Keisha Howard: Geek of All Trades - Founder of Sugar Gamers, Co-Founder of the Blaze Breakers and Head of Marketing at Live CGI

1. What’s your background, how did you arrive at your current role, and what are you most focused on right now?

I would categorize myself as a renaissance woman, my background is diverse, but all of it has been valuable. Though I went to college for organizational psychology, I began my career in luxury high rise real estate development, working on the skyscraper project, the Chicago Spire. However, a passion for community, technology, and gaming ultimately led me on an entrepreneurial journey where I eventually founded media tech company, Sugar Gamers, and began working as head of marketing for the software company Live CGI. It’s been quite an adventure.

 

2. Was there a turning point in your life or career that pushed you to become the female leader that you are today?

Angela Davis said it best – “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

There came a point where I simply couldn’t accept that “life isn’t fair”. Being treated unfairly violates basic human needs for autonomy and belonging.

I just went a bit insane after realizing I wasn’t given the basic tools I needed to succeed in my position. When I confronted a former employer about it, he acknowledged my hard work and suggested I learn to “play politics”.

Because of this experience, and many others similar to it, I make sure that I spend a lot of time, money, and resources to support other women. I also try to be creative, resourceful, and solution-oriented when solving career related problems because I realize that my pathway to success will have to be unorthodox. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

 

3. Can you explain the process/inspiration/go more in-depth about Sugar Gamers, and/or Live CGI?

Culturally, video games and the associated technology have broken out of niche corners of the world and will only continue to become more mainstream. Tech innovations that start in the video game industry are shaping the future and are affecting everything from military to medical, to entertainment. Everyone is a gamer even if they don’t identify as one. We have even gamified our desire to connect with all sorts of apps and social media platforms. I can’t think of an industry more exciting, more impactful, and more filled with the promise of innovation than working in video games and technology. I feel like I get to take part in creating the future.

 

4. How has being a woman affected your experience as an entrepreneur, if at all?

As a woman, I feel I was socialized to be less equipped to navigate this entrepreneurial journey. My brain feels as if I have several operating systems simultaneously at play when trying to navigate simple conversations. I question myself a lot. Do adverse circumstances occur because I'm a woman, a person of color, or am I just not good enough (is it all of the above)? It's been hard to ignore those doubts. It’s challenging to maintain confidence and not second-guess myself.

However, owning my success as a woman motivates me to work harder and achieve more in my career. It also makes me very present to the gratitude I feel when people collaborate with me and contribute to my growth and accomplishments. 

 

5. Best and worst advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I have received is simultaneously the worst advice. “Hard work, honesty, and determination conquer all obstacles and that success will come from talent, effort, and achievement.”  This is not necessarily the advice I needed to effectively run a financially sustainable or competitive business. We don’t live within a meritocracy and believing that I did has been a challenge to unlearn and has slowed down my progress.

The best advice, or should I say the most comforting advice I received is there is more than one way to be successful. Raising capital and landing huge investment deals isn’t always the best option for every business. If you can find ways to bootstrap your business, it guarantees your ownership of your visions and concepts.

It’s a longer gameplay, but I am confident there is more than one option for fiscal success. Bootstrapping has allowed me to create a culture within my organization where exceptional performance becomes the norm and team members are fully accountable to each other to meet goals. We’ve had to learn this industry at a granular level and be creative and resourceful every step of the way. This has made each success incredibly rewarding on a multitude of levels.

 

6. What is something you wish you had known before starting a company?

I knew to start a company would be challenging with the number of resources I started with, but I could never imagine the gravity of the sacrifice I'd have to make to keep afloat. I've encountered multiple unpredictable shifts in this process that blur the lines between my work life and personal life. Part of being an entrepreneur for me meant stepping out of my comfort zone, often multiple times every day, for extended periods of time. I wish I had known how important taking care of myself during this process would be. It seems super simple that taking care of yourself should be an obvious priority, but It’s something I have to be very deliberate and intentional about. I wish I had started my company with healthy self-care habits already in place.

 

7. Last question to keep things real, what was your very first job and is there anything from that job that still serves you in your role today?

When I was 14, my job was a part-time assistant at the Chicago Department of Human resources. After demonstrating that I could learn fast and take on an abundance of work without complaint, my employer took advantage and had me do her job as she took extended breaks, often lasting more than half the day. At first I was proud that I could be so reliable that I could do an "adult's" job at 14, but over time, I realized that I really needed to understand the value I bring to a company and not undervalue my contributions. Sometimes I still have to remember that lesson.