She’s the unstoppable branding powerhouse who’s put her daughter on the global stage and helped transform the lives of hundreds of women through empowerment.
Yet Rhonda Swan’s life has been far from easy. The Yak sat down with her to talk success, growing up in a troubled family and dreaming of a better future for women.
Images: Ryerson Anselmo for Costes Portrait.
Rhonda, you’re known as a successful branding and marketing expert in Bali with a dream life … but it wasn’t always like this, was it. Tell us how you grew up.
I was born in Detroit, Michigan to a naive 19-year-old mom and an unreliable 20-year-old father who used me and my mom as decoys to steal and cover up his drug addiction and derelict ways. My turbulent childhood was peppered with moving houses, car accidents and jail visits.
Although today I attribute a large part of my drive to my chaotic upbringing, growing up I was plagued by a deep-rooted fear that I would turn out like my father unless I maintained absolute control over every area of my life.
I channeled my insecurities into becoming a gifted athlete so I could excel and get noticed. I got a full ride scholarship to college, played for the USA Women’s National Softball Team and competed as a bodybuilder. I was obsessed with staying in peak performance and controlling others’ perception of me.
From the outside I looked perfect, composed, and like I had it all together; but deep inside I was angry, scared, doubting myself, and struggling with an eating disorder for nearly 10 years. I yearned to feel supported and acknowledged by my parents and not have to be the “adult” making decisions all the time. It took years for me to break free from all the stories I was telling myself and realize that I was born into my circumstances for a reason: to help women struggling with self-worth step into their power.
When did you begin to realize there could be another way for you?
My first job post-MBA was at one of the largest Pharma corporations in the world, where I was responsible for over half a million dollars in advertising and sales campaigns each quarter. I thought it was a dream come true, until one Monday morning when a meeting with my boss Jane turned my life around.
Jane was the impeccably groomed top executive that I dreamed of becoming one day. We all know this woman: her hair and nails were always done, and her bag matched her shoes perfectly.
Ten minutes into the meeting, an employee tried to quietly enter through the back. “You’re LATE,” Jane startled us as she yelled across the room.
“I’m sorry Jane, but I just returned from maternity leave and had to drop my six-week-old baby off at daycare, it was a difficult morning.” The woman apologized, but Jane wanted nothing to do with it.
“If you want to keep your job, you’ll never be late again.”
Something inside me snapped – I realized that if I wanted to be a mother one day, I couldn’t have someone else raise my child just so I could fulfill my need for success.
That day, I made a vow to replace my income and never put my child in daycare.
Three months later, I’d left my six-figure corporate position with a vision to build a business. I maxed out every credit card and poured $24,700 into a direct sales company where I could license and sell personal development programs and build my brand along the way.
I thought this was my ticket out, but life took a different turn.
I went hard with my vision to create a new life that would allow me to work from home and raise a child. I called 3,000 leads in those first three months and never made a sale. I was devastated and started to second guess my decision to leave corporate. After experiencing so much success, I didn’t expect running my own company would be so difficult.
And then in the process of trying to make it all work we invested the last $125,000 left from my husband’s dad’s life insurance policy into property that we thought was going to change our whole family’s trajectory, instead it put us into deep bankruptcy.
We had built up massive wealth for my family and then we lost everything, and so we left America 12 years ago with $12,862 and 72 cents to our name and a vision to travel as a family.
In the end it became the biggest blessing we ever had because we wouldn’t be doing this and be here today in Bali if we hadn’t gone through that collision.
So is it safe to say your idea of what it means to be a success in life has changed drastically since giving up corporate life?
Certainly. In America you grow up with the idea of keeping up with the Joneses and trying to be like everyone else, and it doesn’t help. It doesn’t give you fulfillment, it doesn’t make someone love you any more, it doesn’t actually even make you feel better, it’s a hollow goal.
So I think that growing up in America everyone is just trying to battle and create something better for themselves, but in reality they are not connected to the source, they are not connected to themselves. They’re actually just connected to the things that they have.
You are mother to Hanalei, and you’ve coached and taught her from a very early age to be a success in business – why?
When I quit my job to make sure that I could raise Hanalei and be the primary influence in her life I set out with objectives as a parent and a mother to show her that she could make her own choices, that she could be sovereign. I wanted to show her how to take care of herself and to help others, how to navigate a capitalistic world – how to be creative, how to think on her feet, how to serve.
I taught her early on to be an entrepreneur because the trap that everyone is in right now in society is that people are waiting to see what the government will do for them, but sadly the government only does what’s good for the government and the people just have to take it. Entrepreneurs are among the most giving people on the planet because we learn how to make something out of nothing.
You have just come back from spending a week on your own in a beach bungalow in Bali. How was that and how has that changed the way you think about yourself and the mission you’ve been on?
The week away was quite eye opening. I went from living in a space where everything I do is seen and are measured by others to a place where it was only me, no phone, no people, no labels, no image … I got very connected to who I am as a person. This kind of isolation gives you the chance to look in the mirror and really love that person.
It was a very heart-connected moment for me to just sit with myself and Mother Nature, the creator, and give gratitude for everything that I have. We sometimes forget how supported we are as human beings – nature gives us everything we need.
After your experience alone, do you still think money and success are the most important things in life?
I actually never thought those were the most important things in life, however that may appear to people watching from outside. But certainly it reminded me that life is not about the money that we have when we die, it’s about the lives and the impacts that we can make to those around us.
Every step along my way that I have built wealth or success I have also given back, equally, and sometimes more than I ever made. At the Unstoppable Branding Agency we give away 8 to 12 percent of everything we earn to charities, to help to elevate other people’s lives, to build homes or schools and to educate and empower women. Money and success have never been the main focus, however to have money allows you to help others.
What do you have planned for 2021?
As a family our focus at the moment is really about planting roots. We’ve been in Bali now for five years, we are building a new home on the top of Uluwatu, we have a new foundation called the Royal Family Foundation that’s helping build sustainable homes in Bali and helping to create a water filtration system for people so they always have access to the fresh water.
I’m also working to inspire more women to take a stand, to know who they are and become sovereign, to help them get what they want out of life, not just in business but truly becoming fulfilled.
I’m launching a book in March called Design To Lead, The DNA of the Feminine Leader, really helping women step into their strength and into their self so they can become sovereign and share their voice, whatever level they are at.
What advice do you have for people who are struggling financially and emotionally at this point?
I would say stay connected to family, stay connected to community and focus on what it really is that you need. We are hunkering down, even though our family does quite well we are staying very focused, we are putting any assets we have into hard assets, like real estate and things that actually hold their value, as opposed to just a fiat currency.
But if you are emotionally down at this point I would say get really connected to yourself, your source. One of the things that I realized during my time alone recently was that I can control how I feel. What’s happening in the world right now is not your fault, you can’t control it, but you can make sure that it does not control you.
Rhonda, thanks for your time.