I have a super inspirational guest on for you today: Mariana Peña is an instructional designer for purpose-driven online business owners who want to develop a red-hot, unique-to-them signature service or certification program that feels like a true representation of them and transforms their clients on a deliciously and unusually deep level.
In the conversation you’re about to hear, Mariana shares not only her expertise, but also how she’s using her own lived experiences and her own background to create a brand and a business that not only serves her and her clients, but also contributes to a better world. I hope you find this as inspiring as I did, and that it spurs YOU to incorporate your background and beliefs into that fabulous brand you’re building.
Let’s get to it!
TL;DR – here’s how to connect with Mariana if you want to learn more from her:
Disclaimer: The following transcript has been auto-generated and then edited (by my lovely new team member, yay!) and while the general flow of the conversation is there, it’s probably not 100% accurate.
P: Mariana. It is such a pleasure to welcome you as a guest on my podcast and especially because I’ve been watching you from the sidelines over the past year or so and I’ve really seen you step into your thought leadership, and it’s such an inspiration to me. So, welcome.
M: Thank you. Thank you so much for the invitation. Thank you for your kind words. It’s been a ride…
P: It looks like it’s been a ride. It looks like it’s been a good, good ride. In the introduction, we learned that you’re an instructional designer and I have to be honest, I had no idea that this was even a thing until I learned about it via you. And I’m pretty sure that that is going to be the case for many listeners too. So before we dive in and really get stuck into our conversation, would you mind just telling us a little bit about what being an instructional designer actually means. And, you know, what is it that you help your clients with and why?
M: Yes, absolutely. So an Instructional designer. I think most of us in the industry have a slightly different definition, but it’s basically someone that has the skills and the knowledge to structure your thoughts into a journey for whomever is going to listen to you or learn from you. For example, big companies-international companies, especially- they have their in-house instructional department. They call it sometimes research and development or learning and development. And what they do is that they sit down on meetings with the thought leaders of the company, to take and pull all the information from their brains and then use that input to create trainings, to create basically learning journeys.
So what I’m doing is putting my own spin to it, because that’s who I am, I put my spin to everything I do, and because I’ve been in education my entire life- specifically the last years in curriculum design- I used that training and that skillset to help online entrepreneurs that have so much experience, and they have reached the point where they want to share that experience with their clients or students, but it’s so much that they don’t know where to start. So if you think about, like an app, I would be like the Google maps for your brain, right?
So you just click in where you want to go, and I map out the journey. Rest stops, touristic scenery, everything that you want to include or you can make it as simple as you want. But I am that person that is going to sit by you,next to you throughout the whole planning process so that you could get rid of the post-its or not feel that you’re lost in a post-it maze that never ends.
P: In this era of online learning, everyone seems to be creating a course or a framework or something that they are delivering online. Your expertise has to be absolutely invaluable because I know what’s inside my head -I know it’s not pretty- it’s in a big, fat jumble of ideas on knowledge and, for someone like you to just…almost come into my head and sort it out for me, that sounds like a dream.
M: It’s a dream to me to be honest, I get to learn a lot from a lot of different industries. But what I enjoy the most is that when we are experts at our craft, it becomes second nature. And when he becomes second nature, I’ve noticed that it’s not only about the knowledge itself.
So it’s not only about, for example, you being, a total expert on design or branding or strategy or visuals, it’s not only about that. Second nature expert means that you reach the point where your belief system is intertwined with what you do, which makes it unique, but also a little bit challenging to put down on paper and translated into a programme.
P: That makes sense.
M: Yes, it’s not only about, “oh, I am going to teach you how to create a logo,” for example. Not necessarily that I’m talking about you, just an example. It’s not only about “let’s create a short course for beginners that are trying to go the DIY route and create their own logo.” It’s not only about that, because when you create logos, you’re also bringing in your cultural background, your belief system, your values, your personalit – the lens, which you navigate the world with. And that is the point where I come in.
P: So this leads us nicely into today’s topic. I feel what you just said, because today we are going to be talking about how to find that kind of signature angle that’s going to make someone stand out in their industry. Yeah, when you say signature angle, you know, talk us through what you mean by that. What does that look like to you?
M: Absolutely. A signature angle. To me. It’s not the name of your offer. Talking about entrepreneurs, right it’s not the name of your offer, it’s not the name of your programme, it’s not even your webinar. Your signature angle is being aware of who you are- all your intersections, and combining that intentionally with your craft so you can bring your own voice to your industry. I’ll give you an example.
I’ll use myself because I don’t like talking on behalf of other people. So I’m an educator at heart. I’ve trained and developed my skills as an instructional designer, and I know I can build a kickass curriculum- no questions asked. I’ve won awards with that. I know that. And I also know that if I want to enter a global market, that is not enough. Because there are tens, if not hundreds of other people with the exact same skill set. But they do not have my lived experiences.
What I mean by that is that I’m not going to shy away from the fact that I’m Mexican, now living in the Netherlands, coming into six years now. I conduct my business in English which is my second language. That means that I can see the world through two different sets of grammar rules. I bring my own culture and my own passions. I was raised in a collective mindedness system rather than an individual hierarchy. So I rely a lot on my support system and all of those things that may seem that are not related to curriculum creation, for example. I bring them into the process and I bring awareness to the creator’s about the fact that the people coming into their own programmes are very different from each other. So from the example that they use, to how they address the class, to how they can motivate them, to what they think might be important for them. And in reality, that’s only important for a very specific type of people. All of these things, I’m only able to bring them to the table because of who I am. Because of my intersections, because of my identity, and that is bringing your own angle into your industry. And doing that intentionally rather than trying to hide away to blend in to what you think it’s the mainstream. No, I say take the other route and stand out.
P: When it comes to branding that is such an important perspective as well. I know that a lot of business owners, especially as they just starting out they’re, just you know, following someone else’s blueprint because it feels safe or it feels like “this is what I am expected to do or say,” or “these are the values I’m supposed to have,” and they completely forget about themselves into like this whole equation.
And I would say that whether you are a tiny, one-person brand, or you’re a bigger brand – maybe you started, taking on other people – you as the founder are going to be very central to the identity, and the personality, and the core of that brand. And so to leave out parts of your own lived experience out because you think it’s expected of you? It’s just completely counterintuitive when you come to think of it, because no matter what industry you are in, you are going to have competitors unless you do something really, really niche. I can’t even think of an example. It would have to be totally unique, and nobody else does it. Let’s face it, that’s not the case for most of us.
M: No, it’s not.
P: And so when you look at your approach, I kind of have to think of it from a branding perspective. And I’m kind of thinking this is like a little golden nugget from someone building a brand as well, because if you bring all of you into your brand and into your business -nobody’s gonna be able to copy that. They can copy what you do or your products that you sell, but they can’t copy you.
M: No, they can’t because even though we’re billions of people in the world, there is only one of you and I really liked what you said that- unless you are in this super specific niche, then there will always be competitors in your industry. And I will say that you can become that very specific niche when you bring in all your intersections into your work. Because then-and I go back to my example as an instructional designer- it’s not only curriculum creation, it’s not only education theories, It is decolonising your education theories, right?
And then, how can you address cultural backgrounds from the lens of the oppressed, rather than the oppressor? And now we’re not talking about “Oh, there are this amount of curriculum creators in the industry.” Now we’re talking about maybe a few people that are addressing in the same way that I’m talking about. And even then, I would say- but they’re not me. So it’s also a boost of confidence. It’s not only positioning yourself in the industry it’s also, boosting yourself up a little bit. Nobody else is going to have your voice.
P: Yeah, and I’m finding that voice can be a journey. I know this because I am still on that journey. I don’t think any of us ever quite finishes that journey. If we think we’ve finished the journey, we should go back and double check our roots I think. Because I don’t think we should ever really quite finish that learning process about ourselves and about our values, our beliefs and the whole sort of thing of finding your voice and stepping into thought leadership. We might think that we’re just insignificant, small business owners. But if there are enough of us that step into our own beliefs and value systems, just imagine the snowball effect that we can all have. It’s given me goosebumps just thinking of it.
M: This is music to my ears because I believe in the power of the compound effect rather than the numbers. Numbers are very deceiving, and they are dehumanising a little bit of what we’re doing. But if we think about -we’re joining a movement- the movement itself has the power to create those ripples we’re looking for and that is enough.
You don’t have to go say something online and then be disappointed if the very next day the world is still the same because that’s not how change happens. Change happens in small drops of water, and eventually you have a sea. So I think that the more we share this and the more people join this movement – because I see it as a movement- the faster that change is going to become visible because it’s already happening.
P: It is already happening. I’ve noticed a shift as well. I work with probably a lot of the same kinds of clients that you do, and we work on some overlapping things.So whereas you help them, to kind of identify and put into a structure like what they want to teach, I kind of help them too with their basic beliefs, and their truths, and to uncover them so that they can form the basis of the rest of their branding- the stuff that people actually see. So I’m kind of guessing it’s the same. When you start to work with a client, you have to dig into all of the stuff that’s invisible to a lot of your target audience. But if it’s not there, if you haven’t created that solid foundation then there’s nothing to carry on building on. Then it’s going to become quite obvious that you haven’t got these things in place. So why would you say those beliefs or people’s own philosophies – Why are those so key to building that successful brand or that sustainable business?
M: Oh, that’s a good question. I would say that systematically, we have been taught to focus on values, right? Every single beginners pack for entrepreneurs is- “Who is your ideal client? What are your values?” And while those are important, values seem to be this desirable thing that does not necessarily prompt you into action. Whereas your beliefs are already there and beliefs are what guides your actions. The problem is that the institutions that we interact with didn’t teach us how to become aware of those beliefs. We learn them, some of them. Some of them we internalise without knowing – a lot of them I would say- and then maybe some of them are ours. So it’s a mix of things that we carry with ourselves and we use them for every single decision process that you enter.
It’s that gut feeling that you get when you either want to do something or don’t, you don’t know how to explain it. Well, my explanation is that gut feeling comes from “does it align with your belief system or not?” When you’re aware of that belief system, you know that is not only your gut feeling, you know where it’s coming from. And when you know where it’s coming from, you can intentionally shape them to be better, or you can align yourself with them even more and you can bring them to the surface.
And that’s why I think when we, when I start working with a client, they do not like this face at all – it’s very confrontational. It’s sometimes challenging because it holds a mirror to you, your actions, and why you do what you do. Why? Where’s it coming from? And I would say that we spend about two weeks there. But once we nail that down, it’s so easy to build a curriculum because the decisions just flow. I want to include this because of this and that part because of that, I don’t want to say this because of this reason. Intentional, unconscious curriculum creation, that’s what I want for them.
P: I love that,
M: Does that answer the question?
P: Well it does. And I love that you’ve got that approach because I think, yeah, this sounds like the kind of work that could be really deep and really challenging because it requires you to have a certain level of discernment. And it requires you maybe to challenge some beliefs that you thought you didn’t have a choice about because they were instilled in you from an early age maybe – because you were brought up in a certain culture or because of how your parents are or what teachers you’ve had, like in school. To start to discern and think which of these values or beliefs are actually mine, and which ones have I just been led to believe that I should believe in? I can really see that as being quite a challenge
M: It is a challenge, but it’s also maturing in your business, right?
P: And then liberating I guess.
M: Yes, it’s liberating, it really is.
P: Because then you can start to take ownership of what you believe in, rather than what society tells you to believe in.
M: Absolutely, and that leads you to being able to take up space, which people like to put this as the promotional tagline for their programmes- ”find your voice” and “take up space” – and and they leave you there without a solid process to get to that result because it’s not that easy to guide that process. But that’s what it means to find your voice. And to take up space means that you are grounded, absolutely grounded on your beliefs. And you know where they are coming from and you know what you have. You have internalised knowingly or unknowingly, and you know what you want to do from this moment forward.
P: This is like music to my ears. I hope a lot of people listen to this episode. What we’re really talking about here is about something that’s quite pivotal for many people and something that has the potential to really make you stand out, to become that authority within your industry and, you know, yeah, What does it actually mean though, that sort of authority building? What do you put into that container?
M: Very good question. So normally I would say, especially for people of colour that I worked with or people that identified as in the non-white spectrum, the way we have learned to survive and even have a chance at succeeding, is to validate ourselves with credentials.
And the more we can stack them up, the harder it becomes for your employer to fire you, for example. The harder it becomes for your team leader to say that you have nothing to add to the table and that has caused a little bit of harm. I mean, a little bit is quite a lot. It’s harmful to see and to put ourselves in that lens. So what I say is the validation comes from your lived experiences, which is quite a different way of seeing what you do.
So like I said, you could be a carpenter by trade, you make the most amazing, solid, durable, sustainable benches. Great. When you think about entering a market from that point, it is overwhelming because how many people out there can do the same? But when you bring yourself and combine that with your craft, then perhaps you’re not only a carpenter, perhaps you are a person that understands the intimate process that goes with growing trees organically in a specific, previously exploited land. When you combine those both- you’re not only a carpenter- your an activist. You’re a thought leader. Now, you tell me, who people are going to buy from?
P: They buy beliefs.
M: Yeah, they buy their belief because that aligns.
P: Exactly, and that is a trend I’ve seen lately. I kind of dislike the word trend because it’s come to mean something other than what it originally meant. There’s a tendency in society now for consumers to be a lot more discerning about the brands they buy from and where they actually leave their money and the impact of their choices of where to leave their money can have. So I think as we move forward, sort of in the next five or 10 years, I think this is going to become imperative. I don’t think we can ignore it any more. I think we all have to dig into our truths and to start to really hone in on them.
M: Yes, and of course I have to be aware that this is a very privileged position to be able to choose what you can purchase. But if you are able to choose, then choose wisely, right? And if you are not able to choose at that particular moment, then you are aware why is that the case? So then you don’t fall into the guilt trip of “I’m a bad person doing bad things.” You understand that society has these institutions in place that makes it harder for some people to be able to make choices about their life.
P: That’s a responsibility. I like it, though, and I think that’s a responsibility we have not just as business owners, but also as people with privileges, whatever those privileges may be. It’s our duty to think of these things and to not just think of our own well being first and foremost. But to also think of the bigger impacts that our decisions can make in the world.
M: Absolutely, it is up to privileged ones to stop thinking about themselves first.
P: Ah, yeah… we’ve kind of moved quite far away from instructional design.
M: But it isn’t, It’s not the case because instructional design is organising your thoughts
P: Yes, that’s nice.
M: And you have to be aware of what you’re thinking and where is that coming from?
P: And then you can implement that
P: Into your teachings.
M: Yes, absolutely.
P: I love the direction that his conversation is taking. I think I think we could probably talk for hours and hours and hours on this, but let’s get into some actionable stuff. I would love for the people who are tuning in today to actually take something away today, you know something that they can use. So let’s dive into a little bit what kind of steps you could take to find that signature angle that you were talking about?
M: Yes, absolutely. So for the people that are listening, if you are already an online business owner or you’re thinking about starting your entrepreneurial journey, most likely you already have these 3 to 5 values that you listed down on the worksheet or they are already on your website perhaps. What I would like to invite you, as the next step, especially if you want to go down the path of teaching, mentoring, guiding, educating or thought leadership. Take one of those values that are there and ask yourself “what does these mean in action?” So, for example, if your website says that one of your values is “diversity, equity and inclusion,” what does that mean in action? What are you doing to bring that word or those words, into your business in a concrete way? Are you intentionally making connections with people that do not look like you?
Are you intentionally filling up your programmes with people that do not look like you? If you are, are you asking them how they feel with how you’re teaching things? Because remember that education is as much feelings as it is thinking. Are you listening to them? Are you creating those conversations? Are you centering everything around your own experience? Or are you opening up lines of feedback. And once you have those answers, go one step further and ask yourself why? So if the answer is, “okay DEI is one of my core values,” perfect. And I am filling up my programmes with people that do not look like me but I am not currently opening up feedback channels. Why? What is stopping you? Is it a matter of systems, or are you afraid of what they might tell you? Are you jumping immediately into conclusions about “Oh, I think already what they liked or didn’t like?” Because, let me tell you, that is just putting words pulling words from the air. That’s not the reality. So this is a very confronting exercise that never ends. Like you said, this is a journey. We never stop evolving, and your belief system is the same. So that is a very concrete way for you to lift your toes into this particular approach and then, maybe finding out things that you didn’t even know were there about yourself.
P: This sounds like some deep, deep work. I’m pretty sure some people are gonna feel a bit scared to start this work because, you know, what’s it gonna uncover that you haven’t thought of? And I would like to just point out that from my perspective, trying and then messing up a little bit, and then owning that you messed up and then moving on and learning from it is way, way, way better than just avoiding the work because you’re scared that you’re going to mess up. That’s my point of view on this.
M: Yes, and I agree with that. I mean, we are bound to mess up.
P: Yeah, we’re human.
M: But that doesn’t take away from the effort. And that brings you closer to the ideal state, then not doing anything.
P: And I think when you’re clear on your beliefs, that’s gonna help guide you. If -I’m going to say when you mess up- because like most people are gonna mess up at some point.
M: We are all going to mess up.
P: Yeah, we’re all going to mess up and you know, it’s okay. You don’t have to be perfect. And I think your beliefs and that inner core is what is there to guide you. When you do mess up, you can lean on them to figure out how to get out of the mess that you got yourself into, basically, how do you respond if you’ve upset someone because you tried to do something right and it came out wrong. Okay, look back at your inner core. Look at your truths. Look at your beliefs and they will guide you. And then you will know a lot easier what to do.
M: Yes, and it is going to develop your confidence. It’s going to develop that little voice that we all have that is telling us what to do next becomes stronger when you dare to go down that path.
P: I really hope that a lot of people who are tuning into this are going to take this to heart and do some of that challenging work. I know that for me, like I said, it’s a journey. I’m still on that journey. I’m excited to see where that journey is going to take me next.
What about you? I would like to hear a bit about you because, like you said, you’ve been on a bit of a journey this year. What’s next for Mariana?
M: Oh, that’s a good question. I have been focusing on solidifying my two main services, which is certification programme development and signature service design, and both of them have in- as a core- this work that we have talked about today, and I see them as my way to contributing to a better world, to helping people take up that space that they have been wanting to their entire lives. What comes next? I don’t know. I’m open to the possibilities. I’ve worked with incredible women that have taught me so much in the past few months of this year, and I am open to the next step. Whether that is: take myself on a tour, podcasting or opening up a mentorship. I don’t know. I’m open. I’m open to receiving instruction from the universe.
P: It sounds like it’s going to be an exciting next year for you as well.
M: I hope so.
P: I’m really looking forward to following you as your journey continues because you’re one of the people who I have found so inspirational this year.
M: Thank you.
P: So I think I really hope that the people who are tuning in today have found this conversation equally as inspiring. Basically, I wanted to invite you before we round off the episode that if you had just one thing -you are only allowed to tell people one thing- that they could implement today to get started on this very important work. What would that piece of advice be?
M: Oh! This is a tough one.It’s a tough one because I’m an educator at heart so I want to give you a lot of things. I would say, though, that if you’re gonna take one thing away from this conversation with you, I would like it to be that the validation that you’re seeking is within you. You don’t need to take more courses. You don’t need to learn more in order to become the person that you want to be. You can take those courses if you want, but they’re not going to make you a better You. You are enough as you are.
P: Oh, those are wonderful final words of this episode.I know that, like you said, you’re a teacher. You like to teach. You have plenty of things that you want to share. So if people are ready and eager to learn more from you, tell us about how they can do that. Where can they find you? How can they work with you?
M: Yes, so I mostly hang around on Instagram. It’s a place where I have met wonderful people and made wonderful friendships. You can find me there and come say hi, send a voice note, like a post If you wanted, jump into the conversation and we can take it from there.
P: Yeah, I’ll pop that link over in the show notes. And then let’s hope people find you so we can start getting your philosophy out into this world a bit more as well. Because I think that what you’re doing is very important. I think it has the potential to change the world. Maybe not the entire world, in one day, that would be a bit ambitious, but it definitely has the potential to move the world into a better direction.
Thank you so much for sharing your, not just your knowledge and your expertise, but also for sharing your journey and sharing about your beliefs. It’s been a pleasure.
M: Thank you. Likewise.
Until next time,
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