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Ready to Be a Thought Leader?

John Livesay interviews Denise Brosseau

Welcome to the Successful Pitch podcast. Today’s guest is Denise Brosseau. She wrote a book called ‘Ready to be a Thought Leader?’ and she certainly is that. She describes the difference between being a leader and being a thought leader. Denise was named the 2012 Champion of Change at the White House and then went on, in 2014, to be named one of the Top 100 women of influence in Silicon Valley. You can imagine how excited I am to have her on the show today.

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Anyway, back to today’s guest. Denise, welcome to the show.

Happy to be here.

You have so many great accomplishments and awards, but I always love to hear about what inspired you to become involved in Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship, and helping other women get involved in this. Take us back to your first thoughts of, “You know what? I’m going to make a difference”.

It’s always such a good thing to start back at that. What’s the why? What is it that drives us to keep going? There is a lot of that thinking that I try to do with people who come to me who think about this idea of taking the stage, is to start with that ‘why’. For me, it really began, actually, in business school. I took this wonderful course on creativity in business. The leader of that course was a guru in that arena and he had us do a lot of very deep thinking about our vision for our future and what we’ve stood for in the world. I came away from a several month exercise with a mission statement. That mission statement was based around more women leaders at the top of every organization.
It came from a deep place that … I look around me and I say, “The world is not really working the way I want it to. If we had more women’s voices, more diverse voices at those tables, I believe that some of the issues that I really, deeply care about are going to come out differently.” My work for the last 20 years has been around all the different ways I can help move that agenda forward.

I love it. The research certainly backs you up that women CEOs perform extremely well. I’m curious - was this creativity in business class at Wellesley, or was it at our Stanford graduate?

It was actually Stanford business school.

Interesting. How nice that they have a class like that.

I know! It was definitely my favorite course, along with the entrepreneurship course I actually had the chance to take with Jim Collins. You have some unique opportunities in your life that just coalesce around the future that unfolds for you. Those were two of them.

Right. Anytime a guest - and there’s not many, you’re in a very select few - that have been involved in any way, shape, or form with the White House, I’m always curious to hear about that. Can you tell us about this Champion of Change award?

Absolutely. You go along in your life and you work hard and you try to make a difference and it’s occasionally true that somebody reaches out from a place like the White House where it’s one of those astonishing moments. You get those emails that say, ‘You’ve been recognized as a Champion of Change!’ and you’re like, “Wow! Okay!”. First, you look at the return address to make sure it’s real.

To make sure it’s not a prank?

Let’s be honest, you don’t always believe it. For me, it was such a wonderful culmination of deep amount of work I’ve done in women’s entrepreneurship. I was actually nominated by Springboard, the group that I helped start years and years ago. I still serve on the national advisory council, and the Champion of Change award was for people in the country - men and women - who had been doing work around encouraging entrepreneurship in a lot of different communities around the country.
They selected a group of us to come and be recognized for that work, and also to have a real tribe sharing. It was just such a wonderful event because, in addition to the recognition and the chance to hear of some great stories, which, of course, we all want to hear about, and be able to tell our own stories, also having these private rooms where everyone at the table is equally committed to the same cause, and to have a chance to talk.
It was co-led by this great group, Startup America, and their work around how can we get communities to coalesce around ecosystems to help everybody collaborate and cooperate to work more effectively. They were sharing what they learned, we were all sharing what worked in our communities, and we all came away more energized and empowered, and also educated on what was working, the best practice sharing that we all seek and we can’t often find. I thought it was a win-win for me and, of course, it’s lovely to put that on your resume. It’s fun to go to the White House and meet all these amazing people.

I love what you said about the tribe sharing. That really is one of the keys to being a successful anything - whether you’re an entrepreneur, a founder, an investor - finding your tribe and finding those people that you can learn from and that you can, hopefully, contribute something to. Don’t you agree?

Absolutely. So much of the way that I’ve learned to think about this is how much more powerful we can be when we find our tribe. This came to roost for me. I’m running this non-profit years ago here in Silicon Valley called the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs. I was the founder of the organization with some other fabulous people, and we were really churning some great programs and great events and really getting women out there and doing great things, and then we started to grow to other offices and other cities. Then, one day in 1999, I get this phone call from the National Women’s Business Council. I’d never heard of them.
That was my invitation into this entire tribe of people like me who were working hard at the grassroots level to help women who were growing big business. Not a lifestyle business, but a scalable business that is technology, life sciences companies, media companies, who are really thinking big, raising venture capital. Once I realized I wasn’t the only one, it took everything to another level. I’m always encouraging people to think, “Where is your tribe? Can you amplify those other voices? Can you convene those people? Can you create much more rapid change by bringing those people to the table together?”

That’s it, isn’t it? Rapid change when you’re not doing it alone. Not two years later - last year - you were recognized as one of the Top 100 Women of Influence by the SV Business Journal. Is there one thing that they really pointed to and said, “That’s why we’re putting you in the top 100”?

I think what I’m known for in Silicon Valley is the one who starts everything. The organization I started is very well known here. I also started another group called Invent Your Future, which is also quite well known, with lots of conferences here in the valley. I started Springboard, which has impacted a lot of people. I’m the gal who starts great and conferences and events and tribes for women. I think it was the culmination of all of those things together that led to that award.

Our readers can certainly relate to that, because if you’ve got the entrepreneur’s spirit, you’re inspired by starting new things and you have multiple things that you’ve started which have all been hugely impactful and successful. Tell the readers who may not know about Springboard, how great it is.

When we first began the journey to create Springboard, it was a time in the United States where there was not a very visible opportunity for women to come to the stage in front of a community of investors to pitch their big business ideas. At the time, there was really only one, VentureOne, and if you saw two women on the stage it was a unique year. Mostly, what we realized at that time was that there just wasn’t this preparation that was necessary. Most women were doing big businesses for the first time and they were not serial entrepreneurs like many of their male colleagues.
Venture capital was, for the first time, even slightly available for women. Our thinking was: if we can create a venture conference that was for women that was a 3-6 month program prior to the event that was actually selecting the best entrepreneurs and then putting them through a boot camp, a series of mentorship opportunities, and a chance to really prep their business before they got on that stage, and then in addition, some introductions to the right people, the lawyers, the bankers, the accountants, the folks who can really help them shore up their business idea and get it ready for prime time, those women were really going to shine.
We started this here in Silicon Valley in January of 2000. Since then, we’ve hosted these programs, not only across the United States and multiple cities, but we’ve also gone internationally and hosted programs in Australia and Israel and down in South America. The work has now brought, I think, we’re close to 600 women entrepreneurs. Those numbers are astonishing. Businesses have raised $6.7 billion in capital in 15 years. We really have an amazing track record. What I’m even more proud of, because of course the numbers say a lot, is that there’s another piece to it and that is this tribe of 600 women, many of whom are now serial entrepreneurs, they’re coming back to us for the second and the third business. They are supporting each other, they are serving on each other’s advisory boards, they’re nominating and recognized each other and helping each other to get to that finish line, and also supporting when things don’t work.
That’s the thing that keeps on giving, is this alumni community that we created and continue to bring together every other year. I just love going and I try to MC those events every other year and getting to see what’s come as a result and seeing the power of these women now. They’re in big companies, they’re entrepreneurs, they’re executives, consultants. The knowledge and information that they got and the connections that they got took their careers to a whole other level.

How exciting. You’ve also written what is a big favorite to many, many people, a great book called ‘Ready To Be a Thought Leader’. What I find so interesting about that is it’s not just ready to be a leader, but ready to be a thought leader. Can you give us your definition of the difference between the two?

That’s such a great question because I do think it’s a journey from leader to thought leader. Leader is someone, obviously women, a single organization or entity, usually, who begins to make change, who begins to create followership around an idea of doing things newly, doing things better, shipping a better product, creating a new service, whatever it might be. Then, to me, to take it to the next level, is to realize that that change they’ve created within their own organization, or their product, or their service, could really have a wider impact. They understand that by building a tribe of followers, by creating a blueprint of what they have, by convening within their industry, that they can broaden their change. That, to me, is thought leadership. It’s taking that knowledge of what you’ve done, the best practices, the lessons learned, and sharing them in a way to impact and broaden the impact that you’ve had.

We’re going to tweet that out.

That is when it really makes a difference, I think.

Fantastic. We’re going to tweet that out. “Create a tribe of followers to be a thought leader.” I love it. You write for many, many companies like Salesforce and big publishers like Inc. I love your story, which I believe you said comes from your book, ‘Why Leaders are Great Storytellers’. When you’re pitching to someone, I’m constantly telling clients it’s all about being a good storyteller because people remember your stories, not your numbers. I’d love to take a little deep dive, if we could, into why is storytelling so important. You said this line in here about, “We see ourselves in a story”.

Yes. It’s exactly what you said. We remember those stories. We engage with story. We don’t engage with numbers. They’re forgotten moments later. A good story where you can share what’s the change that you’re bringing about … I learned this from two places. I learned this from myself when I was pitching the Springboard conference, going out and talking to media and talking to funders. When I could share the stories of the women entrepreneurs we were helping, that’s when I got people on board. It wasn’t the story of Springboard, that was somewhat interesting, but when we could share the stories of and the companies we were helping, being are very involved and engaged with those stories. They want to see how women are making a difference with the great ideas that they have.
Secondly, I learned it when I was trying to create a community of people who understood how to pitch their businesses. Here we are at Springboard and we get women up to tell their story about their companies. I have to say it was a little painful sometimes. They just couldn’t do it and they would not understand that a simple story of why they were doing their business was far more compelling and more likely to get an investor to come up to you after the session then it was if you stood up there and, “Our financials say we’re going to … “ Nobody cares! Yes, you have to have that, that is necessary, but not sufficient. The story is what people engage with.

I love that line. We’re going to tweet that out. “Why your story is more compelling than your numbers.”

Yes it is.

One of the things I love that you wrote is, “When you simplify something, it doesn’t mean you’re dumbing it down.” So many people, especially in technology, whether it’s about artificial intelligence or whatever it is, try to wow everybody with just how important this is and how it all works. It’s like, “No, explain it to me like I’m a seventh grader.” It doesn’t mean that we’re taking away or dumbing it down.

The guy who I think really showcased this so well in the book is the guy, Avinash Kaushik. Avinash started this wonderful blog called Occam’s Razor. When he talked to me about that decision to step into being a blogger and, in his field which is search engine optimization and web analytics, there was a lot of blogs out there. It’s very complex talking about digital marketing, and web analytics, and search engine optimization. He realized that the gift that he could bring to his followers is this idea of un-complexifying. Which is that idea that we’re not dumbing down, but we’re simplifying information so that our followers can understand and actually learn from it.
He was trying to get other people to adopt these search engine optimization tools, see what worked and what didn’t. As he focused on every blog post had to be un-complexified which, of course, is a made up word, but it just sums it all up for me. That’s what we’re doing here in the world. We’re not trying to wow people with the acronyms.

Right. Denise, can you also speak to what you wrote about, about the importance of a metaphor as a way to tell stories?

Yes. I really learned this so beautifully from Robin Chase of Zipcar. She was one of the people that I immediately reached out to when I started my book because she’s always been a leader that I’ve followed and has built a tribe around her ideas on how we use peer to peer networks and how, as the founder of Zipcar, how she’s learned how building collaborative economy businesses is going to actually help transform the global economy by eliminating some carbon emissions. That’s a pretty complex story. Instead, she says what she’s always looking for is “What are the metaphors that people can understand?” She did this great blog post: Fossil Fuel Is the New Slavery: Morally and Economically Corrupt.
When you think about that, I want to read that article. I want to know why is fossil fuel the new slavery? What does that mean for my decisions every day as I drive my car? I should be driving a Prius or a hybrid because I don’t want to be engaging in slavery. That metaphor captures people’s attention and gets them to examine their preconceived notions. That’s what we’re hoping for all of us when we’re trying to engage people in a new idea. We have to get them out of the mindset that they’re already in, that’s the way it’s always been done, and get them to reexamine and think in a new way. That’s what metaphors help people to do.
But wait, there’s more!?

This post has been adapted from The Successful Pitch podcast. Listen to this past episode for more on the inspiring story of DENISE BROSSEAU!

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As a funding strategist, John Livesay helps CEOs craft a compelling pitch which engages investors in a way that inspires them to join a startup’s team.

After a successful 20-year career in media sales with Conde Nast where he worked across all 22 brands in their corporate division [GQ, Vanity Fair, Wired, W and Vogue] and created integrated programs for clients such as Lexus, Hyundai and Guess, John won salesperson of the year in 2012 across the entire company.

Follow John on Twitter at @john_livesay. We welcome your comments.

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