Violette de Ayala is a Cuban-American serial and social entrepreneur, founder and CEO of FemCity, and virtual mentor to over 20,000 women. Violette has been quoted in Success, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Yahoo Small Business, Business Insider News as a small business expert. Violette has also been seen in featured campaigns in People, InStyle, Real Simple magazines. She served as part of The White House: Women Environmental Leaders Program and was a commissioned keynote speaker for Accenture’s International Women’s Month Event, the SBA Regional Women’s Conference, and Luxury Brand Partners. FemCity has been seen in Gilt, Vogue, AP, and Inc.com and has over 100 locations in the US, Canada, and the Caribbean. Each local community hosts monthly business workshops infused with gratitude and positivity, and members have access to weekly online classes and a monthly masterclass
In This Episode, You Will Learn:
- When Violette saw the need for female business leaders to connect and support one another.
- How she started FemCity in one city and has grown the organization to over 100 locations.
- What you’re missing out on if you’re not connecting with others who have similar goals.
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Violette, thanks so much for taking time to join me today.
Thank you, it’s so great to be here.
Alright, so I want to hear the story. You moved to Miami nine or ten years ago and you started to sense that there was this need for female entrepreneurs and leaders to connect regularly. How did you sense that?
I moved from Raleigh, North Carolina in about 2007. I had owned a Pilates studio for about ten years in Raleigh and when we moved back home to Miami, I was already kind of sensing that I needed a community of women to gather with every month. I had that in Raleigh when I lived there and I loved it. It was called Chicks in Biz and I loved that we would get together once a month and they were all small business owners. We would support each other and chat about some of the challenges we were having in business. I really attribute the success I had in running that Pilates studio to that group.
When I moved to Miami, I was already used to having that once a month and I was missing that. I started FemCity Miami for really just a handful of us and the first meeting was okay but it was kind of boring. I share that because sometimes we start projects and we end up thinking, “Well, that didn’t go over so well.” But for me, it started to grow and grow and it just started taking on its own vibe. Months later, through the powers of Facebook, women from other parts of the world were seeing photos from our gatherings, which at the time were just lunches. There was nothing really spectacular or complicated happening, but they started asking for a FemCity location in their backyard.
I didn’t really understand why they needed a FemCity; we were just getting together for lunch. Clearly anyone can do that, you can just ask a couple of friends to lunch. But what they saw was something that I didn’t see at the beginning, which was a group of women that were coming together. They were all very diverse. They were of all different age brackets, height, weight, skin color and they were having a really great time connecting and growing business.
So, I started listening. After the third person that tells you something, you start to think, “Oh, I need to listen to that.” But that’s really how FemCity started. After the third or fourth person asked for a location in their backyard, I thought maybe there’s something here that I don’t quite see, but the world is seeing. I needed to step forward and figure out what that really would look like. That was the start of FemCity, just like that. It was a mishap. It was not even planned.
That is one of the things that I noticed in some of the photos that I’ve looked at of your gatherings on your website and Facebook. A lot of these groups, whether it’s all gender or just female or even just male, everybody kind of looks the same. I’m looking at yours thinking, “Not everybody looks the same.” How did you do that? Was it intentional or did it just happen organically?
No, it’s absolutely intentional and it’s part of our training when we have FemCity leaders that come on board who want to open a location in their backyard. We talk about that over and over again. The diversity within the FemCity gatherings is really about being inclusive to all women and making sure that everyone feels that they are with family. I’m Cuban and if I go to a Cuban gathering, I probably know all the Cubans. I probably know them or maybe I’m related to half of them or we know someone who knows them. I’m not really expanding my circle of influence. But when I go into a gathering and it has women from all parts of the world with different thoughts and opinions, then I’m really expanding my network and that’s truly what we intentionally provide for our Fem’s and for the women that come to our communities and take our classes.
We really want to make sure that when someone comes in, they can somehow connect visually with someone else that kind of looks like them. Automatically and subconsciously, we feel more at home and we feel more relaxed. If we go into a group and it’s all twenty-something millennials and they’re all super petite and dressed all perfect, you might not feel as comfortable because you don’t see someone who looks like you or walks like you or talks like you. But when we have that, it really kind of breaks down those barriers and makes it a more comfortable atmosphere.
I’m really surprised by that. That is so powerful, especially in our culture. A lot of times ethnic background or color is a big focus, but even different body types, shapes and styles, that’s more unusual with these types of groups. That’s really unique, congratulations on creating that type of culture.
So, you didn’t set out to create this megalopolis? You created this massive thing involving all of these women and communities. I don’t know if it’s global quite yet, but you’re getting there I bet.
We’re getting there.
But you didn’t set out to do that? It was a single location for people just in your area and it’s taken off?
Yeah, it was totally by accident. I am a huge believer that when the world calls you on a path, you have to do that self-check and recognize that it’s in alignment with where your purpose is going to be. That’s really the story of FemCity. I was listening to women ask me for this and I stepped forward, not really knowing where the path will lead or how I would do it. I just knew it had to get done because there were so many women that were asking over and over again for it. Every step of our success has always been because we could hear what they were asking for.
Even the evolution from just being a networking group to now being this business organization, that came about because women started asking us for help. When social media became a growing trend in marketing, they were coming to us for help. We reached out and Google became a partner of ours. They started teaching classes for our members and that was really huge. It was very pivotal for a lot of these businesses. We just thought, “Wow, we need to be of service for them. What else can we do? Let’s go ahead and start creating classes on Instagram Story. Let’s go ahead and create a class on how to generate revenue through Pinterest.” It really just followed with what was being asked of us and we continue to do that today.
If you ask for a community in an area in Alaska, we will start looking to see how we can launch there. I think that purpose and the intentional connectivity has really helped us to grow globally, and we are. We are in Canada. I think Canada’s growing really fast, faster than our United States growth. But now we’re looking at launching in Europe and in some of the Caribbean Islands. We’re trying to figure out what that will look like. But we always stay true to being of service and always having that heart and intention with everything that we do.
You mentioned that this is not just gatherings at lunch. I know each community in different cities has its own expression and its own flavor, but generally, how do the FemCity communities connect locally and then how do they connect online?
We have flagships, which are more like our hubs. Those are found in the larger communities like Rio Grande Valley, Chicago and Philadelphia, for instance. Those are our larger gatherings with about two to three thousand women. Then we have these smaller ones because we recognized that organizations weren’t really going into the smaller communities. These are ones that are more in the backyard or maybe they’re a little bit further away from the bigger metropolitan areas. These little collectives maybe have about 25 women and they gather every single month. They’ve got this twenty minute gratitude component, where they share gratitude about themselves. How often do we actually pat ourselves on the back to say, “Wow, this is so great”? “You had a really great pitch for that new client and you got it,” or “You have a new house that you’re listing for your real-estate practice or real estate firm.” So, we have those and they also have a component of gratitude for other women around the world. We really want to practice that gratitude component.
You’re absolutely right, each one of them has its own flare and it’s really reflective of what that community is. Beyond that, we also meet online. We host a series of MasterClasses every month and they’re free for our members. All the topics have been requested by our members. So, if there’s a class that they want and they don’t have thousands of dollars to hire a coach to help them or have hours to read a book or to watch videos on YouTube, we go ahead and create that content. We find an expert that specializes in that and we go ahead and host that class for them. They can access it in the library at any time and that’s really where all those classes come from. We curate them based on what they need, because every day it’s something new, right? Every day there’s a new social media algorithm or a new social media platform. And then how do you keep up with that when you’re running multiple businesses? Perhaps you’re even raising families. It’s a lot to take on. It just changes so fast.
You mentioned gratitude and I see that everywhere in your materials. How did that come about? I assume it got infused at some point along the way. Why is that word important to you? And how does that play out, even in your own life?
I think since the beginning of FemCity, that gratitude part, it’s definitely grown but we’ve always had it. We used to do these Fem pitches and some of our communities still do them. It’s where you stand up and you say who you are, what you do, what you’re passionate about and then we always gave an endorsement to another women. The intention behind that was for women to stop and recognize the help in others. Because in order to get to the top, you need people to help you and that’s in every industry. You don’t get to be very successful by yourself, doing everything by yourself. You do it because people mentored you or they helped you with an intro to somebody else who turned out to be a great client.
It just started growing because we recognized that as a society starts becoming more and more dependent on digital connectivity, that human to human connection really goes out the window. If we put that as part of our format, it forces humans to stop and verbalize gratitude for other people. I think the world needs more of that. To be able to stop and say, “Wow, David. That’s so great. That podcast was amazing. It changed my life.” That feels so great. It feels great not only to receive it, but it feels great to the person who’s sharing that. It feels good and we really felt like our society needed more of that. The more gratitude we have in our lives, the more our happiness vibe goes up. The more we share connectivity with other people, we all flourish. So now, it’s a really big part of FemCity.
Even personally in my life, I’ve been in some really very dark and deep moments and I didn’t see any way out. I didn’t see things getting better. The gratitude is what helped me. I was able to stop and recognize all the beautiful moments and it took the focus away from the negative, which is where your mind will tend to spiral. You step away from that and you can say, “Oh, yeah. Life is good. There’s all these great blessings around me. Let’s focus on that.” It’s very intentional, but we hope to make it so that it just comes natural for them when they go to a cocktail party or a PTA meeting, to say, “Wow, that’s so great, David. That’s fantastic that you do that.” Versus, “Oh, my gosh. I’m so jealous of David.” Unfortunately, that’s kind of how humans can be if they’re not on that track.
It’s such an abundant mentality too. If you’re winning, we’re all winning. I can cheer you on and I don’t have to feel down about myself by lifting you up. I love it when people win. When people that I know are doing great, I’m like, “Awesome! Keep going. That is really cool.”
You have an abundance mindset. You have a mindset of wealth. Not everybody’s like that but there is plenty of space. There’s plenty of opportunity for all of us. By sharing that, we hope to convert more and more people to have that same mindset that you have, that we all win. Just because I’m winning doesn’t mean I’m taking the win away from you. We can all win together.
Okay, I’m going to read you a sentence and I want to hear you explain it. “FemCity was specifically designed to make your journey less turbulent and to help you have it all (insert your own definition here).” What does that sentence mean to you? You probably wrote it.
No, it was written by a really great writer. She writes for Allure magazine and Marie Claire, and she’s really great with words. When I started my first company, I was 22 years old and I had no support. This was a long time ago before Google or any kind of online resource and I literally made every mistake in the book starting this personal training company. Then, when I opened my second company, I made less mistakes but I still made mistakes. That one was my first company that had a brick and mortar. It was the first time I had multiple locations. It was the first time I had a manager and multiple teachers. I made so many mistakes and I really wished I had had someone there to tell me, “Don’t do that,” or “Do this,” or “You know what? It’s probably going to be better this way.” I always told myself that when I got to the place where I could share what I’ve learned, that I would do that.
You spend so many hours or years or thousands of dollars making the wrong decisions when you’re starting a business and it’s turbulent. It can turn you upside-down. You feel like your stomach is going to come right out of your mouth in those moments. Maybe you lose money on an opportunity that you thought would help your business or you hired that person that ended up not being the best to have around. That’s what that sentence means. We give you the resources, the connection and the support that you need, so that the ride for you, isn’t going to be as painful as it was for me. Because it was really painful.
That was my intention when she drafted that sentence. It was perfect because how great would it be for me to give you all the wisdom that it took me years to learn? I’m forty-seven, I’ve been in business since I was 22. I’ve had multiple businesses and I have literally made every mistake. I was a pre-law major. I never took a business class. I never took a marketing class. So, that’s what that sentence means, in one beautifully formed copywrite that she did for us.
So, the “have it all” statement, what does it mean or look like for you to have it all?
Everyone’s different and that’s why we put in the, “Insert your own definition here”. My “all” is not your “all” and it’s not somebody else’s “all”. For me personally, it means to have a life that flows in harmony and in purpose. That’s what it means to me. To be able to provide for my family, but to be of service for others and to do it in a balanced way, so that I’m not sick because I’m working too many hours. I am not stressed out, but I’m living a very joyful life while staying connected to other people and helping their lives.
I think a lot of us start businesses because we want to help other people. So, you start a social media company because you want to help businesses get out there so that those small businesses can earn more money to put their kids through college or whatever it is. All of us have some sort of connection but they’re different. To some people, having it all might be to have twenty dogs and to live on the beach somewhere. Some might want to go ahead and start other businesses. We can’t just say success is “this”, because that doesn’t make sense. It’s so subjective to each person and making twenty thousand dollars on the side with your side hustle, that’s great. That’s very successful for that person. It could be huge. Everyone has their own definition, but we shouldn’t be trying to attain your goal or my goal. Everyone is different and you should play by the rules that you want to play by.
What’s the most enjoyable part in this season of FemCity? You’ve been doing this ten years. That’s a long time for one project. Most people don’t do that these days. What is your favorite part in this season in the life of the organization?
My favorite part is looking at the women through the photos of our gatherings and seeing the happiness and the connection to one another that they form. I also love when women come across us and say, “I need this in my life. I’ve really been looking for a place like this. I need this in my life.” I’m not a really good networker. I don’t enjoy going to networking events. For me, I get a little overwhelmed because there’s a lot of people. It’s a lot of people trying to push their products and I feel that this is a small, little nurturing and intimate safe area for women, where they really feel connections to other people that are going through the same thing.
Starting a business, running a business, levelling up your business, going from launching around the world, franchising it, whichever method you want to use, that’s a very lonely and isolated series of moments and I think that’s the biggest joy; seeing that there are women that I’ve never met from parts around the world that I’ve never been to, that send notes saying, “Thank you so much for FemCity because it changed my life.” Or, “I was thinking about doing this and because of FemCity, I didn’t do that and now my business has grown so much.” It’s just beautiful. Every path of this, it’s been so worth it. It was definitely a hard path but it was so worth it to see just the value it brings to the lives of women.
How do you help the larger flagship locations stay intimate? How does that happen when there is a couple thousand people that are apart of those?
I’ll use Des Moines as a great example. Emily still runs our Des Moines location and she does so many events. I think she does four or five a month. Yesterday they did a social outing. They all gathered together and they went to a small business, I think the owner’s also a FemCity member and they made these cute little cookies. So, that was kind of silly and not really business oriented but I know they made business connections. I know they were talking about business.
She has also a little subgroup for moms that can’t come to our gatherings because they have children. Now we have a mom’s subgroup, so they can actually gather and bring their kids together. I think Emily is a great example that you can still create those very intimate, small gatherings even if you have thousands of women in the community. Philadelphia does the same thing. They do coffees. Boca Delray, she does a lot of coffees as well. You can do the larger gatherings but then you supplement with these little pockets so that people do have the opportunity to connect more one on one.
This is really affordable, not to be this full-blown infomercial, but it’s only a couple hundred bucks a year, right?
Yeah, it’s $150 and that’s intentional. It’s very inexpensive for someone in Miami or Philadelphia or Chicago; $150 is nothing. But we cater to a lot of communities that are a lot smaller and $150 is a lot of money to some people. So, that’s a really perfect price point because we want to make sure that everyone can afford FemCity. If the $150 is too much, we have a monthly program, it’s $25 a month, and then we also do scholarships. We’ve heard stories of women that are single moms of four children, they have two fulltime jobs, they have this dream of creating an earring business or a handbag business, we want to be there for them as well. So, if someone really doesn’t have the means to do it, we do have some moments when we give away memberships for those women. We want to be of service to over a million women around the world and through our programs, we really feel that we can inspire them to go a little bit further then where they’re at right now.
If somebody doesn’t have this supportive group of peers around them, what is she missing out on? If she’s trying to start her own earring business or handbag business from home and selling it on Etsy, maybe she has dreams of being in boutiques one day but hasn’t yet found a group of peers that she could connect with, what is she missing out on?
I think what’s so beautiful is that humans elevate their vision based on the people around them and what those dreams are. So, there is that saying, “You’re the five people that you hang around with the most.” That is very true and if you are hanging around with people that are not really going to choose that route or they’re playing small or they’re really scared and they just kind of want to select mediocrity for their life and they just want to make sure that things are right there in front of them, it’s going to be very difficult for them. So, you definitely need to search for even one or two people that will elevate your level of thinking.
Let’s say there’s a mother, she’s 60 years old and she’s raised all these children. She’s never worked but she wrote this amazing book and now it’s this Amazon bestseller. She’s touring around the world. “Wow,” it opens your eyes to think, “Everything is possible.” We all have the power to change our lives but we really don’t change them unless we know someone, somewhere that’s kind of like us that has done it. Then it inspires us to do the same. So, if you don’t have that around you, I would highly recommend finding even a virtual mentor. We have a lot of those TED Talk people or even listening to Brene Brown can start to shift your thoughts and mindset. Your mind is the biggest obstacle and the biggest challenge that we have. I can teach you how to generate revenue. I can teach you how to scaleup your business to be around the world. But at the end of the day, if you don’t believe you can do it, nothing that we teach you is going to help. It’s really the mindset that really dictates your future and being around women that are doing it, definitely wakes you up.
I know Marianne Williamson has impacted your life in different ways. What is it about her or maybe a teaching or value that she’s brought to the table, that you’ve really taken away from her and implemented as you’ve lived out your life?
I love her. A Woman’s Worth was the first book I read that really touched me. I just recommended it to my daughter who’s 19. I can’t remember the quotes, I’m probably better at Maya Angelou quotes, but for some reason her book really made me open my eyes and go for more. I didn’t have the best upbringing. My mother was an opiate addict for many years, she just recently passed from kidney failure and I think that I was missing that female energy in my life. Reading her book really opened up my way of seeing myself and the way I relates to the world. That was my favorite book. Return to Love is another one of hers that was really great.
I know you have a book in the works about eleven shifts that you have experienced in your life. Do you want maybe tell us a little bit more about that and why you chose to write it?
I didn’t really have the most stable upbringing and I don’t think I had what I think, normal people had. So, what I’ve done is, I’ve put together the biggest lessons I’ve learned in life. Often when I’m speaking or when I’m on a panel or when I’m done teaching a class, women will come up to me and ask me more about those personal moments, “How did you get through having an addict mother and not having a mother at all?” Or, “How did you get through going from welfare to wealth?” Those little stories in my life, I find that those are the stories that women want to know the most about. It’s not so much about how to generate revenue or how to market yourself, they just want to know that mindset at work. “How did you do that?” “How did you go from the bottom to the top?”
Those are conversations that not everyone talks about, right? They just want you to see them like, “Oh, I’m all successful.” They only want you to see that part of their life, but I want to inspire others, because I think there are so many of us out there that didn’t have a lot or went to rock bottom and they want to know how you make that shift to go up. I think that’s what my intention is with the book. To share those stories in a very raw and authentic way so that it inspires others to say, “You know what? I can do what I want to do and I shouldn’t let anything hold me back.” You have the power to change your life.
Do you happen to have a release date on that? Or is it still on the works?
I have written it twice. I’ve written it in a way that is more spiritually based; not woo-woo or religious, it’s more just the connectivity that we have to others. So, there’s that way and then I wrote it in a funny way. I literally had a meeting on Friday with some friends that came together as a pseudo focus group to ask which one I should move forward with because I was stuck. I think the verdict is more to do the spiritual one. It may not connect with everyone, but I think that when it does connect with those people, it’ll make a huge difference in their life. So, that’s what was holding me back. That’s huge, right? Is it going to be a funny or is it going to be a warm and fuzzy one?
Have you ever seen one of those books where if you hold it one way, you can read the book. Then you flip it over and it’s a whole other book on the other direction? So, they’re both working toward the middle but you flip the book over, it could be a two sided book. One side spiritual direction, flip it over, read the funny side.
That’s a great idea. I didn’t know that.
Don’t choose, do both. It could be kind of fun.
Yeah, it would be. You could even do illustrations and stuff. Okay, I hadn’t thought of that.
I want to go back; you said at 22, you started your own personal training business. Is that right?
To go from a challenging upbringing and pre-law before that, how did you get to a place where you thought you had enough confidence and courage in your mindset to say, “I’m going to go train other people”? That’s a big shift from what you talked about. At what point did you feel like, “Okay, yeah. I can do that”?
I was a chubby child and I found my way out of being chubby from exercising. I kind of learned how to do it on my own. And while I was in high school and in college, I worked at a couple of gyms in Miami. Whether it was opening up the gym in the mornings on Saturday or taking registrations, whatever it was, I did anything. I feel like the gym was a place where I found myself and I was able to shed off all that weight and the emotional weight as well.
I had Christoff, our oldest, he’s 25; we had him and he was a little baby. I was a latchkey kid growing up and I did not want him to have that same experience of not having parents around. My dad travelled quite a bit internationally when I was little, so there was a lot of alone time, especially when I got to be old enough that I could be home by myself. I don’t know if was legal to be home by yourself but I was.
Back then, it definitely was. I was at home by myself too. It was like come home around 2:30 or 3 o’clock, get your snack, sit down and watch The Brady Bunch rerun.
Yeah, exactly. What was the other one? It was The Brady Bunch and then it was The Jeffersons. Oh, my gosh. I loved The Jeffersons.
Leave it to Beaver.
Leave it to Beaver, yeah. I didn’t want that for him but I also needed to make money. Since I had been in the gym industry, that was the only thing I knew. I got my personal training certification, I put everything on a Discover credit card and started training people. I put an ad in a local newspaper and there went that. I started getting more and more clients and I did that for a couple of years, but I didn’t know anything. I created my own logo. I purchased the advertisement on my Discover credit card. I bought some equipment on it too, but I didn’t know anything. I just kind of figured it out along the way and I knew people that had done it before. The gyms that I had worked at for so many years, they were small business owners and they were kind of like me. I was seeing them and feeding it to myself, “Oh, you know what? If they can do it, I can do it too.”
That is amazing. Okay, so if somebody wants to join a FemCity community or even start one of their own, what would the process be?
Sure, so you can go to www.femcity.com and we’ve got a link right there on how to start a chapter in your backyard. It’s beautiful, we’ve seen our leaders go from being very shy and not knowing anyone, to – we had one that was just quoted in Fast Company the other day. We’ve have some that are now world renowned speakers. It’s definitely a good platform for those that are looking for that in their life. I invite you to go ahead and try out FemCity. You can join for 30 days for free, there’s no obligation. Take as many classes as you want. Hop into one of our local gatherings as a guest and I think that you’ll love it. Our intention is to help all women grow business together and we do anything that we can do to help them.
You didn’t mention this but if there isn’t a local FemCity community and the woman isn’t in a place to start that, could she still join and participate online? Do you have people do that?
Absolutely. You can do the online membership and you actually get to work with me. Once a month, Cheyanne and I go ahead and do classes for them and host a kind of virtual gathering. You can also take part in all of the Masterclass series. That’s an excellent point. You’re right. So, at least you have community in your life somehow.
I’m going to sign up for that under a fake name so that I can get the benefit. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m Danielle Trotter.
We have a YouTube channel as well and we do a lot of YouTube videos. There’s some awesome free content there. We do a class every Wednesday on Facebook called Coterie Conversations, where we always choose a really good topic. Yesterday’s topic was Why Even Show up to Local Events? We’re seeing that there’s a growing trend of people doing more virtual gatherings and we wanted to talk about the benefits and why it’s important for you to show up to your local Chamber and BNI events; all those that you have nearby and why it’s important to show up. It does really help your business grow. So, we did that yesterday. You can always partake in FemCity, you don’t necessarily have to fake a name to join. There’s lots of stuff there.
I had to look up the word “coterie”, I was like, “Oh, my gosh. I feel so stupid. What is a coterie conversation?”
It’s such a great word, right?
That’s a fancy word. Do you use that in normal conversations ever?
All the time.
You’re lying, come on.
Twenty times a day. But no, it’s a beautiful word. I didn’t know it either until one of my best friends mentioned it to me three or four years ago. I loved it so much and I just sat on it for the longest time and when we were putting this series together, it’s every Wednesday at 2pm Eastern time on Facebook. Anyone can access that. I was like, “This is perfect. That’s where we’ll use it, Coterie Conversations.” Because that’s what it is. It’s a very small and intimate gathering on topics that we all want to know about. We do any topic. Submit a topic and we will cover it. Literally we just listen to our community. Whatever they need, we create.
Okay, one last question. Upward and onward; what does that mean to you and why is that important to you?
I say that all the time because so many times we get knocked down in life and all you can do is just get up on your feet and keep on moving. It happens all the time, right? You get bad news. You have bad decision that is affecting you. Something didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. It’s just onward and upward, just keep on going. Get up as fast as you can and keep on moving because the longer you stay down, it doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t help yourself. It doesn’t help the people around you and it doesn’t help those that you serve. Just get up, get going.
I love it. Violette, thank you so much for sharing about FemCity and your experience and wisdom. I really appreciate it.
Thank you so much for having me. It was great getting to know you. Thank you.