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“We draw out what’s true and authentic to you — and amplify it. The stories that result are very powerful and compelling.” — Esther Choy '09, founder of Leadership Story Lab

Esther Choy ’09

Start me up: Esther Choy ’09

Through her firm Leadership Story Lab, Choy unlocks the power of storytelling to help clients forge a deep connection with their audiences

By Deborah L. Cohen

5/21/2012 - Editor’s note: In this monthly series, the Kellogg School spotlights young Kellogg graduates who are bringing bold new entrepreneurial visions to life.

The art of storytelling is a powerful tool.

So observes Esther Choy ’09, founder of Leadership Story Lab, a consulting startup that promotes storytelling as a competitive advantage.

Leadership Story Lab has effectively marketed its own narrative: In just two years, Choy has built a client roster that includes corporate executives, MBA candidates and large companies such as BP, all looking to gain a leg up in the world of business.

“Oftentimes, people regurgitate and reiterate their experiences in chronological fashion,” she says. “That’s not going to set you apart. What is going to set you apart is framing your experience and credentials in a way that makes sense to your audience and moves them.”

Choy should know. As a former admissions officer for the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, she saw thousands of applications from highly qualified candidates. The ones who made the cut tended to be those who built a compelling narrative around their application, lending what Choy calls “texture” to their list of accomplishments.

“When an admissions officer argued strongly for a candidate, it was often because he or she felt a human connection to that person, even though they may never have met,” Choy recalls. “That’s the power of story.”

Choy built Leadership Story Lab out of her fascination with this process, realizing that a powerful story can be the make-or-break difference for executives as well. She works with clients to uncover their story, voice and style so that they are authentic in their storytelling, whether they are marketing new products or raising capital for new ventures.

Choy’s own presentation skills were honed at Kellogg, where she was part of a team that won the 2009 Kellogg Cup business-plan competition. Their pitch for GYAN, a business to deliver vocational English language instruction in rural India, also took second place in the national New Venture Championship at the University of Oregon.

“Knowing how to tell your story and define your audience is a challenge for everybody,” says William Lear, president of Athena Financial Services, Inc. and senior adviser to The Chicago Corporation, as well as a Kellogg lecturer and mentor for the GYAN team. “Esther developed those skills at Kellogg.”

Launched in 2010, Choy’s firm is now profitable and scalable. Her team has grown to four, including former Kellogg classmate Reena Kansal ’09, who serves as director of business development.

It’s no surprise Choy frequently works with analytical types — primarily financial professionals, as well as engineers and scientists— schooled in a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to presentation.

“Oftentimes I have to drag them out of this mindset,” she says. “Yes, they have to rely on data, but they have to frame it in a way so that their bosses, even the rest of the company, will pay attention.”

Does it work? Choy points to one example: a financial services client vying against other high-profile contenders to win the mandate of a $250 million USD Chinese sovereign wealth fund.

Leadership Story Lab helped the presenters play to the fund managers’ goal of providing financial security for future Chinese retirees. Choy says this “human connection” tipped the scale in their favor.

“How do you convince others to believe in you? It’s all in the telling,” Choy says. “We draw out what’s true and authentic to you — and amplify it. The stories that result are very powerful and compelling.”

Read more in the Start Me Up series: