“If you want to change the stories, you need to change the storytellers.”
— Reese Witherspoon
When we decided not to attend INBOUND 2023 in person, one of my biggest disappointments came when I learned that Reese Witherspoon would be one of the Main Stage speakers.
I love Reese Witherspoon. I saw the original “Legally Blonde” in the movie theatre like half a dozen times. (I was a paid tester for the precursor to “MoviePass,” so we saw it a LOT.) We also drove to Des Moines to see “Legally Blonde: The Musical” and then saw it again when it came to Omaha. “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blonde” wasn’t as good as the original, but I’ve been anxiously awaiting a rumored third sequel. I also loved this pandemic skit that Laura Bell Bundy did in character as Elle Woods.
But anyway, knowing we weren’t going to Boston this year, and hearing about Reese Witherspoon being a speaker, I was bummed. So I was thrilled when HubSpot announced that the Main Stage speakers would be live-streamed — including Reese!
But before Reese, there were sessions on Brand Building (with Beyoncé’s publicist), “How to Build a $100M Community,” a panel session on “The Future of Media,” an interview with the founders of HubSpot on how they built the company, and then a session on the growth of the Angel City Football Club (I missed most of this one because I was on a client call).
One change from the first two days of INBOUND (read about them here: Day 1 and Day 2) was that it was 10:06 a.m. Central time (more than two hours in) before the first mention of artificial intelligence. (The first two days were AI intensive!)
And then it was time for Reese Witherspoon!
Her session was titled, “Lessons on Innovation, Leadership, and Navigating Change.” The one disappointing part was that the 2023 Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) strike and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) strike meant that she wouldn’t be talking about her past, present, or future work, as the interviewer, Zinhle Essamuah, anchor of NBC News Daily (NBC), mentioned in her introduction of the actress, producer, and entrepreneur.
Still, there was plenty to talk about.
Witherspoon described how she wasn’t seeing a lot of scripts with female leads, so she decided to fill that gap. “I can’t expect to make change by staying in the same circle,” she said. “I’m going to put my money where my mouth is.” So she started the first iteration of her production/media company, Hello Sunshine.
She self-funded the company. “It was high risk,” she noted. “Being famous does not equate to having business acumen.” She said she didn’t know how to be an executive, but she did know “critical life skills,” — for example: “Show up, do what you say you’re going to do, return emails, and if you tell someone you’re going to read their script, do it.”
Her experience acting helped prepare her to work collaboratively. She laughed when she noted, “10 percent of (her) job is acting; the other 90 percent is helping people get along.”
But it wasn’t easy. Witherspoon said that the award nominations flowed in, but the money did not. She said she had the proof she could create important work, but “I wasn’t paid appropriately for what I was bringing to the table.” So she retooled. She raised capital and got the company on solid financial footing. Persistence was key.
“Nobody believes as much in my dream as I do. I would wake up and do something to further my dream forward,“ she added.
Earlier in the week before INBOUND, the news broke that Witherspoon had sold a majority stake in a clothing line she had started, Draper James. It was a completely different growth path than Hello Sunshine. “Retail is hard. It’s really difficult.” But, she noted, she finally found the “right partners” and said she was excited for the company’s future growth. She will keep a seat on the board of directors, and has several family members involved in the brand’s retail presence in Nashville.
Essamuah asked Witherspoon her advice to people looking to maximize their bottom line. She responded, “It doesn’t matter where you get to in a business, you always have to be adapting.” She noted that her business has changed “again and again.” One thing that is consistent: “It’s so important that the audience is understood, spoken to correctly, and they feel seen and heard. That’s all storytelling is. That’s all media is. That’s all the relationship with your customer is,” she said. “Do you see me? Do you hear me? How do you make me feel? Do I see myself reflected in the stories you tell?”
For us as career industry professionals, this is an important message. Whether we’re telling our client’s story (in the resume) or our own story (in our own marketing), understanding our audience is critical.
After spending three days “attending” the virtual Main Stage sessions at INBOUND, that was an important reminder. Artificial intelligence is here to stay, but AI can’t replace personal connections and relationships.
Witherspoon ended by answering a question about the best advice she had ever received. She mentioned an Ava DuVernay quote she loves: “If your dream is only about you, it’s too small.”
“Every single person in this room as the ability to change another person’s life, and I think you’re going to go out and do it,” Witherspoon said.