Nicole Yershon is not only an influential intrapreneur, she’s also a best-selling author. Her book Rough Diamond is the latest step in her mission to give people of all ages the opportunity to change and realise their potential. She talked to us about writing the book, her journey and plans to educate the next generation.
How did Rough Diamond come about?
I left Ogilvy after 17 years as founder of their London digital innovation lab. I was out with no personal brand or business card. I went to an invitation-only event, Summit at Sea, which is like TED meets DAVOS meets Burning Man – on a boat. There’s no wifi and no phones so you’re actually talking to other people.
I’m trying to think about my next steps, relaxing in a hot tub, and a guy asks me, “So, who are you and where are you from?” And I say, “I’m Nicole from… Nicole.” It was a moment of clarity. You don’t have that corporate cloak on; “I’m the founder of X at a large global organisation.” You are literally just yourself laid bare. I realised I needed to apply my intrapreneurship philosophies to my own life!
We talked for a long time and I told him my story. He said, “I’m a publisher and you have some incredible stories! You’re a woman in tech, a maverick; you’ve been pushing the boundaries for 20 years. They say no, but you do it anyway. You should get this down on paper, you should write a book.” And that’s how it started.
Nicole Yershon: on a mission to find the next generation of rough diamonds who can help businesses think differently.
Why the name Rough Diamond?
If there was ever going to be a book for me to write it would be about rough diamonds. For me, that’s my passion; that’s my purpose. I want to be able to find the rough diamonds and then make something happen with them.
Rough Diamond is the name of the talent programme I set up at Ogilvy eight or nine years ago. And now it’s the publishing and education side of my business. It’s the book, it’s a course on intrapreneurship on www.42courses.com, and also a school.
How would you characterise rough diamonds?
I can spot it within people. And actually it’s very simple. You look at actions speaking louder than words, and that’s when you get to the doers. There are loads of famous examples. Richard Branson: dyslexic, didn’t go to university. Steve Jobs didn’t finish college. Alan Sugar.
My Dad always said, “All of the ones who didn’t finish school, or were not highly educated, all the highly educated ones work for them!” All the ones that really make it are the entrepreneurs who question everything.
Nicole's book, Rough Diamond, written following a period of great change in her life, has become a #1 bestseller on Amazon.
Who would you like to read the book?
Everyone, from people who are intrapreneurs themselves who feel that they want to be heard and want to learn how can they make a change, to CEOs who want to spot the rough diamonds within the organisation who can help the business. And anyone who wants change. So pretty much most people!
What’s it like going out and doing innovation and lab work as an author?
I present many different ways in which people can make change and it’s great to have the book as an example. If you are serious about wanting change, you can make it happen, whether it’s from within in a large organisation or working on a blank sheet of paper, or even writing a book.
Anything can be done; anything is possible. I know, because I’ve done it. I’ve going from nothing – not having anything – to all of a sudden within one year, having three businesses. As part of that, I have written the book, and created the online course and the school.
How will the school work?
It’s called Ideas College. It’s a free school that is fully funded and staffed, with government backing. Where the Rough Diamond programme finished at Ogilvy it now picks up with a school of rough diamonds. It’s focused on young kids. We’ll have 50 of them to start.
We’ll look to work with free-formers and lots of interesting companies and then see how we can infiltrate these kids into companies to be free radicals and mavericks.
Through Rough Diamond, Nicole draws on her own experiences in business and life to provide others with the tools for change.
How did you develop the school?
I worked with David Holloway OBE who used to run Ideas Foundation, which was part of the Rough Diamond programme at Ogilvy, enrolling kids from schools in Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Greenwich.
It’s part of an initiative to get kids who don’t have contacts into the creative industries. It’s also a form of social commerce: setting up a company, but by doing good. It’s not a charity, it’s not an NGO, but Rough Diamond as a business was set up with the aim that we can earn money by doing good. So the school will be relevant to and part of that.
How does your experience with the Rough Diamond programme at Ogilvy feed into the school?
It’s about being aware that not everyone is in the same situation. When I put in the scheme I was conscious that there were kids that couldn’t afford to come into town. So we paid for them under the London living wage.
It’s about understanding someone’s life, being empathetic. A lot of people who have gone through the route of higher education have no understanding. But when you’re empathetic there’s no hierarchy. Everyone’s the same: whether you’re the postboy or girl or the CEO, you’re still a human, a person.
With all the kids on the programme it worked because it wasn’t hierarchical and I didn’t micro-manage them. I would allow them to make a decision on an item and what that looked and felt like.
What’s your advice to a young person who is trying to initiate change, to not just established intrapreneurs but new entrepreneurs?
My biggest question is, what’s the worst that can happen? I wouldn’t warn anyone against anything because they have to learn. Sometimes you need to mess up, feel the pain and not be cotton-wooled against it. A person should have someone there to pick up the pieces or mentor them along the way. But they’re also going to have to make their own decisions.
I had to feel pain within a large organisation to get to where I am today. I wouldn’t be where I am had I not felt it. So it’s a good thing. And the more people that embrace disruption, and turn it into advantage, the more we’ll keep moving forward at a rapid pace.
Nicole's Rough Diamond ethos, taking in her book and course as well as a school, can help to kickstart change.