Women in Business Q&A: Amy Swift Crosby, Founder, SMARTY

03/06/2015 08:15 am ET | Updated May 06, 2015

Amy Swift Crosby is the founder of SMARTY, a women's entrepreneurial network based in Los Angeles and Boston. SMARTY creates programs for women, panel discussions and hosts peer group meetings to support women in the growth and success of their small businesses. Amy is also a strategist and copy writer and works with brands to establish strategy, positioning and messaging. She has worked on campaigns or projects for hundreds of consumer goods, luxury, hospitality and service businesses - but some of her favorites have been for GUESS, MGM Mirage/City Center, The Mandarin Oriental, Ian Schrager Hotels and Christian Dior. She is the moderator of SMARTY's entrepreneurial panels and has been speaker at women's conferences all over the country. Her blog about small business is a leading voice in the entrepreneurial space.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I think it's hard to say what leads to you be a good leader. For me, I have a strength in taking a collective pulse on a group - understanding what people need, even when they don't know they need it, and bringing those pieces to the picture. In my case it's for small business owners - mostly women. I think good leaders don't live in silos. They are connected to the people they serve. They constantly have to weigh what's good for an organization, what's good for the members, what's good for some but maybe not all. It can be a challenging role. Sometimes I wish I could excuse myself for a few months and take a break! But it doesn't work this way. You have to keep going, taking risks, falling down now and then. Integrity is the most important thing. You have to do what's right, not just what's convenient, most profitable or easiest.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at SMARTY?
I've been in marketing for about 15 years, as a brand strategist and copy writer. I have a very untrained skillset - meaning I developed it in real work situations but I don't have formal training, nor did I work inside a big ad agency. I don't rely on focus groups and tons of data to drive decision-making, although of course it's a consideration. I learned through working with creative teams that people may want the same thing but don't speak the same language. This can be a huge barrier to progress and success. So finding a common currency is more than half the battle. Being able to acknowledge people's gifts and talents really is a galvanizing attribute. People want to be seen for their best contributions, and if you can actually, and genuinely, see them and recognize those strengths, you'll get great work or resources from them.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at SMARTY?
Like anyone in a butts-in-seats business, we are continually challenged by competing demands. People don't have as much time for in-person events anymore. There are so many things to do, people to meet, blogs to read and Tweets to reTweet! It's frustrating when you put an amazing program together not to have every seat in the house full - so that is hard. Some highlights have been meeting some of the world's most interesting business owners, interviewing them, unpacking how they do what they do. It's incredible what people have accomplished, and under difficult conditions many times. Women have extraordinary determination - even with little children, households to run, husbands to stay married to. It's a big thing to have a big life, and I have learned a lot about how to do that by the events and panel discussions we do for SMARTY.

What are your top tips for being a great networker?
Have something different to say. Open with, "I noticed you spoke with the speaker for a few minutes after the program - were you sharing an observation or question? What was it?" Just something that isn't boring or tedious. I have a hard time with small talk, and look for the nearest exit if it happens to me. But when someone has a specific anecdote or approach, I am much more interested. If I want to talk with someone, I am direct, I look them in the eye, and I get on with it. Sometimes when someone has a long-winded story, it's hard to stay "there." Be brief, be present, say what you mean.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I know that it is a prerequisite for happiness, and it's pretty much that simple. I had a serious illness last year and it becomes very clear very quickly; you know what your priorities are and don't let too much get out of balance. Working long, long hours or being on a plane constantly doesn't bring me joy. Being home with my family, cooking, going to yoga, to pilates, reading, film, making things, writing, seeing amazing art - there's so much to do in the world. Work is part of it, but it's not everything.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I deal with entrepreneurs more than people with "workplace" jobs, so for them I think the biggest challenge is right versus left brain thinking. There are a lot of women who don't like the operational/financial aspect of running a business. They are either creatives--or talents in some way - and just don't want to get to know their P&L intimately. This probably goes back to early conditioning, and it's certainly not true across the board, but as a generalization it's pretty accurate.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I had a boss when I worked for CNN who was in Human Resources. The way he looked at problems and conflict between people was so fair minded, cool handed and big picture. I'll never forget Allan DeNiro for that reason.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I love Maria Shriver for her transparency. I love Mariel Hemingway for her clarity about health, wellness, meditation, moderation. I love Sharon Gannon who co-founded Jivamukti Yoga. I admire Natalie Massenet who created Net-A-Porter after being a fashion editor. I love what Sonia Kashuk has done with her line at Target and how she opened the door for other make up artists and hair stylists to become brands, and Rita Hazan who started as an assistant hair colorist and now runs an empire off 5th avenue in New York City - all with an even hand, level headedness - not disconnected to emotion but not led by it. She may be doing Jennifer Lopez one minute and then move onto your hair problem, and everyone gets treated the same. I like women who don't lose their femininity in their leadership. They trust their gut - and you can tell. That's more than an MBA could ever do.

What do you want SMARTY to accomplish in the next year?
We are collaborating with another women's organization who has a like-minded approach but different modules and offerings. We are a very good match. I hope to be more impactful for women in small business by working together with them - by growing our membership base to women all over the country who can benefit from community and education about growing a sustainable, healthy business. I was never a joiner or a networker - and SMARTY is a community for many women who don't see themselves in traditional networking groups. We're different. We're not for everyone. But we are for a certain type of woman who is smart, fun, committed to what she does, amazing at what she does, and who wants to support other women. That's our lady.