5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry, With Kristin Kaufman

The relevance of thought leadership to business growth is undebatable. When one establishes themselves as the ‘go-to’ person in their field of expertise, they become the trusted advisors for innovation, go-to-market ideas, angel investment, disruption of an industry — the list is endless. Thought leadership demonstrates expertise and builds credibility in the chosen market. All this will […]

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The relevance of thought leadership to business growth is undebatable. When one establishes themselves as the ‘go-to’ person in their field of expertise, they become the trusted advisors for innovation, go-to-market ideas, angel investment, disruption of an industry — the list is endless. Thought leadership demonstrates expertise and builds credibility in the chosen market. All this will raise your (and your company’s) visibility and reputation which builds your brand, generates ongoing interest and fosters qualified referrals. Net: your business will grow in stature, top-line revenue, and industry notoriety.

As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Kaufman. Kristin is the founder of Alignment, Inc. ® a unique consultancy formed in 2007 to help individuals, corporations, board of directors and other similar groups find alignment within themselves and their organizations. She’s brought this expertise to hundreds of people since establishing Alignment, Inc®. Some of her clients include Baylor Healthcare System, Accenture, Hewlett-Packard, Smith & Nephew, Frito-Lay, IDEA Public Schools, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Mercy Health, and many others. Kristin brings over 25 years of corporate experience to bear, including executive positions at Hewlett-Packard, Vignette Corporation, and United Health Group. At HP, Kristin was the General Manager of the channels and partner program that supported Hewlett-Packard’s largest corporate accounts. This business represented a $3 billion revenue stream for Hewlett-Packard. Serving as Worldwide Channels Vice-President on the Executive Committee of Vignette Corporation, a $250 million publicly traded software company, her team built the global infrastructure for multi-channels of distribution for their software solution. In her first departure from traditional ‘corporate America’, Kristin was asked to join the NYC Leadership Academy effort, which was the centerpiece of the New York City Children First reform agenda. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein sponsored this agenda, lead by CEO Robert E. Knowling, Jr. The goal of this reform was to create a system of outstanding schools where every child and teacher has access to effective teaching and learning. Kristin was chosen as one of two private sector business executives, to teach, train, and coach the 1,200 principals of the NYC public school system and the top 100 executives on the Chancellor’s staff. This three-year experience was the initial catalyst for Kristin forming Alignment, Inc. Her last executive position in corporate America was as Group Vice President of United Health Group. This appointment leveraged her strong knowledge of the technology business and how to leverage multiple channels to market in the increasingly complicated world of healthcare and healthcare insurance. Kristin provided expertise for its go-to-market strategies, defined and created alternative channels to improve organic growth, and implemented sales effectiveness methodologies across all segments within United Health Group. A prolific writer, Kristin’s first book, Is This Seat Taken? Random Encounters That Change Your Life®, was released on 11/1/11 to national acclaim, and endorsed by Stephen Covey and John Maxwell, among others. Her second book in the series, entitled Is This Seat Taken? ® It’s Never Too Late to Find the Right Seat was released in January, 2015. It has been endorsed by notables such as Marshall Goldsmith, Sean Covey, and Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines. This book shines the light on late in life reinvention and encore ‘second half’s’ of diverse individuals. The individuals are in some cases widely known and others are somewhat anonymous to the mass public. The common thread is their ‘post-50’ resurgence in life and in some cases their ‘fork in the road’ is quite serendipitous. Kristin’s third book, in the ‘Is This Seat Taken? ®’ trilogy will be released in October, 2019.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Kristin! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I am a small town girl with southern values, and what I refer to as a ‘recovering corporate executive’. My professional career had been centered in the corporate arena. My life had been a series of accomplishments, achievements, awards, and rewards. Then about 15 years ago, I made the choice to ‘jump off the proverbial hamster wheel’ and create the life I really wanted. I wanted to become ALIGNED to my purpose. It was scary — yet, fear can either be a paralyzer or a catalyst. I chose catalyst. I have since become a portfolio entrepreneur, speaker, and published author.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

To be honest, I have never referred to myself as a ‘thought leader’. That is an honor or a distinction to be earned and bestowed upon you by others — not assumed. If a person is ever declared a ‘subject matter expert’ or a ‘guru’ it is because other folks have done so….it is never a self-proclamation. So — I would never be so bold as to consider myself an authority on this. And, I will also say, that this ‘distinction’ can come and go like the wind; one must stay current, relevant, and always learning. I believe there is always more to be learned and more knowledge to be garnered on any subject.

Yet, what I will offer, is that I am often called upon to help others in my field — because I focus on the issues or problem they (we) are trying to solve, helping them to grow their business or to create the life they want, being ‘disruptive’ in the manner in which I am doing this, differentiating myself by being 100% authentically myself, being candidly truthful, and showing my vulnerability as a person living in the human condition, just like everyone else. I thrive on building strong communities and rock-solid relationships with zero expectation of anything in return — my sole intention is to help better the person or the organization in which I am engaging and to serve them with purity of that intention.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Well, I wrote an entire book on a few of the most interesting stories encountered on my professional journey. There is one that always resonates with corporate executives and road warriors who frequent airports. I am including an excerpt of this story from my first book:

Airport bartenders are the psychotherapists to the global road warrior. I am certain they have seen and heard enough dirt to fill a lifetime supply of trash magazines. One look around an airport bar and the rawest forms of humanity will greet you. Tired loneliness. Stark unhappiness. Arrogant ambition. Giddy success. Empty accolades. Cool condescension. I have been met with each of these manifested human emotions, most often sitting at an airline club bar.

Pulling my wheeler-board behind me that Friday felt mind-numbingly normal. That little black bag had become an appendage permanently attached to my right arm. After commuting for four years, the routine was like brushing my teeth, except it involved taxi drivers, TSA security personnel, and numerous other nameless faces which kept the planes, trains, and automobile engines moving progressively forward.

“Hey.” I said wearily as I struggled to secure my bag beside me and hang my tote bag on the bag of the stool.

“Well, hey there! How was your week?” John asked, putting a paper napkin squarely in front of me, while pouring some snack mix in a bowl.

“Oh, it was ok. Thanks. Glad to be headin home.” I responded with a sigh.

“What can I get you? The usual?”

“Oh, John, that would be great. Here you go.” I said handing him my credit card to start a tab.

It is amazingly ironic how something as simple as seeing your name on a limousine driver’s welcome card or a bartender’s familiarity of knowing your ‘usual’ can put a lift in your step. The feeling of belonging, being recognized, or having some connection to another is like a warm blanket on a frigid night to the professional traveler.

John is the long standing barkeep at the La Guardia American Airlines club. He is a crusty codger, probably nearing 60 sixty years old, and had a face that could tell a million stories if only his wrinkles could talk. The muffin top around his waist was actually more like one of those fabulous popovers from Neiman Marcus’s Zodiac Room: full, round, and puffy, extending over his belt which was pushed down within two inches of his treasure trove. His blue shirt’s buttons pulled under the stress, and threatened to liberate themselves from their shackles with one unexpected sneeze. John was all business. This meant not only filling glasses with various concoctions of spirits, it also meant providing free therapy for the weary, who were seeking escape and unconditional company before boarding flights back to their reality.

For years, on my regular intervals flying through La Guardia, I watched John dispense advice, listen with actively empathetic ears, and provide comfort without ever laying a hand on anyone. That particular night, tensions were high, as there had been weather delays which had affected every flight heading west, which was basically every flight except for those headed abroad. It was a Friday night at 7:30pm, need I say more?

In struts a tall aristocratic looking man, decked in a dark European cut suit complete with Gucci loafers, Zegna tie, and a French cut white shirt with Onyx cufflinks. He was a walking Gentleman’s Quarterly ad, and the quintessential metro sexual. As he pulled out the bar stool, he was loudly finishing a conversation on his cell phone, through his Vulcan-like headset:

“Fine. Fine. I get it. I GET IT. You want more. It never stops. You know, Cheryl, all you do is push, push, push. When is it ever going to be enough, Cheryl? I will be home when I get home.” He pulled the earpiece out with a quick movement like he was swatting a mosquito and slammed it onto the bar, shaking his head and mumbling to himself.

John enters the drama from stage right.

“Hi. Sounds like you could use a drink. What can I get you?”

“Bourbon. Knob Creek. Neat. Double.”

“Comin right up. Help yourself to some snacks on the corner. Wanna water back?”

“No, thanks.”

Before John could even put the drink down, Mr. Fancy Pants launched into his tirade. He proceeded to inform John about his high powered position as an Executive Vice-President of a multi-billion dollar publicly traded technology company, being careful to speak loudly enough for other interested parties to learn just how important his position was. He had been traveling for the past two weeks on a global product launch, and was heading home to his wife and three children, ranging in age from 8 to 18. He had been on the phone with his wife who, from his perspective, was performing her version of a domestic deposition. He shared that he had amassed a small fortune totaling well over $25million through several executive positions and taking a few companies public in the dot.com era. Yet, his wife wanted him to continue to work.

“She just wants more, more. We have more than enough to live comfortably, to put our children through school, to travel first class to anywhere we want to go, and frankly, we want for nothing. We have several homes; one in Aspen, one in Austin, and a beach home in St. Croix.”

“What else does she want?” John asked calmly.

“I don’t really know. She loves being able to say she is married to the ‘EVP of XYZ Company’, and being able to associate in those circles. You know she wants the designer clothes, the newest Lamborghini, and the largest diamond at the dinner table. Yet, it is me that is doing all the hard work, and logging these hard hours — not her. She just pushes and pushes, nothing is ever enough. You know, sometimes I think she stays with me just because of the money. She gave up her career as an attorney when we had the children. You know, damn it, I really wish someone would love me if I lived in a tent! Why the hell am I telling you this?!” he exclaimed with exacerbation.

“Would you love you if you lived in a tent?” John asked curiously, disregarding the last question.

The pregnant pause of all pregnant pauses filled the space. Several of us, listening intently while acting as if we were grossly involved reading the latest People magazine or Wall Street Journal, took deep breaths waiting for the answer.

“I don’t know, isn’t that sad? I thought I liked myself. I used to love the thrill of learning and growing in my job. I used to love the feeling of power, promotion, and public admiration. It just doesn’t work for me anymore. What drives me now at age 55 is not what used to drive me. Does that make any sense?” he asked losing all inhibition.

“Sure it does. You know when you were describing what your wife wants; I couldn’t help but see a mirror of that image looking back at me. Look at what you are wearing. Listen to how you described what you have achieved and how you represented your success. You used all the descriptions of what you said she wanted. Yet, it is what you are putting forth, as well. You know, through life I believe and trust that we change. We grow. So, what is it you want, now? If you had ‘it’, what would ‘it’ be?”

Those of us sitting around the bar caught ourselves sharing wide eyed glances with each other amazed at the wisdom and courage of these questions coming from John.

What transpired next was nothing short of amazing.

“Easy for you to say. Are you doing what you really want to do? I mean, come on, are you telling me that you would choose to tend bar at an airline club?” Mr. Fancy Pants asked quite defensively.

Calmly, without even a whisper of hesitancy, John answered, “Yes. I actually love what I do. And you know why? Because I choose to make the most of what I do. I meet fascinating people. I learn something every day. I make a fair living, and I know that at the end of the day, I can take nothing with me from this earth anyway. So what I have is today — this conversation — my interaction with you. That is it really”.

Mr. Fancy Pant’s balloon was just pricked with the pin of perspective. A person could almost see him deflate, as he looked intently at John.

After several seconds of silence, Mr. Fancy Pants offered meekly, “Well, thanks for sharing that with me. Sorry if I came across too harshly. It has just been a really hard day.”

“Hey, that’s ok. In my line of work, it is hard to get me ruffled. I just hope you find what you are looking for. You know, the first step for someone else to love you if you lived in a tent, is for you to love yourself if you lived in a tent. So, I’m going to hope you will have the courage to pursue what you really want in this life.”

With that, John made the rounds around the bar, making sure everyone was being take care of and had what they needed. For those of us lucky enough to have been in ear shot of that unlikely conversation, we had been served more than enough.

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?

This is so embarrassing. Years ago, back in the 1980’s, long before car phones, cell phones, and GPS, I was to take a senior corporate executive arriving into town to a dinner meeting. I had never been to this restaurant, and was not sure I knew where I was going; yet, I thought I could find it with the directions I had written down. I picked up the executive at the airport, and proceeding to get terribly lost attempting to take him to the meeting. We drove around and around and around in circles, for literally over an hour. The executive proceeded to get car sick (!), and we ultimately had to cancel the meeting. Thinking about that evening still makes me cringe.

The lesson: be prepared, due a trial run of all things — presentations, interviews, and yes….even driving to a location you have never been to, when you are responsible for someone of that level of importance.

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?

Well, let’s face it — the use and ‘applicable meaning’ of these terms has changed over the years. Let’s start with the term influencer. An influencer is basically an individual who has the power to affect decisions — of any kind — because of their perceived authority, position, success, fame, or basic relationship with their followers. The power of influencers has been around for decades….think personalities who endorsed products and services of yesteryear (aka: decades ago) …. Like Anita Bryant for orange juice (before her very public fall from grace) or “Mean’ Joe Green for Coca Cola, or Andy Griffith for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Some were hits — and many were misses….due to the mis-alignment of the brand with the celebrity to the market — and most importantly, the lack of expertise any of these ‘spokespeople’ to have a relative perspective of the product or industry they were endorsing. And of course, this was long before social media took the helm.

Today, influencers are typically branded by a particular, and often very vertical, niche — like millennial skincare or travel for ‘singles’ or even a particular celebrity’s genre of music. They are seldom (if ever) tied to a singular product — yet, they are aligned to a niche industry.

Social media has fed this phenomenon. These influencers build their reputation through posts about their ‘topic’ on their preferred social media channels and huge numbers of followers cater to their viewpoint. They gauge their level of ‘success’ by the numbers of their followers. They wield a tremendous amount of power — and this fosters brands to court them, as they want the ‘endorsement’ of these influencers. To be clear, not all influencers have built their following due to education, experience, research-backed advice, or any true value they provide their followers. Yet, they have ‘hit a nerve’ or tapped into a viral ‘area of interest’ which they exploit through their posts, podcasts, and blogs; and they build personal, pertinent interactions with their followers on a variety of social networks.

There are many distinct and relevant differences between influencers and thought leaders. First, thought leaders are not dependent upon social media to foster their power. Thought leaders are sought after and followed due to their knowledge, expertise, and most importantly original ideas and opinions brought early to an issue, a question, a market, or market condition. They are recognized as a foremost authority in their space — and thus become the ‘go-to’ individual for that area of expertise. Their following is never dictated due to their social media proliferation.

Secondly, their purpose and intent is about education, driving others to consider their clearly articulated and identified point of view, and fostering and sparking original thoughts and ideas in others. They take their ongoing credibility, currency relative to the subject matter area, and their ongoing knowledge in that niche very seriously. Making money, creating fame, or increasing the proverbial ‘number of followers’ on social media is not their ‘end game’.

They desire to make a difference, create a supportive following — which does not have to be the entire world — they simply want a group of respected leaders in their niche to listen to their point of view. Thought leaders can (and typically are) quite influential, inspiring, and motivational; yet, it is anchored on their content, knowledge, expertise, and relevance to their niche topic. In three words, a thought leader will be described as ‘best in class’ in their field of knowledge.

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?

A person will not be well served to become a ‘thought leader’ for the sake of becoming a ‘thought leader’.

As leaders, in general, the objective is to reach our individual and collective potential in this world, and by doing so, we inspire others to do the same. One way to begin, is to choose a primary area of interest in which we would like to contribute. This almost always will be a passion, a conviction, or even a ‘calling’ — and then we dive deep to grow, learn, explore, challenge, and evolve in that area. Not for the sake of becoming ‘noted as an authority’, but for the sake of stretching and growing our own mind, approach, source of ideas, and level of contribution to that field. When we shift our focus away from an external validation to an internal quest to expand our perspectives, this makes all the difference. The intention is to become the best we can be — however we define this. Thus, if our quest is to optimize our contribution to our field, then investing time, resources, and energy to that effort is not only worthwhile, it is a necessity.

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?

The relevance of thought leadership to business growth is undebatable. When one establishes themselves as the ‘go-to’ person in their field of expertise, they become the trusted advisors for innovation, go-to-market ideas, angel investment, disruption of an industry — the list is endless. Thought leadership demonstrates expertise and builds credibility in the chosen market. All this will raise your (and your company’s) visibility and reputation which builds your brand, generates ongoing interest and fosters qualified referrals. Net: your business will grow in stature, top-line revenue, and industry notoriety.

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.

  1. Figure out what NARROW NICHE in which you desire to be — or already are an expert. And no — that is not everything! Inside tips: What do you love? What have you built your career around? What are you more passionate about than most folks? Follow this niche or market. In other words…frequent and post on sites which are popular for your industry. Be disruptive. It is not enough to share the obvious information of your industry. Pushing the proverbial envelope and doing things differently will shift the status quo. THAT will distinguish you as a thought leader. For example, if the way people in your industry have always built their businesses is through ‘conventional tradeshows’, and you decide to embrace an online attraction marketing approach — THAT is disruptive thinking. Declare it. Share it. Embrace it. Promote it.
  2. Bring VALUE to your industry — and drop the self promotion. Think: what can I share with this industry that they may not know now? Are there creative ideas which will effectively challenge the status quo? What are a few provocative trends in the making or non-publicized facts which could change the current dynamic? Then write on this, speak on this, and share these ideas — openly, consistently, and publicly. Contribute often and be provocative in your content. Don’t stop there…..think videos, podcasts, articles, blogs, checklists, infographics….whatever works best for your message AND your audience. Determine what you want your brand to be. Don’t over think this. Just ask yourself: what do I want folks to ‘think, say, or do’ anytime my name comes up…that is your brand….or your brand in the making. Be real and authentic. No one will ever be as good a ‘you’ as YOU. Create and earn visibility online. How, you may ask? Compelling content. Edgy content. Courageous content.
  3. Surround yourself with whip smart people. Choose people who are NOT ‘yes’ people….you want folks to push and pull you….that helps you ‘stretch and grow’. Thought leaders never stop growing. Determine who the current leaders are in your market. Follow them. Learn from them. Challenge them. Nurture those relationships, and bring value to them, as well. Birds of a feather flock together…..and you want the thought leaders in your industry to endorse you — at some point.
  4. Build a network based on authentic relationships. There are hundreds of people in your industry who can serve as mentors, connectors, and supporters in your quest to become a thought leader. Build those relationships through conferences, online networking groups, mastermind groups, in-person events. The key is to build a true relationship — which means giving more than you take. It takes time — yet, worth it. You will grow — as will they.
  5. Serve others. If we keep providing valuable service ‘top of mind’ in everything we do — it builds respect. There is no mistaking those folks that really CARE. And that — above everything else — will build a following and establish you as a compassionate, committed thought leader.

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.

Brene Brown. She is an authentic, Texan, storyteller who has built a career talking about SHAME!

There are many things to learn from Brene, yet, in a nutshell:

  1. She is real, authentic, and there is simply no one remotely in the same category. Yes — she is all about ‘self-help’ and garnered the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey, among others. Yet, she did so with purity of intention and a very compassionate and follower-centric connection which is 100% Brene.
  2. She anchored 100% of her ‘soft topics’ on ‘hard research’. There was not a lot of ‘incense, or ‘woo woo thinking’ to her ideas and conclusions. Yes, her books cover much of the same information as other authors — yet, one of her biggest distinctions is her research, her trials, her teaching record, and her personal and professional experience.
  3. She walked her talk. She is brave. She is courageous. She did her TED talk when no one — no one — in popular culture had talked constructively about SHAME. She did so with humor, relevance, and knowledge. That is a powerful combination which drove her to what seemed be an ‘overnight thought leader’ distinction. Yet, her foundation had been built over decades.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

Many words get bantered about in today’s arena and can lose their potency. Business executives and society, in general, latch onto words, phrases, and clichés that become the ‘word du jour’.

For example: ‘authenticity’, ‘vulnerability’, ‘game changer’, ‘organic growth’ — the list of overused business jargon is long. We fall in love with the word — or the ‘spirit’ of what the word represents — and we use it over and over and over. Yet, I think there are some descriptors, when we look at the basic meaning, that will never become trite.

Think about it — the word ‘authenticity’ gets use more often now than perhaps ever in business history. Yet — when the word is embraced for its true definition and meaning, it is timeless. The concept of being genuine and true — and living a life (and running a business) with character and integrity as an authentic leader will never go out of style. Those leaders are never the takers; they are the givers, the value creators, the empowering forces, the supporters of others. They are the ones that often stand alone against the tide of greed, power, coffer stuffing, and career ambition run amuck as their bedrock foundation There is nothing more life-changing than to be in the presence of a person so authentically themselves, so in tune with ‘who they are,’ so comfortable in their own skin, that the steel rod running up their back provides the fortitude for them to lead, inspire — and transform those around them — simply by following ‘their true north.’

So, I believe the same can be true of individuals described as true thought leaders. They will never ‘go out of style’. Think Warren Buffet, Seth Godin, Tony Robbins, Simon Sinek, and Brene Brown. However and whatever they offer in the future will undoubtedly capture our attention — because of their track record, their knowledge, their expertise, their original approaches and ideas, and their courage to share boldly.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

In a word: alignment. My definition of alignment, at its simplest core, is: to love what you do, strive to be good at it, and most importantly, always have it tied to something greater than yourself.

If any of those ‘legs of the stool’ are wobbly — you will become disenchanted, tired, and burned out. Having our work tied to something greater than yourself will become the ever present fuel for growth, constancy, and fulfillment.

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. 🙂

From my perspective, to simply treat other people as you would want to be treated — if you were them. This is the Platinum Rule…..adding the adage to the Golden Rule of…..‘if you were them’ at the end…encourages empathy, compassion, tolerance, and understanding. Imagine the world if everyone — in any/all walks of life from business to politics and beyond — would embrace even a smidgeon of that philosophy. This may sound Pollyanna-ish…yet, I have learned that often the ‘soft squishy stuff’ can bring about the most powerful changes.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are so many quotes which I love. One that is in the forefront of my mind is from my father, who recently passed away. When we were growing up, we never had a curfew or any strict limitations. Our parents trusted us and as they have said, ‘you never gave us a reason not to trust you’.

Yet, every single time we were heading to a party or whatever, it never failed that daddy would say: “Girls, have a good time and Use Good Judgment.”. So that phrase, ‘Use good judgment’ has stayed with me since I was in junior high school. It is applicable whether I am conducting ‘due diligence’ to buy a company, evaluating how to expand a global initiative, or even who to hire/fire on a team. ‘Using Good Judgment’ is an oft over-looked attribute in leaders…yet, I would say arguably one of the most important.

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 a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

I would be remiss if I did not say Oprah Winfrey. I have admired her for years, and particularly love her Soul Sunday series.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Learn about our BOOKS: www.kristinkaufman.com

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Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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