March 8, 2024 / Esther Choy

.Shannon Nash Casey Foss Stephanie Ellis-Smith Sylvia Kwan share their storiesWomen are making history. In 2023, Fortune reported that women represented 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs for the first time. Despite gains like these, if women leaders don’t share their own stories, they risk being erased. Further, when women’s leadership stories are left untold it denies women and girls the chance to be inspired by and participate in new narratives.

Meet four women leaders who’ve embraced storytelling as a key component of their success — all in different ways. Two executives embrace personal storytelling to uplift the people around them and scale impact. Two use story facilitation to rewrite narratives.

The Sage on Stage

Shannon Nash, CFO at Wing Corporation, an Alphabet company, learned to embrace storytelling as a way to call out social inequities. When she decided to stop practicing law to take care of her autistic son, the actress and producer Debbie Allen hired her to lead and scale up her dance academy. The job offered Nash the flexibility she needed to care for her son. And a doorway into the world of storytelling. Nash recalled: “I saw how [Allen] told stories and how that turned into all these opportunities, all the success. I started embracing how you can use storytelling to advance things both that you truly care about, but also advance your business.”

Nash has used storytelling to uplift social causes she cares about. Her first movie “Colored My Mind,” won best film documentary at the American Pavilion in Cannes. It uncovers the inequities of autism and delayed diagnosis and misdiagnosis in black and brown communities. Her second film “OnBoard” (2024) tells the nearly-forgotten story of the first black woman board member Patricia Roberts Harris and present-day struggles to achieve board diversity.

“My main audience is Shannon sitting in her room at 13 years old and doubting herself.” Nash said. “I tell stories, because I think they empower other people. I interweave personal stories, because when I was at my lowest, I got inspiration from hearing other people’s stories. It is my obligation to pay that forward.”

Mentoring With Authenticity

Casey Foss, Chief Commercial Officer at West Monroe, has always been known as an passionate, results-driven leader. “As a woman in business,” she recalled, “you’re taught that being vulnerable might make you look weak.” She never shared personal stories at work for fear it would hold back her career. Her perspective changed when she lost her mom to pancreatic cancer. To honor her mom, she ran the Chicago Marathon as a fundraiser for Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Through telling her story, she was able to fundraise over $26,000. She was blown away by the power of storytelling — as therapeutic for herself and motivating to others.

Also, she learned there was a perception that her career came easily and that she had set an unrealistic bar. This hurt her ability to mentor and collaborate. So she started to share small stories about her struggles — running to the train to pick up her kids, mom guilt, etc. “It made me much more relatable,” Foss said, “more human, and to be honest, those are the stories that I find myself sharing all the time. It’s not my accolades or my success.”

In the last five years, Foss realized her career is no longer just about herself; it was about those around her: “What am I doing to remove roadblocks? If I wasn’t going to fight for more female leaders or more space in the boardroom nobody else was.” By normalizing the struggles she faces as a woman in business, she is able to connect with her peers and mentor those around her better, paving the way for more women leaders in business.

Guide On The Side

Even for those not actively claiming their own spotlight in storytelling, there is still a critical role ensuring women’s stories get told — helping others tell their stories.

Stephanie Ellis-Smith is the CEO and founder of Phīla Engaged Giving, a philanthropic advisory firm that works with donors to activate their assets for social change. Though she’s never felt comfortable stepping into the spotlight to tell her own stories, she is a skilled story facilitator. Ellis-Smith helps her clients share their stories because she knows they have the power to unlock social connection and social change: “Wealth can come with isolation. And if you can connect to peers, you feel like you’re not the only one out there doing something different or radical all by yourself.”

Ellis-Smith believes that when wealthy people share their philanthropy stories, they signal to other wealthy people that it’s okay to to think outside the box. Case in point: Bill and Holly Marklyn started The ShareFund to redistribute their wealth to the BIPOC community in Washington State. Instead of staying anonymous, Ellis-Smith encouraged the couple to share their story. On the web and at live events, the couple shares the story of how they decided to create a participatory grant-making charity. They intentionally designed it to shift power and redistribute wealth to those most impacted by inequity.

A banner describing Story Lab, a complimentary service to workshop stories with a facilitator.

Rewriting Narratives

Sylvia Kwan, Chief Investment Officer at Ellevest, knows that 98.6% of all asset management firms in the U.S. are run by white men. “The investment industry just was, by default, built for men,” she shared. For this reason the standard narrative around investing is that it’s not for women or people of color. “I believe storytelling is necessary to change that narrative,” said Kwan.

Like Ellis-Smith, Kwan doesn’t share her own stories. But she found storytelling to be a major asset in engaging women in investing. Women investors not only want to invest to build their wealth like male counterparts do. They want to invest to make a positive social, economic or environmental impact. When Kwan shares impact investing stories, she sees her clients light up. “This light bulb goes on and they’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize I could invest that way.’”

Kwan believes these stories have the power to change the investment industry. Women investors are more likely to share stories of impact with other women. “The more women see themselves reflected in the stories —” Kwan shared. “Whether it’s women investing, women starting businesses, women managing funds, women running investment firms, women investing in women, the more that [narrative] is going to change.”

Leaders as Storytellers, Leaders as Facilitators

These four women leaders have embraced storytelling in the workplace. In ways that are authentic to their own personal story and comfort level. And their stories are having an impact — on their relationships and in their industries. Regardless of their comfort level of being in the spotlight, they are using storytelling to create change. This is why listening, sharing, and facilitating stories is a non-negotiable.

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Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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