(02:24) How the journey started: trips to the library, and an up-and-down primary school experience
(08:23) Studying at Cambridge, gravitating to fellowship over scrutinous scholarship
(15:23) Some of Sean’s inspirations, featuring a reciting of Robert Graves’ poem, Flying Crooked
(17:45) Advice for writers on how to nurture ideas into form
(20:40) Describing the mechanics and joy of working with illustrators
(22:53) Thoughts on the value of physical books in a screen-obsessed world
(24:34) Why independent bookstores and libraries need our support now more than ever
(31:19) Sean reads from his latest book, How to Be Cooler than Cool
The builders we interview on this show frequently cite the encouragement they received at an early age to explore their passions and find their purpose. And that’s exactly the kind of human encouragement you’ll find in the charming, award-winning children’s books authored by Sean Taylor– stories that include Hoot Owl: Master of Disguise, the recently published How to Be Cooler than Cool, and over 60 others.
In his talk with Jesse, Sean offers advice for aspiring writers, as well as any builder with aspirations to write their own story and forge a unique path in life. You’ll hear why he opted out of the strictly scientific approach to literature that was prevalent during his time at Cambridge; how he found fellowship and honed his storytelling in London as a member of a group called The Basement Writers; and how he found his ultimate calling to write stories for children. Along the way Sean recites poems that have guided him, shares the methods that inspire him, and affirms the virtues of a mantra that you’ll find woven into many of his works: in all things, be yourself.
All about Sean, in his own words.
IndieBound.org: Find an independent bookseller near you
More episodes from "Breakthrough Builders"
Educating the World: Geetha Murali @ Room to Read
43:53Geetha Murali, CEO of Room to Read, talks with Jesse about her work in ending illiteracy and gender inequality, the importance of consistent skill building in one’s career, reflections on a career shift, and her vision for the future of education. Geetha shares how her mom refused a marriage at 13, leaving home to become a nurse and move to the United States. Geetha shares how her mother’s determination and father’s affable serenity helped shape her growth and values in ways that helped her become an effective builder. She shares insights into how education changes and benefits children, and their communities, including success stories she has helped build at Room to Read. Geetha shares practical insights on how she collaborates with local leaders, governments, and schools to create sustainable change, and about how Room to Read has scaled with the goal of impacting 40 million children by 2025. She shares her transition from statistician to non-profit leader to CEO and her thoughts on how to have a positive impact no matter where you work. She shares her secrets to success, including how she views the importance of education and relationships. How does education influence your success and the success of the people you care about? How do relationships and cooperation factor into your success? How do you plan your career to include meaningful impact? How do you rethink your strategy to scale into the future?(6:28) How Geetha learned the value of education from her mother’s trailblazing journey(16:08) Geetha describes moving beyond achieving goals, to fulfilling her purpose(24:05) How Room to Read grew to impact 40 million children worldwide(33:05) The central role that reading plays in developing empathy(34:44) Advice for anyone pursuing a career in the nonprofit sector(38:51) Jesse asks: Which influential people do you want to meet through your work?Guest BioDr. Geetha Murali is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Room to Read, an organization that believes World Change Starts with Educated Children.® Room to Read is creating a world free from illiteracy and gender inequality by helping children in low-income communities develop literacy skills and a habit of reading, and by supporting girls to build skills to succeed in school and negotiate key life decisions. The organization collaborates with governments and other partner organizations to deliver positive outcomes for children at scale. Room to Read has benefitted more than 18 million children across 16 countries and 37,000 communities and aims to reach 40 million children by 2025.As Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Geetha oversees Room to Read’s global operations, which include programmatic work in 16 countries, a global network of investors and volunteer chapters, and a worldwide staff of approximately 1,600 employees.Geetha on Twitter: https://twitter.com/gkmuraliRoom to Read Website: https://www.roomtoread.org/Helpful LinksSo Good They Can’t Ignore You, a book recommended by Geetha that was seminal to her early in her role as Room to Read’s CEO“How to Citizen” podcast by Baratunde Thurston Room to Read success story of KamlaBBC World Radio interview on COVID-19 impact on girls’ educationGeetha op-ed on the power of books on our mind“Six Terrific Book Ideas for Getting Girls into Tech” interview with Geetha Murali and Youtube CEO Susan Wojcicki in Wired MagazineGeetha’s background and story, shared by the Shakti CollaborativeMichelle Obama & Julia Roberts meet with Room to Read kids in VietnamAward from the Library of Congress for Room to Read’s special response to COVID-19
Faith in the Future: Rob LoCascio @ Live Person
32:23One of the defining characteristics of this age of business is ambiguity. And to face that ambiguity with courage, we need to heed both ambitious visions of the future and the hard-earned lessons of the past. And you couldn’t ask for a better source of prescient ideas and valuable lessons than LivePerson CEO & Founder Rob LoCascio. He’s the rare tech entrepreneur who really may have seen it all.In his talk with Jesse, Rob discusses the ups and downs of his 25-year journey, revealing how he managed through the dot-com bubble, the Great Recession, and now, a global pandemic. He reflects on his company’s invention of cloud-based web chat for business, achieved decades before the cloud as we know it came into existence. Rob offers thoughts on the future of conversational commerce, and reveals how LivePerson is now building AI tools that can hold remarkably natural and confidence-inspiring conversations with customers. Finally, he attests to the power that blockchain technology can offer to workers, and describes how he’s leading with empathy in support of employees. Throughout, Rob’s depiction of what he calls his “beautiful journey” is refreshingly frank, earnestly offered, and packed with useful advice and encouragement for entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs alike.(4:01) Why the entrepreneurial journey is full of setbacks and unknowns, but worth it(8:54) Inventing the cloud, decades before the cloud(13:24) How LivePerson builds chatbots that can hold more natural & personalized conversations with customers(21:55) The rise and democratizing potential of blockchain tech for workers(26:25) How conversational commerce can actually decentralize commerce—for good(28:12) To college or not to college?Guest BioRob LoCascio has served as LivePerson’s Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board of Directors since the company’s inception in November 1995. Additionally, he founded the charity Feeding NYC, hosts the podcast Over The Wall and is a frequent contributor to Inc., and other publications. Rob was named a New York City Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist in 2001 and 2008, and was the winner of the 2015 Smart CEO Circle of Excellence Award.Helpful Links Rob’s podcast: Over the WallInc. article: Four things to consider before turning your business over to bots (Rob authored)Announcing the launch of Conversational MarketplacesRob’s charity: Feeding NYCRob on LinkedIn and Twitter
Inclusive Inventor: Jenny Fleiss @ Volition Capital
41:09Jenny Fleiss is co-founder of category creator Rent The Runway, but in some ways, that’s an understatement of the time and energy she put in to revolutionize the designer fashion industry—and forever change old ideas of Who Gets to Wear What. In her talk with Jesse, Jenny recounts the detailed logistics work and core insights it took to drive growth at Rent The Runway, with lessons learned for aspiring founders. She describes how she now brings her entrepreneurial experience to bear as an investor, emphasizing inclusivity and the growing importance of shared wins. Jenny outlines a format that digital commerce businesses can follow to create personalized experiences at scale. And she offers advice for parents on how to inspire entrepreneurship from an early age. All told, Jenny’s story highlights the transformational power of building in oneself – and others – the confidence to excel.(3:13) How Jenny’s experience as an entrepreneur led her to join Volition Capital this year(8:32) Assessing the state of digital commerce—global challenges & innovations(11:47) Jenny’s POV on the three pillars of personalization-at-scale(16:56) Launching Rent The Runway with an unprecedented dive into logistics and a crucial market insight(23:29) How Jenny linked up with RTR co-founder Jenn Hyman, along with her tips for finding co-founders(29:23) Changing the VC funding landscape and increasing opportunities for women-run businesses(31:23) Lessons for parents on teaching and encouraging entrepreneurshipGuest BioJenny Fleiss joined Volition Capital in 2021 as the company’s first Venture Partner, where she focuses on next-generation consumer brands. She is an entrepreneur and intrapreneur, founding two scaled digitally native businesses from scratch: Rent the Runway and Jetblack. During her time at Rent the Runway, Jenny wore many different hats, serving as President, Head of Logistics, and Head of Business Development.Jenny has been honored with numerous recognitions including Inc. Magazine’s “30 Under 30”; Fortune Magazine’s “40 Under 40” and “Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs”; and Fast Company’s “Most Influential Women in Technology.”Helpful LinksRent the RunwayVolition CapitalFast Company: Inside Rent The Runway’s Secret Dry-Cleaning EmpireHarvard Business Review: Women-Led Startups Received Just 2.3% of VC FundingJenny on LinkedIn and Twitter
Steward of Story: Jessica Kleiman @ Peloton
37:15Jessica Kleiman is a PR & comms veteran, a published author, and a principal contributor to one of the greatest brand stories of the new millennium.In her talk with Jesse, Jessica takes us on her journey from 90s media rooms to directing communications at Peloton, where she helped blend content with technology to turn living rooms around the globe into supercharged exercise studios and cherished virtual meeting places. She describes how, throughout her career, she leveraged a background in literature and love of story to bring an editor’s eye and human openness to the oft-sanitized world of PR, and how she managed to write her first book in the months after becoming a mother. Increasingly, the stories a brand tells are an integral part of how people experience a brand—Jessica’s advice is invaluable for any builder seeking to build a passionate following with authentic and empathetic content.(4:32) Reflections on having a mother who was an executive; the pros and cons (8:11) What media companies were like two decades ago, versus what they’re like now(13:59) Bringing together a passion for content with deep acumen in PR and comms at Peloton(18:26) How Peleton led out as a category creator(20:40) The power of community and how it can be amplified authentically(24:29) Advice for PR pros on communicating with humanity & empathy(32:48) How Jessica wrote a book as a working mom; advice for any aspiring author with too little timeGuest BioJessica Kleiman is Senior Vice President, Global Communications at Peloton, the leading interactive fitness platform, where she oversees the brand’s public relations, corporate communications, internal communications and social media initiatives. Before Peloton, she spent two years leading consumer communications at Instagram and over a decade at Hearst Magazines, where she managed PR efforts for 20 U.S. media brands. Jessica also led PR and IR for The Knot, Inc., the nation’s leading wedding website and media company, and helped take the company public. Helpful LinksPeloton Founder John Foley on How I Built This (ref’d at 17:28)Hollywood Reporter article: The Hollywoodization of PelotonJessica’s book: Be Your Own Best PublicistQ&A with author Kate White (ref’d at 33:56)Jessica on LinkedIn and Twitter
Coming Next Week: Season Five
5:10Hey everybody, it’s Jesse. Thanks so much for listening to Breakthrough Builders.I know it’s been a second since we dropped our last episode. That’s because the team here has been preparing to share a series of recent conversations I’ve had with some really incredible guests. Starting next week, we’re back to dropping shows on Wednesdays with the start of Season Five of Breakthrough Builders. The theme of this season is Building Experiences at the intersection of Technology & Purpose. Over the next few weeks, you’ll hear from CEOs, Founders, and other top executives at some wildly cool brands like Rent the Runway, Peloton, Bonobos, VaynerMedia, LivePerson, Hydrow, and more.My conversations this season will be with Builders who are challenging the status quo to put interesting, innovative, and really important things into the world. Products, services, and especially experiences that make a difference in people’s lives, and that are rooted in a shared sense of purpose between company and customer. Before we ‘round the bend into this next series of conversations, I wanted to take a moment to hype up and get you hyped up about our next 2 Guests!On Wednesday, November 3rd, you’ll hear my conversation with Jessica Kleiman, Senior Vice President of Global Communications at Peloton. Jessica and I talked about the work she and her team have been doing to build and cast Peloton as a new kind of company that’s purposefully and wonderfully blurring the lines between fitness, community, and entertainment.Then, on Wednesday, November 10th, you’ll hear my conversation with Rent the Runway Co-Founder Jenny Fleiss. Jenny has had a hand in creating some of the most inspiring and inclusive innovations at the intersection of fashion and technology over the past decade. The lessons she learned, starting and then running logistics for Rent the Runway, are a must-listen for any Builder with the ambition to build breakthrough experiences and create emotional connections with customers.Keep sharing your input on the show, as well as any suggestions for Guests you would like me to have on! You can reach us on our website, over at breakthrough-builders.com, that’s breakthrough-hyphen-builders-dot-com, or on Qualtrics’ socials, @Qualtrics. You can also hit me up on Twitter @jesse underscore purewal.Again, thanks for taking the time to subscribe to the show, and for leaving a rating and a review. And if you like the show, please, tell a friend!Looking forward to having you again next week, on Breakthrough Builders.
Changing Tastes For Good: Kim Le
29:39(3:29) Recognizing the devastating impacts of climate change(6:24) How Kim ended up in the food industry, and why making better & tastier plant-based meat became her primary pursuit(11:59) Going beyond the old staples: Cooking up delicious new products with a breakthrough ingredient(13:59) On serving a public who increasingly wants to eat less meat(15:57) Building a brand that’s for everyone in order to drive global impact(20:48) Encouraging diversity of thought and perspectives on the Prime Roots teamPrime Roots CEO & Co-Founder Kim Le is on a mission to combat climate change on a global scale—one meatless meal at a time. And her approach is remarkably authentic: Like the vast majority of Americans, she wants to eat less meat, and decrease her environmental impact in the process. But she also wants better plant-based meat to enjoy. And that’s why the company she started is developing and delivering delicious new products that taste amazing, appeal to everyone, and aren’t made with over-processed, bland ingredients.In her talk with Jesse, Kim discusses her journey to becoming a disruptive force in the food industry. You’ll hear how climate change became a problem she couldn’t ignore, and how she formed her belief that the omnivores and flexitarians among us have truly enormous power to stave off the emerging crisis. Throughout the discussion Kim describes the importance of building an authentic brand, how she’s encouraging diverse perspectives as a leader, and the power of storytelling. It’s an intriguing look into the mindset and motivations of a builder who’s made it her mission to help tackle one of the biggest existential problems of our time.Guest Bio Kim Le is the CEO & Co-Founder of Prime Roots. She’s a scientist-entrepreneur-foodie and life-long learner determined to make positive changes in our global food system. Kim has been working in management within the food industry (retail, food service, investing) for over ten years and is determined to bring delicious, sustainable, and nutritious foods to the masses and increase accessibility and equity in our food system. She’s a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. Helpful LinksTry it yourself! Order via the Prime Roots websiteForbes article: Bacon Without The Oink Is The Next Plant-Based FrontierAlso featured in Fast Company, Business Insider, & more Kim on LinkedIn and Twitter
Discovering Vulnerability: Brad Balukjian
39:03(4:12) Brad describes the origins of his passion for baseball, and the contrarian criteria he used to identify his heroes(8:37) Art and science, connecting: How the premise of The Wax Pack was linked to Brad’s study of Tahitian bugs, and the parallels Brad sees more broadly between science and journalism(15:46) Refusing to be taken out of the game (as a character in his own book)(19:30) Journalism as therapy, and discovering the power of embracing vulnerability(22:59) How to write the telling details (27:26) Some of Brad’s favorite (and surprising) moments from his time on the road with retired players: Rick Sutcliffe, Don Carman, Rance Mulliniks, and others (32:10) Giving yourself the freedom to let go of expectations In 2020, Brad Balukjian’s first book The Wax Pack reached #7 on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list and was named one of NPR's Best Books of the Year. The book was formulated on a breakthrough premise, evident by its universal reception––lifelong baseball lovers and the merely curious followed Brad as he tracked down all the players in a single pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards, drawing unexpected connections between their lives and his own in the process.In his talk with Jesse, Brad dishes on his unconventional journey to becoming a celebrated chronicler of the remarkably human 'afterlives' of uniquely talented athletes. You’ll hear about the early connections he made between the scientific method and journalism, how he’s currently embracing what he calls a 'hybrid career,' and of course: scores of anecdotes and special insights from his time on the road with retired major league ballplayers. Guest BioBrad Balukjian teaches natural history at Merritt College in Oakland, California. He is pursuing a hybrid career of teaching, writing, and research to get the word out that science is accessible and (gasp!) fun.Brad, a Filipino-American, studied journalism and island biogeography (yes, that's a thing) at Duke University and earned his Ph.D. in Environmental Science from UC Berkeley.Helpful LinksWaxpackbook.comBrad’s past work for Rolling Stone, National Geographic, and more An interview with Brad on MLB.comBrad on LinkedIn and Twitter
Authoring Encouragement: Sean Taylor
34:28(02:24) How the journey started: trips to the library, and an up-and-down primary school experience(08:23) Studying at Cambridge, gravitating to fellowship over scrutinous scholarship(15:23) Some of Sean’s inspirations, featuring a reciting of Robert Graves’ poem, Flying Crooked(17:45) Advice for writers on how to nurture ideas into form(20:40) Describing the mechanics and joy of working with illustrators (22:53) Thoughts on the value of physical books in a screen-obsessed world(24:34) Why independent bookstores and libraries need our support now more than ever(31:19) Sean reads from his latest book, How to Be Cooler than CoolThe builders we interview on this show frequently cite the encouragement they received at an early age to explore their passions and find their purpose. And that’s exactly the kind of human encouragement you’ll find in the charming, award-winning children’s books authored by Sean Taylor– stories that include Hoot Owl: Master of Disguise, the recently published How to Be Cooler than Cool, and over 60 others.In his talk with Jesse, Sean offers advice for aspiring writers, as well as any builder with aspirations to write their own story and forge a unique path in life. You’ll hear why he opted out of the strictly scientific approach to literature that was prevalent during his time at Cambridge; how he found fellowship and honed his storytelling in London as a member of a group called The Basement Writers; and how he found his ultimate calling to write stories for children. Along the way Sean recites poems that have guided him, shares the methods that inspire him, and affirms the virtues of a mantra that you’ll find woven into many of his works: in all things, be yourself. Guest BioAll about Sean, in his own words. Helpful LinksHow to Be Cooler than CoolSean’s websiteIndieBound.org: Find an independent bookseller near you
Growing Abroad: Brennan O'Donnell
34:14(02:41) Brennan describes Frontline Ventures’ mission and his role there(04:17) The mistakes companies typically make when moving into Europe(09:18) How Brennan taught himself to code and found his calling as a builder(11:13) Working at Google in the early days, and getting the opportunity to lead efforts in London and Dublin (15:11) Observations from Google Europe, including why the best companies are always reinventing themselves(21:02) Leading social network Yammer through its acquisition by, and learning from the practices of, Microsoft(26:44) Discovering vulnerability as an essential leadership trait(29:13) Technology innovations that excite Brennan and his team In a recent article for TechCrunch, Frontline Ventures partner Brennan O’Donnell described the burgeoning opportunity that European markets offer to U.S companies, particularly in tech, pointing out that EMEA now represents 38% of the world’s GDP and is the world’s second-largest B2B software market. But in order to capitalize on the opportunity, CEOs would be wise to learn from thought leaders like Brennan, who have been through the rigor of scaling high-growth companies in Europe and seen the potential pitfalls. In this episode, Brennan talks to Jesse about the most common mistakes he's seen brands make when expanding into Europe, what it was like to lead growth at Google Europe, reflections on guiding Yammer through its acquisition by Microsoft, how he's learned to embrace vulnerability as an essential leadership trait, and the emerging technologies he's most excited about as an investor.Guest BioBased in Silicon Valley, Brennan O’Donnell has over 20 years of experience building technology businesses and scaling global teams. As a partner with Frontline Ventures, he invests in growth stage startups with a focus on helping them expand into Europe. The fund’s portfolio includes companies such as TripActions, Lattice, Clearbanc and Attentive.Before moving into venture capital, Brennan spent nearly a decade at Google, where he held multiple go-to-market leadership roles in the US and EMEA, building teams across both the Cloud and Ads businesses. After Google, he went on to hold c-level and executive roles in several early stage and high growth SaaS startups, including Yammer (acquired by Microsoft), SurveyMonkey (IPO), Euclid (acquired by WeWork) and most recently Airtable. He is a graduate of Northwestern University.Helpful LinksFrontline Ventures websiteTechCrunch: Proactive CEOs should prioritize European expansionThe Irish Times: Frontline Ventures targets US tech companies with new $80m fund Brennan on LinkedIn and Twitter
Legacy of Love: Dr. Izabel Olson
37:32[6m41s] Izabel describes the wrongful imprisonment of her father in Brazil, and the impact it had on her and her family[9m13] The legacy of her mother’s warrior spirit, resilience, and love[13m40s] Why Izabel puts storytelling at the heart of Salt & Light Coalition’s curriculum and its efforts to build empathy and trust[17m40s] The importance of non-judgment as a culture value[19m15s] Izabel describes the healing program that thrivers participate in during their first six months at Salt & Light[22m26s] The story of Salt & Light’s founding, including an unexpected insight gained when teaching yoga at Cook County Jail[26m20s] The intentionality of building an all-female Board of Directors, and the necessity of maintaining a diverse staff[27m56s] The coalition’s heralded successes, including 80% workforce placement after graduation [30m04s] How Salt & Light adapted and developed a more flexible format during the pandemic While teaching yoga at Illinois’ Cook County Jail, Dr. Izabel Olson discovered a startling insight: over 70% of female inmates had been victims of trafficking. And when she looked around at the resources available in the Chicago area to trafficking victims, she found that there was a substantial gap in programs that offered rehabilitative services. Shortly afterward, she embarked on founding Salt & Light Coalition to fill the need.In her talk with Jesse, Dr. Olson describes how she came to understand the conditions that enable trafficking in part through the lens of her own lived experience; how she built Salt & Light on the cultural foundations of empathy and non-judgment; the profound effect that Salt & Light has had on the lives of its graduates; and lessons learned from trying to keep the coalition’s critical support network open and available during the pandemic. Izabel’s story is an inspiring journey of love and understanding and a powerful reminder to build toward our life’s purpose with both an open mind and open heart. Guest BioDr. Izabel Olson is the founder and CEO of Salt and Light Coalition, a grassroots organization breaking the cycle of human trafficking through mind-body restoration and workforce development. Dr. Olson is dedicated to the empowerment of women, especially survivors of human trafficking as they reframe their traumatic experiences and find success in the workplace and throughout society. Prior to establishing Salt and Light Coalition, Dr. Olson was a researcher at Northwestern University, where she earned her Ph.D. in the Learning Sciences. Helpful LinksSalt & Light CoalitionInterview: Preying on the Vulnerable: Half of Trafficked Women and Girls Are ImmigrantsQ&A with Voyage ChicagoDr. Izabel Olson on TwitterAlso check out our conversation with Dr. Gheeta Murali, CEO of Room to Read