This month, the EO Chicago member spotlight is on Kimley Svendsen. As the CEO and Founder of Drive Talent, an executive recruiting firm that specializes in C-suite, sales, and marketing roles across industries, as well as recruiting within the cannabis industry, Kimley helps companies build compatible teams. She earned her master’s degree in Psychology from Northwestern University and has applied what she learned there in so many aspects of her business life. Learn where Kimley made her start and how she plans to continue her entrepreneurial journey.
EO Member: Kimley Svendsen
Company: Drive Talent
Established: January 2020
How long have you been a member of EO Chicago, and why did you join the organization?
I joined EO in April of 2019 as a Co-Founder of Waterstone because I knew I could no longer figure things out on my own and needed the support of other entrepreneurs.
Can you describe your entrepreneurial journey? Where did you start and where do you hope to go in the future?
Throughout my career as a recruiter, I knew I wanted to work for myself eventually and was most content in roles where I could employ creativity and work without needing to answer to too many people. While working within internal recruiting roles, I was always trying to do something on the side that was more entrepreneurial—baskets for new moms, spa packages for pregnant women, and dog walking. My husband and I also opened a restaurant which didn’t go so well but was a HUGE learning experience.
While working for Korn Ferry, I kept feeling like there was a better way to serve clients. So when I was approached by my ex-husband to start a recruiting firm together, I jumped at the opportunity. I hoped to create something different, create a more collaborative environment for the best recruiters, and eventually sell to a bigger player. We successfully built Waterstone over five years to a team of 15 and achieved our financial goals. Last September, I began the challenging process of separating my partnership and launching Drive Talent. I don’t know where I would be without the support of EO and my Forum and their experiences with the dissolution of partnerships. To say that it was invaluable is a gross understatement.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Taking an idea and turning it into a reality to help solve problems for our clients. Constructing a model, pulling resources, and implementing is a challenge I enjoy. I have always believed “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” I learned a lot about myself by leading a team—I can’t hide from my shortcomings with a team reflecting my own dysfunction. It’s a very humbling experience, and I enjoy the vulnerability that comes from it.
As soon as my ego begins to show up, I know I’m in trouble. With everything going on right now, the mutual support of my team has really touched me. We are in this together, grinding it out and admitting that most of the time that we don’t have all of the answers.
What daily challenges do you face at work?
This answer was different a few months ago. Our challenge before COVID was balancing between business development and delivery with a small team, constant follow-up with past clients, serving our existing clients, and building a new brand.
Now our challenge is aggressively managing cash burn, reassuring and staying connected with the team, and making a pivot with how we will work with clients going forward. We are also looking for ways we can show up for companies who need help hiring now but don’t have the money to spend on a recruiter. Creative bartering and doing some pro-bono work is a shift in mindset to being of service, versus collecting a fee. Every day, we are solving the question of how we can form deeper relationships and show up for others.
What is the best career advice you ever received?
Know who you are and be honest about it, be honest about your mistakes, and come into difficult conversations with your arms at your side—BUT don’t allow yourself to be a doormat.
What are your goals for the future of your business?
Exit six to seven years from now and be able to say we did something different that influenced the recruiting world and changed it for the better. I would also love to somehow create a home long term for my team so that if they want to continue to run it or be involved in some way without me, they can.
What’s the coolest thing you’re working on right now?
Our work with cannabis companies for the past four years has also been interesting and has challenged us to go with the flow while being assertive. Truly an exercise in herding cats and embracing the daily ambiguity that comes with the industry.
What was your first job?
At age ten, I was babysitting and house sitting for neighbors. I watered plants, fed cats, checked the mail, and more when our neighbors were away. At a very young age, I was wandering the neighborhood, knocking on doors, and asking how I could help. I was also pretty nosy and would share all overheard gossip with my mom and talk about the contents of everyone’s fridge.
What brought you to Chicago?
My mom, stepfather, brother, and I moved here from Western Montana when I was in high school. We moved to Northwest Indiana, I attended Valparaiso University, and Chicago was where the jobs were and where all of my friends were moving. I knew graduate school was on the horizon, and appreciated all of the options in Chicago.
Who or what inspires you?
Genuine human connection and my morning routine—let the dogs out, coffee, read/write, work out, and get going. I get totally jacked about new ideas, but my pragmatic brain shifts to shooting holes. Good reminder I need to allow myself and team members to dream more. My daughters also inspire me to be a better person. They challenge me every day to shut up, listen, admit when I’m wrong, ask questions, be vulnerable, and walk the talk.
If you could go back in time five years and share advice with your past self, what advice would you share?
Stop caring about what everyone thinks and stand up for what you believe in. Listen to that little voice that tells you what is true for you, versus being influenced by those who don’t necessarily have your best interests in mind. Don’t try to be a chameleon and make friends with everyone—it’s okay for someone to dislike you and/or your opinions.
What is the greatest challenge you have overcome?
Face my problems head-on instead of running from them, personally or in business. The number of times I’ve wanted to hop in a car and drive to Montana are numerous, but by working through my problems, I became a stronger and more grounded person. Running only delays the suffering, and I always feel better on the other end of confronting hurdles.
Seeking an understanding of mental health in my family has also brought me to my knees, but pulling on the support available to me through so many channels—including EO—has again brought inner peace and insight into how I can show up for others.
How do you find work-life balance?
Boundaries for the cut-off time in front of my computer and on my phone. Through experience, I know working nonstop placed far too much stress on me mentally and physically as well as on my family. I have used work in the past as a distraction to dealing with things at home. My family can feel that, and I don’t want to return to that way of being.
When you were a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up?
A fashion designer—I published a monthly fashion page in my grade school newsletter, based on the most hip ’80’s styles from Seventeen magazine and newspapers I saved from trips to NYC. Then, I wanted to be an attorney because my grandfather was one and I admired him tremendously. After several pre-law classes, I came to the conclusion that I was conflict avoidant—not a good trait to have in an attorney. I thought maybe I could be a lawyer, but I didn’t want to work with a bunch of lawyers. Funny how much I now value my strong network of corporate attorneys.
What are your favorite things to do outside of work?
I love traveling back home to Montana to get a breath of fresh air, wearing jeans and hiking boots, and slowing the hell down. If I’m at home, I love baking and goofing around with my daughters and dogs. Re-organizing cabinets and closets and moving furniture to new spots. Mini road trips (preferably to a location with a Waffle House on the way), camping if it’s warm, and going for tandem rides with my husband on the 606.
What’s one thing left on your bucket list?
There are so many left on my list, so it’s hard to answer—travel to India, run a farm, and drive a road roller over cool stuff, to name a few.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished “American Princess” by Stephanie Thornton, a novel about Alice Roosevelt, which didn’t really satisfy my interest in her. So I moved on to her autobiography, “Crowded Hours.” I recently started “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle. An ongoing read is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times.” And just added “The Great Influenza” by John M. Barry to my night stand.
If you could recommend one podcast, what would it be?
I don’t listen to podcasts much, but I have heard plenty of good ones with Terry Gross, Brené Brown, and Joe Rogan.
What’s your favorite restaurant in Chicago?
Penny’s Noodle Shop—I have enjoyed eating there for over 20 years.
What is your favorite part about working in the Chicagoland area?
Aside from our skyline, lake, and multicultural people/events/food, my experience has been that we aren’t quite as edgy as New York but are more authentic and fast-paced than Los Angeles. The personal and professional community I have created here makes it feel like home. It’s interesting how small Chicago can be after living here for over two decades.
What is your top Chicago activity?
Cubs games, concerts, and street fairs. Old Town Art Fair is a favorite along with intimate venues for incredible music.
Where’s your favorite place in the world to visit?
Thank you to Kimley for sharing her story for our August member spotlight. The Entrepreneurs’ Organization is a global business network of more than 14,000 entrepreneurs in 195 chapters and 62 countries. EO is the catalyst that enables entrepreneurs to learn and grow from each other, leading to greater business success and an enriched personal life.
If you’re interested in becoming an EO Chicago member, check our membership requirements and submit an application to join today.