Elisa Birnbaum, Author and Entrepreneur on the power of storytelling
A storyteller at heart, Elisa Birnbaum is the Founder of SEE Change Magazine, a digital publication of social entrepreneurship. A lawyer by training, Elisa likes to provide inspiring stories to give people a reason to believe in their own potential to impact their communities and the world. Elisa’s first book, In the Business of Change, profiling more than 70 social entrepreneurs, tackling challenges in their communities and their lessons learned will be published end of May.
Tell me about your company and why you started it.
I actually run two companies. SEE Change Magazine is a digital publication of social entrepreneurship. We publish a range of content – including our newly acclaimed podcast – about the world of social enterprise and social change. It’s geared at anyone who wants to learn more about social enterprise and how to do it right or who just wants an inspirational story to fuel their day and believes business can be a powerful force for change.
We started the magazine over seven years ago when there was a real gap in storytelling in the field. We believed then – and still believe now – that stories are imperative for social entrepreneurs to gain credibility, attention and impact. We also believed there was a real deficiency in positive storytelling. With so many inspiring folks doing phenomenal work– some working quietly without much fanfare – we wanted to help get their stories out.
In line with that mission, SEE Change Media also provides communications services for anyone in the space looking to tell their stories more effectively. Similarly, I run a communications consultancy, Elle Communications, where I help clients – many in the social impact space – gain greater impact through storytelling. From digital stories, ebooks and research reports, to op-eds, brand strategy, web content and storytelling workshops, we do it all.
What inspired you to write a book and how did you make it happen?
After almost 15 years as a journalist with a strong niche in social impact —including as a reporter for the National Post and seven years at SEE Change – I took a step back and realized I had amassed phenomenal stories and interviewed thousands of inspiring social entrepreneurs. A book just felt like the logical next step in my career, leveraging my platform, networks and most importantly these amazing stories.
Most particularly, I found there were some common themes and lessons learned from the social entrepreneurs I’ve profiled over the years. I wanted to share those lessons with anyone tackling this wonderful yet crazy world of social entrepreneurship, hoping that somehow these tips and advice can be of help. On a simpler level, a storyteller at heart, I wanted to provide inspiring and compelling stories that can lift people’s spirits and give them reason to believe in the potential we each have to impact our communities and the world.
What is the most surprising thing you discovered writing your book?
It’s a toss-up between two. The first most surprising thing I learned in writing the book was how, even among the most successful social enterprises, there is constant challenge – daily, monthly, continuous struggles – whether for recognition, funding , survival even. It’s not an easy ride, to be sure. And the folks at the helm of these businesses are some of the toughest people I ever met.
The second most surprising thing I discovered is how generous people can be in this space. As soon as I let people know I was working on this project, I had dozens and dozens of emails from people in my network, connecting me to new interviewees, wonderful folks to add to my book, offering to host my visit to their city and other means of support. I also had – and continue to get – numerous offers to help promote the book, through events, social media, interviews etc. As someone who has a tendency to work in my own silo and to rely largely on my own devices, the outpouring of support and generosity has touched my heart.
What’s one positive thing that a former employer/mentor taught you that you continue to appreciate?
One of the most positive lessons that I learned wasn’t from a good employer, it was from a difficult one, a flawed individual who derided and mistreated his employees and who turned the office into chaos, where distrust, white lies and backstabbing were encouraged and people were afraid to speak their mind. Not fun – I got out of there fast. First and foremost, that experience reiterated for me why I like to work for myself! But it also reminded me to treat people with kindness and respect because the people who work for – and with – you mirror your behaviour. Seems simple enough but it truly reinforced the importance that kindness plays in establishing an environment that people enjoy to work in, one that inspires them to speak their mind and, in the end, do their best work.
What’s your work/life philosophy?
I’m someone who lives and breathes my work so I better be doing something I enjoy. I used to believe, however, that if you find that “thing” something that impassions you, you’re set for life and that work/life balance will come naturally. But that’s just BS. Find something you’re passionate about, yes, but then work your butt off to make it a financially viable choice so that you can balance your life more comfortably. Or choose something else. It’s not impossible, but depending on your passion, it sometimes takes more effort.
And as someone who’s self-employed it’s even more essential to enjoy what I do since I could be working some days from morning till night. That said, that’s one of the reasons I really value my downtime too. If you’re going to work extra hard one day, be kinder to yourself the next, if you can. And be sure to find time for things that de-stress and de-clutter the mind, like yoga, boxing (my new passion), books, hanging out with friends and yes, even some binging on Netflix.