Natalie Franke Hayes is an entrepreneur, mobilization marketer, community builder, and neuroscience nerd. As one of the Founders of the Rising Tide Society, the Head of Community at HoneyBook, and author, she leads tens of thousands of creatives and small business owners while fostering a spirit of community over competition around the world.
In her new book, Built to Belong (Worthy Publishing) Natalie details the power of the human connection, and how each of us, despite any odds against us, are truly built to belong together.
Natalie shares her story of longing for connection in the chaos and lessons learned on her journey to true belonging. She unpacks how to:
- Kick scroll-induced jealousy to the curb and transform the way that social media makes you feel about yourself and others
- Overcome loneliness by finding your people and cultivating true community in your personal and professional world
- Strike the balance between camaraderie and competition so that you can live a deeply fulfilled and joyful life
- Human beings are not highlight reels—we’re done fanning the flames of comparison, drowning in our insecurities, and being pitted against one another. We’re saying no to the endless rat race of getting ahead and goodbye to the narratives that leave us feeling left out and alone.
Built to Belong is now available on hardcover, ebook, and audiobook. Natalie spent some time with us discussing her journeys, her new book, and the state of small businesses.
Can you describe your time in college a bit and how everything came together for you.
I started a wedding photography business in my senior year of high school. I picked up camera after a really difficult season in my life as a way of coping. My mom thought it would be a great creative outlet. She no idea handing keys to future. She unlocked the creative in me that we didn’t know. I was locked on track. I was told from a young age to be a doctor, a lawyer or education, education, education, so when she gave me that camera, she had no idea of what was about to happen, but I built up that business. I ended up going to UPenn and majoring in visual studies with focus in visual neuroscience and the psychology of seeing. Essentially, I allowed my inner nerd to keep growing and being fostered in college, but every single weekend, I was photographing weddings in Annapolis. Every single weekend train to Philly (Philadelphia back to Baltimore. Photographing on a Saturday, sometimes also on a Sunday, sometimes taking that train on a Monday morning back up for class.
I grew that business when I was in school. When I graduated, I took it full time. This full-time pursuit ultimately lead me down the path of realizing just how lonely entrepreneurship can be. Just how isolating it can be to build a business on own shoulders. Most of your human interaction is happening behind a screen. You’re kind of isolated from the outside world, but also, the only people who understand what it feels like to be an entrepreneur…to be a young entrepreneur at that are your competitors. And so, in a cutthroat competitive environment, there is no community. It’s a world where you don’t want to share your secrets. You don’t want to share what’s working for you. There’s so much fear and so m
So several years after graduating college, being deep running this biz full time. It had grown and I had a team that I had built with me. I just said Enough is enough. I hit a point where I realized I can’t continue to do this for the rest of my life if instead of community, all I see is competition. Instead of feeling connection to other business owners, other people can related to what I’m going through, what I’m navigating. I can’t continue to live this way and it’s not sustainable.
For me that was a critical moment in recognizing that the struggles I was feeling; the loneliness; were valid. And then opening up with others. That was the spark that lit a fire. The minute I started talking about it and saying “Hey, I’m sick of longing for connection in the chaos. Sick of scrolling social media and always feeling disconnected. I’m sick of us all acting like there’s not more than enough business to go around. And competing with each other in ways that are unhealthy even unethical. There has to be a better way. The minute I opened up, that was the spark that igniting the fire that lead to Rising Tide Society growing across the globe.
And then in six years of leading Rising Tide and continuing to foster other business and support other startups of building communities, it was time to put these in a book with the hope that it can help someone who’s maybe at a stage where I am. Ans with what’s happening in society with the Great resignation right now in the world
It’s eye opening that so many people leaving jobs into the next few months and are going to be stepping into where I was stepping into, leaving Penn and into full time business ownership or freelancing. And not having that support and not realizing how isolating it is; how hard it is
My hope is that this book can be a road map. Back to finding community. Back to belonging. Really to support people at Whatever stage they’re in.
I saw your college major was neuroscience, but I see it’s visual neuroscience …
Yeah, Within Penn’s Visual studies program, you can take art history, art making, or you can actually take the science route.
I am the daughter of a single mom, Karen, who is a nurse practitioner and my Dad, Robin, is a nuclear engineer. My little sister Karoline is a doctor. She’s actually a psychiatrist. Science was the track. I was told you can do this art major, but you better have this science background underneath that.
Little did I know how much understanding the brain, studying psychology would end up helping me. Even in writing this book. There’s a lot of meat in this book. The biggest feedback I received is from my friends. They thought it’s going to be your typical self-help book, a lot of fun stories and there are woven throughout, but I also did an immense amount of research. There are a lot of citations. There is a lot of good science. We show them some data, but then here is a story, which is going to provide some emotion. I loved my major.
How did you approach the research? Did you have an assistant?
Oh, I had a very official research assistant in the former of my sister. She ended her medical school at Cleveland Clinic. She sort of had a six month gap and that gap between residency and medical school is when I was writing the manuscript. To help her pay off loans, I hired her to be a research assistant. I put her to work. She …just like I had experience in wading through journals and studies, she had just emerged from medical school. So, a super helpful mind and excited to help her big sister. I had some help from another doctor in the Franke family. She was awesome.
What challenges did you find, especially in the age of COVID, keeping connected with people?
It’s been an ongoing experience of acknowledging that technology gives us this opportunity to keep connected like never before. I mean look at all of us in different cities and time zones connecting online. In the same respect, it can never replace one-on-one, in-person connection. We have to learn… almost like learning face-to-face …we have to learn what it’s like to connect online. so often take for granted that these platforms seem incredibly intuitive whether it’s zoom…Zoom’s a little more straight forward then let’s say social media. Of course, it seems we’d be able to connect with these platforms.
Ultimately, what I’ve been able to uncovered in working with these business owners and just other women in my local community even though we haven’t been able to see each other face-to-face is, despite this impression that we are getting connection out of platforms, social media in particular, unless we are opening these applications with the intent to connect, we often fall into the trap of consuming. What these platforms become instead is a place where we are inundated with content – the highlight reels of other people’s lives. We are constantly absorbing. Even this week…I don’t know about you…but this week I just feel like everything happening in the world – it all hits you at once. This inundation of content. This overwhelm. So instead of connecting we consume. I reference a study in the book where they looked at the difference in people who used online media to consume and those who use it to connect. The reality is when we’re only using digital devices and connection as a means to entertain ourselves and distract ourselves and consume content about what our friends are up to, we end up feeling more lonely.
And so, when we hear things like people are more lonely now than ever before. There have been some recent studies coming out saying loneliness is on the rise, decrease in friendship, people losing friends over the last 12 to 18 months during the pandemic. Losing touch with friends that were once with relationships that were once very important to them.
It doesn’t surprise me, but I don’t think it’s just because of this ‘virtual reality.’ I think it’s that we never had to be taught how to connect online. We’ve just taken it for granted like a platform that should connect us. These platforms are optimized, ultimately, for constant consumption because that’s what makes those businesses money. Through digital ads and consumption and not through how many of my friends am I deeply connecting with and actually engaged with their life behind the screen. To stay in touch with them. To deepen and further the relationship.
So there are parts in the book where I talk about digital connection isn’t a reflection of real life. It is and can be an innovation on it, but we have to be conscious in choosing to engage with one another rather than fall into the trap of just consuming content that’s be shared with us.
I think it’s presented a challenge. We’re still experiencing it. We’re still in the midst of it. Many of us got a taste of a return to normal and now we’re experience a step back.
My hope is that, if I can equip people with the tools on how to connect intentionally online. How to forge those relationships. How to be intentional about their time spent on these platforms then we can actually chart new course forward. We can build a community and experience belonging in the digital sphere.
What are your future projects/plans?
Well, I have one big future plan (laughs joyfully then stands up to show pregnant belly). We’re expecting in a few weeks.
Congratulations! That’s great!
I know that’s not an entrepreneurial plan, but in the book I talk a lot about my battle with infertility and so it’s a miracle that I’m incredibly grateful for.
On the professional side, I love what I do. I don’t see any big shifts upcoming. Digging in with small business and helping them, unfortunately, the rise of [the] delta [COVID variant] is my first priority. When it comes to professional, it’s building community and helping all people experience what I did. And fighting for small businesses.
I’ve been called the ‘Mama Bear’ of small business in my community. Don’t come for my small businesses. I will support them until the end. So trying to support them and equip them with what they need.
I heard a lot of stories about small business trying to survive and small businesses who were supposed to get help but never did. Can you share some of your experiences in that arena?
I spent a lot of last year lobbying for our community including a huge campaign on replenishing the PPP [Payback Protection Program] program.
When I say small business, I’m talking about true, true small business. When many of the support programs came out, they didn’t all go to small businesses. Many went to larger entities like franchises and not the individuals and independents that didn’t have the legal support to be first in line to receive that help.
They’ve been fighting, fiercely. The stats are already not in their favor every day not even counting the pandemic. There is a huge drop off of small business that don’t survive their first year, their second year. By their fifth year, more 50% have failed. So, when you add all these other layers on top of that, it’s difficult.
In a positive light, the business I still see standing; the ones I see thriving…are the ones deeply rooted in their community. I don’t say this just because I wrote a book about community. I genuinely believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. When businesses are deeply connected to one another, they can provide support across the boards. When regulations change, they connect with one another. They are not afraid to tell competitors, ‘hey, here’s how we’re going to navigate this.’ ‘Here’s how we’re going to manage staff shortages and accommodate more safety measures.’ When they’re open with each other and going above and beyond keeping people at the heart of the company. Not just pursuing profit but pursuing people.
There were some great businesses that were taken out, but when you see the businesses still thriving, I guarantee you will see a common element of community support and a mindset of putting people first. In my community, I’ve seen it and in my hometown of Annapolis, I’ve seen it.
Thank you very much.