In 2017, Vanessa Cornell founded NUSHU to bring forth the modality of “group” into the mainstream. Today, she speaks on the importance of making something good before making it broad. Vanessa created NUSHU because she needed it, and along the way, she realized just how much everyone else did. She pushes herself to the edge of comfortability, what some people would consider devolving Vanessa considers evolving.
Entrepreneurs 101 – Vanessa Cornell, NUSHU
Vanessa Cornell [00:00:00] So Nüshu is an ancient Chinese language that was spoken and written only amongst women because they were denied formal education.
Sam Jayanti [00:00:12] Welcome to Ideamix radio, I’m Sam Jayanti, and every week I chat with entrepreneurs, solar producers, career changers, experts and enthusiasts for insider tips that you can apply to turn your idea into a business. So sit back and enjoy today’s show.
Sam Jayanti [00:00:34] How do you take knowledge of an ancient language and community and translate it into a modern equivalent? Vanessa Cornell founded NUSHU through a personal need for a soulful community of women interested in exploring the self through powerful ideas and practices, through events based in New York as well as now globally. NUSHU creates a space where women can feel safe to connect deeply, try new things, have fun and learn. Vanessa, welcome to Ideamix radio.
Vanessa Cornell [00:01:05] Thank you, Sam. Thank you so much for having me.
Sam Jayanti [00:01:08] So, Vanessa, tell us what is NUSHU.
Vanessa Cornell [00:01:12] So Nüshu, as you mentioned, is an ancient Chinese language that was spoken and written only among women because they were denied formal education. And so it was a script that was written on fans or embroidered into clothing as women would leave the village. And there’s not that much known about it, which is so appealing to me. It’s this secret language of communication and secret language of love and support amongst women. So that’s the origin of the name NUSHU. And NUSHU is really the platform I’ve created to fulfill my mission, which is to bring the modality of the group into the mainstream. So what is the group you may ask? To me, the group is a space of permission where you can speak your truth out loud. It’s both so simple and so profound. So it’s a space where you can enter, show up, and simply be exactly as you are, and be received with nonjudgmental love and compassion. And some people have jokingly referred to it as the AA of loneliness. I have friends who say I’m sort of jealous of my friend in AA who has this space where everything is allowed. People can really show up the way they feel and have a place to share it and why don’t I have a place for that? And so that’s really my mission is to create access to spaces like this. And I do it through facilitating NUSHU groups myself and also through teaching and empowering other people to facilitate NUSHU groups through trainings that we hold.
Sam Jayanti [00:02:49] I love that description, never has it been a more acute need, I’m sure, as you’ve seen from a business perspective, for people to have that space and I think for women in particular, when I think about women our age and really the perception of women working, raising families, having it all within quotes, the pressure of leading a life that was approved, prescribed. Was so intense that there was no modality, as you said, to be able to express any form of negative emotion without feeling judged in some way.
Vanessa Cornell [00:03:36] Yeah, and I and I think that when I started, I sort of thought, I need this so desperately, but does anyone else want it? You know, I think that happens a lot in businesses where you have a personal need, you pursue it and you think, is this going to resonate with anyone? And it was just extraordinary how much people needed it. In fact, we’re craving it, and that there was no outlet for something as simple as just sharing what’s on your mind. And it’s been a really extraordinary experience to hear people share how much it’s shifted their lives to just be able to show up as you are. And people will say, this has changed my life. And I’ll say, well, I didn’t change your life. You changed your life by showing up and being willing to share your truth into the space. And so I sort of see my role as as just a container holder and. In telling somebody that they already have the ability and the power to be truthful in their lives and to offer that space of truth to other people, and when I think about group as a modality, I have really invented nothing here. People have been sitting in circles since the beginning of time. But if you think about modalities like yoga and meditation that have come firmly into the mainstream and that are tools that people use to really help them in their daily lives, those are old and we’re just remembering them now. And to me, group is the third leg of that stool of yoga, meditation and group that is so simple to access, so available and yet totally underutilized and not even really in the conversation. So that’s really what I’m trying to do with NUSHU.
Sam Jayanti [00:05:29] Fantastic. The health and wellness industry has been valued at four and a half trillion dollars in 2020, and although the closure of brick and mortar businesses will lead to significant losses. Research predicts that the demand for this will remain very strong. How has 2020 and the pandemic changed your approach to NUSHU and how is it refined? What you’re really trying to bring members?
Vanessa Cornell [00:06:00] Well, they’re very specific things that it’s done for us in terms of taking something that was New York-based, you begin where you are and that’s where I live. So that’s where I started and really pushed us to bring it globally on a more expedited time schedule than we had anticipated. So we went from hosting groups in New York in person to hosting groups with people from the Philippines and Rwanda and Poland and England and Bermuda, which is incredibly exciting. So we went from New York to Global really quickly by necessity, but realized that that’s where we wanted to go eventually. And we had a long lead time for it, but it got sped up. So that’s sort of how it’s impacted us specifically. But I think in terms of the demand for these types of health and wellness offerings, you know, people have really had to turn inward during this time.
Sam Jayanti [00:07:03] Absolutely.
Vanessa Cornell [00:07:04] People with no self-inquiry practice have really needed it during this time. So without the distractions that they previously relied on, you know, a lot of things have come up for people. It’s been called a collective dark night of the soul. And so I think people are are realizing and taking stock of the fact that physical and spiritual well-being is no longer a luxury. It’s an essential. And that going forward, I think there’s going to be a real change in the way that people prioritize where they’re spending their money and how they’re spending their money in terms of what it does for them, not just in terms of buying things, but in terms of buying a type of lifestyle where people feel, well, not just in their bodies, but also in their hearts.
Sam Jayanti [00:07:58] Well, not just in their bodies, but in their hearts and minds. I love that you started Nishu Vanessa in twenty seventeen. Tell us a little bit about the timing, what was going on in your life at the time, why then?
Vanessa Cornell [00:08:14] You know, Sam, as so many of these things go, I started it because of a deep personal need. I had been what I refer to lovingly as a sort of people-pleasing, striving to be perfect human being. I I went to Harvard, I went to Goldman Sachs. I was a straight-A student. I was always striving and achieving. And then I got married and I had five children in six years and I was pregnant breastfeeding both for eight years. And I just kept going. I was not really focused on how I felt. I really was more focused on what it looked like and what I was doing and just achieving putting my head down and doing what was expected of me. And I had a real moment of break where that all came tumbling down. And I realized that I had been so deeply disconnected from myself and from other people. And during this moment of deep break in my life, where I really felt like my whole life was falling apart, I realized that I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t tell my friends, I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell my brother. And I realized that I had created a space of tremendous loneliness despite having people around me all the time, because I was never willing to show a chink in my armor. I was never willing to share the challenge and the difficulties that I had in my life.
Sam Jayanti [00:09:47] And so was there an event, Vanessa, that catalyzed this?
Vanessa Cornell [00:09:51] You know, I think it was when I when I after eight years of being pregnant, breastfeeding or both, and I stopped nursing my last child, the event was I just couldn’t do it anymore, any of it. I was so exhausted. I had been given so much. I had been putting on a brave face for so long. I just couldn’t anymore. And it’s interesting because. Sort of type A overachievers, I’m sure there are a lot of people listening who can relate to this. They have a lot of bandwidth to keep this going. So I could juggle it all. I could make it all work and I could keep it all together. So it’s those people who can really keep it all together that break the most dramatically because there are no little breaks along the way. There’s no oh, I can’t handle this. I need help along the way. So I had gotten to a point where I was doing what one human being shouldn’t possibly be trying to do without any outlet of sharing how I was feeling with anyone in my life. So it’s a really lonely place. And I think it was just a cumulative effect of trying to be this person that handled everything and carried everything completely on our own.
Sam Jayanti [00:11:08] So you decided thank you for sharing that, by the way, I think it’s it’s rare that people are really honest about both what they felt, but also why they felt it. So. So thank you for that. You decided to focus on community among women, as you said, because you came from this deep sense of loneliness. When you started. Did you find. I mean, clearly, you found women who felt the very same need and have become a part of NUSHU. What did you find that you didn’t expect as you got started?
Vanessa Cornell [00:11:56] I don’t think I expected how powerful it would be to simply share what I was going through. So to sit with women and say. Although my life might look. Shiny and perfect on the outside. This is what I went through. This is the pain I was feeling. This is how alone I was feeling, and I would see people sort of recognition and and frankly, shock. And what I realized was that part of my role is to just say things out loud. That everyone else is feeling, but somehow feels that they don’t have permission to say out loud, and that’s really what started the idea of. All we need is permission, all we need is a space where we say this is the space where you’re allowed to say the things that you don’t think anyone else wants to hear. And I think what surprised me the most was that that seems like such an incredibly simple thing, but the impact that it has is so profound. And as I did group after group, as I spoke truthfully time and time again, that real changes were starting to happen in people, that the simple act of saying something out loud was a tremendous catalyst for change, not just for me, but for others. And the simplicity belies the power of what it is to just be truthful and be unafraid to be truthful with the people around you and with yourself.
Sam Jayanti [00:13:40] Truth is something that’s been so lost in our society right now that it’s it’s really a necessity to bring it back both at an individual level, but equally as a community, as a country, as a society. I couldn’t agree more.
Vanessa Cornell [00:13:58] And I think that what happens is that people are very afraid of the truth. We sort of think, well, obviously just tell the truth and then we have to look underneath it and say, why are people afraid to tell the truth? And what I found and I found this in myself, first and foremost, was I said, if I tell the truth of who I am, of who I really am, not just the shiny parts, not just the sort of Instagram story worthy parts, but all the deep, dark stuff that we all have but don’t like to present to other people. People won’t like me. And the most extraordinary thing is that, in fact, when you reveal those bits of yourself, people are drawn to you, people feel closer to you because you can’t know someone if they don’t reveal themselves to you. And so it’s interesting because it’s counterintuitive. It’s the very thing that we fear will happen if we tell the truth. That is exactly the opposite of what happens when we tell the truth.
Sam Jayanti [00:15:02] Vanessa, tell us about a key change or pivot that you made with NUSHU and what prompted that?
Vanessa Cornell [00:15:11] Well, I think that this in the pandemic, we we pivoted quickly. I was a really hard core die hard in life, in real life person. I love live events. I love being in a room with people turning my phone off. I’m a hugger. So it was difficult to imagine this sense of community happening not in a room together, but we were forced to pivot and we were forced to say, what is the essence of what we do and can it be done when we can’t be in a room together? And so there were a few things that we did. One is that I started the NUSHU thought leader series where I interview thought leaders about a range of topics related to the human condition. And these talks were really intended to give our community. Really good information, as well as insights and ideas to manage an unprecedented, challenging time and the sense of community that’s been created with those talks and frankly, the people we’ve been able to bring in from around the globe has been so surprising and wonderful. And so whereas I still love being in a room with people, I’m so grateful that when we do the Thought Leader series, we sometimes have people from 30 countries involved and similarly with the groups, whereas I used to do them in a room, now I do them in a room and we’ve had to adapt somewhat the way that we run the groups. But the ability for people to access this modality from wherever they are to me outweighs what we’ve lost by being in a room now when we can be in a room together. I will absolutely go back to being in a room with people, but we won’t stop doing it virtually because if there’s somebody who lives in Alberta, Canada, or somebody who lives in Costa Rica or somebody who lives in San Francisco, they can stay in the community that they’ve joined during this time.
Sam Jayanti [00:17:16] That’s deeply empowering. I think. What’s been, as you think about an issue over these past three years, what’s been your most effective way of growing the community and bringing in more subscribers and growing the business?
Vanessa Cornell [00:17:35] You know, Sam, I’ve spent so much time thinking about this and I’ve spent so much time looking at other people’s models and people’s advice, marketing advice, how to grow your course, how to grow your platform, how to grow your newsletter. And I’ve always come back to the same thing. As tempting as some of that marketing advice may be, I’ve always come back to make it good first before you make it broad. So go deep and real with fewer people rather than trying to create some sort of a smoke and mirrors on a more shallow level with a lot of people focus on getting it right rather than getting the marketing right. And I’ll allow it to grow through the good work rather than focusing so much on how big we are or how fast we’re getting big. I really do trust that if we touch people on a really profound level, that this will grow in a way through word of mouth that has. Genuine heart, and I’m not really focused on making it big, but I believe it will be. I just I can’t think about it every day because all I have to think about is, is doing what we’re doing and doing it well and doing it with full integrity.
Sam Jayanti [00:19:04] It’s it’s a bit like. People who want to be Instagram famous for the sake of being Instagram famous, it never really happens unless there’s a purpose to it and that it happens effortlessly and inadvertently because you’re actually delivering something that resonates and has value.
Vanessa Cornell [00:19:23] Absolutely. And Instagram is so interesting because it’s been a challenge for me to really figure it out, because creating an authentic voice on Instagram is is difficult. And it’s it’s been a lot of sort of self contemplation and trying to really understand how something that’s authentic to me that I have no problem getting across in a room with someone else can come across authentically on Instagram. And yeah, I just you know, I don’t focus a lot of energy on it, frankly. I focus on my work, on the people I love, on touching the people I love. And I just trust that it’s going to come when it comes.
Sam Jayanti [00:20:09] Most important things, how do you who do you rely on and how do you allocate responsibilities with members of your team who helped you? What do they help you with?
Vanessa Cornell [00:20:23] Yeah, so we’re actually a mighty team of two. It’s just me and my right hand, Harper, who is absolutely extraordinary. We are so, first of all, totally aligned in our mission. We believe deeply in what we’re doing and if there’s ever a decision that we need to make, we discuss it together and we really contemplate where it hits us in our heart and what the right thing is to do. So in that sense, we’re really connected and aligned and pulling in the same direction. And in terms of responsibilities, I have the great fortune of having somebody who’s incredibly talented at wearing many hats and getting a lot of tasks done. She’s very talented and very efficient. And so what that does is that I get to sort of divide my time between tasking and creating. I’m very conscious that sometimes even as a founder, you need to task. There are emails that have to go out. There’s copy that needs to be written. And I’m efficient about my to do list. I’m efficient about my tasking. But I also understand that there are times where I have to be out of the tasking mentality, out of the tasking mode, and that’s my creative time. So that’s where I have bandwidth to dream, to read, to meditate, to rest and to contemplate. And so sometimes I will literally take a couple of hours and simply meditate on questions that I have. And it’s where all of the good ideas come from. It’s where all of my shifts in direction come from. And often I will have decisions that I need to make and I’m not sure which way to go. And there’s something inside I can feel it in my body that doesn’t feel quite right. And I will just take that time to sit on it, to meditate on it, and then it will become clear which direction I have to go in. And so having somebody like Harper who’s both on the same page as me, but also really able to to to run the show so that I can take my brain out of. Tasking mode and into creative mode and know that nothing will fall through the cracks. It’s really valuable to me, but I think it’s really important to maintain that space so that I know that those bigger decisions, those bigger picture decisions are always going to be made with enough space to make them and that we’re not going to go down a path that later on we’re going to say we shouldn’t have focused our energy in that direction or that wasn’t the right decision for us. So there’s there’s a lot we do between the two of us. We get it all done. And somehow I still manage to create time to be creative and really listen to my heart.
Sam Jayanti [00:23:22] It’s it’s so important what you said, you know, when I think back on myself, I started out. As many type A people are quite impatient in a sense to make a decision, and it’s only really in my 30s that I felt I learned to have the patience to sit with the decision until you got to the right place. And that’s so important.
Vanessa Cornell [00:23:49] For sure. Definitely.
Sam Jayanti [00:23:52] You started the business, Venessa, with some co-founders. Tell us about that experience and how it devolved.
Vanessa Cornell [00:24:01] Well, I would say it evolved more than devolved. I think that when I started, as I had mentioned before, you start where you are. So I started in New York because it’s where I live. And I started with a community in New York because that’s what I had access to. And I think over the course of the years, I, I really realized the direction that I wanted you to go into. And that direction was really about creating access and to bringing the idea of group as a modality into the mainstream. And that is much bigger than New York. It’s beyond New York. And so I think that this idea really evolved over time. And I gave it the time and the space that it needed to evolve. I had so many moments, as I’m sure many entrepreneurs can relate to when I thought finally, I have total clarity. I know what I want to do and I’m on this path and I’m moving and I’m going. And then a week later, I would be plunged into sort of not knowing whether it was the right course and total confusion again. And so it was this like depth of confusion, contemplating meditating on it, finding clarity, moving forward with clarity, followed by depth of confusion just over and over and over again. And that iterative process has brought me to where I am today. And I was so inspired early on by now a friend of mine, Rob Bell, who was a very successful pastor of a megachurch, and he was growing. And by anyone’s measure, what was his trajectory of success was just astronomically fast. And then he decided it wasn’t right for him and he left. And that really empowered me to know that. Measures of success are not reasons to stay the course necessarily if they don’t align with what you want to do and that we always have choice, I always reserve the right to change my mind and evolve. And that’s really what happened since the beginning. It was an inkling. It was an inkling of something that was driven from a deep place in my heart. And it took me a while to figure out what that was leading me to. And now I feel very strongly that I’m firmly there. And I figured out that thing that I see in the world that’s needed, that I don’t see enough people having access to. And that’s my job and that’s my role.
Sam Jayanti [00:26:50] That’s super helpful, you know Vanessa of one of the things that so many. Entrepreneurs struggle with is these break-ups and with co-founders, I’ve had that struggle myself and was fortunate to come out intact the other side of it. How did you do that?
Vanessa Cornell [00:27:10] You know, it was just through honesty, you know, it was saying this is where we thought we were and this is what we thought we were doing and over time. That’s changed and our roles have evolved and our rules have changed, and if we look honestly at where we are right now, what we had set up before doesn’t reflect what’s happening now. And so it really was just about honesty and coming from a place of love and care for the people that I was working with and wanting to make sure that. Even if I saw it one way, I made sure to leave room for somebody else to see it a different way. But with that conversation, I think we all came to a place where we saw it the same way. And I made sure that everybody left feeling like they were whole, both emotionally in terms of compensation. And there’s nothing but but goodwill and support following that. And I think that in in work, I sort of feel the same way about the people I work with and even the partnerships that I hold that. I treat people well, it’s just it’s just a cornerstone I don’t want to work out in the world if I’m not going to treat people well and I expect the same on the other on the other side. So, you know, there have been partners that we’ve partner with and on different opportunities that have not treated us the way that I would treat others. And that’s OK. And we just move on. And so I think there are so many people out there to work with who work from a place of deep integrity. There are plenty of those people. And so those are the ones I seek out and those are the ones I want to work with and support and frankly, lift up, promote their businesses, try and get them more business, even if there’s nothing in it for me, simply because I think that working in that way feels right to me. And frankly, I think working in that way ultimately makes you more successful. It’s not. It’s the only way. Yeah, it’s the only way. It’s the only way I want to do business.
Sam Jayanti [00:29:34] Yeah, I totally agree with that. But what keeps you up at night right now?
Vanessa Cornell [00:29:42] You know, I sleep pretty well, actually, I just mentioned I make my decisions from a place of heart, a place of love and integrity. And if I am up at night because I think I’ve made a mistake, I think about what to do to remedy that mistake, because everybody does. It’s not that I never make mistakes or missteps or do things that I regret, but I work hard to to fix those things. I do think that I try to push myself to the edge of my comfort, both personally and in my business, because that is the place of growth. So I really think a lot about do I feel uncomfortable because this is not right for me or do I feel uncomfortable because I’m pushing myself, challenging myself, and those are sort of different types of discomfort. And so are are the training for NUSHU group facilitators that we have offered has doubled in size each time we’ve offered it. And that’s both exciting and nerve-wracking because I want to make sure it’s as intimate as it has always been as it gets bigger. There are challenges associated with it, but I know that that’s a place of growth that I should push myself to. So I do sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and think, oh, my goodness, what have I taken on? But then I try and evaluate. Is it a mistake to have taken it on or am I just pushing the edge of my comfort? And if it’s pushing the edge of my comfort, I can sit with that anxiety. I can sit with that nervousness and know that’s a good nervousness. It’s a place I should be.
Sam Jayanti [00:31:32] Some stress and anxiety is absolutely a necessity for us to do our best work for sure. So where do you see yourself and your business three years from now?
Vanessa Cornell [00:31:46] So I said in the beginning that the idea of accessing connection, a space where you’re permitted to speak your truth out loud, should be in the mainstream, should be available to everyone. And so what I’m hoping to do is spark a phenomenon that’s much bigger than just me, that’s much bigger than just my business, where certainly people can come to NUSHU to experience a group. Certainly they can come to NUSHU to learn how to facilitate a group. But what I want is for people to understand that even if they don’t come to NUSHU, that this is accessible to them so that the idea is in the mainstream, so that people start talking about this as something that’s a tool of many other tools. There’s therapy, there’s yoga, there’s meditation, there’s many modalities. But that this is one of them that they can draw on so that if they’re experiencing loneliness or disconnection or they’re going through something difficult, that this is available to them. That’s really my ultimate mission and what I’m working towards.
Sam Jayanti [00:32:59] Wonderful. Here’s something else you need to know. Despite recent setbacks, the wellness communities market is projected to grow from one hundred and thirty four billion to two hundred billion dollars in 2020 to whether remote or in person. The need for wellness and community has never been greater, thanks to the Global Wellness Institute for the data. In today’s episode, Vanessa, we love your story because you took your seeking a community and brought it to others seeking the same thing. And I love that you’re trying to turn it into a mainstream phenomenon available to everyone. Thanks for being with us today.
Vanessa Cornell [00:33:42] Thank you so much for having me and for all the work you do.
Sam Jayanti [00:33:46] Thanks for listening today. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, please do review the show. We love hearing from you. So e-mail us at info at the Ideamix radio. Com or Instagram DMAs. Our episode this week was produced by the incomparable Martin Milewski with music by the awesome Nashville based singer songwriter Doug Allen. You can learn more about Doug at DougAllenMusic com.
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