Sheila Benson is no stranger to hard work. Since age 24, she’s been building businesses and learning how to lead — all while being a single mother. In 1994, Sheila founded Employment Screening Services (ESS), a nationally recognized company that specializes in pre-employment screening and risk management solutions. Under Sheila’s leadership, ESS has been named an Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Company and received a long list of other accolades that recognize its exceptional services.
In addition to building ESS into one of the top background screening firms in the nation, Sheila has also been named CEO of the Year by Birmingham Business Journal and has supported prominent local organizations like UAB, Samford University and The Exceptional Foundation.
Even with her wealth of achievements, Sheila remains humble. She credits her success to just a few simple behavioral pillars, like treating others with respect and always leaving the door open for opportunity. Young entrepreneurs, mothers or simply anyone looking to excel in life will benefit from a conversation with this trailblazer. We had a great time talking with Sheila and feel fortunate to have her in the Magic City.
Meet today’s FACE of Birmingham, Sheila Benson!
Describe your early years as an entrepreneur. What were they like? How did you stay motivated?
It’s interesting to think back on everything because when you’re a young entrepreneur, you don’t think about failure. I had a child, I was a young parent and I was building a name for myself, all while building a family. It takes so much energy to start a new business. So I had to learn along the way.
It was tough, and I guess you stay motivated just by learning. My ability to learn really insured me more than anything else. You learn from everyone you meet. And I have to say, Birmingham was really good to me. I’m not a native, but anyone who I asked for guidance was always willing to give me advice.
In your early years, you’re learning how to sell your product. You’re learning taxes and payroll and all those things that you don’t know are a part of your business, and it’s all very busy. I think it’s the will to succeed that drives you to learn how to master those things. They become a part of your lifestyle. Of course, my later years were much easier because I had that base beneath me. Early on, life is an experience. It’s kind of like being a parent — you think you know a lot until you’re in the middle of it.
When you get down to it, the best lesson is that you always learn more from your mistakes. You never quit learning from those.
Tell us about the formation of ESS and what the company offers.
ESS helps companies hire and retain productive workforces by providing a wide range of background screenings. We continue to add and grow our services as markets change. We add new products to help companies build the best workforces. We want to help them reduce the risk, essentially — we’re a risk solution company. We validate credentials through technology, we monitor backgrounds, we analyze social media activity. As technology changes, so does the opportunity. We are always changing; we have to stay ahead of the market.
What are some of the challenges of being a female CEO?
I think the major thing for me is managing your family while also having a high-grade company. People like to talk about work-life balance. I’m not sure it exists, though. I want every aspect of my life to be perfect, but I know that’s impossible. I’d love to cook dinner every night but I can’t do it all. I’ve learned to delegate things. I think the challenge for females versus males is balancing the family with the business. Sometimes a child is more important, and there is a time when a client needs something and you cancel a vacation. There’s not really a balance – you just have to make it fit. That’s life. You have to develop a style that works for you.
I think it is improving, though. I see more women on boards and I’ve been asked to be on many boards. I do think that’s changing. For me, I honestly feel like I’ve been accepted. But I wasn’t in corporate America either. I think there are more opportunities, and companies are looking more at the ability rather than the race and the sex.
What are some habits you’ve developed that have allowed you to stay successful?
A big thing for me is continuing education. I love programs that refresh me. Things have changed since I went to school, so I think continuing education is important. I like change, and I like improving things and staying at the top of my game. I also take small breaks to reenergize — having the chance to destress and start new and feel fresh.
Looking back, what are some defining moments that propelled you to where you are today?
We all make decisions based on different things, and I make a lot of decisions with my gut. It’s important to get all the facts and the numbers; however, my intuition is pretty good. When faced with a big decision, I take in the analytics and I say a little prayer, but my decisions are mostly made with my intuition. For me, every big decision has been about feeling it inside.
Describe your morning routine. What do you do each day to set yourself up for success?
Depending on what day of the week it is, I have two routines. The most prevalent one is I begin my day with my husband bringing me coffee in bed. I take a few minutes to sip my coffee and think about my day. I think about why it will be great and what I want to accomplish. It just sort of sets me up for a good day. It’s really important for me to think about my day before it starts. When I have a focus going into the day I seem to accomplish more.
Other days, we have a trainer come to the house, so no coffee first – it’s all about jumping into the day.
Who do you most admire?
My grandmother. She taught me all the good lessons — be fair, and the Golden Rule. All those things that teach you to be honest and good I learned from my grandmother.
When I think about a woman outside my family — the person I really admire who never backed off of who she was — I think of Condoleezza Rice. When people stand up for what they really believe in, and they are fair and honest, I admire that. Be patient and understanding — there are two sides to every story. Life needs to be about impacting for the greater good. We should have more respect. It’s about doing what’s right and fair and understanding when people need help or a little extra attention.
What’s your favorite book and why?
A million books flash before my eyes, but I’m going to have to go back to the third grade and say To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. Because again, it’s about doing what’s right, what’s fair. I never get tired of that idea.
Describe your perfect night out in Birmingham. Where would you go and what would you do?
I love all of Frank Stitt’s restaurants. Maybe cocktails on the patio at Bottega and then dinner inside. There are so many things I love about Birmingham. It’s hard to choose. I would get the “Orange Thing” at Bottega – it’s my favorite drink. My husband and I used to go at about 3 p.m. on a Friday — we need to do that again sometime soon!
What’s your best piece of advice for entrepreneurs?
Build a company around your culture and hire to fit that. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how talented someone is — if they don’t fit the culture, they won’t be successful. For me, culture has been the most important thing. It’s about team building and it’s about our culture.
What are three things you can’t live without, aside from faith, family and friends?
Starbucks, massages and yoga. If I have those three things, then I can conquer anything.
Thank you, Sheila. And thank you to Eric & Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for the beautiful images of Sheila.
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