When Shella Sylla was working in commercial real estate finance in her hometown of Miami, Florida, she struggled to meet her monthly sales goals even though she was working day and night. Meanwhile, her male colleagues seemed to be hitting their goals effortlessly and often left the office early to play golf. Eventually, Shella realized that golf was their secret sales weapon.
Today, Shella is the founder of SisterGolf, a Birmingham-based business that teaches women how to play golf and how to use their knowledge of the game to enhance business and professional relationships. Meet Shella Sylla, our newest FACE of Birmingham.
Why did you decide to start SisterGolf?
I took some [golf] lessons and started playing, and the next time my company sponsored an event, I participated in it. That was when the light bulb went off because I was the only girl in a field of 100 guys.
[Through golf] I made some valuable connections that helped me to not only reach my goals but to surpass them on a consistent basis. I realized that too few of us women are taking advantage of golf, and the reasons why we aren’t are fear, intimidation and not really understanding how it works. I realized that if we got the right messaging out to women, more women would play. So I said, if nobody else is going to do it, why not me?
Since then, I have run into women who have told me similar stories about successfully using golf, whether it was to get a promotion, more visibility or more clients. I’ve run into a good handful but definitely not enough.
As I’ve been telling people the SisterGolf story, I’ve talked to more and more women who have told me, “I wish you were around earlier in my career” — particularly women who are very seasoned, or who are in a senior-level or executive-level position. They look back and say, “I really could have used you coming up because there were a lot of missed opportunities that I could have taken advantage of.”
You got the idea for SisterGolf in 2002 but put it on the shelf until you moved to Birmingham in 2013. Why did you come to Birmingham, and why did you decide to finally start your business here?
My sister was in Birmingham, and she encouraged me to move here and start SisterGolf. When I moved, I told her I was going to give it 18 months, and if I didn’t like it, I was leaving. I fully expected to not like Birmingham, but the town totally won me over. I was pleasantly surprised by how supportive and welcoming everybody was, and that was the fuel to keep me going. Birmingham has a good ecosystem for encouraging and supporting someone who is trying to build something from scratch — at least that’s what I found in my case.
When you’re starting something, it’s a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. I’m still not where I want to be, but I’m definitely further along than where I was. I see the growth trajectory continuing in the right direction, so I’m encouraged by that. I’m especially encouraged when I run into women who have gone through a SisterGolf class or have participated in a SisterGolf event and they say, “I had the best time and I learned so much, and it’s inspired me to continue.” That gives me the extra kick to say, “Okay, I can continue. I’m doing something good. I’m doing something meaningful.”
Let’s talk more about how SisterGolf works. You offer programs for companies and individuals, but you focus primarily on learning the basics and the vocabulary of the game. Why is that?
The main purpose of SisterGolf is professional development and women’s empowerment. The goal is to expose women to golf and equip them with the tools to leverage golf as a benefit so they can get more visibility, more opportunities and more money. At the end of the day, it’s an answer to the question, “How can I get this raise that Bob usually gets?” He’s not as good as me, but he has that relationship that I don’t, and he gets considered faster than me. Not to say that golf is going to automatically create a level playing field, but it definitely helps you get your foot in the door.
I teach women the benefits and basic fundamentals of the sport, so they know the difference between a front nine and a back nine, a bunker and a bogey. Even if you never play a round with someone, if you understand the terminology, you can jump into conversations and understand. And it makes a huge difference.
Do you help people learn how to play the game?
I got a lot of people saying, “I want lessons! How do I learn to play?” But a lot of the instructors are male, and I’ve found that most women want to be taught by a woman. So I started giving lessons, but I ended up being spread a little too thin. Now I’ve created a strategic partnership with Highland Park Golf Course, and they have agreed to work with me in making sure that when I do programs at their facility, we can also have a female instructor to assist me with that part of the program. And I’m currently talking to one or two people to work in a part-time capacity, just teaching [the game], while I do the professional development part.
Do you think women who aren’t in corporate America can benefit from learning the game of golf, too?
Because I see the importance and the benefit of it from a business standpoint, that’s why I created SisterGolf. But you might have someone who is retired and still wants to learn the sport, or you might have someone who wants to play socially or casually because their husband plays.
Golf is a great way to make friends if you’re in a new city. It’s a great activity for you to do as a whole family. It’s also good exercise because a round of golf is the equivalent of walking five miles. Whether you’re 9 or 90, you can still play. And I tell all the single ladies it’s a great way to meet guys who are of means because if they can afford to play on a regular basis, you know they’ve got good disposable income.
Speaking of men, why did you decide to start opening up your programs to them?
I just took it for granted that all guys knew the game, but I started to realize that a lot of guys, particularly men of color, may have matriculated up the ladder — to middle or senior management, or even executive management — without ever having a dad, uncle or mentor tell them that golf is something they might need to learn. And without any warning or preparation, the CEO or the COO is going to say, “Hey, we’re taking someone out on a round and we need you.”
A lot of men are embarrassed to tell their manager they don’t play because it’s kind of expected. It’s also hard for men to approach their friends who play [to get lessons] because their friends heckle them the whole time. Golf isn’t something that you get immediately. It’s all about technique. It’s something that you have to be taught. Very few people step up and have a natural golf swing, so you’re going to struggle.
My target market is always women, but I have something in place for men, too.
What do you like to do when you’re not working on SisterGolf?
I do Chicago-style stepping. I dance with a small group, and they don’t have a studio but we travel. We go to different places like Atlanta, Montgomery and Memphis. Other than that, I’m usually hanging with my two favorite people — my nephews, KJ and Kole. They’re 8 and 10 years old. I learn a lot from them, and they learn a lot from me. I take them to Topgolf, which they love. We also go to Sky Zone or TreeTop, or they just come over to my place and we play video games. Or I go to their baseball games.
Do you have any favorite places or events in Birmingham?
I like festivals like the Caribbean Festival, the Haitian Flag Day Festival and Funk Fest. And I enjoyed the walking loft tour downtown.
I love food trucks, and if there’s a new restaurant or bar, I want to go try it. I recently went to Paper Doll, which I liked, and a friend of mine told me about Pilcrow, which I thought was so neat because it’s hidden underground. I also like coffee shops that are not Starbucks, like Red Cat and Baba Java.
Is there anything you want to share about yourself that people would be surprised to learn?
I can sometimes have “Damsel in Distress” syndrome over little things. When it comes to work, I’m very independent and I can take care of myself, but if there’s a lizard in the house? Forget it!
What’s the best advice you have to give?
Even if you’re afraid to do something, do it anyway because you don’t discover what you can accomplish until you’re on the other side of fear and you end up surprising yourself.
Name three things you can live without (besides friends, family and faith).
ChapStick, socks and coffee
Thank you, Shella. And thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay for the beautiful photos.
Meet more amazing Southern women in our FACES archives. Click HERE and prepare to be inspired.