Brand of a Leader Q&A – Meet the FoundersNov 23, 2023
By Alanna Fairey
Starting a business in 2020 during COVID would be seen as a risky move to some, but for Brand of a Leader co-founders Marina Byezhanova and Stefano Faustini, it opened the door for the next phase of their entrepreneurial journey.
Marina’s first company was a boutique consulting firm in the recruitment and employer branding space with offices in Montreal and Vancouver. The company had been operating for a decade before the pandemic occurred. Like so many entrepreneurs and leaders, Marina found herself reflecting on the next steps and how to reinvent herself. “COVID was such a significant period of introspection for people,” says Marina, whose magnetic personality shines, even on a Zoom call. “So many people were suddenly asking themselves: Who am I beyond my business? How can I make a bigger impact in the world? How can I do things that matter? We launched a personal branding agency which would inadvertently help leaders find answers to all of these questions, and more.”
Stefano has a distinct memory of trying to create Brand of a Leader’s website amidst the unpredictability of a lockdown, laser-focused on building the vision of a company that didn’t yet exist. “It’s hard to see into the future when you’re so consumed with the complexities of the immediate moment,” Stefano, an unassuming force of nature, recounts. “That was one of the hardest periods of my life, but also one I feel most proud of. It’s the real story of building completely from zero - even less than zero.”
Marina and Stefano’s hard work paid off: Brand of a Leader recently hit their three year mark. At the time of this writing, I have been with Brand of a Leader for nine months, but the weight of this milestone is not lost on me. And there’s a certain irony that so much of our work focuses on telling the stories of our clients, but we haven’t heard our founders’ stories –– until now.
I recently sat down with Marina and Stefano and discussed Brand of a Leader’s origin story, being in alignment and what’s coming next.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.
Alanna Fairey: Take me back to when this journey first started. How did Brand of a Leader come to be?
Marina Byezhanova: Long before Brand of a Leader was founded, I’d spent years building my own personal brand without calling it so. As a result of “putting myself out there,” I was featured in Success Magazine, Fast Company, Forbes, Inc - all organically and without spending a dollar. This gave visibility to the business, solidified our thought leadership in our industry, and brought us to page 1 of Google search at the same time. The benefits of having my personal brand became undeniable.
In the winter of 2019, I was at an Entrepreneurs’ Organization forum retreat. At a dinner with my friend (and eventual client) Sun Ah Brock, conversation turned to our future paths. I was yet again telling Sun Ah that she had a truly inspiring life story - one that she should tell the world. She, in exchange, was telling me to focus even more on building my personal brand and help others do the same. What started as a casual chat evolved into a brainstorming session of what my imaginary personal branding agency would be called. “Brand of a Leader” emerged as the perfect name during the casual moment of ideation and I purchased the domain right then and there.
Stefano Faustini: Brand of a Leader is three years old on paper. However, Brand of a Leader’s roots go back several years beyond that. We operated informally for at least one to two years as we mapped out the original concept for the business. We used Marina as a “test subject” for a first version of a methodology that we had slowly started to map out, iterating and adjusting it countless times along the way. We knew it worked - and we slowly felt a sense of excitement start to rise. We strategized on everything, from deep philosophical discussions on how to articulate ideas that stick to tactical discussions on what product offering we could create to make us unique. Those intentional efforts culminated in the establishment of Brand of a Leader.
AF: You both worked together before starting Brand of a Leader, but not as co-founders. How has the relationship evolved?
MB: Within the organization I ran at the time, Stefano was the most aligned person to me on the basis of core values. We believed in the same standards of excellence, taking pride in our work, not cutting corners –– that was always there. From that standpoint, the transition to business partners was not difficult. There are two things that make us good partners: how similar we are and also how different we are. We are completely aligned in our core values, our ambition, and our vision. We are, however, completely different in our strengths and what we bring to the table. From day one of starting Brand of a Leader, we separated our roles and responsibilities with a clear demarcation line on the basis of our individual strengths. Often partnerships are built on the basis of full similarity, which is fun at first but eventually leads to a clash of egos. Stefano and I don’t have that issue.
SF: From our first meeting a decade ago, Marina and I had a deep sense of alignment, which is the hardest thing to be able to find across any type of relationship. We had shared values, a shared way of looking at the world, shared beliefs, and a shared vision on everything from finance to operations to what her strengths were versus my strengths. It’s a deep understanding that I know today is very rare.
AF: Marina coined the term ‘Radical Authenticity’ a few years ago, which is one of our values as an agency. What does it mean to be radically authentic to you?
MB: I hold a disturbing amount of respect for people who are themselves and who radically own it, no matter what. If I believe in deep authenticity, it also means holding respect for the jerks of the world who are authentically themselves without ever being fake. I tell them, “I’m so different from you, and I could never be like you, but I just appreciate to bits that this is how and who you are.” It speaks to the value of diversity of thought. We can own who we are, and express ourselves in alignment with that.
SF: To me, it means living in alignment with your core values and being genuine at all costs especially when it hurts, when it’s inconvenient, and when it's the “hard thing” to do. It's about having challenging conversations with yourself and with the world even when it’s the last thing you want to be doing, but you do it anyway because that’s where true growth and authenticity come from. That’s where the radical aspect comes into play: it persists despite everything, even when it’s easier to do the opposite.
AF: Turning the table to you for a second, Marina. Can you please talk about your upbringing coming to Canada and how that may have had an impact on you as an entrepreneur and your interest in personal branding?
MB: I grew up in what was the Soviet Union at the time - the ultimate culture of censorship. When my family moved to Canada, I remember thinking, “This is democracy. I can speak up and speak out!” However, my English was far from ideal and I was not easy to understand. So yes, there was no censorship anymore, but most people didn’t have the patience to hear me out. I quickly realized the most powerful thing we could have was the thing I still did not have at the time: a voice. In time, I became a public speaker because I wanted to leverage my voice openly.
Over the years I noticed that so many of the people around and so many of my fellow entrepreneurs did not exercise the privilege they had, being afraid of their own voice. In the West, we live in a culture of self-censorship and fear: fear of misspeaking, fear of offending, fear of being “canceled” as a result. It sparked in me this deep desire to inspire people to find a voice, to stand out, to speak up, to be radically authentic.
AF: Stefano, in the past you’ve said that you weren’t “supposed” to be an entrepreneur. Tell me what you mean by that and why that changed?
SF: I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. I saw my father work tirelessly to maintain a solidly middle-class life for our family, for which I am deeply grateful. However, it was the anti-glorification of entrepreneurship - the old school kind we don’t see much of today on social media: 18-hour days, battling against natural and economic disasters, shrinking profit margins, phone calls with angry clients in the middle of the night, lawsuits. I only saw the struggles. I got the message that running your own business is a nightmare - a quick path to never seeing your children, to working nonstop, and to leading a hard life. In the end, I learned that there is a way to be an entrepreneur while still investing in the things that matter to you. Second of all, after earning my Master’s degree and teaching at Concordia University in Montreal, I thought academia would be my path. The problem was I just couldn’t shake an interest that I had in the business space. I’ll never forget feeling like the “bad academic” who loved work, who worked multiple jobs, and was constantly vying to understand the economic side of the arts and literary worlds. I wasn’t supposed to be an entrepreneur in many ways, but in many other ways I was.
AF: We have an amazing team here at Brand of a Leader. Can you speak to the expertise of the team, and how they complement the mission of Brand of a Leader?
MB: Our goal is to build a world-class culture at Brand of a Leader - a culture of belonging and continuous learning. We look for people who have the skill, but who are also the right fit and have parted ways with some truly talented individuals who did not fit our unique culture. I am proud of the team of A-players we were able to assemble in such a short time. We have people with Master’s and PhD degrees in journalism, psychology, marketing, and management; we have award-winning journalists; we have four Ukrainians (my personal moment of pride!); we have collaborators with strong technical knowledge on everything from video to Instagram to research.
SF: The opportunity to lead and collaborate with the exceptionally smart people whom we’ve been able to bring into the world of Brand of a Leader has been the greatest privilege of my life, without question. We have strong writers telling the stories and deepest experiences of our clients’ lives - and they take that responsibility seriously. The rest of our team, from client engagement specialists to graphic designers to researchers, bring their own high-level expertise that awes me on a daily basis. These individuals collectively and individually elevate our organization to another level. And we have fun in the process - what could possibly be better?
AF: Brand of a Leader celebrated its third anniversary recently. Looking back on this three-year milestone, what has been the most rewarding part of this journey for you?
MB: There have been more rewarding moments than I can count. After all, simply vis-a-vis what we do at Brand of a Leader, we get to do high impact work. Our clients tell us that we help them make a difference in the world, that we help them inspire others, and that we are part of their legacy. Some moments stand out more than others.
Last month, I attended Global Speakers Academy (GSA) by Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO). I stood in the back of the room and watched our client Sun Ah Brock take the stage to tell her story. This was 10 years - yes, 10 years - after I had told her to have the courage to share her story with the world. Years later, she told me: “If anybody’s going to make me tell my story, it’s going to be you.” Fast forward, she became a client at Brand of a Leader and we developed her personal brand. Seeing it all come together as she took the stage in front of other entrepreneurs was a beautiful full circle moment.
To be the catalyst for people to show the world who they are, realize and express their greatness (our company’s purpose!) is something I will never get over.
SF: The most rewarding part is having the opportunity to build a team of remarkable, wonderful, smart, engaged individuals who share the same passion, the same standards of excellence, and the same excitement for the mission that Marina and I feel. You can’t force or fake that. As a second part, having the opportunity to tell the inspiring stories of our clients is a privilege. It’s a big responsibility to act as stewards of our clients’ voices - to tell some of their deepest, and sometimes their darkest, moments and experiences that they’ve had. For me, the opportunity and the trust that our clients have placed in us to tell those stories is humbling.
AF: What are your hopes for the future of Brand of a Leader?
MB: Our vision is to become the golden standard in the industry. We are growing exponentially and have no plans of slowing down.
SF: We want Brand of a Leader to be the number one personal branding agency in the world. We want to be the reference point: if you think of personal branding, you think of Brand of a Leader. I want to continue to grow the team and continue to tell even more compelling stories of individuals all across the world with higher stakes and the ability to impact millions of audience members globally. We are capable of being the stewards of the types of messages that have the potential to make a real dent in the world.
AF: I'd like to know what life looks like when you're not in the office. What are you doing? What do you do on the weekend?
MB: Although I am admittedly a workaholic and proud of it, my kids are my focus and my priority. One of my superpowers is creating meaningful experiences and I craft them for the family through travel (I’ve been to 27 countries and plan on adding 4 more to the list next year!) and also through at-home surprises. I am often asked how I manage to “do it all,” which is a question I receive as high praise. The answer lies in my intentionality. I am extremely intentional with my time, my priorities, and my focus on living a very well-rounded life.
SF: My main focus and deepest passion is work. The business is my hobby, my passion, and the economic engine that brings us forward all wrapped into one. Beyond that, I am a reader, I listen to podcasts obsessively, and I follow soccer. I also spend time with my nephew, who is almost two years old, and is a light in my life.
Alanna Fairey is a Client Engagement Specialist at Brand of a Leader. She has a diverse background in fashion communications, branding, and writing. Connect with Alanna here.
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