Written by Noah Logan
Photos by Steve Babin
This issue’s Spotlight centers on Lisa Davis Mays, JD, CFRE the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Catalyst Center for Business and Entrepreneurship. Mays’ passion for helping others has fueled over a decade of nonprofit service and leadership. Like so many other women, Mays balances her responsibilities as CEO, wife, mom, and stepmom, and all the challenges and rewards that come with them. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
A Huntsville native, Mays obtained her undergraduate degree from Samford University before earning her Juris Doctor from the University of Alabama School of Law. She launched her career in corporate law but realized a few years in that her heart wasn’t in the work. “I don’t know how to say it other than my soul wasn’t satisfied,” she explained. “I longed for something where I had the ability to help people and impact the community in a truly meaningful way.” In 2011, after a lot of thought and prayer, she took a leap of faith to go to Downtown Rescue Mission as the Assistant Director for Women and Children. In just a year’s time, Mays would be promoted to Director for Women and Children and would go on to serve as Director of Major Gifts and Community Relations, then Senior Director of Development for the Mission.
In fundraising, she found a new sense of purpose in serving others. She was able to channel that passion into a successful capital campaign, raising over $7.1 million to build a 30,000 square foot facility for homeless women and children, for which she was named the 2017 Fundraising Professional of the Year by the North Alabama Association of Nonprofits.
After that successful tenure, Mays felt it was time to explore other ways she could impact her community. In early 2020, she prepared for an interview for a project director position at the Catalyst. Fueled by her background in fund development, Mays paid special attention to the organization’s financial records to inform her interview approach, and the search committee wanted to hear more. “We’re stopping this interview,” is decidedly not something you want to hear. However, it was actually a very good thing. The search committee, including the Catalyst’s founding CEO, Joanne Randolph, immediately saw that Mays belonged in a different interview. Randolph’s retirement was approaching, and the committee had been interviewing candidates for a successor since 2019, but hadn’t found the right person to fill the role. That was about to change. Mays was named the second ever CEO of The Catalyst. “Every day I go home thinking it can’t get any better and then I’m proven wrong the next day.”
The Catalyst has a big heart for small business and exists to serve entrepreneurs and small business owners in every stage of business. When Mays joined The Catalyst in the midst of a global pandemic, her primary focus was ensuring equitable access to these resources. Feeling strongly that the organization was responsible for finding new ways to fund the programs without creating barriers to underserved people, they began offering all workshops and coaching sessions at no charge.
“Serving the underserved” is a clear theme in her story, one that has its roots in her early childhood. “My grandparents were foreign missionaries. When they visited, my Grandmomma read me Bible stories, and my favorite was the story of the Good Samaritan. Even as a little girl, I knew that I wanted to be the person who went to the hard places and served those in need with love and kindness.” That passion continues to influence her approach. Her motto is “You can’t compete with us, because we want you to win, too.”
“I’m so proud of this amazing team we’ve built and the relationships we’ve built. You often hear folks talking about ‘collaboration over competition’ and I’m grateful that our team truly means it when they say it. We want to be known as a good friend to all the amazing organizations in this community. I’m extremely proud of the partnerships that have arisen out that mindset and ways we are able to better serve our entrepreneurial ecosystem by working together – a high tide truly does raise all ships.” Mays lists the establishment of a second Women’s Business Center in Clanton, Ala., as a particular point of pride.
When questioned about her greatest accomplishment at the Catalyst, Mays said it’s being a champion for her team. ‘The responsibility of carrying out the day-to-day work belongs to my team and the equipping, encouragement, and care of the team belongs to me. Leading this team of extraordinary individuals is a gift and it’s something that I deeply cherish. I have the responsibility and privilege of empowering them to grow and thrive.”
Her passion for her staff at The Catalyst shows itself through her actions as well as her words. When times became difficult at the peak of the COVID-19 lockdown, Mays did everything in her power to help her staff continue to be effective with their work while also making sure their mental health needs were taken care of. She obtained funding for capacity building, built in hazard pay, stipends for cell phone and internet bills. Eventually her employee-first focus led to a new work model for the team: a results-oriented work environment that allowed her team more flexibility and opportunities for self-care and family, things Mays values deeply. The roles Mays fills as a woman, wife, mom, and stepmom, daughter, sister, and friend are clear influences that can be seen not only in her leadership style, but also in the way she relates to The Catalyst clients, partners, and volunteers. “Women wear many hats in life. I know what it’s like to balance [a long list of] roles. I’ve been on scheduled work calls at the ball field and have had my little assistants join me for days at the office. I’m thrilled that we’re providing spaces for women to launch their business with an approach that appreciates their unique challenges and encourages their unique capabilities.”
While Mays and her Catalyst Dream Team already have an ever-growing list of accomplishments to be proud of, she described nothing but excitement about The Catalyst’s future. “The future of The Catalyst is bright – I’m so excited about the entrepreneurs and small business owners that we haven’t even reached. They don’t know it yet, but we are already their biggest fans. Huntsville is such an amazing place, full of innovators who are making the world a better place every day. Those hugely impactful moments start when small businesses have big ideas. Our clients entrust us with their dreams, and we get to help them grow and succeed. The fact that we’re going to continue to grow and do more of that makes me so happy – I truly believe the best is yet to come.”