Stephanie Leader is the CEO and founder of Leader Promotions (dba Leaderpromos), a company that creates and sells purpose-driven branded merchandise and strategically helps their clients deliver their message and reach their goals. With a bachelor’s in political science from The Ohio State University (OSU), Stephanie deferred her admission to law school to become a partner in the company she worked for through college; since then, she has grown and transformed the business into a global corporation, achieving nearly $55 million in revenue in 2023. Outside of work, Stephanie enjoys an active lifestyle and spending time with her family. Stephanie has been a C200 member since November 2023.
Eva Glassman: Can you describe your company and what you do? How did you get started there?
Stephanie Leader: I am the CEO, founder, and visionary of Leader Promotions. We focus on purpose-driven, branded merchandise that delivers results. Our approach within the company is to learn about the initiatives and goals of our clients and provide them with the right merchandise that will best drive their message and give them a good return on their investment. It all starts with asking the right questions.
I started out in this industry when I was 19 years old. To make money and pay my way through school at OSU, I started selling branded merchandise and apparel to the Greek community since OSU had the largest Greek community in North America at the time. I was a political science major and had ambitions to go to law school, but I enjoyed selling merchandise and meeting so many people from different fraternities and sororities.
When I was getting ready to leave for law school in Chicago, my boss at the time asked me if I would consider becoming a partner of the company. My initial reaction was, “Why me?” I realized, once I saw the financials, that I had the highest sales in the company and was leading a lot of our new initiatives already. So, I decided to defer my admission to law school and give this a try. I was supposed to move to Chicago that fall—instead, I became a business owner!
Soon after I became a partner in 1995, my partner got sick with Celiac Disease and left the business. So, there I was with this company, thinking, “Oh my gosh, what am I doing?” The reality quickly set in that I didn’t know anything about running a business. I didn’t know anything about P&L, balance sheets, or budgeting, but over time I started to learn more. I’ve always been persistent and loved being challenged. That year, our revenue was about $400,000; in 2023, we did almost $55 million.
I’m so excited to share that we are newly-certified as a B Corp Company! This was nearly a two-year process and now a passion the entire company is excited about! Leaderpromos is proudly the largest wholly-woman-owned, B Corp company within the industry amongst 28,000 distributors. I was also one of the first people to introduce an e-commerce platform back in 1998. This year, we’ll be launching a new, more curated e-commerce platform that will show people what type of impact they are making with the products they’re purchasing. It’s a lot more of a prescriptive experience that we hope to launch by Q4 of this year!
EG: Your pivot from law school to becoming a partner in a company is so fascinating! What a leap of faith!
SL: I took a small business loan for $20,000 to buy into the business. I don’t even know how or why the banks loaned it to me when I had debt from school. That was my best into the company. I tell this story to my kids—I have a 25-year-old son and my daughter just graduated from Boulder and works in LA—and it’s funny; when my generation was growing up, we didn’t necessarily have a choice as to what we wanted to do. There I was with a political science degree about to go to law school, and never in a million years did I think I was going to be a business owner of a global corporation. It’s really important to keep your eyes and ears open to those opportunities and to the people you meet along the way, because you never know when circumstances can change.
EG: Why do you think it all worked out for you? How did you make that drastic shift in career focus right out of college?
SL: I had to work hard for it. Growing up, my dad had a life-threatening disease, and my parents didn’t have a lot of means. I wanted and needed to support myself and was focused on becoming financially independent. I always treated my work very seriously and cared for the company like it was my own. I gave it 110% every time, even when I didn’t have any ownership. I just wanted to do my best and was always resilient and driven (and maybe a bit stubborn, too). I wanted to buy and do the things I wanted, and that’s what pushed and motivated me when I was young.
EG: Tell me about your journey to C200. How did you hear about it? How did you get involved? What drew you to C200?
SL: I’m very involved in the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) and have a lot of friends through the organization. Recently, a couple of my friends and I were at a WBENC event talking about women’s leadership and how it can be so lonely at the top. That’s when one of my friends, Tara Abraham, said, “You need to join C200. It’s perfect for you.” She told me that it’s a unique organization because at C200, you’re dealing with women who are just like you—women at the top. We’re all dealing with the same issues. It struck me as a good way to develop myself as a leader and gain some strong connections and relationships so that we can help one another.
You don’t really hear a lot about C200—I hear more about other, larger organizations for executive women, but I like that C200 is smaller and more exclusive. A big draw for me was the revenue criteria being as high as it is. It’s really important so that you’re not always the person people go to for advice. At C200, you’re having very good collaborative conversations with women of equal measure about real-life things that only we could understand. While I love mentoring other women and girls, I appreciate that C200 offers more than that. I don’t often take time to think of myself; like other entrepreneurs, it’s not in our nature. C200 allows you to focus on yourself and how you feel. It’s nice to have the company and friendships of other members who are in your place or have been in their careers. Never before have I had conversations with other women that also deal with my issues.
EG: Who are some of the important people in your career who have helped you along the way?
SL: My executive coach helps me with a lot of internal issues both within myself and my organization. I’ve had a couple of male mentors, but not a lot of women in that formalized mentorship setting. In my industry in particular, women didn’t pave the way at all; it was truly a “guy’s guy” industry. That’s the tough thing. When men get to the top, they’re able to get there for all these remarkable reasons, but women aren’t recognized and rewarded in the same way for the same achievements. It’s harder to be a woman leader than it is a man. Getting people’s respect is more difficult, there’s no question.
EG: What does being a “woman in business” mean to you and how do you apply that thinking to what you do and how you lead?
SL: I take a collaborative approach to leadership, which has its benefits and drawbacks. I would never ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t do, but at the same time, I need to be the leader and visionary of the company and focus on creating other leaders, which arguably requires getting people out of their comfort zones. I’m also very humbled by where I’m at. I don’t walk around ringing my own bell; my success is just for me. I keep my head down and focus on growth. I want to bring people into the organization, develop them, and create leaders; it’s important to do that as a woman leader.
EG: What is some of the advice you’d give to young women who want to lead and be in your position one day?
SL: One of the most important things with women in business is that there’s always going to be discouraging situations and tough hills to climb. You have to be resilient and understand the way your business works inside and out. You can’t just leave the accounting, for example, to somebody else; you need to know how everything works, or else you can never set the expectations.
Having knowledge of what your brand is, how you want it to be known and perceived by others, is important from day one—and never going against that. If you want to succeed, you’ve got to remember what drove you to do what you’re doing in the first place. People go into business for a variety of reasons, but making sure you always keep what’s real in front of you is key. It’s a very simple idea, but it can be difficult to stay grounded; never let anyone make you into someone you’re not. I always tell people to be authentic, that it’s okay to do things differently and if you don’t create that then you will be left behind.
EG: That’s especially sage advice for women in business. It’s very easy for a woman entering a male-dominated space to assimilate or emulate in order to be heard or respected at the cost of their authenticity as a woman. Carving a space for yourself in your industry and being unwavering in that effort is challenging, but necessary.
SL: It’s hard work, there’s no question about it. When growing up, it wasn’t about who I wanted to work for or what I wanted to do; it was more about, “How am I going to pay my rent?” My daughter, who’s working out in LA, is fortunate that she could set out to work for a specific brand, but for me and those of my generation, we didn’t have those choices. We worked hard, long hours; sometimes you had work-life balance, sometimes you didn’t. You just had to make certain things work. I raised a family; my husband and I set out upfront what was important to us, like family dinners and supporting our kids as athletes and in all the things they did. However, it all meant that when they went to bed, I may not have went to bed right away because there was still work to do.
EG: When you do have free time outside of work, what do you like to do for fun?
SL: Now that my kids are older, I try to see them as much as I can. Like I said earlier, my daughter just went out to LA for work. It’s far from Columbus and hard to accept the reality that she is not just at college but is starting a life so far from home. My son is working with me and learning new ways to measure the business and pave the way for the high-growth company that we are. I am so happy to have him and excited to see what he does for Leader!
I love to travel, hike in the mountains, play pickleball, and be with friends and family—and on the other hand, I also love my mindless TV and not being “on” all the time.
My whole life, everyone has told me I’m outgoing, but I feel like I’m becoming more introverted as I get older. It’s nice to relax watching a movie or get lost in a good book. I value my life away from work and treasure my family and friendships. I want to spend my time and energy with them.
EG: You’ve already touched on this a little bit, but why C200? What are you most excited about as a new member?
SL: I’m still learning a lot about what membership offers and how I should get involved—any pointers from other members are welcome! My goals are to engage with other members and create new relationships with women leaders who are experiencing the same things as I am. I want to grow as a leader and as an individual. I’m really excited to receive some amazing advice from these women! I also want to continue helping others grow and give back through C200’s resources so that rising women leaders have better odds than we did.