Ep 71: Lori McColl: You Can Cry, but You Can’t Quit!

Diva Tech Talk was thrilled to hear the entrepreneurial journey of Lori McColl, Founder and CEO of Whim-Detroit, a digital transformation consultancy and innovation lab, dedicated to empowering agile change for its customers, and the world.

Growing up in rural Canada, Lori completed her undergraduate BBA in marketing, through a scholarship as a star Division One Volleyball player, at Ohio University. “I grew up in a very small town, on a farm,” she said.  “A lot of what I was exposed to were the professions that were ‘small-business driven’: doctors, nurses, lawyers, famers. There was not a lot of tech.”

It was her college journey, and friends she made at OU, that “opened my eyes.” She moved on to complete her MBA at Bowling Green State University,  with a minor in MIS (Management Information Services) and discovered that she was fascinated by technology. “Having that understanding of how you run a business and putting it together with tech and data creates a holistic lense” on any endeavor, according to Lori.

Her first career role was at “Big Four” consulting company, PwC, a global network of professional services firms, in 158 countries, employing 236,000 people, that delivers assurance, advisory and tax services to other corporations.  “I joined the assurance practice in tech services, while PwC was selling off the consulting side,” Lori said.  Her work was exciting and diverse. “I moved around. Went from working on the compliance side to transformation projects, U.S.-wide, and globally. I’ve had a chance to work with some of the best companies, either on process optimization, data analytics, or enterprise-wide implementation programs.”

“You name it --- we did it,” she said. “I worked in high tech, with some of the big tech companies.  I worked in automotive companies at the OEM level. I worked with some of their suppliers. I worked in industrial products.  I worked in the oil and gas industry.” From that rich experience, Lori gained insight. “One of the things I learned personally, was how to refine messaging, how you spoke with the executive-level team about the risks and challenges they could encounter.”  She learned “how you share key findings, so they are in ‘their language.’”  Lori also absorbed how large organizations implemented, managed, navigated and adapted to major change.  “How you get people onboard (with change) still sticks with me, today.” She is grateful for the 15 years she spent at PwC. “I got a chance to work with some of the best leaders.”

Along the way, as SaaS and cloud-based solutions were beginning to dominate the tech landscape, Lori said, “one of the things that I was keeping an eye on was that I was always in a box:  big corporate ‘box’ and massive systems boxes.” She tried to envision her future: “where did I want to be in 5 years, 10 years?” Her answer was: “I wanted to broaden my experience to shatter some of those ‘boxes.”

Lori then spent the past year diving deeply into the startup world in Detroit.  And she realized: “When you go from big corporate Fortune 500 to the startup world, you are in two different worlds!”  Lori made her first move by relocating from the northern suburbs of Southeast Michigan to the heart of Detroit and learning from, the various startup founders and community supporters there. “I spent a large portion of my career traveling all over the world. I really love supporting our community in a different way.” So, she founded her company.

“My vision is that Whim-Detroit does really cool things with really cool companies. The end goal is that we are a ‘tech forward’ company. We focus on digital transformation: the future of technology, people and processes. That ties into what is coming with some of the newest commerce platforms, customer acquisition, and all the new channels; how you use data analytics and build predictive analytics programs.  It’s all in those up and coming front-end commerce and content systems, and ties into existing enterprise systems technologies. We focus on transformation, implementing systems, data and processes.” And Whim-Detroit solutions are “in the space I love the most,” said Lori, “fashion and sports!”

Whim-Detroit has two main components:  a consulting practice and an innovation lab.  “Part of what I am trying to do is create a sustainable model, using one side of the business to support the other side.” Consulting has helped create cash-flow so that Whim-Detroit can experiment with pre-MVP (Minimum Viable Product) offerings.   Lori “works with really great brands. Most of them are with products that I am either a supporter or a customer of.”

In the consulting practice, a current representative Whim-Detroit client is with a premier, historic athletic club.  “We are embarking on a 3-year transformation project,” of this long-standing facility and service-oriented membership organization, Lori said. “They have global and national awards. And soon will have leading edge technology to match. What is fascinating is that you have to figure how to make technology invincible in a place that has such a great history” and how to use technology to “deliver an experience before a customer even asks for it.”   On the innovation side, Lori is proud that Whim-Detroit just delivered the first fashion and technology hackathon in the city’s history. To do that, she worked with Pure Michigan Business Connect (part of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation) with brand sponsors providing the problem statements for the teams to hack.  

Self-reflecting, Lori thinks some of her strengths are personal courage, the ability to eloquently communicate, and her penchant for creating and refining a vision. “I would also add creativity and perseverance,” to that list. “In this new entrepreneur space, never give up! Passion equals resiliency.” Lori also values experience. “War stories and post-mortems” yield pearls of wisdom to her.

While never experiencing gender discrimination at a younger age, more recently Lori has faced challenges related to being a woman leader. “Because I was in tech, and only 25% of tech professionals are women, and 40% drop out, I started to have typical scenarios:  the ‘man-splaining’ or being demoted to work under a peer. I really became more mindful of it, over the last two years.” One of the solutions she suggested is “having ambassadors, or ‘table-pounders’ to help you navigate through things” in your career. Lori generously tries to do the same thing. “I have always made it a priority to do it for others.”

A revelation for Lori was that “life will be about what you don’t like vs. what you do like!” She carved her path by process of elimination and would have told her younger self, to “try a lot of things; anything you are curious about – try it!”   As an entrepreneur, Lori acknowledges: “you don’t have balance. But what you do have is a rounded career that merges work, passion and people.” To “turn off her brain” she relies on her athletic prowess, runs, goes to yoga classes, and has recently taken up squash.  She also spends a lot of time with other startup co-founders.

Lori believes that women have the gift of unique perspectives, based on  compassion and empathy. “Compassionate leaders, historically, have built stronger, more long-lasting, organizations.” As a leader, “you should be the last to speak. You’re there to listen; you’re there to inspire. You’re there to bring in the other, best, people you can find….and unlock talent.”

Lori noted that conscious gratitude is a way to get through the startup hard times. “During the tough times, there is always something you can be grateful for!”  Having passion is also key. “It brings a lot of joy and can overcome the need for other things, material things.” She struggles with a fear of failure, despite knowing that the path to success is often paved with failures. To overcome that fear, she “does it in small pieces.” Lori shared that her athletic mantra has always been “left/right, left/right, one step at a time; keep moving.” Concentrating on that has helped her quiet the “internal voices” that are fear-engendering.  

The motto that sticks with her has been “you can cry but you can’t quit!” - a mantra that has helped her get through some of the toughest physical endurance races.

To give back, she has enlisted Whim-Detroit as a FOUNDERS FOR CHANGE company, taking the pledge to #changetheratio and to consistently encourage diversity on her teams, boards and investors.

Lori McColl can be reached at Lori@whim-detroit.com and on Twitter at @WhimDetroit.

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Diva Tech Talk Team

Podcast Divas