Carla Walker: 'Think big; follow through'


Solopreneur strategist and C.E.O. of think BIG strategies, Carla Walker, welcomed us into her downtown office and out of the busy streets and Opening Day crowds. As the hours stretched into the late afternoon, our conversation traveled from harnessing interests in professional life and strengthening international relationships to morning rituals and the moments in life that change everything.

Interview by Dani Clark. Photography by Alex Larrison.

I’d like to start at the beginning, as in the beginning of today. Do you have any routines and rituals that start your morning?

I've actually thought about this. I used to do these Facebook posts and I would write about my "D.I.T.L." – a "Day in the Life" of Carla. However, I’m realizing there isn't any one typical day, and part of that is because I don't work normal hours. Everything is kind of in flux, right? With my business, think BIG strategies, I manage communications for clients across the Asia-Pacific. It’s not unusual for me to be up and working at 11, 12, and up to 3 o'clock in the morning. I also do a lot of work for the relationship between Cincinnati and its French sister city, Nancy, and they’re about six hours ahead of us, which makes for some early conference calls. It's like spinning plates. I love it, though, because I no longer subscribe to this belief that in your professional life you're only going to do that one thing, right? I have several passions, and I want to be firing on all pistons.

The balance is challenging. I might go to yoga and be in bed at like 9 p.m., but wake up at 3 a.m. The routines that click each day are driven by my calendar. The first thing I do is look at my schedule for the day, check emails, and catch a little bit of the news.

With all the work you're doing, how do you protect your energy?

As you can probably imagine, sleep is not a thing that usually happens [laughs]. I protect my energy in a couple different ways: I'm a hot yoga fiend. I would love to be able to do it every day at the studio, but when I can't, I hop on the treadmill. Then I have a phenomenal group of girlfriends. They are just incredibly talented, creative, go-getters, game changers, and some I've known for 30 years or more. They are wonderful sanity touchstones who listen to my ideas, but they also push me by asking me things like, “I see what you’re doing, but are you actually accomplishing what you set out to do?" It’s incredible.


As you think about your life as it is now and how you got here, what turning points stand out?

One was getting my first master's degree at the University of Florida. I studied environmental engineering and science with a specialty in hazardous waste and health physics. It's an interesting field, right? I was involved in environmental justice and environmental racism. And when I came back home, I kept asking myself, "Who's going to hire anyone working on these issues?" While I was looking, I started volunteering with environmental groups. It launched this whole political time of my life. And part of that career had me in the mayor's office with Roxanne Qualls as her communications director.

The next turning point was getting accepted into the Kennedy School at Harvard. I packed everything up, moved to Boston, and I was there for close to a year at this accelerated program for a master's in public administration. It opened up another world to me.

My dad always said, “Look, you never know how long you're gonna be on Earth. Whatever you do, make it count.”

When I finished, I moved to D.C. Then one of the best things happened: I started working for Bono and his organization, which at the time was just getting started. At the time it was called DATA, which stood for "Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa." There was a triple threat to the continent, and his whole effort was about really doing something about it. And part of it was changing the way policies are structured for the funding of some of these programs, so they brought me on to resurrect relationships across a couple of congressional districts.

They had done this conversation tour with Bono and Ashley Judd and some other folks. So now imagine this: Nobody collected an email. Can you believe it? Anyway, for about nine months, I was traveling around to different cities to build volunteer networks. It was so successful, they said, "Why don't you do this across the country?" And so I built their national field operation, which still exists. I think we went from 100,000 to 1.2 million folks in their email database. Of course, it's had a couple of great iterations, but that's how they got started. It was a lot of work, but it was so much fun! I was working with the most dynamic… wizardry people [laughs].

The next turning point was when my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. I had to move back to Cincinnati to help with his health care, and I've been here ever since. When I first came back, I started helping a friend of mine, Mark Mallory, who was running for mayor. Mark won the election and I came on as his chief of staff, which was also a cool turning point.

And then in 2008, my younger brother was in a really, really bad car accident. He was a traveling musician and had a C4 spinal cord injury. That changed everything. It was right around the time that I was leaving the mayor's office, and we were all taking care of him, but he ended up helping me. My brother was a musician, but he was also a tech guy. He had his own thing; he was a consultant. When I wanted to step away from the mayor's office, he assured me and said things like, "You can do it. It's easy."

And the rest of my family was behind me, as well. My dad always said, "Look, you never know how long you're gonna be on Earth. Whatever you do, make it count," which inspired the mantra my sister and I share: "Think big; follow through."  My brother needed 24-hour care, so one day when we were at the nursing home together, we were talking about names. I felt like I would never be able to walk away if I had my name in my company’s name. And so, my sister said, "Think big," because that's what we do, and that's how think BIG strategies came about.


It sounds like you've had really high highs in your career and your education, and some pretty low lows, as well. Can you tell us about an important learning moment during this journey?

When I learned that I could actually make a difference in policy or the way an organization works, it was quite telling. That isn’t something you learn in a biology class or in an M.B.A. program. The realization was exciting and scary at the same time. I learned that I can affect change, and now I have to affect change. In some cases, it can almost be intoxicating, because when I realize I’ve accomplished something, I want to figure out what's next, who I can work with, and how I can go about doing it right away.

When you're aware of the challenges of the world, it can be defeating. The fact that what you learned wasn't self-defeat, but self-actualization, allowed you to make a path forward that helps people. Your international work is a great example of this. On a city and individual level, why do you think global connections are important?

I've been involved with Sister Cities International since I was in Mayor Qualls’ office. And Sister Cities, long story short, is the citizen diplomacy arm of things. The relationship that a municipality has with an international municipality through Sister Cities is actually a Memorandum of Understanding that both mayors have to sign. It's official – you're linked.

There is a way to look at our city assets and recognize the global potential. There’s an opportunity to highlight what we're doing here so people know the great things about Cincinnati and not overlook us, and that drives an awful lot of the work I do. Not only am I the president of the Sister City Association, but I'm the vice president of the Cincinnati Sister City group. I've served on the board of directors for Sister Cities International for six years. I’ve had the chance to see how other cities are leveraging their Sister City networks toward city planning from a global perspective. It's good to have an understanding of the cities out there that are saying, "We're broadening our awareness of other cultures and bringing them in to help people start businesses and build community in our own culture.”

And all of this plays a role in the work that we're doing for the Cincinnati Sister City: Nancy, France. We've been facilitating an internship program for a couple of years where we send a couple of students over to Nancy. Last year, we launched a major jazz initiative, where the history of jazz in Cincinnati was shared alongside the history of jazz of Nancy.

What do you think Cincinnati has to learn from Nancy and what does Nancy have to learn from Cincinnati?

Nancy is trying to learn about the activities that Cincinnati is on the forefront of, like connecting with businesses and corporations to help them create their own climate change plans. The city of Cincinnati has launched the 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan, which is the second iteration of their climate change plan that began in 2008. Nancy just went through a yearlong process and have announced their Transition Ecologique, which is basically their sustainable development climate change plan for the next 10 years.

And from our perspective, Nancy is a cultural city. They have a number of UNESCO heritage sites. It's absolutely beautiful, but they also weave that culture into everything that they're doing. The precursor to BLINK, Luminosity, was actually inspired by a light show that took place in Nancy years ago called Place Stanislas. There's so much we can learn from each other internationally.

It’s the little moments of love that offer a bit of a reprieve. It's like pushing the pause button, and I'm trying to pay attention to those moments more.

How does this openness to international relationships and cultures extend to other parts of your life?

Recently, I’ve been more open to noticing love in the universe. Have you seen those red spray paint hearts around the city? I saw one of those hearts on the ground in France and was so happy to see more when I came home. I think it was a sign of something that made me start thinking about being open to seeing them and the love and beauty that they represent in the everyday. It could be somebody helping someone across the street, you know? It’s the little moments of love that offer a bit of a reprieve. It's like pushing the pause button, and I'm trying to pay attention to those moments more.


Do you see any connection between the realization that you can affect change in the world and your work with Sister Cities and think BIG strategies?

I would say yes. I want to look back, even after a year, and see what I've done that's been positive. Did I make the time count? And that's how I've been throughout my career. I’ve never approached opportunities without first thinking about the potential impact and how it's going to make things better. The whole passion to look for the good in the world – and also the lesson of being able to affect change so that good can take place – has always been a part of my work.

One of the great things about being a solopreneur is that I'm able to select the projects that I want to work. If it’s not something that's going to dynamically change their system, community, or industry, I'm not the best consultant for that project. I'm very hands-on with the work I do, so the work has to be game changing. If it's not doing that, that's okay! It just isn't something that best aligns with my skill set. I look forward to the outcomes, look backward at what has made those things possible, and then find new paths forward. And if you are working on something that you believe in and you have a passion for, it's going to give you energy – it will continue to feed you. It's like that for a lot of solopreneurs and entrepreneurs.

What would you have said to yourself when you first started your business?

I would say another one of Carlton Walker's sayings – one of my dad's sayings: "It's more than a notion."

Background: I never set out to start my own thing. I never saw myself doing that. You might sit back and think, "I'm going to be a consultant" and have absolutely no idea what it involves. It's much, much more than buying a laptop and doing social media for a friend. There is an awful lot involved in building clientele and figuring out the processes that are distinctively yours. It's more than just a notion; it's more than just deciding you're going to do something.

Then I would probably say, “Find some time to relax and enjoy the winds.” You can't constantly be going, going, going. And, “Don't beat yourself up” – I say that to myself a lot. You can reflect, but after a while you've got to let that go. Forward movement is good movement. Let's say something didn't work out. Something else much better might just be coming down the pike. And you need to get what didn't work out of your way in order to make room for that. That's how I see things now.

When you start looking at all the things you've done, look and be proud of that. I don't think women do that enough for ourselves. Like I said, I have this amazing girlfriend group and I'm just in awe of them. And it's reciprocal – we tell each other that all the time. But when it comes to myself, I have to intentionally tell myself to recognize and congratulate myself on good work. It feels weird, but you have to tell yourself that it's necessary.

There can certainly be a distinction between how you talk to your friends and how you talk to yourself. It's all about finding a friend in yourself.


Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

I mean, there's a list. If you start in the inner circle – my inner sanctum – there's obviously my mother and my sisters. You know that saying, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree"? I am the apple. My mother just knows everyone. She started a nonprofit over 10 years ago called Urban Greater Cincinnati Network on Mental Illness. It's a safe place of learning and advocacy for people of color whose loved ones have a mental illness or they themselves are suffering and recovering. She's an advocate for the mental health community here in Ohio, nationally, and internationally. Then I think of my sister, who is a singer-songwriter and guitarist up in Columbus. She's been singing forever. She and my younger brother used to have a band that was very popular here. They traveled 40 weeks out of the year in eight or nine different states. Now, she manages the open mic series at the Sam Ash Music Store in Columbus. She's really built out this connection to the music community. She's another apple, and again, my mom is the tree.

And then there are women like my mentor Roxanne Qualls. I have not worked with Roxanne in several years, but I could sit down, have lunch with her, and I would still be amazed by her.

I'm in a constant space of wanting to learn from others, which makes it a difficult question to answer. Even my clients right now – I work with Michelle Dillingham, who's the C.E.O. of Community Shares. I don't know how she does everything she does, but I'm learning a lot from her about the intricacies of the social justice issues her organization is dealing with. We just brought on a new group of board members and one of my favorite people, Dr. Karen Bankston…  She's one of my big sisters. I just really appreciate her warmth, her knowledge. There's just so many influential women out there.

Do you know an awesome woman of Cincy? Nominate her here! New features launch every Monday.