THE BLOG
12/15/2014 07:57 am ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Tanisha Robinson, CEO, Print Syndicate

After serving as an Arabic Linguist in the US Army, Tanisha Robinson continued studying Arabic at The Ohio State University. Upon receiving a fellowship, she moved to Damascus, Syria, taught English and worked in women's rights throughout the Middle East for almost two years.

Upon her return to Columbus, she built and sold an affiliate marketing portfolio, and went on to become the founder of Fudha.com, a daily deal site focused on locally owned, independent restaurants. Since its launch in early 2010, this social enterprise contributed over 30,000 meals to the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, supported the local restaurant community, and saved its members over $250,000 on the best independent restaurants in Central Ohio. 614 Media Group purchased Fudha.com in Summer 2011.

Tanisha is currently the co-founder of Print Syndicate, a design/technology/marketing company with an ecommerce platform devoted to providing well-designed, socially relevant, high quality products to consumers, on-demand. Print Syndicate is better known for its outward facing brands, lookHUMAN.com, ActivateApparel.com, Threadsetters.com and MericaMade.com, with more brands on the way.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up Mormon in a small town in Missouri. I was closeted, and one of very few black people in my high school. I didn't really fit in, and I think those challenges made me a lot more compassionate and empathetic. There is a direct correlation between the open and accepting culture in our business, and that I didn't feel accepted growing up.

I am also the second of seven children and the oldest girl, so I had a lot of responsibility which made me confident, independent, and self-reliant. Although my family didn't have a lot of money, we often did service projects, which gave me the powerful perspective that I could have an impact, and from an early age I believed I could change the world. I still think that.

I also spent time serving in the Army before joining the startup world, which taught me a lot about self-discipline, self-motivation, service, and leadership. It was a great context for me to exit my teenage years and prepare for adulthood.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Print Syndicate?
I have worked both for great entrepreneurs and leaders, and difficult and toxic people. I learned a lot from those examples about what kind of leader I want to be--empowering, compassionate, transparent, and the styles of leadership and communication that I never want to be associated with: passive-aggressive, aggressive-aggressive, micromanaging.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Print Syndicate?
One of the biggest highlights for me is the realization that Print Syndicate, despite being an apparel and home goods company, can also be a lever for community impact. We have 110 employees, which also means we have a volunteer force of 110 people, and 110 donors to make positive change in the Columbus area. We did over 1,000 hours of community service this year, and hope to double that next year. Positively impacting Ohio is an important part of our culture.

The other major highlight has been to watch our people evolve over the past two years. We've seen originally timid people show themselves to be highly effective leaders in our organization, and I feel proud that we've empowered them to be successful.

It was a massive challenge for me to reorient from running a team of ten to running a team of over 100. We struggled to maintain the same sense of closeness and transparency through our rapid growth. Fortunately, our people are willing to offer feedback and share their perspectives, so although there was a rough patch, we have figured better mechanisms for two-way communication. I now do lunches and happy hours with groups of five or six at a time on a weekly basis, which has proven to be an awesome experience on both sides.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in online retail?
Any online business is becoming more and more about data. Everything we do - marketing, design, fulfillment, customer service - is measured, tracked, and tested, which generates massive amounts of data. Our most successful people know how to examine and interpret that data, which, in my opinion, is one of the most valuable skills in online retail.

We've also taken a bold approach to the product itself in order to separate ourselves from more traditional competitors. Our current sites, LookHuman.com, ActivateApparel.com, MericaMade.com and ThreadSetters.com each have unique, artist created offerings that resonate with their customer base based on social trends. Find ways to set yourself apart.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have coffee every morning with my wife, and we travel once a month to get away and hang out. I make regular time for my friends, and rarely eat alone. I have learned that keeping balance makes me more productive, more effective, and happy while at work. A lot of my job is to think, and when I don't make that time, I am far less creative, imaginative, and motivated.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I believe that upward mobility is one of the biggest hindrances for women in the workplace. Although it's proven that companies who have women on their boards at the highest levels are more profitable and effective, there is still a barrier. I think it's totally archaic and ridiculous, but it will take more women seizing and creating opportunities, as well as the men in charge to support and elevate more women to those roles, for real equality to happen.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
It's a great fortune to have a strong network of brilliant men and women in my life who have helped me navigate both the emotional and practical aspects of building a high-growth business. Regularly, I rely on them, I trust their experience, I take their advice and it has made me a much better leader, thinker, and spouse.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire Ellen DeGeneres. Her fearlessness to be open about who she is, despite the consequences, has inspired me to always be myself. I was in high school and in the closet when she came out, and I will never forget the impact that it had on me.

I believe that money magnifies impact, and Melinda Gates and Oprah Winfrey are phenomenal examples of women who are trying to make a positive impact on a global scale.

My wife, Michelle Heritage, runs the Community Shelter Board - the strategy and funding organization for the entire homeless system in central Ohio. I had the good fortune to marry one of the most compelling, authentic, effective, and intentional leaders I have ever encountered. I learn constantly from watching her, and she is my greatest coach, mentor, and champion.

What do you want Print Syndicate to accomplish in the next year?
Next year is our opportunity to prove our model without any capital limitations. We've already experienced 350 percent growth in under two years, and I hope we can continue to scale rapidly while still maintaining our thriving culture and sense of family.

I'd also like to grow our management team, particularly with people who can add to our vision in the areas of marketing, operations, and finance.