Women in Business Q&A: Joni Fedders, President, Aileron

05/06/2016 05:52 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Joni Fedders

Joni serves as President of Aileron, a national small business training institute, headquartered just outside of Dayton, formed by billionaire Clay Mathile, the former owner of pet food maker Iams Co. In her role as President, Joni oversees Aileron's strategic direction, culture and operational activities. Her leadership and energy inspire and motivate the Aileron team and the community as they strive to raise the quality of life, one private business at a time. At Aileron, business owners, presidents and CEOs take classes on leadership, business culture, strategy, advisory board development and transition planning. One of the country's preeminent think tanks, the campus is credited for improving countless businesses across the country.

As a past business owner, Joni understands the risks, rewards and challenges that ownership and professional management bring. She had the opportunity at Iams as a Brand Manager to live in a professionally managed organization where she saw first-hand how strategy, strong leadership and culture can fuel a company to do great things. After Iams, Joni co-founded a technology services company and became an Aileron client herself, taking the renowned Course for Presidents, establishing an outside Board of Directors and utilizing strategic planning. The company grew from 2 to 100 employees in five years, was a finalist for the Ernst & Young Cincinnati Entrepreneur of the Year award and was named by the Cincinnati Business Courier as one of the 25 fastest growing companies in the region.

After selling the business, Joni and her husband just couldn't stop and bought a second business in decorative packaging that they operated for seven years before successfully selling. Joni has been honored with Dayton Business Journal's "Forty Under Forty" award and also been named one of Dayton's 50 Most Influential Women. She received her bachelor's degree in business from Miami University in Ohio and obtained her MBA from Xavier University. Joni and her husband Jim have been married for 27 years; they have three great children, a golden retriever and a small mutt. Family time is a crucial priority for Joni and they enjoy skiing, tubing, running, fishing, sports, family events and vacations.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I have failed at many things in my life and it isn't limited to work. I learned that failure doesn't define you, it refines you. Through the failures I have learned I can get up again, I can repair things, I can learn, I can see who I am and who I am not. Failure has given me a 30 year marriage to my best friend, three great kids, a job I love and family, friends and teammates who accept me for who I am. I bring that all to how I lead and hopefully have the grace to accept others for what they bring too.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Aileron?
As an employee of the Iams Company I was able to experience a highly energized culture based on clear values, beliefs and a simple yet powerful vision. Fast forward five years and I had cofounded a start-up technology business, and needless to say the culture, the growth, the business model were not as successful and I experienced first hand that growing a company to achieve this simplicity was extremely difficult. Being able to work in a professionally managed organization like Iams and then facing the challenges of growing and scaling a business has given me empathy, respect and understanding of the true challenges a business owner and their teams face to make it all work. It's helped me and many others find inspiration to support Aileron's approach of providing simple, practical ways to grow and scale a business.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Aileron?
The highlight is at the end of the day we get to help people change their own lives and create opportunities by implementing new strategies, experimenting, challenging the future and becoming conscious to what exists. We also get to continuously learn and unlearn to shape new beginnings. The challenges have been the constant change needed to make this happen, changes in the way people do things, changes in thought, changes in ourselves and others.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Go for it! There is so much joy, opportunity, innovation and personal development in small business. The people are innovative, motivated and always trying to take something to the next level. Assisting them in the personal, professional and organizational growth is so rewarding as you see the ah has', the hope and the potential of others become visible right in front of you.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
You don't have to change who you are to be a good leader. In fact the stronger you become at who you are the better you get. People will try to tell you what time you need to work, how you need to work and when you need to work. Becoming a mother gave me the strength to fight for what I valued. I left at 5:00 with others saying I wasn't committed, I worked from home and I heard you can't do that. I heard you have to be a great communicator, or dress for success. Those are not the things that guide me today. I strive to be creative, collaborative, humble and authentic and to live with purpose and for the things I value.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I don't. Is there such a thing. When we say work/life it give us the myth that they are separate activities. Work is part of my life and a part I love. On the flipside, when I go to work I don't leave behind the parts of my life such as family, friends, spirituality, being outside and being active.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Our own thoughts. We can't change others but we can change how we choose to respond to others. We can choose to be powerless to situations or we can choose to face them. It's not a gender issue, it's a confidence opportunity. To be change agents anywhere you must be willing to ignore the unwritten rules, the rules in our heads and create new ones.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Someone once said your brain can be a bad neighborhood, especially when you're there all by yourself. Mentors, board of advisors, friends and team members all can play a role in challenging the story you tell yourself. They give you perspective, ask the hard questions or challenge the beliefs to allow you to grow and achieve more than you possibility believe you could do yourself.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Not sure who I don't admire. Mother Theresa for her humble and servant leadership. My own mother and sisters for their strength and commitment. My neighbors. Those who reach out to others. Working parents. Cancer survivors. A well spoken presenter. A recovering addict. A business owner. A marathon runner. The list goes on and on. There is inspiration and a lesson in everyone.

What do you want Aileron to accomplish in the next year?
To continue to unleash the potential of individuals and their privately held organizations through professional management which ultimately raises the quality of life in America for all. Specifically we want to become more a part of the small business workweek, meeting them where they are both in maturity and in location. We hope to leverage technology and create more ways individuals can connect with each other and the proven approaches of growing and scaling businesses.