The idea for my writing and storytelling business developed early in 2018, around the time my current job and program were threatening to implode underneath my feet. A long 12–15 months of unhealthy administrative culture had convinced me it was time to leave my job, but this conviction didn’t carry with it any convenient clarity about where to head next.
At the time, I was running a non-profit student outreach and enrichment program. Our work focused on college access, leadership development, and STEM enrichment, and we functioned as a semi-autonomous unit within a larger higher education institution. For years, we’d built trust and awareness with educators and access professionals across the Chicagoland area. Our applicant pools were consistent and strong, our results were impressive, and our reputation was overwhelmingly positive within the access community. Our team was passionate, skilled, and united for a coherent mission. It was the best of times.
And it was the worst of times. We had little recognition within our larger institution, and lacked both cache and clarity of message within Chicago’s robust but opaque philanthropic community. Amidst years of institutional growth — and with the comfortable cushion of a sizable founding grant — our program had failed to establish its unique identity with some of the stakeholders vital to its long-term existence.
In my role leading a team of 2.5 full-time employees, the task of crafting and disseminating the program’s story absolutely fell within my responsibilities — along with a couple dozen other pressing commitments at any given moment. As I saw our broader departmental culture and institutional positioning become more toxic to our program’s existence, I came to terms with some of the miscalculations we had made, realizing where our message hadn’t reached or resonated — and how damaging this oversight could be.
There are over 400,000 small businesses and not-for-profit organizations in Illinois that employ 20 or fewer persons (and 29.5 million nationally). The majority of people running these “very small” organizations (that’s actually the technical term) have no experience writing, crafting a story, or developing and establishing a brand — and little time or capacity to learn.
Looking at my own organizational budget at the time, it became immediately apparent that we could never afford someone devoting even 50% of their time to this storytelling work. Yet this work was crucial to our success, growth — even our continued existence.
I found myself wedged in between two related problems:
- Leaders in positions similar to my own (running a small or very small organization) need $X,000 worth of an employee’s services every 1–2 years to effectively tell their organization’s story.
- I, looking for new work, wanted to focus on telling stories that celebrate great work and empower people.
Full-time roles in writing or storytelling were few-and-far between in higher-education, college access, and secondary education (the areas where I’d focused my career and developed expertise). The roles that did exist lived within large institutions, primarily inside of marketing functions, and were clearly geared towards candidates who’d followed more traditional career paths into that type of work. Their specificity also precluded involvement with more strategic or programmatic work, which meant large portions of my strengths and prior experience would go unused.
Within these challenges and constraints, I began to detect opportunity.
Leaders of small non-profits and other organizations could afford to invest a few thousand dollars in storytelling projects every year or two. As I’d witnessed firsthand, they increasingly can’t afford not to.
At the same time, I realized I cared deeply about the type of work I would do in my next role, and the ways I’d learn and grow as a result. I also highly valued variety — opportunities to learn and solve new problems — in my work. I’d long been drawn to starting my own business, and this seemed like as clear of a push as I could ever hope to get.
This was no overnight process. It involved lengthy, frequent conversations with several close friends, mentors, and former colleagues — and even more discussions with my incredibly wise and supportive partner, Ashley. It took months and months of brainstorming, reflecting, and journaling. It involved a few false starts and several more dead-ends. In all honesty, I can’t imagine arriving at my current destination (or, better yet, new beginning) without each stop in my journey up to this point.
Now, I collaborate with non-profits and mission-driven, social enterprise clients, telling stories that empower both the organization and those whom they serve. The story of this work isn’t simple or one of unmitigated success. I’m not chasing or anticipating an elusive hockey-stick growth curve, banking on an IPO, or striving for a sale to validate this endeavor. But I am doing good work with a mission I believe in: elevating the successes, voices, and perspectives of others. The business is surviving — and thriving is a distinct possibility.
Like most steps on my journey thus far, I have little idea what comes next. However, I’m immensely happier and more fulfilled today than I was 12–15 months ago, and I’m growing in ways that matter.
For years, I wrote emails and lesson plans — and little else. Finally, I’m writing stories I care about every day. I have so much to learn, but it’s invigorating to learn and grow in alignment with my strengths.
Post originally published on my website, jlukechitwood.com.