Executive Spotlight Q&A: Vanessa Graham

Photography by Don Kadair

Vanessa Graham

Position: Owner

Company: VGraham

Age: 44

Family: Husband, Brent Graham, and nine-year-old twins, Olivia and Bennett

Hometown: Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Education: LSU, Bachelor of Science, Accounting

What was your first job and what was your takeaway from the experience?

KPMG-Baton Rouge. There is an opportunity to learn and grow from everyone one you meet and through every interaction. 

What are some of your hobbies, or favorite things to do in your free time?

Our family enjoys playing golf together. Even the kids play with us on vacation. We enjoy Sunday afternoons on the practice holes, and find this a great time to visit and kick back. 

You launched your company in 2012 after having worked for companies such as KPMG, APPRO Systems Inc. and Equifax. What was the “aha moment” when you realized the time was right to launch your own firm?

Following these experiences, investors I worked with previously continued to bring me to various companies to address challenges and work toward achieving growth goals. My husband would continually point out how I was called on and how he could see the opportunity for me to go out on my own and help many. Today, with my team, that is what we do every day—help owners and their financial partners reach their goals and overcome growth challenges.

What was the most difficult part of launching your own company, and what would you do differently if you were able to do it over again?

I would say the most difficult part for me was switching my mindset to that of “owner,” as I was previously employed as CFO. There are different decisions to face as owner. My perspective must be different than that of my team. My role has evolved as we’ve grown, and I have put a lot of time and energy into how we have grown. I’ve been very conservative in our approach to growth, and it has served us well, as we are a healthy, growing business. Looking back, I could have taken more risks and established this team sooner.

Your firm works with a lot of companies that are struggling with the challenges that come with growth. What are the most common problems you see arise in a company that is rapidly growing?

Many business owners voice to us the need to identify the bottlenecks in their business that hold back their growth. Often business leaders struggle with block and tackling the day-to-day challenges versus working toward the plan and vision that will ultimately address the challenges in their growth. In addition, business owners often are suffering from lack of good information that includes what key items, if focused on, would really create change for their organization. Often, resources are not being used to their fullest potential, as they may be placed in an area that does not capitalize on their strength. All businesses get used to how things have always been, and do not take time to streamline processes and improve automation and use of systems.

What is something about your job that might surprise people?

I work with a very talented team of highly respected and experienced women. We not only support one another and our clients collectively but we also learn from one another, as we each bring unique gifts to the table. Our team not only brings sound financial advice, but also brings a wealth of knowledge with systems, processes and organizational development.

You’ve been involved with a number of nonprofits and organizations, such as Early Learning Center, THRIVE, McMains Children’s Development Center and Junior League of Baton Rouge, among others. What motivates you to volunteer?

As I am bringing up children in this community, it is important to me to invest in the community we are a part of. There is great fulfillment in seeing the missions of these various nonprofits being fulfilled, and I am proud that I have been able to serve in various organizations that have provided such positive experiences for children in our community.

What is your best productivity hack?

Schedule out my to-dos for the day and stay on tasks, completing them one by one and not putting them to the “later” pile.

You’re taking me out to a business lunch in the Capital Region. Where are we going and what do you recommend I order?

I love the chicken salad at J. Alexander’s.

What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?

My dad was big on encouraging us to take jobs that taught us salesmanship. One of many sales jobs I had included working for Coca-Cola bottling company in Natchez, Mississippi. My job was to offer new products to customers at the local grocery store. The summer I held this job, Mystic Waters, a flavored water drink, was the taste I was offering to people who passed by. Needless to say, I don’t think those products are on the market today. 

What’s the best vacation you’ve ever taken and what the next vacation you’re planning?

Our best vacation was definitely to Europe—Rome, Florence, Venice, Nice and France—10 years ago. My husband is eager to take the family camping, so maybe that is in the cards.

As a business owner, wife and mother of two, what is your strategy for trying to achieve a healthy work-life balance?

Ask for help where you need it, and don’t think you can do everything. Let those your closest to know when its time to spend time together, and don’t let time build separation.

What’s the greatest personal or professional obstacle you’ve had to overcome, and how did you do it?

I had a boss (the CFO of Equifax, Dorris Gulley) that refused to use the word “obstacle” and instead used the word “opportunity” when discussing challenges. That has stayed with me. At age 34—13 years into marriage and hitting my stride in my career—Brent and I were blessed with the news of twins, but we all had a tough start in kicking off this family. At 23 weeks in my pregnancy, I was assigned to bed rest and the twins were born at 30 weeks. The twins faced the expected hurdles caused by prematurity in their stint in the NICU, but are healthy today. These were challenging and emotional times, but a great moment of growth, as they brought great perspective, respect and appreciation for all that life offers you and for the people in it.

Can you name someone who has had a great impact on you as a leader, or someone who has been a mentor to you in your life or career? How have they changed your outlook?

I’ve had three whose teachings have been important to me throughout my career. First, and most importantly, would be my dad, Page Ogden. I still call him daily, like I did in college for a dose of support in everything from raising children to discussing challenges, thoughts on current events and even technical financial knowledge. He keeps me focused on the bigger picture of things, and I am continuously reminded from his teachings to respect the perspective of others; don’t get taken down into details that you cannot change and keep your eye focused on the end goal. In addition, I had the great pleasure of working for two great leaders early in my career, Paul McCown and Matt Semrad. Both maintained a high expectation of performance, but yet taught life’s lessons on how to be an influential leader, how to approach various business situations and the fundamentals of turning a company around. I am who I am today for the experience I gained from working with them.

What is something you’re determined to do in life?

Provide the opportunity for my children to travel, to see how others live and appreciate all that other places have to offer.

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