Building the Future of Leadership & +1 for Destroying the Patriarchy Kristine Sloan - CEO, StartingBloc

Kristine is the CEO at StartingBloc, a global community of leaders committed to an equitable, collaborative, thriving world.  Through their Fellowship program, StartingBloc convenes, supports, and grows leaders from high-potential to high-impact. As a result of StartingBloc, Fellows report growth in their professional networks, greater clarity of purpose, and transitioning into leadership positions. Kristine is also the Raleigh Facilitator of Tide Risers, a community for women leaders working for the greater good.

Kristine is committed to doing everything she can to ensure that the Future of Leadership is authentic, distributed, and nurturing to the planet. It’s also worth mentioning that, according to her Linkedin Profile, she’s +1 for Destroying the Patriarchy.

Kristine recently moved back to North Carolina and we are so lucky to have her.  It was nothing short of inspiring to learn about her lifelong commitment to social impact, the incredible work she is doing with StartingBloc and Tide Risers, and her advice for people that want to change the world.

What initially inspired you to make a difference and what path did you follow? 

When I was younger, I always had this very innate sense of justice, which ended up in me saying “that’s wrong” a lot as a child. When I went to High School, it was around the time when the African HIV/AIDS epidemic was just getting into our American public narrative. I remember watching these (problematic) commercials about African children and the rampant spread of HIV/AIDs in Africa. I was horrified by how this was possible – how could these people be in such a dire situation? How can we not help them more? I wanted to learn more and to do something about it.

I went to college and found a program that let me get a Degree from the College of Management and in Humanities in International Studies at NC State. In the international studies program, I chose to focus on Africa. I really knew that was always what I wanted to do – I wanted to improve social justice globally. After a couple of years of working post-graduation, I went back to NC State for a Masters in International Studies, focusing on Rural Development. During graduate school and for a few years after, I had the privilege of working with the Global Training Initiative at NC State, where I designed co-curricular programming for domestic and international students on campus.

After graduation, I worked in international development for 7 years. I co-founded ACIPP West Africa with a long time Ghanaian friend. We worked in Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Our focus was on human capacity (HR) – specifically, how do you help companies that get huge grants use them effectively.  This included supporting them with project management skills, infrastructure, and leadership. While doing this incredible work, the Ebola epidemic hit.  Because of this huge humanitarian crisis in health, we had to shut down our operations completely, despite having a company and idea that was growing rapidly through the region.

I then began working in East Africa at a company called All Across Africa, which has since been rebranded as Kazi. We were doing work to help support entrepreneurship through artisan craft – at scale, with distribution through Costco US.  While working in Burundi, I led our expansion, eventually opening and operating 6 centers throughout the country. I absolutely loved providing artisan skills training and leadership development for more than 300 Burundi refugees, ex-combatants, and disenfranchised rural youth. in 2015, the President of Burundi ran for an illegal 3rd term. After decades of fighting for democracy, the citizens of Burundi opposed this illegal third term, eventually leading to a failed coop attempt and the mandatory evacuation of foreign personnel. .

In both cases, I was working with companies that were truly making an impact, though the work of both ultimately came to a halt due to an external crisis.  What I realized is that it doesn’t matter what intervention or what project you’re working on, it’s only going to be effective if we address leadership and the paradigms through which we think about leadership (citizens, governance, international financing, etc). After both of these experiences I was also exhausted and needed a break.

So, I got in a van and drove around the American West for over 3 months. I basically had an identity crisis and spent this time healing and really trying to understand what to make of these experiences. After a lot of soul searching, I finally came to the conclusion that I wanted to shift my career away from international development and move into supporting and convening leaders.

Near the end of the trip, I applied to work at StartingBloc. I actually interviewed as I was driving across southern Utah, towards Colorado. I got to Moab, right on the border, and the former CEO asked me to meet in person. I asked him whether I could meet him tomorrow. I drove through the night, interviewed in Boulder, and got the job offer the next day.

What’s incredible about StartingBloc for me personally is that I care about so many different things that are interrelated and StartingBloc really addresses all of these connected challenges. I get to work with and support people who are succeeding and thriving through emergence, and our Fellows currently lead 21000 people around the world – it’s a huge impact.

Tell me a bit about your work with StartingBloc & Tide Risers and how you are making a positive impact?  

At StartingBloc, we’re a global community for individuals really committed to cultivating a more equitable, just, and thriving world. You go through a 5-day institute to become a StartingBloc Fellow, our flagship program. At the end of the Institute, you are formally a Fellow for life. We have been around for 15 years we have 2800 fellows in 56 countries around the world. We do these 5-day retreats, 5 times a year. We’re launching a Raleigh institute this June (Priority Application Deadline 4/5), New York is in August, DC in October, and LA is in February of 2019.

After the Institute, the community interacts with each other in a million different ways. For example, we have a pro-bono coaching program exclusively for Fellows, regional groups, learning pathways, and meet-ups. The social capital that flows through the network is crazy. Within one year after the Institute, 21% of our Fellows move into a position of leadership, 1 in 5 are motivated to start a venture (even though we’re not focused on entrepreneurship), and employers have told us that when they send people to Starting Bloc, those individuals stay 1 year longer than other employees, so it increases retention.

My experience is that we’re fundamentally in this place of deep cultural transition. Philosopher Joanna Macy, calls this time the ‘Great Turning.’ She asks, “How do we move from an industrial society to a life sustaining civilization?” I see that question being held by all of the people that I look to for influence – Seth Godin, Claudia Rankine, Junot Diaz and Krista Tippett, and older voices like Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Parker Palmer, etc. – people exploring bigger questions and doing real, tangible work.

I think it comes down to: What is the future of work? Are we going to work 40-50 hours a week? Are we going to continue to operate in business models and org charts that are failing us and reducing our innovation, productivity, and satisfaction? I do think we now have more and more people with access to leadership (though it’s obviously still incredibly inequitable), but when many folks get access, they end up acting like traditional white men in power (or being asked to act like that). That’s because we don’t have a clearly defined paradigm of leadership to match the new paradigm of work. The values are not aligned. StartingBloc is really centered on that – how do we develop leaders to walk into that new paradigm with grace? That, to me, is really really exciting.  When we look at someone and think “they are amazing leader.” At StartingBloc, we’re trying to help answer the question of what does that even mean?

Tide Risers is so exciting to me because when I just moved back to North Carolina in June, I was inspired by the innovation that has developed in the region over the last 4-years. I finally felt I had a place where I could find community. However, as I was working to network, I kept just getting sent in the direction of men in leadership roles. I’ve always found this to be difficult in North Carolina – over the course of my lifetime, and especially looking towards executive leadership, I got so many more men brought to me as the best ‘networking opportunities.’ At this point in my career, I wanted to learn more about what feminine leadership looks like and I wanted to build a community of women.

I met the leader of Tide Risers in NYC last August, and after hearing her story and vision for this community of powerhouse women committed to each other and to social good, I asked if I could launch a community in NC. We now have 13 women in the cohort this year, and they all totally inspire me.

What are the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome thus far?

There have been so many. One, I was in positions of leadership very young and I was very immature, which was challenging.

I’m very high-performing, OCD, and type A. That’s actually celebrated in certain roles, but only to a certain degree.  Once you get to a certain level of leadership, being personable and able to cultivate relationships are significantly more important. It’s hard to be a female leader, especially in the South and as a woman pitching funders. The expectation is that you show up as the stereotypical woman (whatever that means) – kind, warm, sweet AND that you pitch and sell with the aggression folks usually associate with men. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition – having to be the extreme woman and the extreme man and the necessary EQ to know when to switch between the two. I find that to be really challenging.

To overcome some of the internal obstacles, I worked with a leadership coach specifically on addressing emotional triggers in the work place. I worked with a sales and fundraising coach on how to tell my story and make asks in an authentic way. Over the last 2 years, I’ve been coached for over 70 hours.

People will now say “when I first met you, you were so quiet and now you can get in front of a room, command the space, and truly speak.” That was all thanks to me doing that internal work that nobody wants to do.  My biggest struggle was how to really bring my authentic self into the work place and discover how to be kind in my own, authentic way.

What advice do you have for people that want to change the world or pursue their passion?

From my experience, the most important thing you can do is listen. You need to center your work around the people that you are working with and you need to move from a model of “I’m here to serve you” to “I’m here to uplift your voice.” People have voice.

Figure out where you have power and influence and use it in a way that is equitable. As a white woman, it feels imperative that I use my privilege to pass the mic.

People know what they need. Communities know what they need. Often, we just don’t listen to them. Or we twist what folks say into something that matches what we believed to be true or what we’re willing to fund. It’s a circus. People know what they need, they tell other people, and still that thing doesn’t get done. My biggest advice would be to listen with humility, listen more, listen again, and then accompany those you’re working with to act.