Shannon Cohen: Leading with Heart

By Jane Whitttington on December 5th, 2017 / Comments

For Shannon Cohen, her business isn’t just a career, it’s a way to create a good, balanced, and affirming life for herself and others. Cohen, who received a Master’s Degree from Grand Valley State University in Public Administration and Nonprofit Management, founded her company, Community Ventures, by taking a leap of faith soon after graduation.

Cohen says, “I had this vision of myself as a version of that old show The A Team. I wanted to be a consultant who could come into businesses and organizations that were experiencing some type of distress. Then I would lend the best of myself to that company and fix the problems. Once everything was back in a peaceful space, and the distress was resolved, I would ride off into the sunset, leaving a healthy organization behind me.”

She continues, “That’s what I did for several years, and I have to admit that I was good at that. I found that a lot of organizations, particularly those in the nonprofit world, put on a good face for the public but are struggling internally. The weight of high expectations puts a great deal of stress on leaders who understand that failure is not an option. That constant state of stress was taking a toll on those leaders I was serving. I wanted to do something in that space.

“Around the same time that I developed this heightened sense of awareness of the battle scars that leaders endure and the emotional toll it takes, I was going through a difficult time in my personal life. This was about 2014—I had been awarded a spot on the Grand Rapids Business Journal’s list of 40 under 40, my business was growing, I was doing some consulting for the White House on national drug control policy, my CV was impressive. If you looked at my accomplishments from the outside, it was all rosy. But internally, I was dying.”

As an ordained minister, Cohen was used to the thought and contemplation that are intrinsic to that role, and she was used to helping others with her insights. She used those skills in the service of others but now felt it was time to heal herself.

She says, “I was suffering constant burnout, was constantly in a place of fatigue, and completely over-extended. I believe there is a time when stress gives us a moment to press pause. I began to access where I was and where I truly wanted to be, both in my life and in my career. That gave birth to Tough Skin-Soft Heart.”

Tough Skin-Soft Heart is a blog available on Cohen’s website where she posts frequently about issues surrounding the creation of one’s best life and honoring the wellness of one’s soul. Within a year, her blog had over 2,000 subscribers.

Cohen says, “I realized that there were so many other leaders like me who were living under this false assumption that as long as you were externally successful, that was enough. But so many, including myself, had lost that sense of joy and purpose.”

Out of the blog, Cohen developed a product line incorporating the aphorisms that she and her readers found the most meaningful.She continues to work with businesses and organizations who are experiencing difficulty, but her emphasis has changed to a focus on the wholeness of the experience of not only the business, but the individuals within that organization.

She says, “I work with individuals to create mindfulness and a healthy balance not only at work but in the rest of their lives as well. Emotional intelligence is essential in this balance. Within organizations, creating a nourishing environment makes all the difference in terms of staff burnout and turnover. It builds a strong and vibrant organization staffed by employees who have a sense of belonging and engagement.”

She continues to work with both businesses and nonprofits and offers strategic planning; communication services; project management; and motivational speaking. She also offers her services to act as a loaned executive for organizations in transition.

In September, 2017, she received the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce Athena Young Professional Award. The Athena Award is intended to honor and engage women leaders in West Michigan.

Cohen’s other venture, Sisters Who Lead, came out of her work as a W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. This three-year fellowship brought together a group of aspirational leaders and focused on achieving racial equity. The organization has grown over the years and continues to be an area of special interest to its many members who come together for support, community, and strategies. Their goal of racial equity is especially compelling in the current political environment.
Cohen knows how to lead, and she knows how to lead with compassion, inclusion, and a heart not just for organizations but for the people who live within them.
For more information on Cohen and her efforts, visit

About the Author

Jane Whitttington

Jane Whitttington

Jane Whitttington is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Grand Rapids. A Michigan native and Michigan State University grad, she enjoys reading, travel, politics and volunteering.