Isis Dallis has spent her career at the intersections of insights, culture and public service. Her 20 year career covers brand strategy, organizational leadership and social enterprise. As Managing Director at Matter Unlimited she applies her multitude of talents to help build a more purpose-driven world, working with clients like Rhia Ventures on reproductive justice, Coursera on education equity and The Headstrong Project on mental health. Here, Isis shares the experiences that led her to this point, and what it will take to build an equitable creative industry for the future.
How did you find yourself in the business of brand strategy and storytelling?
My career path has definitely more resembled a jungle gym than a ladder. I’ve worked in account roles, strategic planning roles and organizational leadership roles. I’ve co-founded a social impact tech startup, worked “client side” for large consumer brands, and held leadership positions inside of large global agencies and small boutique firms. What all of these experiences have had in common, though, is the powerful use of storytelling to connect and move people.
From the time I was a little kid, I’ve always been fascinated by the stories and lives of people. I used to spend countless hours sitting up under grown folk listening to them talk and laugh, celebrating personal triumphs, sharing hardships and solving problems for each other that they couldn’t quite work out for themselves. I noticed that great storytellers tended to be great problem solvers, and that stories seemed to have the ability to connect people and unlock solutions in ways that were really powerful.
So while I didn’t aspire to be a strategist or brand storyteller (I didn’t have the language for that then) I did always seem to follow my curiosity. I’ve always been endlessly curious and intrigued by what people value, what motivates behavior, and whether the lives people lead and the decisions they make are a reflection of what they value, or a reflection of what they fear.
In many ways, our work as strategic and creative consultants is exercising that curiosity and accountability on behalf of the organizations that hire us. Our work is to very intimately understand what an organization stands for and why it exists, then give them the frameworks and tools required to set priorities in alignment with their values.
Once those priorities are set, we walk alongside (and sometimes ahead of them) guiding them on their journey to live into those commitments and encourage them to make decisions and take actions that are more in accordance to what they value than what they fear. When an organization is operating from a place of authentic purpose, the work of storytelling and building community around that shared purpose is the easy and fun part. Unfortunately, too often organizations want to do the storytelling and community building part without first really clarifying what they stand for and making demonstrable operational commitments to live into those values.
What studies or experiences prepared you for this career?
In college, I double majored in Sociology and African and African American Studies, with an emphasis in Markets and Management Studies. Understanding the significant role that race has historically played, and continues to play, in the structural power dynamics that underlie every sector of American society and culture has provided really valuable context for understanding how we arrived at this cultural moment, and more importantly, how we constructively move forward. Connecting the dots between those various disciplines has been vital in cultivating my approach to problem solving as a systems thinker. It’s allowed me to recognize that any lasting change we desire first requires an acknowledgement of the connection between one’s individual role and the larger environmental and structural inequities that exist. Secondly, it requires us to resist offering up short term, symptomatic solutions, and instead choose to do the significantly harder work of attending to the thorny underlying structural issues that must be resolved and cleared before lasting, meaningful forward progress is possible.
Clients like The California Endowment and Liberty Hill Foundation focused on funding and facilitating powerbuilding initiatives in communities of color, Imaginable Futures focused on systems mapping approaches to education equity, and Rhia Ventures commitment to reproductive justice and addressing racial inequity to improve quality, access and affordability in reproductive health are a few great examples of clients who really get it.
Another experience in college was also formative. I worked on campus at the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History, housed at Duke’s Special Collections Library. I was part of the team responsible for archiving and digitizing a century’s worth of personal papers, advertisements and ephemera from the J. Walter Thompson Collection. From Ford to Kodak Ivory Soap, to Coca-Cola, I was fascinated by all that went into crafting the images and stories that the world’s largest companies were trying to convey. Sifting through original correspondence between offices, strategy papers, film and photography proofs, I saw up close the ways that the work of this predominant advertising agency was at once reflecting and actively shaping the cultural attitudes of the era. It was through that experience that I first understood the vital role that brands could play, and did play in shaping the cultural conversation (and thus attitudes, and thus behaviors) of society. This is something that would come into sharp relief for me, 20 years later as a leader in this industry during the racial reckoning and unrest that captured the world’s attention last summer.
In 2011 you co-founded Camellia Network, a national social enterprise. Can you tell us about the mission of the organization and why you created it?
The Mission of Camellia Network was to improve outcomes for youth aging out of the foster care system by connecting them to the resources, opportunities and support networks they need to thrive in adulthood.
In 2011, I was working as a strategist at Ogilvy. My dear friend and author Vanessa Diffenbaugh had just written The Language of Flowers, a New York Times best selling novel about a young woman who ages out of the foster care system. She was about to go on her book tour and knew there would be an opportunity to leverage the attention and platform afforded by her novel to introduce new audiences to the issues plaguing the child welfare system and the abysmal statistical outcomes for youth who “age out” without being adopted. She asked if I would join her in bringing awareness to the issue, and more importantly develop an organizational model that would allow people to do something to help. I took a leap of faith, left my career and spent the next 3 years as Co-founder and CEO building the organization with a remarkable founding team.
At the time, there were a few pioneers in the crowdsourcing and crowdfunding landscape like KIVA and Donors Choose, but for the most part I was seeing all of this incredible innovation happening in the private sector using technology and the power of network models to accelerate change and impact, but very little of it being applied to our most pressing social dilemmas. Everyone we spoke to about the abysmal statistical outcomes for youth aging out of the foster care system was instantly emotionally invested, but had few options to participate in the solution (other than high commitment options like becoming a foster parent). We decided to leverage the most powerful aspect of those models, which was their ability to make this issue accessible and easy for new audiences to engage and rally around.
In addition to building the platform, we knew we needed to shift a cultural mindset around youth in the child welfare system. We needed to stop people from thinking of these youth as “those children” and inspire them to think of them as “our children.” To make this connection, we invited audiences to think about their relationship with their own children, nieces or nephews, and even reflect on what they themselves most needed at this pivotal, transitional stage of life. We then challenged ourselves to build a program and technology platform that could serve as a proxy for that relationship. Camellia Network was built as part support network, part opportunity exchange and part gift registry.
Working with child welfare organizations across the country, we invited youth aging out of foster care to join the network, publicly identify their goals and their immediate next life step, and register for the items they most needed to help them get there. We enlisted thousands of individual supporters from all 50 states to crowdfund the fulfillment of the youth’s registries. They purchased everything from bed sheets, pots, pans and furniture for first apartments to diapers and formula for those who were new parents. Through the network they could also cheer on, offer advice and encourage youth to keep progressing toward their goals. We registered dozens of corporations to serve as “Opportunity Partners”, offering career guidance, informational interviews and job opportunities for youth seeking employment.
Before we knew it, supporters on the network were consoling and offering advice to tired young moms who were dealing with colicky babies, corporate partners were dispensing career advice and mock interviews, and youth were feeling seen and supported. We soon realized that we were crowdsourcing more than material and professional support. We were crowdsourcing the relationship that so many young people coming of age in stable families take for granted. One that gives you a sense of belonging and a belief that your life and ambitions matter. We were crowdsourcing that network you enjoy when your mom, dad, or aunt set up an introduction to a colleague who works in a field you’re interested in. Or that person you can ask to help you fill out the FAFSA. All of these little, powerful acts are the things that parents do for their children, and we were leveraging the power of technology to do stand in. At the height, we were featured in Oprah, Glamour, Mashable, GOOD, and more, resulting in millions of impressions and raising awareness of an issue that had too long been in the shadows. In 2014 we were acquired by Youth Villages, Camellia Network became LifeSet Network, and integrated into Youth Villages’ transformative Life Set program.
What profound shifts have you seen in the brand landscape in recent years that excites you?
For decades, brands have sought to be “resonant in culture.” The major positive shift which we’ve all witnessed is the recognition that brands can’t be divorced from the larger social and cultural movements that are circulating and affecting the lives of people. Standing on the sidelines is no longer an option. Organizations are being forced to clarify their values, make them known, and hold themselves (and be held) accountable. If you’re a brand and want to be part of culture, you can no longer trade in imagery and platitudes, or borrow from culture to build credibility. You have to play an active role in understanding, then investing in, defending and improving the physical, environmental and cultural conditions in which your business and customers operate. The normalizing and shared expectation that Brands use their power and platform to positively impact the world is a welcome shift.
And on the flip-side, what concerns you?
Our industry has always had a penchant for instant gratification. While companies should waste no time in understanding and addressing the deep systemic issues that have contributed to widespread inequity, there is danger in assuming that there is a checklist of action items to be completed, and once companies quickly move through them, they can move past them, on their way to getting back to business as usual.
My concern is that companies are approaching this work more from the perspective of mitigating reputational risk rather than the belief that addressing the inequities at play within their organizations leads to better, more resonant work, products and customer experiences. Again, actions based on values vs fear.
Diversifying teams, public declarations, commitments to action, are all important steps, but they are not the end. Brands need to settle in for the long haul. Once those elements are in place, the work can really begin in earnest. This is about a way of being, not a list of doing. This is about a long term commitment, accountability, and transparency. This is about a new value system and a new way of engaging with the world, forever.
Last year you wrote a piece for Fast Company entitled ‘We need to talk about how media and creatives portray Black people’. It was a deeply personal and powerful piece, can you tell us about your experience writing it?
After the painfully publicized killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, I needed a way to process and express the personal pain and frustration I was feeling. Personal pain at the sight of another Black life being objectified and taken with such casualness and impunity, and frustration by the sudden awareness it seemed the whole world was having about issues of racial violence, objectification, and inequality that Black people have been suffering from and intimately experiencing for 400 years in America. What started as a journal entry, ultimately became an open letter to our industry investigating the role and responsibility we, in creative, media, and marketing roles play in shaping the cultural narratives that inform the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that have very real implications and consequences for Black people.
It poured out of me in less than 72 hours and sent it to Fast Company an unsolicited submission. I awoke the next morning to the Editor-in-Chief thanking me for trusting them with the piece and letting me know that they wanted it to run as a feature.
What response did you get once the article was published?
The response was powerful and humbling. I heard from prominent corporate leaders, agency executives, heads of film and television studios, directors, and everyday working creatives who felt seen and understood, and others who found it instructional, letting me know that they were sharing it with their teams and using it as a starting point for uncomfortable, constructive conversations.
What practical wisdom do you wish all brand storytellers would listen to and deploy?
Investigate where your information and inspiration are coming from. There are echo chambers all around us. Open your aperture. Question whose perspectives are informing your solutions. Be focused on getting it right, not being right. Don’t let fear of saying or doing the wrong thing inhibit you from doing or saying anything at all. Resist putting people into tidy boxes. Don’t be afraid of nuance. Personally, as a Black, lesbian, mother and step-mother, raising biracial children, my experience living my life at the intersections of race, gender and sexuality, has given me an understanding of and appreciation for the intersectional nuances that must be considered in order to adequately serve and solve for the diverse needs and perspectives of audiences.
You get to work across a lot of issues and causes on a daily basis at Matter Unlimited, what hits close to home and drives you to keep doing the work you are doing?
Stories are what we use to get people to know, feel and act. Stories beget beliefs and beliefs beget behaviors. Stories can inspire and compel a generation to go to the Moon, or they can manipulate minds to justify slavery and genocide. Every day at Matter, I have the opportunity to help organizations leverage their platforms and use the power of storytelling to work for good and move the world forward. It is a powerful responsibility and a privilege that I don’t take lightly.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
I draw inspiration from such an eclectic range of sources. I spend as much time as possible in nature. It is a refuge away from the noise and constant clamoring for recognition and attention that too often permeates throughout our industry. Mountains, forests, meadows, oceans don’t clamor for attention. They know themselves and their purpose and show up unbothered in impressive, unwavering accordance. Brands could learn a lot from observing nature.
I draw inspiration from both my children and my ancestors. As the family historian and genealogist, the stories of triumph, struggle, resilience and creativity of my ancestors remind me of what I’m capable of both enduring and creating against all odds. Alternatively, my children, all coming of age and creating new and interesting ways of seeing and solving for the world around them, are constantly teaching me to edit, optimize, remix, and question.
Other than those driving forces in my life, I draw inspiration from a legion of transcendentalist writers, black feminist poets, documentary filmmakers, independent musicians and publishers that bring a level of an intention, depth and richness to the stories they tell.