Identify your passion. Trust your gut. Surround yourself with support. Think big and start small. Keep looking for the next wave.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Dannis. Joe is the founder of DawnSignPress, a highly esteemed publishing and media house renowned for quality educational materials in American Sign Language. Dannis is a Deaf entrepreneur and has been named Small Businessman of the Year for the State of California and featured in the PBS series Small Business 2000. He’s a thought leader in the Deaf world and extends that vision to the hearing world as well.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I was born at a time when Deaf people were seen as way outside of the mainstream and still considered ‘dumb.’ My parents and sister were Deaf, but I had a little hearing, so learning to speak was a big priority. In those days how much you could speak was thought to determine how successful you could be. I was sent away to live with hearing relatives from age four to eight. Those were confusing lonely years. I found my home in the Deaf-World by the time I graduated from Gallaudet University, the world’s only college for Deaf people. My father gave me $1,000 for graduation. I grew that gift into a multi-million-dollar publishing house, DawnSignPress.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
The idea of thought leadership wasn’t around when I started my business in 1979. But if thought leaders are innovators, experts in their niche, and people who go the extra step to make ideas reality, then that describes what I’ve done. Succeeding as a Deaf entrepreneur in a hearing universe has been a wild ride in uncharted territory.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I’d have to say going from selling T-shirts with ASL-inspired designs out of the back of my car in Berkeley to publishing the most renowned language instruction series for ASL, Signing Naturally, has been quite a jump. There were a lot of points where it was another peanut butter sandwich for dinner as that was all I had in the cupboard. I do especially remember an interesting visit to a college, though. So many times we’ve been ahead of the audience, knowing what was needed for ASL instruction before teachers knew. I walked into one department chair’s office and behind her desk were piles and piles of our VHS tapes that were meant to be used with our books. I told her “Hey, you need to be using those videos! Students need them for their homework.” Her answer, “We don’t have VHS players!” Our product was so innovative our customers didn’t even have the equipment they needed to use it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the first things I published was a series of coloring books featuring ASL and focusing on different parts of the language, nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. Each book had a theme. In “Clowns,” the book with verbs, one of the signs is WALK. In the part of the page where English letters were used, the word was misspelled WAKL, and that’s how it showed in the first print. We checked so carefully! The sign was right, the fingerspelling for each letter was right, but the darn English was not! To this day, I tease my partner, Ben Bahan, texting that I’m taking my dogs for a WAKL. So we learned, even though our priority is ASL, the English has to be right, too. And as much as we agonized over that mistake, in publishing you have a chance to “fit it in the reprint.”
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is? How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
For me, thought leaders have focus, but also vision. They are in tune with their niche, and can see the next wave and make sure they are there to ride it. They differ from a typical leader in that they create lasting change as trusted sources. Thought leaders take new action and inspire others with innovative ideas. Influencers, to me, are at the center of things. They may have the attention of a group or niche, and get people to look more closely at certain products or ideas. Thought leaders can be more in the background, seeing things from the edges.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
As a thought leader, I could promote and support ASL and the Deaf community in a Deaf-centric way, which is important for an oppressed minority. Other people were following trends that may have been popular, but were not Deaf-centric. I knew ASL was the treasure of my community and keeping that focus helped me and DawnSignPress become known as providing quality ASL. In the time we’ve been in business ASL has gone from a newly-recognized language to the third most studied second language in the US. That makes it worth all the energy and resources we invested.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
If you’re brave enough to step forward, you can create positive change and often that leads to expansion and abundance. The quality of ASL in Signing Naturally series is the key to its incredible success. The number of people learning ASL truly helps bridge a gap between the Deaf and hearing. I’m now working on doing the same with a children’s series called Once Upon a Sign, fairytales told in a modern way, which appeals not only to a Deaf audience but also to hearing. I still want to make more connection between the two worlds.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
Identify your passion. Trust your gut. Surround yourself with support. Think big and start small. Keep looking for the next wave. Those are five things that continue to propel me in my work.
If I look back at my trajectory, as a college student I was swept up in the “dawn” of a new era where ASL, a language used for centuries by Deaf people, was recognized as a bona fide language. Deaf pride was new and exciting. I had a passion to share ASL and I followed both my gut instinct, and my college roommate (Dr. Ben Bahan, now a professor at Gallaudet) to California. We started small with a book store, selling other people’s products. Then it was the coloring books, and then Signing Naturally, the first big wave. Those five strategies have cycled again and again over 40 years.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach?
Steven Spielberg. He doesn’t use his own money to invest in his productions. He uses investors to fund his productions. He employs a small team that produces a limited number of films per year. Steven’s emphasis is high quality over quantity! I agree.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I’ve seen the term, but honestly, that term isn’t used in ASL or the Deaf-World so much. It isn’t labels that inspire me, but action.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
I’d have to say, enjoy the process. Sometimes the goal is long-term and requires patience, so it’s the interaction and engagement of the journey along the way that keeps things fresh.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think everyone can sign. I’d love to see the universal “language” of gesture spread to include everyone. I’ve seen the panic in hearing people’s eyes when they realize I am Deaf and they won’t be able to speak to communicate. It’s ok, Deaf people are used to dealing with hearing people all day, every day. Relax, pick up your hands. Point, shake your head, smile.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I mentioned it before but my favorite is “Think big, but start small…with a little luck.”
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have lunch or breakfast? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
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