Elena Valentine’s passion for storytelling and film was ignited as a child. By the age of three, she knew that “make belief and pretend” what a place she could get lost in. Although others her age were playing with Barbie’s or pretending to be princesses, Elena imagined that she was a surgeon or another job that fascinated her.
“We’re natural born storytellers, number one,” she recently shared with HR Daily Advisor. “But what I recognized early on, upon reflection, was that I was fascinated about the world of work from a really young age. And it wasn’t the roles or the companies necessarily, it was about the people and the people who lived out these roles.”
A self-proclaimed “servant leader,” Elena’s passion for storytelling, film, and helping others tell their stories grew as she got older. Today, she’s the CEO and Co-founder of SkillScout Films, a media company that has helped some of the most iconic brands tell their stories – including Nike, McDonald’s, American Airlines and CVSHealth.
For our latest Faces of HR profile, we sat down with Elena to discuss how she got her start in the industry, her biggest influence, as well as what she’s proud of and more.
In our latest Faces of HR, meet Elena Valentine.
How did you get your start in the field?
My co-founder and I are former design researchers. And we were working on a national project about 11 years ago, aimed to connect young people to more meaningful pathways to employment. In particular, we were looking at this national challenge of young people, ages 16 to 24, who are not in school or in the workforce. These were young people who didn’t look good on resumes, some of them had never left their neighborhoods and they lacked access and exposure to jobs. Even though the workplace, the place we know is filled with opportunity, our hiring processes are not. What became very clear was a couple things. One was that job descriptions don’t show what a job is like, and the second is that you cannot be what you cannot see. And so, when we took a step back, it was clear that we had an opportunity to leverage video and storytelling.
Initially, we did it just to get young people excited about work. And it started to work. And so that’s how we started. We started initially as a way to, I think, jumpstart new solutions for how to bring young people, particularly young people from non-traditional backgrounds, into the hiring fold. But what that has become is now a full-fledged production company that supports stories of work. Our main mission is to connect workers with each other and their world through the power of story. And, in my case, through the very powerful medium of film, that is how I got into the industry.
Your passion for storytelling and video, where did that come from?
I wanted to be an oceanographer like Jacques Cousteau, I wanted to be a primatologist like Jane Goodall. And if you’re from the City of Chicago growing up in the nineties, I wanted to be like Mayor Daily. You just kind of start to see people in these spaces playing these roles, and you become fascinated by the stories that play out. So, I knew then that connection early on, and what really blew the lid for me on the power of stories at work was Studs Terkel, who’s a Chicago infrastructure. He wrote the nominal book “Working,” and it changed me. It transformed me reading that as a young person. When I think about that now, I manifest to be a Studs Terkel, Carl Sandburg, but with a film camera. That’s what this is for me.
Who is your biggest influence in the industry?
My ultimate mentor, my OG mentor, Chris Conley, is really who taught me what servant leadership is all about, and what being a servant leader to a company is all about. I call him my professional godfather. But a lot of what he brought, because of his design thinking background, was a kindred curiosity about people in always getting to the why.
For him, the questions were the answers. The more questions that we could ask, the more that we could really get to the answers. And so that really is at the heart of design thinking and human centered design. And I think because of that, it was a very natural transition once we really started to become immersed into HR, that we had that background. And it’s something that I credit him to this day, for not only how we run our business, but for how we run film interviews. And inevitably how we start to elicit the stories of workers. Which is everything to do with the foundation he helped us build, helped me build.
How important is it for company leaders to have that type of mindset, servant leadership, in the workplace today?
It’s kind of why we’re here. We are the worker’s worker, the people for the people, the constellation caretakers. The voice for the many, the courage for the few. We are here to be in service of our people. We are here to be in support. The mission of our organization and our impact is both driven and celebrated by our people. We must be the ones to go first and show that level of vulnerability. And what becomes really challenging to that, I think why HR gets the bad rep is that unfortunately, so often, we get caught in this place of protecting the interest of the business versus protecting the interest of the people.
And quite frankly, once you start to have that kind of dichotomy, that’s a problem because good companies will be those that you can both protect the interests of the business and the people at the same time. Then we can do good business by doing good and right by our people. And that is a trend I’m starting to see, certainly, from entrepreneurs and business owners of my ilk and of my generation coming into this, recognizing how important that is. Culture is now starting to matter. It’s no longer just about money, it’s about whether people feel like they can show up as their most authentic selves, that there is a level of integration and balance with their life outside of this workplace. How are we holding space for that?
The challenge that we have in our workplace is that for a very long time, we were told our fears, dramas, traumas, insecurities that have been wrapped up, often in your personal life, also need to stay at home. And yet the unfortunate part is, a lot of this gets played out at work. When I think about the power of story and why I do what we do, it’s not to create recruitment videos, it’s to help understand how we can leverage storytelling. Additionally, it works as a space for healing. When people share their stories, may they suffer a little less and heal a little more and feel like they are being seen. That is why we do this. At the heart of diversity, equity and inclusion is the feeling of belonging. So, how do we get people to feel like they belong? How do we make people feel seen? There is nothing better than making someone feel seen by honoring them and validating their story. That inevitably is why I do what I do.
Where do you see the industry headed?
I think there’s a two-part response to this. I think on one hand, we’re looking at – especially with the rise of automation, hybrid, and remote working— a whole new level of skills that people now have to have now that we are no longer in person. And that also includes HR managers. What we’re noticing right now is there’s an altered skill mix that we now must fit in because of this new way of working that we’ve never had to really navigate in such critical mass. That’s where this is headed. We have to start thinking about how we foster and create these kinds of connections and get everyone on board when we’re not by the water coolers in person all the time.
I think because of that, what I’m also starting to see, even from a storytelling perspective, is the relevance of teams. Not just the big company stories, but these micro teams and the microcultures that have always been there, but ways in which we are empowering those teams to move, ways in which we are celebrating those teams and giving them both a level of freedom and nuance to really foster that dynamic while also being part of the larger thing.
That’s also how this will need to work, especially now that we are in so much more of a separated geographic and physical space than we had before. It’s becoming so clear and look, eight years ago video was still such a nice to have, right? It was still a new thing. And now these new kinds of storytelling mechanisms are really starting to just become the status quo. There’s going to be a much more differentiated, intentional story here for us to tell. Because this isn’t just a numbers game or logistics game for when people make these decisions—it’s absolutely emotional, too.
I think that’s where we come in to play. How are we matching emotions? How are we matching stories that are both relatable and exciting and inspiring to people? Because that’s what jobs do for us. Jobs are gateways for our success, jobs are gateways for legacies, generational wealth, and architecting futures our ancestors could be proud of. That is the power of having good jobs. And that is what we do here in the HR industry. And certainly as an HR storyteller, I get to tell those stories and that’s the biggest honor and privilege of my life.
What are you most proud of?
Honestly, I’m proud of getting out of COVID. I lost 50% of my business in COVID. I had two prayers: that Skill Scout would still be standing and that I didn’t have to let anyone go or reduce salaries. Skill Scout is still standing, and I didn’t have to let anyone go or reduce salaries. Inevitably what I believed was, in times of crisis, that’s when you start to see the true medal of a leader. Despite how scary that was as a business owner to go through, what an opportunity I had to really show my people and show God the kind of leader that I’ve always aspired and said that I wanted to be. And I’ve got receipts now. And no one can tell me different. We did that.
What’s on your heart?
I don’t know if this belongs in the Faces of HR Profile or not, but honestly, what’s on my heart is that this goes beyond work for me. This goes beyond stories of work. For me, Bianca, speaking of Chicago really, may I be a bringer of light, to help change the narratives of my city. Because there’s a lot of good here. That, inevitably, is one of the legacies I can leave. May I have the opportunity to be in spaces where I can tell beautiful stories of my city and my people, to not only help Chicagoans remember who they are, but to ensure the world knows who we are, too.
When I think about impact, the work has been a gateway and an access by which I’ve been able to help capture stories. But as I think about the larger story, we’re all here for impact and to be in service of people. So, may I be in service of my city and the stories that we tell. That, for me, is what’s on my heart when I think about the larger implications.