Kamilah Martin builds safe & empowering communities for Black women and other women of color who have recently transitioned to nonprofit consulting. She navigated the nonprofit world herself for twenty years and in 2020, with the world feeling turned upside down, she resigned from an organization whose lived values no longer aligned with hers. She took a risk and bet on herself, leaning into her passions, talents, and purpose.
Join us by the Campfire Circle for a gorgeous conversation about Kamilah’s story, her vision for changing the nonprofit sector, tips on how to grow your social impact consultancy by being your biggest customer, and Kamilah’s advice and lived experience on planning in-person retreats for your clientele.
“My journey, probably like many of ours, is really a journey of evolution. There are so many stories interwoven in there, but it’s ultimately about liberation.” – Kamilah Martin
Highlights from the podcast episode:
[01:50] Kamilah Martin’s founder story
There are so many parts to my story and what I’d like to talk about are the various journeys that I’ve been on that make up my story. Honestly, one has been a journey of attempting to manage perfectionism and people-pleasing. That’s been part of my story, probably, since I was a very, very young child, and has been part of personal relationships, professional relationships, and how I’ve grown as a leader. So, that is certainly a large part of my journey to where I am today.
I think another journey is attempting to heal really from unhealthy and toxic relationships, both personal and professional, and learning more about how and where I potentially perpetuate toxicity. I had a conversation recently about ego, which was something that has been coming up with me a lot lately. And I think a lot of my self-awareness journey and self-actualization journey is about understanding ego, and where that has come into play in different areas and aspects of my life. So, lots of personal healing really is part of my story as well.
I think it’s interesting that I’ve landed here. I’ve been on a journey to create and build environments and teams and communities where people can just show up and be and feel safe and thrive, and if I really think back on that, that’s really been a part of me for as long as I can remember. I sent out an email to my email list not too long ago and my mom was on it, and she replied basically saying: “Girl, this is stuff you’ve been doing since you were a kid”. It was just so interesting to have that reflection brought back on me because she’s right. I was the captain of my dance team, and we were a great squad together, then I went and did stuff in college. So, that’s been part of my story throughout and it’s really interesting to see now that that is really a core foundation of a lot of the work that I do, both as a consultant and as an entrepreneur, and it’s been there from the beginning.
So, overall, I would think that my journey, probably like many of ours, is really a journey of evolution. There are so many stories interwoven in there, but it’s about evolution and, ultimately, liberation. I think that is where I’ve settled and now in this phase of my life that is the idea of what I want to bring for both myself and what I want to help others realize and actualize for themselves as well.
I love this time that we seem to be entering or dipping our toe in right now where the lines [between personal and professional] are blurred. Because, when I talk about safe spaces, psychological safety, and showing up authentically as your whole self, I think some of the conflict a lot of us, and myself personally, have felt in professional careers has been around the fact that we have to separate those things. Like, I can’t show up in my head wrap if I want to. There are just so many ways that we internalize what it means to be one thing or to be something else. I think the more that we can blur those lines, that’s the world that I want to live in.
[07:05] Kamilah’s journey within the nonprofit sector
The way I like to talk about why I decided to leave the nonprofit field is really by explaining the name of my company, which is Katalyst.
In 2020, there were a series of catalytic events, there was a lot going on in the world. We had racial tensions and people were recognizing racism more in the forefront and more globally, and that was rippling and trickling down into professional settings, people’s personal lives, and family settings and debates. We had a political season right before which I think stirred up a lot of emotion and energy in people in positive, and maybe not so positive, ways. And then we had the pandemic, which got everyone on the same page around something around the entire world.
I was a vice president of a humanitarian organization and there was a series of emails that were very troubling to me and made me sit and take pause, and consider whether or not I wanted to continue to participate in an environment that I felt didn’t value me as a black woman or the perspectives of other young people who were calling out some of the challenges of the times and calling the organization to task. So, it just wasn’t a safe space for me anymore to continue to be in that environment.
That experience was my catalyst, that was the line that was drawn in the sand for me when I determined that I can be of more value when I can choose the kind of people that I want in my space and choose the kind of people that I want to work with, and also when I can take my skills and my talents directly to organizations that I felt were more aligned with my lived values. So, that was the reason that I left.
Pretty immediately, I had a few people reach out to me once they found out and learned about my transition asking if I could support them in different ways. So, when one of my colleagues from graduate school became the president at her organization and she needed some help getting things together and getting the ship in shape in her early tenure, I came on and helped her a bit with some thought partnership, strategic fundraising, and things like that. Then I had projects here and there, and that turned into other things which turned into other things. It was an interesting time and it just was a moment where I had to make the decision of the direction that I wanted to go in that period.
Part of my journey was getting over the fear of putting myself out there. I was never super active on LinkedIn, I was always shy about sharing my true story. Then I just stopped doing that, I stopped being scared and just started sharing more and more, you’d be surprised with the floodgates that opened and the opportunities that came as a result of that.
So, I think that’s one of the first steps that I recommend to anyone that I’m working with, as uncomfortable as it is. I’m very much an introvert in many different ways and I think the more you find your story and put yourself out there, there are people that that story is going to resonate with. Also, as we alluded to already, when you’re putting yourself out there and sharing your vulnerabilities, sharing the ups and downs, gives people freedom or makes them feel like they have more power in doing that for themselves.
So, LinkedIn has been gold for me in a lot of different ways. I’ve actually made some great friends on LinkedIn and the more I put myself out there, I think the more the universe opens to bring me various opportunities and various people that can help me reach some of the goals that I have.
[12:19] Changes we want to see in the nonprofit sector
When we consider the trend we see in the social impact space of so many highly skilled individuals who are leaving to start their own consultancies, I think the root of that, because of 2020 and everything that it was, is that people are tired.
First of all, workforces of any kind are made up of people and everything that people are bringing to the table. So, the fact that people are tired, the fact that they’re more discerning, and not as afraid to call out bullshit anymore or to call out what they’re feeling internally as being part of an organization, I think that’s going to continue to make a lot of the spaces that we navigate shift.
Personally, I feel like that’s a positive thing. I think you either need to get with the program and figure out how to navigate that or you’re going to be one of the people that are stuck dealing with turnover, unsatisfied employees, and that sort of thing.
What I would love to see around this conversation is a shift in the thinking around power dynamics in our field, because you’re going to have employees that may leave to find another lateral position or work with an organization that they feel more aligned in. In terms of changing the sector and the differences that might come up as a result of this time that we’re in, I’m more confident in that change when we start to see changes in board makeup, when we start to see changes in the whole conversation around donors, and the power dynamic of donors, and the power structure really the development and fundraising side of our organization versus the mission side of our organization.
I don’t think our sector is going to change until we’re looking at the people who hold the power. I think that needs to happen across the board, around the world, and in the way our system works.
As some of these highly qualified people are leaving the sector, people who have been leading organizations and leading multimillion-dollar budgets, I’d love to see them bring some of their friends along and figure out this board situation that we have and also democratize fundraising a bit, so it’s not just multimillion-dollar funders who generously give, but also people who are closer to some of the situations and challenges that our sector in our field are trying to resolve.
So, across the board, I think that’s one of the biggest ways that we can see improvement in our sector around this trend that we’re seeing of people leaving and going into independent consulting, which gives you a lot more freedom and free time. So, maybe they can use some of that free time to contribute in other ways to address some of the structural challenges of our field.
[15:54] Niching down by being your biggest customer and building community
I would say the one theme across everything that I do is safety, community, and liberation.
My secret is that I am my biggest customer. I’ve realized that I am part of this really intentional niche that’s growing, which is Black and Brown women who are looking for community and support, who are amazingly accomplished and have been successful in a lot of ways who now have decided that we want to bet on ourselves and take what we have to offer directly to market.
I don’t know if this is the best business advice in the world but, literally, everything we’ve done in the past two years at Katalyst has been about what I need as a new consultant, what I need in this moment in time as a Black woman leader, what I need to feel safe and to thrive, and how I need to be taken care of. And that is really how we show up in every single thing that we do, which are primarily three things:
1. The first is a mastermind community of nonprofit consultants who are transitioning from their W-2 nonprofit work, mostly in executive or director-level roles, into independent consulting.
That came about because when I was transitioning two years ago, I was like: “Where do I go? What do I do? Who do I talk to? How do I do this?” and the more and more I started telling that story, the more people started reaching out to me in my DMs and messages saying “Oh, my goodness! This resonates with me too, tell me how you did it.” And I thought “Well, I’m learning as I’m going, so why don’t I just build this community of people? I’ll bring in experts to teach all of us.” and that was the first thing that we did. We have this very safe and vulnerable community where women are building each other up as they’re building their businesses.
Safety is a thread because I really do feel that what caused me to leave in 2020 was a lack of psychological safety. So, I was just desperate in that moment to be in communities and be in spaces where I didn’t have to explain, where I didn’t have to code switch, where I didn’t have to show up in certain ways, and where I could just be and be who I was, ask the questions I needed to ask, offer what I needed to offer with the community of people who would just get it and that was the community we built.
We started out with a cohort model and we’ve done a couple of cohorts. Recently, we transitioned to a membership model, where we meet a few times a month, bring in a coach to help us work with real-time challenges that we’re facing, and we work with each other through it. That’s been an amazing and incredible experience and if I could just do that full time I would be so fulfilled. And that is really one of my goals, really building that space, letting people know it’s there, letting them know that the doors open for them to experiment on themselves and to try this out in a very loving and safe environment.
2. The second is our Fill Your Cup retreats, which, along the same lines, are about safety and luxury and pouring into Black and Brown women, and I needed that last year.
One of the things that we do is luxury, I have done mountain retreats, and I have done things where you’re centering yourself and silent retreat mode, but this was all about pampering because I was like “I take care of my team, I take care of my family, I just want to frickin be taken care of.”
We handle everything, we invite 15 women to come to a beautiful luxurious space and we have a coach that comes in to talk about visioning and planning and how to get unstuck and that sort of thing. But, really, it’s just a space to exhale, and it’s a space with other women in similar positions to just be and just to do them and to be okay with whatever that means for each person.
With the retreats, some people come wanting to do all the things, and the horseback riding, and the mixology classes, and some just come and want to sleep, because they don’t have that and they come and want nobody calling their name. So, you show up in that space, and you take from it, whatever it is that you need.
3. Then the third thing that I personally do is consulting with nonprofit organizations during leadership transitions, and I really think one of my gifts is creating authentic and safe spaces. I think that is important when you’re dealing with transitions, trust challenges, teams needing to be restabilized, and that sort of thing.
My past couple of gigs have been with organizations, where the Chief Program Officers or Chiefs of Staff have left and they need someone to come in and help fix things for some time, while they’re hiring their full-time person.
That’s the space I love to be in. I love working with people, I love having people know that this is an environment where we can work together to get out of this what we each need, maybe it can be sort of a community effort to get common goals met. So, that’s what I personally do in my consulting practice.
You would think you need to reach more people but, honestly, the more I niche down the better it has been for me. As you said, you attract the people that should be there. So, it saves you a lot of time of weeding out folks that don’t need to be there or dealing with people who aren’t happy because you’re spelling out specifically what it is that you do and who you’re doing it for. For me, our model is that it’s something that I need because I’m that person. I am them, right? And so I trust my instincts with, again, safety, and vulnerability, and authenticity, and community. So, if I feel like that’s something that I would want to receive, I’ve found so far that it’s what others seem to need as well.
So, I really think there’s power in finding your community. If you think of all the big brands and things, like Apple, they have something and a community of people that need something that they offer. They don’t necessarily try to do all the things, again, you can think about a lot of other big organizations and companies that do the same thing. It’s a matter of finding those people who need what it is that you have to offer, and in my case, meeting who you are.
But I will say that there’s a lot of self-work in that because you first have to figure out who you are and I think that’s part of that journey that I mentioned at the top of the conversation. I’ve just been doing a lot of work in the last couple of years of recognizing why I show up in certain ways and why I need certain things. I really think it’s made me a better person, but I also think it’s impacted my business because I can go into something pretty clear about the direction because I know what it is that I need because I know who I am. If I’m out here operating from a place of scarcity, or from a place of just still trying to figure everything out about myself or still meeting that people-pleasing perfectionist thing that I used to carry around, then I can get so bogged down in operating and existing in that space. But once you nail down and have more clarity around who you are, I just think everything in life tends to become smoother.
[27:31] Planning retreats (and the growing desires for meeting in-person)
First of all, I’ll say that I love remote working and I love remote existing and community because I’ve done it for 10 years, before remote and Zoom were even a thing I was running teams starting in 2012 that were completely virtual teams around the world. So, I’ve seen the power of them and I think they’re great. It gives you the opportunity to meet people from all over that you might not otherwise be able to meet and I completely understand how draining and exhausting they can be when that’s your only option. But I don’t think that should necessarily go away and that there’s room for balance.
People are craving opportunities to be around people and they are craving community. I didn’t set a New Year’s resolution this year, but my word for 2022 was community. Interestingly, since I set that intention everything that we’ve built has been around community.
So, again along this topic of niche, I think there are going to be so many opportunities for people to figure out what specifically it is that they might need in that particular moment and to find or create that sort of experience for people. And you don’t have to go out and market to 100, 500 people, it can be intimate. I feel the more intimate, the better.
So, my experience last year, when we first did the retreat, was born out of my need. When I was having a group chat with two of my girls and we were talking about life I said “Why don’t we just come together and chill on the lazy river and have awesome food and figure out life?” and then that turned into the retreat.
I did it completely on my own last year. It was an idea that I had, I put it out there to a few people, built a landing page, and negotiated with the hotel. I did everything and it was freaking exhausting. My cup was not full. I went in hoping to fill my cup and named it that and I came out completely depleted and that’s when I realized that I need a team.
And, again, in this entrepreneurial journey, you can continue to fall into that burnout cycle unless you have people around you who can support you. So, that was one thing this year that I knew that I absolutely needed in order for it to be everything it could be and more, and for me to get out of it when I needed personally.
So, this year it was like a whole other level up, we did a fabulous five-star luxury resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica. It’s interesting because, going back to LinkedIn, I had put a post out on LinkedIn last year at the end of the retreat saying that I wanted to do this again, that I want to find a Black-run, Black-managed, or Black-owned resort and asking people to tell me where to go, and two people recommended the place that we ended up at this year. So, that was the power of community, the power of social media, or whatever you want to call it.
I started the negotiation process and then hired an event planner, Lauren Wellman, who has been incredible to run our events. She helped with registration, she helped with communicating with our attendees, she helped with negotiating and things with the hotel. Then, I also splurged on a videographer who put together some incredible footage. We had to up the price, of course, because we’re bringing in a team this year. We brought in our coach again and it was incredible.
I mean, incredible is even an understatement. 100% of the people that responded to our survey said that they definitely would recommend it to a friend. This is breaking news but we’re doing it again. I opened it only to the people who attended this year, and we’re already 50% pre-booked. So, this is something that people need and want. I’m so proud of how it turned out. They pre-booked not knowing what the price is going to be, when it’s going to be when, or where it’s gonna be, they just knew they needed to be there. It’s just a good feeling to know that you’re creating something that resonates, that people need, that they’re willing to pay for, that they’re willing to take risks themselves, because like I said, it’s not cheap. I’m looking for sponsors to make it more affordable and to democratize people’s ability to attend. I just think it was an incredible experience. There’s a need there. If there were ever a commercial for niching, I think these in-person events would be it because there is a community out there for what it is that you have to offer.
In my business, I have those two perspectives, I have the mastermind community, which is completely virtual, and then I have the retreats, which are completely in-person. It does take a much longer time to build up that authenticity, that culture and vibe that you’re looking for over Zoom, or over the internet in any sort of way. I think I have it down to a little bit of a science. But I also think that just speaks to some of the strengths that I have, and just showing up authentically in any space. Some of the people who are part of our mastermind attended the retreat and it was just like a family reunion. We have ideas of what people are like on Zoom when we do our meetings, but then meeting them, it’s just like what one of the women said: “This is like meeting new people and also coming to a family reunion at the same time”. So, I think those in-person spaces definitely help cultivate that sort of environment.
[34:45] Kamilah’s big dreamy vision of liberation for all
I know that my dream is liberation. I think that is going to be different for every person and that people need to do the work to determine what that means for them.
For me, it means having choice, having freedom, having financial security, being able to do the kinds of things that I want to do in the ways that I want to do them, being a leader, creating more of these sorts of spaces to give other people permission, not that I need to give them permission, but just helping them recognize their ability and the power within themselves to do the same for themselves.
I think a lot of the ways the systems are set up is that we have to rely so heavily on the government, or on someone who is going to give us a job, or just lots of things. It puts us in an almost submissive position and that just doesn’t sit well with me. So, if your goal is X, I want you to know that you have the power within yourself to find the community to help you get there, to work and work yourself towards your vision. I want you to know that you bring things to the table already that will help you in that direction and that you don’t need to rely on other people to reach whatever goals you have.
But, I think the first step is figuring out what liberation means to you and then, pursue that. I never want to get on this high horse of speaking about entrepreneurship and consulting or contract work as though it is the way to go to be liberated; I do not agree with that. For the person that wants that, it’s the way to go and they can do it. But I also think that if comfort, safety, and stability are your forms of liberation that you have, so you can turn off and clock out and go do other things, then do that. Just make sure that you’re doing it so that it feels right for you, and once it stops feeling right for you. If you can’t fix it, do something else and give yourself permission to be able to do that.
So much is built into liberation: safety, security, freedom, community, and interdependence. So, that’s my big dream for all of us.
Connect with Kamilah Martin:
LinkedIn: Kamilah Martin
Connect with Tania Bhattacharyya:
LinkedIn: Tania Bhattacharyya
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