#BossWomen Interview: Val Porter
Throughout the month of March, we’re speaking with #BossWomen in our community - civic superstars, entrepreneurs, mothers, and leaders - to hear their stories and discuss their experiences in the work place.
We sat down with Val Porter Cook, CCI’s very own Leadership Coach in Residence, to chat about the ins and outs of self growth, her Oprah obsession, and being unapologetically fierce in wherever life takes you.
As the self-proclaimed “Forrest Gump of the Industry,” Val’s personal and professional journey has been anything but ordinary. Originally from Huntsville, Alabama, Val made her way to Atlanta to attend college at Georgia Tech, graduating with a degree in Economics before finding her passion in humanities working for Woodruff Arts Center and the Fulton County Arts Council. Val then took a 180 degree turn and entered into the world of philanthropy, serving as the Director and later the Head of Domestic Strategy and Innovation at the Foundation Center. In 2017, she co-founded Blaze: Leadership for Trailblazers, a leadership development firm that offers Coaching to fiercely embrace leadership that is built on authenticity, curiosity, transparency, determination and humanity.
Thank you for chatting with us, Val! What drove you to start your own entrepreneurial journey with co-founding a Leadership Coaching and Development Business?
The first and only thing I’ve stolen is a book out of my dad’s briefcase was “ The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” ergo my love affair with leadership. I finally hit a moment after the 2016 election. The next day seemed so dark; the unknown was scary to many people. In response to that feeling, I wanted to help. In response to my decision to help, a colleague told me “go out there, and right the wrongs.” I explained that, “I’m going to try and help people not be the [wrongs] in the first place.” I don’t think people know how easy it is to become people who they hate.
If you’re in the limelight, and your costume is screwed, you’re screwed. Imagine if someone fixed your costume before you got on stage, and helped you shed light on all those dark places before you hit the spotlight. Coaching is preventative: don’t let your mistakes creep up and come out twenty years later.
I think the biggest line of division in society is between those who are comfortable with their authentic self and those who are not. When you give yourself that permission to cheer for other people that are there, it’s also critical to your own survival. When you start tearing other people down, karma is going to come back to you - that’s just universal. You’re creating a world where authenticity cannot survive.
In our previous interviews, we’ve discussed the idea of “balance” between your personal and professional life. What does that balance look like to you, and how do you define it?
I used to believe in balance, but I can’t anymore. I also used to be a big fan of the word integration, but not anymore. I think it’s all about harmony. My mind doesn’t shut off very well, so I’ve never been comfortable with “9 to 5” boundaries. My children are always on my mind regardless of where I am. I am also known to think about something great at two in the morning and I’m up and writing about it. It’s one of the reasons why I think women are uniquely equipped to lead, as long as we get out of the zone of “balance”. Balance is like someone walking on a tightrope; you look wobbly. That’s how a lot of women enter the workforce: looking wobbly, almost apologetic.
When I started my career, I promised myself I would never apologize for my children. I remember going into the workforce after having my first daughter, and I was negotiating my benefits with my boss. I told her that I need every other Friday off - whatever that means for salary - because I have a daughter that’s not quite two, and I’m committed to being a great parent to her. She nodded: done. After we closed out our formal negotiation, she took my hand and said, “Way to go, way to take care of your kids. That’s important.” I just want that for women. Whatever you decide to be, be it fiercely without apology.
Could you offer specific advice on how to be fierce without apology?
I used to beat myself up quite a bit. I spent a lot of time strategically planning my path. The big question was always, “what do you want to be?” but it was never, “what do you want to be holistically?” These days, your career becomes your identity and your worth. I remember one year when I was thinking about that question, I wrote down that I wanted to be a mom, and my mom told me that it wasn’t a job. It was something that others kept crossing off for me. When dad told me that I had to decide what I wanted to be, I told him I planned to be all of these things. I drew a big circle around all the different paths I wanted to take. I wonder: are we, as women, at liberty to talk about what we want to be? I find that women have the most interesting stories in totality of what they want to be and achieve. Now, I ask myself: “what do I expose to my children to so they find inspiration? What do I need to shift in my vernacular to not impose false limitations on my daughters?”
One of the most powerful things that I ever did was write a future bio. This came out of writing myself notes as a kid. I would plant these notes somewhere, and it started becoming a game. You find a letter, you write a letter. Ten year old me wrote fifty year old me. I found that letter when I moved recently, which I thought was really, really cool. The best question was, “Are you happy?” And I stopped to write back, “Dear Val, age 10: Seriously happy. Love Val, age 47.”
That process allows me to think about time fluidly. I structure my future bio around, “who are you now that you’re going to be? What does that look like? What did you want to wake up everyday doing?”
I want to care for the ones I love. I love Love! I want to be loved, I want to love what I do, and I want to love the contributions that I make in the world. I move things; I’m a personification of the formula of momentum. That’s in my bio! I believe strongly that you need something that pulls you. I am love, and as long as I’m living, I love. The [future bio] exercise is determining who you’re going to be even with everything stripped. If you have decided who you are going to be when experiencing loss, there’s a greater chance that you can pick up and be [your authentic self]. If you only put yourself in a box of titles, you’ll fall short. Titles do not pull you through loss, only being pulls you through something like that.
How do you define self-care? How does it help you sustain your work?
I keep accountability partners, like Sagdrina, who will ask me what I’m doing for myself. I have to be very intentional about my time, so I do a couple of things. The first is read. I’ve seen literacy up close and personal. One of my grandfathers was a high school graduate, which was not normal at the time in the South, and the other had a third grade education when his family had put him to work. My mother taught me to read by three. I got into this habit of consuming a book a week, and I can’t quite get out of that habit. I read excessively, and my family knows when I’m reading. My kids will pick up a book and read as mommy does. Whenever I’m lost, I go by my bookshelf and pick out a random read. The last random read was The Alchemist.
I have trouble understanding how people mediate (how can people shut off their minds?!). But I’ve been training myself to sort of be still, because we move constantly. It was almost unfathomable to me to realize that your mind is not in control of you. It was the other way around for me; someone was always in my head. As a Coach, it’s imperative to remain still. I found myself telling someone in a coaching session that they were being reactive to something that annoyed them. I asked, “can you observe and not react?” This practice has a profound effect on your health when you can watch yourself watching others.
I also cook. I make biscuits by the dozen. If you make good Southern biscuits, you have to make sure the butter is crumbled throughout the flour. I could be up at 5 in the morning on Saturday, just doing that. And it makes me feel good. It’s very peaceful to me, the art of cooking, and it’s very intentional. It also takes you back to a slower time. I’m all about slowing things down. A former colleague of mine called it the ‘Val Pause,’ where I slow things to a halt to properly see it before I jump back in real time. You have to pump the breaks. People are like a hummingbirds. They seem slow, but they’re so moving so fast in reality that it appears as the opposite. There needs to be a realization that you know how fast you’re going.
One of the most powerful metaphors that I live my life by is from my grandmother. When I was seven or eight years old, my grandmother pointed to a well in our front yard and said to me, “You see that well out there? What happens when that well runs dry? No one has water. Don’t be a dry well.” Take as much as you need to into yourself as you can. A life is a precious thing to be wasting. If you are doing things from day to day, putting off things that you want to be doing, I don’t know a better investment than to be getting clear in your purpose so you can give to others.
Who do you look up to?
This is so cliche, but I met her twice: Oprah. She was on the rise, and she was recognizing scholars at a speaking gig at my mom’s church (I was one of the scholars). She came through the audience, stopped and shook my hand. She gave me a pep talk. I thought she was just a talk show host, but fast forward years later, I was attending a Morehouse fundraising event, Candle in the Dark, and there was a woman in a stunning red dress. Before I closely looked at her, I said, “Wow, that dress is…” And it was Oprah. She said thank you, and it was such a human moment. She larger than life, but she accepted a compliment so graciously. I’ve had these embarrassing moments with certain famous people, and they’ve always been ridiculously human and gracious through it.
What are some advice to give to women entrepreneurs and women overall?
It’s not an easy path. Someone asked Denzel Washington what his fallback plan was if acting didn’t work. He said, “I didn’t have a fallback plan because I didn’t plan to fall.” I think not giving yourself that option is actually very important - and being smart about how you go by being as proactive as you can. I think from time to time when I talk to women that are out there, it’s like they’re trying to hide the fact that they’re scared. And it’s a problem if you’re not scared. This is scary work! Acknowledge it and move forward in spite of.
There’s a tendency with women to either hold their truth because they feel like it can’t be told or they speak it immediately on mind out of mouth. One thing that I notice about most effective leaders is that there’s a mindful gap between what they think and what they say. What they decide to share is based on what conversation they want to have with the world, not what the world won’t let them say. That’s a very important step to becoming confident and mindful.
The more that you live as you, powerfully, unapologetically, the more other people have license to be true to themselves. It’s very difficult, though, because I don’t think people know how many unspoken rules that we live by—as women especially. Often, we either abide or abash those rules, but there is a middle ground to accept them. What’s tricky is that you don’t know what to accept until you know what you need.
One of the hardest things that I advise in coaching is to ‘soundtrack’ out in the world. Listen to yourself as you watch the world. It will forever change your perspective. There’s a power surge when you deal with you.