How to find your grown-up work: HumanTalented and Adrienne Corn

What do you want to be when you grow up? Here's the story of a woman whose company helps you figure that out (because she's been there, too).

Adrienne Corn HumanTalented logoWhat inspired you to start your business? Where did you start and where are you now?

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It was this seemingly simple question that we’ve all been asked that got me thinking about how important the answer is—and how little we do structurally, in schools and companies, to help people answer that question in purposeful and aligned ways. How do we translate who we are into what we do?

My company was born out of this question—just like my own, misaligned work experiences. Like too many young people, even though I had a college degree and some ideas of what I wanted to do in terms of careers, I still spent my early 20’s mucking around in the world of work. … And while I was successful at the work I did, mine isn’t an early career success story—because like so many of us, I had just stumbled into my work life. There is often little guidance to transition us successfully from school into the world of work in aligned and purposeful ways.

So, I used what I had learned in my various business roles (marketing and sales, operations, HR, statistics) and developed a product that would bridge what I call the “being-doing” gap—help people figure out “who they are and how they fit in the working world, given where they are in their career lifecycle.” I test marketed the concept with family and friends, and the response was very encouraging.

My initial work led me to Vanderbilt University, where I earned a PhD. Part of my dissertation title was literally “Learning what I want to be when I grow up,” because I had spent a decade researching and analyzing what influences people’s occupational aspirations and how those aspirations influence what they end up doing, as well as the subsequent impact on the organizations they work for.

Adrienne Corn HumanTalented HTAfter earning my doctorate, I rebranded and launched my company as HumanTalented, a talent analytics and alignment company, with two flagship products: ID:Me, which aligns individuals with the working world, and HTAnalytics, which helps companies understand how their talented people power their performance. HumanTalented is in constant development and growth stages as we address the needs of our existing target markets and branch out into new market segments.

What do you see for your future?

My personal future is very much tied to my mission of seeing people powerfully aligned with and acting out of their own purpose. I think I will always be talking about, writing about, and creating solutions for this particular problem from some perspective or another. In terms of HumanTalented, the future is bright!

What do you see as challenges for you and your business? What are some opportunities?

A core challenge for HumanTalented is the perspective that most companies have of their internal talent. Very few companies see talent as strategic to their business. HR rarely garners a C-level position in the organization—and yet without people, nothing would get done. Companies need to understand the value of people to their sustainability and success…and with HTAnalytics, we can help them do that, which is our opportunity!

Adrienne Corn HumanTalented ID ME logoAnother challenge is in education. Most colleges and universities in the US take issue with the idea of alignment because it sounds less like a curated process and more like tracking—and we don’t track—or telling people what they can or should be when they grow up. While there is a fundamental difference between tracking and the use of tools for the purposes of aligning a student with the world of work so they are prepared to flourish when they hit the streets, it is often challenge to get educators to see past that initial perception. Luckily, parents understand that difference, and parents’ desire for their children to succeed beyond school creates opportunity for our ID:Me product.

The environmental or contextual opportunity is really the generational shift that is occurring right now. As Millennials enter the workplace, they force a change in mindset because they approach work differently. Also, there will be a gap in skills and leadership talent as the boomers leave and Millennials enter, meaning that talent mobility—the agile ability to shift employees within the organization in aligned ways—will be critical. Our products allow companies to foster strong talent mobility within their organizations, aligning their talent and their outcomes for a robust and sustainable future.

How can we help your business?

We are excited about a new education version of our product, ID:Me, that has been in development. It’s a four-year, curriculum-based process for students that goes hand in hand with their high school or college coursework. We are talking to some progressive and innovative colleges and private high schools now, but would welcome introductions to other schools that might be interested in piloting this with their students. ID:Me is also great for companies that heavily recruit and hire Millennials, as it allows those companies a “value add” to the benefits they provide those hires—a benefit focused on the individual and his or her career path—so, introductions to those kinds of companies would be great as well.

Where did you grow up? And how is where you came from material to your identity as an entrepreneur?

I grew up in the Midwest, although we moved quite a bit when I was young. I was born outside of Chicago and have lived in Missouri, Iowa, and on both coasts. I’ve spent time in each state in this country and have traveled extensively internationally as well. Now I live in Nashville, Tennessee, and fly between here, the Bay Area and Manhattan for work. Before settling in the Midwest, my father was a Foreign Service officer in the US Diplomatic Corps, stationed in the Middle East—a challenging post. So, from the time we were young, my siblings and parents would have geopolitical conversations over dinner in which we would literally brainstorm and discuss how we would solve the world’s problems. My parents never talked to us like we were kids. We were expected to think broadly and deeply, to act compassionately, and seek our own paths when we left the house after high school. Growing up in this kind of family environment and in the middle of the country, where people tend to be pretty friendly and open, gave me a great foundation for exploring my ideas in an entrepreneurial way.

Adrienne Corn HumanTalented Fail TryTell us a story about a success in your business? A mistake you overcame?

One of my great successes has been finding partners to work with. While a lot of start-up companies aggressively seek venture capital, I have been pretty intent on building my social capital. I wanted and needed to work with people who could help my company by contributing their expertise. I have learned so much from the people who have agreed to work with me and mentor me, and it is reflected in the strength of the products.

A big success this year was having talent analytics recognized as a strategic imperative. In fact, HumanTalented was just named one of the Top 3 talent management solutions companies to watch in 2016 (along with LinkedIn and Cornerstone On Demand) by Outsell, a research and analyst firm out of the Bay Area. We were ranked alongside large companies such as Oracle, Workday, and Towers Watson.

One of my biggest mistakes has been worrying about competition. When I looked in the rearview mirror to see who was gaining on me, it meant I took my eyes off the road and wasn’t paying attention to what I was contributing to the world. Worrying that other companies would get their first, or that someone would have a better offering—these have all been a mistaken waste of my brainpower in the past. Competition is really the epitome of “iron sharpens iron”—and if you’ve ever watched that process, there can be sparks—some of which can burn, but some are pure sparks of inspiration and light the way toward the future. I try to keep track of my competition to keep me sharp, but without letting it throwing me off of my own vision and the work I have to do.

Adrienne Corn HumanTalented phone screenWhat picture is on your phone’s home screen?

On my home screen is a photo of me and my niece, Arika, who is 13. I have five nieces and three nephews. They are an inspiration for continuing the work that I do, because as they grow up, I want their work lives to be satisfying, to reflect who they are and for them to know that their contributions to the world matter.

What do you love about being an entrepreneur?

I have always loved that I can solve problems with my imagination. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an inventor because I was always coming up with solutions to the problems I saw around me, whether it was envisioning a cooler way to get a tan in the backyard (I developed an inflatable rectangle tanning pool with internally reflective surfaces for even tanning and a circulating fan to keep the water moving) or how to make food more interesting or palatable (I developed a candy kit for creating your own Mr. Potato Head—a chocolate covered marshmallow body and candy eyes, lips, arms and legs that you could stick into him).

As an entrepreneur, I love creating something from nothing—what I call “blank page” moments—in which the solution to a problem begins with a blank page and then blossoms into ideas, then plans, then people and products. It’s knowing that the act of creation can, literally, change the world.

What about your business matters most deeply to you? How does it engage your values?

My business is all about people. I honestly believe that people are what matters in this life and all other decisions we make stem from making good decisions in relation to the people in our lives, whether they are our family, our neighbors, our coworkers, our employees, or global citizens. This core value is what drives my product, my behaviors, my desired outcomes, and my efforts toward those outcomes. I am definitely not perfect, but I work each day to align who I am with the work that is in front of me.

Adrienne Corn HumanTalented CreateWhat would you say is your “entrepreneurial superpower?”

I think I have three: my ability as a network thinker, my creativity, and my ubertenacity. As a network thinker, I connect ideas across different disciplines and different contexts—like an idea I might have gotten from watching reality television and applying it to a problem I’m trying to solve in product development. My creativity comes through in ways I approach problems, in how I produce marketing content, in ways I approach an audience, and my sense of humor. It also enhances my network thinking. Being ubertenacious means that I’m not one to walk away from a challenge—although sometimes in the middle of doing something I wonder what I was thinking! I’ve run the Honolulu marathon, I’ve earned a quantitatively grounded doctorate and I’ve been married for over 14 years (though marriage has by far been the easiest. My hubs is a successful serial entrepreneur and my biggest supporter). I’m pretty much known to take on big challenges and stick them out, even when it gets rough. I love what I learn and what kind of creative solutions come out of the challenges.

Who is the entrepreneur you admire most right now? Why does s/he inspire you?

When I was growing up, my grandfather and my father were both entrepreneurial. I loved the stories of the fathers of the industrial revolution—Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller, Edison, and Tesla. But stories of contemporary women entrepreneurs and inventors were not as visible or known, and if I became aware of them, they were often in spaces more traditionally associated with women (fashion, interior design, cooking/baking). The models for larger-than-life women entrepreneurs were seemingly limited and limiting. Yet, all around me I knew neighbors and people who had small businesses, or what we used to call “cottage industries.” So, these women became my model for what was possible—and what was great is that because they didn’t necessarily grace the covers of Fortune magazine—they just found a niche and filled it—being a business owner/entrepreneur seemed very do-able.

Today, these same kinds of women continue to inspire me: My friend Amy owns her own fitness/Barre studio and method (Relevé One, the tap n’pow{h}er method), my friend Gina founded a franchised cupcake company (Gigi’s Cupcakes), my friend Dorothy is a Fulbright scholar, author, and playwright (Respect, the Musical; Sistas), and my friend Anthea has her own research firm (Outsell). Each of these woman have crafted the life and business that they have, and have persevered through thick and thin, focused on the positive impact they can have on the world—at least that is what I take from their stories. Their lives and their businesses aren’t perfect, but they exemplify what it is to keep moving forward, to learn from failures and to innovate along the way. Each of these women are also very kind and thoughtful people—even as they have gotten more successful, they have each remained grounded and true to themselves.

What’s the best and the worst thing about being an entrepreneur, as a woman?

One of the tragedies of female entrepreneurship is that our relevance seems to be still so tied to what men think is relevant in business or an industry. So, while women are doing amazing things in the business world to change and shape our culture, experiences, and lives, they often do not garner the same kinds of recognition that their male counterparts receive. I think it’s a bit sad that as women we just learn to accept that as a reality—and would love to see that change.

Perhaps the unintended upside of not always being considered relevant is freedom— to act, innovate, and work outside of the accepted norms for whatever space we are in. I haven’t built my company or gone about my work in typical fashion as templated by male-dominated start-up gurus or traditional investment or capital firms—and I find I have room to breathe, create, and build without those more traditional strictures.

Do you think male entrepreneurs are “different” from female entrepreneurs, and if so, how?

I do. While both men and women tend to build upon relationships, my experience is that women tend to build more organically—figuring it out along the way. Which, for me, seems to lend more room for creativity and the possibility for unique outcomes. One reason I think this happens is that while there may be more visible groups of women entrepreneurs now, women mentors and influential connectors haven’t always been so available. So, we had to figure it out on our own—go our own way, so to speak. I also think the roles we serve in other areas of our lives shape how we approach business. Being mothers and wives and daughters, with active roles in caring for others (our children, aging parents) influences how quickly we make decisions, what factors influence our decisions, and how we develop the relationships upon which we build.

What the best advice you ever got, and from whom?

I’ve been mentored by some pretty fantastic people—so it’s hard to boil the advice down into just one bit. But perhaps my earliest advice which set the tone for what I do and why came from my maternal grandparents.

My grandmother had a plaque hanging in her kitchen. It read: “Be who you is, and not who you ain’t / Because if you ain’t who you is, you is who you ain’t.”

Growing up reading that plaque was not just permission to be myself, but a clear instruction from, as I saw it, my grandmother herself. It set the tone for the kind of work I pursued: authentic, grounded, honest—and interestingly, was probably the early seed for pursuing “identity” work.

My grandfather, who was also an entrepreneur and always let me play “office” or build things at his workbench, told me I should work at a gas station and talk to people, figure out what people needed and then build a business around it. I’m guessing that in small-town America, the gas station was like Facebook today—everyone came and went from there. I think I was 9 years old when he said that to me, and while I’ve never worked at a gas station, I’ve always remembered what he said. I have indeed talked to lots of people young and old, and figured out what I think is a problem that I can solve—and am doing my best to build a sustainable business around it.

Adrienne Corn - Black and WhiteHow can people keep up with you and HumanTalented?

Our website; on Twitter at @adriennecorn and @humantalented; on Facebook; and on LinkedIn both for HumanTalented and for myself.

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