Why Entrepreneur Kelly Lawson Isn’t Afraid to Use the F-word

Kelly Lawson. Image: Submitted

New Brunswick fashion entrepreneur Kelly Lawson isn’t afraid of the f-word, and thinks others shouldn’t be either. And no, it’s not actually that f-word she’s referring to.

Failure, though every entrepreneur, business person risks and acknowledges it, is typically viewed with shame and embarrassment. But the Ella founder says that needs to change. Lawson’s “second favourite f-word” was the subject of her talk at the Power of the Purse event in Saint John last week. The event brought together women in business to network, motivate and learn from each other.

“We at least want to avoid the possibility of failing. I think we all get it in the abstract. Everybody in the room can think of someone, if not themselves, that screwed up one way or another or made some kind of mistake. The human species is fallible,” Lawson said during her talk.

“We don’t talk about it because admitting to failure is nasty. It’s embarrassing and it’s a thing we at least try to avoid and if nothing else, it’s something that most of us are pretty friggin afraid of. We don’t stand around the room at social hour cheering each other about our failures and celebrating our failures.”

Lawson learned this firsthand when she published an Instagram post back in November sharing her failure-positive philosophy.

“It was my attempt at celebrating my own failure on social media and equating it with courage and value and all the invaluable opportunities failure presents,” she said. “It’s just a part of who I am and a part of who we are all. At least, that’s what I thought.”

But a lot of people, including her friends and family, didn’t see it that way.

“Later that day my phone rang and it was my dad. His voice was quivering and he said, ‘is everything ok with you? Is your mental health ok? Do you need to talk? You haven’t failed, what’s going on?'” Lawson said, to a giggling crowd.

“Then later that day my friend sat me down on her sofa and was like, ‘why did you post that embarrassing thing? Are you looking for sympathy? What’s going on? Are you ok?’  … Everybody thought I was having a crisis when really what I thought I posted was positive.”

It was then, Lawson said, she realized that many of us have a problem. We’re terrified of failure and openly discussing failure in a positive light.

“This is where I seem to disagree with most people … I personally think that failure is the best part of everyone’s story and it something to be celebrated,” she said to the room full of women.

“I want to convince you that if you can release your fear of failure, it is the single best intellectual and creative leap that you can make for yourself.”

Kelly Lawson speaking at Power of the Purse Saint John.
Image: Cherise Letson/Huddle

Like everyone, Lawson is no stranger to failure, even when it comes to career and business. She told the audience of the time she went to school and became an occupational therapist, then realizing it wasn’t her true calling.

More recently, it was also something she experienced with her startup, Ella. When the company first launched, it was solely a mobile app for women to sell their designer clothes they were no longer wearing.

Like most startups, it had ambitions and promises for steady growth, but when Lawson realized it wasn’t meeting their targets, she knew Ella had to evolve or die.

“I was failing and I knew I had to turn around and go in a different direction once again,” she said. “This time with my business.”

In the startup world, this is what’s known as a “pivot,” which basically means according to Lawson,”failing and redirecting.” She pivoted to expand Ella into the retail world, with its first location opening in September 2016 in uptown Saint John.

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“Successful entrepreneurs and successful people are no strangers to these directional twists and turns,” Lawson said. “So if failing is such a normal thing in the business world or the startup world, why are we still so afraid of it?”

Lawson believes the reason is a cultural one. From the time kids enter school, the grading system teaches them they want to avoid failure. They become conditioned to believe that the only way to be successful in life is to not fail and those who do are simply not good enough.

“By the time that you’re nine-years-old, you’ve already learned that people who fail are lazy and irresponsible, there’s something wrong with them. Second of all, [you learn] the way to succeed in life is to not fail,” Lawson said. “We are really good at learning these really awful lessons.”

Lawson believes this fear of a natural, unavoidable occurrence in human life prevents many people from taking chances and making the changes they need to have a happy and successful in both career and life.

“The most tragic thing about this scenario, in my opinion, is that it misses the whole point of being human,” she said. “It’s like we just want to imagine in our minds that our life paths are just these perfectly paved roadways where no one ever slips up or misses a road sign, and that’s simply not true.”

Looking at some of the most successful business- and creative-people in history, it’s certainly not. Lawson gave the crowd some examples. One was Oprah, who was told early in her career that she was unfit for TV. Then there was Henry Ford, who bankrupted several of his companies before he started Ford Motors. She also cited J.K. Rowling, who had Harry Potter turned down by 12 major publishers before making it big.

These failures, though surely difficult at the time, ended up putting these people on the road to their future success. Lawson used a quote by famous blogger and entrepreneur Seth Godin that encapsulated this: “If failure is not an option, then neither is success.”

Whether it’s in business or in other parts of life, Lawson concluded by encouraging the audience to embrace their failures and to change the conversation and mindset in which they view them.

“Maybe there is a road sign that is just in front of you that you’re missing, or maybe you’re missing one right now. Maybe there are some turns in the road ahead for you. It’s all ok, and it’s part of what makes you human. It’s part of what makes you incredible. Best of all, it’s part of what makes you real,” she said.

“Now please, go away from here and go fail and I will be right here, ready to help celebrate that with you.”