June 25, 2024

Solving problems through service, strategy and serendipity – Aviva Ajmera | Founder & CEO at SoLVE KC

For our 19th episode, President & CCO Ethan Whitehill chats with Aviva Ajmera, Founder & CEO of SoLVE KC, about how trust and transparency topple team challenges, and why leaders must get comfortable with crucial conversations.

Ethan Whitehill: Hello again. I’m Ethan Whitehill, president and chief creative officer of Crux, the “un-agency.” This is “To the Point,” our monthly podcast for thought-provoking conversations that get to the crux of it all to help businesses elevate their brands and amplify their missions. Today’s guest is Aviva Ajmera, a highly regarded CEO, entrepreneur, speaker, professor and mentor with 30 years of experience in marketing and business process transformation. She founded SoLVE KC in 2015, partnering with businesses to deliver strategic planning and implementation, integrated marketing strategy, consumer research and insights, work process design and more.  

Prior to SoLVE, Ajmera was partner with the Partnering Group and worked for Accenture. She’s consulted for blue chip companies, including Nestle, USA, LG Electronics and 3M. As a senior leader at Hallmark Cards, she championed cross-functional teams in product development, innovation, retail, corporate strategy, customer strategy and business transformation. 

Ajmera’s an accredited angel investor and former board chair of Women’s Capital Connection, Kansas City’s only female angel investor group. She currently serves on several Kansas City boards, including the Kansas City Ballet, Children International, Starlight and the Women’s Employment Network. 

Aviva, it’s an honor to have you on our podcast, and I want to start here. I absolutely love your resume. I love the strategy side of your person, but I know it also doesn’t speak to all of your superpowers off the page. Who is Aviva and how did you become the powerhouse you are today? What brought you to KC? 

Aviva Ajmera: So many good questions. Well, first of all, thank you for the compliment, being called the powerhouse. I like that. I’m five feet tall, so powerhouse sounds very empowering. I would say two words to probably summarize how I got to where I am today: circuitous, and the other one is serendipity. 

So, born and raised in upstate New York. My mom and dad immigrated to the U.S. in their young twenties to get their master’s degrees. Always planned on going back to India, but then decided not to. I went to college in Houston. Out of college,I lived in Minneapolis for three years working for Accenture. Then, I went to Chicago to get my MBA at Northwestern. Really at that point, the whole country was available to me. Never in my dreams did I ever think I would be moving to Kansas City, but Hallmark Cards brought me to Kansas City, and at the time I thought, five years, I’ll do five years here. I’ll learn as much as I can. 

I’ve loved that they were a CPG company that was in manufacturing and retail. I felt like I could combine all the things I really enjoyed in one company. Loved the people, loved the product. So, it was a beautiful fit. I ended up being there 15 years, and then I joined an international consulting firm. I was a partner there. I loved the work. 

I traveled all the time, and my daughter was growing up. One day my husband said to me as I was literally flipping my suitcase from one business trip to the next, “They grow up really fast, Aviva. I think at that point Asha was maybe in middle school, and after seven years of being on the road the majority of the time, I just needed to be stable. That’s how SoLVE KC got formed, so that I could do all the fun work of consulting for Kansas City based companies. 

Ethan Whitehill: Did you have any anxiety taking that entrepreneurial leap? 

Aviva Ajmera: Huge. Huge. I would say I never thought I would be an entrepreneur. I like companies. I like the infrastructure of companies, I like the resources, I like the predictability. Entrepreneurialism is none of that. It’s absolutely none of that. And you wear all the hats, even the hats that you don’t want to wear. Coming fresh off of doing taxes, I would say that’s a hat I don’t really enjoy, but what I love about it is you get to choose who you want to work with, and you have the flexibility to give it your all, to keep going to see where the work is going to take you. I am a continuous learner, so I love consulting because you’re constantly learning about new companies and new industries, but then you place that overlay of methodology in how you solve problems to the client at hand. I love the magic of that working together. 

Ethan Whitehill: It is kind of magic. It’s like a puzzle that you’re facing. 

Aviva Ajmera: It is. I love it. It’s so fun. 

Ethan Whitehill: I look at your experience and you’ve been in an entrepreneurial venture. You’ve come from larger organizations like a Hallmark, for example, which is highly creative, but maybe not thought of as an entrepreneurial company. So, for our listeners who are in larger organizations, and they’re thinking, “I’m not entrepreneurial,” or “I can’t be entrepreneurial.” What would you say? 

Aviva Ajmera: I would say you could be entrepreneurial in so many ways in corporate America, because in many ways it’s a mindset. Entrepreneurialism is about creating something new, something that doesn’t exist that you are going to bring to life. I was at Hallmark for 15 years, and when I look back on my career, it amazes me that I never inherited a file. I always had a job that was brand new to that department or in a division that was brand new to the company. In many ways, I am a little risk adverse. So, it was a really nice safety net, because I had the opportunity to think really big and create something new, but I had the benefit of a very stable company to kind of catch me as I was learning. 

It was a really unique career to have at Hallmark, and I’m really grateful for all of my bosses and mentors who gave me the opportunity to do that and who saw in me that I was capable of doing it, because I always thought, “Well, just tell me what you need to do, and I’ll blow your expectations away.” When you’re an entrepreneur, there’s really no such thing. You’re creating it. 

Ethan Whitehill: I love the blank page opportunity. That’s awesome. So, you’ve seen a lot of different companies and you’ve seen companies that work with successful strategic plans and others that maybe work without a net and aren’t as successful. What are the markings of a good strategic plan, and how can leaders ensure that they’ve got that in place? 

Aviva Ajmera: It’s such a great question, because I think if you ask 100 people, “What does strategy mean to you?” You will get 100 different answers. Some people think strategy is, “Let’s just talk about this and I’ll make some notes on the back of a napkin.” And other people realize investing in a strategic plan is a tremendous tool. So, if there were three things that I would say, the first is credit for saying I need a strategic plan. My recommendation would be in what we do at SoLVE KC: it’s one page. That’s it. It’s not 32 pages that are really glossy, nicely bound on a shelf that never gets seen again. It’s one page, so it’s easy to understand, it’s easy to communicate and it’s easy to track your progress. One page means you have to make choices, and that’s really what strategic planning is about. 

The second piece is having a counterpart to your strategic plan, which is an implementation plan. The components that are most important in that is accountability. It’s metrics and it’s prioritization. And then the third must-do is to have someone in your organization that’s in charge of doing regular check-ins. My recommendation is monthly, because time passes really fast when you’re doing the work, so if you need somebody that can step above a little bit and say, “Hey, here’s what we said we wanted to accomplish. Here’s who was in charge of it. Here are the metrics and the timing that we had allocated to it. How are we doing?” 

You’ll get behind once in a while. That’s okay. A strategic plan should be robust enough that you adapt it as you go, but the fact that you actually have it is important so that you can look at it and say, “Wow. This was really good thinking, but the market has changed. So, how do we need to adjust it? Or even better: “We thought we were going to hit those numbers in two years and we just hit them in nine months.” I love it when clients can say that. 

Ethan Whitehill: Thinking about your clients and other folks that you’ve worked with as an angel investor, you’ve probably seen a lot of entrepreneurs who are visionaries, and they’re not always great at sticking to a plan. 

Aviva Ajmera: Very true. In fact, it’s their intuition that creates their success initially. They stumble onto something, but that strategy needs to come in at some point. 

Ethan Whitehill:  And talk a little bit about that transition when somebody is going from, “Okay, I’ve had the great idea, it’s starting to build now” to “I need the strategy.” What is the first step? 

Aviva Ajmera: Recognizing it. I would say portfolio of talent is what I always believe in. Even when I’m working with my clients, I really try to get to know everybody on a personal level along with the professional level so I can understand who they are and where they’re coming from, but also what their strengths are, so we can lean into that. 

You’re absolutely right about most entrepreneurs. They’re driven by the passion of what they’ve created. They’re not necessarily fantastic at running a business. Once you get to that point, you have to just be honest with yourself and say, “Hey, what do I love? What am I not good at?” And it’s okay. Find that talent and bring it into your company, and then you function as a team together.  

Ethan Whitehill: So picking up on talent – you also have another thing that you do that’s actually very cool, and it’s called C-Suite Success, and we’ve got some folks on our team that participate in it. Tell us about that. What is that, and why does it exist?  

Aviva Ajmera: Right. C-Suite Success is a great example of serendipity. We never planned on it. What it is is an executive leadership coaching and training company. We have three cohorts. One is all CEOs from different industries from across the Kansas City area. The second group is C-suite level or whatever their title is that direct reports to the CEOs. Then, the third group, we’ve called them key leaders. They’re usually the third level down in an organization. 

We meet with each group once a month for a day each. We bring in a speaker on a relevant, current, provocative topic. Then, in the afternoon we run a really engaging agenda. We have a section called ‘What’s Keeping You Up at Night.’ We have a section called ‘Hot Topics.’ And then we also have a leadership masterclass where we introduce different ideas and topics for discussion as well. 

The idea for the group came from clients saying, “How do we still keep in touch with you?” Because usually a SoLVE engagement is about six months long. Unless they have me on retainer, I wish them the best of luck. I keep in touch with them, but I don’t have the opportunity to work with them on a regular basis. A lot of our CEOs really felt that they wanted to have that kind of investment in their top talent, so they could continue to grow and be the best leaders, and there’s a big gap today in corporate America. It’s a line item that’s been cut out of a lot of budgets, and they were just looking for people that they trusted who could help grow their best talent. That’s how C-Suite Success was born. 

Ethan Whitehill: You said the T-word: trust. That’s a big concept in business, and I know you talk a lot about building trust. Why is the principle of trust so critical to an organization?  

Aviva Ajmera: These days – more than I’ve ever seen in the last three decades of my career – is change. Organizations are changing faster than ever before, and if you don’t have trust, you’re scared of the change. Change is hard. Some people handle it really well. Some people just naturally are a little resistant. When you trust one another and you talk about why something needs to change and what the changes are going to be, even if you are a risk adverse person, I feel you have the confidence of knowing you’ll figure it out together. As a team, with that trust, you conquer the hard things no matter what they are. 

Ethan Whitehill: There’s an equation that I love for trust, and it’s credibility times intimacy, times reliability, divided by risk. It’s really all about mitigating that risk, but it also involves being human with each other and creating that intimacy. You talk about unlocking the potential of those around you, which, C-Suite Success is obviously one way to do that, but how do you help leaders bring out the best, not only in themselves, but in their organization, beyond maybe even the C-suite? 

Aviva Ajmera: You used four or five great words. Transparency is really important. Sometimes when leaders have a big challenge and they don’t know the answer, they can human-nature-wise, just pull in and not share anything. As a leader, you’ll get a lot more credit from your organization, and I believe loyalty, if you share with them: here’s the problem that we have, or here’s the situation, or here’s what’s happened in the marketplace. Collectively, we have to figure out how to win, right? How do we need to pivot? What do we need to do differently? So, it’s being able to have that dialogue. One of the things we talk about a lot in C-Suite Success is having those hard conversations. Some people call them crucial conversations and getting comfortable with that. 

Ethan Whitehill: I know that through your consultancy teaching and mentorship that you’re passionate about helping others, and we see your board service too. What’s your ‘why’ for doing all of this? What’s driving you?  

Aviva Ajmera: Such a great question. I would say service of any kind has been in my family for generations. Way back to my great-grandfather. For me, growing up in the U.S. first generation, not having other Indian women, let alone just Indians in corporate America. The role model didn’t really exist, but I was fortunate enough that I always had mentors that saw in me what I didn’t see in myself, and they helped guide and encourage and shepherd me. Sometimes I was a little unaware it was even happening, but I know that it helped the trajectory and the path and some of the experiences that I would not have sought out for myself. So, I try to do that for others. I love mentoring. I love connecting people. 

And then for the board service, I feel like I’ve gained all this wisdom in my years, and I want to be able to put it towards a really good cause, and to be able to use, not only my experiences, but my connections in Kansas City to help organizations that have a mission that I believe in. 

Ethan Whitehill: I would love to delve into that network a little bit more, because you do – you have an amazing network of connections. Tell us, how do you cultivate that? If somebody’s saying, “You know what, I want to be out there. I want to do more. I want to connect more.” 

Aviva Ajmera: Such a great question. I remember when I was in my twenties, I had a boss say to me once, you need to get out there more and you need to network, and I’m sure I made a face that had a cringe on it. She said, “Don’t think of it like that. Think of it as you’re just getting to know people.” And that changed the perspective for me. She actually said, “You have so many things that you’re interested in, and your composition of how you got to Kansas City is so different. People would be really interested in that.” 

Once I thought of it as a mutual relationship versus just me trying to get something from somebody, it made it a whole lot easier. To have a big network, you do have to put yourself out there. You can’t stay in your office all the time. You can’t be behind your laptop all the time and go try new things. 

Get a buddy and go to a conference. Ask a friend, “Hey, do you know anybody who’s interested in X, Y, Z?” Do volunteer work. Get on a board. There’s so many different ways to meet people. Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of pickleball. You meet people on the pickleball court all the time. 

 Ethan Whitehill: We just had Kelly Aldridge from Chicken and Pickle on the podcast. 

 Aviva Ajmera: Oh, you did that? That’ll be a fun one. Did you play? 

Ethan Whitehill: We should have played while we were doing that. No, we did not. She was amazing and a great example of just doing the things that she loves and what she thinks is right, and it’s naturally built her network and gave her these opportunities. 

Aviva Ajmera: What I find is people have a title or a status, and it can be intimidating to somebody who might want to meet them, but at the end of the day, they’re a person. So, talk to them: where do you live? Did you grow up in Kansas City? Ask them if they have children. What are your hobbies? Where’s your favorite place to travel? There’s so many just general conversations that you can have to try to find a point of commonality. 

Then, the other thing that I do – which someone recommended to me, and I really liked it a lot so that it didn’t feel like I was just taking – is if there’s anything in the conversation that I can follow up on, like, “Hey, let me connect you with so-and-so.” Or if you talk about a restaurant or whatever it is, you just follow up with the text message specific to whatever that topic was. So, now you’ve created some kind of reciprocity. You said you were interested in playing pickleball? Here are the four courts that I play at regularly. Something like that. So, it’s a thank you, but it’s a thank you plus. I love that. 

Ethan Whitehill: Now, I’m going to transition really quick here to our 20 questions. There’s no way you could have prepared for this. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pickleball questions, but I’m going to roll this 20-sided die, and whatever comes up is what I’m going ot add. C-12. Oh, this is a really good question. What are you most thankful for? 

Aviva Ajmera: The people that are closest to me in my life. So, starting with my parents who gave me every opportunity that I have had that I would not have had, had they chosen to go back to India. My husband, who is my number one cheerleader, hands down, and my daughter. She’s a blessing. Those are the four people I would say I’m most grateful for in my life. 

Ethan Whitehill: Lovely. Great answer. This has been amazing. Thank you for your time. If somebody wants to get a hold of you, how would they find you?  

Aviva Ajmera: They can email me at ajmera@solvekc.com, or they can look me up on our SoLVE website, SoLVEKC.com to learn a little bit more about me, the work we do and the clients that we work with. 

Ethan Whitehill: Excellent. Thank you for being on the show. 

Aviva Ajmera: Thank you so much. This was a lot of fun. 

Hosted by Ethan Whitehill

ethan-whitehill-cruxEthan has made a career out of building agencies and growing brands. He founded the firm Two West in 1997, running it as an independent shop for nearly 20 years before combining his firm with an AdAge Top 100 Agency, where he served as CMO. As an agency founder and entrepreneur, Ethan brings a business owner’s mindset to marketing, working on a host of diverse brands, from packaged goods and professional services to hospitality and healthcare.

Read More

View All Blogs