With Julie Villao, President and Chief Operations Officer of
Intelligent Partnerships, Inc.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we sat down with our President and COO, Julie Villao. As half of the leadership duo at the helm of Intelligent Partnerships, Julie Villao spends every day working to make sure that there’s a place for everyone. We were able to learn more about her experience in the world of work and how it has informed her perspective and how she leads Intelligent Partnerships. Read snippets from our conversation. The video version will be posted soon.
Can you start by telling us what Intelligent Partnerships does?
Intelligent Partnerships is a strategic planning firm. We specialize in diversity, inclusion, and equity. We do the evaluation, and then we do validation as well.
With IP's focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, what do you hope that IP being a WMBE demonstrates to our partners?
I think that being a WMBE is just a demonstration, it’s just a certification saying that we are woman-owned and woman-directed. But I also want to make sure that we give credence to the other partner in this: Daniel, he's our founder, but he is a veteran. He's also Afro-Latino, and I consider myself Chicana. I am a Chicana woman-owned business. I know that’s something that’s kind of out of the ordinary, but that’s where I’m at. Our heritage is Mexican and Native, so I want to make sure that we give credit to that.
I would like others to understand that we're not the regular woman-owned minority business entity, because everybody says diversity and inclusion. We are a diverse company that is inclusive. We believe in equity, and we practice equity. I want to make sure that everybody is included, and we demonstrate that, and we work with our clients to do the same. So not only do we do that, but we also come back and take what the measure is: Where are you now with your inclusion? Where can you be? And let’s go ahead and validate and get you there so that everything is going well.
Can you share with us why you, personally, feel that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is so important?
Personally, I think that the diversity and inclusion is important. I think that equity is a component of inclusion. It is not just being inclusive; it's also being equitable and equal. What it means to me, personally, is making sure that I'm aware of everything—not just of gender, not just of color, not just of culture, and not just a physical disabilities or mental disabilities or anything else—it’s also understanding or being aware that people come from different backgrounds and we aren’t all raised the same. Everyone has very, very, very different backgrounds, and it's finding a spot for that person. There's a spot for everybody: find the spot, and if this spot isn't where you really think it's going to be, then find a spot where they need to be.
Everybody can be successful, but there are a lot of people who don’t fit in the box, and you have to go find the box for them. I want Intelligent Partnerships to, and I want to personally,
say, “Hey, you don't fit in my box, but let us help you figure out what box you go into, and it may not be a box. It may be something that's hanging out of the box, it may be something different, but we have to be able to give everybody a voice, understand that things are different, and if they have something that they are contributing that doesn't fit in what you're doing, somebody, somewhere can use them.
So how do we get that message out there? How do we place them? How do they make a living? How do they contribute? That’s what’s important. For me, personally, that’s what is important.
As a female COO, you inspire other women. Who was your inspiration?
It wasn't just one person who inspired me. It was several people, including males, who inspired me. I've had a lot of women that I looked up to that are very, very inspirational, my mother being one of them. But my mother, if I say, “Hey, she was my inspiration.” No, she was the driving force. She pushed me out there, “You gotta get it done, you always work, you always support your husband.” That was part of the old school, it’s part of the new school as well.
There were a lot of women who are very, very influential in how I believe and who made me understand what I did was valid regardless of titles and anything else. My staff was a huge part of that, especially because you guys were like, “Look, you're doing it, this is who you are, and this is where we're at.”
I have a lot of male influences as well, my husband being one of them, and a couple of other friends of ours from Boston who are very dear to me. One gentleman, in particular, really stood me out there and told me, “Look here, this is what your title is, this is where you are, you don't have to deny it. It's okay to say it.” So, all of these guys and these women who were influential on saying, “Hey, you can do this. Let's go ahead.”
You have people who support you and push you forward, and then you have other people who are standing next to you saying, “It's okay, I'm here with you,” and then you have those who are pulling you along saying, “Come on, you can do this.” I’ve been fortunate in having all three of those.
How important do you think the male allies that you’ve had who’ve been like this is your position, and you own it and you’re great at it – how important has that been to you?
It has been very, very important. I think as a Latina—or a Chicana, a woman in our Hispanic culture—we lean a lot on our husbands to make sure that our husbands are okay with what we're doing. I think that Daniel really helped me come out of my shell: “You can do something outside of this, and you can move further. Why can't you do it?” type of thing.
I think that later on, in speaking to other males—and I had great male bosses, managers, and what have you—who also were encouraged by their wives, “Hey, give her a chance. Let her do this,” and they set the challenge, and it was hard. It was hard to come about that, but they
believed in me and told me, “Hey, I think you can get this done,” and, “Try again,” or, “Do it again, and do it right this time.” It didn't mean that I didn't get tuned out, it didn’t mean that I didn’t have challenges—I absolutely did. They just didn't let me quit, and that was a big deal.
There's one gentleman in particular. His name is Carlos Matos, and he's from Boston He’s married to a good friend of mine whose name is Marcela Aldaz Matos. She has always been a big encourager, but he brought things into perspective and told me, “Hey, it's okay to understand what your husband wants, it’s okay to understand whatever everybody else around you wants, but what do you want? This is your title, step into your title. This is what this is, dip into this.” He wasn't gentle, and he was very poignant about it. He didn't come right out and say, “Hey, don't be a dork, don't be a dummy, do this.”
I know he probably wanted to because, I was like, “Well what about this?” and finding myself looking for excuses to justify where I wanted to stay, where I was comfortable. He definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone, and whether he knows it or not, he was very influential.
It was very good, because they were friends of ours who never push themselves into any of the conversations, or whatever else, but when we were talking about business and how things were going. He was always very open and very secure. He was so sure of who he was, and he was so sure of the strong women around him. He had no issue saying, “Hey, this is really where you should be. This is what you should be doing.”
It was because of him that I actually adapted for the first time, when I was running the business before Daniel came back. It was because of him that I actually started to call myself CEO, because I would just say, “I'm the owner of the company, I run the company,” or whatever else. He said, “You need to own up to who you are here: the CEO, the chief executive officer, of this business.”
I think that was really instrumental in making me understand that we have a real business, because I kept on saying we were this little mom and pop thing, and he was like, “You’re not a mom and pop, because you really have a good business. You really have to move forward.” Women were saying it, and “Hey, try this, and do this, and do that,” but he actually sat me down and really gave me that confidence.
I think that was a big turning point in my career, as an owner, and I think that it was really a good basis for me to understand, hey you do have a voice, and you can go ahead and use that voice, and you don't always have to get permission from anybody else to say or think what you want. It was a big piece because I was very intimidated when I first started Intelligent Partnerships. I'm very happy that that I was able to have friends and those kinds of influences women and men alike that they were encouraging.
MY: It sounds like we all need a Matos to get us going.
JV: Everybody needs a Matos!
They’re a powerful couple. They’re a great couple, because she is the one who we turn to for the diversity strategies and things like that. We're putting things together, because she's absolutely fantastic at it, and so I think that influential women who are not intimidated, they're not afraid to share their success with you and to pull you along: “Come on, you can do this. This is what I did, you do this too.” When we start putting those walls up against each other or “I’m not going to give you this information, because this will happen” … we have to all be able to progress together, we can't just keep one or two of those down, and they just definitely demonstrated that, and I’m very happy for their friendship.
Can you tell us a little bit about your professional journey that made you this powerhouse that you are today?
I don’t know about powerhouse; it feels good to hear that.
I started off as an administrative person and administrative assistant, and I then did some file clerk work and started … at the time, they didn’t call them administrative assistants, we were called secretaries—which I'm not opposed to that, I know that it is sometimes demeaning. I guess I'm not opposed to that because my bosses never treated me badly. They always treated me very well, so when I hear some people say, “Well, the secretary … let the secretary do it.” …
They always gave us value. My boss at a company in California was fabulous. The managers that they that they were bringing up were very, very good, and they always gave us value. They always were inclusive, making sure we understood what we were doing and made us part of the team: “Hey, we’re all doing this.” We all knew that there was a big account, and we all had to have proposals done, and we were all doing it together, all kinds of other things like that. They made us part of that team, so you felt like you were part of a team and not necessarily a servant to somebody. So, I always take that, and that's really where I draw a lot of where I'm at today.
I also worked for another company called Lubricating Specialties, because I come out of the oil and energy field. I was a salesperson there, but they always listened. I was able to come to the table, and they always listened. The owner of the company, at the beginning, he and I were saying the same things, but not understanding that we were saying the same things. He was very, very patient. He was very gracious. He was sometimes very harsh as well, but I learned how to stand my ground, and he was never demeaning. If he ever even felt like he was, he would come back and say, “Hey this wasn't right.”
I was taught “if we're letting you at the table, then sit at the table and hold your spot,” so all of those influences, everything that I had before understanding and learning.
Some of the other representatives from other factories, the other oil factories, that would come in and help us we had a bunch of new guys. They had to learn there were things that they that they needed to know, and we had to give them time to learn. I think, with all of those things that I dealt with and learned coming up in my career, I was very fortunate to have different aspects.
I had a boss named Justin who was very influential spiritually, making sure that you're okay spiritually, so that you can be okay mentally, so that you can be okay in your job, professionally. It never had occurred to me. My dad had passed, and you see those things, but you don't see those components as being part of your professional life. So, whether he knew it or not—and now he's definitely going to know—he was very influential in helping shape who I am as a boss and an owner. I owe him and his family, because they gave me an opportunity to work with him and because of what he instilled in me as a professional. I am now paying it forward and instilling it in people like you and all the rest of the workers. It's important that we recognize who our influencers are and the people who give you inspiration and the people that you want to emulate. It’s very important that we recognize all three.
You've worked in male-dominated industries. How has that shaped your perspective and the way you lead IP?
There are sometimes when people want you there and sometimes when people don’t want you there, but it doesn't matter who wants you there and who doesn’t want you there. You’re there to do a job, and you’re there to be very a viable and a very substantial, a very substantive part of the team.
Their respect comes and when you give respect and you understand that sometimes you’ll go into a room, and it's like, “Look, I'm going to be in a room of males. I'm going to sit down and make sure they understand where I come from, and that’s all great—we can do that and we should do that—but there is a right way to do it, and there's an appropriate way to do it. When you understand where they're coming from and give them respect for what they've done, what they've gone through, or what they had to do to build their business and to build their professional careers … because when you're in these rooms with different people who have huge careers behind them, and so we have to give them respect. Because if they've gotten to this place by working really hard, and they understand that you're going to be working hard as well, they respect you and you respect them. You come to the table and may be a very substantive part of that team. We have to be substantive, but we have to be logical about it: not every idea you have is going to be the right idea at that time it may be a good idea for another time and not everything that they contribute is going to be the right idea for that time, but that's why we all come together, and we all make sure that it's done correctly.
I think that I learn more from everyone else by listening more, and then you have to learn, listen, and ask questions, and want to be included. Ask them, “Hey, you said this. What did this mean?” I would ask that, and sometimes I was met with “What do you mean you don’t know?” but the majority of the time, it was, “Well, this means this, and if you need anything else, let me know.” People are really willing to help if you're being open and honest about you know what you know and what you don't know.
You're there for a reason. Just be sure of yourself but being sure of yourself is not always just speaking up and planting your stake, or like in the movies when they stab the knife in the table: “I'm here, this is where I'm sitting.” We don't need to do that. You want to go in there, you want to understand who you're working with. It's a big piece of how you're going to react. You don't want to miss anything, so listen. Listen and understand. And you're not going to understand everything, but it's okay. That's what they invented pens and paper for. Write it down, write down the words, write. And then, later on, ask the question.
We sometimes cheat ourselves out of understanding more, because we are not asking the right people the right questions. We just need to make sure that that we're asking the right people. If you’re in the room with somebody and you ask them, “Hey, can I ask you a question?” Nobody is going to say no. We just need to make sure that we’re asking the right person. If you ask whoever was saying that, he's going to tell you exactly what it means, and guess what? They know what that means; there's no other misconceptions. If you ask somebody else what that person means, you're going to get his interpretation. You’ll get the right answer, so that you can look at things logically and help that group move along. We deserve to be there, and we should be there. Not everybody thinks we that, but we should. We have to make sure that we are representing ourselves correctly, and representing the companies correctly, and representing our gender correctly.
What other advice would you give women who work in male-dominated industries?
I think that the only other piece of advice that I would give is to think about what is happening. When you're in a room with somebody or in a situation, think about it. Take everything into consideration.
Also remember that other people have issues as well and when they answer things and are snippy, or they're not sure, or whatever else, there may be something going on with him. Try to consider everybody that you're working with. It's a really hard thing to do, especially when you're on a mission. When we’re on a mission, we want to make sure that we’re getting it done, and we think we can take on more. I think you know we've had these discussions about taking on so much. Try to consider what that person is dealing with and understand that everybody who’s at that table, everybody has issues that they're dealing with. So, be sensitive to other people and try to be understanding of something that they might be going through that is not necessarily evident. Just go in with an open heart and an open mind, and generally things will work out. It's not easy, because we’re driven people, but take that into consideration, and it’ll calm you down.
To date, what do you feel has been your biggest professional achievement?
My biggest accomplishment is likely here at IP.
I come out of sales. I love the sale. I love being a salesperson, but again, we have to kind of change with the seasons, you know selling in Los Angeles is different than here in Seattle. When
I came to Seattle, it was a challenge, but I found a little bit of a better niche, understanding what was going on here with Intelligent partnerships.
I feel like my biggest accomplishment was being able to select a team. I never made a mistake in hiring anybody that I've hired, even if they're not here with Intelligent Partnerships anymore. I think that my biggest accomplishment is really taking this and learning it, learning how to how to understand the things that we do, as far as: we knew diversity, we know diversity, we know inclusion. But you never really know it until you start working with it. When you have to start considering other people and putting together a plan and learning how to emulate and go back and reach to remember how your bosses did it, what they took into consideration, what challenges did they have, and how did they overcome this thing. Because I was always fortunate enough to be, even as an administrative assistant or as an assistant or as an order taker, as a file clerk, as a customer service representative, as a salesperson, and everything else, I always had that view of being able to see how other people dealt with things.
I’m so grateful for it, because success is what I was able to witness, and I put that into action in our company. We built Intelligent Partnerships from being just Daniel, our founder, and his assistant Katie to having a person who is another administrator, we have a business manager, so now we've got our four working teams. We have communications and media, we have you know the administrative guys, we have our job site compliance guys, and we have our evaluation and validation department, and these are all real departments. I think that I feel like that's an accomplishment, because I was able to glean from the experiences that I had before, to be able to put the components together, and I've selected fantastic people to help me: “What do you think about this?” or people who just grab that baton and run and say, “Here's what I'm doing, and look at this, and look at that,” and I have that in every single department and I'm very, very, very, very pleased with it and want to make sure that I give credit for helping me accomplish what we've accomplished.
If you could go back and tell 18-year-old Julie anything, what would you tell her?
I would tell her to calm down.
I would tell her to listen and let them finish their sentences.
I would tell her not to be so quick to judge.
I would tell her not to confuse determination with you know being judgmental—that was something I really had to do.
I also would tell her to deal with issues as they come along. If you have personal issues, if you have emotional issues, if you have if you have mental health issues—these are things that we never think about when we're teenagers, and a lot of us deal with.
I think it's really important if I was 18 years old, and I knew what I know now or even if our parents knew what we know now … to be able to address those things, and to be able to address anger, and to be able to address sadness, and to be able to address bullying, and to be able to address all of these other things that we dealt with, because all of that does pile up, and it does become this really ugly ball of anger and confusion.
I was then, and I am now, a very beautiful woman, but we do silly things, and we hide behind that mask and say everything is okay, nobody's going to understand any of this.
It could get us in trouble, because we become very daring, so if I was able to talk to my 18-year-old self, it would be just to calm down, it's okay, and just deal with the issues that you need to deal with, because if you harbor a lot of resentment, if you harbor a lot of anger, if you harbor a lot of whatever else the case may be, there are things that we go through that we never attribute to just mental health.
Being able to speak to somebody and being able to see it a doctor or to talk to a psychiatrist and go into group therapy or anything else—and everybody says, “oh, therapy!”—it's not that. It's really just talking to somebody so that somebody else understands exactly where you're coming from.
I had a very real experience with that, and I realized that some of the decisions that I made when I was 18 and 19, because I was always involved in more things: working, doing what I had to do, it got me in trouble. It makes you say things—or not it—you say things and you do things that you probably regret later. It can hold you back because regardless of whatever you're going through again.
This is why I say you have to be sure they understand that everybody goes through stuff sometimes. We just say things that we probably don't mean or probably don't realize what they're really saying actually came out wrong, but there was a lot of silly things and sometimes I think back like, “Oh, Jesus, why did they ever say that?” and I think that I probably could have, in a different career, been further along had I been wiser about the things that I said. It was just more because of immaturity. I mean, when you're 18 years old, you're going to be immature, when you're 20 you’re going to be immature. There are a lot of things, but when you come to consider it, it's like, look, just be careful. Just slow down, take it easy, enjoy yourself, and I think it's important that we, that I, acknowledge who I was back then and who I am now.
If I had it to do all over again, I’d probably make sure that I was staying quiet a lot more often than speaking. and not thinking. You don't have to have an answer for everything