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Denise Brosseau is a thought leadership strategist, author, and business advisor. Denise is the CEO of Thought Leadership Lab, which specializes in building leaders into thought leaders. She serves on several startup advisory boards such as Vermillion and Kokko, Inc and talks to John about what thought leaders do differently from regular leaders.
Ready To Be A Thought Leader – Denise Brosseau
Hi and welcome to the Successful Pitch Podcast. Today’s guest is Denise Rosseau who is the CEO of Thought Leadership Lab. She’s the author of Ready to be a Thought Leader?. She was the 2012 Champion of Change at the White House, and in 2014 was named one of the Top 100 Women of Influence in Silicon Valley. Denise, welcome to the show.
Happy to be here.
You have so many great accomplishments and awards, but I always love to hear of what inspired you to become involved in Silicon Valley and entrepreneurships and helping other women get involved in this. Take us back to your first thoughts of, “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 really 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 stood for in the world. I came away from a several month exercise with a mission statement. That mission statement was really 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 really around all the different ways in which I can help move that agenda forward.
I love it. The research certainly backs you up, that women CEO’s perform extremely well. I’m curious, was this creativity in business class at Wellesley, or was it at your 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 these unique opportunities in your life that just coalesce around the future that unfolds for you. Those were two of them.
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 saying, “You’ve been recognized as a Champion of Change.” You’re like, “Wow. Okay.” First, you look at the return address to be sure it’s real.
Not a prank.
Let’s be honest, you don’t always believe it. For me, it was such a wonderful culmination of the 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. The Champion of Change award was really around 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 how others did it 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 even 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 can imagine. 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, is 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. We were really churning some great programs and great events and really getting women out there and doing great things. Then we started to grow to other offices and other cities.
One day in 1999, I get this phone call from the National Women’s Business Council. I’d never heard of them. What’s the National Women’s Business Council? 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 businesses. 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 Times. Is there one thing that they really pointed to and said, “That’s why we’re putting you in the top 100 for?”
I think what I’m known for in Silicon Valley is being the one who starts everything. The organization I started, what was called the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, now called Watermark, is very well known here. I also started another group called Invent Your Future, which is also quite well known and runs a conference here in the Valley. I started Springboard, which has impacted a lot of people. I’m the gal who starts great programs 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 listeners can certainly relate to that, because if you’ve got the entrepreneur spirit, you’re inspired by starting new things. You have multiple things that you’ve started which have all been hugely impactful and successful. Tell the listeners who may not know about Springboard, how great it is and what it is.
Sure. When we first began the journey to create Springboard, it was a time in the United States where there was literally no opportunity or at least 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 was the conference. If you saw two women on the stage it was a really unique year.
Most of 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 could create a venture conference that was for women, if there was a three to six 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 in 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. The numbers are astonishing. Participating businesses have raised $6.7 billion in capital in fifteen years. We really have an amazing track record.
What I’m even more proud of, because of course the numbers say a lot, but there’s another piece to it and that is this tribe of 600 women who have now, many of them are 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 recognizing each other and helping each other to get to that finish line, and also supporting when things don’t work.
I think that’s the gift 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 have also written what is a big favorite of 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 within a single organization or entity usually, who begins to make change, who begins to create a 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 that 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. I love it. You write for many, many companies, like Fast Company and Inc. and other big publishers. I love your story, which I believe you said comes from your blog, Why Leaders are Great Storytellers.
When you’re pitching 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 for 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. When we could share the stories of iRobot and Constant Contact and ZipCar and the companies we were helping, people are very involved and engaged with those stories. They want to see how women are making a difference and 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 than 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.
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, they 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 was at Intuit and he 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, a lot, a lot of blogs out there.
It’s very complex talking about digital marketing and web analytics and search engine optimization.
Which is that idea that we’re not dumbing down, but we’re simplifying information so that others of our followers can understand and actually learn from.
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 writing every blog post, he realized they 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 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 do we use peer to peer networks and, 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 and what does that mean for my decisions everyday as I drive my car. Should I be driving a Prius or a hybrid because I don’t want to be engaging in slavery? Slavery is obviously not something I believe in.
That metaphor captures people’s attention and gets them to re-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.
The other thing that’s really valuable from your expertise and your storytelling is the importance of being vulnerable, which is so counterintuitive to what people think they need to do when they’re presenting or pitching. It’s like, “I need to come across completely confident and 100% always perfect.” Ideally, when you show a little bit of vulnerability, that’s how people connect to you. You have a wonderful example of that, if you wouldn’t mind sharing that.
I learned this myself, and I like to share this story, that in 2011, here I am, I’ve been invited to speak on women’s entrepreneurship at the governor’s conference for women down in southern California. There’s 12,000 people at this conference, at least a thousand of them are in the room, maybe more. I’m on the stage with these three very impressive women. One of whom is literally a swimsuit supermodel who had a big business and was very well known and successful, and then these two women who’d written a book on entrepreneurship. Then there’s me who runs the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs and Springboard.
I’ve obviously been invited there to be the content speaker, because I had all the resources and I knew everything about women and entrepreneurship. These other women were really there to be the pizzazz. I’m listening to them, they’re all presenting, presenting, presenting. I realize, I’m four out of four. If I go to my content, I’m going to be a blur rather than this whole amazing voice of the future among all these amazing women. I realized, I just have to get real. I have to rethink my presentation style.On the fly, without any preparation, I told this story that was very deep and meaningful to me, which is really about a challenging time that I had in my life when my father was ill and my mother was ill and my best friend’s husband was ill. Over this year, it was a very challenging time and I shared how it caused me to re-examine my life and to rethink what I was doing. I shared this: “Here I am!” It was very emotional for me, and then I shared all my content, great, blah, blah, blah stuff that I had come to say.
I’ll tell you, it was this remarkable moment. After the talk, there was a line around the corner to talk with me. Here’s the swimsuit model who has five people. I’m thinking, when they walked in that room, I’m sure they all thought they were going to talk with her because she’s the famous one. By sharing this personal epiphany … Not just for the sake of getting people to cry and not for the sake of getting people to like me, but really from an honest place of why I went back to business school, why I realized entrepreneurship was the path for me, why it can be for you.
There was a theme and there was a line that I was drawing between that story and what I wanted them to be thinking. That caused this huge outpouring of people coming up and approaching me. That’s what we want as thought leaders. We want to be approachable. This is not about telling stories just for the sake of stories, but for helping people see a path forward for themselves.
That’s brilliant. That is just everything. The same thing is true when you’re pitching an investor. You want them to see themselves in your story and be part of your team and be inspired to wait in line. Of all the pitches they heard at demo day or whatever the situation is, they want to ask you more questions because they want to know more about your story. It’s just a great, great example.
That’s in fact what happened at our first Springboard. There was a woman whose business was not the best business of the 27 businesses that presented that day, but she walked out on the stage twirling a basketball. First of all, that got everybody’s attention, and then she told her personal life story about how basketball and this ability to be good at sports had allowed her to go to college and get these college scholarships, and now she was starting a business to help other athletes from very poor families get scholarships.
Everybody was talking about her for the rest of the day. Everyone wanted to go and fund her business. Again, as I said, the business model? Nothing much. She, and her story, we all wanted to help those athletes because we saw ourselves in her, we saw the help she was going to offer as something we could get on board with. It was such a magical moment. It’s totally underlined for me why, as entrepreneurs, we need to be good at telling stories.
Great. One of your other amazing skills is really helping people sell themselves. Let’s face it, that’s what you’re doing when you’re pitching for investors. You have this great one page plan that you talk about how you put that together, that your goals about being visible and being credible and your reputation and how the fact that you had written that down and even shared it with some people was what somebody’s reminded you of. “Oh, I should put my name in for something as well because that’s on my one-page plan.” Can you tell us about that?
There’s funny reminders of your life. I had the opportunity years ago to become certified to teach and to use, of course, the one-page plan. A guy named Jim Horan over in Berkeley wrote this book called the One Page Plan. There’s numbers of other versions of the book. I read the book. I used it for my own business. I immediately called him and said, “Wow. This was great. How do I help other entrepreneurs use this tool?” I got certified and then of course wrote my own plan as you’re supposed to do when you learn a tool like that.
Then, I had this opportunity. This woman from my past called me and said, “There’s a board position open for a for-profit board. Who do you know who should be on this board?” I said, “I’ll drop you an email, let me think about it overnight.” In the morning, I dropped her three names of great people that I thought should join the board, and she wrote back and she said, “Didn’t you show me your plan, and wasn’t it on your plan that you wanted to serve on a for-profit board?” I’m like, “Oh, yeah!”
With your own plan, you can’t put it in the drawer. You’ve got to share it with other people and have them hold you accountable. She put all four of our names forward, by the way, and I got the job being on that board. It was so much about having written it down, having committed to it, and having publicly shared it in a way that let those other people bring it back to me and invite me to live that future that I had seen for myself.
I love it. Write it down and share it. It’s really the key. You had someone who’d hold you accountable. One of the things I want to ask about, it’s a perfect segue when you’re talking about how that led you to being an advisor, is you’re an advisor on multiple companies, but two that really jump out at me, and I’m probably going to mispronounce both of them … K-O-K-K-O. I’m to even going to try.
Kokko. Okay, just like Coco Chanel.
Tell us about Kokko. I see that it develops color accurate mobile apps for making shopping easy, which I’m guessing has everything to do with fashion, but maybe paint colors? That sounds like a really great product.
Eventually, it will be all of those things. The CEO is actually a woman from Hewlett-Packard. I had met her, we’d served on a panel together years ago. She told me about this idea she’d come up with for using the color technologies within HP to create an app for one of their clients to actually help women choose their foundation makeup color. Turns out, you probably had never this challenge, but walking into a store and trying to buy foundation that matches your skin color when you cannot see the color on your skin, it is very hard. Women often buy the wrong makeup.
Yet they often stick with that make up for years because they don’t know how else to do it. Kokko created an app to actually do that matching. You could take a picture of your skin, and in any lighting it will do the color match and then come back to you with recommendations for the perfect makeup for you. They built this within HP, but nobody in HP had ever actually done anything with it.
Eventually, she was able to take that IP out and that was what she built Kokko around. That technology, she’s now rebuilt and owns the IP for that, and this first app is going to launch I hope in the next month or two. It’s a very cool little app that allows you to do that. Take a picture and then get your perfect matching foundation.
More than that, it also then recommends other products that would be good for your color and skin tone. Eventually, absolutely, for paint colors, for men to buy the right tie to go with the right shirt, there’s all kinds of color challenges for us, especially when we’re shopping online. You can’t touch it, you can’t see it, you can’t compare it. Kokko technology allows you to do that.
I could even see it for cars. Do I like that shade of car? It looks different in certain sunlight versus not, and all that great stuff. What I also find fascinating about that is her background in HP, which is known for having the best inkjet printers, which is all about color, and she’s completely taken that expertise. The questions investors ask a lot is, “Why you and why now?” She is the perfect background for why she’s the one to be running Kokko.
Which is why I love to tell the story of the day that she decided she was leaving HP and she called me because she’s thinking, “What am I going to do next?” I went and had lunch with her. She didn’t know me that well at the time, we’d met a few times. I’d heard about this technology for so long and had been so excited about it that I literally said to her at lunch, “I know you don’t know me well, but I just want to say that right now, I would get down on my hands and knees and beg you to leave HP and start this company.”
She looked at me very startled. We had a long conversation that day of what it would take for her to do that. She now calls me the fairy godmother of that business because I really saw that future that she’s now living, and she’s living it so beautifully. Now I’m an investor to her company, I’m an advisor of the company. Now she can blame me if it all doesn’t work out.
I’m sure it’s going to work out with you as part of her tribe. The other one, let’s just briefly touch on that if we could, is Vermilion? Did I pronounce that right?
I love the concept that there’s a blood test to decide whether a tumor is malignant or not. What a problem solution you’ve got going on there.It’s a little deeper than that. What they have is a test, a blood test, that actually will tell a women early, with some of the first diagnoses of endometriosis and other challenging early diagnoses of problems that you may nor may not be a candidate for ovarian cancer, and be able to treat that disease much more in the stage 0 and stage 1, rather than today, which we’re mostly not finding it until stage 4 when a woman is going to die within 3 to 5 years.
It’s a women’s health company. This is the first of their blood tests that is going to be used for identifying these markers that are now being able to be identified, and using some very complex algorithms, to be able to identify and help save lives. I think it’s remarkable what they’re doing. I’m so proud to be part of it. Even more exciting, is Valerie Palmieri, who is the CEO, was a Springboard presenter and now, as I said, serial entrepreneur. She’s now coming back with another company. Using her knowledge from the first one, she is likely to have even bigger success on this next one.
Great examples of how to pitch something in a very short amount of time. We easily understood what the problem was, and what the solution was, and why the people running it are the perfect people to be running it. That’s incredibly useful. Before I let you go, I just want to ask, really quickly, about your VRE program. When you’re selling something it’s, have a vision, be able to execute it, and focus on relationships. That’s what the VRE stands for. Do you have any words of wisdom you can share with on that?
This model was developed by Dr. Frank Greene, one of my mentors who’s now passed, but he really studied, deeply, a lot of very, very successful executives and entrepreneurs. He recognized that the skillset we all need to be successful as leaders is this ability to craft a vision and be able to articulate it, then to build the relationships that it takes to implement that vision, and third to be able to execute.
His point of view is that the best leaders are good at all three of those things. Those of us who may not be (good at all three) had better figure out how to supplement our skills. Mostly, what we need to be doing is building on all of those skillsets throughout our career to get better and better.
Love it. So helpful. Besides your wonderful book, Ready to be a Thought Leader? and the One Page Plan, are there any other books that you would recommend either about business or life to our listeners?
I’m really fond of that book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. I don’t remember the subtitle, but they give some very terrific stories to start with and, secondly, some blueprints for how to make change when change is hard.
I quote them in my book and I use their theories as I go out and talk about being a change maker. Ultimately, being a thought leader is about starting as a change maker, so you have to be successful at that and I think that book is very good at helping you to do that.
That’s fantastic. Denise, we’re obviously going to list your book and these other books in the show notes for people to click and buy it, but how can people follow you on social media, what’s your Twitter and all that good stuff?
They can find me on my website at ThoughtLeadershipLab.com. Secondly, my Twitter handle is ThoughtLeadrLab. I’m also on LinkedIn and very active there. People can find me there. I have a Facebook page under Thought Leadership Lab as well.
Fantastic. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you. You are so full of information. I can see why you’ve won all these awards and why you’ve started all these things. It’s all full circle that the things you started are now the things that you’re advising and investing in. It all comes back to you, which I’m just thrilled to see. Thanks again for being on the show, Denise.
Thank you for including me. I appreciated the conversation.
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