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Elizabeth Mays

Printing & Publishing CEO

Detroit, MI

Elizabeth Mays is dynamic and powerful. This was my first impression as a crowd of us watched her on a panel, discuss the story of her family company at a Girltalkwithk series event. She articulated her family history and business with an eloquence unmatched by anything I've ever seen and solidified my opinion when we sat down one-on-one. We discussed leadership as a woman, her hopes for the future of her company and the necessities of self-care to sustain her success.

What has been the greatest personal sacrifice you've made with business?

The greatest personal sacrifice was probably for the first four years of my business not paying myself as I should. You know, when you're in business everybody has different motives and different things that drive them. Some people have different responsibilities or commitments to their company. I was wholeheartedly committed. I knew that this was the last name that I'm carrying in terms of legacy. At the time when I took over, I had 69 years that preceded me. So, at all costs, whatever the business needed, I gave it. I felt like it was a baby, and I was nursing that baby for the first years. You have those days where it's rocky, and days where it's smooth, and then you have days where it's like, “I don't know what's going to happen in the next two months!” It was during those days and times that I told myself, “I gotta make a sacrifice.”

Often, during those four years when I didn’t pay myself, I suffered. But, people couldn't tell because I'm the kind of person regardless of whether I'm good or bad, making a lot of money or not, I'm still going to look polished! I developed concern for others as a result of my own experience during those years, and being a businesswoman. I would ask people I know, especially those I am close to and other businesswomen about the health of their own businesses. I am genuinely concerned about them and their businesses. Whenever I ask associates about their businesses, I make sure to ask them, “Are you paying yourself? Do you understand that you are an employee just like everybody else? And if anything, you are your greatest employee, you are your greatest asset!”

Looking back on it, not paying myself was indeed my biggest personal sacrifice. I do wish I could have done things differently, but also, I don’t regret it.

What do you admire most in your mentors?

I would say probably their willingness to engage with me. Those people who have imparted in my life have just been very down to earth, very real people. I'm just drawn to authenticity because then I can be myself. I've probably had less than a handful of individuals who have imparted into my life in that capacity. I’ve had individuals who have made it very easy for me to come to them. My father, of course, is first and foremost and has probably been my greatest mentor throughout this entire process.

I love that dynamic! How have failures improved your business?

By reworking it to help somebody else avoid it. I'm a big believer in not reinventing the wheel and not failing twice when you have somebody who has already done it. And my father has been a huge example of that. For instance, he'd say "Hey, I see where you're going with this, I want you to turn it around and do it this way or that way." I immediately listen. Because I know he’s dealt with this before. Why should I have to fail at it or have an issue with it, when I can just listen to what advice you have for me.

So even with my own failures, I'm a big believer in teaching lessons and teaching those lessons immediately. I'm grateful I have two younger sisters, and they're very much like my daughters in the capacity of listening to me, latching onto me, wanting to be a vessel for me to feed into. Anytime I go through a situation or hardship, I'll give them a call or I'll text them and be like, "Hey, don't do this." Or if you're at an event, this is what you might want to do. It may seem annoying or like I’m pestering to some people, but it's not at all. It's me teaching immediately while it's fresh in my system, in my memory.

What does the world need more of?

Bold people. Upfront people. Honest people. Straight forward people. I don't like beat around the bush people. We are living our lives right now, we don't have a lot of time to waste. We have a president right now who is forward and upfront. But at the same time, people were not forward and upfront in regards to retaliating against that. We let things go by the wayside. "Oh, he's not gonna do what he says" but he did what he said. I think we just need more of that, so people won't be led astray, won't have false hopes, broken dreams and broken hearts.

Where do you draw inspiration from creatively?

I have a very big imagination, I have a lot of personality. I didn't know I had a lot of personality until going into high school. I draw inspiration from just being bold and forward and not holding back anything. I rarely have a buffer. So, that means I don't buffer my creativity. And if you think about it, some of the most amazing artists are people who are bold, straightforward, people. I was just at Park West gallery. I went to go see the exhibit for Rembrandt and Picasso and a few other new figures. It was super amazing. So the thing is that we know that sometimes we perish for a lack of knowledge. But we also fail to put ourselves in certain geographical spaces to explore what might be for us.

You obviously operate well under pressure. What is it that keeps you going aside from the legacy of it all? Is there anything outside of that, that keeps you going?

Every day I get to wake up and I get to do and I get to create what I want. I get to be a catalyst. I don't necessarily categorize myself as an artist. Actually, I want to be an artist, but the way I create is more of a curation. Synergy bringing people together with projects, opportunities and resources. Somebody even called me a conductor. There's just so much opportunity for me to just be me.

How do you manage that responsibility of being someone others can and do depend on?

I try not to spread myself too thin. Also, I make sure to bring on people who can be responsible, even when I don't have time to instruct them. Everybody that I hire here has to be independent, and also has to be a team player. Point blank, you better be able to possess both, because there are gonna be moments you might not talk to anybody all day. And then there might be moments where you can be working with a person all day on a project.

So, I always look for people to be independent, self-motivated and also a team player. Those characteristics in the people I bring on show me their leadership attributes. At the end of the day, if you work with me, I plan on growing this company and want you to grow with me. I'm going to need to see that you have some leadership traits; because I'm not trying to have you sit in this position for the next eight years. I always try to make sure they're team-oriented, independent, goal-oriented and self-motivated.

When you're not working, what do you do for yourself?

Girl, I do a lot! I live my best life. I like to golf. I used to have a guitar in my office, but everyone would ask me to play and I'm not that good, yet. I rollerskate. I'm a big hobby person. Recently, I cleared out my trunk, because it was filled with so many things. I had my pool stick back there, my roller skates, my golf bag, my yoga mat, my gym bag, and my boxing gloves. I also had my weights in the trunk along with my bike rack.

I noticed from your Instagram you travel quite a bit. Egypt, Europe it looked like, is there anywhere that you've been that you want to go back to?

Oh my god, Italy! Italy is amazing. So I'm making it a thing, now. Every year, I want to do a month-long vacation. And I want to just travel, spend about 7-10 days in one country, and then visit a lot of the cities; and then I want to go somewhere that's also relatively closer to home. Then the following year, probably revisit that area for another seven days and then go to another place and do the same the next year. There are so many cultures and things that I want to experience again.

You're so self-aware and self-positive. Have you ever surprised yourself positively in your work?

I feel like every time I do an interview, more of Elizabeth comes out. Meaning, I used to have days where I came to work looking super corporate. My skirt, my shirt my shoes, but after a while, I was like, take me as I am. I'm not meeting with people every day, anyway. So, I decided “come as you are, be who you are.”

With these interviews, I've noticed that I've become more unapologetic and much more comfortable. Yeah, I've become more comfortable in my own skin. I did one interview where I was talking about my trip to Egypt and how I was speaking to several hundred people over a span of a week. And then I was talking about this book publishing, and I was talking about the magazine and I was talking about putting on this event and also how I'm going to be putting on this book publishing seminar. All of a sudden I was talking about so much stuff. I thought to myself, “Dang Liz, how do you find time to do what you do.”

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