Q&A with Erin Sowell, CEO and Founder, Thoughtful Research

Editor’s note: Nancy Cox is the founder of Research Story Consulting and former CPG corporate researcher. Her work and play include words, sketchpads, cooking (not baking) and the occasional sock puppet.

Passions, hobbies, healthy distractions and even guilty pleasures – discover how the research community plays and how that plays out in their work life. In the Venn diagram of work and play, what happens when work and play overlap? Research colleagues share their work and play stories in this interview series by Nancy Cox. 

Hello to Erin Sowell, CEO and founder, Thoughtful Research

What is the “play” in your life?

Skating is the challenging play that gets me out of my comfort zone and gives me that feeling of progress.

I’ve always been a bit of a daredevil. When I was kid, I loved shooting straight down a hill on my scooter. I was also an explorer. My rollerblades took me all over my neighborhood. I paused my wheelie-kid adventures when I was in college. After that, I attended grad school and started my career – exciting challenges, yet something was missing.

Late one Saturday night while scrolling Instagram, I came across clips of people rollerblading. I declared, “This is it! This is what’s been missing!” The next morning, I went on a mission to buy rollerblades. That was my first day back on wheels … I rollerbladed 10 miles! Soon after, I discovered a skate group in Cincinnati that taught women how to skateboard. The daredevil kid in me had always wanted to learn and now I had that opportunity as the sport has become much more inclusive of women.

My rollerblade and scooter experience helped as I was first learning how to skateboard. I already knew where my center of gravity was and how to balance on wheels but learning for the first time as an adult was challenging. I fell. A lot. But I didn’t let that stop me!

With a move to Atlanta and the pandemic, skateboarding became even more important. It got me out of the house and allowed me to explore my new neighborhood. I cruised for miles and met lots of people, making new friends. I developed a strong relationship with my board that summer. 

How has your play influenced your research work?

Skating taught me how to be brave and how to be an entrepreneur. Skateboarding is my practice of bravery.

Learning to skateboard was exactly like starting my own business. At first, I was nervous about going out, learning and potentially falling in front of other people. That’s the scary part of being a professional and an entrepreneur ... putting yourself out there. Especially in situations like public speaking.

I’m dyslexic so sometimes I stammer, sometimes I stutter and I’m not always the most eloquent speaker. Early in my career, I got a lot of negative feedback about how I spoke, which made me feel less confident. I became very nervous about talking to decision makers and presenting in public. Skating taught me how to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable and gave me the confidence to be imperfect in public. It doesn’t really matter if I’m not the most polished speaker. It’s fine if I feel a little bit awkward or need a moment to find my words. I realized that the people I wanted to connect with wouldn’t see the way I spoke as a flaw, that they’d respect me for my spirit and willingness to put myself out there despite the challenges. 

Skating also helped me value incremental progress. I would say to myself, “I’ll skate 10 feet at first, then I’ll skate 10 more feet, then 10 more feet. Then I’ll skate down a little hill.” Now, I skate down big 45-degree hills! You don’t become a skateboarder overnight. You don’t build a career overnight. You don’t build a successful business overnight. You must value incremental progress!

What would you tell readers who want to know more about your area of play?

Just try it! There’s a big skate community. Look for groups in your area. A lot of cities have groups for women. I even know of a “Dads Who Skate” group. You can learn on your own, too. Traditionally, it’s a more solitary sport. You just have to start and be OK with being a beginner. 

When you’re first starting out, I recommend getting a longboard or a board that’s lower to the ground as it will assist with balance. You can find a good secondhand starter skateboard or you can go to a skate shop and really invest. You could even find a neighborhood kid who doesn’t use their skateboard anymore. Helmets and pads are really important when you’re first learning. I get that it can look and feel silly but you’re part of the club if you look a bit goofy!

Know your skill level. If you’re new to skateboarding, don’t skate down a hill. I did that my first week. I had just learned to “push” – kicking my leg to propel myself along. I was so excited I had made that progress that I thought I’d go down a small hill. I was immediately thrown off the board. I flew through the air in a Superman position. Of course, I was not wearing my pads as I should have been. I landed in the grass, slid 10 feet and skinned a 3-inch circle off my knee. That was painful. I walked into work the next day with a limp, covered with scabs. Yet, I was happy and proud of myself for being brave!