014: Shannon Cohen

Sep 14, 2020

Shannon Cohen

Shannon Cohen, author of Tough Skin, Soft Heart, she empowers community members to embrace who they are.  She connects difference makers in a powerful, purpose driven way.  Shannon’s work has taken her to serve the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy as well and systems and organizations across the Midwest.  She’s also developed a greeting card line.  And she has a passion for seeing leaders thrive in every aspect of their lives. Shannon Cohen is this week’s Powerful Woman.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:

Produced by women about women. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who have helped shape our community and transform who we are and how we live.

Greetings everyone, I'm Jennifer Moss and it's time for another fun addition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk. I say fun because I love all of these wonderful conversations we're having and will have with so many awesome and powerful women in our community and with that said I am happy to introduce today's powerful woman Shannon Cohen. Welcome Shannon.

I'm so excited to be here with you Jennifer. Thank you so much.

Yes, thank you for joining us. So, let me give our audience a little bit about your background before we dive into our deeper conversation. Shannon, is the founder of Shannon Cohen Incorporated where she specializes in developing customized emotional intelligence equity and wellness for organizations across diverse sectors such as the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Amway Corporation, the United Way and the City of Grand Rapids--of course that's just to name a few. There's a long list here plus she's the founder, author, podcaster and owner of the product line: Tough Skin, Soft Heart which is a wellness movement and you're also the founder of Sisters Who Lead. So again, I welcome Shannon, I want to say as we get started you're a powerful woman in our community in part because you seek to empower others I think that- that's critical and so all your businesses kind of lean in that same direction tell us about your firm first, “Shannon Cohen Incorporated”.

Yeah you know it’s something that you just said I've always, I was kind of raised by servant leaders. There’s this long history of servant leaders in our family and I've always been taught that strength is for service and not status -since I think you see that through everything anything that I do. But Shannon Cohen Inc really was the birth of so many years of my life starting in the nonprofit sector doing work in the public sector, but really my life’s work lies at the intersection of emotional intelligence, racial equity, gender and then psychological safety. So I love going behind the veil and under the hood of organizations to help leaders navigate the difficult realities that they face behind their titles, their smiles and their roles and how that impacts them as individuals and also how that impacts them in the spaces they give leadership to.

And I bet they learn a lot when you come in and they probably are surprised by some of the things they uncover, I would imagine.

You know what I think- some of what is the surprise- is having a safe place to actually remove the veneer fake “I’m fine”.

Yeah, that's huge because the truth is most difference makers are dealing with more things that are going wrong then they are wins, but we are socialized to present our wins and to tuck our struggles.

But, the struggles are still there and at some point you need to deal with them right?


That's the thing- so tell me how did you get started? Was it a kind of a jump out on faith kind of thing or was it brewing for a long time and you one day just said- this is it I'm going to do it and how did it come about?

It came about in graduate school just before I graduated with my Master's Degree. I remember sitting in class and sitting and hearing different speakers in this particular class. It was kind of our Capstone class for graduate school. So we're hearing all of these leaders coming in from a variety of sectors and every leader that came- I was like oh I want to work with them, oh I want to work with them, oh I want to work with them. And I remember my professor saying Shannon you can't. You have to choose one to work with. She had this model up: pick somewhere, get rooted, go up through the ranks and retire, and that just didn't appeal to me I want to, I have more of this 1980's, “A-Team mentality. I know that that's going to date my age but, I remember you know the A team-they would ride in to help a community or help a person with the problem and once that was done ride off in the black van to the sunset. So I saw myself doing that and having a consultancy became the way to do that so literally two weeks before graduation I filed all of my paperwork to start my business and at that time it was I was also getting married I said well, I'll have health care. You know through my husband so that was like my practical. *inaudible* So we can keep moving the with the plan absolutely.

I took a leap and Network 180 was one of my first clients.

Really? That's amazing and I remember way back and it seems like I don't know the number of years you can tell us, but I remember when you started Tough Skin, Soft Heart and of course I’ve known you for a while so when this came I was like wow, she is really just commanding attention in the community because this is such a great thing. So tell us what the meaning is behind Tough Skin, Soft Heart because I know I- I see you at different events and you've got your booth and you have the book so just give us an idea about “Tough Skin, Soft Heart”.

You know, I think, Jennifer some of our greatest work comes out of our pain, I think out of the ashes, the pain we innovate and create some of our best work and so really Tough Skin. Soft Heart was seeded through miscarriage for me. At that time I was doing work for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and I was commuting back and forth between Grand Rapids and Washington DC and we found out we were expecting and while I was in DC to speak at a conference the day I was supposed to speak and speak at a session- I ended up at a Baltimore hospital having a miscarriage.

Oh I’m so sorry.

And you know, there's something magical  and spiritual that happens when it's just you with you on the other side of a tragedy and I think it was in that space that I started to think about the many ways that I was high functioning, but I was not right. You know, I was meeting metrics I think that year I had  made 40 under 40, I was you know hitting all these, you know, all of these career milestones, but I wasn't practicing very good wellness, self-wellness.

So there was a piece missing because they say everybody wants the dream of having it all but, you can have a lot of it and still be missing something that's very key and something pertinent to your well-being and so you have that space and so Tough Skin, Soft Heart, what does that mean?

I think it  is what we all need in order to show up well- right that tough skin and that tough exterior is what we need in order to be firefighters and fire preventers and fire starters, especially in a season of pandemic and just in uncertainty as we are now, but I think under all of that we all have a soft heart we all want to be liked, we all need love, we all need safe places to just be.  And that goes across all lines.

All lines.

It doesn’t matter who you are.

And so really Tough Skin Soft Heart you would have thought I learned the lesson after the miscarriage but, I didn't- I came back and went right back to work. But it was when a year later, we got pregnant with our son and I went on maternity leave that I started a blog and I started to write about kind of these, these thoughts that were simmering that is - what it means to be successful that we’re externally high-functioning but, internally we feel like a bunch of broken glass- is this what we're supposed to be? and when I started that blog. I thought only my mom and my husband are going to read it because I'm postpartum. And they have to read it.

There’s a lot of info here -get ready.

And you know at that time I was using constant contact as a vertical response tool and so I started to see all of these people that were reading and I was like they're reading this? They subscribed? Like people if I said their names listeners would know. People that we look at and we think because of the work of their hands, they're always strong. They always have it together they always know what to do.

That’s the misperception you're talking about. You have it together on the outside, but on the inside boasts that broken glass.

It’s lonely, leadership can be lonely, we don’t  talk about that. And so in the first year I grew to 3,000 subscribers.

Wow that's amazing.

I knew I was on to something.

Absolutely they weren’t going to let that go now. And Tough Skin, Soft Heart is a book too now? Right.

It is. It has become the manifestation of my heart's desire to create experiences, products and spaces that give people that lead, love and serve as difference makers respite. Space to restore, recharge their souls- re-imagine. It’s that inspiration plus strategy that we need to continue to be difference makers.

Absolutely. And I want to ask you more about development of businesses in a second, but tell me about Tough Skin, Soft Heart- from that you kind of jump into a lot of different avenues and product development that you've had with that-tell me about that as well.

When I think about experiences so-that kind of those 3 buckets: experiences, spaces and products. Under experiences is the rock star woman branch that used to just be local and now since we've gone virtual we’re virtually national and in a few weeks ago we gathered 400 women female difference makers.

Tell us the date.

Sunday September 27th is the date for that and then with experiences, products and the product lines or have a greeting card line that's in about 9 states now in a multiple stores, locally. I love I've always known since I was a little girl that encouragement was one of my super-powers and wanted to enter into that space. So under products-there's the book, there's the Tough Skin Soft Heart book ,there is the Podcast that I host it’s 15 minutes of grab and go inspiration in strategy every Wednesday and season 2 comes out in September on September 30th.

Look at you.

Yes, and just spaces. I’m realizing there are not enough safe spaces for leaders. People that are the fixers, the anchors, the pillars, the problem solvers there's not enough spaces of refuge for them just to be

As you have come a long way in that with your businesses.  How have you handled barriers have you encountered barriers along the way what might those be or look like?

Oh Jennifer, loaded question right.

Which barrier do we want to talk about today?

I will say one of the barriers- I will say I think because it's its top of mind for me right now. You know if you look at the greeting card industry you do not see makers of color in that space. I won the Michigan women forward in 2018 and with those funds combined with what we had been saving I was able to debut my line at the National stationary show at the Javits Center in New York. Thousands of makers-all of your large makers that many folks know. Thousands of makers and I could count in that room five that were women of color and about three that were Black women.

Unfortunately, that trend hasn't stopped yet.

That trend has not stopped and so I remember there have been seasons in growing that part of the business which is about 4 and a half years old that I've had sales reps tell me, well if you could just you know, use different language but, they were basically saying if you could just downplay that you’re black. Not going to be a broad sell, so you need to kind of blend in or whatever or hire someone,

I know that hire other folks to be the face of their brand and the brand is is Black owned specifically.

Its sad that is still being done today, in  2020. So tell me this, as you look at that and you encounter those barriers and things along those lines, what has it taken then to find your own voice in all of this because you know coming up with who Shannon is as you said you've gone through several things numerous things in life as we all do, but what is it that made you be able to own it and to be comfortable in your own skin?

I think it was the work that I did before I launched the greeting card business that I understood that you know like KFC talks about their 11 secret spices right?


I think as individuals we have to believe in investing in the possibility of us. And part of doing that is understanding what is your competitive advantage in the marketplace and I have found in my life that often it's been the things that people are trying to tell me or sell to me that were parts of my identity that people try to tell me my deficit-you're too nice, you know you're too kind, you're a Black woman you're from the East side of Detroit. All of these things that people tried to present to me where that as negatives they've actually been my strength and they've been assets that's been part of my competitive advantage in the marketplace and so I think each person has to find a way to embrace who they are because that's your magic and that's what differentiates you in the marketplace and that's really what every brand is trying to do is look at what is their unique values proposition and how do you have and showcase that brand differentiation to solve a problem.

And again it comes back to  being comfortable in your own skin and being happy with you. Fixing that broken glass, you talked about earlier, so I mentioned off the top that a lot of what you do seeks to empower other women and as you do this what leadership traits do you like to see perhaps in those you mentor, those you work with what type of leadership traits do you look for and what do you try to maybe model to others?

You know one of the things that I firmly believe in- this is actually one of our statements is that finding yourself at the intersection of joy and purpose is where the magic is because I think for too long, we've been told that leaders had certain traits and certain attributes and there's some things that are universal but, we spend so much time on the universal that no one tells us how to monetize our operation allies the targeted and so I am a fan of helping women believe in investing in their own possibility, I'm a fan of helping folks find themselves at the intersection of joy and purpose because that's where your peace is, that's where your strength is, that’s where your values proposition is, that that's where your growth is. With universal there's plenty of books and articles and folks that talk about that but, I think it is that figuring out who I am uniquely positioned through the experiences of my life through intersectional identities and how do I leverage that to be the change that I want to see in the world.

And that everyone is purposed and everyone has good things about them. A lot of people downplay that or they're you know timid about it but, you everyone needs to be able to say you know what I like me.

Another important question that I always like to ask, this was more fun, but I like to find out, you know when you're so busy, you've got a multitude of projects and things going on and you have a little young man who is a first grader now. How do you balance that professional life with your personal life and still make it all happen and what's fun in your family life, you know?

Yes, we love to travel as a family -my son has a passport and I'm grateful because I know when I was a kid it was going down south to see your family and driving that was your vacation- where he's been on planes and I love that because that I want him to be a global learner and a global citizen, so that part of the pandemic has hurt because I well, I am headquartered in West Michigan. I love seeing the world.

Well you and me both we don't want to go into how many trips I’ve missed this year but, you know we're all dealing with this and  so another good one -what makes you laugh, they say laughter is good for the soul.

Yes, I would say Marco Polo with my sister friends.

So many of my friends live in either different communities, even friends that I have here we’re so busy that I love using Marco Polo is a visual video texting app.

That sounds fun.

Yes, that allows us to record messages and send them and see each other and use emojis to respond and I find that those blessed my life I was actually listening to one of my way over today so I think finding ways to connect. You know we’re distanced, but we don't have to be disconnected.

Absolutely, that's very true and so as we get ready to wrap this up-you work with so many people, big corporations to individuals. Do you have a favorite motto or saying that you share with others or that is important to you for your everyday?

You know one of the ones I share now is: when you lead-people flourish and when you rest the world gets your best and I think those have been lessons that I've learned over the course of me not resting, you know used to be if you were resting, rest and ambition were oil and water and now I think that rest in ambition is the way that you can thrive

It is almost mandatory in that I mean if you really want to be successful. You have got to learn to rest


You are going to be no good for anyone, even yourself if you really wear down to too far

Pausing is power.

I love all your sayings-very nice Shannon Cohen. Thank you so much for joining us. We wish you all the best!  I want to thank everyone for listening today and for joining us for this edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk I'm Jennifer Moss.

Produced by women about women these powerful podcast focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more powerful women, let's talk? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is produced by WGVU at the Myer public broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University, the views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU its underwriters are Grand Valley State University.