Kristen Brown's podcast reaches women who want to succeed in business

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After a five-year stint at a Chicago-based advertising agency, Kristen Brown was ready for a change. Burned out from client work and eager to “create her own thing,” she stepped back.

Brown left the city and her job behind to return to her hometown of Columbia in 2010. That same year she founded a full-service advertising agency called Hoot Design Co.

If there was any place she could succeed as a business owner, Brown decided it would be here. But the reality of opening and operating Hoot Design took a great deal of hard work.

The design firm shifted away from creating custom art prints and wedding invitations in 2015, restructuring as the branding, marketing and ad agency it is today.

Across Hoot Design’s evolution, Brown said she grew tired of the “glory and romanticism” surrounding entrepreneurship and felt as if a one-sided story was being told.

“I just want to be out there [saying], ‘get ready to cry yourself to sleep or wake up at 3 a.m. and be in a cold sweat, not knowing if you can pay your bills,” Brown said, laughing.

She decided to channel that honesty into a new project.

Podcast for businesswomen

Earlier this year, Brown launched a podcast with a simple mission in mind: Create a community of support for women entrepreneurs.

She debuted ProFresh Podcast in May, and according to Hoot Design Co. team member Sydney Stephens, it has attracted over 6,000 listeners since the inaugural episode, averaging 229 listens per show. ProFresh has reached 55 cities across the United States and 30 countries around the world.

Brown tackles a new topic during each hour-long episode and has interviewed fellow businesswomen on the challenges of navigating a business breakup, becoming a female breadwinner, turning aspirations into a career and thriving in the age of online.

During a recent episode, Stephens College alumna Gretchen Röehrs, whose following has climbed to over 81,000 Instagram users, talked about on her unplanned social media success.

In another recent interview, Brown talked to The New Territory founder and publisher, Tina Casagrand, about celebrating the Midwest through her quarterly magazine.

“It sounds so lame, but I have loved all [the episodes] for different reasons,” Brown said. “You know how people say, ‘they’re like my children, I love them all?’ I really do love them all.”

Elissa Bertot, a podcast follower, MU alumna and owner of a Switzerland-based communications consulting firm, tunes into the podcast for its refreshing take on entrepreneurship.

“[It] feels like having an honest conversation with a friend,” Bertot said. “Hearing other women business owners open up about the ups and downs of running a business helps me realize that I’m not alone — everyone goes through the same struggles.”

Bertot applauded Brown and her ability to pull back the curtain on the not-always-pretty reality of being a female business owner.

“So many podcasts out there glorify entrepreneurship and idealize the whole idea of being your own boss,” she said. “ProFresh keeps it real.”

Midwestern voice

Aware that her experiences were not exclusive, Brown believed the journey of a businesswoman was both important and relatable. As the owner of Hoot Design Co., the show became an extension of her company, as well as an opportunity to share the good, the bad and the ugly of working in a largely male-dominated industry.

“We thought it would be a good way to get more content out there and really push something that we believe in, which is that the world would be a better place if there were more female leaders, female business owners, female bosses,” Brown said.

As a relatively new venture, ProFresh still has a hyper local audience, a demographic Brown has embraced. With an overwhelming number of podcasts similarly concentrated on female entrepreneurship, such as hugely popular GirlBoss Radio and “The Lively Show,” the regional focus has set ProFresh apart from the competition.

“[It’s] different because we’re still small and the podcast is new,” Brown said. “It really gives a voice to [those] smaller entrepreneurs.”

The topics discussed in each episode are relevant to more than just the Columbia community, however. You don’t have to live in Missouri to have struggled with work life balance or sexism in the workplace. Brown said she enjoys giving these women a platform.

“I hate the flyover state mentality where it feels a little bit like there’s so much focus on the coasts that people forget how much talent is here,” she said. “I love getting some small way to give a voice to Midwesterners.”

The second shift

In the earlier stages of production, Brown invited her friends to share their insights on the podcast, but listeners soon began to suggest potential guests.

When it came to criteria, Brown said she was looking for one thing: Women willing to be vulnerable.

“That’s what we ask, ‘Are you OK being super transparent about your journey?’ Because if not, it’s probably not going to be that interesting,” Brown said.

Brown often highlights the gender-based struggles many of her interviewees have endured.

“We talk a lot about the female experience,” she said. “I almost always ask if they’ve experienced sexism or what they think about work life balance, because that’s something females are asked about all the time and males aren’t.”

Brown recognized a gap between what was expected of professional women and their male counterparts.

“As an entrepreneur, you have to give 110 percent of your time to your business, but then often as a mom or a woman you’re often expected to give 100 percent to your family too,” she said. “There’s less societal pressure on guys or dads to give as much. It’s not as expected.”

According to sociologist and MU Sociology instructor Kristin Kalz, “All the things you would have to do to keep your life going – the laundry, the [cooking], paying the bills, managing the social calendar usually falls on women.”

Referred to as the “second shift,” Kalz attributed this extra workload to pay inequality.

“Because you’re not hitting that same income mark, it’s sort of seen as ‘well, your works less valuable,’ ‘you’re bringing in less money.’ So, in order to meet that deficit, you should just do more work [at home],” she said.

Embracing the identity

When Brown first founded Hoot Design, she wasn’t comfortable calling herself an entrepreneur. In fact, it took years for her to embrace the role.

As the company grew, so did Brown’s confidence. She hired her first employee just one year after the brand’s crossover into advertising and with the livelihood of others at stake, reality set in. She finally began to accept the entrepreneurial identity.

Part of the ProFresh Podcast’s objective has been to empower other women to do the same.

“It’s more challenging for women to embrace their own success and triumphs, and I think that naturally they second guess themselves more,” Brown said. “Whenever people ask me, ‘what would you tell yourself at the beginning of this journey?’ I would tell myself not to play down what I do and not be humble.”

For Brown, that’s included asking herself, “What would a guy do in this situation?”

“I don’t think that [men] would second-guess themselves or how much they charge or their expertise,” she said.

Kalz echoed this sentiment.

“Men will take credit for the craziest stuff,” she said, laughing. “Women are socialized to not stand out even when they succeed. Women are socialized to be the peacemakers and men are socialized to go get it. It does [women] a disservice.”

Finding the value

The ProFresh Podcast has evolved since its debut last spring, growth Brown wants to continue by reaching broader audiences and sharing stronger entrepreneurial stories.

“Certainly a goal would be to interview someone really huge that probably wouldn’t give me the time of day otherwise,” she said, naming Brené Brown as a dream guest.

While the podcast has been anything but a selfish pursuit, Brown admitted an unexpected perk that’s come from her passion project.

“I really have learned something from every single person,” she said. “There’s so many surprising benefits of the podcast that I wouldn’t have guessed and that’s absolutely one of them, how much I’ve learned.”

You can subscribe and listen to the ProFresh Podcast here.Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott: abbottjm@missouri.edu, 882-5741.

“Hearing other women business owners open up about the ups and downs of running a business helps me realize that I’m not alone — everyone goes through the same struggles.” KRISTEN BROWN podcaster, ProFresh

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