What Do You Hear in Someone Else’s Story?

I heard a speaker one time I never forgot – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying. It was sometime around 1992, which is the year my father passed away, and I was grieving his death but also his life. He had never been quite right, at least when I knew him.

Tickets for the talk were hard to get, but I was given the opportunity to travel with three friends to Birmingham to hear Dr. Kubler-Ross speak. This was a Monday night, and I had to be at work at 8 a.m. the next morning. The trip was inconvenient. Even so, she spoke for two hours, maybe three, in a large auditorium, and I was captivated by every word she said. I’ve never been sorry that I took that trip to Birmingham on that Monday night.

I recall that, among her many stories, she dropped in a line: “Life is too short to do work that you do not enjoy.” Just a few simple words that hit me hard; that was a takeaway.

Around 1998, I drove over to Atlanta to hear Fannie Flagg and a couple of other writers during a luncheon sponsored by The New York Times. Flagg said that she had been born Patricia Neal but couldn’t use that name in her career because it was already registered with Actors Equity. Growing up, she was called Patsy. Problem was, she had dyslexia. She would write her name as Pasty.

One of the big moments of her life was when she won a short story contest, and the award was presented to her by her hero, Eudora Welty. She spoke with reverence about the opportunity for a girl who wrote her name as Pasty Neal to be presented an award by Eudora Welty for winning a writing contest. She tied it to an “anything is possible” kind of encouragement. She was funny – and inspiring.

Taking a break to listen to someone else’s story is often a good way to refine something important about your own.

Earlier this month, I attended the Women’s Leadership Summit held by the Montgomery Junior League. The timing was inconvenient, but I was not disappointed by the inspirational speakers. One of these was Stacy Brown, founder of Chicken Salad Chick.

Brown said this was a thought that led her into her business: “What did you come across that was a problem? If it was a problem for you, it was a problem for someone else.” When you hear her story, however, you realize none of this was a foregone conclusion. The restaurants that now exist under the Chicken Salad Chick brand developed through an incremental process that could have just as easily collapsed as it did succeed.

Thinking of problems she could solve, she identified chicken salad. She said that she was obsessed with chicken salad – not making it, eating it. So, as a single mom who wanted to work at home, she decided to make chicken salad. As she searched for the best recipe, she went to work in her own kitchen as if conducting a science experiment. With each batch, she sought feedback from her family and friends. When she got a good reaction, she tested that recipe on a lot of people. Once she had her recipe, she recognized that some of her friends liked nuts in their chicken salad, some liked spicy, some like fruit, etc., and she began adapting the recipe into a variety of flavors.

The idea was to be a deliverer of chicken salad. For her marketing, she wanted to get a car magnet. That was her big plan. Therefore, she needed a name for her company. Since she was a chick delivering chicken salad, she decided to call it Chicken Salad Chick. Now she had a name to put on her car magnet.

In the meantime, her future husband suggested that she give the different flavors girlie names. Perfect suggestion – and she named them for women who had been an influence on her life. Nutty Nana, for example, is her mom. Chicken Salad Chick was developing its brand.

She also connected with influencers. Or as Brown said, “Teachers and hair stylists are the gateway in your community.”

Then there’s the part of her story where the health department shut her down, explaining that her activities were illegal. She couldn’t make chicken salad at home after all. So she pressed on and expanded into restaurants. An investor who believed in her and her product helped make that happen.

They were celebrating 84 restaurants at an owners’ conference. Then heartbreak. Her husband was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. “His passion and purpose became helping others fight this disease,” she said. He passed away in 2015. The Chicken Salad Chick Foundation was born out of his diagnosis.

“Life can just come at you. It’s all about how you persevere and react and press forward,” Brown said. “It’s good for us to have a plan, and then there’s God’s plan.”

The best business advice she received came from her mother: “Do not fear change. Depend on it. Know that it is coming.”

That was a lot to pack into a talk, and the lessons of entrepreneurship were clear: identify a problem you can solve, get feedback from your market, create a strong brand identity, adjust as you face opposition, get support for things you can’t do on your own, and give back as you succeed. Also understand that life is hard, and times of adversity are real. But keep going.

And I would add: when you have an opportunity, listen and learn from the stories of others.

Enjoy your magnificent journey.

– Minnie Lamberth
The Magnificent Journey
Vol. 2, Issue 11