Daring Women: Former Starbucks Exec Susannah Dhamdhere Says Leaders Must See the Big Picture

Now a small-business owner, she also believes a key ingredient for any successful venture is believing in yourself
  • Now a small-business owner, she also believes a key ingredient for any successful venture is believing in yourself

Former Starbucks executive Susannah Dhamdhere recently unveiled her own entrepreneurial endeavor, a coffee shop and café in the 25-story Ascent South Lake Union apartment tower located adjacent to Amazon’s headquarters. The shop, called Lassi & Spice Café, opened for business in January of this year and offers smoothies with locally sourced yogurt, called lassis, as well as a variety of Indian coffees, teas and other Indian-inspired small plates ―such as mini samosas and freshly baked pastries.

Prior to founding Lassi & Spice, Dhamdhere spent nearly a decade with coffee behemoth Starbucks, serving most recently as a national account executive for Starbucks Business Development. Before that, she held an executive role with JPMorgan Chase, serving as a vice president and senior product manager.

Dhamdhere earned a bachelor’s degree in English and Latin American studies from The College of William and Mary and an MBA from the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business. As part of the latest Daring Woman interview, Dhamdhere shares some insights about the challenges faced by women striving to achieve leadership roles and ways to overcome them, her views on mentors and networking, and she also shares some advice for the upcoming generation of female leaders.

What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated?
I love the saying “Good leaders don’t know it all, but they know a good idea when they hear one.” This sums up my belief that technical expertise is quite overrated as a leadership quality. A leader’s role is to ask questions, inspire excellence in others and see the big picture. Good leaders surround themselves with others who have technical expertise, without feeling like they need to be experts themselves. The trick is listening to your people, guiding them in the right direction and then giving them the space to be excellent at what they do.

As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader?
It’s belief in yourself. Maybe after years of being ignored, second guessed and talked over, you begin to doubt yourself. Maybe you don’t look or sound like the other “experts” in your field. If you’re not careful, you develop an internal dialogue that questions whether you’re good enough, or whether you know enough, or whether you’re courageous enough to really go for it. And yet, if you step back and look at your life as a whole, chances are there’s absolutely no reason you wouldn’t succeed. In summary, look at your long-term track record and start believing in yourself. If you don’t believe it yet, then fake it. That confidence in yourself is really needed to take any leap.

Here’s an example: One of the first things I had to do as an entrepreneur was to find a location for my café and sign a lease. This meant that right out of the gate I had to convince a landlord to take a chance on me. I was horribly nervous, wondering why any big developer would take me seriously. My very first meeting was with my current landlord, who had just built Ascent South Lake Union, a gorgeous 25-story brand new apartment building. I felt completely unworthy.

But shortly before heading in for that meeting, I took a moment to prepare like crazy and shift my focus to see myself the way they should see me: a Starbucks alum with a great business concept, filled with passion and optimism about the opportunity. I even brought along a mango lassi and a few mini samosas straight from my kitchen, which I figured couldn’t hurt! After a few minutes, I could see that the landlord immediately got it. They made me feel at ease and affirmed I was exactly the kind of business partner they wanted. Today here I am, located in that beautiful apartment tower, where Lassi & Spice proudly stands on the ground floor. But it first took a perspective shift and confidence boost to encourage me to own that key moment.

How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations?
Don’t waste too much time struggling to move forward, hoping things will change, or thinking you should change who you are, in order to progress to the next step. Think about who you authentically are and do some focused work grasping what you really want to do next. If you’re not being supported and developed, my advice would be to move on. Don’t bang your head against a wall. It’s probably not worth it. Go out and find the opportunity that deserves you.

What key lessons did you learn from a woman who has inspired, mentored or sponsored you?
I’ve always sought out women mentors, and what’s always drawn me to them is their authenticity. They look, speak or act differently than the herd. Typically, they’re not afraid to be direct and blunt. Their advice has helped me find the right opportunities and roles, or make an idea that much more compelling. In tougher times, they’ve been a “canary in a coalmine,” by which I mean when these brilliant, hard-working women get frustrated or struggle, I could see that as a sign that the broader organization had problems.

What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders?
For any leader not fitting into the traditional mold, I would say ― with a dose of encouragement and optimism ― that it’s time to stop listening to advice on how to look, think and speak in order to fit into an organization. For generations, working women, people of color and LGBTQ professionals have been asked to mold themselves to a model of behavior that was based on pretending to be someone else. We are told how to dress, interact with our colleagues and clients, how to express ourselves, close deals, bring forward ideas ― everything really ― in order to fit into the “corporate culture.” It was all subject to critique and could be used as a vague reason for why you were not worthy of a promotion, a raise, or the job at all.

But a key lesson I’ve learned is that there are many ways to arrive at success. There’s no one established path. Companies need to realize this if they want to attract a diverse workforce. Be very careful that your organization isn’t using “company culture” as a barrier, and don’t be afraid to question what that term really means.

How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?
Networking is so important, especially for me as a new business owner. I’ve learned more during a 30-minute coffee meeting with a business leader I admire than from any educational course I’ve taken. Seattle is a friendly and supportive business community. It still feels a bit like a small town where everyone knows everyone and looks out for each other.

Reach out to a new connection, because chances are that founder you admire would be more than happy to sit down to share their time and advice. Join your industry group, which for me includes the Seattle Restaurant Alliance and the South Lake Union Chamber of Commerce; tap into all the resources and connections they provide. These steps have made all the difference for me. And similarly, I commit to mentoring others throughout my journey so I can give back as well.

What would you do differently in your career?
I would have made this leap a little sooner. I spent too many years trying to be someone I wasn’t in order to get somewhere I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. If you have a nagging doubt, or you’re struggling to feel motivated, it’s time to change it up. Ask yourself what you’d want to be doing professionally if you knew you only had a couple years left to live. Go do that.

Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon?
Saturday is a day off for me, when my amazing manager runs the café. It’s my day to take a morning class at Flywheel, have coffee with a friend and spend time with my husband and kids. As a new business owner, I try to keep work from seeping into the days off, but admittedly it occasionally happens. My goal is to make it less and less so.

What would be the title of your autobiography?
“Close Your Eyes and Take the Leap!”

We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire. 

Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.

Related Content

Webb also says great executives listen to and learn from the people they are charged with leading

Webb also says great executives listen to and learn from the people they are charged with leading

Swary also stresses that women’s leadership strengths are often misperceived as weaknesses ― a barrier that must be overcome

Donio says women seeking to advance their careers must be confident that they deserve the job and ‘are destined to do well’

Lockwood heads a working group that is applying genetic tools to advance the detection and diagnosis of cancers and other diseases