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Episode 29: Leading With Emotional Intelligence, Feat. Shannon Cohen - Part 2

Ten Thousand Feet Podcast - Episode 29

Shannon Cohen, Founder and CEO of Shannon Cohen, Inc., helps leaders thrive at the intersection of joy and purpose. Shannon is an accomplished author and speaker who also runs an online retail shop with greeting cards and other inspirational goods. She is joined by Meredith Bronk again in the second part of this two-episode series discussing emotional intelligence (EI) and how leaders can support themselves and their teams during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the first episode, Shannon and Meredith discussed the importance of seeing the people who make up our teams as whole people and empowering them to continue innovating in the midst of a pandemic.

In this section of the interview, Meredith and Shannon discuss racial equity in America. Their focus is on how organizations can move forward genuinely and authentically to be part of a solution from the place they are today. In the middle of one of America’s largest social movements, Shannon shares her advice on how to make a powerful difference and support black lives and racial equity from wherever you are.

We have been honored to have Shannon on the show, and we know you’ll love hearing from her on both episodes.

Want to learn more from Shannon? She is hosting a Rockstar Woman Virtual Brunch in September to provide strategy, inspiration and healing moments that will uplift and ignite women leaders. Visit Shannon’s website for more information and tickets.


Andrew Powell: Hey, everybody. Welcome to “Ten Thousand Feet.” Today, we’re bringing you part two of Meredith Bronk’s interview with entrepreneur and innovator, Shannon Cohen. This episode is focused on racial equality in America. Shannon discusses how organizations can move forward genuinely and authentically to be part of a solution from the place they are today. It was inspiring and educational having Shannon on and we know you’ll appreciate this episode. Enjoy.

Meredith Bronk: Thought maybe we could chat for a minute about the demands of social equity that are happening in our country right now. You talked a little bit about that earlier. Thinking about it from kind of a business and a business leader perspective, right? Although diversity, equity, and inclusion have been increasingly kind of important strategies that businesses have taken up over the last several years, we both know driving true movement towards systemic change as a business leader has taken on brand new meanings, and thankfully, actually.

You and I were talking a couple of weeks ago about how to navigate in these different circles of influence and, you know, I was kind of all fired up, like, I got to go do something, and I’m fortunate enough to have this platform to be CEO of an amazing organization, but I felt compelled to do more from a systemic change perspective, and you appropriately kind of slowed me down just a little and encouraged me, and one of the things that you said at the time was, you know, grow where your feet are planted, because where your feet are planted are different than where my feet are planted. And if we’re all kind of growing from where we’re at, then we can make an impact, and the impact that you’re making is different than the impact that I’m making, but together we can have greater impact rather than all kind of run into the same spot, and trying to do something, which I appreciate. I’ve been trying to remind myself of that, that we don’t have to like uproot just to do something new in order to contribute.

And yet you wrote an article, and it was published on LinkedIn a few weeks ago about how to maintain momentum and resistance, which is one of the things that you and I were talking about, because fighting systemic racism is tiring, it’s exhausting work. And specifically you described in that article some ways to rest as you resist. And when I read that article, it was amazing. I think kind of food for thought in kind of how to approach a truly sustained long-term movement toward equity. So tell me a little bit about what you’ve learned, what you can share with our listeners, maybe kind of what was at the heart of that article that you wrote, and some of those insights that you have.

Shannon Cohen: Yeah. You know, I think, Meredith, one of the things I recognize and I think we all have to recognize is that activism has many lanes. And I think that, really, at the root of it is to act, but before we go there, I think we have to back up to like before March 9th, which, again, is the day that I think Kobe got real, and then we started to see the snowball effect of health disparities connected to racist [inaudible]—

Meredith Bronk: Yes, yes.

Shannon Cohen: and then that—and then recent, you know, atrocities with George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor bringing greater visibility to racial inequities and at a systemic level. But I think, you know, Candi Castleberry last year this time, I went to a conference, and Candi Castleberry, who was a Vice President at Twitter, and I think she does leave their DEI work, but she gave—she says something that just settled into my soul, and I haven’t been able to shake it. She said that from a corporate space, from a system space, diversity, equity, and inclusion are the only goals you can have for 20 years, never moved the needle and still be gainfully employed, and that settled, because I think you talked about there are many organizations that have had maybe a diversity statement and inclusion statement, maybe some employee resource groups, but we have never seen this rise of pretty much every company that you could think of crafting and sharing some statement in this season of time. But the challenge is many of those companies, those statements have no receipts. They have no evidence of action or activity, and I think that is why we have to press pause.

One of the things that I think from a corporate or systems level space that I encourage every organization to do is to ask why here and why now, because you have to ask what’s your motivation. If your motivation is just optics, if your motivation is short lived, if your motivation is, you know, is just fiscal, right? Then those will be exposed, and we’re seeing that happen. There have been so many organizations that posted diversity, equity, and inclusion statements, and then they had either existing employees or former employees, or even as folks say, thank you for your, you know, your Black Lives Matter statement, now, can you show me the demographics of your board of directors or your senior leadership, or, you know, for me, you know, I’ve seen, for example, Uncommon Goods, and the CEO came back and said, “Less than 1% of our makers are black.” And he said, “We’re going to start there.” Like, doing introspection allows you—there’s no way to do real introspection and not be honest about where we are, and I think that’s what’s been missing is that many organizations have been putting out aspirational statements—

Meredith Bronk: Yes.

Shannon Cohen: but not reflection statements, and so I think that’s where you start. You have to start with that, where are you? And then you say, “Well, this is where we want to be.” And we have to sit in the discomfort of where we are and then say, “Well, this is where we want to be,” then how do we chart a course to get there and measure and have some accountability built in as we go, and so I think that’s there, so I think part of what it is studying and listening. It’s asking questions, putting those that are closest to the pain, closest to the design, and closest to the solutions and the strategy.

I think for many organizations, it is going to be looking at their relationship capital and asking how do I grow in relationship within, whether that specifically right now, with communities of color, with black leaders to actually make sure that I’m not in this homogenous bubble trying to design for this diverse audience, right?

Meredith Bronk: Yes.

Shannon Cohen: Because that’s already putting a system’s failure into the design process. And I think it’s also really looking at policies, practices, and procedures, and I think that takes time. So I think that introspection piece is so important. I’ve seen organizations that just want to give a financial gift like, “Oh, we gave this gift to this organization that, you know, Black Lives Matter movement.” And that happened recently with the retailer that I know, and I said to this retailer, I said, “Well, you know, a gift is nice, but a gift is like a raindrop, and we’re trying to address a problem that’s an ocean. But you’re positioned as a retailer to have an ocean impact and it’s not through a one-time gift,” I said, “You are one of the most well-known boutiques in this community,” if I said the name, you would know them, “but you don’t carry makers that are black. You don’t—I go in your store, I don’t see anybody that looks like me in staffing or leadership.” That’s this place to start—cooperative economics, when you think about that.

When you think about that, I think there’s another place that I was even sharing with them is that you can coach, you can sponsor, I’ve seen Mark Cuban do this recently where it’s like, okay, ask me your questions, you know, as a—I’ll give 30 minutes of time to be a thought partner with the small business. You know, I’ve seen some other makers that have decided to do this that, “Okay, like, as you know, I’m a CEO of this company, and you want to grow in this industry, and I know that there are closed doors, so I will partner with you to help you think through a business challenge that you’re having.” That alone—

Meredith Bronk: Yeah.

Shannon Cohen: the cost of someone’s time, if I was to hire you as a consultant, couldn’t do that.

Meredith Bronk: Right.

Shannon Cohen: But I think—so I think that’s where the magic comes in thinking about how starting with introspection, sitting in the discomfort of where you are—

Meredith Bronk: Yeah.

Shannon Cohen: but then asking yourself, how am I uniquely positioned to have a systemic impact on the inequities that I want to be a part of changing?

Meredith Bronk: Yes.

Shannon Cohen: And I think that’s where we leverage, that’s what we do. You know, one of the things, I think even for me, I recognize, you know, of the freedom and the privilege that I have as a small business owner, and I think one of the things I’ve realized is that one of the reasons I write is because I’m passionate about making sure that when my son gets to high school, or before, and he has to read some mandated case studies about this, about 2020—

Meredith Bronk: Yeah.

Shannon Cohen: that he will have to read content curated by black indigenous people of color. That I want—I want to change the canon. When we think about our school systems and whose writing gets published and whose writing becomes mandated literature and reading to shape future minds—

Meredith Bronk: Right.

Shannon Cohen: I want to diversify that pipeline. So activism, there’s many lanes, and I think that how we’re positioned, what we have at our disposal, and using our voice, not just—in a variety of ways is power.

Meredith Bronk: That—I love that. I love that, because it takes many lanes, one of the things that we’ve done as a business in that introspection first is, you know, what’s our responsibility and what are we going to do? You know, we took some time before we put our words out, ‘cause I’m like talking the talk isn’t okay with me. Like, we’re gonna walk the walk, and I’m not gonna—we’re not going to—something—we’re going to say something, we want to be held accountable to it. So we have to be really clear about what we say we want to do and not overstep or overreach. Also, I think I’m watching these huge broad statements be made and you’re like, “Yeah, there’s no way. There’s no way,” and so appreciate the gesture, but it feels—I think it detracts from real change that maybe you do want to make. So in starting small and starting intentionally, what does it look like to diversify a workforce? What does it look like to, for us in technology, you know, some of our focus and our investments have been kind of in the school down a generation. It’s like, how are we bringing people in and exposing them to our—this career, but even that, as we look a little deeper, could be more influential if we stepped it up in a couple of ways, very meaningfully. You know, what does that look like? What does it look like to actually mentor? What does it look like to create a cohort, and not just a, “Hey, this is a really cool place and don’t you love technology, and if you ever want to study it, come on over.” And I’m not like we’re being cavalier about it, but exposure, right? Creating the optics that say, “Wow, I never knew this career existed,” is a really necessary first step. I think we’ve been intentional about doing some of that, but truly then engaging and saying, “So what? What are you doing about it? What are you doing to follow up with those folks that you’ve just exposed them to? What, like, so what?” And as leaders, asking what’s our responsibility and then the middle of that responsibility then what will we commit to to make meaningful movement to which we want to be held accountable is the approach that we’re taking. It feels a little slow, right? We’re impatient at some level, but I love that statement, right? The I are the only goals you can have for 20 years, never hit them, and not lose your job, like, that’s not an option for us and for me and our team, so being really intentional kind of in that regard is important.

You touched on something, I think, where these two topics overlap for me, and that is in the same privilege that says, I have a team of folks who can work from anywhere who can keep their jobs and then keep providing for their families. The disparity of who was able to do that and who wasn’t, and the folks who are—who then was impacted by this pandemic and who wasn’t, uncovered huge inequities that are absolutely impossible to miss if you’re paying any kind of attention. And it’s like, it is this culmination of visibility that maybe, that surely is enhanced by COVID, and what the pandemic has brought way, way, way out front that has been some folks’ reality for a long, long time, but now it’s just—you can’t ignore it.

Shannon Cohen: Absolutely.

Meredith Bronk: Thankfully.

Shannon Cohen: Definitely.

Meredith Bronk: Yeah.

Shannon Cohen: I think that’s one of the questions that we have to wrestle with is where does my privilege connect to someone else’s oppression?

Meredith Bronk: Yeah.

Shannon Cohen: Where do I have this privilege, because of someone else’s oppression? And I think those are the questions we have to sit in the discomf—the uncomfortable. We have to—

Meredith Bronk: Yeah.

Shannon Cohen: sit in that discomfort and then design from sitting in that place of discomfort.

Meredith Bronk: Yeah.

Shannon Cohen: And honestly asking who else is—how other people are situated and situated differently. And I think that is—and I think one of the things you said, something that I hope, you know, the listeners and folks that are thinking about this and kind of mulling this over don’t miss is that this is long haul work. This is not a one and done and clap, because I did something, you know, cool.

Meredith Bronk: Yes, yes.

Shannon Cohen: Equity is—racial equity work is messy, and whenever I get client organizations that reach out to me wanting to ask some questions about talent, attraction, retention, and promotion, why are, you know, we hire someone we can’t keep them in, and I asked them, are you ready for opposition? Because equity looks good on paper. We put the photo and everybody over the conference room—I love this one—some people are standing, some people are appearing over a report or a computer, and they’re all—you see the girl with the textured hair, and it’s like all of week we get these photo ops, but I’m like, equity is messy, and you have to go into it expecting opposition, and you have to go in expecting resistance, and it’s probably not going to come from where you think it’s going to come. And everyone is not going to be okay as you start to shift power to reimagine possibilities for people that have been historically excluded and marginalized for a very long time—systematically—

Meredith Bronk: Yes.

Shannon Cohen: built in, you know, systems built that way. And so I think that you’re right, that it is a commitment.

Meredith Bronk: Yeah.

Shannon Cohen: It’s the commitment and the real—and we’re living in a space in time now where I think companies have to think about it from these two perspectives, one is Harvard Business Review came out with this study, and I think I shared the link with you, if I didn’t, I will, and they said by 2040, so in 20, like, 19 and a half years, that the majority of the workforce will be women, and that women of color. 19, 20—

Meredith Bronk: Yup.

Shannon Cohen: 19 and a half years from now.

Meredith Bronk: Yup.

Shannon Cohen: Right now, as we speak, in the city of Grand Rapids, 73% of residents under the age of 18 are people of color. So when you think about the future of our organizations and the future of work, which we are constantly grappling, right?

Meredith Bronk: Yup.

Shannon Cohen: We live in our now as business owners and we’re—

Meredith Bronk: Yes.

Shannon Cohen: looking forward to our next, when you think about the future minds and the future thinkers and influencers and—the world is changing.

Meredith Bronk: Yeah.

Shannon Cohen: And if we’re going to think about how we attract, retain, and promote that talent, like you talked about the generation removed and some of the work you’re doing, that’s your future of work.

Meredith Bronk: Absolutely.

Shannon Cohen: Right? And so I think when we think about that, there’s a business case for this work, there’s a moral implication for this work, there’s a justice implication for this work, and it shouldn’t be something that makes us afraid—

Meredith Bronk: Right.

Shannon Cohen: it should be something that makes us design now for the world that we want to see. Yeah.

Meredith Bronk: Yeah, one of the things, and I’ll tell you this with knowing I think about it in the long, and I think about it generationally, you know, I have three daughters, 16, 18, and 20, and my kids happen to go to one of the Grand Rapids public school, one of the high schools here, and I’m grateful that they get the kind of—the most diverse school in the city of Grand Rapids, and I’m grateful that they have that exposure. I told my 16-year-old when I was driving her to work on Saturday morning that I’m grateful, ‘cause there—she—they’re testing us. You did a podcast where you’re like learning from your son, who’s six, I’m learning from my kids every single day, and I told my daughter one Saturday morning when I drove her to work, I said, “I have hope, because the future of what we’re trying to fight is in the hands of your generation.” And I have hope of what that generation is going to be able to do as it relates to this. I was raised by—in a generation that wasn’t active, and yet I have this activist in me think of what can happen when you have a generation of parents who want to be active, and are also bringing that into a generation of kid to that’s just how they’re growing up. I think it bodes well, and I’m grateful that I’m learning from my kids, and that our future is in their hands. I think it—it gives me hope.

So we are, like, I could talk to you all day, you know that. So grateful, but I wanted—as we wrap things up, before we sign off, I’d love for you to maybe provide just a really quick recap of places where our listeners might be able to hear more of your thoughts. A couple shout-outs where they can find you, Ms. Shannon Cohen?

Shannon Cohen: Yes, I would say the website is the first place, There’s so much there. If you’re thinking if you are like, oh, I want to really reimagine our system from a place of emotional intelligence meeting equity, meeting psychological safety, that’s kind of our niche space, and we love helping organizations reimagine what’s possible in that space. But then we also have what you talked about, our podcast. I am a firm believer of creating spaces where leaders get to the talk safe spaces, where they get to talk about the tough things they navigate behind their titles, their smiles, and their roles. So season one is there and season two comes out in September.

Meredith Bronk: Yay!

Shannon Cohen: I know that as a seasoned member of the [inaudbile][00:20:56] family, I know everyone was not a fan of us taking the summer off, but man, I see so much more now why I’m so glad we built that space of rest in, but we just know when we rest, the world gets our best, so that’s coming up in September. And then, of course, we host a Rockstar Woman Brunch—

Meredith Bronk: Yay!

Shannon Cohen: virtual this year, yes, on Sunday, September 27th. I’m so excited that OST is one of our sponsor partners in that, and really that movement, man, is there so many motivations for that movement, but I think part of it is relationship capital. I like to create spaces where women that normally would have been insulated by, whether it’s zip code or race or role, get a chance to connect in ways they otherwise wouldn’t, so…

Meredith Bronk: Yes.

Shannon Cohen: And we’re really excited about that. We have a phenomenal lineup of dynamic speakers and experiences, and registration opens July the 1st and it’s for 30 days. Even though the event isn’t until September, I think last year we sold out in two weeks, and so—

Meredith Bronk: Yes.

Shannon Cohen: it is a dynamic time of pouring into women that are often pillars in their homes, marketplaces, and in their communities. And this year’s theme, which I think was so just prophetic, spot on, is, “It wasn’t a cliff, it is a launchpad.” So we’re going to talk about how to—strategies and healing spaces for reimagining the cliffs that we have encountered in our lives as launchpad.

Meredith Bronk: Yay! It sounds like another—in our next podcast.

Shannon Cohen: Right!

Meredith Bronk: It sounds like our next topic. And I can’t wait for the brunch, for the Rockstar Woman Brunch. We participated in that last year. It was absolutely inspirational.

Shannon Cohen, you are a blessing to anyone who is fortunate enough to hear or listen or be inspired by you. Thank you for taking some time to talk with me today. Truly, truly, always fills me up, and so grateful for your friendship, and your voice, not only for me, but for our listeners, for our community. As you live in your joy and sadness, as we all do, and those things co-exist, thank you for investing in us today. I’m really grateful.

Shannon Cohen: I appreciate you. I’m like—there are not many firms that are rooted in tech that marry that with people care, and I definitely love the way that you do that, and that you approach that whole being and whole person care in the life of OST, and then how OST serves internal and external stakeholders in community. That is a gift, so I am doubly grateful. We could have just hung out all day.

Meredith Bronk: Yes, we could.

Shannon Cohen: Appreciate you.

Meredith Bronk: Yeah. Thank you.

Lizzie Williams: OST, changing how the world connects together. For more information, go to

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