Leadership is a Verb

Leigh-Ann Buchanan is shaping a new generation of innovators

Welcome to Free Radicals — a collaboration between Every and Sherrell Dorsey, founder of The Plug. Each edition features a conversation between Sherrell and someone who embodies leadership, focusing on equity, advancement, expansive thinking, and progress. This is the fifth edition, featuring Leigh-Ann Buchanan


“Do you see people?” This is the fundamental question that drives Leigh-Ann Buchanan and informs the way she shows up as a leader.

Buchanan is the founding executive director of Venture Café Miami, a non-profit organization that fosters South Florida’s rapidly growing community of founders, builders, and innovators. Her focus is on bridging the gap between talent and access to the tools and relationships that allow great ideas to grow into companies. A former lawyer who spent years representing tech firms and startups, she’s now a writer, strategist, and founder who thinks and writes about leadership, and how to create more diverse, more robust ecosystems.

On the first day of 2021, The Miami Herald published a manifesto that Buchanan wrote in collaboration with other local leaders, identifying themselves as a community of innovators called #Miamitech. Buchanan characterizes it as “a living statement of purpose and accountability,” and while it welcomes the recent influx of innovators to South Florida with open arms, the manifesto also makes clear that “[w]e will never be the new Silicon Valley, Silicon Beach or anything but that which makes our community unique.” For #MiamiTech, this is defined by a commitment to access and diversity within the tech ecosystem.

Buchanan doesn’t just write about this mission, she lives it. Before the pandemic, she was known for hosting small dinners where entrepreneurs could connect with each other, and meet people who might someday invite them to the kinds of tables where contracts are offered and checks are signed.

In the face of Covid-related limitations on in-person connection, Buchanan has used the shift to examine the core purpose of her many projects, and to help clients drill down on this question. “Innovation needs purpose, we need to know who we are building things for and why,” she told Free Radicals. 

Buchanan is also the founder of the Nyah Project, an organization that offers leadership fellowships abroad and college access coaching to talented kids of color from disadvantaged areas, with the idea that leadership is developed through big life experiences. This work in particular has helped Buchanan cultivate a deeply future-focused outlook. Right now, she told Free Radicals, her focal point is 25 years out, when the college-bound students she’s working with now are mid-career, and have the power and wisdom to reshape the world.

Sherrell Dorsey spoke with Buchanan about what leadership looks like for founders, companies, and the next generation, at this crisis point in American history, and beyond.

It’s 2021 and the world is still on fire. As founders and builders who are working in spaces where inequity still plays a major role, how are you thinking about the important conversations to have as we move through the next 12 months?

Purpose is a through line that transcends the platform or the space that you happen to find yourself in at any given moment. And that's how I operate. Access, inclusion, racial equity, and bridging opportunity gaps are my focus; it’s what I care about. Those are non-negotiable. For me to be bullish on equity is for me to be true to my purpose and authentic to myself. 

Let's be real, I'm a Black woman. I'm educated, and I'm privileged in some sense, but I don't have the luxury or privilege to not show up as a Black woman every day. It bears a weight of responsibility to make sure that if I'm showing up in integrity as a leader, then that identity must follow me in every space that I have the opportunity to inhabit. 

Some people are scared to have these conversations. To be empathetic to folks who are uncomfortable or who are not willing to have such conversations, fuels a bit of my boldness. I have seen people who don't have the privilege of influence and don't have the privilege of leading organizations that can help to shape the narrative of our community and shape the access points to opportunity. They don't have a voice to be able to say that when you design ecosystems around tech, innovation, and entrepreneurship, you need to design them with access inclusion and racial equity in mind. They're not at those tables. And so because I am at those tables, because this is the work that I do, I make sure that it's fundamental.

You’ve put out a lot of content on this idea of strategic leadership communication. How are you thinking about leadership? And how are you communicating that to clients and audiences?

One of my favorite topics is leadership. But not just this moniker of thought leadership. Purposeful leadership which is the idea that there is a system, and a method, and a framework by which we can lead purposefully versus just leading by virtue of position, title, or role. 

So the way I think about leadership—and this is a lot of what I teach in the fellowship for the Nyah Project—is there are four pillars: intentionality, excellence, empathy, and integrity. And everything you do as a leader, from the emails you send, to the way you build relationships, to the content you put out, to the way you even engage, should be measured against that yardstick of those four pillars. 

Intentionality means asking why, even for the minutia. Why am I going to post this on Instagram or Twitter? Why am I going to take the extra time and make sure that I thought through this before I put it out there? 

Excellence is not perfection, because from a psychological standpoint, perfection historically has all sorts of judgments, stories, and behavioral conditioning attached to it. To me, excellence requires saying: how can I do this just 3 percent, 4 percent better? Leading with excellence is always thinking about how you're adding value to people you're engaging with, to your clients. 

Empathy is important because it allows for you to see from the other side—even in this pandemic, and the shift that we've had to make in the way that we operate and engage with each other. It's thinking, How do you see from the other person's perspective? And also thinking about people who are not traditionally represented. 

Integrity,I realized in the last year, is the last piece. Integrity to self and integrity to purpose. And, making sure that the way you move through the world, the way in which you lead, is showing up in the full version of yourself. For me, that means you’re probably going to see more content from me, because this year, I'm not playing small. I'm not gonna shrink into unworthiness. I'm not gonna create barriers to my own ability to have impact because of fears, ego, or concerns. 

Communication-wise, it’s about living out those values. Is the way I'm operating reflective of and communicating these values? What translates across the content that I put out, the things that I'm trying to do, and what I say to people?

In your work with Venture Café, your non-profit that supports the growing Miami tech and startup community, how does integrity apply to these spaces? Especially where we're thinking about community and making connections or getting the next deal done. How should we be consciously thinking about what integrity means and looks like on a collective basis? 

We recently did an exercise as an ecosystem; some of the leaders in Miami got together and put out this manifesto that I had the opportunity to pen because I like to write. It reflects to me what integrity looks like in practice—actually clearly articulating a standard or value set that everybody can adopt and get behind. Sometimes it requires a couple of leaders to do a little bit of the deeper digging and put something out there for comment, for review, for adoption. 

Integrity also means reflecting internally to understand what your values are and how those become imbued in whatever kind of manifesto statement, whatever standard or principles your community is going to live by. When we launched Venture Café, at least with the Thursday Gathering, which has been one of the core programs that we've run to help to connect the community more intentionally, we launched it with a credo. At that time, when you went to events, there were policies, but there weren't credos that explicitly said, These are the values that drive the way we will engage as people in a community. Things like fostering inclusivity, coming from a place of recognizing that great minds think alike, but diverse minds are going to change the world. Be respectful, be open to curiosity and conversation. 

When you articulate values in a clear statement, understanding that they will evolve and change, I think that that is a very practical way to begin to operate in integrity.

As you were mentioning the credo, it made me think about something on the opposite end of the spectrum. In the fall of 2020, the CEO of Coinbase, Brian Armstrong, put out a statement, essentially saying ‘politics don’t belong at work, we're not going to stand for anything, quite frankly, we're just here to do our jobs and go home.’ Then we saw most of the Black people that worked for the company saying, No, I experience real levels of racism and discrimination at work, and leaving, some filing discrimination lawsuits This fallout seems in line with the company’s statement about not standing for much. 

That’s an extreme case. But there are many quiet credos of company cultures that track with this one and won’t be publicly stated. I'd love your thoughts on the value of making statements that really define the way we're moving forward as we're building these communities and spaces and businesses.

So what's coming to mind is Hamilton for me, which I've listened to on repeat, because I'm a musical theater buff…

I’m also a musical theater nerd. I love that you just said that.

There's a line, and I'm probably going to mess it up, where Hamilton is throwing a jab at Aaron Burr, because Burr has this policy: ‘I'm gonna keep everything close to the vest, I'm not going to show my cards.’ 

And so he says, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, you'll fall for anything.”To me that is the perfect encapsulation of why we have an obligation to think about politics. If you look at the word, the root, the historical context of politics, it's really just thinking about what is good for the populace. What is that social contract that we make as people? 

I don't really agree with that idea that you as an organization cannot have a stance on an issue. I'm a 501c3, so I don't take political positions, but we have stances on issues. The operative way for us to think about this is, Do you see people?Do you value people? Do you hear people?Do you empathize with their experience? 

Institutions are a legal fiction. I'm a lawyer by trade. Institutions, legal entities, they're fictions, they are not people. I disagree with Citizens United and the holding of the Supreme Court. If you think about this, institutions are made of people. Ecosystems are made up of people. If you, as a leader of an institution cannot make a statement that may not be political, but that is grounded in how you see people, are you leading?

Not making a statement, particularly around Black Lives Matter, and the widespread racial, economic, and opportunity inequities that have existed in the United States by virtue of systemic racism and institutional frameworks that have sought to keep certain people marginalized, is saying to people who are underrepresented, people of color, people who are LGBTQ+, people who are not part of the majority or the dominant culture, I do not see you. I do not hear you. I do not value you. And I do not empathize with your plight.

I don't think any corporation—Fortune 500, tech startup—any corporation wants to have that as their articulation of how they engage with their consumers, how they engage with their community, and how they engage with society.

What are some of the conversations that you've had with founders that reflect the way their companies, their roles, or leadership journeys, have changed over the last few months?

The conversations I'm having with founders, and also investors, is less about the challenge of the pandemic and more about reframing it as an opportunity, and beginning to see the opportunity that exists in virtual. I would have had to spend all this money flying to have investor meetings, now I can just do it virtually, and people are willing to take my call. 

One challenge we're having is this interesting moment where if you're a Black founder, then you're in vogue. How do you differentiate between being in for the moment, or in for the long run? How do you navigate that conversation? At the end of the day, opportunity is opportunity, and sometimes it may not matter how you get your foot in the door, but that you got your foot in the door. 

Founders are beginning to get back to basics and do some deep thinking on the product or service they're offering. They're cutting the dead weight; the thing that wasn't revenue generating, that wasn't actually serving their customer, that was costing too much to execute on. 

A lot of these conversations are not as much about the business and more about the strategy. Thinking through how to lead in this time, and also how to get back to the core value proposition of the product or service they're building. On a personal level, I'm a founder. And that's the very same process that I have been going through with the organization that I run as my day job, the organization I run as my impact project, and then some of my personal projects. 

One of those projects is a book you’re working on, is that right?

I'm in the revision stage of this manuscript and I'm unclear whether or not I'm going to self-publish or try to work on getting a book contract. For me, the idea of working with a traditional publisher means I can get it into more hands. I see this book as something that you can have in the academic setting, colleges, universities. It's around this idea that innovation is a function of identity. How you begin to unlock your identity as an innovator, if you are not—no offense to white males who hold privilege from Silicon Valley—but if you don't fit that mold. 

I want to dive into your work with youth and the way that you are teaching leadership. You spoke before about purpose being a through line, and your youth program takes the Swahili word for purpose, nyah, as its name. Tell me about how it came about and some of the work that you all are doing.

Nyah Project is an organization I founded in 2014. The big idea that started it all was that travel awakens leaders. I've had the pleasure of being part of all these leadership programs, and I began to think about the experiences that most shaped this burgeoning capacity I had for leadership. They were all rooted in experiential, transformative things, often in travel. 

Nyah Project has since evolved into an organization that focuses exclusively on bridging opportunity gaps in transformative leadership experiences, as well as providing tech-enabled college strategy coaching, to close the gap between high potential kids and their ability to get into college. It's not as simple as taking the SAT, and they need an infrastructure of support. 

We offer fellowships and lifetime wraparound support to high potential youth of color from disadvantaged communities. It's pretty competitive—we typically only take 10 to 15 percent of kids who apply. The fellowships are global. We take a cohort of 12 kids, typically to sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia, those are the primary destinations that we focus on. And we run an experiential immersion program that consists of masterclasses with local leaders, who are not just leaders by virtue of the role, but in the work that they do. We do actual leadership training on the purpose-based leadership methodology that I've developed, and train them while in country. We do social impact days with local schools and afterschool programs, where they're able to share leadership and practice with kids of a completely different cultural background. And then, of course, we do sightseeing and cultural immersion. 

What I found is, there's a transformation that happens. The kids that go to Ghana, or Namibia, or South Africa, or Indonesia are not the same kids that come back. I've developed relationships with them over the years, and I still talk to fellows every single day. Their ability to internalize leadership and purpose as a through line that can be applied in everything they do, and the four pillars I mentioned before, those are things I wasn't exposed to at their age. I wish that someone had said, Think about the why before you do something. Think with a lens of empathy about how someone might feel or experience the world, even if it's different from your own. Begin to be intentional about how you're going to plan your life, and plan your lived experience

I think that those are the skill sets that are going to be significant, for course-correcting where we see ourselves. I'm a futurist, so I'm investing in a 25-year horizon on my return. And I've said that from the beginning. I see returns. One of our fellows got the Black Girls Rock award, one has been like a national leader on climate changeand youth activism. Another one is an ambassador for Girl Up globally. These kids are changemakers. But my time horizon on seeing them lead systems change is 25 years. It's similar to what you see with Teach for America. Yes, it's an organization that's putting people in classrooms, but most people don't realize that it’s the most robust social justice training ground in the country. It's an experiential training ground for social justice leaders and changemakers who will go on to be in leadership roles at top organizations.

I love that you equate futurism to the investment in mentorship. How are you monitoring progress and achievement? And how do you keep that alumni network engaged? We think of leadership sometimes as this training or class we took. But there is an ongoing development, fostering a community working toward becoming stronger leaders in a lifelong context. So talk to us about how you're monitoring that success.

Leadership is a verb, not a noun. That is how I approach it. We named it the Nyah Project with the idea that it is a project and it's iterative and will always be evolving and changing. We've had about 75 alumni at this point, and it's relational. We're working on systematizing the way in which we demonstrate care, appreciation, and access points, and also making sure I am not a single point of failure. We’re beginning to build capacity so that we can be more thoughtful about that. But really, it's relational, and there are a couple things that we do after the fellowship that keep things going. 

We think about the ecosystem of support internally that we provide the fellows as hitting on a couple of main areas. So increasing their social capital. If they are going to a city, or if they need to go somewhere, I will or our network will connect them. So if I've got someone that wants to be in journalism, best believe you'll probably get a text or an email that says, Hey, would you mind spending a couple minutes just to talk to one of our fellows so that they can have a relationship outside of the immediate Advisory Committee

We help them with scholarship support, so letters of recommendation, helping them think through their financial aid. We help them get mentors within the organization, but also externally. One of our students is at Syracuse, and he wants to get into film and TV. We connected him with a mentor based in LA, who flew him to LA, where he worked on Carpool Karaoke as a production assistant. That type of wraparound support is individualized, which is why we only select 12 fellows a year—we just go really, really deep. 

We also try to be their cheerleaders. I want to be the person that I did not have when I was a teenager. So that may look like small dinners that I host with groups of three or four of them, once a week at my house, where we're just talking about life, talking through some of the challenges. If they have something going on we want them to call and talk it out, or if they have a crunch, to be able to say, I need help, and then we help them navigate whatever the situation is.

This year, because of Covid, we had to defer our fellowship for the first time since 2014. That brought us space to say, how do we double down and support our fellows in a way that we've never supported them before? So we created a masterclass series and out of that came what I think is going to be the future of Nyah Project 2.0, which is Access Online

I've been teaching college strategy for the last 10 years and helping kids get into college. I know you're from Washington State, I don't know if you know about Larry Jenkins and the Thurston Group of Washington, but that's how I got to school. How do you do that at scale? 

We created this online platform, an edtech offering in beta, where we put all the content that I've created into 10 courses, 40 videos, a wraparound support of coaching and live sessions, to be able to give kids the strategy that they need to get into college, even if they're not a fellow that has been competitively selected in our program. We think that that product, that offering is filling a unique niche, and now that communities have been socialized to online, there's no more barriers to making Access go global.

I know that you think on long-term time horizons, but I'm thinking about the next 12 months. All of the lessons of 2020 in the background, but still very much with us. I believe we're forever changed as a society, no matter who we are. As we continue to focus on what we're building and how we're building it, I'm curious to get your thoughts on what we need to prioritize over this next year, to build the kind of companies that we can be proud of, and that will be most impactful.

What comes to me is the distinction between doing things with purpose and doing things for purpose. Very different, but often used interchangeably. As I think about the next 12 months, what I think is important for ecosystem leaders, organizations, founders, investors to begin to articulate and focus on is, what are we doing for what purpose? Having a clear understanding of the purpose for which they are here, and making that individual. Making it clear that you're not here to live anybody else's journey. So what is my journey as a founder? What is my journey as an innovator? What is my journey as a leader? 

“With purpose” means having a clear system, having clear infrastructure, having clear understanding of the principles, the values that you're going to operate by, the agreements that you make with yourself, your community and those that you serve. This is a great moment to rethink those in this... I hate to say ‘new normal,’ because ‘normal’ is never a word that I like to use. But in this new moment that requires a different set of systems. 

For the work that we're doing at Venture Café, we're prioritizing how we become leaders in the ecosystem, and helping to bring all these different, disparate parts together. How do we take our excess capacity and focus exclusively on the infrastructure of our ecosystem strategically, understanding that we've never been an organization that's direct service. So getting away from the direct service and letting the direct service folks focus on that and then amplifying them and building some connectivity. 

Same thing with Nyah Project. We see ourselves as an ecosystem solution to the youth opportunity market. We then focus on supporting those youth opportunity providers with better tools, one tool being access online, the other tool being the fellowship, to amplify the impact of their work. It's for purpose, I know the clear purpose. Mine has always been people, purpose, and impact over everything else. 

This was a conversation between Sherrell Dorsey and Leigh-Ann Buchanan, edited for length and clarity by Annaliese Griffin and Rachel Jepsen.

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