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Speaking Success into Women's Lives

By the time Catherine Porth was 13 years old, she knew she wanted to be a businesswoman, a natural inclination since her family is full of entrepreneurs. The Iowan went to college in South Carolina, and after moving back to the Midwest to build her career in sales, Catherine left seven years later to return to the South, this time to Tennessee. It was December 2016, and she was looking for a new way to express her passion for business.

“My last role was in commercial furniture sales for a large company in the Midwest. I was part of a team that was really Bro Culture – we didn’t talk about our feelings or burnout; we worked more hours than everyone else; we didn’t leave before the execs; we stayed out late with clients and came in early the next day… It’s like hustle culture,” she says. “What I experienced was that the women in the sales department were some of the most phenomenal people I’d ever met. Women were supportive, worked harder, and had better outcomes in sales than male counterparts because they were so good at developing relationships.”

Despite their success, Catherine noticed that these women weren’t making it to the top, and when her female mentor was let go, the hyper-masculine culture increased and suddenly it was a domino effect of women leaving the company left and right.

“Whenever I looked at moving into another department, it made sense to leave corporate America altogether. It wasn’t a healthy relationship for my mental health,” says Catherine. “I was great at my job, and I felt great traveling, but coming back to the office I felt terrible.”

Now settled in Knoxville, Catherine returned to school for her MBA at The University of Tennessee. The break from the high-pressure, hustle environment was restorative, but her interest in business had only increased. In the quietest parts of her days, Catherine considered all she’d been through and realized she wanted to focus on mentoring women in business and bolstering the kind of relationships that lead to success.

“It’s in that space where Let Her Speak came to me,” she says. “I’d connected with Knoxville Entrepreneurial and met Booth Andrews. She’s a huge reason I took the leap. She is someone who I pitched the idea to and was fully supportive, and she hardly knew me. I’d only been in town six months.”

Let Her Speak began as an avenue for women to network in a low-pressure environment where everyone gets a turn to toss around ideas, share a story, and connect in powerful ways beyond sharing one’s resume. Since the traditional framework for networking is rooted in how men bond with other men, Catherine wanted to create a place for women to build relationships on qualitative data, not quantitative.

“Men typically want stats and graphs, but women need more substance and context. We need to form a bond, and as soon as we do, we recommend you to everyone we know,” she says. “And once we do that, we can light a fire that’s fierce.”

Catherine’s experimental passion project caught wind, and soon she’d hired Maranda Vandergriff to help her create a logo and start the branding process. She started interviewing businesswomen in the community to see what their biggest struggles were. She wasn’t looking to recreate the wheel. Instead, Catherine wanted to parse out what women in Knoxville needed to succeed.

The answer? Other women.

“The first event was on March 14, 2018, and I’d hosted the event during my spring break. I’d seen a study that said when crowds are more than 75, people are less inclined to stand up and share. So, I capped the first event at 50,” she says. “The other goal was to make sure every woman met every other woman there, so one woman could make 49 connections. This event became a catalyst for other things.”

By other things, she means more events that year and the year after that, inviting women to be inspired by one another and bond over shared experiences. Despite its growth, Catherine still didn’t view Let Her Speak as anything more than a hobby, a thing she did out of interest. As her grad school was coming to an end, Catherine had every intention of going back into the corporate space as a managerial consultant.

Then, she got connected to a startup in Knoxville and took a position as the director of business development for Survature. There, Catherine strengthened her research skills, which ultimately allowed Let Her Speak to become even more “data-infused.” After two years with the company, Catherine stepped away, and then the pandemic hit.

“I was planning for the third annual summit the third week of March, and then came lockdown. I took that time to rest and look at the next step. Right away, I developed a pen pal program for women across the country, a She Speaks series that spoke to what we were collectively going through,” says Catherine. “During the pandemic, it was the women who took on the extra work – we had to maintain our jobs while also being teachers and health care workers. A lot of women left their jobs to stay home. We did our first and only Let Her Speak Summit virtually.”

By 2021, Catherine started building workshops focused on different areas where women struggle, such as Imposter Syndrome. She developed the Let Her Speak Superhero League which helped women celebrate their strengths through the lens of superhero qualities. By 2022, she launched the She Speaks Podcast, which had carried over from the pandemic, and Let Her Invest, a series focused on the financial aspects of business and how to discern personal worth.

This year, Catherine released the Let Her Lead Program, which is composed of both established and aspiring leaders.

“We’re focusing on women who’ve been in the workplace a long time but don’t have the skills to lead. There’s no program that exists once you’re no longer a young professional,” she says. “Given that there are so many leadership positions out there, shouldn’t there be more women in these positions?”

Word is getting out about Let Her Speak. While Catherine’s passion for women in business sparked in Knoxville, it doesn’t end here. She’s looking at secondary and tertiary cities, like Lexington, Kentucky and Columbia, South Carolina, where Let Her Speak events can flourish and help women network with one another. In the meantime, she’s continuing her partnership with Knoxville Entrepreneurial Center, who sponsors Let Her Speak, and brainstorming new ways to connect women with one another, identify their barriers to success, and build more avenues for collaboration.

“One initiative we experimented with last year is doing more collaborative events with other organizations. We partnered with the Free Women Waltzing Club to do two events celebrating women in music. Another collaboration, which was supposed to kick off in 2020, was Let Her Speak en Español. We partnered with Raquel Leal of Latinas Time, and we’ll do that one every year.”

“Women from all over the country are finding us. I’m not going to paint a broad picture and say no matter where you are or where you come from, this is it. I want to cater to specific communities and go to cities that aren’t as well known or don’t have support for women who are trying to impact their communities,” says Catherine. “The hope is that Let Her Speak can expand to other cities and even countries.”

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“We’re focusing on women who’ve been in the workplace a long time but don’t have the skills to lead. There’s no program that exists once you’re no longer a young professional. “Given that there are so many leadership positions out there, shouldn’t there be more women in these positions?”

  • Photo by Jasmine Newton
  • Photo by Jasmine Newton
  • Catherine at the 2022 Women's Summit. Photo by Maranda Vandergriff.
  • LHS en Espanol. Photo by Jalynn Baker.
  • 2022 Summer Songwriter Soiree. Photo by Taryn Faro.
  • Returning Home Retreat. Photo by Rachel Woods.