Courtney Malengo Of Spark + Buzz Communications: “Know Your Story”

Know Your Story: While you may not realize it, you have a unique story. Know your story and learn how to tell it, because you are the best advocate for your business and the best person to tell that story. As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the […]

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Know Your Story: While you may not realize it, you have a unique story. Know your story and learn how to tell it, because you are the best advocate for your business and the best person to tell that story.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Courtney Malengo. Courtney Malengo is the founder of Spark + Buzz Communications, a strategic communications consultancy that helps brands tell their story to inspire audiences and galvanize growth. A passionate communicator and brand strategist with 18 years of experience, she holds an accreditation in public relations and a master’s in communication and organizational leadership.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

When I look across the seemingly disparate industries I worked in, the one common thread was always storytelling. If I had to distill my 18+ year career into one thing, it would be helping individuals and businesses tell their story in a sincere and strategic way, across a variety of mediums. From a very early age I wanted to be a writer and that drove my pursuits through college, while also dabbling in graphic design and photography. I love sussing out a good story — my first gig as a reporter honed that ability. As I began writing full-time in the workplace and experiencing broader marketing and communications jobs, I realized that I could take my storytelling skills and apply that in a totally different and rewarding way than I initially envisioned. The entrepreneurial bug also bit at a young age, manifesting in a childhood lemonade stand (where my only customer was the mailman) and selling friendship bracelets in elementary school, to side hustles of an online cupcakery and a bespoke stationery business. Each of these endeavors taught me several lessons that prepared me to launch Spark + Buzz Communications.

Ultimately, I spent 16 years working in media, real estate, faith-based organizations, non-profits, healthcare, and senior living, prior to launching Spark + Buzz in January of 2019. Along the way I earned my Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) certification from the Public Relations Society of America, in addition to a master’s in communication and organizational leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I think the greatest highlight was being featured on and the opportunity to work with some amazing clients.

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? While most of my mistakes weren’t funny, they were valuable lessons. My greatest mistake starting out was seeking advice from other people who didn’t understand, or value, what I was trying to achieve. Many people will doubt your vision and it is easy to be critical of something you yourself didn’t do or create; the result only served to frustrate me. Having people disagree with you and provide other perspectives is very helpful, but not all feedback is worth taking to heart. I’ve also learned that when you first start out, the people you thought would rally around you may not, and likewise, you can be surprised by who becomes an advocate for you.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am most grateful to my parents, who gave me the perfect blend of each of their traits and personalities while encouraging me to pursue my passions. From an early age, I was told anything was possible. They cultivated an environment where my dreams, ambition, and creativity could thrive. My father became an entrepreneur after his career with the Federal Government. He opened an office in my childhood home and that gave me an early glimpse into the ups and downs of a self-employed lifestyle. Plus, at an early age I was frequently participating in his business.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Women are typically the ones who carry the burden of childcare, not only physically, but emotionally. Women are often the ones whose job takes a backseat to their partner’s, especially if they happen to make less money once a child comes into the picture. Even beyond children, think about all the other things women tend to take on — that could be caregiving for an aging parent, sibling, or spouse while continuing to juggle domestic duties, supporting their communities, being amazing friends, and helping neighbors in need. In any relationship, there are seasons where one partner takes a step back to allow the other partner to push forward. A healthy relationship is when that is reciprocal, and that each partner takes a turn pushing the other to the forefront, where both parties are willing to compromise on their own personal visions for the greater interest of their relationship and family. Today, fathers are much more involved in co-parenting than in previous generations, but despite that, many parenting and domestic responsibilities are shouldered by women.

There is also the challenge that women, on average, earn less than men, for the same job. When you translate that into an entrepreneurial endeavor, it can mean that women may struggle to save seed money to start a business or find funding for their vision. Plus, once you’ve risen to a certain level of success in the traditional workforce, it gets harder to leave, especially when you are contemplating trading a steady paycheck for the financial uncertainty of entrepreneurship.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

Shortening that pay gap between men and women is critical, but also providing resources to women as they raise families, regardless of if they would prefer to stay at home or still go to work. While a woman may want to continue working, that may not be financially feasible if the cost of childcare exceeds her paycheck. That struggle is even more impossible for a single mother. Although the jury is still out on how the pandemic will impact these disparities, it has made parenting, and all of its inconvenient truths, more visible. Until we as a country stop viewing childrearing as free labor, and value the contribution of caregivers, we will never be close to cultivating an environment where all women, from all socio-economic backgrounds, can thrive.

Far too often we devalue the role of the family by expecting women to work and raise children, without the proper flexibility and support to do so. If as a country we believe that children are our future, and investing in that future is important, then we must invest in women and families, and while we are at it, create universal maternity leave that doesn’t require the mom to go unpaid, or use up all of her own paid time off to birth the next generation.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Every person is unique and will have a unique set of challenges when weighing the decision to become a founder. Because there are fewer women-owned and women-led companies, there is ample opportunity for women to be at the forefront of business, while also growing their communities. Several studies have shown that when women are in charge, they create positive change not only for the companies they run, but their broader communities and those around them.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

It’s not all Maybachs and Manolo Blahniks. We hear fantastical stories of founders and the pursuit of vision at all costs — ju4st think of recent media headlines surrounding WeWork’s Adam Neumann or Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes. There is this idea that all entrepreneurs or founders are racing to be the next unicorn start-up and seeking multi-billion-dollar valuations. There’s nothing wrong with believing in your company and wanting it to be successful, but at what cost? And further, at what cost to yourself and those around you?

There are all types of founders — some of whom are product-based, others are service-based. Some want investors, others, like me, are solopreneurs. Finding investors isn’t free money — while an infusion of capital can be helpful, you no longer will have full control over your company because you will always have to answer to those loaning you money. Not everyone glorifies the no-sleep hustle that our culture believes is necessary to be successful. Everyone must define success for themselves because what works for one founder, won’t work for another.

While I work hard, I have zero interest in doing that at the expense of my own health, my family, and those around me.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

No, not everyone is cut out to be a founder. It is certainly not for the faint of heart and you must have an appetite for risk, while fiercely believing in your vision, even when others don’t. It certainly helps if you are emotionally intelligent and possess a strong mind because you go through emotional hills and valleys, and the process can be very isolating. Few will understand what you are experiencing. My inclination is that founders or entrepreneurs would rather make the rules than simply abide by a set of someone else’s rules. In my experience, founders are creative, have a get-stuff-done attitude, and flourish in ambiguity. We want to see our imprint on the world and change it for the better.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

1) Confidence: Female founders need to be confident in who they are and not shy away from promoting themselves. A recent Forbes article highlighted new studies that show men are more naturally inclined to be self-promoters than women, whereas women tend to downplay their skills and contributions, even when that is not an accurate reflection. You can’t rely solely on the hope that others will promote you, you must have the confidence in yourself and your vision to share that with the world.

2) Grit: As a business owner, you must be unflappable and unshakeable in the face of challenges and opposition. Grit is the trait that will get you there and help you take your business to the next level. When you have the necessary grit and determination, you will be unrelenting in achieving your vision. It is also the quality that will help you tackle the naysayers!

3) Grace: No one is perfect, and you will make mistakes. Don’t let that perfection hold you back from moving forward in your business. Show yourself some grace and cut yourself some slack, knowing that mistakes are what help us all learn and grow. Likewise, you can extend that same grace to others and take the high road when you are less than pleased with something they’ve done.

4) Don’t Dwell on the Competition: While it is important to check out the competition and know what they are doing in your marketplace, don’t use the competition as the yardstick by which you measure yourself. Know their messaging, marketing, and who they are targeting, but don’t dwell on every little thing they do. It is a futile endeavor to compare yourself, especially because you are unique, and you have no idea at what cost their success has come. Know the competition, but don’t dwell on the competition.

5) Know Your Story: While you may not realize it, you have a unique story. Know your story and learn how to tell it, because you are the best advocate for your business and the best person to tell that story. When you learn how to tell that story sincerely, it will captivate others and help differentiate you in the marketplace. In a sea of competition, your story can set you apart from the rest, but only if you can tell it well. It can also be the cornerstone of a cohesive brand strategy, both internally and externally for your business.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Helping others is not predicated on success; success simply provides additional resources and avenues to help others. From volunteering and mentoring to offering discounted services and pro-bono help to select small businesses and entrepreneurs, I have always strived to help others see their potential. Now as a female founder, I make a concerted effort to support and promote other female-owned and female-led businesses because too often women are in competition with one another, rather than cheering for one another. The core of my business is storytelling, and I believe we do make the world a better place when we harness sincere storytelling to bring awareness to worthy businesses, causes, and ideas. Specifically, I view this as an opportunity to inspire and engage, rather than simply sell a slick ad campaign or a marketing ploy.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Teaching others to truly communicate with one another, listen and express empathy. Now more than ever it seems everyone is talking over one another and shouting at each other. Language and words have become so politicized and our squabbling with one another only furthers our divides. We pigeonhole people in boxes and proudly assert that if you don’t believe the same thing I do, then you are now my enemy. We have truly missed the mark on what it means to be tolerant. Tolerance, as defined in the dictionary, means that you have a “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.” Note that tolerance does not mean you have to accept another person’s viewpoints or beliefs. We have lost the ability to pursue constructive criticism or differing conversations while still respecting the other person, yet now is the time that should be happening the most. We must learn how to respectfully disagree with a person’s beliefs or opinions, and still care about that individual. We are all a beautiful mix of conundrums and contradictions and must become comfortable with that to truly understand one another.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

There is definitely more than one person I would love to have a meal with, so this is a tough choice! At the top of my list would be Marcus Lemonis or Mindy Kaling.

After serving as a communications counselor for a variety of executives, I value the approach Marcus takes as he analyzes businesses on The Profit. While profit is important, it should never be at the expense of people, and Marcus undergirds that belief in the way that he provides guidance and feedback. I have long used the same methodology of people, process, and product to suss out business challenges and opportunities. Marcus is also an executive who understands the importance of communication, and the power branding and marketing can have both internally and externally.

Because of my writing roots, I admire what Mindy Kaling has accomplished and the hilarious, conversational tone she is able to strike in everything she crafts. Her personality and writing style are so relatable. It is truly a magical quality when your writing and life experiences transcend age, culture, race and more, so others can see pieces of themselves in your work. Also, as a fellow female founder, Mindy is a powerhouse example of what happens when you masterfully blend creativity and business savvy (and I wouldn’t mind borrowing a few pieces from her Mindy Project wardrobe either).

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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