I wouldn't be where I am.
Talk about the swimming in the business world as a woman and a minority.
One of the things that I learned in college (Bethune-Cookman University) that has always stayed with me is knowing that you're a woman or knowing that you're a minority doesn't put you at a disadvantage. It's not knowing that you're a woman or a minority that puts you at a disadvantage. Going into a room and knowing that I'm around all these men and they don't notice I'm the only woman or I'm the only minority, that would put me at a disadvantage. The fact that I'm walking in knowing that's what I am, and I'm doing what it takes to show that I'm worthy of sitting at the table, that puts me at an advantage.
So you don't move away from who you are, you embrace it and let it feed your confidence.
When they first meet me and they first shake my hand, their impression may be one thing once they hear a woman named Trimeka is coming into the room. But I'm 90 percent positive when I walk out, it's something different.
How did your experience working at NASCAR help shape Swim Digital?
I think all of it collectively has shaped who I am. ... I had a professor at Bethune-Cookman who said because we will look different than 90 percent of the people in the room, because the women in this room will look different than 100 percent of the people in the room, you always have to be better, you always have to be different, you can never be late and you always, always have to know what you're saying. If you don't know, say I don't know, let me find out. I took that into NASCAR and I think that's what helped get me a seat at the table at such a young age. I was very transparent that I didn't know a lot of stuff but I was willing to learn it. ... So when I started Swim, I understood what I knew and I understood what I didn't know and I surrounded myself with women who were unbelievably, profoundly strong: Lisa Brock, Mindy Murphy, Renee Dabbs. Those are women that I look to because they have different opinions ... but I purposely asked their thoughts so I could make decisions knowing what I want to do, but knowing what's the right thing to do.
Some would say Colleen Chappel, CEO of Chappel Roberts marketing, is your competitor. But you say you look up to her?
As a business woman, my job is not to compete with other women. I'm a firm believer in the abundancy model, not the scarcity model. I believe there's plenty of opportunity out there for all of us. My job as an African-American woman is to make sure people hear the story and understand you can't paint a picture with one brush. It needs multiple different brushes multiple different colors. It's my job to show that.
Is it unfair to tell women and minorities they have to be better?
I'm a realist. Is it unfair? Damn right, it's unfair. But is it the truth? Yes. So now what? What are you going to do? Complain about it or fix it? My job is not to make my life easier. My job is to make my sons' wives daughters — their lives easier. My life is what it is. Society is what it is today. I can't change that tomorrow is coming ... my office is going to be where it is and the sun is going to come up and policies and culture and life and the impressions of African-Americans and the impressions of women — they are what they are. So I have to be that change so my sons' families can reap my benefits. To me, that's what life is about — leaving the world better than when you started.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Ernest Hooper at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @hoop4you.