Entrepreneurs

A talk-show host, a musician and a philanthropist: How these three women built their powerful tribes

Fi Bendall /

tribe

Oprah Winfrey waves the audience during a tribute to Nelson Mandela and promoting gender equality event at University of Johannesburg in Soweto, South Africa on Thursday, November 29, 2018. Source: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe.

‘Tribe’ has become a key concept in business in recent years, popularised to a large degree by marketing guru Seth Godin. But how do you create and build a tribe? What does a tribe look like and when do you know you have one?

A tribe is very different from just any old set of customers or an audience. A tribe is about inspiring loyalty and belonging, it’s about creating a community around a shared ideal. It’s also about attaining a level of emotion in a relationship that is not present in a more purely transactional commercial relationship.

The increased awareness of tribal approaches to brand and marketing can be attributed in large measure to the way technology has allowed more people and brands to connect at scale, across the internet as well as globally. Digital technologies like the smartphone and internet have put powerful tools for communication and commerce in the hands of many, whereas once they were in the hands of relatively few. People now communicate in very different ways. They look for and expect affinity and connection.

“Caring is the key emotion at the center of the tribe,” Seth Godin says in his book Tribes. Creating and building a tribe is about connecting with your audience, your customers, in personal and authentic ways. It’s about giving real value. It’s about sharing passions and dreams.

Here are three very different women, from three different arenas of achievement, who have each created and built an amazing tribe powered by their passion, intelligence and business smarts. Each of these women has forged a new path in their field and they have brought along a tribe of like-minded souls on their journey.

Oprah

Like Madonna, Cher and Beyonce, Oprah is famous enough to get away with using just one name. There were talk-show hosts before Oprah Winfrey came along and more since she left the TV stage, but none have made an impact quite like her. Incredibly influential and worth an estimated $US2.6 billion ($3.67 billion), she started her media career as a 19-year-old TV news anchor in Nashville.

These days, she presides over a multimedia empire that encompasses TV, film, online and magazines. Oprah moved from the trashy world of daytime TV talk-shows to become a personality and lifestyle brand that inspires women worldwide, bringing her tribe along with her every step of the way.

Big idea: “My philosophy is that not only are you responsible for your life but doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.”

Main platform: television

How she built her tribe

There was a time when Oprah was one among many daytime TV talk-show hosts. But while others fixated on scandal and outrage, Oprah gradually shifted her focus to the issues that mattered most to her audience, tackling tough and taboo subjects like sexual abuse, family breakdowns and drug addiction with empathy and vulnerability.

Oprah also realised her audience wanted to grow as people, so she introduced innovations like the Oprah Book Club and O, The Oprah Magazine as a way to further grow her brand, connect with her tribe, and spread her cultural influence.

Key lesson

Believe. “The biggest adventure you can ever take is to live the life of your dreams.”

Amanda Palmer

Cabaret punk performer Amanda Palmer has turned the business model of the music industry on its head. The American performer, who gained a cult following with her band The Dresden Dolls, recognised the music industry was in transition in the 2000s, as filesharing and downloading through sites like Napster started to eat away at record company profits as well as the livelihoods of artists. Instead of bemoaning the shift in technology that was disrupting the music industry, she looked for a way to make it work for her.

Big idea: “I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, ‘How do we make people pay for music?’ What if we started asking, ‘How do we let people pay for music?’”

Main platform: music

How she built her tribe

Palmer herself says her style of music is an acquired taste. Whether it is with The Dresden Dolls or in her solo and collaborative work, Palmer’s music has a punky, adult edge. However, even though she knew she was never likely to be a chart-topping artist, she knew she had an audience that was passionate about her work. She was also very connected to her fans, both through the live shows she played and over the internet. Her years on the road and her accessibility to fans had helped her create a tribe.

“Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the Internet and the content that we’re freely able to share on it are taking us back. It’s about a few people loving you up close and about those people being enough,” she says in her Ted Talk, “The Art of Asking”.

So in 2012 when it came time to make a new album, rather than go to a record company, Palmer went to her tribe. She started a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to record a new album. She attracted 24,883 backers for a grand total of $1,192,793. At the time, it was the most successful Kickstarter campaign ever for a music project. That crowdfunding effort not only allowed Palmer to record an album, it also flicked the switch in the minds of many musicians about how they could create a sustainable business model for themselves — as long as they built a strong tribe.

Key lesson

Ask. “Through the very act of asking people I connected with them. And when you connect with them, people want to help you.”

Jacqueline Novogratz

Jacqueline Novogratz is the leader of a very special tribe. It doesn’t measure its value by Instagram followers, but by how many people it can lift out of grinding poverty around the world. Some of those in her tribe include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, IKEA Foundation, Metlife Foundation and Unilever.

A former New York banker and international aid worker, Novogratz is the founder and CEO of Acumen, a non-profit global venture capital fund that aims to re-invent philanthropy and social entrepreneurship for the 21st century. She founded Acumen in 2001 with the idea of bridging the gap between traditional international aid programs and the world of corporate philanthropy.

As Acumen’s manifesto says: “It’s the radical idea of creating hope in a cynical world. Changing the way the world tackles poverty and building a world based on dignity.” Novogratz has worked tirelessly to change thinking on the best ways of helping poor people globally help themselves, rather than become reliant on big donor handouts.

Big idea: “Patient Capital is the scarce resource that allows new, sometimes crazy, potentially world-changing ideas to see the light of day.”

Main platform: philanthropy

How she did it

Novogratz’s driving ambition to alleviate poverty came from her experience as an international aid worker, especially her time in Rwanda, where she worked as a UNICEF consultant in the late 1980s.

Disillusioned with the poor results of the traditional aid approaches she had seen, she set about thinking how she could connect the abundant capital available in the developed world to the promise and potential of the people she dealt with on the ground in countries like Rwanda; the farmers, traders and entrepreneurs who cried out for stable and patient funding so they could create wealth and opportunity for their own communities.  

Her journey was inspired by a chance encounter in Rwanda with a young boy who was wearing a blue sweater Novogratz recognised as one she had donated to charity almost 10 years earlier. That episode was symbolic to her of the interconnectedness of the world.

Key lesson

Connect. “We are increasingly aware of how connected we are, not only to one another but to all forms of life on earth. Any notion that we are separate is a delusion. We need each other and we are part of each other.”

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Fi Bendall

Fi Bendall is chief executive of The Female Social Network and a Westpac-AFR 2015 100 Women of Influence, who was described by CEO Magazine as "The CEO's secret weapon". An expert and pioneer in digital strategy, she has over 23 years’ experience in the digital and tech sectors.