By Chris Olsen
Brené Brown said: “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” Now when I see this quote, I immediately think of Karla Heeter and her journey to boldly bringing her WHY and her story to the world. Karla gave me permission to share these details with you.
Where the Journey Began
As Karla and I chatted over lunch a year ago, she shared an experience she’d had as an adult in her 50s. During a talk with her mother, she confessed that she never really felt loved. Instead of giving her what she was looking for, Karla’s mom told her she had always been obnoxious, overbearing and difficult to be around. Hearing this, my heart sank, my eyes welled up with tears, and I thanked Karla for being so vulnerable with me. She had shared something very personal, and it deepened our connection.
Even during our initial conversation about her entrepreneurial journey, Karla knew that moment with her mom was an important part of her story. She knew the rejection she experienced influenced her decision to launch a business rooted in community and unconditional love. But the idea of sharing the details of her experience with the masses seemed daunting. Karla had been trained in Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability and spoke about it as a professional speaker, but she wasn’t sure just how much to say about her family in a story about her business.
Clarifying your WHY is a process that requires reflecting on your upbringing, values, personality and strengths, as well as how they influenced your journey through life and work. And, as is true for Karla, there are many people and events throughout your lifetime that influence your WHY and the path you end up taking. Some of what you recall will be positive and uplifting. Other details might be difficult and painful. Resist the urge to skip past the messy parts. As Karla discovered, purpose is often just on the other side of pain. Consider everything you’ve endured. It’s all important to your story.
More Than a Basic Bio
Several months later, I had the privilege of coaching Karla through the online Whyography course. She was anxious to clarify her WHY because it was such a big part of launching Grace Gear, a company that creates custom Bibles and journals. She knew her faith in God was a driving force—but she hadn’t been able to fully articulate it. Each week, Karla worked through the process and discovered something new about herself—insights that both challenged and inspired her. There were times when she felt stuck and couldn’t see a clear path forward. But she kept writing.
As she wrote, Karla discovered the answers within her, and they came out on the page. She was able to weave together details about her strained relationship with her mom and how it led her to a life of building genuine connections with people at church and in the barrel racing community. And how that ultimately led to her idea to create products and a purpose-driven business that served the communities she feels most connected to.
As you begin developing your Whyography, you may feel compelled to share details about your career and entrepreneurial journey in a way you have before—as a curated list of your personal accomplishments and successes. As humans—especially in professional settings—we’ve been conditioned to put only our best foot forward. But a Whyography is different. It’s not a basic bio, so don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Share the downs along with the ups, the zigs along with the zags. It’s what will connect you with your audience—they want to relate to you. It’s what connected Karla and me at lunch.
Sharing Her Story with the World
A couple of months ago, Karla received the official notice that her Whyography was about to be published along with a copy of the final edited version of the story. She was on vacation at the time—a seven-day walking trip through Germany with her husband and a few close friends. While on one of their daily pilgrimages (they walked 92 miles in a week), the group paused for a moment and Karla asked a friend to read the story aloud from the email; she wanted them all to hear it before it was published. As one friend read, another took a photo to commemorate the moment.
Later, Karla forwarded the photo taken on the trail in the woods in Germany that day and shared what happened. As she was being courageous and vulnerable and sharing her story with her friends, she began to cry. And then something unexpected occurred. It wasn’t visible to the group in the moment, but it was there when they looked at the photo afterwards—a bright ray of sunshine beaming down on the path. As Karla described it, in that moment, all of her shame lifted away. For her, it was confirmation that opening herself up for all the world to see was just what she needed.
While the process of clarifying your WHY and writing your Whyography will likely test and challenge you, the most difficult part of the journey is often sharing it with the whole wide world. This is where vulnerability is put to the test. You may fear being judged negatively for sharing personal details. If that happens, those aren’t “your people.” You may worry about upsetting relatives. Ultimately you decide how much you want to say. But only when you share the not-so-pretty parts of life can others respond with empathy and understanding. Only then are you free from what holds you back.
If you’re ready to clarify your WHY and share your story, join My Founder Story for Whyography Workshops. Sunbeams are not guaranteed, but you will become a part of an empowered community of women who are bravely bringing their WHY and their amazing stories to the world.
Photo: Karla Heeter
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 women-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.