Inspirational Female Leaders Series #10~ Ritika Puri

ritikapuri

Ritika Puri is co-founder at Storyhackers, a San Francisco based content studio that works with startups, governments, and fortune 500s around the world.

She started Storyhackers as a side hustle and started earning three times her job-salary, at that point she decided to quit her job to become a full time entrepreneur.

She believes “We are living in a pivotal point in our world’s history. This is a year in which women’s voices are becoming louder, more valued, and more important.”


 

WHAT KIND OF PROBLEM IS YOUR COMPANY SOLVING?

My company Storyhackers has been through many twists and turns over its four and a half years in business. As we have evolved, so have the problems that we solve. Our company started as a two-person consultancy, following me spending four years as an independent marketing consultant. That was in 2013, and back then, we specialized in helping B2B companies shorten sales transaction cycles through content. We created case studies, blog posts, whitepapers, and guides to reach audiences with “the right message at the right time.”

As our reputation grew as a company, so did the challenges that we were solving. Last year, we helped a global materials manufacturer break into United States markets with a new type of solar panel, for instance. We also helped innovation teams within the Department of Defense build an internal storytelling/knowledge management program. We work with corporate accelerators to communicate tough-to-measure results to internal stakeholders. We also work with companies that are partnering with global telecommunications companies to build financial inclusion pathways to populations that lack access to financial services.

It was through these experiences that we surfaced the power of storytelling, in all its shapes and forms—through writing, media, data, video, and design—to solve problems that are turning up across media, all over the news. What surprised us was the absence of and lack of value that industries place on the value of storytelling. It is a timeless, human discipline that will outlive automation and artificial challenges.

In 2018, we scaled back our services operations to focus on a problem that we never would have otherwise seen, if it weren’t for our multifaceted client experiences. That problem is the lack of storytelling education and the chronic devaluation of storytelling and communication skills in education systems. We are solving that problem by building a learning hub  that teaches the value of storytelling as a problem-solving tool.

WHAT DID THOSE FIRST STEPS LOOK/FEEL LIKE? (FOR EXAMPLE: THE FIRST 6 MONTHS)

My first 6 months as a full-time entrepreneur were terrifying. Even though I was earning three times my job-salary through my side gig as a freelancer, I was terrified of a potential downturn—that my dream of being an entrepreneur wouldn’t last. I “felt” unemployed, even though I wasn’t, and searched for jobs every day. I second guessed myself. “Other people become successful and achieve their dreams, but I’m not one of those people” was my default mental mode.

At the 6 month mark, when my co-founder joined me, I finally stopped and embarked on a journey of learning how to believe in myself. Two years later, I hit my peak confidence after a series of prolonged, unexpected setbacks. Then, I lost that confidence. I built it up again over another 6 months and promised myself that I would never let go of it again. It was when my confidence peaked again that my co-founder and I made the decision to evolve our business, out of our comfort zone, to build what we spent every minute of our lives wishing to exist in the world—our storytelling school.

In a way, because we are starting a new education business within the context of an already-existing business, we are starting over. It’s like our first 6 months all over again. This time, the process has been more methodical, since we have deeper experience as entrepreneurs—running the whole business vs. contributing to a role at a job.

 This time, we have more knowns than unknowns, have clear product roadmaps, well-developed paths to monetization, a track record as a company, and a team of development partners from around the world, who have mastered teaching skills that we want to see exist in the world. We know how to balance the resources that we have, to a level of precision that I never knew existed.I notice that with this confidence, direction, and energy, we are moving towards a goals, more efficiently, instead of getting stuck in routines.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST CONTRIBUTION TO YOUR CAREER SUCCESS?

There are a few things that have helped me. Number one, I am not afraid to fall down and fail—and I am not ashamed or afraid to talk about it. If you think about what me and my co-founder are doing in terms of pure probability, odds of success are against us. Those odds look a little cruddier when you compare what we are doing with what other people do: they raise money from VCs to develop products faster and offset personal financial risk, they set sights on defined liquidity events to make clear financial projections, and they avoid competitive environments. We do none of these things. Instead, we take the emotion out of probability, a construct that is inherently humanless. We seek to outsmart probabilities by taking contrarian, less-than-obvious paths. Failure is one of three outcomes: success, nothing, and failure. None are emotional.

What we do instead is question the impact and trajectory of every decision that we make. That’s number two, and a skill that I learned through constant reinforcement from my co-founder Justin, which he learned through years of experience in healthcare partnerships, data science, and pharmaceutical research—every short-term action has a long-term consequence. We look at everything, major and minor, in terms of their relationship to the company that we want in 2,5, and then 10 years. If something sets us off course, we either cut it from our activities or justify why we are doing it. We optimize decisions for probability.

 The third biggest contribution has been my self-esteem and confidence. I didn’t have any for a long-time. When I was in the workforce, the support of my coworkers, mentors, and bosses fueled me. When that fuel went away, and I no longer had an organization to “protect” me, my self-esteem slowly eroded. Entrepreneurship is a harsh career path, and despite always receiving praise for my high emotional intelligence (EQ), there were many aspects to my identity, especially my perfectionism and intensity, that came close to swallowing me whole. I spent a year learning how to build professional boundaries and how to be happy when things were really, really shitty. Learning how to be my own source for happiness and success fuel were pivotal in pushing me to escape my comfort zone and take steeper-trajectory paths for my business. I’m only 31, and I co-founded Storyhackers just after my 27th birthday. It is imperative that I continue to generate this optimism from within.

 The fourth biggest contribution, and the one that I am working on mastering right now, is the ability to stay calm in any situation. While I rarely show stress outwardly, I absorb it. That’s a terrible way to handle things. I am reprogramming my responses to stressors, which is especially important given today’s political and sociological climate. I want to be a source of positivity and to help others navigate a challenging time in history, too.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE FAILURE? WHAT LESSONS DID YOU LEARN?

After receiving a promotion at my job in 2012, I blew through a $10,000 campaign budget in 2 hours. I have always felt terrible spending other peoples’ money, so telling my boss how much I wasted was not easy for me. To my surprise my boss and his colleagues pretty much high-fived me and told me to “turn it around.” So I did. I turned that wasted expense into a multi-million dollar revenue stream and new line of business for the company.

 Don’t get me wrong: $10,000 is a lot of money, and I don’t advocate for wasting resources like that like that. But I’m glad it happened. For one, it helped me see how much my bosses believed in me and valued me. The situation also taught me to see money as a transactional tool, rather than something that owns me or controls me. Instead of getting stressed or “feeling bad,” I sought to turn the waste into a worthwhile investment. I worked every day to make this vision happen. And the outcome was both lucrative and a good direction for the long-term health of my employer.

 I have since wasted much more money in my own business—an experience that is very, very different. I am bootstrapping my company that makes a fraction of my former employer, a billion-dollar conglomerate. To them, $10,000 is less than pocket change. But thanks to the experience of losing $10,000 in two hours, a complete shock to my system, I am comfortable with that kind of volatility. I am not only comfortable, but I have created financial safety nets to weather them unscathed.

The lesson that I learned is that when you take emotion out of money, you learn to use it as a tool to better yourself as a situation. At least, that was my experience and the guidance that my mentor-base of entrepreneurs offered me. My money-wasting experiences have also taught me how to manage cash flow, for the purpose of growing a business. If you have finance experience (I don’t), you’ll learn that this juggling act is an art. I’m proud to have the skills of someone with finance training, through “hard knocks” experience.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE LEADERSHIP? OR, WHAT DOES BEING A LEADER MEAN TO YOU?

This is a tough question because I struggled with the definition. For five years after entering the workforce, shit you not, I thought that being a leader meant acting like a stereotypical “alpha male.” I once read a study that leaders tend to be bald, tall, and authoritarian in nature. I thought I was doomed because I’m 5’2”, female, have flowy long hair, and have no idea how to live the part of this persona.

 So what is this persona?

 It goes back to what I have learned, through feedback about me from third-parties, as I analyze my successes and failures. I’m a nice person, I care about others’ successes, I make good decisions that serve the best interests of my team first and foremost, I get shit done, and I lead people towards tough-to-grasp targets. These are all the best and worst qualities about me. What stinks about being nice, for instance? People take advantage of that. What stinks about caring for others’ successes? Sometimes, those same people don’t care about me back or fail to see me as a fallible human like he or she is.

Being a leader means knowing my weaknesses and repositioning them into my biggest strengths. Leadership, to me, means elevating others to lead too. And knowing when/how to let go.

WHAT SHOULD WOMEN BE DOING MORE OF TO FOSTER LEADERSHIP SKILLS?

As an American woman with South Asian ancestry, and as someone who self-identifies as an individual with equal parts eastern and western perspectives, I feel as though we are living in a pivotal point in our world’s history. This is a year in which women’s voices are becoming louder, more valued, and more important. But as we become louder, I see so much anger and divisiveness—particularly towards a “patriarchy” that has created glass ceilings for us. We need to see ourselves as empowered rather than victims and to fight alongside individuals we perceive to be in opposition to us. Anger can only take us so far.

It’s amazing how much perception can change when we put ourselves “out there” as individuals and when we allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable and challenged. We can do this diplomatically. I once received feedback from a boss that my leadership skills were not strong enough. I responded, calmly, that perhaps his perspectives would be different if the company’s board and senior management had representation from women. He was quiet. I could tell he was shocked because I knew his personality.

 He gave me feedback with intent to support me, not hurt me or tear me down. Up until this point, he had promoted me numerous times, brought me to meetings with strategic partners, and exposed me to knowledge beyond what I thought I would ever learn.

It may sound weird, but I accepted my boss’s feedback with an open mind and heart. Of course I wasn’t a good leader--he was right. But it wasn’t because of the company or overt sexism. It was because I didn’t believe in myself.

WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU'RE FEELING "OVERWHELMED"?

Someone gave me this advice a few years ago, when my founder anxiety was new and extremely challenging for me to manage: I stop whatever I’m doing, and I go exercise. As hard as it feels to pull away, it’s important to do. Caught early, the feeling of being overwhelmed is correctable and possible to keep calm. Bubbled up? That can knock you out for days.

 I have become better at noticing physical symptoms of stress. Now, if I notice that my resting heart rate is higher than my average heart rate (thanks for the data, Fitbit), I take things easy until my heart rate is back to below-average. I am learning how to identify and squash stress before it has a chance to manifest into physical symptoms.

ANYTHING ELSE YOU'D LIKE TO INCLUDE: 

Imagine how different things would be if more people, men and women, stopped trying to conform to standards of others. What if instead of saying, “I wish I could become a leader,” we said, “I am a leader.”

Instead of waiting to become a leader, assume that you already are.

Life is short, and we only have one chance to live it—and to make something out of it. I feel happiest and most at peace when I lead. Rather than waiting for others to create those opportunities for me, I take those steps myself.

 I said earlier in my response that it’s an amazing time to be a woman. It is also challenging. I am scared every single day, living in a nation in which political rhetoric has turned so ugly, in a way that spawns continued violence. It is hard to keep a smile on my face some days, listening to what politicians (and everyday people) say about women.

 One thing that has helped has been to embrace these fears/concerns as legitimate and open up to other women. It’s amazing how much we learn from each others’ lessons in therapy, for instance. I learned that what we call imposter syndrome, for instance, stems from the fact that we have always taken a backseat to dudes in professional spheres—of course we are going to be scared because all women paving new paths in leadership are doing so for the first time in history. But that doesn’t mean that dudes don’t experience “imposter syndrome” either. Talk to a few, on an emotional level, and you’ll learn that they can be just as scared and insecure as the rest of us.

No matter what gender we are, we cannot accept glass ceilings as “the way things are” for ourselves. I live life with the assumption, even though this assumption is untrue, that glass ceilings do not exist. I reject them as being real—even though they are real, I pretend that they are not. And I feel free to achieve any goal that I set my sights to achieve. Yes, I weird people out and catch them off guard sometimes.

 ...Why not? 👊

 

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