Inside Track: Cohen becomes the self-care superhero


Shannon Cohen started her blog, Tough Skin, Soft Heart, to connect with others who were paying a hefty price at work to win. Courtesy 616 Media

Shannon Cohen said a genuine “How are you really doing?” is a question that often goes by the wayside in business circles.

Cohen launched her Tough Skin, Soft Heart project in 2016 in response to what she saw as a “dearth” of affirmation and self-care for people who are considered “pillars” in the community.

A subsidiary of her existing consulting firm, Shannon Cohen Inc., Tough Skin, Soft Heart has three “brand passion points” — a product line with greeting cards, wall art and mugs; corporate training and speaking engagements “to talk about the intersection between leadership and emotional health”; and, most recently, an e-book, “Tough Skin, Soft Heart: A Leadership Book About Growing Stronger, Better, and Wiser” (Splattered Ink Press, May 2018).

Cohen’s insights in the book are drawn from — among other things — her 10 years as a consultant working on public health issues, a background in nonprofit work before that and a master’s degree in public administration from Grand Valley State University.

But she learned the hardest truth about emotional well-being through hitting her own “low point” in 2013.

Externally, Shannon Cohen Inc. was flourishing, having landed high-profile clients such as the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and several Midwest health systems.

But internally, Cohen was “high-functioning and unwell,” she said.

“When I was in D.C. about to speak at a conference, I ended up experiencing a miscarriage — we were trying for a family — and that morning, literally, about an hour and a half before I was slated to speak, I ended up having to take a taxi to a hospital, having a miscarriage and having to call the coordinators and be like, ‘I can’t. I’m in Baltimore in a hospital.’”


Shannon Cohen Inc./Tough Skin, Soft Heart
Position: Founder and principal
Age: 40
Birthplace: Detroit
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Husband, Duriel Sr.; 4-year-old son, Duriel II

Business/Community Involvement: Board member of HQ Grand Rapids youth drop-in center and Project GREEN (Grand Rapids Economic Empowerment Network); development committee member for Baxter Community Center; co-founder with Pat Sosa VerDuin of Sisters Who Lead; career and leadership blogger for Women’s Lifestyle Magazine and Experience Grand Rapids
Biggest Career Break: “There are two that are competing in my mind. One was going through Spring GR to really discover how I can monetize and scale the fact that encouragement is my superpower into a retail product line. That was one, and I think the other is when I spoke at a conference and a woman came up to me with money in her hand, and she said, ‘Where’s your product?’ and I didn’t have anything, and she said, ‘Well, where’s your book?’ and I didn’t have anything. She said, ‘The next time I see you, you better have some product or a book.’ … Just her believing that I had something that the world needed, it inspired me to (create Tough Skin, Soft Heart).”


Cohen went through an intense self-audit as a result of that tragedy.

“I started to say, ‘You can’t. Your interior life is just as important as your exterior life. What good does it do to win accolades and awards and to be achieving in a very public way if privately you are hurting and dying?’” she said.

“And until you elevate your internal care as high as you elevate being excellent in your craft, you are always going to be out of balance. Or, like my grandmother would always say, ‘You are out of order.’”

Cohen said the miscarriage became her “moment of cause,” her “moment of clarity,” similar to how Oprah talks about an “aha moment.”

A year later, Cohen started the Tough Skin, Soft Heart blog, not expecting to grow much of a readership.

“It really was a blog to say, ‘Is this your life, too? Are you paying this hefty price to win at work? And is your soul dying part of what it takes to reach these levels of success? And if so, does anyone want to opt out, like me?’” she said.

Within a year, she had more than 2,000 subscribers.

“I really realized I was onto something when I realized people that are often the rock and often look successful, nobody really asks them authentically, ‘How are you?’ And the real truth is they don’t ask themselves. Who has time for that?” Cohen said.

“The reality is that people spend more time charging the devices in our purses and our laptops than we do recharging ourselves. And that’s not OK. I wanted to insert encouragement and affirmation I was learning from my own journey into that space.”

She began studying emotional intelligence — a term popularized with the publication of Daniel Goleman’s book of the same title in 1995 — and piloted a one-credit graduate class for GVSU on the topic.

“Literally, the class sold out in like four hours from the time it went live,” Cohen said. “So, we knew there is a demand for leaders to talk about emotional well-being and not just from the standpoint of the people they serve, but for them.”

Momentum is growing for the concept of emotional health in the workforce, she said, with Gallup starting to ask in its “State of the American Workplace” surveys questions such as, “Do you have a best friend at work?” and “Have you received recognition or affirmation in the past seven days?”

She said Tough Skin, Soft Heart targets leaders because if leaders aren’t healthy, they can’t help their teams to be healthy.

“Being able to do corporate trainings around that was part of that work with leaders and helping people to create safe spaces to unpack not just my own stuff as a leader,” she said. “It’s the stuff I navigate as an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur, or other people’s challenges or when work slumps are happening or there’s an economic downturn.

“When you layer all of that, how do we not acknowledge that could take impact on our emotional health?”

Cohen said she didn’t plan to monetize her insights until an attendee at one of her talks asked her if she had anything to sell — and she didn’t.

But the kernel of an idea for a product line was already there.

“When I would go to buy cards for my friends, I’m like, ‘OK, she’s a warrior princess, where is that section at?’ And there was no warrior princess section. It would be flowery, or it was satire.

“But I’m like, ‘I need encouragement for women that are like ‘rock star women,’ and I mean that not as a celebrity, but in that they are pillars, they are the first call for help. … And there was nothing.”

Cohen worked with Spring GR to learn about the greeting card industry and how to monetize and scale a product line.

Then, she started seeing product ideas come out of the woodwork from her own blog posts.

“I would take some of the best sayings that people love from the blog, and people would say, ‘I need that as a mug,’ or ‘I need that as this.’”

She added stationery, wall art, mugs and so on. The product line is now available on her website and in 17 stores.

“It has been one of the best things I’ve ever done,” she said. “It has allowed me to bring so many of my gifts full circle.”

Cohen hopes to grow the greeting card line until it is in major retailers such as Home Goods, World Market or Hallmark.

Her greeting card line currently is a finalist in the Michigan Women’s Foundation Grand Rapids region Dolphin Tank competition, which will be held in November.

“One of the things I keep saying is, ‘Build slowly and stay ready,’” Cohen said. “I really do see that need to do more.”

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