• Weslie Ashe

Jen Kelchner, Badass Woman

For my second Badass Women blog interview, I spoke with Jen Kelchner, a Conscious Transformation & Strategy Leader who runs her own business, Leader 21, and is involved in several other projects (including a personal project she thinks of as “world domination”). Listen to the interview yourself or read Jen’s answers below.

Jen Kelchner is the founder of Leader 21 and a Conscious Transformation & Strategy Leader. An architect of conscious transformation in leaders and organizations, Jen’s work is targeted at meeting the demands of the emerging future to build an open, collaborative, inclusive world. As a transformation and strategy expert, she focuses on the values of open, quantum thinking, applied empathy and integrating heart-centered leadership with open processes. She advises leaders on change architecture, communication, breaking down barriers, connecting the dots to solve problems, and innovating the people side of digital transformation. Jen is also a founding member of the Forbes Coaches Council, Deloitte alumn, and member of the Open Organization Ambassador team. Learn more about Jen here: https://ldr21.com.

This is a transcript of my interview with Jen.

(1) First, tell me a little about yourself and your mission?

Sure. I am someone who dabbles in a lot of different things--I have a lot of passion--but they all really tend to hone in around the mission. And I wasn't sure what that mission was until about eight years ago, when I sat down and took myself through an exercise to figure out what is my personal mission statement. Like, what's the one sentence I would say defines why I do what I do no matter what that is. And I had come out of a period time was really really really dissatisfied with my life.

I had to kind of sit down and start to figure it out. And then when you figure out what your mission is and you kind of have like this measuring stick for making decisions, right? Like, do I want to be involved in this work? Do I want to do this project? How do I live my life and how am I satisfied at the end of the day and like a more general broad scope. And for me that was the starting point. So I really was able to hone in on what makes me happy. When I feel the most valued--when I feel the most helpful to humanity--is when I am personally effecting a change in people and places every day.

So once I kind of like, honed in on this mission, I started looking at how do I wanted to do that. How I do it is going to look different every day, right? It could be smiling at somebody at a coffee shop when you can tell they need a little extra measure of kindness that day. It could be something at the other end, like taking on a work project that is going to help transform the way an organizational culture is making people work together. And so with that, a couple of years ago, I decided to launch Leader 21, which really helps me work with large scale organizations to transform the way they're doing work to become more open, to be more collaborative, to be more inclusive.

Then I have some other projects as well that are focused more on global change in education and in technology and how we can apply those new ways of thinking and new ways of doing and being around the world. The whole thing about the conscious transformation for me is consciousness. Having kind of gone through a process of awakening myself, it really helped me to learn to be a more heart-centered leader and to teach other people to do that. Being conscious and consciously aware--consciously connected--is understanding that we are all connected. All humans, all life, how we interact, how we work with each other, how we treat each other. Being better humans together really comes back to a lot of practices around consciousness.

Now I take that more spiritual context of it, if you will, the conscious connectedness and the heart-centeredness, and help leaders do that in large organizations so that we can have healthier places to work and ultimately healthier communities to operate in, and then just kind of effect bigger global change from there.

There's a lot just to tell you my mission now! I wanted to lead off with world domination, but that doesn't tend to go over very well. So especially for me, like, we can't just go, "what's your mission? world domination!" But it is in the context of compassion and kindness. I mean, I think if it doesn't stem from there, it doesn't stem from a true place, then it's not really transformation.

(2) Being a freelancer/entrepreneur/world dominator requires a lot of moxie. What made you want to start your own business?

You know it's funny, I probably would have given you a different answer even just a year or so ago, but in this process of really just like learning more about myself and finding my my own sacred space within that and honoring the things I then do in life--like what really propels me--I started to kind of go back and realize that this iteration of me that is a product of all of these other experiences in my adult life and childhood and etc.

But basically, it's the same girl that's been around since day one. And I think my journey has been about getting back to that girl. You know, I remember very distinctly at, like, four and five years old, getting in trouble repeatedly for what we used to call being "bossy," which was really just like high level leadership skills! On the playground I'd be organizing other kids into what games we going to play at recess, or I was always in trouble for talking, for asking questions, for being curious. And I found that over time I was really conditioned. You know, my parents were doing the best they could with the information they had at the time, but the environment I grew up was more or less conditioning me. And I think that specifically as women, as young girls, this happens still. I mean we're breaking out of that now in this generation, but a lot of us as adults now have come through this societal conditioning.

Because of that, my curiosity was kind of being squashed, I was continually being told to be quiet and, you know, stop asking me questions, you're making the adults uncomfortable.

That really steered the majority of my adult life and the opportunities I went into. Then I was at work one day (I was working at Deloitte at the time), and I just remember thinking how here's this global company and I'm in an amazing role. I feel blessed to even be here. And yet, I'm upset, I'm frustrated, I'm in a box yet again.

I had that breakthrough moment ten years ago, and I'm like this is dumb. Like, I cannot give all of myself, I can't give the great things about myself, in this environment. If I have to continue to conform or to be in this box, I cannot be sure of myself. And I do think that box is different for everybody. For me, it really was about knowing that I believed in myself enough and believed enough that if enough people believe in themselves you can start to affect global change (i.e. world domination, right?).

So I left Deloitte 10 years ago, and I just kind of jumped out into the deep end of the pool as an entrepreneur. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew that finding myself in the journey and finding how I could serve other people through business in that journey was far more important than staying in a fake little box.

And it's really hard. but that's where it stemmed from. Why did I want to do my own business? I mean I love working with people, I don't like working for people. That's kind of the extra leadership stuff in me. I really just don't have time for anybody else to make up their mind. I'm like nope, let's hit the road and just go! But I love partnering with people to accomplish things, just to be clear, because that's really important. If you can't work with other people, then you really shouldn't be in business to start with.

That’s what got me started. I just knew there had to be a better way to start breaking down the old system and to stop pitting women against women in business for once. I was really also over that--over doing a quality job and having my direct manager, also a female, saying, well this isn't good enough because they're terrified I would try to take their job. That's still such a thing in the corporate world where women are just taught to hate other women, which, again is a condition. It's just like everything's a fight, and I was over it, so I left. I said, I'll just make my own cape and Wonder Woman suit and see what happens.

(3) What do you absolutely adore about your company and being a business owner?

I think it's a freedom, honestly. Like there's a freedom to choose that you create for yourself. I think the confusing thing most people find when they choose to freelance or become an entrepreneur is the assumption that I'm doing this on my own and I'll be successful right away and it's going to be amazing. We're going to have all the pictures we see on Instagram of other girls in business, and we're all going to have these cute outfits, and we're going to go on cute trips, and it's going to be amazing.

And those things can all happen, but it happens after a really long time. It happens after a lot of perceived failures. Things that just didn't work out so well that were either not right for you or just not a good match or somebody else was involved that made it not work out right. Or there was something out of your control. But it's a lot of a lot of work. There's rarely ever days off. But I also enjoy that: the freedom to choose how I want to live my life and the freedom to choose what I want to participate in and the freedom to choose what that next project looks like. Because I change my mind a lot. I'm not indecisive or wishy washy, it's just that there are new things that continually bubble up in me that I get very excited about and I just love being on the cutting edge of things and so I think my changing my mind sometimes is I just that I want to be involved in the next the next big thing.

(Weslie: it’s like the winds change and you like let the ship go that way. Which is not just changing your mind, it's like going, I don't know almost, where you're led to. That's how I see it.)

Yes, good point. It is intuition. And people use different words. If you’re a more faith based person you may call that spirit. If you're more somebody that kind of focuses more on something that you talk about as consciousness or energy, you might call it intuition. But it's the same thing. It's that innate, intuitive voice that lives within you that is really you. And that's the thing that you can align yourself to in conjunction with your mission and things you're passionate or purposeful about. Then you're never steering yourself wrong, even though it may look like the weirdest journey. To everybody else on the planet, it may seem like you have no idea what's going on and you're just doing whatever strikes your whimsy that day. It's really not that. It's actually very intentional to be that self-aware and then to follow what you feel is the right thing, because you have to let go of a lot of fear in your life in order to do that. But it's also more satisfying and you tend to find yourself in these really unusual places. Like I continue to find myself in very unusual, unexpected places that bring me opportunities to do bigger and better things because I kind of go with the wind.

(4) Anything about being an entrepreneur that you'd like to break up with?

Yes. And I'm actively working on it. There has been a huge culture with entrepreneurs about this grinding mentality. You know who's the biggest grinder, and all that hustle, and if you're not hustling, you're doing something wrong. Like, you can find T-shirts and coffee mugs with sayings about hustle and grind and the early bird gets the worm. all the old little clichés.

It's led a lot of us astray. There is something to be said for a lot of intentional hard work, but there's also something to be said for balance. I think for the first ten years of this path, I have been so imbalanced to where I felt like last year I really hit the tipping point physically. It was definitely, like, cueing myself up for a heart attack or something. It was just bad news, and I intentionally took a couple of months to just dial everything back. I spent a lot of time in meditation and doing other things to kind of find myself again outside of work.

So for me I'm actively working on not having 16 hour days because I was raised with this crazy insane work ethic that says if you're not checking off all the boxes, you're not doing enough. I'm changing that mindset to just be happy with the day that I have to do good work. Like, work smarter not harder. Then in addition, spend time on health and wellness. I think a lot of women, especially if you're a wife or a mother and you have other responsibilities outside of yourself, we lose ourselves as caretakers and we forget that we have to put ourselves first in order to give to others. So that's my thing I'm breaking up with. I'm not going to worry about hustle or grind any longer. It's more about balance.

(5) I always want the ladies in my stories to be feminists, but feminism can be a loaded word. Do you consider yourself a feminist? If so, how do you feel that affects you as a businesswoman?

I'm so glad you asked this question. I have a lot to say on it, but yes, I consider myself a feminist. I have also raised two feminist males who proudly display T-shirts and everything. My youngest in particular proudly displays a future feminist shirt everywhere he goes. Now, I think it's interesting. I grew up in an age when feminism was a big topic, but it was related (in the 70s and early 80s) to this extreme movement of not being feminine.

Then I grew up also in a culture that was more about women being submissive. Feminism was often seen as an ugly word. And I kind of broke up with the idea of how I was raised because it always felt wrong to me. So I grew up in a church culture but it always felt wrong to me when I was kind of told this this other stuff...it was like being put back in a box again. Like I could not fully be myself that I was created to be with the constructs that somebody else was telling me I had to do it in.

There's an author that I love by the name of Sarah Bessey, and she has a quote on feminism that I really like. Her words really allowed me to sink my teeth into this definition, and in an effective way, so I could talk to people that agree or disagree the word. She says: "Feminism only means that we champion the dignity, rights, responsibilities, and glories of women as equal in greater importance, not greater than but certainly not less than to those of men, and we refuse discrimination against women."

When I started looking at feminism from this construct a couple of ways, I started honoring the feminine within myself, which each of us have to a different degree and measure. So again, that kind of bossiness in me or the very strong extroverted personality--like I remember my dad in particular saying "you're such an alpha male," and I always felt like, well, I don't know what's wrong with me. But it's just that I have a slightly different balance in my male feminine and male and feminine energies. But I had to learn that it was okay to be feminine too, and it is okay that sometimes I want to be pink and frilly and girly and sometimes I want to be a tomboy.

I had to find the balance but then really I like the fact that feminism really is about just honoring who we are as humans. No matter what that balance is that you have, no matter how you identify, it just doesn't matter. Boiling it back down, being a feminist to me is just about being a human and how we can have dignity and honor for everybody no matter where they are or how they identify within the spectrum of that.

I think the other thing that struck me while I was reading this author was this word "ezer," the Hebrew word. The author says that the context of this word was used in sacred text and biblically speaking to describe women. It was the very first word used to describe a woman, and in English we've translated it as "helper," when the original sacred text around in Hebrew really uses it as "warrior." It's used over 21 times to describe a warrior. And I thought how true is that. It's like really there's this balance that we can have and the strength. I think women have so much insight and we really are a stronger sex, not from a physical standpoint, but from an internal spiritual emotional mental standpoint. The ways that we can handle the types of things that we handle, we're just hard-wired a little differently.

And I think when we put that back into context and we take the pushiness that feminism typically has associated to it--like they're just loud-mouthed women who just want to run everything. I'm a loud mouth woman who wants to write everything but it comes from a different place right. Like it comes from a it comes from a heart space that is more kind and compassionate. It is active, but it's about honoring everybody.

If we can get others to understand that sometimes words that we use in the English language do not mean what we think they mean, it really helps us have a much better conversation about how to approach these limits. I think it also helps us understand ourselves better and remove a lot of the...I think the best word is probably shame. I think our society is really good at giving us these emotions that we kind of would call guilt or shame because we don't exactly understand our own behavior or why we are hard-wired the way we are.

(6) There is nothing sexier than power. What do you do to make yourself feel powerful when you're working it?

For me I feel the most powerful when...well, like every other woman on the planet, I would be lying if I said I didn't want to look good! As in, looking good for myself because if I look good for myself and I feel comfortable within my own skin, then that's where my power comes from. But my power, actually, it's my heart and my soul that I bring and that gives me the most confidence.

Now, I would say at my age I am certainly not in all these different health things and not treating myself well over the years has led to me not being how I would physically identify with the image I have of myself in my head, and I've gone through this really long process of getting the point that I love myself only based on my heart and my soul. I go back to the warrior. I appreciate myself more as a warrior. That's how I talk to my body now. Instead of being like, oh I don't like that you have extra weight or I don't like that your skin started sagging over here, I just stopped all of that. I stopped telling myself the things I don't like and just started saying, "I appreciate you for helping me survive. I appreciate you for the warrior that you are. I appreciate every lie and wrinkle, because girl you have helped me survive and we have gone through some things."

That's where my power comes from now. As I look at this mentality of my heart knowing who I am, what I have to offer the world, and the fact that I have survived things that most people just don't go through...that's where my power comes from. Like it really gives you this amazing strength. And then when you have that, this whole other confidence thing shifts because you really no longer care what anybody thinks about you. It's not like you don't want people to like you, but you stop worrying about how much they like you. My acceptance of myself is no longer based on whether somebody else gives me approval. I don't need anybody else's approval any longer to love myself. That's the thing that makes me powerful or feel powerful. It used to be a pair of four-inch heels. But I'm not going to lie, my ankles and my knees no longer support heels. I now cruise around in really cute Vans and other sorts, because too many heels for too many years. It's different for everybody but it has totally shifted for me.

(7) Do you work with any woman who you would like to brag about? What makes her a badass in your mind?

There are several women that come to mind and for different reasons! I would say there are some that I really admire just because they are putting themselves out there and figuring it out. And I think that is like one of the most common things: standing up, facing a fear and having courage. You feel like, "I have no idea what I'm doing, but let's figure it out." Whether it works or doesn't work is irrelevant.

But I have my best friend; she is probably one of the most badass women I know. She and I are like very very heart connected and literally you would think we're twins from the same womb because--not physically, we're totally opposites on everything there--but I feel what she's feeling. You know she feels what I'm feeling. Like it's the uncanny timing. She'll just text me out of nowhere. And spending time with her blows my mind because she's someone that, despite any measure of fear that she ever has about anything, she just faces it dead on and is just like, "I'm going to do this because I'm a bad ass and nothing's gonna stop me." And she might have to pep talk herself up a couple of times with that, but I love watching her face every fear that she has and breaking down her own barriers.

To me, I find that extremely inspiring, and she's recently started a business where she does intuitive painting and energy healing, and it is just beautiful. Because she is somebody that opens her heart to everyone and it's like the minute you come into a space with her. It's like you get wrapped up and enveloped in this massive hug. Like, whether she's touched you or not, you just feel this massive hug of love. And I think she to me is super bad ass.

(8) Romance novels have some questionable tropes. Are there any tropes about women in fiction that you wish you never had to read again?

You know this is so funny. I actually always loved romance novels. I mean ever since I was a pre-teen teenager, like I would just go to the library and consume books at various levels of different things over time. But I've just, I mean, I watch Hallmark movies if it gives you an indication of what my spectrum is. And I love love. So I think the things that annoy me the most are when I pick up something that is too true to life in the sense that I think I have read books before which are just too close to the life I've already lived. And I think we read often to learn something else about ourselves and to kind of escape our current moment and really allow ourselves to expand and to dream. So personally, I love anything that's kind of set more in a fantasy world or has time travel in it. Like it can get weird and I'm okay with it! The minute here's this guy ignoring you and unrequited love, I'm like, "but I've lived that how many times?"

If there's nothing exciting or its something that might be a little too close for comfort, I don't enjoy that as much. I enjoy something that feels very real and authentic like that could happen, but then set it in my fantasy world! Like I'm all down for fantasy and time travel stuff and you could throw in some aliens and some werewolves and anything else you can think. And I'll probably feel like this is the dopest book ever.

Just give me an authentic love story in the middle. Just don't make it normal. Like this is like any other Thursday I have. I just wish we could get more into authentic but in a space to get creative. The minute you can tap into that fantasy creative world, like, we've learned so much about ourselves. We learn what we're interested in. We learn what excites us. We learn what we might want to learn more about.

(9) What would a romance hero/heroine have to be like to live up to you and the women you work with?

You know, this is going to sound so bizarre, but I think for me what turns me on the most is intellect and kindness. And like if you have if that, it is a deadly deadly combination. If you are a smart, articulate man who's not afraid to show his emotions and be kind and compassionate, like, I'm done. It's game over. Dragon....he could be...I don't know ,whatever we can come up with, any creative figure here...but that to me is like the lethal combination. I think people become more attractive because of their level of compassion and kindness and intellect.

So yeah, that's why I could get over whether he's winged or not winged. But I think for me that that's where you put somebody to be on par with what I would view as matching me or matching some of the people that I surround myself with. That would be the type of person. You have to be a brainiac, a little on the nerdy side, and a super compassionate person.

(10) What advice would you like to give to other women who want to start businesses?

Well, first I would say I think the word "world" is scary for some people because our only assumption is that we're being, like, super literal and that it means the whole world. And that's true for me. That's my truth. My truth is I am trying to change the whole world and ultimately the galaxy and the universe. I got big dreams. But I think your world might exist in your own home and your own family. It might be your local community. It might be that you can shape what your own version of your world looks like for you to dominate...something that's like, part 1: understand what world domination is for you.

Then part 2 is figure out what you're passionate about and what you're great at. The thing that you're great at is what's as easy to you as breathing. And it excites you. Align with that. Then when you get to the next step, you can start building on what are you going to do with that. And keep in mind that as you have the courage to take those steps to kind of push yourself out of the nest and figure out what's going to happen, you may not fly the first time you do it. But that leads you to the next thing, which leads you to the next thing, which lead you to the next thing.

And failure is just the perception. It's a neutral event. It's something that happened on a day. It's up to you whether you carry it forward or not. So keep a lot of these lessons in mind as you shape what your world domination looks like. But we have to have more badass women involved in changing the shape of our future and creating a better world for all of us. And humans abroad, not just women, but specifically we need more women, because we have a different capacity to shape the future that we need.

But do it. Don't let anybody tell you you can't. I think it's important to set aside anything that anybody ever told you that you can or can't do. Decide for yourself what you can and can't do. I did not go to college and did not follow the normal traditional path. I did all my life backwards. I got married at 18 and I had kids and then I got divorced by the time I was 28, and so I did life in a very backwards way. But I worked and I worked and I worked and I worked and I learned and I learned and I learned. I kept myself open to always learning and looking for an opportunity to test myself and to prove myself. And it's led me to where I am now, where I have access to a global stage. I have access to government leaders, I have access to to being able to infuse all of the weirdness that is Jen back out in the world for big change, because I didn't let what anybody else told me about myself be true.

I chose for myself what I wanted that to be and I think, you know, this may be too cliché, since we're talking about books, but you are the author of your own story and you get to choose to write and create a reality you choose to live in. And so that's that's positive and negative. I can go back and tell you that for a very long time I chose to be small for other people and I chose to stay in a reality that wasn't healthy for me because I was afraid. When I finally got done with all of that and saying I'm so sick of this life, I want something better, it was a long road to get emotionally, mentally healthy through that.

But anybody can do it. It's just it requires hard work and a really great support system. And the more badass women you have around you the better. There are more than enough to draw wisdom from and to be real with authentic wisdom, to swap stories, to know that you're not alone.

Whew! Jen and I talked for a long time and had a great time doing so. I always learn so much from Jen when we chat, and I hope you did, too! Interested in learning more about this badass woman? You can contact Jen at jen@ldr21.com or follow her on twitter at @JenKelchner.


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