Congratulations to Christina May, our founder and CEO, who was named a 2022 Top 50 under 40 professional by Frederick County Business Development and Retention. Get to know Illumine8’s founder with these seven questions and a bonus lightning round.
Can you describe your experience up to this point?
Christina: My journey made no sense at the time, yet now I wouldn’t trade the diversity of my path. My first job was selling pumpkins for Christmas money. I grew up in the City of Frederick, Maryland. The pumpkin production happened on my grandparent’s farm, so I’ve been entrepreneurial from the start. My grandparents did a little more of the farming than I did, but that is the beauty of pumpkins - they grow everywhere with very little attention.
I worked in high school at an internet start-up helping dial-up customers with tech support and building basic HTML websites. From there, I moved on to an e-commerce start-up until it crashed during the dot-com bomb days. While in college, I worked during the day for The Economist/Roll Call Newspaper managing in-house advertising and coordinating trade agreements with non-profit partners. My twenties took me from publishing to wineries, event marketing, and even broadway.
My last position before founding Illumine8 was a hard departure from the entertainment industry into the world of home construction/land development. My tenure in the construction industry sharpened my digital marketing and public speaking skills. Still, I decided to make a more significant impact in my community. The only way I knew to move forward with that mission was to strike out independently. So I founded Illumine8 in April of 2013 with my dog Lucy and haven’t looked back since.
What inspired you to pursue marketing?
Christina: I watched my grandfather run his business during my summers with my grandparents growing up. That experience substantially impacted why I chose the path I did later in life. I’ve always loved the idea of owning/running a business, but I didn’t find a focus beyond the concept of “business” until later. As a kid, I would cut out ads from Magazines from brands I liked and taped them to the inside of my bedroom closet door. I paid attention to ads on TV and formed strong opinions around brands, especially ones that seemed to support working women. As my grandfather’s health and business faltered as I grew older, I remember feeling helpless to “fix” the situation.
As college loomed, business administration seemed like a logical and practical major. However, I wasn’t in love with the idea of more mathematics at the time. I had spent my high school years in creative pursuits: performing with the local symphony, founding a symphonic musical club, taking art classes, supporting theatrical productions, etc. These experiences led me to align myself with the more “creative” side of the business - marketing. I realized this was what my grandfather’s business lacked. By learning the art of marketing, I felt almost like I could “right” what he lost so long ago. Now, as a business owner myself, I love both sides of the business - the art and the science.
What would you consider your greatest accomplishment in your career so far?
Christina: The next accomplishment. I’m always looking to grow in a grounded way, building on what I’ve learned or sometimes unlearned. To be named a Top 50 professional under 40 is an honor. When Illumine8 was named one of the Top 50 places to work in 2020, I considered that an outstanding achievement. It’s humbling to have your staff and peers feel so strongly about the company and culture you have built together that they want to share it with others. But time doesn’t stop moving forward, and I don’t take any of those milestones for granted. Accomplishments are earned every day.
What is a challenge you’ve overcome?
Christina: My most significant challenges all originate in my head. In Ethan Kross’ book Chatter, he talks about our conversations with ourselves and how they shape who we are. Reframing those conversations has been and continues to be my greatest daily challenge to overcome. However, changing those conversations has led to better outcomes - in the past year, I’ve leaned into rock climbing, developed a book manuscript, even gotten over my fear of dentists!
What’s a piece of advice you’d give entrepreneurs and small business owners?
Christina: Don’t let anyone gaslight you into believing you are small. The times I’ve held back because I was worried about what someone would think are the times I most regret my choices. Small business doesn't mean small impact. If I change one thing for the better in a day that impacts only one other person, the effect of the positive change is more valuable than any amount of revenue or measure. You have to look yourself in the mirror; the person staring back at you is what matters most, not what everyone else thinks.
Beyond the Illumine8 office, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Christina: I’m a big fan of classifying yourself as a multi-hyphenate or multi-faceted person because it’s accurate to the life I live. My interests don’t fit nicely into a well-focused category. I’m a lifelong learner; I read close to 50 books a year between audiobooks and hardbacks. I have a passion for cooking (and eating). Last year I challenged myself to learn more about authentic Asian cuisine. This year I am challenging myself to refine my French and Italian cooking skills - I want to perfect the art of making pasta from scratch. I used to play violin semi-professionally. I love classical music and live performances (but not opera!). Since it's harder to volunteer in the community the last two years, I have spent that time training our dog Lucy to be a certified Therapy Animal. The most rewarding part of my week is visiting with her to cheer someone up or working with children learning how to read. I also love to travel. You’ll find me on the weekends outside in my yard/garden, taking Lucy on trail walks, or in the middle of some home organization project.
What comes next?
Christina: I’m really looking forward to formally reintroducing Illumine8 as a revenue operations company this year. Our team has put in so much work over the past two years refining our services and expanding our geographic footprint. I’m excited to continue that journey and see where it takes us. In addition, we have new productized services launching this year which allows us to further our mission to help businesses create more value for their customers, employees, and community.
As for me, I’ve got a few projects in the pipeline, including completing a book this year, relaunching our primary office location as a new use, and a unique multi-media project with Lucy, who is due to get a little sister this spring.
Lightning Round - Quick answers only:
- Name of the last book your read: Taste by Stanley Tucci
- Currently watching on Netflix: The Witcher
- Highlights from your Spotify 2021 Wrapped: OneRepublic, Black Pumas, Leon Bridges, Spoon, The Police, Taylor Swift, Foo Fighters, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, and a lot of Gustav Holst and Beethoven
- Favorite drink (non-alcoholic): Coffee and Constant Comment black tea
- Favorite beverage (alcoholic): Aperol spritz in the spring/summer, bourbon neat, or with a bit of ginger ale in the winter
- Favorite appetizer: Grilled octopus when I can get it, otherwise I love calamari
- Most memorable meal: Milos makes the most fantastic fish dishes, and the tomato salad is heaven. But if that isn’t possible, just a plate of Wellfleet Oysters and a wedge of lemon.
- Toilet paper roll over or under: Over
- Sports team(s): New England Patriots (Football), Washington Capitals (Hockey)
- Pet peeve: When someone asks you a question, then looks at their phone or walks away while you answer them
- Vacation spot: Cape Cod, Massachusetts
- Bucket list item recently accomplished: Seeing the Grand Canyon
- Bucket list item to complete: Cross country road trip
- Favorite holiday: Christmas
- Favorite day of the week: Sunday
- Cake or pie: Cake
- Favorite ice cream flavor: Mint Chocolate Chip
- Middle name: Lenora
- Who inspires you: My grandmother. At 93 she looks at every day like she’s going to live 93 more years.
- What’s the most boring thing ever? Ironing. This is why dry cleaners exist.