Is the current crisis affecting your mission? Are you a futurist? Does examining the past help us to determine the direction of our future?
In this podcast episode, Kathryn Ely speaks to Vanessa Wakeman about how we let the noise of the world affect how we see ourselves and what this can do to us.
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Meet Vanessa Wakeman
Vanessa Wakeman, CEO of The Wakeman Agency. Vanessa is a champion for nonprofits and progressive organizations, and her deep knowledge of the politics of social change has made her a trusted advisor to organizations around the country.
As a futurist, Vanessa helps organizations evaluate the past and present, to develop strategies and study trends, to shape the desired future.
In This Podcast
- Growing from failure
- Being a futurist
- Determining the direction for the future by examining the past
- Does futurist thinking correlate to women learning their value and power?
- What it means to be mission-driven
- Being mission-driven during a crisis
- Amplifying women’s voices
Growing from failure
Vanessa has always excelled but, as a woman of color, she had a much more difficult experience. She worked in corporate America but didn’t have the language for it. She was working in technology in Financial Services on Wall Street at the time and it was not a place where you see a lot of women, particularly women of color. Vanessa had a mindset that she had to work harder and act a certain way to be accepted. She couldn’t show up as her full self, didn’t have the language, and didn’t quite know what she needed to do, it just didn’t feel right.
Vanessa realized that she was playing a role and trying to be accepted into an environment that wasn’t built for her but primarily for white males. This led her to an early “aha” moment, realizing that she wanted to create an environment where she could show up fully and be accepted for who she is. There’s power in having your own organization, Vanessa has the power and the option to not work or engage with certain people or organizations. Making the shift and finding her own path was not an easy decision. There were all sorts of emotional things that surrounded her decision and it was really difficult to work through but she’s glad she made the decision.
Being a futurist
People think of futurists as someone who makes predictions about the future. There’s no crystal ball, it’s about looking at the information we already have and exploring the possibilities relative to the other actions that you have the ability to take. With the strict parameters that the nonprofit sector has with regards to innovation and trying new things, this has been really valuable in her work in that sector. Vanessa will spark the light to help them see that the future, of a particular social issue that they’re talking about, is possible by looking at the past and the present and figuring out what they can do to either accelerate that or get them where they want to go.
Determining the direction for the future by examining the past
Nonprofits are central, they’re at the center of the ecosystem of change. And without them, none of the social issues that we need to deal with right now, would we be able to sort of shift and move forward without them.
The process of examining the past and the patterns of nonprofits and trends to determine the direction for the future is a long one. They start with a framework that really looks at the situation:
- What is it?
- What’s happening right now?
- What’s the present looking like?
- What’s the past?
It takes specific resources to move something forward so you need to understand what’s possible based on the organization’s current position in the market and then create some strategy around how to get there:
- What kinds of things need to happen?
- Is there financial support?
- Is there a pivot on the mission of the organization?
- Is there an opportunity to create thought leadership?
Does futurist thinking correlate to women learning their value and power?
Whatever approach you take to understand your purpose and what you’re doing in your life to make you happy, it doesn’t matter how you get there, just get there. The same framework for the model of futurist thinking can definitely be applied but it may not need to be that deep. It could just be making one simple change or committing to some to do something that makes you happy, and then doing it consistently for however long you choose to start. Everybody’s story is different but we owe it to ourselves to be in a place of joy and peace, carving out the little things in life that make us happy.
What it means to be mission-driven
It means that the company is committed to something specific. In the case of nonprofits, it is usually to do with social issues. So, it’s putting the vision of the organization, connecting it to a social issue, and framing it in that way. Thinking about it from a personal perspective, Vanessa things we are all on a mission, that we all try to figure out what the mission is. For a long time, Vanessa thought that maybe it was just a singular thing, like “What is my life’s purpose?” or “What am I supposed to be doing?” She’s moved away from that and believes that as she grows that’s shifting and changing so she just wants to be open to whatever it is. Kathryn agrees that it doesn’t have to be one singular purpose, we can have a mission/vision/purpose for every different aspect of our lives.
Being mission-driven during a crisis
When faced with a crisis like this global pandemic, the things that were important before lose their meaning and use. We start to see what’s really important to us and we start to connect more with our friends and families. Maybe this time is about allowing us to see and understand more about ourselves and what we really need to be happy. This can be a setback if you’re not being flexible, not willing to pivot, aren’t focusing in, and drilling down to what’s most important for you. It’s a time to reset and a time to break through the noise and drill down on what is most important.
Amplifying women’s voices
Research has shown that men’s voices are heard more in the media when it comes to important topics. They are considered thought leaders. It’s important to have equality, as women often have a different perspective, particularly with issues that are related to women. It’s insulting to think that a man is better equipped to solve or address those issues. More than 70% of the workforce in nonprofits are women, so it is really important to have a plan in place that elevates their voices to make sure that they are getting leadership roles and that their unique experiences, perspectives, and expertise, are heard.
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Meet Kathryn Ely
I’m Kathryn Ely and at age 50, I’m enjoying my very best life. I spent years as a lawyer and then stay-at-home mom helping others go out into the world and live their best lives. While this was very important to me, I did not realize that I was losing myself in the process. I followed all of the “shoulds” like “women should always care for others” and “taking time for yourself is just selfish”.
As two of my children were getting ready to go out into the world I realized I was lost, without my next purpose, and it was scary. So I went back to school and over the course of several years, I not only found myself, but I designed the formula for women in midlife to achieve their most fulfilling lives. It is my mission to equip as many women as possible with this design and the tools to make this chapter of their lives the best chapter.
Thanks for listening!
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Welcome to Imperfect Thriving, episode 25. In this episode, I have a real conversation with Vanessa Wakeman about how we let the noise of the world affect how we see ourselves and what this can do to us.
Welcome to the Imperfect Thriving podcast, for all of us women in midlife to discover your self-limiting beliefs determine exactly what you want your life to look like, and the imperfect actions to get you there
If you haven’t yet, please hit your subscribe button. More subscribers means better visibility for the podcast, which means access to more experts and even better content. It really helps me grow the podcast so that more listeners can find it. And doesn’t everyone need a little bit more imperfect thriving in their lives? So, go ahead and hit that subscribe button.
I’ve thought a lot about this episode with Vanessa and my many takeaways from our conversation. And I think what resonated with me the most was that we all look at ourselves and the world around us a little bit differently. Our views are based on our own upbringing and our own personal experiences. And it’s a good idea to listen to other people’s opinions and different points of view. This is important to help us establish empathy and to grow, but we need to be careful to not let the noise from others drown out our own voices and our own opinions. There are so many different takeaways from this conversation. So, I hope you enjoy.
Today’s guest is Vanessa Wakeman, CEO of The Wakeman Agency. Vanessa is a champion for nonprofits and progressive organizations. And her deep knowledge of the politics of social change has made her a trusted adviser to organizations around the country. As a futurist, Vanessa helps organizations evaluate the past and the present, to develop strategies and study trends to shape their desired future.
Welcome to the show, Vanessa. I’m so happy to have you here.
Thank you for having me. I’m excited to speak with you today.
So first, I just want you to share with us a little bit about your story and how you arrived to the place where you are today.
Oh, gosh, I feel like there’s about 500 different ways to answer that question. There’s the sort of personal journey, you know, of self-development and evolution. And then there’s the professional journey. And so, I guess I’ll start with the easy one, which is the professional journey. I have owned a social change agency, The Wakeman Agency for 17 years. This year, we’re celebrating our 70th anniversary.
Thank you. And it’s really been a wonderful opportunity for me to explore the things that I’m passionate and interested about, which is social justice and social change and helping nonprofit organizations and foundations identify how to amplify their voice on those issues that they care about; fundraising and sort of offering strategic advisory services. So, we started initially as an event management and PR agency and have evolved over this almost two decades into one of the leading social change agencies in the country. And so, I’m really proud of that. And in that sort of tying into the theme of your podcasts about, you know, imperfection, there’s been a lot of imperfection in building this company and creating the vision and holding the vision for it. And I think that that’s been a really beautiful learning opportunity for me and for my team to understand that it’s okay, for everything not to come out exactly as planned. It’s okay to have some failure in there that you can learn from and grow from, and we are all imperfect beings. And so I think the story of our business, or this business, is definitely one that has lots of twists and turns, and delight, and moments to squeal about, that show that the journey is really what it’s about. It’s not the end point.
Yes, well, I definitely want to hear more about all of that. Tell us a little bit about your personal journey.
So, my personal journey: I’m going to sort of try to give the Reader’s Digest version cos I feel like this could be a five-part series just about my journey. But I grew up in an environment where I was told that I could do anything and so I really grew up fearless in a lot of ways; I thought that, of course I could open this business. Of course, I could get that job that I don’t really fully qualify for, of course, of course, of course. And it’s been really interesting to me that as I’ve gotten older, some of that sort of fearlessness sort of, as [unclear], so there’s a little bit more caution. And it’s interesting to see how, at 20 something, I was like, I can do anything, and then getting in your 40s it’s like, well, maybe not anything. And so, I as an aunt, I’m always speaking to my two nieces about, they can do anything, and making sure that they remember that, and that the world doesn’t reshape their perception of themselves and their opportunities.
So from my childhood, I was celebrated and thought to do anything, and in my early 20s was really, even within that field of business was always trying to make things perfect, and make sure there was a bow on them. And it took me until probably late 30s, early 40s to understand that the pursuit of perfection is exhausting, and it’s a never ending series of disappointments and so I just need to be okay with understanding that whatever it is, whatever it turns out to be, so long as I am showing up as my best self, that that is the thing that should be most important. And so, I think that situations in life have shaped my thinking. I got divorced eight years ago that dealt with the imperfection of the happily ever after. So, I think each experience in my life, good or bad, has helped me to reframe the experiences and understand more about myself.
Oh, wow. I absolutely love how you put that. So, yeah. Well, first of all, you came to that conclusion a lot earlier than I did. It took me until at least my mid-40s to start realizing that I was really hanging on to perfection and it was making me absolutely miserable. Tell me about some of those twists and turns and learning experiences and the times that you grew from failure in this road of your career.
Sure, sure. So, up until starting my company I worked in corporate America, and I’ve always done well, I’ve excelled, I’ve gotten the promotions, I’ve been tapped to be groomed, all of those things that you hope will happen. But I also noticed that I didn’t have the language for it, which makes me angry now. I didn’t understand, as a woman of color, it was just a much more difficult experience. So, there weren’t people in the organizations that I worked that looked like me, that I could… whose behaviors I could model. My latest role prior to starting my company, I was in financial services, Wall Street environment, working in technology. At that time, it was not a place where you saw a lot of women, and particularly, you really saw very little women of color. Myself and one other woman of color in an organization, in our technology department, which had hundreds and hundreds of people. And so I think, understanding how the world saw me, it was this mindset of, you have to work hard or you have to make sure you act a certain way to be accepted and I couldn’t show up as my full self. Again, I said, I didn’t have the language for it. I didn’t quite know what I needed to do or what I didn’t do, but I just know that it didn’t feel right.
And so, fast forward to sort of understanding more about myself in the world and the workplace, I realized that I was playing a role hoping to be accepted into an environment which, quite frankly, wasn’t built for me. Just the structure of the workplace was primarily built for men, for white males. And as a black woman in technology in Wall Street, there was not the acceptance. So now we have certain programs and data points that speak to how people are doing with their numbers, which doesn’t really change the culture, but at least there’s more attention to it now. But that was one of the, I’d say really early ‘aha’ moments for me about wanting to create an environment for myself where I can show up fully and be accepted, and for me, there’s power in having my own organization and knowing that my work, my strategic thinking, my advisory services, my vision for the work that we do with our clients, is all that is required. And so, none of the other things matter. And if someone has concerns about it, then I choose, I have the option, I have the power to not work or engage with that person or that organization.
Yeah. So, it was so difficult to, I would imagine, to be taught, I can do anything in this world and then be thrown into an environment where that wasn’t really the case. So, I love how you shifted and found your own path where you could still be the person that you wanted to be and play the role that you wanted to play. I just love that.
Thank you and I want to be fully transparent; it wasn’t an easy decision. Again, being one of the only people of color, there is a lot of… there are people counting on you to make sure you see the opportunity through. You want this to work out because you hope that the next person who has the potential for that same job or similar job aided by whatever experience you have. So it’s like, oh, I don’t want to be the person that makes people say like, oh, we shouldn’t recruit another person of color because they didn’t appreciate the opportunity, or they weren’t a good fit, or dismiss the inherent challenges that were there. So, there’s all of these emotional things that are surrounding the decision about how I showed up, and I know this is the same experience for others. And so, it really was difficult for me to think through what’s right for me. I’m glad I made this decision, but it definitely was sifted through the lens of what will happen to the next young woman of color who is in this potential space.
Yeah, yeah. So, you were putting a lot of pressure on yourself, not just to forge your way but to help those coming after you.
Yeah, that’s really rough. You said something that really just stuck with me a few minutes ago about your fearlessness turning into caution as you got older. Can you explain a little bit more about that?
Well, I think that we, [unclear] what’s the foundation to get us there? What next steps do you have to take? And so, some people think of a futurist as someone who’s like, making predictions about the future; there’s no crystal ball. It really is looking at the information that we already have, and exploring what could be possible, relative to what other actions you have the ability to take. And I found that really valuable in my work with the nonprofit sector. Because of the resources that they have, and the funding model of being typically granted funds by either individuals or organizations, there’s often some very strict parameters around what they can do around innovation and disruption and trying new things. And so, sparking that light to help them say like, the future that you’re talking about for this particular social issue is possible. And we know that based on what’s happened in the past, or what’s happening right now that there’ll be some possible trends toward that. What can we do to either accelerate that or to get you where you want to go? And I found that a really good way to think through how we solve some of the biggest social issues that we have.
Well, I didn’t realize that we have this in common because I think I’m a futurist also. When I have clients, I’m a licensed counselor, and when I have clients come into my office, I ask them at the very beginning of therapy, how will your life look different? How will you know if we’ve been successful in therapy, and I ask them to describe the life that they want in the future. So, then I look for patterns and themes of past behavior to help clients make these changes that are going to create the lives that they want in the future. So, I guess that means I’m a futurist.
Yes. Well, we’ll save a seat for you at the table.
We? Okay. So, when you are examining the past and the patterns of nonprofits and trends to determine the direction for the future, take us through how you go about this.
Oh, gosh, it’s a pretty long process. But I say we start with a framework that really looks at the situation like, what is it? What’s happening right now? What’s the present looking like? What’s the past? Then there’s some analysis that happens. And then also, for me, is an understanding of the players that are involved like, we know that it takes specific resources to be able to move something forward. So, understanding what is the environment? What’s possible based on the organization’s current position in the market? Then it’s sort of creating some strategy around, how do we get there? What kinds of things need to happen? Is there financial support that’s needed? Is there a pivot on the mission of the organization? Is there an opportunity to create some thought leadership? So really honing in on the resources that the organization has and where they are. And what I find happens a lot in those conversations is organizations learn about themselves and recognize how much power they have. So often, their role in shaping change is dismissed, and assumed that there are others outside of the organization, maybe the ones who are donating the money, maybe it’s the institutional foundations leading and assuming how the work needs to be done. And what I enjoy most and what gives me the energy to continue is seeing organizations understand the power that they have in this; I always say that nonprofits are central, they’re at the center of the ecosystem of change, and without them none of the social issues that we need to deal with right now, would you be able to shift and move forward without them. So, for them to see that they have the expertise, that they have the information, they understand the day to day challenges and what the possible solutions are. I think that that just creates a much more healthy approach to getting to the place that we need to get on some of these issues.
Yes. So how do you use that new, empowered feeling that you help these nonprofits come around to, how do you use that to amplify their voices, and their position in the ecosystem?
So, we have three core services that we are known for. So that’s strategic advisory. So working with organizations to develop a strategy, whether that be in a consulting scenario where it’s like, hey, you know, we just want to not pick your brain, but have you help us come up with the big idea or to think about the reality of the big idea and what it looks like to execute it. So, we do a lot of strategic work. And then the other two buckets primarily fall in public relations with the traditional PR slant, and also some crisis communications, and then event fundraising. And so I think when I’m thinking about the futurist, the foresight approach, we’re often thinking about it through the PR perspective because we want to be able to create messaging and communications for their audiences that really get people energized and sort of ignited about supporting the organization. And so being able to tell stories about the problem that the organization is trying to solve, help people see themselves as part of the change and of the future, for what’s possible. Maybe it’s evolved some thought leadership, we do a lot of work helping to develop the thought leadership of individuals in the sector. And so there could be a futurist approach or some work around thinking about the future of a particular mission driven issue, and how that thought leadership can support what the organization is trying to do. So, there are a number of ways to do it, but for us, it’s been a lot of it through the PR lens.
So when you were talking a minute ago about helping these nonprofits determine what is happening in the present, what the environments like, what players are involved in creating a strategy, I was thinking how this very much could correlate how women, especially women in midlife, how they can get down to what’s really important to them and learning their value and power.
Yeah, so I think that, to me, it doesn’t matter what approach you take. I know the bookstores and Amazon are filled with personal development books and resources. I mean, there’s some amazing coaches and therapists and other kinds of resources to help. I think that whatever approach someone can take to understand their purpose and what they’re looking to do in their lives and what makes them happy, I don’t care how you get there, I just want you to get there. And so yes, I think that some of the framework or the model for futurist thinking can definitely be applied, but it may not need to be that deep; it could just be making one simple change, or just committing to do something that will make you happy, and then doing that consistently for 30 days, if that’s where you start. I don’t know, I think everybody’s story is different, but I think that we all owe it to ourselves to be in our place of joy and peace, and carving out the little things in life that make us happy and make us feel pleasure. I just think that’s so important.
Absolutely, absolutely. And the sort of model that I use with my clients is a value driven life based on your eight domains and what you value, what’s most important to you in your life. And that sort of resonates with me when it comes to companies being mission driven. Can you tell our audience who may not be in business or a part of a nonprofit or business, what does it mean for a company to be mission driven?
Sure. So, it just means that you’re committed to something specific. In the nonprofit space, it’s usually to a social issue. So that can be an organization whose mission is to eradicate global poverty by 2030. Or it can be an education organization whose mission is to make sure that every high school student who was part of their program goes to and graduates from a four-year college. So, it’s just putting the vision of the organization, connecting it to a social issue and framing it that way. And I guess, taking it a step back and thinking about it from a personal perspective, I guess we all are on a mission. I mean, I think that we all try to figure out what the mission is. And for me for a long time, I thought that maybe it was just a singular thing like, oh, what is my life’s purpose? What am I supposed to be doing? And I think I’ve sort of moved away from that, to believe that as I grow, that’s shifting and changing for me. And so now I just want to be open to whatever that is.
Yes, it doesn’t have to be one singular purpose. We can have a mission or a vision or a purpose when it comes to every different aspect of our lives. Right? So why is it even more important for us personally, or even with our work, to be mission driven during difficult times when unexpected circumstances pop up?
I don’t know if it necessarily, for me, if it’s more important to be mission driven during crisis. I think when I’m thinking about crisis, I think, particularly putting this in the context of COVID, and I’m going to share a little piece of a conversation I had with a friend, we were talking about how like, the world literally stopped once we all started to shelter in place, and my friend said to me, she said, do you think that this is a setback for all of us? Like, we’re all moving forward, we have our plans for 2020 and beyond, like, do you think this is a setback or do you think it’s something else? And if it’s something else, what is it? And I said, at least how I’m feeling right now, it doesn’t feel like a setback to me. I was like, I don’t know what it is. And we talked for a little while longer, and I was like, you know, it feels like a reset.
And so I think that we find and we see what’s important to us, and so maybe the things that seemed like they were important, when you’re faced with this global crisis and you see so much sadness and grief and trauma happening, all of those things that were like, oh my gosh, this is the priority; they lose their meaning or their use, and you’re connecting in a more, I don’t know, a more real way and so I think that that slowness, and connecting with the people around you and thinking about the things that bring you pleasure or planting something in my garden now, to me, has much more meaning for me than, oh, gosh, I’m browsing the Neiman Marcus catalog, and I’ve got to get these ten pairs of shoes for the fall. So, I think it’s been a reset to find those simple pleasures and those things that really warm our soul and making sure that we’re connecting with our people we care about. So many people have shared stories about how they’ve connected with friends they haven’t spoken to in years, or family members. I think that’s the kind of thing. So, to answer your question about mission, maybe the mission, for us, that we all are experiencing or exploring together is, what’s important to us. And so maybe this time is allowing us to see that and understand that and learn more about ourselves, about what we really need to be happy.
Yeah, I totally agree. I love that your friend was posing the question like, is this a setback? Well, it can be if that’s how you look at it. If you’re not being flexible, and not willing to pivot, and aren’t focusing in and drilling down to what’s most important for you. There’s certainly a way to look at it as a setback. But I prefer to look at it the way you do as a reset and a time to break through the noise, and drill down to what is the most important to us. And hopefully we can hang on to that, even as things go back to normal.
So, before we began recording, sometimes some of the best conversations happen before we push record and I regret that, but we were talking about the importance of amplifying women’s voices on important issues just like you help amplify nonprofit voices. Why do you think it’s so important to amplify women’s voices on important issues?
Well, so there’s been research that shows that men, and men’s voices, are heard in the media on important topics. They’re considered the thought leaders. So, I think it’s important to definitely have some equality around that. I think that women’s perspective is often different than men’s. And particularly when it’s issues that are related to women, I think that it is insulting to think that a man can better solve or address those issues. So, when we think about, let’s say, the nonprofit sector, specifically, more than 70% of the workforce in nonprofits are women. And so I think that it’s really important to have a plan in place to elevate their voices, to make sure that they’re getting leadership roles, to make sure that their unique experiences and the perspective and expertise is heard, and that they have a seat at the table and are helping to solve some of these big problems.
Amen to that. Absolutely. Amen to that. So, I end each podcast with the question, what is the one imperfect action you would suggest for us today that would take us closer to our best lives?
I love that question. And I would say, to find one way every day to celebrate yourself and I think that’s such an imperfect action because I believe the majority of your listenership is women, and I know that women typically put everyone else first, and so the idea, the audacity of a woman taking time to celebrate herself, and whether that is like, oh, you know what, I’m going to have my tea outside on the patio before anyone else wakes up, or I’m going to take a simple pleasure and enjoy my chocolate, or I’m going to dance and sing my head off loudly to my favorite song and let my kids see me or my husband enjoy it, or whatever. Whatever that celebration looks like for you, no matter what the conditions are, I am the queen of wanting perfect conditions for everything and sort of learning that there’s so much joy and fun and learning in the imperfect conditions. And so that’s my one thing: to find one way every day to celebrate.
Well, I absolutely love that answer. Because I’m all about self-acceptance and valuing ourselves and that by valuing ourselves, we sort of set the tone for our lives, we set our boundaries that way, we teach other people how to treat us. And if we’re not treating ourselves, well, we really can’t be expected to have others treat us well. So, I would say, I love Vanessa’s suggestion today. Y’all heard it, go out and find a way to celebrate yourself today and every day. So, until we meet again next week, go out and take imperfect action every day toward the life that you want.
Imperfect Thriving is a part of the Practice of the Practice Podcast Network, a network of podcasts seeking to help you thrive imperfectly. To hear other podcasts like the Bomb Mom podcast, Beta Male Revolution, or Empowered and Unapologetic go to practiceofthepractice.com/network.
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This podcast is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information with regard to the subject matter covered. This is given with the understanding that neither the host, Practice of the Practice, or guests, are providing legal, mental health, or other professional information. If you need a professional, I encourage you to reach out to one.