Interview with Dani Trudeau, founder of Keystone Women

Published on Mar 16th, 2023 by Hannah Martin

Find out how depressing statistics on female-led businesses and her own experience in supporting female entrepreneurs led Dani Trudeau to launch Keystone Women, an online business programme for enterprising women.

What’s your career background?

I have always been intrigued and invested in what makes a good business and importantly, what makes a ‘business for good’ – and I started my first enterprise when I was 14.

I had my heart set on becoming a professional dancer from the age of 7, and I was well on my way to realising my dream when I got into the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for my undergraduate degree in Contemporary Dance; but unfortunately, a back injury changed everything and I ended up with an Education and Dance bachelors from UNCG.

During university, I took a part-time job doing applied behavioural analysis (ABA) with children with autism spectrum conditions. I really thrived at the creative challenge of the 1:1 work and immersed myself in behavioural science. When one door closes…

I quickly got hired as a lead therapist and I was later asked to relocate to set up a company here in Scotland. In 2001, I became an ABA consultant, working with families throughout the UK. I also gained an MSc from Strathclyde University in Autism and related conditions.

In 2003, I was awarded a Highly Skilled Migrant Person Visa and started my own company, Interplay. Fast forward to 2010, and two children later, while working within a large charity, I set up a social enterprise and fell in love with the idea of social businesses.

After working for Social Entrepreneurs Network Scotland and co-founding Trade School Enterprise, a global movement based on collective wisdom and human capital, the idea for Tribe Porty came into being. With a strong vision underpinned by the values of social capital, with the results of a community survey, in 2015 I founded Tribe Porty – a community coworking and creative social enterprise – in my local neighbourhood of Portobello.

In 2018, my second social enterprise was born, Keystone Women, through which programme, I champion women to define their purpose, tap into their creativity, cultivate their entrepreneurial mindset and prioritise their core values. I know I am very fortunate to be witnessing the transformational power of community!

I strongly believe in – and I’ve applied this to my own career journey – a holistic approach to living and working which aligns your whole self with your career ambitions.

Where did the idea for Keystone Women come from?

Current data verified by The Gender Index confirms that only 16.8% of all active UK companies are female-led, and the percentage of those female-led companies that successfully raise capital from investors is even lower.

My idea for Keystone Women was born from my experience in supporting female entrepreneurs at Tribe Porty and after entertaining hundreds of conversations with women who all shared the same challenges, frustrations and desires for a better working life.

How did you move from idea to actual business?

I enjoyed meetings with a handful of academics for about nine months around something we were at the time calling TribeShip. As a group, we were exploring ideas for alternative education and business support.

Ironically, I was the only woman in the group; however, with hindsight, I was already forming the base of what would become Keystone. I then hosted a facilitated vision back casting session based on some of the work of Kaospilot and invited 10 women from different professional backgrounds.

This formed the skeleton of the programme through a learner journey. I then applied for the RBS Skills & Opportunities fund, which was voted on by the public and won!  It all felt very much like riding a rollercoaster, and all the pieces fell into place, for which I’ll always be very grateful.

After this, we gained support from the social enterprise directorate of the Scottish Government.

The response from the campaign was phenomenal.

We thought we might run a pilot with a dozen women or so, but instead, we ended up receiving over 85 applications to join. We collaborated with 7 other women to design and deliver the programme, which was launched by Nicola Sturgeon on International Women’s Day 2018.

What’s your USP?

From winning our RBS Skills & Opportunities funding to our initial vision back casting session made of all women, to all of our facilitators and participants, Keystone is designed by women, for women. As entrepreneurs ourselves, we understand the unique challenges of starting and running a business, and we also wanted to create a space to safely test ideas, gain insights and practice pitching.

We believe in – and put into practice – the power of a nurturing environment and understand when she shines, we all shine. We apply a very holistic approach, which combines world-class teaching with wellness rituals which power participants’ unique passion, skill set, experience, values and creativity. By nurturing entrepreneurial mindsets, we provide a person-centred approach.

We pride ourselves in the ability to understand that it is people and good businesses who make a difference in society. Particularly in current times, it is going to take ingenuity, creativity and determination to spot and take advantage of the opportunities that uncertainty creates. It also takes community, self-awareness, resilience and well-being to be able to contribute to a better world.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

I feel I’ve learnt so much from the variety of dreams and experiences which moulded who I am today – and what my business does…

First of all, there was the issue of perfection.

Devoting so much of my time to ballet when growing up trained me to aim for perfection. Being good at dancing also gave me an identity, which became something I felt like I had to maintain. There is not much room for error in ballet and my desire for perfection was supported by relentless practice. When the time came to accept I had to find a new dream, I just couldn’t truly let go – until I started doing the work from Keystone myself.

It was through crafting my own story that what is real and of the moment came into being clearly, and that’s when I was finally able to let go of this notion of failure which was damaging my sense of wellbeing.

These last several years have been a study of letting go, and I am really proud of what I’ve achieved and the way my work has been embraced and recognised, and especially of how I’ve been able to use my own experience to help other women.

This brings me to the concept of practising what I preach.

During the second year of Keystone, we experienced difficulties with Tribe Porty as we were in danger of losing our building. I kicked into gear, took out a loan to take over the entire building and had to throw myself back into building work. My work-life balance went off-kilter and this took a toll on my body, during a difficult period where I also lost family members and a good friend.

When I started having chronic pain and fatigue, alopecia and other strange ailments, I realised I wasn’t really listening to my body and I had to concentrate on my own wellbeing. I now realise how much those difficult times have taught me and continue to teach me, and, yet again, how much of my experience can be useful to other women too.

And your proudest moment so far?

I feel truly privileged to be able to do what I do, but one of my proudest moments so far definitely is my nomination as one of the 100 Female Entrepreneurs to Watch by The Telegraph and NatWest. It’s a huge honour and a culmination of passion, determination and strong core beliefs.

Why is work so important to you?

Our business was created from hundreds of conversations with real women: Keystone is not just an online platform and programme, but a community supporting women to design a working life that brings together personal vision and business mission, whilst prioritising – and this is where what we really strive for – good health and happiness. We are working to transform the working world for women and this is so important to me.

Who inspires you?

I am so inspired by the women who have come to Keystone.

Every cohort surprises me with how wonderful they are. I will never forget the first year when reading through all of the applications, and how blown away I was by them.

I cried and I felt overwhelmed. Paradoxically, most of the women are not feeling their best; they are looking for support and their confidence is low. Even then, or maybe especially then as they are open to change, their tenacity to go after their dreams, work on themselves and contribute to the world in the best way that they can is inspiring and drives my ambitions for how far we can take Keystone.

Find out more about Keystone Women.