How to Run Your Business More Like a Collective


Kellie Wagner

Kellie Wagner is the founder of DEI Collective, a consultancy and community of 100+ practitioners who work collaboratively to help clients build more diverse, inclusive companies. 

Read on if you want her advice on:

1 - Crafting a business model that helps both you and your community
2 - Getting past the feast-or-famine cycle that many freelancers experience
3 - Balancing your business with your personal passions

Stephanie: Why did you decide to found your own diversity and inclusion consulting firm, and how did you land on the collective format for your business?

Kellie: I've always been interested in diversity and inclusion, mainly because I'm a woman of color working in tech. That’s where my personal passion comes from. But in terms of skill-building, I had been working in tech and then got asked to come work at a branding agency. I ended up running operations and overseeing accounts and quickly learned the challenges of being in the client services industry. From the perspective of an agency, work isn't always consistent, and you're paying for a lot of overhead.

When starting my company, I knew I didn't want to work alone. I knew that there's value in having many different perspectives. And I knew that agencies with full-time staff have a lot of costs involved. So I took the collective format.

Now DEI Collective partners with independent diversity and inclusion consultants and even people who run their own consultancies. We work together on a project-by-project basis. It’s been amazing to tap into such a wide breadth of knowledge and expertise. And our clients benefit from that, too.

How did you find the people that you eventually invited to become part of your collective?

It actually happened pretty naturally at first. The diversity/inclusion world is so tight-knit. But I actually got lucky because one of my clients at the branding agency, Live Gray, did company culture conferences, so I was able to connect early on with a lot of their speakers who were consultants around diversity and inclusion. That's how we got our first few. From there, it was really just a snowball effect. They were great about recommending their friends.

LinkedIn is also amazing. I take for granted the power of LinkedIn, because it’s been around for a while. But every morning, I go on LinkedIn. They've gotten really great with hashtags, so I can search for different topics, see who's posting articles, who's doing really innovative things in this space, and then build relationships from there with those people.

What I didn't want was for us to be satisfied with the status quo of the work that's being done in diversity and inclusion. There are big agencies that have been around for a long time, but they're bogged down, I think, by bureaucracy and by doing what they've always done. It's great to be able to go onto a platform like LinkedIn or Medium and find someone and realize, ‘Okay, this person may not have been in the industry for a long time, but do they have amazing ideas that we could experiment with and implement.'

We’re able to learn from one another, network with one another, talk about the struggles, and share advice. It’s created a sense of loyalty within the collective, where people reach out to one another to share things.
— Kellie Wagner

That sounds like a great way not only to build out your collective, but to also network personally and expose yourself to all of these new ideas.

Diversity and inclusion is an interesting space, because no one wants to mess up. It's understandable, right? We're talking about our employees, and we want to make sure we're not doing anything that's going to hurt them. But there's also a lot of public, immediate criticism when you don't do something right, especially around diversity and inclusion. It's unfortunate because we've scared people into playing it really safe. We can certainly play it safe and hope that we make really small incremental change over decades. But I think in order for us to start to make big strides around creating more diverse workplaces that are more representative of our country, we have to be willing to experiment, shake the industry up a little bit, and make mistakes.

So how do you leverage your collective as you work with clients on diversity and inclusion projects?

Typically when we engage a client, we start first and foremost with an assessment. We'll help them identify the things they can tackle internally and the areas where they may need external support. That's where to collective comes in. A lot of times that comes through in things like coaching or workshops. We're able to go to our collective and say, ‘Who has this specific kind of expertise, and whose approach is going to resonate with this client and help move the needle?’ That's something I love about the collective: that our practitioners run the gamut.

Can you give any tactical advice you have around the collective model, for other feminist entrepreneurs who want to merge business and community?

When I was first building the collective, I thought of it only as a one-way value proposition. I needed my collective members to perform a service for my business. Actually, what I found was that it went both ways. And it went beyond just performing a service. As I spoke to more people, I realized that there was this desire for a community element to it. I underestimated or completely disregarded the value of not just looking at a collective as a group of freelancers working together, but seeing the value in bringing together people who have a shared passion and career path. We're able to learn from one another, network with one another, talk about the struggles, and share advice. It's created a sense of loyalty within the collective, where people reach out to one another to share things. And in fact, instead of DEI Collective just bringing business to the collective members,  a lot of the work we've had referred to us has come through the collective.

I'd say have a clear idea of what you're aligning this group around. For us, our collective members do different things. They have different areas of focus under that diversity and inclusion umbrella. It was important for me to be able to clarify to them our non-negotiables and the values that unite us. Something that I thought I would never see in this industry, but that comes up often, is encountering people who are selectively empathetic. They might say, ‘Well, white men don't know this.’ That's fine if that's your personal opinion, but I thought, ‘It's really important for us to be able to leave those feelings at the door and be professional and be empathetic to everyone. We need to try to understand all perspectives when we're working with clients.’ Having those non-negotiable values creates a cohesive feeling.

Having those non-negotiable values creates a cohesive feeling.
— Kellie Wagner

You have an MFA in writing as well, right? How do you balance DEI Collective with your other personal and professional goals?

It's definitely a balance between being focused for the moment and understanding that this is not forever. Starting a company requires a lot of discipline and focus. But the way I spend my day today is probably not the way I'm going to spend my days two years from now. There will be time to do other things. I’m still trying to figure out ways to integrate those passions into what I'm doing now. I do have an MFA, and I am trying to be more proactive about writing for DEI Collective and putting out more pieces for our business. It's been great to reconnect with writing in that way. I also try to take time each week to do something that's fun for me, that has nothing to do with my company. One of our advisors, who's been in the tech space for many years, sends me a little quote each day. He sent one the other day, which said something like, ‘The way to be most successful in business and building relationships, is to make sure to do things that don't relate to your business.’ You don't want to be that person who literally can only talk about their business. Some of the best connections I've made from a business and sales perspective come from connections over other things. It's important to continue to have your personal passions, even if you're working a lot.

What are those personal passions for you?

I love travel. I've done a lot of traveling this year, I have some more travel coming up this summer, which I'm really excited about. And do I bring my work with me? Yeah. I do have to take time out of each morning when I'm traveling to spend some time working. But I'm so grateful that I'm forcing myself to do both. If it means that the progress  I make on my business is slowed down by a month because I was also taking time to live my life, I'm okay with that. You can't just stop your life just to focus on work, because you may wake up one day and say, ‘Wow, I missed out on a lot of years,’ and I don't want that.

Let’s talk about money for a minute. I'm always interested to ask founders about the money mindset lessons they've learned and what they would recommend to others. 

Oh my gosh, money. I wish people talked about it more. I have never worked in a job where I made a ton of money. And when I did make enough, I didn't have the foresight to know, ‘Hey, I'm going to go start my company, so I should save as much as possible.’ Because I left my job without a ton of savings, it has been super scary. It's weird to say that, because I don't think I tap into it emotionally. If I focus so much on the money and where it’s coming from, it distracts me from being able to put my energy into finding money, if that makes sense. You can go down a worry hole. 

The biggest lesson is that business development is constant. I didn't realize that. I got a few clients quickly when I started my business, and I rested on my laurels. I wasn't thinking ahead, and that's the big lesson for me. You always have to be thinking three, six months ahead to make sure that you're going to be able to sustain your business. This is especially true in a client services business, where you want to save up for slower months. 

Something else I wish more entrepreneurs would talk about: it's important to be humble. I don't think a lot of entrepreneurs talk about how, even once they're running their business, they still do odd jobs or find consulting work on the side. I babysat in grad school, and people still ask me to babysit, and I'm like, ‘Sure.’ Honestly, I'll take the money. It can be odd, because you want to create this persona projecting that you're big and successful. I was talking to another founder the other day, who's incredible. He's featured in articles everywhere I look. But we had lunch, and he got really vulnerable with me and said, ‘We get a ton of visits to our site, we have a ton of press, but we aren't selling much.’

We can be on all these lists and get featured in press, but it doesn't necessarily mean that we're rolling in the dough. It's okay to acknowledge that starting a business is not all glamour.