As business leaders, we know that stories are powerful. They can inform, inspire and persuade. For Kathy Eldon, storytelling is a way to heal and maybe even change the world.
“I’d like to think I’ve been able to spark some goodness in my life,” says Kathy Eldon, founder and chairwoman of Creative Visions Foundation. “If I’ve managed to light some fires in people –– to illuminate darkness and help them find a way, I’ll be happy.”
Kathy is passionate about lighting the way for others because she has experienced so much darkness herself.
Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and (thanks to her “outward-looking” parents) a world traveler by age 14, she graduated from Wellesley College and planned to join the Peace Corps before she fell in love with English businessman Mike Eldon. They married, moved to London and later spent 11 years in Kenya, where she began working as a journalist.
“Once you’ve taken somebody out of Cedar Rapids, you can’t really stuff them back in,” she says.
Kathy and Mike had two children, Dan and Amy; after they divorced, she moved back to London and launched a documentary film production company.
A few years later, in 1993, Kathy was in the early stages of developing a book profiling women who overcome adversity when her world turned upside down. Her son Dan, then 22, a photojournalist for Reuters, was killed on assignment in Somalia along with two colleagues.
“For me, that was the end of that life and beginning of a new life,” she says. “I didn’t want to live, but Amy was 19, so I couldn’t die. I had to stick around … so I had to transform because I couldn’t survive otherwise.”
Kathy threw herself into projects that carried on Dan’s legacy. With her daughter, she launched Creative Visions, a United Nations-recognized NGO that has become an incubator, accelerator and agency for artists and activists.
“If you love someone, you’re going to suffer,” she says. “Because things are always going to happen … It’s horrible when it’s your child. But everybody has hard stuff. Then the question becomes: how do we deal with the hard stuff?”
In this excerpt from our wide-ranging conversation about her life and work, Kathy talks about how she reinvented herself after unimaginable loss and the lessons she learned by shining a light on others.
1. Choose joy and do the most good
Today, Kathy’s life is full of “tremendous joy,” she says. She lives in Malibu with her husband, next door to Amy and just steps away from the headquarters of their foundation, the Dan Eldon Center for Creative Activism. Over more than two decades, the foundation has acted as an incubator, accelerator and agency for more than 400 projects and productions on five continents.
“We reckon we’ve touched 100 million people … it’s been the most fulfilling and exhilarating possible work you can imagine. And I love every minute of what I get to do.”
Because she knows firsthand that life can be short, she believes strongly that “if you’re in a business or profession where you’re not finding joy, it ain’t worth it,” she says. “Find something that makes your heart sing.”
For Kathy, that’s a life dedicated to serving others. Her path is inspired by her son, as well as her upbringing in a family that rose from humble circumstances to become community leaders, philanthropists and patrons of the arts in Cedar Rapids.
She sees a parallel between their work and her own.
“They made a big mark in a small community. And sometimes I wonder whether we’re making like a little bitty mark in the world.”
2. Recognize your strengths and delegate your weaknesses
Even though her work is driven by deeply personal motivation, Kathy has studiously avoided the pitfalls of “Founder’s Syndrome.”
Sometimes founders are “so excited and proud that they cling to [their ideas] for dear life. And it can just absolutely sink things,” she says.
Kathy is a self-described “lousy manager,” but “I have a few things I’m really good at,” she says. “One is recognizing talent. I can inspire people to believe they can do more than they probably thought they could.”
She’s extremely proud of her team. “Our CEO is second to none in the world in her capabilities,” she says. Most Creative Visions employees joined as interns –– who the organization calls “visionaries.”
That’s a reflection of the company’s mission, which “is really about empowering people to tell stories that need to be told –– to ignite action and create awareness,” she says.
In that vein, she relishes her role as an active co-founder, while the rest of the team manages the day-to-day operations of Creative Visions.
“At a certain point in your life … you don’t have to do it yourself. The magic is being done without you. Or you just light that little fire.”
3. Keep current and stay humble
Kathy’s energy is infectious when she describes the wide-ranging projects that the foundation supports.
Creative Visions’ projects include Rock Your World, an educational program that teaches kids to use media and the arts to tell stories about human rights and environmental issues. In 2018, the organization partnered with Paul McCartney and Emma Stone to produce a music video for his anti-bullying song “Who Cares.” And Creative Visions just launched a new program, Planet 911, as a global response to climate change.
“We’re a global leader in creating social impact entertainment media,” Kathy says. But she’s also remarkably circumspect about the future. She knows she’ll only make an impact as long as her work is relevant.
“Unless you’re being relevant, it’s irrelevant. I don’t believe organizations have to live forever,” she says.
To keep the pulse, Kathy feeds off of the energy and enthusiasm of her Millennial and Gen Z team. “I’m the luckiest person in the world because I am surrounded by young people,” she says.
“They’re impatient. They’re not conventional. They won’t sit in an office for 40 years hoping for a pension. And they’re scared. Because they know this is a very threatened world.”
As we get older, it’s easy to become jaded and dismissive of younger folks: “I’ve done that. I tried that.
“Well, stuff it,” she says. “A 22-year-old doesn’t know what’s impossible. And it’s irrelevant if you’ve tried it before anyway, because things happen when you’re ready and the time is right.
Plus, the next generation is “noisy, and I love that,” she adds.
“We’re doing everything in our power to help them be noisier.”