"Articulate Your Purpose — When you’re first starting out, decide what your purpose is. Know that your purpose will change over time. When I first started thinking about working for myself I just wanted to help small business owners with HR best practices because I felt that would help people be treated more fairly. Over time this has changed to redesigning those systems from an equity perspective. So, don’t just articulate your purpose, bu don’t be too attached to keeping it the same forever."
In today’s competitive business landscape, the race for profits often takes center stage. However, there are some leaders who also prioritize a mission-driven purpose. They use their business to make a positive social impact and recognize that success isn’t only about making money. In this interview series, we are talking with some of these distinct leaders and I had the pleasure of interviewing Candice Elliott.
Candice Elliott is a Fractional Chief Human Resources Officer and HR Mentor for business and non-profit leaders. She focuses on the intersection of public health, and organizational and community development, helping leaders foster cultures of healing where they and their teams can thrive. She has a Masters in HR from Penn State, the Senior Professional in HR certification, and has been practicing HR in the US and internationally for more than 10 years. She is also a mom of 2 little boys under 3 years old.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us your “Origin Story”? Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in Los Angeles and lived in Echo Park until just after the riots in 1992. At that time, my parents moved us to a suburb of LA that had better schools and was safer. I was almost six years old when we moved, and that change affected me greatly. For me, we left the place where I belonged and moved to a place that didn’t make sense to me. Even the actions of my parents seemed to change when we moved from the city to the suburbs. So I carried with me this sense of not belonging until very recently. It kept me moving and changing and growing. It meant that I put myself into dangerous situations. It meant that I was never very close to anyone. It was only after healing this wound from my childhood that I was able to understand my own place in the world and the contributions that I could make to the world of work.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Last year, I was working with a group that specializes in supporting early childhood education. This organization wanted to do a compensation analysis to update its pay rates. One of the important values of this organization is equity. We did a market study, to see what other similarly situated organizations were paying jobs that were like theirs. We found that what was happening in the market was inequitable. The lowest-paid jobs were creeping up a bit, the mid-level jobs were basically staying the same, and the more high-paying jobs were increasing exponentially. They couldn’t in good conscience enact the raises that came out of the market study. These are the kinds of issues that come up in the work that I do that are helping us to create fair and more equitable systems in the workplace. We have to come up against the systemic injustices in order to change them.
We often learn the most from our mistakes. Can you share one that you made that turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?
I was conditioned, like most of us are, that in order to be “good” I needed to work harder, longer, and be better. In my late 20s, I finished a master’s degree in Human Resources while working full-time in HR. My work in HR kept bringing me up against the kinds of issues I just mentioned, but I didn’t have a lot of latitude to do anything about them. I kept overriding my own needs and sense of justice in order to uphold these systems. Eventually, my body wouldn’t do it anymore. A sequence of stressful events led me to have a panic attack. The psychiatrist that they sent me to, when I had to press again and again for mental health support, told me that I was fine. He said that I didn’t really have a panic attack, that this was normal, and that I should get back to work. I knew this wasn’t right and have been on a path ever since to figure out what went wrong for me personally and to help fix these systemic issues that lead to others’ suffering.
As a successful leader, it’s clear that you uphold strong core values. I’m curious what are the most important principles you firmly stand by and refuse to compromise on. Can you share a few of them and explain why they hold such significance for you in your work and life?
Well, I’ve already mentioned equity. It is essential for those of us who find ourselves in positions of power and privilege to adjust the systems that have been created to be more equitable. Equity is different from equality in that equity seeks to address the inherent biases in our current systems in order to right the injustices of the past, instead of just lifting everyone to the same level.
Another value that I hold close to is kindness, and when I say this, I don’t mean being ”nice” to get along. I mean having genuine kindness in my interactions with others. There were many years in my life when I was unkind. I’m working to change that.
The last one I think of it three parts: wholeness, community, and integration. This means giving myself space to integrate the experiences that I have so that they can become a part of my wholeness as a person, and then being able to participate in my community from that wholeness.
All of these values are ones that I hold, not just for myself, but for all people.
What inspired you to start a purpose-driven business rather than a traditional for-profit enterprise? Can you share a personal story or experience that led you to prioritize social impact in your business?
It was my moment of burnout when my body told me that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. Shortly after that experience, I decided to take some time away. I’m an artist and I create wood-fired ceramics. Wood firing is a wonderful process because it takes so much physical labor and time, and you never know exactly what will happen. To fire a wood-fired kiln, you gather a group of people together. Usually, you want at least two people per 8-hour shift, and the shifts are running 24 hours a day for up to two weeks. During the shift you’re chopping wood, feeding it into the kiln, and then waiting, watching, and feeding again. It takes a whole day to load, and a whole day to unload, and there is a day of rest between when you finish firing and when you unload. So I went to a firing like this and took time to unmake the rules that I had created for myself about what work should be. This was how I was able to transition from being entrenched in work that wasn’t working, to seeing a way to a different future.
Can you help articulate a few of the benefits of leading a purpose-driven business rather than a standard “plain vanilla” business?
The first is being able to live in integrity. By leading a purpose-driven business I can live in integrity. If, through my work, I come up against a systemic injustice, I can work to fix it. I can put a spotlight on it and broadcast it.
The second is the capacity to break cycles. By having this kind of business I don’t have to keep doing things the way that they have been done before. I can really get into the why of how we do things and remake them to better suit the needs of humanity.
The last piece of this is empowerment, it is the ability to empower not just myself and my team, but to empower other leaders and organizations to find a different way of doing things.
How has your company’s mission or purpose affected its overall success? Can you explain the methods or metrics you use to evaluate the impact of this purpose-driven strategy on your organization?
The more I do this work, the deeper I go into the organizations I work with and the systems of our greater society. The way that I evaluate the impact of purpose in my organization is through conversations. I know this isn’t a very metricy metric, but, it is through the quality and quantity of conversations that are centered on redesigning work so that it is supportive of the physical, psychological, and spiritual needs of the people who are doing the work.
Can you share a pivotal moment when you realized that leading your purpose-driven company was actually making a significant impact? Can you share a specific example or story that deeply resonated with you personally?
I started a mentorship program last year because I wanted to be able to give back to HR professionals who are newer to the profession. Through my years of experience in the field, inquiry into academic studies, and understanding of the law, I’ve come to a unique mix of expertise in this area.
So, a few weeks ago I was talking with one of my mentees. She comes up against these systemic injustices in her work on a monthly, sometimes weekly basis. I love that we get to support her through the challenges she faces. I realized that my company was making a difference in supporting not just her, but other employees in her company through our work with her, to have better pay, better working conditions, and to have systems in place for decision-making about these things rather than being at the whim of the man who runs the company. The work that we’re doing isn’t easy, but it is changing things. Sometimes it’s changing things too slowly for my liking, but it is changing.
Have you ever faced a situation where your commitment to your purpose and creating a positive social impact clashed with the profitability of your business? Have you ever been challenged by anyone on your team or had to make a tough decision that had a significant impact on your finances? If so, how did you address and reconcile this conflict?
I really see positive social impact and profitability as linked. For me, when I am spending money on things that are aligned with my values, I see that as money well spent. I’m not in business to siphon money out of the economy. I’m actually actively against that. I don’t want to make money and keep it out of the hands of others. I want to make money and give it to others. It’s important to me to run a business that is putting money back into the economy and supporting people to live their fullest lives. The only times that I don’t see money being well spent is when it is on something that is not values-aligned or is unsustainable.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs who wish to start a purpose-driven business?
What are your “5 Things You Need To Know in Order To Create A Highly Successful Purpose-Driven Business.”
1 . Articulate Your Purpose — When you’re first starting out, decide what your purpose is. Know that your purpose will change over time. When I first started thinking about working for myself I just wanted to help small business owners with HR best practices because I felt that would help people be treated more fairly. Over time this has changed to redesigning those systems from an equity perspective. So, don’t just articulate your purpose, but don’t be too attached to keeping it the same forever.
2 . Market Research — When you want to bring something to the market it’s essential to do market research to find out if it’s something people really want. I used to think market research was something really complicated, but it’s actually just having conversations with people. You can just put together a list of the people you want to work with and ask them some questions about what you’re thinking about doing and whether or not that would be something that would help them or solve a problem that they have. You can even ask them how much they would pay for it.
3 . Create Offer — After the market research, this is when you create your offer. In the beginning, I always did the reverse. Your offer should be something that is clearly defined, that addresses the needs of the people in your market research.
4 . Ask for Feedback — Once you’ve created your offer, go back to your market research group and ask them what they think about it. You could even offer it to them at a discounted rate in exchange for feedback during a beta launch of your program.
5 . Promote more widely — Only after you’ve done these steps do you move forward with greater promotion. This can look like sending the offer out through email, social media, or doing paid advertising.
I’m interested in how you instill a strong sense of connection with your team. How do you nurture a culture where everyone feels connected to your mission? Could you share an example or story that showcases how your purpose has positively influenced or motivated people on your team to contribute?
We start with connection. In my conversations with my team, we rarely jump straight into work. We usually start out by catching up about life. I see the people who work for me as partners. I want them to have the freedom to do what they love. It’s important for me to know what it is that people really love spending their time doing, and to give them the opportunity to do that as much as possible. This is how my podcast happened. My assistant loves editing both video and audio. It was a dream of mine to start a podcast, and it was her joy to edit. So now we have weekly episodes most of the year.
Imagine we’re sitting down together two years from now, looking back at your company’s last 24 months. What specific accomplishments would have to happen for you to be happy with your progress?
I would be happy to have two things: work-life balance and growing impact and reputation.
Work-life balance is important to me because I want to spend as much time as I can with my children while they are young. I will only be able to live this part of life with them once. I want to take them to parks, to adventure in the forest, to go on trips, to bake cookies, to be able to be present with them in our day-to-day lives. I want the same balance for all the people who I work with. I want all of us to be able to be present in our lives outside of work, and for work to be a way for us to live out our soul’s purpose.
I would also love for my company to grow in impact and reputation. For me, this means increasing the number of organizations and leaders we are supporting, while continuing to work with the ones we work with now.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I want us to heal the world of work. I think that we can have work that isn’t based on exploitation and that we can have regenerative systems that actually support people as whole humans in their work. I want this to become the default. I’ve been exploring this topic in my podcast, The Hearth, and I’m currently writing a book about it.
How can our readers further follow your work or your company online?
The best way to stay connected with me is through my weekly newsletter. You can sign up here: www.fortressandflourish.com/newsletter
My podcast, The Hearth, is available wherever you listen to podcasts.
This was great. Thanks for taking time for us to learn more about you and your business. We wish you continued success!
About the Interviewer: Chad Silverstein is an accomplished entrepreneur and visionary leader. He started his first company, Choice Recovery, Inc., while attending Ohio State University and grew it to become an industry outlier before selling the business after 25 successful years. With the launch of his second venture, [re]start, a career development platform, Chad aimed to help people find meaningful career opportunities. Under his leadership, his team was recognized as a “Top Workplace” award winner for over a decade, twice being ranked the #1 small and medium-sized business to work for in Central Ohio. Chad sold [re]start in 2023, enabling him to focus on building an online community of high-performing leaders and continuing to make a positive impact in people’s lives.