Atlanta 5×5 Profile: Claire ‘Yum’ Arnold
Women@TheFrontier and Invest Atlanta have joined forces with The City of Atlanta to create a unique blog series called the Atlanta 5X5. Together, we’re compiling our list of the top 5 women Role Models, influencers, and visionaries in the Atlanta area. In today’s post meet Claire ‘Yum’ Arnold, the Atlanta CEO proving you don’t have to ‘fake it until you make it’ in business
By Amy Hyatt Fonseca
Claire ‘Yum’ Arnold isn’t your average CEO in tech.
On this particular Wednesday, she is seated in her office—a place she lightheartedly refers to as an “organized mess.” Stacked files wait on her desk, and sticky notes line the monitor of her computer. Her conversation is warm, direct, laced with a side of humor and an unrivaled energy.
Arnold is Founder and CEO of Atlanta-based Leapfrog Services Inc., a pioneer in remote IT services using cloud-based solutions. Her team refers to her as ‘Boss Frog,’ and she heads the company with a wealth of experience in high-growth business development and long-range strategic planning. “I think it’s about attitude,” Arnold says. “I like being female, but I never thought of myself in business or leadership as a woman doing it this way. I thought of myself as a person.”
Throughout the interview, Arnold speaks this way, with an unentitled attitude and sense of pragmatic optimism. It’s what makes this CEO unique. These traits, combined with experience and smarts, have propelled her forward and earned her the plethora of awards decorating her office today:
2014 Most Admired CEO/Technology Sector, Atlanta Business Chronicle
2010 Business to Business Top 25 Entrepreneurs
2002 Entrepreneur of the Year
2002 Pacesetter Award
2001 Top Ten Fastest Growing Women-Owned Firms
The list of accolades is endless.
Still, when asked about the root of her success, Arnold says it’s about sticking to her values—embracing her inner compass. While many in the business world follow the adage ‘fake it until you make it,’ Arnold applies a different formula to her success. She fakes nothing. Instead, she fuses genuine values with hard work then mixes in integrity and civic involvement for impact.
Arnold’s method may not be flashy, but it’s effective for this powerhouse. Here’s the story of Claire ‘Yum’ Arnold, a woman who discovered her own formula for personal and professional success. A method she believes begins and ends with listening to your inner compass. Here’s how:
Pay Attention to Values
Arnold grew up the daughter of a conservative Navy pilot and a freethinker from Berkeley. Raised on a farm in Virginia with her three brothers, she’s the first to acknowledge farm life’s influence on her character. “Having a farm is hard,” she says, “but it builds an ethic, culture, and sense of family. It showed me that success is defined by how you live your life, who you spend it with, and if you’re doing good for the world.”
If life on a farm molded Arnold’s work ethic, enduring the loss of her father as a teenager influenced her outlook on life. “I never felt sorry for myself,” she says. “I guess I’m wired that way. I look at the silver lining. I felt so lucky to be his daughter for 15 years and have this relationship. I never for one second felt like poor me.” When asked the best advice her father ever gave her, she smiles and says, “You can be anything you want, but whatever you do be the best you can be.”
“…success is defined by how you live your life, who you spend it with, and if you’re doing good for the world.”
After high school, Arnold followed her father’s advice “to be her best” and enrolled at Mary Baldwin College, a women’s private school in Virginia. “The privilege of being able to go to college,” she says, “particularly that college, shaped me and made me want to give back to the world.” While academics proved difficult for the energetic Arnold, she continued to thrive in college. “I’m smart but not book smart,” she says. “I’m much more an experiential learner.” Today, she credits the rigorous and broad liberal arts courses at the school for teaching her to think critically, work hard, and further forge her inner compass.
Make Decisions that Count
In 1969, Arnold graduated with a B.A. in Mathematics and landed a job at Coca-Cola “at a really lucky time.” The company hired her in a traditionally female position, as a research assistant. While the pay seemed modest compared to other offers, the job fascinated her because it was a new department filled with MBA’s from Harvard and Stanford. “They weren’t paying me exactly the same,” she says, “but they gave me opportunities. Within a year, they made me their equal.”
Even as a novice in business, Arnold never shied away from expressing her opinions when asked, but “not in a disrespectful way,” she says. “Coke gave me the freedom and empty floor to learn,” earning her a trusted position as an advisor to senior leadership.
Not long afterward, Coke offered Arnold a job in San Francisco as the first female district manager. She remembers planning to visit the new office on a Wednesday and returning to Atlanta on Friday for a blind date. Arnold says, “I told a friend ‘with my luck, I’m going to fall in love with this guy.’” And that’s what Arnold did. Within two weeks, her now husband, Ross had proposed.
Arnold informed leadership at Coke she couldn’t accept the promotion and submitted her resignation. The CEO at the time called her into his office and told her she had set back women 20 years. Her response? “Well, I hope I’ll be married to this guy in 20 years.” A year and a half later, Arnold married Ross; Coke didn’t accept her resignation. Instead, they hired her as district manager in New York…and four decades later, Arnold and Ross remain happily married.
“The future is wide open!”
Leap Toward Impact and Never Look Back
Following her job in New York, Arnold took a short hiatus from Coke, but eventually returned to the company and Atlanta. During this time, she served as the marketing manager for the company’s first plastic beverage containers.
After ten years at the company, Arnold made a career leap. She acquired NCC L.P., a local distributor of consumer goods to convenience stores. She spent the next 15 years creating one of Georgia’s five largest privately held companies. As the CEO, Arnold expanded the business from a traditional one-warehouse distributor into a multi-faceted corporation with nine operating divisions. She received multiple awards for her work in the industry.
Then in 1998, Arnold cofounded Leapfrog Services with Andrew Feiler. The pair chose the name because it symbolized “staying ahead of the game,” and implied “technology is not intimidating, and work can be fun.” But before developing the company’s concept, Arnold and Feiler penned their values, which later became Leapfrog’s Frogma—a dogma aimed at Integrity, Service, and People. With their vision in place, Arnold and Feiler launched one of the first IT remote management companies dedicated to people and solutions.
Seventeen years later, Arnold sits at the helm of the ever-expanding business and continues to allow her inner compass to drive her success. “I’ve learned where I’m strong and where I’m not,” she says. “I hire to my weaknesses.” Arnold has no qualms about discussing her management style. She is a big-picture thinker and notes, “I’m a 2 out of 10 on details. I’m organized, but it doesn’t seem like it. I work best when I’m working on five different things at once.” Her strategy is to surround herself with “really smart and good people” she can trust, a diverse team aligned with the mission that she can “delegate to a lot!”
“I’m not afraid to fail. I don’t worry what other people think. As long as in my soul, I feel like I’m doing the right thing for the right reasons.”
Around Atlanta, Arnold is celebrated for leveraging her voracious energy to support multiple boards and civic initiatives. She has served on the Board of Directors for six NYSE-listed companies and numerous nonprofits. One of the most recent boards she serves is the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI), a business incubator for women entrepreneurs launched in partnership by the City of Atlanta and Invest Atlanta.
Arnold believes “the future is wide open” for the city and advocates for the triple bottom line—people, planet, and profit. She considers it the area where women will affect the future of business. “There’s no social problem that can’t be fixed by a for-profit company,” she says. I think women are going to be doing that. They have the sensors.”
When asked about her own sensors, and how she’s achieved success, Arnold relaxes in her chair. “My values are family and personal relationships,” she says. “I’m not afraid to fail. I don’t worry what other people think. As long as in my soul, I feel like I’m doing the right thing for the right reasons.”
To be sure, when speaking with Arnold one realizes there’s something else—an invisible force that pushes her to continue to redefine the semantics of success.
“It’s curiosity,” Arnold says grinning. “It can kill the cat, but it sure is fun.”
…And we can only hope ‘fun’ is another piece of the success equation that this Role Model has no plans to change anytime soon.