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Small Business


Meaningful Stories: 3 Women Share The Power of Words

To Kat Cole, Ruzwana Bashir and Shannon Galpin, sharing a powerful story is one of the best ways to engage and motivate people.

The three did just that when sharing the stories of their own fascinating lives at October's Forbes Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia.

Owning Your Story

Kat Cole started waitressing at Hooters in high school to help bring in money for her family. She said her single mother fed their family of four on a budget of just $10 per week.

Cole worked her way up to the Hooters corporate office. Then, at 26, she became one of the company’s four vice presidents—the youngest by far.

Around the time she was promoted, her mom sent a birthday card with a bit of advice written inside: “Don’t forget where you came from, but don’t you dare ever let that define you.”

The message has become a personal mantra for Cole, now in her 30s and president of Cinnabon. “I will not be defined by Hooters. I will not be defined by Cinnabon. I will not be defined by my alcoholic father or my single mother,” she said. “I will always be defined by whatever is most meaningful to me at this moment in time, what feeds my soul, what I’m able to give to the world.”

By sharing how she forged her own path—initially dropping out of college but later earning an MBA, for example—Cole says she hopes others will see their own potential.

Above all, “you want to be the one telling your story,” she said, because if you don’t, people “will be left filling the void with their own version of reality.” And usually the truth is a far more positive and powerful tale, one that’s never really finished. “Keep creating your new story,” she said. “It’s that evolution that helps keep you relevant.”

Speaking Up for Others

“If you have a voice, you have a moral obligation to do something.” That’s what Peek.com co-founder and CEO Ruzwana Bashir says she realized recently when reports came out about widespread child sex abuse in Rotherham, England.

The 31-year-old penned an op-ed for The Guardian that brought to light the stigma that prevents many victims from coming forward, focusing on her own hesitation to discuss her history of being abused as a young girl living not far from Rotherham. “This wasn’t just my story,” she said. “It was the story of many, many others.”

Bashir advocates for women at her startup. “Paying it forward is really, really important,” she said. “If I had been born where my mother was born in a northern village in Pakistan, I just wouldn’t be here.” She says she wants to show the way to those who aim to become entrepreneurs. “My role is to inspire other women, but also to give them the tools they need to be able to succeed,” she said, whether that means sharing the inside scoop on fundraising or connecting them to others who can advance their careers.

Stopping to Listen

Shannon Galpin started the nonprofit Mountain2Mountain in 2006 to help women and girls, particularly in conflict zones. On one of her trips to Afghanistan, she spoke with prisoners in Kandahar—some of whom said they had been raped by family members and then jailed under adultery laws.

“I was not in a position to help these women in any real, tangible way,” she said. But she spent time with them, listening to their stories. As one after another poured out their hearts, Galpin said she realized the importance of their individual stories. “The power of voice is more important than we give it credit for. Voice is what gives us our identity.”

As a foreign woman, Galpin said she can bypass gender boundaries in countries like Afghanistan. She uses this to her advantage, talking with both the male gatekeepers and the women she’s trying to help. In humanitarian work and in business, she said, “the way to create change is to listen first.”

Cole and Bashir agreed. “It’s the smallest changes that make the biggest impact,” said Cole. “Show up and be helpful beyond the story.”

As Bashir said it, while stories engage people, what matters most is the next step: “We need to stop standing by waiting for someone else to change stuff, and we have to do it ourselves.”

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