Shannon de Laat: Why vulnerability can be a strength

Vulnerability is a strength, one that inspires others to crack open and be human. This was a great learning for me. This is the first time I’m putting myself so out there in a way that exposes me more than any other role I’ve done. Let’s just say I’m leaning in hard to Brené Brown […]

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Vulnerability is a strength, one that inspires others to crack open and be human. This was a great learning for me. This is the first time I’m putting myself so out there in a way that exposes me more than any other role I’ve done. Let’s just say I’m leaning in hard to Brené Brown and daring to go confidently in this direction.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shannon de Laat, CEO + Founder of the Virtue Project. For over 17 years, Shannon has been wielding her superpower of building unparalleled relationships to support brand communications and business development among a variety of consumer categories. Her results-driven work and strategic counsel has benefitted countless high-profile companies including lululemon, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, Dermalogica, HL Group and Weber Shandwick to name a few. Volunteer work and supporting charitable causes is part of Shannon’s DNA. As a tribute to her late father, Shannon and her family helped build an orphanage in South Africa, a physical expression of the inherited focus on improving the welfare of children. Throughout her career there has been an underlying desire to apply her talents and expertise to impact positive change, and it was with this spirit that Shannon moved to realize a venture (The Virtue Project) that brings together her skills to change the world, and help others do the same.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you, that is a great question. After working in the consumer and luxury space for so many years, I began to think about how to apply my expertise to organizations dedicated to addressing and solving issues concerning society. I started thinking more and more about the legacy that I wanted to leave behind on this planet and realized that if I wasn’t going to be a part of the solution, I was actually part of the problem. After a lot of research into the social impact space and some of the challenges that brands and non-profits face, I landed upon The Virtue Project. There are so many incredible organizations out there doing really powerful work, but don’t have the resources to tell their story and reach the right people with the right message. That is the void we are trying to fill, to raise awareness and ideally help them grow.

We accredit our mission to the philosophy that “the way to build a good society is to help its members be good people.” Yes, it is an epic pursuit, that is for sure, but one that we continue to use as our north star in every aspect of our business.

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

What became very interesting to me, from early in the process was the level of support and enthusiasm that I received from industry peers, experts and leaders in the space. Being surrounded by interesting and passionate individuals is highly motivating. I will continue to rely on the support of my network to either be our champions, cheerleaders or critics of the work we do. In fact, it inspired me to gather together the highly regarded board of advisors and talent that we have today. Whether we need an audience to test creative ideas for our clients, or a channel to reach new communities, these advisors are an integral part of what we do.

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?

I’ve definitely been guilty of the “reply all” on a mass distribution email because I was working too fast, or conversely, obsessing over how to write the perfectly worded rationale for what I needed from a client or colleague. I wish I had a funnier example or a big sitcom-style blowout but the truth is, the little mistakes I’ve made throughout my career have taught me to either slow down, trust my gut more than I may be inclined to do so.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Given our understanding of the corporate space and the business objectives brands face, we provide strategies for how they can work at the intersection of profit AND purpose, and rise to the level consumers now expect. We are a small but mighty crew, which allows us to operate either as consultants or as an extension of the in-house team. Either way, we hold ourselves to the same standards of the organization that we are serving.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual that was impacted by your cause?

I like to think that we are working to inspire a next generation of conscious citizens. As important as it is to do the work through a business lens, it is equally as important to roll-up our sleeves and get involved on the ground. This year I was fortunate to join one of the organizations that we support, In a Perfect World Foundation, on an intimate trip to Guatemala to help build a school made possible by our fundraising efforts. We literally hauled wheelbarrows full of cement, worked hand-in-hand with the community painting walls, and even got to spend time with some of the families and children in their own homes.

These experiences give us the opportunity to see the tangible impact of the work. It also helps us to serve our clients better when we are immersed in their business and can accurately represent the very impact we’re helping to promote.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We see our community already doing it! We see and admire those who are shining a light on issues that are important to them, taking to places like social media to share their beliefs and values.

In terms of governance, seeing the explosive growth of more companies shifting to B-Corporations is a great catalyst for larger social change. Companies such as Patagonia illustrate that it is possible to meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability while balancing profit and purpose.

These brands also offer people a way to vote with their dollar and we encourage politicians to create more incentives for other companies to do the same so there is a vested interest in them doing active good.

All of this allows companies like us to find the people who need their stories told through the work we do to amplify and further their work.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I love this question, because I truly believe that we are in a real crisis of leadership at the moment, not just politically speaking. I think a leader is someone who takes a firm step in one direction and inspires people to follow them. I gravitate towards leaders whose values extend to the wellbeing of others. Take Blake Mycoskie of Tom’s Shoes, who serves as an authentic leader by continuously wanting to develop himself and stay inspired. This leadership style is what allows the leader to turn the company into a movement.

Overall, we approach leadership as a coach who enables the best work, and inspires the strongest results, through their own work or that of others.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Where to begin…

1. Your community is everything when you are building a business, or taking a leap of faith. It is these individuals that become your inspiration, your partners, and even your emotional support group. One of my best friends jumped on a plane from Canada to come and support with the launch of The Virtue Project. Literally, rolled up her sleeves and helped with everything from photography shot lists to pouring the wine. It was so incredible to see.

2. Don’t wait. Start now. Entrepreneurial success is all about your mindset.

We love this quote: “If you say you can or can’t, then you’re right.”

3. Build bridges between people, sectors and communities that don’t seem related. It turns out that opportunities lie in unexpected connections. I have had some of the best new business leads from former interns.

4. You don’t need to work in, or with, businesses that don’t align with your moral compass. The story behind this one is…well, let’s just stick with you trusting me on this!

5. Vulnerability is a strength, one that inspires others to crack open and be human. This was a great learning for me. This is the first time I’m putting myself so out there in a way that exposes me more than any other role I’ve done. Let’s just say I’m leaning in hard to Brené Brown and daring to go confidently in this direction.

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. 🙂

We’re all influencers in some way, and I thank you for offering this platform.

I think we all need to pause for a moment. I propose we hold off on those quick clap-backs on Twitter or kneejerk reactions in a tense meeting to find the clarity in the situation. Sometimes just changing the questions you ask yourself (for example, “what is the most effective thing to do right now?”) changes your focus. We need to change our actions to be more proactive, as opposed to reactive.

Maybe then we all, as influencers, will have inspired our own movements!

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

“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate action of its members,” Coretta Scott King. This helps articulate so beautifully the role we all play in bringing about positive change, and it gives me strength when used in various speaking engagements where I’m presenting the mission of The Virtue Project.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Well that would be pretty exciting. Consider this my open invitation: Michelle Obama will you have lunch with me?! She has given a voice to so many issues and inspired people, particularly women, to continue evolving and know that we can all be agents of positive change. We are so passionate about leveraging our own expertise and that of our changemakers on our board, that a chance to hear her thoughts on how to become even better would be almost too much to bear. (We said almost! Michelle if you’re reading, we can handle it!)

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Come and check us out @thevirtueproject

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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