Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 555 – The Role of Empathy in Your Business and Research with Rob Volpe, CEO of Ignite 360

Today I’m joined by Rob Volpe: Author, Speaker, CEO, Chief Catalyst, and Empathy Activist at Ignite 360. 

Ignite 360 is a consumer data-driven insights and strategy company based in San Francisco. 

Their work has three primary goals: 

  1. Elevate your thinking. 
  2. Expand empathy. 
  3. Explore through intuition. 

They work with the world’s leading brands including Pepsi, Wells Fargo, Microsoft, and Whole Foods.

Find Rob Online:  

Find Jamin Online:

Find Us Online: 

Music: 

References:

This Episode is Sponsored by:

The Michigan State University’s Master of Science in Marketing Research Program delivers the #1 ranked insights and analytics graduate degree in three formats: 

  • Full-time on campus 
  • Full-time online 
  • Part-time online

NEW FOR 2022: 

If you can’t commit to their full degree program, simply begin with one of their 3-course certificates: Insights Design or Insights Analysis. 

In addition to the certification, all the courses you complete will build toward your graduation.

If you are looking to achieve your full potential, check out MSMU’s programs at: broad.msu.edu/marketing.

HubUX is a research operation platform for private panel management, qualitative automation including video audition questions, and surveys. 

For a limited time, user seats are free. If you’d like to learn more or create your own account, visit hubux.com


[00:00:00]

Jamin Brazil: Hey, everybody. This is Jamin. I am joined today by Rob Volpe, author, speaker, CEO, Chief Catalyst, and empathy activist at Ignite 360. Ignite 360 is a consumer data-driven insights and strategy company based out of San Francisco. Their work has three primary goals: elevate your thinking, expand empathy, and explore through intuition. They work with the world’s leading brands including Pepsi, Wells Fargo, Microsoft, and Whole Foods. Rob, welcome to the show.

[00:00:34]

Rob Volpe: Jamin, thank you so much. It’s so great to be here.

[00:00:39]

Jamin Brazil: The Michigan State University’s Master of Science in Marketing Research program delivers the number one ranked insights and analytics degree in three formats. Full time on campus, full-time online, and part-time online. New for 2022, if you can’t commit to their full degree program, simply begin with one of their three core certifications, insights design or insights analysis. In addition to the certification, all the courses you complete will build towards your graduation. If you’re looking to achieve your full potential, check out MSU’s new program at B-R-O-A-D.msu.edu/marketing. Again, B-R-O-A-D.msu.edu/marketing. HubUX is a research operations platform for private panel management, qualitative automation, including video audition questions and surveys. For a limited time, user seats are free. If you’d like to learn more or create your own account, visit hubux.com. It’s such an honor to have you. Let’s start with some context. Tell us a little bit about your parents and what they did to inform what you do today.

[00:01:55]

Rob Volpe: So my parents, Mike and Margaret. When I was growing up, my dad was in sales all of my life, and my mom was a homemaker until I was in junior high/high school. She went back to school, got her MBA, and then she started working in the military for the Navy, ultimately building or working on the design and build-out of a new class of submarine to which she obviously had some- I don’t even know, some level of secret clearance. And at one point, a picture of an artist’s illustration of the submarine came out, it was in Time magazine. And I think I was in college at that point and we were talking on the phone and she’s like, oh, did you see that illustration? Yeah. And she’s just like, it’s wrong. That’s not what it really looks like. So I think from my mom, there’s a sense of keeping confidentiality and secrets, which is important in the insights industry. But from my dad, I learned a lot about storytelling and relationship building, and how to connect with people. And I remember really clearly in high school when talking about different career paths and sales, and I was just like, I don’t know how to sell anything. And he told a story about how somebody in an interview gave someone a pen off of their desk and said, here, sell me this pen. And I was like, I wouldn’t even know how to do that. And my dad proceeded to ask me questions about how I use pens in my life, what type of pen do I like and what sort of hold do I have? How much weight do I like about a pen? And well, let me tell you about this pen. And he proceeded to sell me a pen. And it was just so fascinating to me and inspiring in the ways that he was asking me questions to understand my needs and then ultimately, explain why his pen fit- that he had, fit the needs that I had and what would make a good recommendation. And that’s so much about insights and research and finding out people’s needs and then figuring out how a product or a service can actually fit that, so I learned quite a lot from him. And then, of course, there’s the- him and my grandma are both storytellers and love to share stories. So there was a lot of that going on, the Italian family storytelling that I grew up with and was just naturally drawn to when I was a kid.

[00:04:22]

Jamin Brazil: The, sell me a pen, I had heard- I can’t remember exactly where I heard it. I think it was from Wolf of Wall Street in one of the scenes where a new salesman was coming in, and then they had an existing salesman actually take on the challenge of sell me this pen. And I think his sales pitch was, you got a pen? And the guy says no. He says something to the effect of, well, write down your name, and the guy goes, I can’t. And he goes, you gotta buy this pen. I totally botched that, but it is interesting how we can borrow from that example and translate it into what we do, both in terms of being business owners and creating products and services that we sell to the market, but then also helping our customers do the exact same thing.

[00:05:11]

Rob Volpe: Absolutely. It’s all about the relationships that we have with other people and the ability to build those relationships and have empathy, see the point of view, to get at this is what this person might need, and here’s how my product can do that. And then I think it’s about having the- what is the right word? It’s not necessarily humility but being able to be honest about whether your product is the right one. Or, hey, you might actually be better served by what this guy has to offer because we don’t really specialize in this. And ultimately, that’s a better relationship-building tool I have found because then you’re really becoming a partner to your clients and really being of service to them.

[00:05:55]

Jamin Brazil: And we really are a relationship-based industry. As you fast forward, thinking about five years in the future, which I know is a lifetime, do you think market research or consumer insights will continue to be as heavy? Like, pick up the phone and call your favorite sales guy at the company that you like versus more online transactions?

[00:06:17]

Rob Volpe: I’m trying to think when the last time was that I picked up the phone and called somebody, but I didn’t do just an online transaction on an automated platform and ordered 50 widgets. I think the relationship still remains really important. What’s interesting now and to see how things play out, there’s the written communication because so much of this is done via email or you’re texting if you’ve got that relationship with your clients, and they’re reaching out to you. So there’s still that personal connection, and especially in the work that we do, where so much of it is very custom. There’s a problem that the teams are trying to solve and so we need to have that intake and conversation. But even then, we’re reaching out as we’re extending our hands to our partners to try to put the right teams together or get the resources for the recruiting. Or if it’s a quant project, where are we getting the sample, the analytics, all the pieces from? I think relationships are fundamental to humans. I think we are social creatures, so I think it will always exist. I think there’s always a desire to automate more than less, but I think we also overstep and then we realize that we’ve gone a little too far here, we need to pull it back. And then the market rejects that approach or way of interacting.

[00:07:38]

Jamin Brazil: You wrote a book. The book is titled, Tell Me More About That: Solving the Empathy Crisis One Conversation at a Time. Why did you write the book?

[00:07:48]

Rob Volpe: Because there’s an empathy crisis. And you don’t have to look too far anymore –

[00:07:54]

Jamin Brazil: I love it.

[00:07:54]

Rob Volpe: To see the breakdown that’s happened in our society. But I remember in 2010 when the study of studies came out of the University of Michigan, that found a 40% decline in empathy skills amongst college students from the span of ’79 to 2001. And it didn’t get any better or worse, but it didn’t get any better until they concluded the study in 2009. 40% less ability to see the point of view of other people. That to me back then was like, oh, my god, this is like we’re not- everything that you’re seeing playing out now in society and the way that we’re so polarized, we’re not getting along, we’re not taking the time to listen to each other. People are quitting their jobs because they’re not feeling supported empathetically by their leadership. All of that is a result of that decline in empathy skills, and there’s a lot of different things that led into it. And as that relates then to our industry, we’re all about empathy. We’re all about understanding human behavior and other people. And so at Ignite 360, that was part and parcel of what we were doing and the storytelling of bringing all of that to life, that we were finding as clients are hiring us for empathy engagements and quick get to know my brand champion types of things, that there was a lot of judgment that was coming up that they were getting stuck on how to actually listen or they weren’t paying attention. And we recognized that there was a need to help people understand how to do this, and what to actually do in the moment. And that’s something in my DNA and in the organizations of helping people understand the how. Like, here’s how to do this. So if we’re teaching storytelling, it’s about how to tell stories in the workplace. Not just that you need to tell stories, but what does that actually mean? What does that look like? Let’s bring that to life. And so with empathy, it’s been about how to be more empathetic in the moment, in your engagements. And so the impetus for the book, I knew as a CEO, I got told- right after I started the company, a few people were like, oh, you’ve got to write a book. That’s what CEOs do. And I was like, in what free time? Because I was really starting the company. But then in 2016, I was talking to a group of college students. And I was talking about the industry and insights and qualitative and quantitative. And then I was talking about empathy and the importance of it and going into some of the five steps to empathy. And I was using my stories from out in the field doing ethnographic in-homes, and the students were just hanging on every word, they were eating it up. And a voice inside my head said, this is what you need to do, you need to tell these stories to help people understand empathy. And so I set out to write the book. And I wanted it to be a book that works on multiple levels and from different angles. So it’s a personal growth professional development book, you can learn about empathy and how to be more empathetic and what that means. But you’re also being entertained by stories of my own experiences trying to have empathy with people that are completely different from me in some of those crazy situations that only market researchers find themselves in. And doing it in a way then the people are learning and able to reflect, but in an organic way where it’s sitting inside them and they start to think about it. Like I was talking to someone yesterday, who is almost finished with a book, but she was commenting on how it’s already sitting inside her and she’s thinking about, like, she was in traffic and somebody cut her off. And while she wanted to raise her fist in anger, she said because of the book, it made her rethink. Like, I don’t really know what their story is and what’s going on with them, so let me just exhale for a minute and not get so upset. And that’s it, that’s what I was going for. I wanted something that was gonna give people the skills that they could take with them personally or professionally, to understand more about empathy. And it’s set in the exciting world of marketing research.

[00:12:06]

Jamin Brazil: It’s an interesting time right now, and we are really- our points of view are so cemented by the internet, which is really a giant algorithm that wants to keep our attention. Which of course, as you know feeds me what I like and –

[00:12:23]

Rob Volpe: Or it gets you upset, and so –

[00:12:26]

Jamin Brazil: And further galvanizes the position, right? Exactly.

[00:12:29]

Rob Volpe: Exactly.

[00:12:30]

Jamin Brazil: And so what surprised you as you-? Of course, you wrote the book and that’s a process of discovery, I would imagine. What surprised you as you went through the process?

[00:12:41]

Rob Volpe: There was a lot of peeling my own onion, so to speak, and really thinking about it. When I first- the very first draft of the book was just the stories. And I wasn’t even narrating it as much as observing on it like a researcher would, oh, and then they did this, then they did that. And then I realized, and there was an energy healer that I work with who is intuitive. And I was on the table having a session with her and she was like, you need to put more of yourself into the book. I said OK, and so the subsequent drafts were putting more and more of myself and really doing the work to understand the challenges that I was having in those moments. Like, why did these stories stick with me? It’s not just for their entertainment value, it’s really there’s something about them that affected me or said something about myself. So one of the stories, a chapter called Mother would never do that. And we’re on an in-home, we’re there to find out about people’s use of dry packaged side dishes. But I got really fixated because the house was a little creepy, and there was all of this exposed drywall or two-by-fours and things. And it was a renovation that the respondent had actually moved into the house. He had put tchotchkes and things on the crossbeams and the two-by-fours, and I got really fixated on that. And I went upstairs to go to the bathroom at one point, and I write about it in the book, there was this second bedroom and I thought I saw a figure in there. But the guy never mentioned having a roommate or a partner or a spouse or anything, who is that? And I go and of course, the door is open so I stick my head in. And there’s a Resusci Andy doll that you would train on and then all these free weights. I was, who is this person? And he kept talking about Mother, and that’s part of where the mother in the title came from. He kept talking about Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother. Mother would do this. Mother would do that. Too a way that just didn’t feel natural to me, I was being very judgmental. It didn’t feel right and that was just- it felt weird. So I was being really judgmental and all these exposed two-by-fours and I’m like, am I in some serial killer’s house? Is Mother down in the basement like in Psycho? And that was really bad, I wasn’t even listening. I couldn’t to this day tell you what insights came about Hungry Jack mashed potatoes. From that interview, all I remember are the things that my judgment was fixating on. And so in writing the book, I actually had to reflect back on myself and my own actions. And my own childhood too. I was able to understand more of my own journey of empathy and why it’s so important to me, pains in my childhood, and then resolution to it. So the book is like a bunch of nesting dolls, lots of different things fitting inside of another, and the meta, largest arc is my own coming to terms with being bullied and abused- not abused but bullied and teased as a child growing up in small-town, Indiana.

[00:15:54]

Jamin Brazil: That is a- you went deeper than I thought you would. It’s a seriously interesting point. And we have the- I’ve done a fair amount of in-home ethnography and there is some self-preservation that takes place. So I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself about potentially finding somebody that’s chained up in an attic. But I think that’s OK, just clearing the air here, a little bit of grace.

[00:16:23]

Rob Volpe: But when it gets in your way- I appreciate that, thank you. But when it gets in your way to the point where you can’t see that –

[00:16:32]

Jamin Brazil: Anything else.

[00:16:32]

Rob Volpe: Anything else, then you’re never gonna have that empathy. I’m never gonna be able to sell the pen to that person or help my clients sell a pen to that person because I let my judgment get in the way.

[00:16:46]

Jamin Brazil: And that really is the superpower, I think, of the industry. It may be a three-legged stool, but the first one for me is curiosity. And the second one is this capacity to actually listen, which I guess maybe in the underpinnings is you have to give a shit about the other person.

[00:17:02]

Rob Volpe: Yeah, you have to be curious. You have to actively listen, be present in the conversation, and hear what they’re saying. And then at the end, you have to- and I think judgment comes back into it, where –

[00:17:17]

Jamin Brazil: That’s the third leg.

[00:17:18]

Rob Volpe: You have to be able to stay objective and not let the judgment get in your way as you’re analyzing the data or you’re asking the questions, or whatever it is that you’re doing. Absolutely.

[00:17:31]

Jamin Brazil: You started Ignite 360, I believe it was 2011. Is that right?

[00:17:35]

Rob Volpe: That is correct, 2011.

[00:17:36]

Jamin Brazil: Why did you start the business?

[00:17:39]

Rob Volpe: Because every fiber of my being- I was faced with signing a contract to become an employee. I had been consulting with a small boutique firm out of LA. Had busted my butt, I helped them grow. I don’t really know how- three, four times in size. But I was a contractor and I was working so much, there was no way I could be doing anything for anybody else. And so the way the laws in California are written, I really needed to become an employee. And I apparently have an allergic reaction to the word employee, and I would make this little scrunchy face every time Rob employee came up. And I didn’t realize I was doing it, but at one point the woman that owned that firm was like, you’re making this face every time I say the word employee with reference to your name. And I was like, I think I have a psychological block to this. But I said I’ve been working really hard, I’ve helped grow the business, I asked for some equity. And she was willing to consider it, which I really appreciated, and went through and had all the conversations that she needed to have. Months and months of back and forth on it and ultimately decided she was unable to do that. To which I was disappointed, but I thought, well, I bring a lot of value to the organization, show me the money, show me the contract, and they put together an incredibly generous offer. Really, really significant. And I remember standing in my kitchen on a gray day in November looking at the- and I had a psychological block to it, so weeks had gone by after they’d sent me the contract. And she kept following up with me. Have you looked at it yet? Any thoughts/comments? We need to get to the lawyers. Fine. So I looked at it and I saw my name and the legal definition in the agreement, parenthetical quotation mark, employee, all caps. And literally Jamin, every fiber in my being was screaming out saying no, don’t do this. This is wrong. This is not you. I mean from my head to my toes, my brain, I’ve never gotten an intuitive signal message- I’ve never had a reaction like that before and it was like, I need to listen to this. And took a deep breath like, it’s a really generous offer, but something’s telling me no, don’t do it. What does that mean? What do I do? And then it was like, I think I have to go out on my own. And so I contacted my lawyers and started to figure out what all that looked like and less than two months later, Ignite 360 was born. And really with the goal to tell great stories, build empathy and connection, do really creative, great things for our clients, so really the things that I embody and what I was bringing to projects. And we were really fortunate. It was 2011, the economy was certainly recovering quite nicely. And a lot of my clients came with us and we had a lot of great opportunities early on from our clients. And I’m eternally grateful for all of that support. And then we grew really quickly and that created its own set of issues.

[00:21:06]

Jamin Brazil: Did you have a partner at the time?

[00:21:08]

Rob Volpe: No, I did not. I went out on my own.

[00:21:10]

Jamin Brazil: Sorry, I mean a domestic partner.

[00:21:12]

Rob Volpe: Oh, yes. Yes, I did have a domestic partner, and then we’re legally married now. But yes.

[00:21:18]

Jamin Brazil: And how did they respond to your decision to not take a generous employment offer?

[00:21:25]

Rob Volpe: I was already- because I was a contractor and had been for about five years at that point. And even, gosh, so that was- all of that obviously happened in 2010. I had gotten laid off in 2006, which is what moved me into the insights space, to begin with. But back in ’99, 2000, 2001, I had my own consulting practice in PR and communications for small businesses in New York. My husband and I met in 2001, so we’ve been together for quite a while. He understood the roller coaster. And his dad actually had started his own company and was in the computer space back in the ’70s or so, was quite successful with that. So he understood a lot of that. He understood the travel. I was already doing that because I was working in qualitative as a contractor.

[00:22:19]

Jamin Brazil: The hardest job you could have, by the way.

[00:22:21]

Rob Volpe: Oh my gosh.

[00:22:23]

Jamin Brazil: Don’t be a quantitative researcher, it pays five times more per project. It’s the best-kept secret.

[00:22:33]

Rob Volpe: Qualitative means get on a plane and go all over and just go, go, go.

[00:22:38]

Jamin Brazil: So it sounds like he was supportive because he already had the context. He already knew Rob.

[00:22:42]

Rob Volpe: He already- yes, he knew me, he knew the situation. He knew the situation with the other firm. He knew this had- and he understood. And we were hearing from some initial conversations I’d had with some clients that I considered friends where I just- because I didn’t know. I had only been in the space for like five years at that point or four years, I didn’t know how it worked. Is everybody on retainer or is this a-? And they were like, oh, this is a relationship business. If people wanna work with you, they’re gonna come with you. And it was like, all right. So we had that behind us and thought it was going- and I don’t wanna say it wasn’t a struggle. But like I said, we really hit the ground running, so we didn’t have that huge runway necessary. Or there wasn’t a dry spell, it really went from one- I was not working for like two weeks, basically.

[00:23:37]

Jamin Brazil: And then it just grew?

[00:23:39]

Rob Volpe: It just grew, yeah.

[00:23:41]

Jamin Brazil: Straight out of the way. And not everybody has that experience, of course, when they start a business, but you’ll take it when you can. Let’s talk a little bit about Ignite 360 as a business, what does the business do exactly? Of course, I gave my perspective based on what I know, but I’d love the correction.

[00:23:57]

Rob Volpe: No, I thought you were pretty spot on. So we do this full-service qualitative. We’ve grown from just more qualitative to now qual and quant. And then we also offer training programs, so there’s multiple legs to the business. On the research side, our work tends to focus on innovation, journey work, and then brand strategy and brand communication. So all the things where you really need to get to know how somebody’s thinking, that sort of System1 stuff. And doing it qualitatively and then quantitatively helping measure it and dimensionalize it. Everything has- empathy is a key focus of ours as is strategic thinking. And then the other thing our clients always talk about that sets us apart is our storytelling and our ability to turn a phrase, create the framework that allows the insights to live on, and the key recommendations for the team to be able to grab onto those and run with it. Because as you know, the work is only as good as what ultimately becomes of it. And there are too many times where I’ve been in meetings or heard about meetings where, great deck, that’s awesome, and the people go off to their other meeting and nothing ever happens with the project. And you follow up with a client a month later and they haven’t done anything with it. I didn’t like that. I don’t want that. So we focus on not just the what, but the so what, the now what, and putting it into action. And helping- and then what I see is the opportunity. And what we’re seeing in the industry with the growth of consulting really happening is helping our clients bridge from the research share-out to getting it into the workstreams.

[00:25:44]

Jamin Brazil: The impact of research is something that I think a lot of researchers are coming to terms with. The degree of impact that takes place that has a direct relationship- correlation, is that-? Maybe it isn’t a correlation, it’s causation, of additional work. So the more impact that your research has inside of a business and the better the relationship, the more you’ve really helped that person’s career and the more opportunities that you’re gonna have downstream.

[00:26:10]

Rob Volpe: Absolutely. When I started the company, I recognized that clients didn’t have the time to think. And technology was enabling clients to do more and more and more projects concurrently, simultaneously, and they were losing all their thinking time. So if we could at least come to them with some thoughts on here’s what we think you should do with this, and be that consulting partner, it may not ultimately be the thing they decide to do, but it’s easier. From a cognitive load perspective, I believe it’s easier to respond and react to something than to have to rev up the engine to create original thoughts. So if we can help the clients by giving them things to react to and then they’re able to build on it, whether that’s a totally different direction or they’re going yes, but, or yes, and it’s helping them do their job. And then that makes them look better, do better in the organization, have impact themselves, and ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do.

[00:27:12]

Jamin Brazil: Yes, and, I have heard that so much. It’s an improv approach, right?

[00:27:18]

Rob Volpe: Mm-hmm.

[00:27:18]

Jamin Brazil: And I don’t know what it is, like my karmic directive for the last- I’m gonna say four weeks, at least once every two days, I hear somebody make that reference.

[00:27:30]

Rob Volpe: That’s really interesting, there’s something there.

[00:27:36]

Jamin Brazil: My last question, what is your personal motto?

[00:27:39]

Rob Volpe: I think I connect very strongly with- in the Enneagram, for anybody that follows that personality typing, I am a seven, which is the adventurer, the explorer, the discoverer. And Auntie Mame is like a movie and stage and literary character that is the epitome of an Enneagram seven. And she has a motto that says, you’ve got to live. Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death. So that’s my motto, is to live, to do the things that you want to do. Life is too short, don’t starve yourself.

[00:28:19]

Jamin Brazil: We have been joined today by Rob, author, speaker, CEO, Chief Catalyst, and empathy activist at Ignite 360. Rob, thank you so much.

[00:28:28]

Rob Volpe: Jamin, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

[00:28:31]

Jamin Brazil: Everyone else, I will include a link to his book, as well as The Wolf of Wall Street‘s sell me a pen excerpt on YouTube and his company. I hope you’ll check all three out.