Businesses place a lot of emphasis on brand image. After all, your branding and your story are what attract consumers, what gets people to support your app or buy your product. As a result, we have this notion that our brand must be perfect because if we are perfect, then our product is perfect, and perfection sells.
Perfection is not the way to go. In fact, what you want to do is the opposite: be vulnerable.
Vulnerability is scary. You open yourself up to a highly critical society, so for new start-ups, the possibility of having a potentially tarnished reputation before getting out of the red is not worth the risk. However, for Iman Oubou, a renowned self-made entrepreneur — or you may know her as the former scientist turned 2015 Miss New York US — vulnerability was one key factor to her success.
The founder and CEO of SWAAY has created a powerful and unique service-based media brand and publishing platform to help women around the world share their unique stories, voice their informed opinions, and showcase their expert advice. Shedding light on the gender disparities in the industry, Iman uses vulnerability to champion the voices of women as they create change and inspire others in today’s society. SWAAY’s unique membership model and editorial support system is attracting some of the top female thought leaders to the platform and is reaching a global audience of women who turn to the site for content mentorship. But Iman’s success did not happen overnight.
She succeeded in building a brand because she knew she had a story to share. She knew how to authentically leverage her story and use her voice to elevate her message and further position herself as a thought leader in the space.
She knew how to ditch the act.
Being a female and minority leader, she faced many struggles along the way, so she wanted to remain open about her experience and be able to relate and connect with other women who face similar struggles. “I wanted to be vulnerable and transparent in that way so that other women that look up to my story don’t feel bad about where they are today because it hasn’t been easy for me, and it’s still not easy,” she said. “I don’t want people to think that everything I set out to do, happened effortlessly. It’s not the reality. I faced many hardships in sustaining the business at first and in the fundraising process which made me doubt myself and internalize the rejection. I had to make some tough decisions along the way and get creative with our business model. It took many failures, capital losses, team restructuring, etc.. but, in hindsight, the adversity is what helped us stand out better and build a strong community and an evolving platform. We still have a very long way to go, but I was never complacent.”
Sharing her vulnerability has not only created a strong network of female leaders empowering one another; it also highlights that there are real struggles behind women’s success stories, which are often overshadowed by the media. “Many stories published by our community on SWAAY shine the light on a lot of our personal struggles as women and how we learned to overcome them. They also bring to light the incredible ways these women are challenging the status quo, creating a conversation that [is] authentic, original, and raw,” she states. “And it makes other women feel like they’re not alone in the fight or the struggle.”
However, it is hard to be vulnerable due to the fear of judgment. Instead, many people resort to putting up a facade to be perfect, just to curate a specific narrative or attract a specific target audience, but the consequence is that it creates unrealistic standards and ultimately defeats the whole purpose of building authentic connections with the audience. But Iman knew that vulnerability was the right approach. Even though it was considered a risky move, she always strived to be relatable and accessible.
And she made the right move. “When I wrote an op-ed on Harper’s Bazaar about some of the sexism I was met with when I initially started fundraising, I received an influx of messages from so many women. People found a way to find me and reached out and said thank you for being candid about your experience,” Iman recalls. “Even men reached out to thank me for sharing my story, which was actually a nice surprise. That specific moment is what made me realize the importance of storytelling. We have the power to inspire and impact millions when we use our voice and share our experiences.”
Iman’s authenticity is what attracted people because she was being true to herself. It is difficult to put yourself out there, but the result is rewarding because you will be able to build meaningful and trustworthy connections. “Being vulnerable is scary. There is no way around it. And the fear is real,” Iman says. “[However,] at the end of the day, if you do what makes you happy and what you’re comfortable with, that’s all that really matters.”
While Iman champions vulnerability and transparency, she has also had many moments during her career where she doubted herself and worried about the judgment from others. But what she learned from these low points was that she needed to stand up for herself. “I was constantly in this endless cycle of trying to prove people wrong instead of focusing on the right thing to do for myself,” she comments. “[But] people that make it in life are the people that absolutely don’t care whatsoever and have conditioned themselves to completely ignore the noise of what other people think because they know that in times of success or in times of darkness, they can’t rely on anyone but themselves.”
She stopped letting others dictate her story, and instead let her own efforts show her story.
This is where “show, don’t tell” comes in. And yes, she even has that phrase tattooed on her right arm.
We can easily list out all of our accomplishments, but how many of the XYZ things on your resume actually yielded successful results? “It’s all about showing what you’re capable of doing, versus telling people what you can do,” Iman advises. “In a world of social media ‘talking heads’, be the one that walks the walk while others talk the talk. People [want to] see results. [I] like working silently, making silent moves, and then letting the results in the future speak for myself, because it’s very hard to argue with someone that has great work ethics and shows significant results. My father always tells me, ‘Stop talking about it, and start being about it.’”
The successful pivot of SWAAY towards becoming a platform many women can lean on to write and publish their thought leadership and increase their visibility shows that staying authentic to your company’s mission and using failure as a redirection always pays off. With all of her successes, she still keeps it real with her audience and talks about her process candidly, building a genuine and engaged community of empowered individuals. “I just want people to see me for who I truly am,” Iman says. “I have made every mistake a founder can make, twice! But I find insights in all of them that keep informing my next steps. Making mistakes and seeing them as learning opportunities is what helps me build my confidence as an outsider of an industry I didn’t have ‘experience’ in… and those are the stories I like to share with my community because they’re insightful and somewhat comforting.”
The journey to success is long and filled with obstacles. There will be people who judge you, there will be people who try to stop you. But Iman makes a very important point: it’s important to never lose track of who you are.
I can speak to the power of being yourself, but it is not as easy as it sounds. Make sure that you have a good support group, and start small. Also, be aware that sharing your journey of ups and downs does not always have to be in the moment. Oftentimes, when you give yourself some time to reflect on what went wrong, it gives you perspective and helps you see the lessons that are hiding in plain sight. When you are brave to share the not-so-good moments in a way of lessons learned, you help people see themselves in your story, and it creates true relatability.
Bottom line, learn from Iman, ditch the act, drop the fakeness, and learn to show people your vulnerable side.
SWAAY your own narrative, and create your own path to greatness! A path that is full of twists and turns, but a path that is yours to forge.
Want to learn more about how you can ditch the act? In my book Ditch the Act, I share how you can find success by simply being yourself. In it, you will find more inspiring stories of professionals like Iman from various industries who attribute ditching their act as part of their competitive advantage.
Do you have a story that you want to share? I’d love to hear!