Kali Raoul is president of The Image Studios, which she founded in Chicago in 2000. It works with both corporate and individual clients, counseling them on how to use personal branding to maximize their potential. She holds a degree in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, and has worked in research & development, marketing and consumer education for companies such as Soft Sheen (L’Oreal), Kraft Foods and Dudley Products. Kali is member of the Association of Image Consultants International, National Association of Women Business Owners and the National Cosmetology Association and is actively involved in mentoring and other local community programs.
What are some of the components of image as you define and use it?
In some ways image is synonymous with impression. It encompasses your track record of performance and all the intangibles related to an individual: what you say, how you say it, what your physical presence or visual identity is like. Image and brand are increasingly used synonymously when you’re speaking about a person.
A person is a brand?
Absolutely. The field of “image consulting” has been around for decades. The business community didn’t latch on it immediately, but started to get it when “branding” became associated with the field. “Personal branding” occupies almost all the space that “image” did in the past.
You’ve touched on a lot of elements that make up image or personal branding. In your experience which of those is most commonly in need of your help?
In my practice, working with very bright, high-performing women—who are our primary clients—visual identity, “how you look,” is what is most commonly overlooked. Many high-performing women have focused the lion’s share of their attention on getting things done and getting it done well. They have paid much less attention to who knows what they’ve done and how they are perceived from a distance.
So ignoring the basics of visual identity can result in a woman being overlooked at work?
There are a number of aspects to this. Let me say first that there’s how you look in real life and how you look in the virtual world. Today that virtual impression is a big piece of how we’re perceived. And both those elements of identity have a lot to do with sponsorship. There’s a lot of talk about how sponsors, not mentors, are what separate people who attain high-level corporate jobs from those who merely aspire to them. Having a person who is more senior advocating for you is critical.
Sponsorship isn’t altruistic; in fact, it can be very self-serving. A sponsor often advocates for someone because they see the strategic value of it for their personal network. They’re looking at an individual from a distance. A sponsor is usually three or four rungs on the ladder above the beneficiary.
If a woman doesn’t stand out and doesn’t have an identity that stands out, she is literally overlooked. A senior colleague’s impression of you may be based on a very slim, very few seconds’ interaction. That could be an interaction in person or online; looking at you or looking at what Google says about you.
[A poor visual or virtual identity] is surprisingly career limiting at a certain point. Does it hurt a woman’s career for all time? No. But at the point at which sponsorship becomes the critical component of moving from Point A to Point B, personal branding and the visual identity component of it come into play.
Is there a component of personal branding that you’d say is most difficult to improve?
Yes. We break down personal branding into four components: visual, vocal, behavioral and spatial. So, how you look, how you sound, how you behave and what you keep around you. Our client most often has strength in written and verbal communication and in behavioral communication but has a blind spot to visual. But visual is the fastest, the cheapest, the easiest component to change.
The hardest to change is behavioral: such as facial expressions, body language and eye contact. If you’re in a meeting but you’re thinking about the project that’s back at your desk, your body language isn’t going to signal that you are in the moment in that meeting. It’s difficult to change behavior. It’s challenging to help people become more effective behaviorally.
Are there gender differences?
There is one difference I’ll speak to: Our male clients are very ready to give up what they’re not good at doing. They quickly say, “Yep. That’s why I hired you.” And they run with it. No matter what the coach is suggesting—on how to dress, or how to enhance their online profiles—they’re quick to accept suggestions and delegate the areas where they are weak.
Frankly, our female clients are more challenging. We like that challenge, but they are more difficult because they want more justification from the coaches about why they are making certain recommendations. They want proof. Women are less likely to take our advice without a justification that they can understand.
That attitude may make them more successful in business but is it more difficult to achieve?
Yes. What makes women so much more successful than men early in their careers—and this is statistically true—is that they can do so many things well. Men tend to be more focused in their strengths.
As you grow professionally, there comes a point where you do need to focus on your strengths and delegate the rest. Men are more practiced at that than are women.
It’s ironic. There are more women who reach that mid-level management tier than men because they’re multi-faceted. But there’s a point at which that becomes worth less in business
How did you develop your interest in personal branding? Did your family influence your interest in this topic?
No, they didn’t. I’m the classic nerd. My bachelor’s degree is in chemical engineering.
Can you explain that?
Since I was very young, my passion was personal aesthetics, hair styling, hair products, hair chemistry. I got a degree in chemical engineering because I wanted to create cosmetics, and I did do that.
While I was an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, I opened a salon. I was trying to do both the hands-on side of hair care and within the lab, product development and manufacturing.
What brought you out of the lab?
Ironically, when I finished school I was the science-engineering person who thumbed her nose at the notion of personal branding. I did for a very long time, but after a while I noticed that marketers were earning more than product developers. The people who worked on the side of deciding how things were perceived in the marketplace apparently had more value than people who worked behind the scenes creating it. I didn’t like that; I resented it. But ultimately I realized, “This is how it is.” This is what was happening so I could either become a part of it or continue to sit on the outskirts and be angry about it.
The Image Studios was created to help people like me: Smart folks who had the skills to make them soar, but who had not paid attention to the intangibles holding them back. I didn’t come to it naturally. I still don’t dress myself. My team dresses me, styles me. If it weren’t for them I’d probably be wearing a paper bag. And be happy about it!
I had a career that put me in touch with the behind the scenes side and also gave me a presence and ability to sit at the table on the marketing side. That was because of my weird combination of science and business knowledge.
Knowing what you do now about personal branding, when you look back at yourself in your corporate years, what would you want to change?
I wish had gotten on board earlier. I started The Image Studios not long after I accepted reality, but I’d been working for 10 years at that point. If I had it to do over, I’d tell the younger Kali, “You may not like it, but this is how it is, so manage both pieces. Manage how you are perceived, be smart and get it done.”
I think in many ways what we try to do with young women through our mentoring program is to send that message early in careers or even when girls are in school so that they optimize their potential from a young age.
Did it require nerve and capital to go out on your own and start your business?
I didn’t have a lot of capital so I guess it took a lot of nerve! I financed the business for the first three years. It started very small but grew fairly quickly and consistently for seven years. I think one reason we were able to survive the economic downturn was because we’re very principled in our growth and because we had great support. A lot of businesses that don’t make it, fail because they don’t have a support network that can help them weather downturns.
From where did your support come?
My friends and family are my angels. I did finally raise outside capital and the majority of our investors and stockholders are friends and family. I have three uncles who run their own businesses.
Did they function as role models for you?
I attended the GlassCeiling.com think tank recently and heard person after person talk about their role models. I had never given the idea of a “role model” much thought. Neither of my parents is a business owner. But my grandparents and most of my father’s siblings are entrepreneurs.
I never once thought it was impossible to have my own business. I never was afraid of it. So I suppose I did have role models without realizing it. Coming from a family of business owners provide a degree of freedom and confidence I might not otherwise have had.
Many people say that being confident of success is important for entrepreneurship. Do you agree?
It absolutely is. In the transformational work we do, a significant percentage of the women we work with wind up starting businesses. They may not start businesses instead of doing the working they had been doing but they do start new ventures.
I think that many of them just hadn’t previously believed it was possible. They may have an idea for a business but they decide it should stay an idea. And truthfully I see myself as an entrepreneur-at-gunpoint! I didn’t want to start a business. But I felt it was a real social imperative to solve the problem that was women and minorities leaving Corporate America.
In additional to being an entrepreneur-at-gunpoint, you’re also a mother of two. Balancing work and life is always a challenge. How have you approached it
I was married for 15 years and know very well that it is a juggle. I had two young children and a young business. I consciously made the choice to start my company when my children were very young with the thought that by the time they reached their teenage years I would have an established company and could focus my attention on being with them more.
It would have been wonderful to have known more women business owners who were married with children. At times I felt isolated. There are more organizations now that help entrepreneurial women with families connect.
And there’s more recognition that women are starting and running businesses. There’s more conversation and that can go a long way to making people feel less isolated. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely road, but when you know there are other people out there doing exactly what you’re doing, it can give you the sense that it is doable.
What do you most hope your children learn from your career journey?
I’ll tell you that prior to the downturn I had conversations about selling my company. I had sort of thought from the beginning that I would grow it and sell it. That’s what I was aiming for. And my kids said, “What? You can’t sell The Image Studios!” I was shocked. I thought they would be happy to have it go away.
It has been pleasantly surprising for me to see the things that my children have learned and now take for granted. They see me signing paychecks—and signing my own paycheck—and they think that’s normal. They hear me talk to staff or bring to the dinner table business challenges that I’d like the family to weigh in on.
From that I hope they have confidence that having a business is within their reach if they want that. Not everyone has to be an entrepreneur. I started The Image Studios to keep women—particularly minority women—in Corporate America. I think corporate America is a great resource that works if you work it.