Adelaide Lancaster on Entrepreneurship and Launching We Stories

At 36, Adelaide Lancaster already has experienced many different career phases. Since graduating from Columbia University with a M.A. in Organizational Psychology and M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology, she’s gained the titles of consultant, entrepreneur, author, blogger, speaker, mother, advocate, and now, with the launch of We Stories, conversation starter.

Adelaide brings an entrepreneurial mindset to growing We Stories. Launched in Fall 2015, We Stories focuses on closing the family conversation gap around race and racism. For We Stories advocates, the goal of developing a stronger and more inclusive St. Louis must involve encouraging white families to address race and racism independently.

Read on for Adelaide’s thoughts on launching We Stories, talking to children about race, and plugging in a new community.

How did you end up in St. Louis?
“My family and I moved to St. Louis four years ago, in 2012, for my husband’s surgical residency. Living in New York City and moving here from Philadelphia, I had a sense that living in St. Louis was going to be different than what I knew. I was used to big, bustling East Coast cities. When we moved, I knew that the Midwest would be very different. It took me a good year to recognize how dramatic the culture shift was for me, but I feel like it’s been really helpful for me to experience a different city, a different way of life, and different people.”

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced living in St. Louis?
“We don’t live near any family, which is tough. It’s challenging when you’re in a place where you’re new and lack a support structure. I came knowing I would have to work really hard to cultivate a strong social network, and to find friends and a community. I made it a priority to raise my hand, get involved, and before I knew it, my schedule was pretty full.”

How did the vision for We Stories come about?Adelaide Lancaster
“It started with my desire to participate in change and racial equity efforts here in St. Louis. My graduate studies focused on racial identity development, but as a parent of young kids, I had a hard time getting involved in St. Louis’ civic issues in obvious ways. I wasn’t going to attend a protest with my children and many city commission meetings happen at night, which was a difficult time for me to be available. I was looking for a way to get involved in the issues that were affecting St. Louis, but I felt like I didn’t have many outlets in my current stage of life.

The other piece behind starting We Stories was that I was really thinking about my role as a parent. While researching and reading post-Ferguson, I discovered how most white families do not talk about race or racism. St. Louis is a significant point in my family’s journey, and I wanted to be intentional about exposing my kids to concepts of racial equity especially as they started to become exposed to perspectives different from their own. I turned to children’s books to fill these gaps.

It was around this time that I met Laura Horwitz. Like me, Laura had recently moved to St. Louis, but she grew up here. As a new mom with more than a decade of experience designing social justice programs, Laura shared a lot of the same thoughts and concerns and also had turned to children’s books. So we started an inquiry of the content our children were consuming. When we started to share our approach with other parents, we learned that many people were interested in doing the same thing for their children.

In the fall of 2015, we put together a few focus groups to test the interest in We Stories and ran a pilot for families. Our goal was to enroll 60 children, but we had 150 children signed up within the first few days. We closed submissions and started the pilot program with 80 families. Now, we support nearly 300 families and have more than 450 on our waiting list – all without marketing.”

You have three young kids, all under the age of six. Why is it important to talk to children about race?
“The conversation really differs depending on a child’s age and interests. The most important part is learning how to feel comfortable talking about skin color. I was raised with the philosophy of colorblindness, which couples noticing skin color with racism. But that’s not true – noticing skin color is not a problem; adjusting the way you interact, your expectations of a person, or what you think about a person based on that, is the problem.

I understand what someone is trying to convey when they say, “I don’t see race, I don’t see skin color.” But when little kids notice skin color and we refuse to talk about it, we model that talking about race is taboo. Beyond getting comfortable talking about skin color, I think that, for a lot of families, talking about the brutality of slavery is the hardest thing when it comes to talking about race. Creating conversations about race shouldn’t be about protecting your children from hard and painful truths and history but about raising questions and developing a counter narrative around the issue.”

Did you face any major obstacles in the development of We Stories?
“Starting a business is an obstacle, no matter what. Finding the right kind of funding model and setting up an infrastructure is challenging. But we were very clear about our goals from the beginning, and we’re excited that We Stories has gained traction in the community so far. The good news is there are so many people who are interested in being part of this program.”

How do you hope to continue to grow We Stories?
“Right now we run The Family Learning Program, where our most engaged families receive monthly book recommendations, have access to a supportive community, and discover opportunities to support existing efforts to make St. Louis a better place for all families. Our hope is that we can continue to work with these families in a leadership capacity when their session ends. They are the heart of our community.

We also use some of our community partnerships to share beyond The Family Learning Program and help families that want to learn along with us but may not be able to invest as much time.”

Before launching We Stories, you started In Good Company – a workspace for women business owners – and wrote The Big Enough Company, a book about entrepreneurs achieving success on their own terms. What did these experiences teach you about woman entrepreneurs?
“When I first left graduate school and started consulting with women business owners and women transitioning in their careers, the notion of branching out on your own as a freelancer or starting your own business was very novel. There were many women who were unhappy with their corporate gig, but the concept of going independent wasn’t on their radar. Now, I don’t think people would blink twice at a woman branching out on her own. I love how that standard has changed so much in the past 15 years.”

What are some unique challenges entrepreneurs face?
“When I managed In Good Company, the confounding conventional wisdom that I bumped up against during that time was that, in order to have a successful company, success was coupled with size. This idea commonly led to growth for growth’s sake. For some businesses, growth matters. But for many entrepreneurs, scaling up means they end up in a role that they hate. If you’re leaving your job because you’re unhappy and take all this risk to start something new, why put yourself in a position where you’re unhappy again?”

What key personal traits do you see in yourself that you’ve found especially critical to successfully launching new ventures?
“I’m very good at creating work for myself. If something is important to me, I’m willing to do the work to make it happen. I’m also a yes person until I’m a no person. If someone has an opportunity on the horizon, I’ll entertain it until it no longer makes sense.

I also like meeting people – I think that helps when it comes to finding opportunities. I’m not an extroverted person – I’m more introverted, but I like knowing people and putting myself in situations where I can learn something new.”

being an entrepreneur

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
“My favorite piece of advice is to approach things like you would approach a research project. I think that the true experience of being an entrepreneur is learning how to be comfortable with the things you don’t know. When you can do that, you recognize that the next step is to convert those unknowns into knowns.

I also think that when things feel uncertain it’s easy to be in a mode where you are constantly reevaluating your efforts and approach. “Should I be doing this?” But the truth is that you will have down days and your big decisions shouldn’t be determined by every little blip. I prefer to establish a future date, work as hard as I can, and then reevaluate efforts when I reach that future date based on what I know over a span of time. “Knowing what I know now, do I want to continue?” Deciding not to keep going is not failure – It’s terrible to get stuck in the mentality that you need to make it work at all costs. Forcing yourself into something that doesn’t work is like spinning on a hamster wheel of uncertainty – it’s exhausting! It also keeps you from allowing yourself to have the freedom that you need.”

If you had to describe your thoughts on where you are right now in your life, what would you say?
“When I created a community of entrepreneurs in New York, one of the biggest benefits for me was that I had access to a very intergenerational group. I connected with women in their 20s, 70s, and every age in between. These connections really helped me appreciate that where I currently am is a phase – there are many opportunities ahead of me that could send me in a lot of different directions. That’s really counter to the career advice I received in college, which is that there was only one path for me to follow.

One of the most freeing thoughts I’m embracing right now is that the place I currently am only represents ONE phase in a longer journey. It’s liberating when you accept that there are multiple phases you can experience in a lifetime instead of worrying too much about trying to keep specific doors open for yourself at a later date.”

Thanks to Michele Verna Photography for the main image for this article.

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Emily Knippa

Emily Knippa is a St. Louis-based marketer and writer who focuses on content marketing, career development, and personal finance. She enjoys meeting people pursuing inspiring career paths. She’d love to meet you at the next United Way event. Say hello to Emily on Twitter at @emilyknippa.