Whitney Nelson

Founder of Brilliant People

Whitney Nelson is the founder and CEO of Brilliant People™. She’s a dynamic leader with a background in design, marketing, leading teams and leadership development. Her corporate experience combined with her personal mantra ‘say no to status quo’ inspired her to create a better way to develop leadership in individuals. This became the catalyst for Brilliant People™, whose mission is to empower managers to build high performance teams through connection and community in the workplace.

Whitney is also deeply committed to raising awareness about domestic minor sex trafficking. Her family helped launch the Refuge for DMST which provides long term therapeutic care for girls (ages 11-17) who have been rescued from sex trafficking. Please see therefugeranch.org for more information.

When not inspiring organizations to transform workplace culture, you’ll find her volunteering with Little Bellas (an organization that helps encourage growth and mindset for little girls and young women through mountain biking fun) or out on her own or with friends mountain biking or running the trails in and around Austin, TX.

Where did the idea for Brilliant People come from?

The idea for Brilliant People came about while I was a Field Marketing Manager for CLIF Bar & Co. I was part of a two person team who managed all of the field marketing activations for Texas. After two years with the company, I was promoted and was reporting to a new manager. I really respected her knowledge and experience with the company but could not figure out how to really connect with her. As she was managing and mentoring me, she would say things like “You’re never going to get that. You’re just not wired that way,” which just crushed me. I knew she wasn’t trying to hurt my feelings, but it did because I was working really hard trying to be who she needed me to be. After five years of this I was practically at burn out on all levels. And, then one day I had an epiphany and thought: how do I bring a different person to the table that connects with her on the level she needs rather than how I’m used to showing up?

I spent two years on a self-led leadership journey absorbing all I could about different personalities, leadership, management and more. During that time our relationship was transformed and by the end of that period, she was telling me I was her favorite person on the team because I just ‘put my head down and did my job.’ I got a raise, and she was even singing my praises to others.

The interesting thing was that I was doing the job the way I always had, I’d just figured out how to connect with her based on her needs, not my own. It was a game changer. And it was the impetus for Brilliant People. I knew that if I had transformed my relationship with my manager by following these principals others could do the same.

It is so important that we connect with the people we work with. When we don’t feel like we belong, for whatever reason, it not only wreaks havoc on our productivity it does a number on our mental health. And, with the current state of the world, post pandemic, this need for connection in the workplace is even stronger. It’s the foundation for building high performance teams.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I’m up at 5:30am for some quiet time: coffee, journaling, breathing exercises and/or meditation. After that, I head out for a run, brisk walk, or mountain bike ride (with an occasional strength training session of some sort).

I’m in front of my computer by 9am and am pretty much engrossed until lunchtime, when I take a quick break to grab a bite and then right back at it until 6pm. This is a typical day when I’m working in the office all day vs when I have client events.

Productivity is fueled by multiple things: my calendar, Trello, lots of communication with my team when needed to make sure everything is running smoothly. I’m a big fan of timers so each day I check my calendar and if I’ve got calls scheduled, I set a timer a few minutes before so I don’t lose track of time and forget. I even have a timer set at lunch that reminds me to do some PT exercises during my lunch break due to an injury which also reminds me that it’s time for lunch!

I like to time block when I need to work on something that’s going to take a bit longer: blog posts, prepping for a client event or creating new products. And, again, Trello has been amazing for me to stay on top of the needs of our project manager and social media manager. I can quickly jump in there to make sure no one is hung up or waiting on anything from me.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I like to talk my ideas through with my business partner and sister, Brettne. We think a lot alike but also approach life very differently which makes for a great team dynamic. We also collaborate well together so it’s super fun when a new idea hits and we can take the time to hash out details and bring it to life.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I appreciate how much people are getting into self-led professional or personal development. I feel like it’s been around for a long time, but finally getting a bigger following. The world has changed in the last few years and this one thing allows people to grow in different areas, on their time, and in whatever areas interest them. It just adds to their knowledge base and allows them to bring more to the table in their work and home life.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I am dedicated to an early bedtime. For the most part I am heading to my bedroom to wind down at 8:30pm each night. I usually read for a few minutes depending on the time, and the lights are out by 9pm. It makes that 5:30am wakeup call much easier. I get plenty of sleep, and that helps fuel the following day. I am going ninety-to-nothing all day, every day so it helps to have a restful night’s sleep to allow my body to recover from the stress of that.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I’ve been an entrepreneur for 30 years, even prior to going to college. When I graduated college, I started another company using my design degree because (at the time) I thought I knew what I needed to know, and I had already run my own business so didn’t think I needed to go work for anyone else. I look back and realize that I could have learned so much by going to work with a company, getting experience and then going back out on my own if that’s what I wanted. I spent many years reinventing the wheel because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I don’t necessarily regret my path, but I might have sped up the process a bit, had I been willing to go learn from others who were doing what I wanted to do.

When I look back now, I truly think it was just my ego getting in the way and the fear of disappointing someone, or the possibility that they might figure out that I wasn’t all that! I could not have put that into words when I was younger, but now I believe that played into my decisions to just go it alone and figure it out as I went.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

I’m an introvert, but most people assume I am an extrovert because I can be very outgoing and am typically comfortable talking to people I don’t know. I was told once that I’m an introvert with social skills, which I think is a learned skill from having a big extended family with lots of 1st and 2nd cousins where everyone was always very loving and huggy with each other. But, as an introvert, being with people totally drains me, so when I’m done, I’m done. I need alone time and silence to recharge.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Consistency is the key. It’s the one thing, but it plays into so many things that create success: I consistently go to bed early, get up early, workout, start and stop work at the same time, etc. I have created consistencies in my life that help me function at a higher level. Without this discipline, I don’t believe you can be a successful entrepreneur. Everything falls on you (at least in the beginning), which means you must have certain things in place that you do over and over, that are what helps you see results.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

I hired a business coach in 2020 that helped us with our business development strategy and it was incredible. We don’t know what we don’t know, and as the CEO and founder of a small business, I wear many hats. To have someone else with greater experience speak into the business and guide us toward the next right steps to take helped us continue our upward momentum.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Fear of change. When COVID hit, and everything went virtual, I was only a few months into being the sole leader of my company (having just bought my business partner out a few months prior). Because of the overwhelm that came along with that major shift and the reality that everything fell on me alone (running the business, selling work, facilitating, etc), I was not comfortable having to learn one more thing – especially on the technical front. I was full up! I felt I couldn’t take in another major change, that came with lots of new info. Just when I felt like I’d finally come to grips with the fact that I was no longer behind the scenes running the show, I was now front and center, all eyes on me. This hadn’t been part of the original plan. So, one more major undertaking (technical learning of Zoom and all that came with presenting virtually) almost did me in. We didn’t take a paid client for 6 mos because of this as I talked myself into the fact that this pandemic wasn’t going to last. We hunkered down and shifted gears and focused on areas that had previously been left on the wayside due to a lack of bandwidth. We used that 6 mos to grow the company in other ways, and finally, little by little, I understood that I had to move to a virtual presence, or we’d die on the vine waiting for the pandemic to pass. It was a huge lesson and a huge opportunity in so many ways. When we finally started working with clients virtually, it was scary. The technical glitches were messy at times, but all in all, we rallied and were able to support our clients through the end of that first year in a way I never thought possible. It absolutely changed my thinking about how we need to connect with our consumers and opened the possibility of so much more. I look back on 2020 and I see it as an absolute win in so many respects because through adversity, we grew on so many levels.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Take something you do really well and turn it into an online course for passive income. It’s a great way to expand on your current offerings and gets your information in front of lots of people you may never have had the opportunity to work with.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Professional: Hiring a business coach to help us scale our processes for onboarding new facilitators. Again, we didn’t know what we didn’t know and having someone who is skilled in this area, really helped us see the gaps we needed to fill in our processes.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Trello: we use it daily to help us track our task lists, to communicate with our project manager, social media manager and IT manager. It is an awesome tool allowing us to build out boards for each of our departments, for specific projects so progress can be tracked and people can collaborate. We love it.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Stillness Is The Key by Ryan Holiday

This book was incredible. The back flap says it all: Stillness is the secret to elite performance, to leadership and creativity. It’s the peace that makes room for happiness. It is the key…. to everything that matters.

What is your favorite quote?

I slept and dreamt that life was joy.

I awoke and saw that life was service.

I acted and behold, service was joy.

Attributed to Rabindranath Tagore

Key Learnings:

  • Learn more about how other personality types view the world. Then, take that information and use it to see through a different lens than your own. Ultimately, this will help you connect more deeply with others who show up differently than you.
  • Consistency is key.
  • Share ideas with someone who thinks differently than you. This can allows for better outcomes or at the least, interesting discussions that will help you see the idea in a new light.