Who doesn’t love a good picture book? From Make Way for Ducklings to Where the Wild Things Are, these short tales are most children’s first introduction to literature.
But picture books aren’t just for kids. The Bank of England uses Dr. Seuss books to teach bank staffers how to write financial reports simply and clearly.
What would happen, I wondered, if entrepreneurs embraced the writing style of a children’s book author like me?
I decided to find out by leading a workshop for women entrepreneurs from Rwanda and Afghanistan. It was part of the Peace Through Business conference organized by the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women and hosted by AT&T in Dallas. My goal was to help these businesswomen find and tell their stories by writing children’s books.
Here’s what we discovered:
1. Start with a hero. Every successful business has a story about how it was born. Think of Sara Blakely cutting off a pair of control top pantyhose to create the prototype for Spanx—or Oprah hosting her first TV talk show in Baltimore. Sometimes it’s hard for entrepreneurs, especially women, to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. Writing a story can make it easier. I began my workshop by asking each participant to put her name in the title of her book.
2. Every hero has a problem and a journey. Classic stories share the same paradigm: a hero, faced with a problem, sets off on a journey. Many women at the conference shared the same problem. They lacked financial independence. “I wanted my own money,” says Shadia. “I didn’t have a business, but I had two houses.” Shadia turned one of her houses in Kigali, Rwanda, into a hotel. Zahra’s problem, living in Kabul, Afghanistan, was that all the women she knew were stressed by war. Her journey led her to build a recreational center for women, complete with a swimming pool, fitness equipment, and a paintball park.
3. Storytelling reveals the turning point, crisis, and Aha moments. A classic storyline appeals to us on a deep level. So why not use it when pitching a business to potential investors? Chantal’s story made me want to invest in her auto repair shop in Kigali, which she opened after waiting four months to have her own car repaired. “The waiting was making me crazy,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ll open a better garage.’” That was her turning point. Chantal invested her life savings to buy expensive equipment from Italy—only to discover it was the wrong equipment. She went online and found a kind mechanic in Holland who agreed to come help her retool. Now with her state-of-the-art garage, Chantal has contracts to maintain state vehicles.
4. A nasty villain makes a great story. Enemies are never pleasant, but where would fairy tales be without evil stepmothers and big bad wolves? Parwarish had me on the edge of my seat when she shared her story about a business partner who pocketed money from a government contract they’d won. But that betrayal pushed Parwarish, a botanist, to start her own company in Kabul, where she’s now competing against her former partner for agricultural contracts. I know who I’m rooting for.
5. We want the good guy—and gal—to win. Claire and Mathilde survived the Rwandan genocide in different ways. Claire felt a passion for justice. She enrolled in law school and opened her own practice, but found the people she most wanted to help—women—couldn’t afford her services. Now she offers a special discount plan for clients in need. Mathilde turned to food to comfort herself after the 1994 genocide. “Then I got fat and felt sick all the time,” she says. Mathilde now runs an online nutritional program for women who need help planning healthy meals. It’s impossible not to root for these entrepreneurs after hearing their stories.
6. The format forces simplicity. Writing a children’s book is a great exercise for businesspeople who might not know the editing mantra: When in doubt, cut it out. Masooma wrote a story, perfect in its simplicity, that began with her childhood, when her only friend was the notebook she wrote in nightly. Now a successful writer and filmmaker in Kabul, Masooma is pitching a series of books to UNICEF, aimed at Afghan girls entering puberty. “It is a time when girls can feel alone,” she says. “I want to help them know they’re not.”
7. Sharing stories is powerful. In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes: “Hearing each other’s stories actually raises our levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin, which is what nursing mothers secrete when they breastfeed. It helps to join us together in some tribal way.” The same thing happened at the Peace Through Business conference. After helping these women write their stories, I asked if anyone would be willing to share. Every woman did. Some stories made us laugh. Others made us cry. But we connected in a way that had us all dancing together several hours later. I’m not sure that would’ve happened if they had read their business plans aloud.
My workshop didn’t take a lot of time or equipment. Just a few hours and some blank paper. But the women walked away knowing how to tell their stories. Taking ownership of your story can be powerful and transformative.
Now I hope every one of these entrepreneurs meets a generous investor who wants to hear a good story—and who can help write a happily ever after.
Kate Klise is an award-winning author of more than 30 books, including her most recent picture book, Stay: A Girl, A Dog, A Bucket List. For more about Kate Klise’s books and workshops, visit kateklise.com.