From the book, “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose,”
By Chris Olsen
The summer Beyoncé’s single “Crazy in Love” debuted, I was working as the marketing director for a hip-hop radio station. My friend Dawn worked in advertising sales there. Some of her clients were nightclubs that partnered with the radio station to host parties with DJs, cheap drinks, dance contests and prizes. Dawn and I attended many of the club events together. Our role was to make sure everything went off without a hitch. Sometimes that meant sampling the drink specials while debating whether Destiny’s Child would make it without Beyoncé and sweating our asses off on the dance floor. We took our jobs very seriously.
During that time, Dawn was keeping an eye out for her future husband. I had no marriage plans, but I paid close attention to Dawn’s vetting process, thinking I might learn something. It almost always went down the same way. A couple of guys would approach us. They’d become entranced by Dawn’s height and beauty (she’s taller than 6 feet with giant blue eyes). They’d inevitably ask the same three questions: How tall are you? Are you single? Can I buy you a drink? Dawn would suggest we’d both like a drink and then she’d ask one question of her potential suitors: What do you do for a living?
I admired Dawn’s directness. I almost never asked that question of someone I’d just met. Not at a nightclub or a dinner party or even a professional networking event. As I sipped my drink and strained to hear the responses, I realized the men were pitching themselves to Dawn like they were being interviewed for a job—rattling off qualifications as if reciting the glossed-up bullet points from their business bios. During that “Crazy in Love” summer, I watched dozens of men make their pitches to Dawn.
The responses weren’t all that surprising. As young professionals entering the job market, we start creating a “story” for ourselves based on what we think the “right people” will want to hear. It begins by sharing academic achievements—test scores, grade point average, class ranking, number of college admission offers. It continues as a resumé or business bio with employment dates and job titles. We share that story over and over again, adjusting as needed to impress a potential school, employer, partner, etc. But here’s the problem: The basic business bio is not your story at all.
Business bios have been used to tout professional qualifications for centuries. Leonardo da Vinci created a business bio more than 500 years ago hoping to secure a gig with the soon-to-be Duke of Milan. In the 1950s the basic business bio was formalized and became an expectation of employers. It was digitized in the early 2000s when platforms like Monster.com, CareerBuilder and LinkedIn launched. But the structure of the basic business bio has changed very little in 70 years.
Take a look at your LinkedIn profile. It’s the epitome of a basic business bio. It highlights all the basics—your education, the jobs you’ve held, perhaps a few glowing recommendations. But it barely scratches the surface of what makes you uniquely you. Think about times you’ve scrolled through the LinkedIn profile of someone you’ve never met. After reading it, was there something that made you feel a genuine connection with that person? Did you gain a solid understanding of their values, what they stand for, or the difference they’re making in the world? A LinkedIn profile is beneficial in many ways. And glossy bullet points provide some insight about the person behind the profile. But a basic business bio is focused on your WHAT and not your WHY.
Why Your WHY Matters
Your WHY is your purpose, your values in action, your North Star. We all have a WHY. We are all meant for something bigger than ourselves. It’s not always evident, but there are signs throughout our lives that lead to it.
Getting clear on your WHY is like discovering your internal compass. It helps ensure you know which way is north, even when the skies are dark and cloudy and the stars and horizon are nowhere in sight. When you’re off track, your WHY points you in the right direction. It restores hope. It’s the fuel that keeps you moving forward. Clarifying your WHY empowers you to pursue your purpose, to live your WHY and to honor your calling.
Living your WHY is good for you. Humans do better when we do better. Research shows that pursuing purpose leads to better sleep, better overall health, better quality of life and a longer life. As it turns out, it’s good for business too. The king of WHY, Simon Sinek, is known for his quote “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.” In other words, leading with your WHY in business sets you up for success.
While the basic business bio is living in the past, the way business is conducted has evolved considerably. There’s no longer a clear delineation between for-profit companies where cash is king and nonprofit organizations that solve society’s complex problems. Today’s consumers expect businesses to do the right thing, to put people and the planet first. This is especially true for the largest living generation in the U.S.—millennials. More than ever, they’re using their dollars to make a difference. Along with the majority of all consumers, they’re committed to supporting and recommending businesses that are aligned with their values and boycotting brands that aren’t.
All that consumer support means purpose-driven businesses perform better. In fact, they outperform the stock market and yield a greater return on investment. That means investors are more likely to back entrepreneurs and businesses that clearly and confidently communicate their purpose and impact.
When you lead with WHY in your business, it also connects you with employees who share your values and believe in your mission. Employees of purpose-driven businesses are twice as engaged and satisfied with their work. They’re more likely to stick around and succeed within companies that stand for something they believe in. They become your business’ biggest cheerleaders and your brand’s most loyal advocates.
Women and WHY
Leading with your WHY is especially important for female business founders. Sexism is alive and kicking in 21st-century America. Up until the 1990s, women in the U.S. couldn’t legally get a business loan without a male cosigner—a throwback to colonial law that stripped an entire gender of its legal identity. A female’s identity was covered under her father’s at birth and then her husband’s upon marriage, which meant she couldn’t legally own or work in a business. While many laws have changed, their influence continues to affect the lives of women in numerous ways.
Women face significant hurdles in launching and growing small businesses. There are around 13 million women-owned businesses in the United States today. Those businesses generate close to $2 trillion in annual revenue and employ more than 9 million people. Despite their significant contributions to society and the economy, female founders receive less than a quarter of small business bank loans and a tiny fraction (less than 3 percent) of venture capital. Those numbers decrease exponentially for women of color. Women who do receive business funding are more likely to receive smaller amounts and higher interest rates.
Gender bias plays a significant role in access to business resources. While there have been shifts in perceptions about women’s’ leadership and business capacity over the past few decades, broad-ranging societal changes take time. Nevertheless, there is something you can do to set yourself up for success, and it need not wait until the patriarchy has been dismantled. This critical shift is one you have the power to make happen and quickly: Change the way you talk about your business. Stop leading with your WHAT and start leading with your WHY.
It’s common for female founders to struggle when pitching their business, and not just to funders. As a business owner, you must be comfortable and confident when presenting yourself to everyone. This is not an issue for most men. They easily breeze through their laundry list of credentials. They confidently state business projections and outcomes. Women are often hesitant to share information. We’re more likely to compare our scorecards to others and minimize our success and superpowers. The result is that we receive fewer resources and opportunities to ensure our businesses survive and thrive.
The Power of Purpose and Storytelling
Beyoncé is a badass, chart-busting, ceiling-smashing wonder woman. Even if you’re not a fan, you have to admit she’s a force to be reckoned with. Not long ago, I came across an article titled “Beyoncé and Her Brand” that provided a rundown of her stats. It was an impressive list, but even so, I don’t recall her net worth or how much money her tours or Coachella performance raked in. I don’t remember the number of awards she’d won. I’m pretty sure her Instagram followers are in the millions, but I don’t know if it’s tens of millions or hundreds of millions. I don’t recall how many of her songs made it to the top of the Billboard charts, though I’m almost positive “Crazy in Love” was one of them.
The thing about the article is that it was exactly like a basic business bio—all stats and no story. If the glossy bullet points of a megastar who’s clearly in a league of her own are difficult to recall, chances are—as impressive as they may be—stats and credentials are not what’s going to resonate with your audience either.
One of the most powerful ways to communicate is through storytelling. Stories engage audiences, influence decisions, inspire communities and ignite action. Stories build bridges to the past and the future. They link us together and remind us that we’re not alone in the world. Storytelling is an especially powerful tool for amplifying the voices of those who’ve been marginalized. The voices of women—and particularly women of color—are underrepresented everywhere, but especially in business. Your story is important. It needs to be heard. No one else on the planet has a story exactly like yours.
A Whyography is the Beyoncé of biographies. It combines the principles of storytelling and the power of purpose to do what a basic bio can’t. It honors your journey and what it took to get where you are today. It articulates your values, the problems you’re solving and the difference you’re making in the world. It attracts customers, supporters and employees who not only align with your values, but who revere your brand and their connection to it. A Whyography, and the process of developing it, gives you the confidence to share your story with the world and lead with your WHY.
Are you satisfied using a decades-old basic business bio to show the world WHAT you do—or are you ready to connect with an audience that cares about WHY you’re doing it? Are you content serving customers who are driven by consuming commodified goods and services—or are you ready to build a community that respects your approach and rallies around your mission? Are you comfortable with the status quo—or are you ready to get the resources and opportunities you deserve? You get to decide. Would you rather be basic? Or Beyoncé?
About the author: Chris Olsen is a radio veteran turned communications consultant, educator and author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose”. Through her work as a consultant partnering with startups, Chris realized her WHY—to support womxn-owned businesses in confidently communicating their purpose and impact, setting them up for entrepreneurial success. She created My Founder Story as a platform for doing so.