Saima Chowdhury isn't just trying to do the impossible, she's succeeding. This serial entrepreneur and mom oversees the fast-growing, international start-up NOI Solutions (one of the 2014 Inc 5000.) NOI Solutions is a manufacturing business focused on building an ethical, sustainable supply chain of apparel and services between the US and Asia. They've also created Grey State, a polished collection women's casual clothing that softens the previously sharp edges between what you'd wear to work, going out, and hanging out at home. What I love are the unexpected details, luxurious fabrics, and complexity of design that make the clothes exceptionally easy to wear.
I caught up with Saima recently to talk not about the incredible technical complexities of her business but instead about how to create a corporate culture that reflects values as founder and CEO from the very beginning. Here are the highlights from that conversation that include her words of wisdom for founders and CEOs on creating the business they themselves would want to work for.
To start, we talked about NOI Solution's culture and how important it is to their team's unity and productivity. According to Saima, "Culture is really important because it defines how you operate. One of the things I've found is that when you're in start-up mode, you're focused on growing. When in growth mode, if you're not diligent about working your team to create the culture you want, you might end up with a business environment and attitude that you don't want."
She went on to explain that there isn't a lot of fluff work because everyone has a job to do (or 50.) It can be stressful and fulfilling at the same time because the employees are creating something new. That energy bonds the team and together you ride the highs and lows of early challenges and successes.
Ignoring the culture you're creating with and for your employees is a big mistake.
Saima believes that a supportive, positive culture helps make those early months or years tolerable and reduces the risks of losing top talent to burn-out. Turnover in key positions (and they're all key at this stage) can be a major set-back or even crush new businesses.
Because everyone has family or other commitments, finding some sense of balance is something founders and CEOs are constantly trying to do. She's found that start-ups can be a welcome change for anyone who is interested in growing a business but wants out of the big company grind.
To meet this need at NOI Solutions, Saima and her team offer a level of flexibility for all employees. She prioritizes getting the work done and cares less about where that work happens. While they don't have any remote employees and everyone is in the office each day, they're diligent about scheduling meetings in the core part of the workday and avoid early or late time slots that can conflict with commutes and childcare transitions. The expectation is that the team is physically there during work hours but everyone takes care of other needs as they come up.
As CEO, it's really important to Saima that she model the behavior that she wants to see and is vocal about it. The idea is that you're not creating any real or perceived mental pressure that other people on the team will judge you when you're out of the office.
The foundational belief is that if you're feeling good about the job you're doing as a parent, a friend, a community member or any other life commitments you have, you'll be able to do your best work at the office. It's in the best interest of the company that everyone can feel that they can do what they need to and get the work done in whatever form. People can flexibly choose their schedules to come in early. As you grow, it gets more difficult.
Saima closed with the following thoughts. "I understand why large organizations have trouble because it's so engrained in the culture. It's a mental shift that's required. Even when larger companies have policies in place supporting flexible work, if people feel they're being judged by the coworkers they won't use them."
My key takeaway from this conversation was that it's not so much about actual policies, it's about mindset shift that starts at the top with the CEO or founder. The leadership sets the tone and pace for how work gets done, which is a tremendous opportunity to create a positive, flexible culture for their teams.