Thought leadership naturally draws attention, typically due to its contrarian nature. Thought leaders are showing society how the world could be, and while many will follow, others will dig into their old ways and lash out. As the old adage says, any publicity is good publicity. Thought leadership validates one’s work in the business. It opens doors to conferences and universities, and in return, more people learn about your work, generating leads. Tony Robbins, one of the biggest names in thought leadership, makes $10k/hour as a coach. Others earn $100k+ as keynotes at conferences and events. But this does not happen overnight — and it is another way those aiming to be thought leaders without the passion behind it will burn out.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Veronica Kirin.
Veronica Kirin is an anthropologist, author, serial entrepreneur, and business disrupter. She is recognized as a Forbes notable graduate of Grand Valley State University and a 2020 40 LGBTQ Leader Under 40 by Business Equality Magazine, is Founder of the award-winning Green Cup Digital, author of Stories Of Elders, and award-winning Entrepreneur Coach to business leaders making worldwide impact. Her work as a coach is certified by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce and is known for her trademark programs Self Care Through ScalingTM, Foundations of Empire Building TM, and Three Pillars of Business ScalingTM.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I am a serial entrepreneur who started off a bit by accident. Looking back, I can see that I have had the entrepreneurial spirit all along, but I actually started by the first venture to try to save my career as a Disaster Relief Worker. I had deployed to the tsunami in American Samoa in 2009, a situation that resulted in PTSD / PTSI. I didn’t want to give up the work I so loved, so I founded a nonprofit organization to try to control the work I wanted to do so I wouldn’t re-injure. Sadly, that did not pan out, but the nonprofit did give me the confidence to start my tech company in 2012. I sold that company in 2018 after scaling it to a ten-hour work week, six figures, and a team of four. Throughout that time I started two startups and two other businesses, to varying degrees of success and failure. Today I coach other entrepreneurs as they grow and scale so they can build empires (ie. businesses with multiple offerings typically including speaking, authorship, podcasting, and TED talks).
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
I am the leading expert in how the Greatest Generation views technology. I have researched and gathered more than 8,000 years of life lived by our elders, written a book on the topic, and presented a TED talk. I have three further books in the works, one about the work I did to create something never been done before to encourage others might do the same, and one a follow up to that initial work. I am also the creator of Self Care Through Scaling™, the concept that as one scales their business, they have more time for self-care and the lifestyle they truly desire. I speak at conferences and events worldwide on the topics of technology and entrepreneurship.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In 2015 I was very antsy. I had a tech company that was rather successful but I wanted to do something even bigger. Concurrently I was becoming uncomfortable with how technology was affecting my own life and decided to do something about it. My degree is in Anthropology, so I have been trained to ask people for answers to solve a problem. I devised a plan to drive 12,000 miles across America, meet with 100 strangers in the Greatest Generation (born before 1945), a budget to do so, a Kickstarter campaign to meet that budget, and gathered the equipment to record the interviews. It was something no one had ever researched before — what have our elders witnessed in the way that technology has changed our society over the past 100 years? The travel itself was an adventure, but so was writing the book, publishing it, meeting a documentarian to create a film of the interviews, going on book tours, and speaking about it in schools, conferences, and events. It feels as though I have time traveled, and gained so much more knowledge of the world despite not having lived the lives I recorded. The elders I met entrusted me with their experiences and it has been my honor to preserve them for future generations.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My favorite mistake I made was at the beginning of my tech company. I charged only $300 for my first client. Today that same company charges $3,000 as a starting rate! But this is a common error for entrepreneurs — we don’t know what we’re worth, and miscalculate (or don’t calculate at all) based on what hourly wages one might get as an employee. We forget to factor in travel, insurance, benefits, investments, supplies, and most importantly, knowledge.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
In my opinion, the most defining part of a thought leader’s work is time. An influencer may have an impact, but it comes in short term peaks. A conventional leader may create and have influence, and they may also be a thought leader. But a thought leader, in particular, is creating work that changes minds, has a wide impact, and has influence beyond the span of their own lives. Great examples are philosophers, poets, and great political minds. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years later we still read their works and consider how they have meaning for our own modern lives.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
If you are not meant to become a thought leader, you will burn out quickly. Thought leaders typically are driven by something much greater than themselves, and that is what fuels their search, work, and efforts. A book that defines this well is “The War of Art”, which describes the Muses offering the gift of thought to us to birth into the world and what happens when that gift is ignored.
Thought leaders are contrarian by nature, and you will find yourself challenged often. That is not a reason to avoid it — but it is the filter that differentiates between business leaders and thought leaders.
The benefit of thought leadership is leaving an impact long after your visit to Earth. You may change the minds and the world for the better. Your work may improve the human race and the Earth as a whole. That is worthwhile.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
Thought leadership naturally draws attention, typically due to its contrarian nature. Thought leaders are showing society how the world could be, and while many will follow, others will dig into their old ways and lash out. As the old adage says, any publicity is good publicity.
Thought leadership validates one's work in the business. It opens doors to conferences and universities, and in return, more people learn about your work, generating leads. Tony Robbins, one of the biggest names in thought leadership, makes $10k/hour as a coach. Others earn $100k+ as keynotes at conferences and events. But this does not happen overnight — and it is another way those aiming to be thought leaders without the passion behind it will burn out.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
Start by writing. Just write. Write in your journal, write in your blog, write on social media. Write write write. You have nothing if you cannot communicate your ideas effectively. Show your friends, show your family, attend writers groups and show them. Writing should happen every single day. Eventually, you will have written enough to know what you think, and you will have direction.
At that point, you may even have enough written to create your first book. Writing a book continues to be a major validating effort in our society, despite self-publishing rising in popularity and quality.
With a book on the way, you’ll be able to pitch conferences and events on your topic. You will also be able to work toward presenting a TED talk.
The most important thing to remember is that anyone can be a ‘one-hit-wonder’. This is the difference between true thought leaders and those who want to do it to make money for their businesses. Thought leadership comes from multiple books, multiple TED talks, multiple series of work. Always keep an eye on the future in your work and know-how each next project will affect future work.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
My favorite thought leader is Richard S. Wurman, closely followed by F. Buckminster Fuller. Both of these men achieved incredible things in their lives — Wurman founded TED, and Fuller created iconic architectural marvels. Both have written treaties, many books, and have spoken on society, time, money, and what to do with one's life.
Most importantly, both are humble in their work. They do not present their thoughts to the world in order to make money, though make money they did. They present their thoughts to the world because to not do so would be a disservice to humanity. A true leader does not lead for glory, a true thought leader births new thought into the world and allows it to create its own impact.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I do think it’s overused, insomuch that many think that thought leadership is something that can be achieved overnight and is simply created as another business tactic. Thought leadership is lifelong work of impact and one may not see the fruits of their labors while on Earth.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Take care of yourself. Period. You cannot develop work that echoes around the world if you are working yourself to the bone. Focus on your sleep schedule, morning and evening routines, and relationships. Your relationships are the best places to plant seeds and receive the feedback necessary to refine your thought leadership. Cherish them.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
A future book that is waiting to be written in my mind is on ‘intentionality’. I learned this from interviewing our elders about technology — they use it intentionally since they have lived so long without it. I see a lot of people, especially my Millennial peers, floating through life, ricocheting from event to event, moment to moment. Commercialism has fed this tendency and I think this is why trends like the Tiny House movement are becoming popular. You can take control of your life and live intentionally. Focus on consciously choosing everything, from your partner to your furniture and even the pen you use. Your life will blossom from there.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“One moves step by step, and one must keep moving.” Hank Rearden in Atlas Shurgged by Ayn Rand
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I would love to have lunch with Bono, who has repeatedly shown a good deal of wisdom on what life actually means.
How can our readers follow you on social media? Find me anywhere using the handle @vmkirin
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.