Her Story, Her Success: An Interview with Kishshana Palmer
No woman is an island. We need each other to learn, grow, and thrive, especially as small business owners in a crazy world! Her Story, Her Success is a Sunbird blog series that features the stories and advice of female entrepreneurs.
Kishshana Palmer wears many hats: Professional Speaker, Management & Leadership Trainer, Professor and Consultant, to name a few. But she has one driving passion: to help nonprofits and entrepreneurs who want to do social good grow.
Over the past 15+ years, Kishshana has raised over $55 million in fundraising. She is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) and a BoardSource Certified Governance Trainer. Armed with her experience as a fundraiser, marketer, and manager of high-performing teams, Kishshana has assisted many entrepreneurs in not only raising money for charities they care about, but finding the roles they love.
Kishshana founded Kishshana & Co. almost ten years ago to prove that it’s possible to break out of whatever professional rut you’re in and make big things happen for your business and any cause you care about.
We spoke with Kishshana about what has surprised her the most about entrepreneurship, the dangers of “faux collaboration,” and how branding is so much more than a pretty website.
You’ve wanted to help people as early as junior high! Could you talk a little about your volunteering experiences and how they affected your journey?
I just felt like it was a bug I got bitten by. I’m a New York City girl and a first-generation American. So typically that means you have to work hard, go to school, and get the job done. My mom was so big on giving back, so it was literally always a part of my life.
I love working with kids, so I was always trying to figure out a new way to raise money for causes that had to do with children. I realized early on I was very good at getting people to kind of rally around me, so I just became a natural at raising money, helping, and figuring out how to be plugged into my community.
What motivated you to start your own business?
It’s always been a thing for me. Probably it was in college when I realized maybe I’m not going to work for somebody else, maybe I’m going to work for myself. But I still continued to go down the path that I signed up for: Go to college, go to grad school, get your MBA, do that thing. But I think that bug was always in me, sort of gnawing at me.
So almost 10 years ago I started my business practice part-time. But that was really only my traveling money and my savings money. Then about 3 years ago I started to really feel like I needed to get back out there on my own. I was doing a lot of nonprofit consulting and things like that, and so I thought that was the life I was going to lead. That’s what I know, that’s what I’m going to do. So I left my full-time job, and I hung up my shingle again because I already had the practice part-time, and so I thought, “Oh doing this full-time is going to be a breeze!”
But it really wasn’t that simple. I had to really think about who I want to be in my business, what’s the actual endpoint, who do I want to help with my end game? And I just decided to stick with it and figure that out.
Essentially starting my own business was due to a desire for what I saw as freedom, and an opportunity to craft a life I chose.
That freedom really pushed me to start my own business. And I’m a single mama, so being able to set a good example for my daughter where she could see what Mommy’s hard work looked like, that really meant a lot to me.
You say that you’re not “your typical coach,” you’re the friend who “tells it like it is.” What makes your process unique, and why is tough love important to consulting?
I was sort of an accidental and reluctant coach. It first started with referrals like, “My friend said you helped her, I want you to help me too!” So I would say, “Alright but I’m going to give it to you straight!” So what I got good at very quickly was becoming a really good listener, even though I’m really chatty. I would get to the heart of what was going on behind the story pretty quickly.
It was less about helping folks figure out like “What are you going to do for yourself?” I’m not a therapist. It’s more like, “You’re spinning, and spinning, and spinning, and we need to stop you from spinning by figuring out together what it is that you really want to do. And how much effort are you really going to put into it? What are going to be some of the real life barriers that are going to prevent you from doing what you want to do?”
My coaching is really different because I’m really looking to see changes in behavior. I won’t just say, “Oh, that was a good job, we had a great chat.” If that’s the type of person you want, then you don’t want to work with me. I’m more about listening to everything you have to say and getting to the root of the problem behind your story.
I realized that over time it doesn’t matter if the woman that I’m working with is changing careers and she wants to stay in corporate, or if she’s starting her own wellness practice, or if she’s growing her agency. The process is always the same. I’m just really great at figuring out where people are, and I’ve developed the skills to get people to trust me really early on.
People are always like, “Oh my god, I feel like I’ve known you my whole life,” or they’ll be like, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but here it goes…” And that carried over from my career when I was working in fundraising and nonprofits. I realized those skills pretty much translate into lots of different things. I have done so much career coaching and mentoring over the years anyway, it just felt like a natural thing to keep doing it.
I love the unique style that shines through in your website! How have you developed the look & feel of your brand over time?
When I first started my business years and years ago I was like, “I like pretty colors and bright things!” So my website was pretty but one of the things I promised myself when I went into my practice full time is that I would live out loud. I was looking back at some of my earlier pictures and one of them said, “Live in color!” So I’ve always been really obsessed with being your fullest, most vibrant self.
When I thought about building my brand, I thought, “How do I want people to see me?” When people meet me in person I want them to say, “Oh my gosh you’re exactly who I thought you’d be but better.” I wanted to come across as relatable, fun, and stylish. I want to be the one you look at and go, “Oh, I’d love to go shopping with her!” Because I am that person.
I wanted that to resonate in the way all of my visuals look. Over time I’ve had to learn that I’m not always going to do everything that’s on trend because that’s actually not my brand. I’ve learned that I don’t have to use every single color on my brand palette all the time. And different colors can mean different things based on how I want to drive people’s emotions with my imagery.
When I first started my social media profiles I wanted everything to be fun and happy. But now I realize what’s important is that the images you see are vivid, high-color, and light. I’m trying to convey the “Ooh I want to be there!” feeling when you see my pictures. So over time I realized that even though I’m in nonprofit consulting and management consulting space–which tends to be very dry and very male–I can still come across as fun, happy, delighted and knowledgeable all at once. All of those things can work together so that people will want to work with me. I think that’s part of the evolution of my brand. I really learned how to meld my personality and my lifestyle into what I actually want to be teaching and putting out into the world professionally.
Has anything surprised you about entrepreneurship?
Everything has surprised me about entrepreneurship! One of the things that had surprised me is how much self-doubt sort of lived under the surface that you probably never acknowledged. I’m an overachiever, I’m a go-getter. I’m always about getting the A, getting the win. I work hard. But you’re not always going to get that A. You might actually kick butt on something and still not get it. So how do you live with that sort of disappointment? How do you not let that eat at you, so that you don’t feel like you are not worthy? Learning to deal with that was very surprising to me.
The second thing was how easy it is to forget to take care of myself. I worked from home for years and one day I realized that I let myself go completely. Like completely. And I didn’t realize because it was happening so slowly. One day I was like, “Oh my god, I don’t look at myself in the mirror anymore. Who am I? Who am I becoming?”
So I think that was very surprising, the fact that you can learn over time to sort of ignore yourself because you think you’re supposed to be "the person with the business" all the time.
The third thing that surprised me is that I just don’t necessarily believe in balance. I believe that the pendulum is going to swing and you need to prepare for that. If that means I’m going on a work-pleasure trip in the next couple of days, for example, I need to spend 5-6 days trying to get done all of the stuff I need to get done, but I don’t want to be using my laptop when I’m supposed to be out having a good time. I have to kick it back for a little bit.
It’s not about trying to find balance, it’s about choosing when I’m really going to put pedal to the metal, and then also choosing again when I’m going to make a different choice. I need to be thoughtful of that. I realized that I have been rewarded my whole life for what I call bad behavior. What I mean by that is when you are a good student and you are receiving all A’s, and you don’t really have to study, you don’t realize that you don’t have good study habits. You don’t really have to plan because things come to you easily.
And being an entrepreneur, particularly if you’re a solopreneur, it’s all about establishing routines of discipline.
And I haven’t had any of it. So I was in denial, big time. I had to go back to the drawing board and dig deep and really start to develop some discipline in myself about how I was going to work because nobody’s watching me. If I kick back in bed all day, there’s not a soul that’s going to say a thing!
How might being a female entrepreneur have affected your business?
I think that I somehow thought that I was going to be insulated in terms of discrimination, and I wasn’t going to have to deal with people who didn’t believe that I was talented enough or good enough. And that is complete malarky! You still had to deal with that stuff! Times 10! And it’s even more in your face. And you’re also by yourself all the time.
I think that being a female entrepreneur is unique in that we women just have a natural tendency to incubate. Whether you’re having children or not, we are designed to make things grow, period. So that’s your business, that’s your family, that’s whatever. I think that has been unique because whenever I have an idea for something I really want to do, I know that if I put my mind to it that it will come together in a really thoughtful way.
I’ve also learned that there’s still lots of women out there who really want to connect with other women but for whatever reason we have been conditioned to be competitive in a way that is not healthy to grow our businesses together. You know faux fur? I call it faux collaboration. A lot of people say they want to collaborate, they say they want to work with you, but really they just want to keep their eye on you while they move ahead of you. So I think that has been a very unique challenge that I don’t see my male counterparts deal with in the same way.
I think for me, I’ve learned that we’re just more nuanced, as women, in the way we think, in the way we react to things, and the way we show up in the world. And I think that actually gets in the way of how we think about growing our businesses. Things are going to be more nuanced, going to be more complicated, you’re going to see things a little more differently, and probably in more layers. And then you’re going to have to know, depending on what audience you’re in front of, how to translate that.
I think that has made me a very gifted communicator, and I thought I was a great communicator before, but now I really have my chin up completely. And I think that’s something that’s very unique to women.
Any final thoughts?
I love how you guys are making sure women entrepreneurs are out there being focused on building their brands!
And I think that branding for me is not just about the pretty wrapper, it really is the feeling someone gets when they look or interact or come in contact with my brand. It’s about what kind of experience they are going to have and also who I am as a business owner.
I think that if I step out and I grow my practice, and I add on the social medias, etc, I have to be very thoughtful about how my brand expression can grow and change so that it’s not just Kishshana. Even though my business name is my name, it’s not just Kishshana. Anyone who’s operating within Kishshana & Co. comes with that same sort of real authenticity, that delight, and so I think that’s something that’s really important.
Branding is not just about getting a fancy website—you have to have something real to sell. You need to really be thinking about the customer or client experience when you’re thinking about your brand. It’s something that I thought about very early on and I’m so glad I did.