Women at the Helm: Sarah Soliman, President and CEO, Soliman Productions
From an early age, Sarah Soliman has been inspired to lead and driven to succeed.
“I am a results-driven person, so when I see how my passion can inspire others, it ignites the fire in me to do more,” Soliman said, before describing one of the first times in which that flame truly burned bright—in high school, when she created a petition after the principal of her school cancelled “seniors week.”
Soliman, along with other classmates, thought it was unfair to take away such an important experience for reasons the students had no control over, so she went from class to class collecting signatures, organized a meeting with the principal and proved her case. Her school went forward with seniors week, creating wonderful memories as a result.
“When I walked across the stage during graduation, that same principal congratulated me and said, ‘Sarah, the advocate for everyone,”’ Soliman recounted. “That same mindset has carried through in my professional life, and I will continue to be a voice in any way I can.”
Indeed, she has done just that over the years since she first started in the events industry, becoming a multi-award-winning trailblazer known for educating and inspiring others through her work, spearheading important causes and sparking change by holding leading roles on major industry boards and co-founding movements such as #MeetingsToo to address and combat sexual harassment in the events industry. She also served as president of the Greater Orlando Chapter of MPI in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
All the while, she has steered the ship for Soliman Productions, the Orlando, Fla.,-based business she started in 2015, helping it evolve into a leading event marketing, video content production and hybrid event solutions provider.
We sat down with Soliman to discover more about her trajectory, the challenges she has overcome, the top traits women in leadership roles must possess, how she helped her team not only survive but thrive through the pandemic and the greatest lessons she has learned through it all.
Can you give us an overview of how you became interested in event production and what you love most about your job?
I have always been fascinated by media and the news industry—so much so that I started my career at a local news station in Orlando and was convinced I had a future in that field. Although I loved the journalism aspect, I quickly realized that television news was not the kind of content I wanted to spend my life producing. I transitioned into radio which I absolutely loved! This was my first look into live events including concerts, remotes, and more. I loved the energy of it all but also came to terms with the fact that radio wasn't going to be a lucrative, long-term career. From there, I started to work for a small production company that gave me more of glimpse into the meetings and events space. After 4 years, I felt unfulfilled and undervalued, so I had a decision to make, and I chose to start my own business and exercise my creativity my way. I worked with several businesses to help tell their story through video marketing before I got drawn back into the meetings and events industry where my relationships would inevitably blossom. My passion for event production is unmatched. I thrive on the idea that production professionals hold a crucial role in documenting a live event and giving it the forever shelf life it deserves. One of the best feelings in the world is when an event organizer reviews my team's work and actually shed tears of joy watching our videos. It's a moment of pride for them as they see all of their months of planning come together so beautifully through video. Those moments are what make the hustle of this fast-paced industry, including the long flights, late nights and early mornings, so worth it.
What are the biggest challenges of being a woman at the helm in a historically male-dominated industry?
Being a woman in business in any industry has its set of challenges. I started my business at 27 years old, so I have always had to prove myself worthy as the youngest person in the room. Between my age and gender, there have been many instances where I had to learn that not everyone had pure intentions when requesting to meet with me one-on-one. It's a constant battle of having to "tone down" certain aspects of my personality, so as to not give men the wrong impression but still present myself as a sharp, intelligent woman who knows her stuff. I don't think people realize how much thought and strategy women put into how they dress, how they speak and what they choose to respond to because we're conditioned to present ourselves in this unrealistic way just to earn respect. On the flip side, I have unfortunately dealt with judgment and shame from other women in business. I believe there is a generational gap where women in business today look very different than when women first entered the workforce. I recognize that I am not the traditional businesswoman with my attire and how I present myself, but I have learned that being authentic in how you show up is what inspires others to do the same. So, although I have faced many business challenges through the years both within my industry and beyond, I am grateful for the grit I have acquired and the people I have inspired as a result.
What are the qualities women bring to roles such as yours that empower them to excel at their jobs?
Confidence and emotional intelligence are two qualities I attribute to success. But they're also qualities that require fine tuning, as they're not necessarily natural characteristics to carry as they evolve overtime. I believe women should do the work when it comes to mastering emotional intelligence. Being hyper self-aware of your behavior and the behavior of those around you is what attributes to good leadership. It allows you to meet people where they are, which is crucial when you're leading a team with many dynamics. Conquering emotional intelligence leads to more confidence. I believe women should lead every aspect of their lives with an untouchable level of confidence, particularly in business. We often hesitate from applying to certain roles or shy away from asking for a salary we deserve because we tell ourselves we aren't qualified enough. Empowered women should acquire a "do it anyway" mindset and cross that bridge to see what's on the other end of it. Remember, when you excel at your job, it's an opportunity to allow others to excel as well. Your journey is bigger than you!
Can you share some of your biggest career accomplishments and what you are most proud of?
My most proud career moments happen every time I offer someone a job. There is truly nothing more fulfilling than to know you are impacting someone's life for the better. I don't have any children of my own, but I joke that my team members are my "little ducklings." I am always so moved by each team member's growth and often reflect on how timid they were on their first day and how confident they become in their skill set over time. I hope the legacy I leave behind lives in each person that has worked at Soliman Productions. If they walk away learning just one thing that made them better in their craft and most importantly, better people, than that will forever be my biggest accomplishment.
Your company has not only survived through the pandemic but thrived. What were some of the key decisions you made and strategies you employed to navigate the ship and motivate your team to truly excel?
The past two years are still very much a blur to me. I haven't had a chance to truly reflect on how we survived and thrived through the pandemic, as I am still on what feels like a full-speed rollercoaster. But one of the key decisions I made was to keep everyone employed. It was important to have transparent conversations with them as cancelations came pouring in. I sat everyone down as a team and made a commitment to keep them employed at their full salary, and in turn, I requested each person to roll up their sleeves, research and learn new aspects of production and virtual meetings we weren't necessarily familiar with. Our ability to come together as a family and row in the same direction was so humbling. We worked more in the past two years than we have in our entire lives, but the difference is, we were all equally committed to ensuring we didn't drown. There wasn't any strategy behind my decisions because I didn't know what to strategize for. I just knew that to be a good leader, I had to be an honest leader. I knew that my loyalty to my team was more important than the stress I was under. I have always been a woman of faith and hard work, a powerful combination that has very rarely let me down. That has certainly been true throughout this pandemic.
You took over as president of the Greater Orlando Chapter of MPI in 2020. How did you lead your chapter during that turbulent time for the industry, and what were some key success stories?
\Although I didn't picture my time as the President of the MPI Greater Orlando Chapter to be in the midst of a pandemic, I do believe it all happened exactly the way it was supposed to. I led a group of volunteers by just being human. During that tumultuous timeframe, nothing mattered except for the well-being of my board members and our members at large. We used the chapter as our escape from the realities of our professional and personal world's falling apart in many ways. We were reminded that the power of our industry and these chapters overall is the sense of community, and that's exactly what every single person craved throughout the pandemic. I'll never forget that our first board meeting was supposed to be in the beautiful Bahamas, where we were going to build a strong rapport and kick off the year strong. Instead, we were on a Zoom call for 6 to 8 hours, yet I never felt more connected to the team than in that moment. The success of our chapter during the pandemic is the remarkable retention we had within our board and within our member base given the circumstances. We did everything we could virtually to preserve that sense of community even when we were all faced with what felt like impossible challenges. People often ask me if I feel like I got cheated out of my time as President. My response to that is I would do it all over again but only through a pandemic because I saw the best of humanity in that time.
What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned over the past two years—both professionally as a leader and personally?
2020 was the most difficult year of my life so far. Not only was I reinventing my small business and leading a group of volunteers as president of MPI Orlando, but I was also going through a divorce very privately. It was an emotional time for me, yet I felt like I didn't have time to deal with the sadness, as I was so focused on ensuring I didn't go out of business. As I think about the past couple of years and so much of the trauma people experienced, I realize the biggest lesson is to not only "find your happy" but to truly live in your happiness. As a leader, my responsibility is to be the best version of myself in order to give the best of me to those around me. For the first time ever, I am putting my well-being first, which has significantly increased my ability to be an effective leader.
What can event professionals do to help create more gender (and racial) parity in the industry?
I have never been a fan of labels, as they tend to come with stereotypes. I hope that our industry can one day get to a place where we stop pigeonholing people and just create a truly inclusive environment where a "come as you are" mentality is adapted. One way event professionals can help with this is to be more mindful of language. For example, if there is a "Women's Reception" listed in the agenda, ensure you include language that welcomes all attendees and not just women. Community is important, but how we create an inclusive community is an area our industry needs to continue to fine tune.
Is there any additional advice you would give to women in the industry wishing to follow a leadership path?
My go-to saying is, "Show up a beauty, show out a beast." You are powerful beyond belief, and the world needs your everything, so don't deprive yourself of opportunities to exercise your purpose on this planet.