Following a career that had seen her take on an array of impact roles in leading impact businesses, from the Context Group to the Global Fund and Change.org, Noemí Jiménez decided to branch out on her own.
In March 2017, she and her co-founder launched qb. consulting, a small, women-owned and BIPOC-led ESG consulting firm that set out to disrupt the status quo. (BIPOC is shorthand for Black, Indigenous and people of color. Qb. stands for queen bee.)
Five years later, the firm boasts an impressive client list that includes the likes of Ben & Jerry’s, Blackstone and Verizon. In this conversation, Jiménez talks the ups and downs of starting your own business, the epiphany behind her decision to cap growth and what it is that her high-profile clients are saying is top of their list of concerns.
Shannon Houde: Clients always think they want to go work for the big brands, but you can do some really amazing impact work, that also gives you more of a personal work life balance, in smaller organizations or by running your own business. Can you talk us through how you came to make that transition?
Noemí Jiménez: Transitioning is generous. I was laid off for the first time in my career, which felt scary but also like a weight had lifted off my shoulders. I knew that there was an opportunity to pivot and do something different. For the the first time, probably ever in my career, I had a chance to really think about what I wanted to do next, and I had in the back of my mind that maybe I wanted to do my own thing.
Houde: Can you tell us about being a small woman-owned consulting business and how you set out to disrupt the usual mindset?
Jiménez: When we were thinking about disrupting the space, there were a few things that we wanted to do differently. First was — and this was 2017, pre-pandemic — we really felt strongly about having a remote-first workforce. We weren’t sure how that would land with clients, and so we were very careful about how we messaged it. And we also wanted it to be a consultant-only network where everybody had flexibility. Flexibility meaning you’re not beholden to an employer. So, you can take on a project and then take a break. Or if you’re on maternity leave, you don’t have to miss a beat as there’s no gaps in your resume. These were the things that we wanted for ourselves and that we didn’t see in the space. All these things that I know now are much more common post-pandemic. We wanted to avoid burnout and allow people to put work second and life first. Even though we’re in the client service business, we really feel more like we’re partners to our clients in this work. We’re not like working for our clients. We’re working with our clients.
The second part of it was that we didn’t see much diversity in the sustainability consulting space. Every time I looked at the leadership [of a business], it was very homogenous across the board. I didn’t find any women-owned businesses and very few people of color in leadership roles. And I didn’t find any firms that could employ me that had BIPOC leadership or owners or founders. There was a disconnect between the work that we were trying to do and what leadership looked like or the experience that people had.
And so those were the two things. We wanted to provide flexibility, and we wanted to create a workplace that was diverse on purpose. We wanted to source diverse talent, train diverse talent and make sure that we had diversity across the leadership.
Houde: As the business has grown, what have been some of the key challenges? And how has that changed your day-to-day?
Jiménez: There are many ups and downs of owning your own business. The ups are so high and fulfilling. And then the downs are low and scary. At the very beginning, the main challenges were financial constraints. We kept giving ourselves a certain amount of time, and saying if we’re not paying ourselves a salary by this date then we’ll probably need to get real jobs. Another challenge was narrowing down and really finding our sweet spot in terms of the services that we wanted to offer and being able to say no to the work that wasn’t quite in our wheelhouse. We did take on a lot of work, which gave us experience, testimonials and case studies — and I think it was right to be open at the beginning — but as we started to have more choice in clients, we began delineating more what our core services were. Once we got that right, once we figured out what it is that we wanted to do, it helped with our business development, it helped with our branding and all the content that we were putting out.
2020 changed everything, for many reasons, and regardless of the sector, the majority of the issues at the top are always human capital.
The pandemic, unlike for other businesses, really accelerated our growth. We were just struggling to keep up. Then the year post-COVID, both my partner and I were pregnant, and both had kids within a few months of each other and took leave. This was at the same time our business was expanding really quickly. And so then the biggest challenge that we faced was learning how to say no, when our bandwidth didn’t allow it so that we could protect the quality of our work, protect the mental health sanity of our consultants and make sure that we were delivering on our promises.
Now what I spend most of my time doing is recruiting, onboarding, training and … vetting the quality of our deliverables and managing client relationships. I’m also more focused on hiring amazing people so that I can continue growing the business and focus on the culture that we want to have, and just doing some of the other things that I can’t delegate.
Houde: how big you want to get? Because I think that’s always a question for small businesses. What are your growth aspirations?
Jiménez: One of our advisers was a co-founder and mum, who herself had a fashion brand. She asked me at one point, when we were having this crisis of saying “no” to new work that was coming in, “Are you trying to build an empire? Or are you trying to build a lifestyle business?” That was an aha moment for me. I got off the phone. And I really sat there. A year ago, I wanted to climb the ladder, I wanted to build an empire and be one of those big firms. But I said, right now, if I’m really honest with myself, what I want is a lifestyle business, I want to do the work I love, I want to work with amazing people, I want to partner with good clients, I want to have an impact in the world. And I want to also be able to leave in the middle of the day and go volunteer at my daughter’s school if I feel like it.
So, I feel very fortunate that we’re in that position. We have between 25-30 consultants. People come and go, they roll off and onto projects, and many people are only active sometimes. We have definitely consultants who are taking on like three to four projects at a time. And we’re trying to grow our base that we can keep up with that demand. But we don’t want to be working nights and weekends, I don’t want to be on my computer all day and then put the girls to sleep and then come back to my computer, I want to spend time with my husband. I want to go to dinner and do something else.
Houde: And thinking a little more broadly, what are you seeing in the market in terms of ESG issues and challenges that your clients are having? What do you see companies most concerned about?
Jiménez: Human capital, for sure. 2020 changed everything, for many reasons, and regardless of the sector, the majority of the issues at the top are always human capital. Partially, because it’s one of the harder things to address and nobody’s really figured it out yet. It’s something that everyone has think about, and the faster companies realize it’s something that they need to invest in [it], the better off, they’ll be. And then I’d say the second one is regulation. Measuring and managing carbon footprint is all the buzz, and we’re getting so many requests from companies, both new clients and clients that we’ve worked with before, that are feeling the pressure of impending regulation.
Houde: Finally, what do you think are the skills that you need to be the most effective as a consultant?
Jiménez: I would say communication is key, both written and verbal. For the most part, we want people who can eventually be presenting to a CEO. Whether they’re right out of college or they have 10 years of experience, the goal is for them to be client-facing. So good communication skills. And then, because we’re fully remote, good written communication as well, someone in the habit of communicating and keeping track of timelines and deadlines, and working independently. Whether they’re a project manager or an individual contributor, it doesn’t really matter: Everyone has to keep their eye on the ball. The other one is high standards of excellence. Someone who’s in the habit of double, triple, quadruple checking their work. We want to make sure that we’re on the ball, and that we’re delivering to the standards that we’ve promised.
Shannon Houde is an ICF certified career and leadership coach who founded Walk of Life Coaching in 2009. Her life’s purpose is to enable change leaders to turn their passion into action and to live into their potential — creating scalable social and environmental impact globally. To follow more stories like these, join Shannon for Coffee & Connect where she interviews sustainability practitioners every month to learn more about what their “day in the life”involves.