Emily Goodson (2007 BA in English Education)

Founder & CEO at CultureSmart in Santa Monica, CA

Tell us about your current job role and employer. What are you currently working on?

headshot of Emily Goodson

I am the Founder & CEO of my own company, CultureSmart. I work with early-stage startups, which generally have anywhere from 20 to 150 employees. A common pain point in the startup world is not having the bandwidth or resources to hire a strategic Chief People Officer. My work with clients is designed to solve this pain point by amplifying internal leaders and designing scalable workplace culture.

What key personal and/or career experiences led you to where you are today?

I was the Head of Talent & People at several high-growth organizations in Washington, DC. This experience gave me real expertise in building People departments in fast-growing environments. Coming from an Education background at Wake, I also have always had a passion for ensuring people are working in environments that enable them to be their most productive. There are many small, iterative steps that organizations can take to intentionally drive their cultures. That said, creating meaningful workplace culture doesn’t always have the focus it should in early companies. My previous experience in driving this meaningful culture coupled with my passion for amplifying others is what led me to start CultureSmart.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job? How do you navigate that challenge?

One of my favorite authors is Brene Brown and her work on vulnerability and courage. I truly did not understand the depth of courage until I started my own business four months ago. I have immense empathy for anyone who has started a company because it presents so many new challenges, ranging from business development to financing to finding your market fit.

A friend told me recently that you either overcome your challenges or they overcome you. This statement really resonated with me. One of the most important things I do to navigate challenges is to reflect daily both through journaling and through physical reminders. I have a small office in a WeWork in Santa Monica and keep a large framed photo on my desk. The photo is of me and a few of my team members from Optoro (a startup in DC). We are standing outside of The Washington Post’s office after being recognized as a top workplace. When I left Optoro, the leadership team framed that photo, all of the employees signed it and one of my mentors wrote: “Best Place to Work, Because of You!” across the top. Clearly I’m not the only person who made that workplace engaging, but having the physical reminder of a compelling workplace I contributed to in the past gives me motivation when I need it to face my challenges today. It reminds me of my mission in a very tangible way.

What advice would you give to Wake Forest graduates about developing their personal life habits after college (finances, health, values, work/life balance)?

Having a community that knows and sees you outside of the workplace is vital. Whether it is the Wake alumni network in your city, a book club, or a cycling studio, find a place to plug in after graduation. I was involved in the leadership of the Wake alumni clubs in both Winston-Salem and Washington, DC. Both were and continue to be very instrumental in forming my community and network. I’m also a huge SoulCycle fan. I encourage everyone to seek out what community looks like for them and also to acknowledge and expect that your community will change over time.

We know that relationships are important for any kind of development. How do you build and maintain your network?

I’m extremely grateful for my network. I think the people who are most successful at networking are those who don’t treat it as transactional. Networking is all about building a community of support. I think LinkedIn is a great tool for tracking your network. However, the key to building and maintaining a network goes beyond that to investing in relationships. I use handwritten cards and personal e-mails to keep up with people in my network on a regular basis. I also often reach out to former colleagues for coffee when I’m traveling for work in their cities. It is important to recognize that these are long-term relationships and there will be times when your network is helping you, but there will also be times when you are helping your network. One of the things I have most enjoyed about building my business is getting to reconnect with former colleagues and classmates. Even though we have moved on from our initial connection, whether it be school or work, we are still a part of each other’s network.

I regularly coach clients in emotional intelligence and relationship-building. The advice I give them is that you have to be genuine to yourself when building and maintaining a network. Many of the leaders I coach have identified building a network as an important tool for growing their careers, but don’t know how to do it or don’t think they will like doing it. You need to find what works for your style – that could be handwritten notes, but that could also be taking a friend or partner with you to business events, joining a kickball team in your city, or hosting a webinar to share your subject matter expertise. You never know where or when you are going to meet the people who will impact your life and career. From my perspective, showing up and being authentic in every interaction is the most important thing you can do.

Tell us about your mentoring relationships. What impact have these relationships had on your career and life?

In my experience, mentors and coaches are critical for everyone to have. I currently work with a tremendous executive coach who pushes both me and my business to grow. I think everyone should seek out a safe sounding board for them, who can both provide advice and ask thought-provoking questions.

That said, I am also a firm believer that you will benefit from any relationship and community where you invest. I moved cross-country last year, from Washington, DC to Los Angeles, to start my consulting business. In August 2019, I had decided to move but had not committed to starting my own company. I was strongly considering moving and taking another job as a Chief People Officer, a decision I had been struggling with for months at that point. I know I would have vacillated on my decision even further if it weren’t for a good friend pushing me to set the end of September as my deadline decision and reminding me not to forget the impact I could have as a consultant.

There is an African proverb that I’m always reminded of when I think of my network of friends, mentors, and colleagues – “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This proverb has been true for me in every stage and relationship of my life.

What advice would you give to current Wake Forest students and/or young alumni who are interested in working in your industry?

I spent time working in campus recruiting at Deloitte Consulting prior to working in high-growth companies. The balance of understanding HR at both small and large companies has been invaluable to me. Professional development has also been very impactful in building my expertise. I got my PHR certification many years ago, which provided a great foundation in HR. From there, I’ve achieved several coaching certifications. If you are entering the HR field, I highly recommend immersing yourself with content from different thought-leaders because the field is so quickly evolving. I’m a big fan of material coming out of Harvard Business Review, the Center for Creative Leadership, Josh Bersin Academy, First Round Review, and Culture Amp. I also consolidate articles on workplace trends and circulate through my own CultureSmart newsletter.

What’s next for your career? What future goals or plans are you pursuing?

Having a spectrum of clients in Southern CA, Washington, DC and internationally, is already a huge dream come true for me. I started my business because I believe strategic and intentional HR is vital to the success of a company. It has been really rewarding to see executives engage in my mission and model.

A future goal of mine is to grow my capacity to amplify female and underrepresented founders. I have worked with some tremendous female leaders in my career and want to see more women succeed in leadership positions at startups. I’ve gotten involved in different community organizations in Los Angeles and San Diego that host events advocating for greater inclusion in the workplace, and I would love to partner with more diverse founders as I grow my company.

Story published in March 2020. For current updates about Emily, visit her LinkedIn page.