People always ask me about which business leaders inspire me, and oftentimes they are looking for recommendations on the newest business book to buy. Truthfully, what inspires me most are the people and companies I have learned about in my travels and in the many business organizations I am lucky to participate in.
I thought a great idea for my blog for 2017 was to start sharing some of these stories and companies with you about once a quarter. Some may be companies or products that you have heard about; some, like this company, Innovative Office Solutions, from Eagan, Minnesota, you may never have heard about. Jennifer Smith and I had an opportunity to talk about being a woman-owned and led company, what makes her company’s vision unique, and what really inspires her about her company’s corporate culture. We hope you enjoy these interviews, which have been edited a bit for length.
Alison: Please tell us a little about your business.
Jennifer: We make workplaces more productive. We deliver products and solutions to offices all over the country. We service people from the boardroom to the breakroom to the bathroom. We do sell the obvious items that are in the office such as pens, paperclips and post-it notes, but it’s all about office productivity. For example, we have a solution that hooks up to your network, and when your toner gets low we just send you more. It’s not just a commodity product that we’re selling—we’re selling a solution along with it.
Alison: That’s interesting, so it sounds like it’s not just about the product but it’s about sort of that emotional aspect of it. Where you hate the idea of someone having to be frustrated, having their work and productivity inhibited because of a problem like that. Would that be accurate?
Jennifer: Yes! Absolutely. Our whole vision is to inspire people to love what they do and who they do it with. So, for example, we design collaborative workspaces for people that bring their brand to life and spark productivity.
Alison: I love that you mention that your vision is to inspire others to love what they do and who they do it with. How do you inspire people at Innovative? And how has this changed with the increase in telecommuting?
Jennifer: Our environment lends itself to inspiration. We have a very open and collaborative work space that encourages innovation. People understand their purpose and how their actions truly matter every day. This really has not changed with the increase in telecommuting, as each new location we open has the same core values and foundation associated with it. Each location does take on its own personality, though, which is fun to watch.
Alison: How did you decide to name your company Innovative Office Solutions versus “office supplies”?
Jennifer: Most of the companies in my industry had either “office supplies” or “office products” in their name. We purposefully knew we were much more than just an office supply or office product provider. We knew from the beginning that we would be a company that provided solutions to businesses to help them be more successful.
Alison: Did you ever find that you were not taken seriously or that you had to work extra hard to make your ideas a reality because people just didn’t understand?
Jennifer: There was a time 15, 16 years ago when people did not see that the paperless world was really coming. I knew that was going to come, because my kids weren’t printing off their homework assignments. But it was very hard to get others to believe this was actually a reality. It took a tremendous amount of energy to get people behind changing our business model due to the decline of paper.
Alison: Did you ever find that you had a more difficult time or had to work harder than your male counterparts because you’re a woman?
Jennifer: You know, this industry is very, very male dominated. I kind of grew up in that as well, so I never saw it as a hurdle, I saw it as a huge benefit, because it was a differentiator. My glass is always half full, though. You know, it’s never half empty. I had my purpose, I had my vision, and just plowed through it. There were probably some obstacles, and I just said, you know what? I’m going to pivot and go in a different direction. I never let it stifle me.
Alison: Were there specific events in your career that inspired you to take a leadership role?
Jennifer: Sports were a huge influence in my life. I was the team captain in track and that is when I knew I liked leading people. I grew up in that environment that encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be. That’s what I knew. Why couldn’t I be the leader? I never thought, oh, I bet you I can’t be. I always thought, well of course I’m going to be! Because that’s what I saw from both my mom and my dad.
I think it’s so important, for example, it’s great that you and I members of the Committee of 200, and their vision of “shared success.” One of our most successful programs in Minneapolis is when we took the programming down to the high school level for girls, to show girls what business women and business leaders look like. We had roughly 100 girls, and all but one never remotely thought of business as a choice because they’d never seen it.
Alison: I wasn’t able to go to that one, but because of the success of your program we held a similar program in Chicago with inner-city girls. We had the same result: not only did the girls never think about a career in business, but most of them never thought it was possible to even go to college. It was an inspiration for us as women leaders just as much as it was for the girls who attended. Hopefully our positive modeling and showing these girls that a woman can be anything goes a long way.
Jennifer: Absolutely. And I did, I grew up in an absolutely amazing family that said you could do anything. I mean, I played boys’ baseball until seventh grade. I just liked baseball. I didn’t see being a girl as a big hurdle, because my parents just encouraged me to sign up for whatever I wanted to do.
Alison: So in terms of inspiring more young women to pursue leadership roles in business, in addition to modeling that for them, are there any particular skills that you would encourage parents to help their daughters develop?
Jennifer: Well I think it’s great if you are involved with helping them pick some of the correct classes and activities that could show their leadership. There are different classes and summer programs; there are different activities that you can encourage your kids to sign up for. Sports were a huge, huge thing for me growing up. You know, being part of a team and having that opportunity to maybe be a team captain. Different extra-curricular activities I think are really important if you’re a male or a female.
Alison: So just finding opportunities for them to be leaders in their lives?
Jennifer: Correct. And I think the Girl Scouts, for example, have a CEO Camp for girls. I mean, how great is that? I wish I would have had something like that, so if you can search for some of those opportunities for young girls, that would be advice that I would have for young parents.
Alison: As a leader at your company, I’m curious as to how you would describe your leadership style, and whether you think being a woman leader might make you either better or worse at certain aspects of leadership.
Jennifer: I definitely think that it does. I think being a woman leader, the creativity, flexibility and openness to try new things has been a huge part in the success of Innovative. I’d rather try something and fail than not try it at all.
Alison: Your company is known for having a unique, fun company culture and for being a great place to work, and we were curious if you could tell us more about the culture and what makes it special, and maybe what you do to cultivate it.
Jennifer: We have a very, very intentional culture here versus more of a dictatorial culture where there are tons of rules. So we don’t have a lot of management in this company, because of that very intentional culture. We hire to culture, we fire to culture, our interview questions are all based around our core values, and when you walk into our building, you can just feel it. We have a vibrant feel when you walk into the building with glass moveable walls and pops of color everywhere. We also have Inspiring words covering the walls. Each person who comes into our building also gets a culture book to take with them.
Alison: You have been named one of the best places to work in Minnesota for a few years in a row. How did your intentional, fun culture help you create a great place to work?
Jennifer: We have been honored to receive the best places to work award for six straight years. We feel very strongly that you have to love where you work and that translates into a better customer experience. We have a strong set of core values that people live by coupled with a strong vision, and that sets us up to have a great place to work. We also have a very strong care committee that puts on activities within the company and many opportunities for our employees to give back to charities and nonprofits in our community.
Alison: What are some of the comments your employees have made about working at Innovative?
Jennifer: We produce a fun culture book each year, so I will quote some of the employees from our book:
- “Our culture helps fuel the energy that makes me want to come to work” —Barb K.
- “I love to BE INVOLVED because it allows employees to not only be involved with the company events, but also offers a variety of volunteer opportunities throughout our community.” —Anonymous
- “When you’re smiling, everything seems to work out better.” —Maria R.
Alison: How has the use of the word “In” with the circle in your logo help to create your intentional culture? What does this logo mean to you, and how do you think it will help grow your company in the future?
Jennifer: Your brand is so much more than a logo or a slogan; it is who you are. We use the In Circle for many things. For instance, with new prospects it is an easy question to ask, “are you IN,” for employees you are “all IN,” and if someone wants to be involved they “get IN.” It is a fun but professional image that we love to show off.
Alison: Another unique aspect of your culture is your use of employees in your catalogs and YouTube videos with themes to start out your yearly catalog. How did you come up with that idea?
Jennifer: Our employees are our company and they love to be “all in,” so about six years ago we started using our employees for all of our advertising and social media. When we started putting people on the cover of our catalogs, it just naturally transitioned into our theme for the year. So we pick a theme and transfer that throughout the year for our customers, vendors and employees.
Alison: You’re also certified as a woman-owned business. Tell us a little bit about why you went through that process and what it means to you.
Jennifer: Absolutely. Again, I think in all businesses you try to find what differentiates you. We are a woman-owned company, and it is a differentiator. It was a great group to join, because it allows you to network with not only other women-owned businesses to see how they’re being successful and how you can learn from them, but also with large corporations that have diversity champions.
Alison: This has been great. Thanks so much for your time and for sharing your inspirational story.