Alicia Butler Pierre is the Founder and CEO of Equilibria, Inc., a 15-year-old global operations management firm specializing in designing business infrastructure and processes for fast-growing small businesses. She is a speaker, podcast host, and bestselling author of Behind the Façade: How to Structure Company Operations for Sustainable Success. She has an MBA from Tulane University’s A.B. Freeman School of Business and a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Louisiana State University.
You started out in the corporate world, and then everything changed around you. Did you see this entrepreneurial path coming or did your career evolve into it?
I had always dabbled in entrepreneurship, but only as side hustles. My very first attempt at making money on my own was when I was seven. When I was in an after school program, I convinced management there to allow me to do basic chores around the building. They paid me seven dollars, which was like $100 to a seven-year-old! With that money, my dad helped me open a bank account, which I still have to this day. Then, all throughout high school, I would purchase candy at a store and resell it to my classmates. I eventually made enough money to convince my parents to let me drive to school. I learned early how to hustle my way to some money!
When I started working full-time as an engineer, I also dabbled in real estate and owned rental properties. It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t want to spend my life in a refinery or chemical plant. It was a really harsh environment, and I didn’t learn that until I was actually there. Being part of the few female engineers working at that plant within a male-dominated industry was difficult, too. Throughout school, I knew theory and I knew science really well, but I had very little social support when I started working. I would get together with my fellow women engineer friends from school from time to time and trade war stories about how the men we worked with misbehaved and what we should do about it. Do we say something? Ignore it? Would saying something put our careers on the line?
One thing in particular helped me to finally transition out of that environment. Every unit within each plant was assigned an accountant. Every month, the accountant would come and meet with the engineers and give a report on the unit’s financial health. During these meetings, it was almost like they were speaking Greek (a language I don’t understand!). My world was all chemistry and engineering, and I realized then that it was important to understand other aspects of the company and business, too. Decisions were being made about my work based on those numbers, and I needed to learn what they meant.
I eventually pursued an MBA at night while working in the plant. The more classes I took, the more I fell in love with business.
How do you balance work, life and such a busy schedule now as an Entrepreneur?
It’s a real challenge, especially as my business is going through a growth spurt. My team is growing, we’re updating technology and processes, and I have to learn a lot quickly. As you build a team, you’re still busy doing day-to-day work, but you also need to make time to train new team members. You don’t want to lower quality because you don’t have time to fully integrate and empower your team. I have been so busy lately that I actually start my day around 3 am, and then I have back to back work and meetings. Through all of this, I’m getting to know my team, understand others’ work styles, and being patient with the learning curve because as demand for my business increases, I’ll have more people to rely on.
Is there a key to managing growth, or is it more like drinking from a firehose?
I would much rather be busy than bored any day, but it really is like a firehose right now! Especially with COVID-19, my work is digitizing quicker than I had planned for. Several years ago, I started to set the wheels in motion for digital services, but most of my clients preferred face-to-face work. Now, I can convince clients that going digital is a great option, even though everyone is transitioning at the same time! I’ve always wanted to move more remote though. I’m based in Atlanta, but have always wanted a better way to work with people outside of this city and internationally, and working remotely really breaks down geographical restrictions that would have prevented great teams working together.
What do you do to sustain this pace and avoid burning out?
Prioritization is key. Sometimes, you just have to say no – and believe it or not, I’m very good at saying no! Right now, I’m having a difficult time because there are so many clients and projects I do want to work with and on, but I’m also under pressure to build a team and do it well, so that’s where my priority is. In my work, I’m always talking about the importance of process and systems. It takes time to get all of that documented and running properly, and I have to remember to practice what I preach.
You also have to know yourself and know what works for you. I spoke to a group of high school students recently, and they asked me what advice I had. My best advice was “the early bird gets the worm,” and then there was a collective gasp when I told them my morning routine. If I wake up at 8am, I’m flustered; I’m scrambling, and I haven’t had time to process what I want to accomplish that day. But if I wake up earlier, I always know that I have time to meditate and then really think through all of the different things I have to do that particular day. It’s really different for everyone, though. I have friends that get started around 7pm and work into the early morning. You just have to do what works best for you.
Is there anything you would have done differently as you look back?
When I was a young engineer, I wanted to remain on a technical path, so I didn’t pay much attention to other roles. Every year when I was working at Monsanto, we had a performance evaluation and each year when I was asked if I wanted to be on a technical or managerial path, I always chose technical. Although everyone around me encouraged me to try the managerial path, I didn’t think I would enjoy it at all. That’s when I learned that sometimes other people see things in you that you don’t see in yourself.
If I could go back in time and do things differently, I would have stepped more into the spotlight. For the first 12-13 years in my career, I was always in the background. I was perfectly fine functioning in the background. I’m definitely an introvert, and I like working by myself. I didn’t like to be on camera (taking my picture – Forget about it – to my detriment!), I always came up with excuses for avoiding things that would push me outside my box, and I really wasn’t showing up in the ways that I should have been.
I always thought my work would just speak for itself. And I still do feel that way, but it’s also more than that. Until your managers and coworkers actually see you, your work isn’t nearly as impactful. When you put yourself out there, you’re going to have conflict; it’s inevitable, but you don’t have to go toe-to-toe with someone, either. When you’re confident in your work and yourself, you also know when you’re not being appreciated and when it may be time to leave. They’ll feel the hurt – and they’ll feel it very quickly – and they’ll know that they should have held onto you. I know that if I ever have to walk away, I’ve put everything I have into a company or project to make it work.
Tell us about a mentor, coach or sponsor – someone who has guided you that has really benefited you.
There are so many people who have helped me along the way. My first official mentor and I reconnected after 22 years. Someone who bought my book knew him and saw that I dedicated it to him; we ended up connecting and I met him and his wife for lunch recently. He hired me for my very first internship as a chemical engineering student. When he interviewed me, he said, “This is going to be tough, but we need you.” I never forgot that.
What’s a piece of career advice that’s really served you well throughout your career?
There’s so much! When leaving a company, I always try to leave it better than I found it – and I share that advice with others. I don’t care if you’re digging ditches or writing code, your role may not be perfect, but you want to create a legacy of positivity wherever you go. No matter how dire the working conditions are, always do your best, always show up as your best self. You never know who is watching you. People will notice your hard work and drive.
My favorite piece of advice is “closed mouths don’t get fed.” This is something I used to tell a lot of my coworkers at a previous company. When I left, a lot of my coworkers looked at me and said, “I’m unhappy. I wish I could do what you did.” And I told them to do something about it! Nobody will know what you want until you tell them, and you have to advocate for yourself.
This advice is true whether you’re looking for a job, in a job, or getting ready to leave a job. There’s always bias, but you also have to make sure you’re doing your part. Are you punctual? Are you dressing professionally? What image are you projecting to those around you? This requires a deep internal locus of control. You need to take control of what you can and make it difficult for people to say no to you. If that means you take etiquette classes, do it! There’s really no excuse. We have so much information right at our fingertips. If there’s something you don’t know how to do, look it up! If you can look up Beyonce’s new album, you can look up how to write a business email.