Nuestra CASA es su CASA
by Emily Blake
“You know, on the surface, I sell peanut M&M's and water for a living, right?" says Joya Kizer-Clarke, Arizona School for the Arts Board Member, as she settles into the school's small conference room. Indeed, isn't that what everyone buys at the stores within Sky Harbor Airport? Kizer-Clarke is the President and CEO of CASA Unlimited Enterprises, which operates a large portion of these stores. She adds, leaning forward in her swivel chair, "But with that, there is the complexity of gaining new stores and operating existing ones."
The journey leading to her executive position at CASA was an unconventional one. Her mother, founder of CASA, became too involved with health issues to maintain her position running the company, which lead to Kizer-Clarke’s “abrupt movement to the top.” At the time she acquired her CEO position, Kizer-Clarke’s plan was to follow up her undergraduate degree in Zoology with a masters degree while raising her small children. She elaborates, “I figured I had about 10 years before she [Kizer-Clarke’s mother] was even going to consider stepping down, you know, she's just a dynamo. I was like, oh, I got you, I'll just coast through an MBA, I'm going to raise my kids, I'm going to do this [family business] thing, which I can do in my sleep.”
Though the abrupt professional change required Kizer-Clarke to re-evaluate her plans to pursue an MBA, she maintains her status as a lifelong learner. Even though she can fill many “gaps” with her own perception, she prefers technical knowledge. Bidding for one retail space within Sky Harbor entails 300 pages of paperwork, and the execution of the process is very formal. To acquire this individualized skillset, Kizer-Clarke joined a peer-to-peer professional mentoring group called Vistage, which she dedicates time to at least once per month. The board chair for Vistage actually said about Kizer-Clarke, “[She] doesn’t need an MBA, [she has] too much actual experience that it’s not going to be relevant.” Though Kizer-Clark is responsible for a thirty year-old company, staying relevant is a priority. She consistently engages in opportunities through Vistage and other educational platforms to stay involved and informed.
Kizer-Clarke refers to her day-to-day schedule as “a little crazy right now, for sure,” considering how much is constantly at stake. She values the relationships that are fundamental to the successful operation of CASA: “We really see it as a mutual relationship. I'm hiring you with the expectation that you're going to X, Y, Z and you're being employed with the expectation that I'm going to do X, Y, Z, right?” Kizer-Clarke laughs, “With the goal that we're going to sell a lot of peanut M&M's. I want to stay in stock, be a peanut eminence.” It’s clear that Kizer-Clarke believes in authenticity, expects it even. As a solution and growth-oriented businesswoman, she would rather have someone confess to wrong-doing and begin implementing a solution than try to sweep any problems under the rug. She is in it for the long haul with her employees, and will provide them with all the tools necessary to be successful.
When Kizer-Clarke first began in this business, she was a buyer, and CASA had one store. Now, she considers herself “removed” from that world. She reflects, “It's lonely at the top, right. When I had to lay people off, I had to put my business hat on and make strategic cuts,” she continues in the same retrospective tone that even though she feels a responsibility and connection to the well-being of her employees, she “always has to have a certain amount of distance and can't just break down in front of them.” Kizer-Clarke’s sense of personal accountability is illustrated on a consistent basis. She summarizes, fiddling with the large gemstone ring on her right hand, “You can’t be like, hey guys, I’m going to take the day off and check out for a month.”
After a thorough dissection of Kizer-Clarke’s history with CASA, our conversation transitioned into excitement about her experience with Phoenix Sister Cities. When I first reached out to Kizer-Clarke to schedule an interview, I was sent a Powerpoint by her assistant, which included information about all of the Kizers, considering this is a family enterprise after all. Within Joya Kizer-Clarke’s résumé page, I was struck by the mention that she was the teenage delegate to Chengdu, China, and that experience led to her serving as an adult on the Board for Peoria Sister Cities. Her stance as a lifelong-learner is once again enforced as she explains her love for the Sister Cities concept: “I love it because I think that’s such an instrumental time in your life; you're certainly experienced and capable enough and knowledgeable enough of the world to kind of formulate your own opinions and navigate through certain level of challenges, but you've never really had to do it on your own yet.” Kizer-Clarke explains the significance on a more symbolic level, “Americans have the mentality of being on an island, even though Canada and Mexico are right there, somehow we're like pretty dismissive of them as like entirely different cultural worlds other than ours.”
The personal significance for Kizer-Clarke lies in her connection with her mother and her personal heritage, which transcends from her professional life into her personal history. She lived with her mom in Mexico for six months when she was a young child. With her friends’ knowledge of the differences between North America and China, Kizer-Clarke was told before embarking for Chengdu that she would experience “culture shock,” but she explains, “My first thoughts when we got to China was not, wow, this is so different from America, but my first thought was this is so similar to Mexico.” Throughout adolescence and into adulthood, Kizer-Clarke has found similarities much more interesting rather than the total differences. Whether we were speaking about her work with CASA, her family, or her childhood, Kizer-Clarke could be considered an optimist, focused on building cooperative, authentic relationships and memories rooted in cultural understanding.