Written by Elisabeth Carroll
The first thing you notice about Justin Foster is his kindness. It isn’t meek or people pleasing or subtle. His goodness is bold, open, and a bit wild, capped off by acute opinions and raw belief in the potential of people.
“It doesn’t matter that you’re the smartest person in the room anymore. It matters that you’re the kindest person in the room,” he says, before smiling as he shrugs.
If the first thing you notice is his kindness, a close second is surely Foster’s brain. It’s fast and sharp, seemingly never idle. In his speeches, he weaves provocative, often poetic, observations about self-acceptance and compassion easily into conversations you thought were about ineffective marketing moves and social media. “We are in the age of the human,” he says. “I believe in the power of brands both in people and in organizations to create beautiful, meaningful things. This is a terrible era to be boring and mean. It also means that if you’re the best kept secret, you probably just suck at marketing.”
You’re listening and laughing before you realize you’re thinking––hard––in an exciting new way. “I reframe thinking,” Foster says. “When I’m done, I want people to say, ‘I’ve never thought about that before.’”
For more than a decade, Fortune 1000 corporations and self-aware entrepreneurs have turned to Foster for a new way to think––and be. The 45-year-old husband and father of two sons has thrived as a branding and social strategist, speaker, coach, consultant, and author, all under his Foster Thinkingpractice. His two books, Oatmeal v. Bacon: How to Differentiate in a Generic Worldand Human Bacon: A Man’s Guide to Creating an Awesome Personal Brand, introduced and unpacked his original concept: the world’s most interesting brands and people honestly embrace their unique, inherent allure and become irresistible––like bacon. Along with partner Emily Soccorsy, he is launching Root + River, a new hive of comprehensive branding expertise, rooted in organizing brands around their belief systems.
Foster is in dizzying demand as both a coach and a speaker. And the rush can be traced back to his willingness to dig deep, and then jump.
Foster grew up on a 60,000-acre cattle ranch in Baker City, Oregon, a small town in the eastern half of the state. “I can’t smell wet sage brush and leather, a horse, or diesel smoke on a cold morning and not think of the ranch,” he says. But just as his kindness is a study in unorthodox chemistry, his past is a testament to how often harshness and beauty insist on existing side by side.
“The ranch was great. It was my saving grace from my less-than-ideal home life,” Foster says. Then, his darkened countenance returns to its characteristic brightness as he begins to describe his grandparents. “I feel my grandparents in my blood,” he says. “My grandfather was the man John Wayne was pretending to be. My grandmother was kind but fierce, beautiful and angelic. That really shaped me and made me who I am today.”
When Foster was 17, his family packed up and moved to Portland, Oregon. While working a day job, he tried Toast Masters, and made a life-altering discovery: the shy country kid was actually a charismatic public speaker destined for big stages. “It was like finding out you could sing,” he says. “Maybe you’d sung in the shower and then, you walk into a recording studio, and this producer is like, ‘Wow, that was awesome!’”
In Portland, he met Lynna, and the two fell fast and married young. In 1995, the pair and their first son moved to Boise, Idaho. “We had this faded Chevy Cavalier station wagon. All the paint had worn off, so it was primer colored. We called it the primer wagon.” He smiles as he offers the telling snapshot.
Foster held various jobs during those early years in Boise. He sold ink ribbons for cash registers and computer systems in the early heyday of the Internet. He vividly remembers the first commission check that allowed him to fill the primer wagon with groceries instead of “trying to make spaghetti last for four days.” He also began to develop his gift for speaking. His first “speaking gigs” were sales presentations to feed his young family.
Communicating and connecting became Foster’s passion, and he began to uncover and embrace what set him apart as a speaker. “I realized that I can do three things better than anybody I know. Number one, I can read the room and adjust my content to it. Number two, I never use notes and can speak completely off the cuff. Number three, I can articulate ideas for people that they find both inspiring and actionable at the same time.”
In 2003, Foster became self-employed, and his speaking career launched in earnest. “I said yes to everything. I spoke at the most obscure associations and groups,” he remembers. “I spoke about what I speak about to this day: preparing for tomorrow and trends. And how those trends relate to branding, leadership, and self-improvement. I’ve never billed myself as a motivational speaker,” he adds. “Sometimes I say if you’re motivated, then great––that was free. But I’m here to make you think and behave differently.”
Foster has given speeches in almost every state and four countries. He has conducted a workshop on customer evangelism in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and taken the stage at the Verizon Future of Marketing Conference––the latter on three hours of sleep, two Red Bulls, and a dose of Advil, demanded after a whirlwind schedule. “And I crushed it,” he says, grinning.
Foster spent a total of 20 years in Idaho, building a strong reputation before moving to Austin, Texas, in 2014. “In the last couple of years, I’ve changed,” he says. “I was speaking to the mind, hoping that it trickled into the heart. Now I speak to hearts, then minds, then hands. I’m able to get people to feel different, think different, and do different, all in the same speech, not through manipulation, but through the transfer of an idea.”
Why the change? A couple of years ago, Foster was asked to deliver a commencement address for a university. The graduates were mostly older, mostly blue collar, and all working toward a better life. On the big day, the event’s organizer asked Foster for his alma mater so that he could wear its colors on stage. “I said, ‘I didn’t graduate,’” he says, eyes wide. “I was terrified. I asked, ‘Can I still speak?’ She said, ‘Yes! That’s even better!’”
As he was sitting on stage, relieved and accepted, the air thick with cries of I love you, Mom! shouted at the graduates, Foster noticed a trend. “Every one of them had new shoes on,” he says. He tears up, his voice cracking. “And it broke my heart. These were not 22-year-olds graduating from Harvard. These were working-class people. These were my people.
“I had been ashamed of being those people. But here they were, and they’d bought new shoes for graduation. And it just broke me. I totally changed my speech on the spot, to talk about hope––about what they represented. I talked about a yes/no moment, and opting in versus opting out. And from that point forward, I decided that I was no longer going to be ashamed.”
Today, all of Foster’s speeches focus on helping people understand and connect to self worth. “Whether that’s in business and through a brand, or through leadership, culture, or social––whatever we’re talking about, it’s all to get you to value who you are as a human being,” he says. He never delivers the same talk twice. “I do come with a warning label,” Foster says. “One, I’m going to tell the truth. Two, I’m going to agitate people. Three, I’m going to make whoever hired me to speak look good.” He demystifies, connects, and empowers. And in the end, listeners feel accepted and uncomfortable, at peace and utterly restless, all at once. “I clearly understand how to make the audience feel like my message is very personal and very applicable to each person in the room, regardless of their status or stage of life,” he says.
A devout believer in sovereignty, Foster considers himself an independent artist. He does not belong to any speaking associations, hand picks all of his speaking engagements, and negotiates directly with event organizers. He notes that many professional speakers tend to be detached from the realities of everyday business and life. “I am not an actor. I am an entrepreneur,” Foster says. “The stories I have to tell and the ideas I have to share are from my life and the thousands of people I’ve met around the country.”
Foster’s mission to speak in front of receptive audiences has never been more urgent. He explains intrepidly, his soul on fire: “To this day, despite all of the automation and digital and everything else, a well-delivered speech changes the world.”
About.Me page: https://about.me/fosterthinking
Download a PDF booklet of my story here: bit.ly/1POZA5A