“I think everyone has the right to tell stories of the places they inhabit.”
Rebecca Fisher, co-founder of Beyond the Bell
Rebecca Fisher and Joey Leroux are the co-founders of Beyond the Bell, a company that has created a series of walking tours focused on highlighting the role that many traditionally marginalized communities have played in shaping Philadelphia’s history. Here they talk about overcoming self-doubt and sacrificing the safety and comfort of a more traditional lifestyle to pursue their joint passion.
What was your initial vision for Beyond the Bell?
JOEY: This is Rebecca’s baby. It started in college.
REBECCA: Yes, but Joey raised this child with me. This child could not read if I had raised it by myself. I was giving tours already in the city with another tour company that is great. And it was kind of like, “What would my perfect tour look like?” Because the tour I was giving included nobody but white men and it’s very standard in Philadelphia. It’s like, who’s more important: William Penn or Benjamin Franklin? And I’m just like plot twist: neither. I thought, “What are the stories I can’t not tell about the city?” And those became all of the central stories of the tours.
JOEY: Also, that question of what stories can’t I not tell is a question we grappled with a lot. What do you feel like you can’t not do? What’s the most urgent thing? I think this project was the most urgent thing for me. During our senior year when we were deciding whether to do this or not, the startup incubator at Haverford had just launched and they invited us to pitch them. They asked her, “Do you guys want to do this?” And I was like, “We can’t not do that. This is what we have to do, ultimately.”
REBECCA: We both had other options of things we could do, but none of them were like, this is the only thing I want to do for the next two years of my life. To me, it was like a gift to Philadelphia, to be like, these are amazing people who walked these streets and I’m so inspired by that. I hope you are, too. I wrote my thesis about pilgrimages. I became very intrigued with the idea that people in the medieval ages traveling were probably going to die. But people all traveled because of their desire to connect with something bigger than themselves, to the divine. And that is so amazing, that people were leaving home, breaking routines, and pushing themselves to connect with something bigger than them. I think people still travel to do that. I think that’s at the heart of travel and tourism.
What drew you to that vision personally?
REBECCA: I just felt like some of the people I was learning about were the most interesting people in American history, and were nowhere to be found physically in Philadelphia. It’s the same in every city. It’s not like Philadelphia is different. In fact, Philadelphia has, in terms of plaques and statues, more representation than many. It’s just depressing what that looks like. What does that mean in a city like Philadelphia with women’s history that is so rich? Philadelphia represents so much of American history. I just kept learning about these people who deserved celebrity and attention and felt that anything that could be done to tell people about these women was worth it.
JOEY: For me, as you think about the identity of a city as the stories that are being told by people who are leading cultural institutions and companies, like tour guides, the stories that are being represented by those people matter. Like, someone who comes and takes one tour and then leaves Philadelphia walks away with one image of the city. Obviously that’s never going to be a perfect image. It’s always going to be exclusive. But that’s one thing that feels personally like a motivation, is just offering people the possibility of seeing a different version of the city.
Did you have any fears about becoming an entrepreneur?
REBECCA: Yes! We went to Haverford and a lot of people from Haverford—and many other elite, liberal arts colleges—go on and go to med school, go to business school, go to law school, get PhD’s, or become consultants: all sorts of very clear paths. I feel like Joey is the only person I know who, from that, was like, “We’re going to do something else.” That’s horrifying, because it’s not validating. There’s not a normal structure. Sometimes I’m just like, “Wow, I wish I had a normal job with a boss who gave me five tasks in a day and I did it and I went home and I slept well.” Instead of two in the morning wondering if anyone will go on my tour one day.
JOEY: One of our mantras is process over product. I think that’s really helped me, to hold that with me amidst these fears that I have about the future, where I’m like, “Oh, I don’t see a tangible goal right now.” Or, “How many tours are we going to give in 2019? How are we going to reach these goals?” I just have to sit with that fear. The work that we’re doing is important and fulfilling and meaningful, and I love Rebecca. All of these things help me to get up every day and sleep well enough at night before I’m woken up by anxiety. [Laughs]
What has been your greatest struggle in founding Beyond the Bell?
REBECCA: Self-doubt. Like, why am I giving a tour of Philadelphia? Who am I to do this? How dare I? There has to be somebody better than me. I feel like a baby. I go into meetings and I’m like a child. But I was like no one else is doing this. Somebody has to.
JOEY: I definitely have that. I’m from Maine. People are always like, “So you’re from Philly?” And I’m like, “No, I’m from Maine.” And they’re like, “Who do you think you are?” And I’m like, “Oh, but I’m queer and it’s fine.” [Laughs] I think the other challenge for me is, I’m a first-born. In this, as much as I have a personal relationship with Beyond the Bell and what we’re doing, I’m very much supporting Rebecca as well. I’m very invested, but I’m number two and that’s been a really hard shift for me to make because I just was the oldest, so everyone listened to me. But it’s also been huge growth. It’s pushed me a lot to think about what it means to support someone.
REBECCA: That’s the other thing: Lots of people have ideas of who gets to be tour guides. I think everyone has the right to tell stories of the places they inhabit. I think it’s a problem when we say, “You have to have a certain degree or a certain type of background.” People have different ideas of who gets to do this kind of work. It’s not that I disagree with that, but that can be an added barrier of self-doubt, like, “Oh, they’re right. I don’t have a history degree. They’re right, I’ve never been in an archive.”
“That’s one thing that feels personally like a motivation, is just offering people the possibility of seeing a different version of the city.”
Joey Leroux, co-founder of Beyond the Bell
What has been the greatest triumph in your founder’s journey so far?
REBECCA: Just like the number of people who have gone on tours. In our first year, we gave over 100 tours to over 500 people. I was pretty satisfied if one person came on one tour, because I wasn’t sure anyone would ever come on any tour. But even just at the end of tours when people are like, “This was amazing. Thank you for sharing these stories. I’m so excited that I went home and I looked up more about this person. I read a book about this person. I’m never going to look at Philadelphia the same.” That is really important.
JOEY: The moments where I feel like I’m really giving this tour. It’s coming from me. It feels very authentic. It’s resonating. Like I gave the women’s history tour to this group of education professors, and they were like, “This is our shit.” They were asking really interesting questions. They were really engaged. And then the next tour I gave was the women’s history tour and I had this archivist—who I won’t name—who came and was immediately critical. On the first stop, he was like, “Oh, I don’t think these people would like this perspective you’re sharing.” That was a low point for me, to be like, “Wow, this person who really cares about this history is really upset by something that I’m saying.” This is the part of me that resonates most with being an entrepreneur, is the fact that there will always be both highs and lows because it’s putting yourself into your work so you always take it personally. Even though I fact-checked that perspective that I was sharing and was very confident that this is what perspective I want to be sharing, I did include more after than experience because it definitely affected me for the better, made the product better. I think those critiques are important to think about, and then also move on.
What has been your biggest personal sacrifice?
REBECCA: Mental stability, sense of balance, predictability in lifestyle, schedule, freedom. Like many people in the world go to work at 9 o’clock in the morning, and then at 5 p.m. they go home. But if someone calls me on a Saturday and is like, “I want to go on a tour in 20 minutes,” I don’t say no. Feeling like my time is not my own is the biggest sacrifice.
JOEY: You do an internship every summer at college and you choose it and you think about who is in a position you’d want to be in in the future, right? So you go and basically get mentored for 10 weeks. Then you come back and you have new questions to delve into and now we don’t have that. So that was the sacrifice for me, thinking about who’s guiding me. Who’s my mentor? It’s Rebecca, by the way. We have to push each other, essentially.
Did anyone in your life try to dissuade you from becoming an entrepreneur?
REBECCA: My friends, family, and acquaintances. [Laughs] Just kidding, my parents have been super supportive. They’re just so excited that I’m not in jail. They’ve always been very supportive of me no matter what. I think just our peers. I think not having a normal job is hard. It doesn’t feel like people are doing the same thing as you. I think having a nontraditional life sometimes feels like a challenge to a nontraditional life. I think people finding that alienating and, sort of, “Why are you doing that?”
JOEY: It’s similar to how I feel when I go out with my consultant friends, and I’m like, you’re talking about buying an apartment in Rittenhouse Square and I am talking about how I’m going to get people to go on tours next week. They’re totally different things that we’re thinking about. My friends feel threatened and I feel threatened by them. I get anxious in those situations.
REBECCA: Maybe one time, when I was complaining about my quality of life, I feel like my mom was like, “Maybe you just can’t handle it.” And I was like, you’re right, but you can’t say that to me. [Laughs] I’m in too deep. There’s nothing else to do except keep going and never look back.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
REBECCA: Action over inaction always. I sat on the women’s history tour for so long and was like, I don’t know if it’s ready yet. Then a reporter forced me to give it to her so she could write an article about it, and I was like, this tour doesn’t even exist yet. And then everyone booked it. I was like, no! [Laughs] But it definitely forced me to let it out into the world and then iterate from there. Don’t be afraid of creating a mediocre product because you will get better so fast. The more time you spend outside doing the work, the better. If you have an idea, whatever your lowest entry point of trying it, that’s what you should do.
JOEY: Don’t get in the way of the work. Go with the energy, whatever is driving you. I think trusting that is really hard to do when you want the company to be one thing, like have a cohesive identity, but then you have all these random ideas of things to test. I think you just have to do them when you have the idea. There’s a myth that you think about a lot of ideas, and then eventually the one that’s most important becomes clear. I feel like that’s not true. You have an idea, and in that moment you have to do it or it doesn’t happen. And when it doesn’t happen, I think you have to recognize that, if it’s yourself holding yourself back because you’re afraid of how it will be received, then you have to just make a decision about how you’re going to deal with that emotion, whether you’re going to push through it and do it anyway or table it and let someone else do it. The other thing is, with entrepreneurship, you have to use your entire support system. There’s no such thing as someone doing it alone. No one does that and makes it work. Use everyone in your life, not as props but as support.
This interview has been lightly edited from an in-person conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.