Ivana: Hi, Wayne. Good morning. Welcome to the Community Revolution Podcast.
Wayne: Hi Ivana, thanks for having me.
Ivana: Very nice to chat to you today. So to start with, I was hoping to ask you, what does community mean to you?
Wayne: Wow, that's a deep question these days. Community means to me a sense of togetherness, a sense of not being alone, a sense of feeling safe. You know, we think about family and we hear the word community. But Im also thinking in terms of communication and dialogue, it's not one way, it's multiple people sharing and giving and helping and supporting one another.
Ivana: Wayne, you have such a fascinating and diverse background. I was hoping that for the people that don't know you, you can share a little bit about who you are.
Wayne: My current role is, I'm community lead at a company called Observable. It’s a destination for creators to build data visualizations. Prior to Observable, I spent around eight years working on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in tech. I co-founded a company called Change Catalyst with my wife Melinda Briana Epler and we launched a conference called Tech Inclusion. We went across the world focusing on entrepreneurship, venture capital, culture, workplace culture, hiring. What story is being told around creating diverse and inclusive ecosystems. We did start doing consulting work with numerous tech companies in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. Also during that time frame, I saw the need to create a community for black men in tech to focus on professional development, wellness and, mental health. And I started a nonprofit called the Icon Project. We did Virtual Summits with the in person summit before the Pandemic, hada nonprofit fund that focused on people who need therapy or mental services and may not be able to afford it. People can apply for that and have a side community with over a thousand black and brown men and tech to support one another. Prior to Change Catalyst. Also, I’m a nerd, geek, an entrepreneur. I was one of the co-founders of the very first incubator and accelerator in 2011 that was focused on underrepresented founders. That was really before the public and people were, let's say loud. But people were willing to talk about diversity, inclusion or lack of in tech back in 2011-12. That's when the tech industry was still proud of itself, of the meritocracy, which we know was not true. And pattern matching, that still exists today, was the theme of success. And I quickly learned in 2011 and 2012 that the tech industry was not ready to talk about diversity and inclusion on that. So I did my share of creating hackathons, partnering with friends, joining a startup, raise an angle, lose an angel - that whole nine in Silicon Valley between 2012 and 2014. Like I said, I'm a nerd, I'm a geek, and love tech and love bringing people together.
Ivana: What I really love about your history is that you've done so many different things and everything is centered around diversity, inclusion, empowering people and building empowering technologies. So I really look forward to having this conversation with you. round communities. So as you said, you've done a lot of different things and you've been in the space of communities in different ways and forms for about 15 years. So I would love to understand, how do you see the space of community and how have you seen communities evolve and change throughout these past 15 years?
Wayne: Wow. It's interesting, because a lot of activities around communities have stayed the same. The platforms have evolved and we as humans have evolved in the past 15 years. Right? We think about communities early on, online, it was communities around forums. We think about reddit early on. Forms like platform has evolved. You find a common interest was TV show, video game technology, trying to learn the code. There was always forms or something, a listserve. People were building communities there. I've been around the block for a while. I remember when it was not okay to meet in person or people were afraid of meeting in person. You can have this big community, thousands of people caring about technology, a certain topic, and it's all “we're going to meet in person, should we meet people on the Internet in person”. That was a thing back in the day, right? And then it evolved too. You think about people. The team that started Bar Camps back in the day, then we started doing Ignite Talks and then we had the south by southwest continue to grow as a conference, Ted Talks, and the world start emerging. So then we start really seeing the emergence of online and offline communities developing. So the offline relationships will start impacting and growing he online communities and the online communities started involving and impacting the offline relationships and then different communities will spin out. Then we start seeing the route of social media with Twitter. And I used to host a lot of tweet ups in North Carolina back in the day. This is 2008, 2009, 2010 time frame. And it was a thing because like, oh, I'm going to meet people who I follow on Twitter. Is that okay? But a lot of relationships built and community building came out of that. And so, if you get to today, a lot of stuff is still the same around the outcomes of community, right? Relationship building, you support one another, help people find jobs, helping people learn new skills, help people not feel alone. Common interest, whether it's a certain program language or it's helping them learn a new skill or just hobbies. The tools and technologies evolve, is better, right? We can record a podcast and join the same community around everything you do, right? The community revolution. You could have your own server where people can chat, server from back in the day, same thing still exists. Things move much faster now than it did 15 years ago. People now make careers out of teaching other people how to build community, right? There's more opportunities in community building. You could be an analyst and write a whole book about community building or create a blog or a newsletter around community building where before that wasn't a thing. You maybe had one or two people who talk about it, but now anyone can jump in and say, you know what I'm learning? I'm going to start a podcast, start a book, start to write a book, write and do a newsletter on community building. So a lot of things move faster these days and people learn faster today. We're in an instant in time where we look at people spinning up Mastodon servers as clear guidelines. These are the rules, which is the outcome of what we see happening on Twitter and some other platforms where people want to be a part of communities where they feel safe and whereas could guideline to their values. A lot of that should have happened 15 years ago, but it didn’t.
Ivana: 100%. I think it also comes by the fact that we are more connected than ever. And I think being so connected, it also comes with consequences by us continuously talking with different people, continuously being bombarded by facts and conversations and we are becoming, of course more sensitive to the people that we're interacting to, what we are hearing and so on and so forth. I was researching something, some health problem that I have and the first thought on my mind was I need to find a community for this. There must be other people that are going through the same struggle as me. And yesterday I spent so much time going through all these different communities and I was just trying to find what are the communities that are similar to me in values? And I was actually looking at criteria like which of these communities are moderated, are there medical professionals inside? And in the past, of course, I would go online and check information, but I wouldn't go as detailed as I do today because the expectations is just there. I also work in communities, so maybe I'm a bit more detailed than others, but yeah interesting, thank you for sharing. So how has your experience, let's say, of doing all these things led you to become a community leader, observable and working as a community lead at a company?
Ivana: That's amazing. And for people who are not familiar with Observable, can you please share what is Observable and who is part of your community?
Ivana: So in the previous answer you mentioned that something that really drew you to Observable is that it's really community and collaboration centric. And the mission of building communities is not always building another social network, as you mentioned. It is also helping people collaborate and connect over their passions. And in your case, that's data visualizations. So Observable has the largest library of data visualizations anywhere, if I'm not mistaken, and they're all provided by your community. And what is really fascinating is that not only people are sharing their data, but they do it so that others can build on top of it. And often they collaborate with others to get a better understanding. So can you please talk a bit about how you build a platform that is collaboration and community centric?
Wayne: Building a platform that is collaborative and community centric. I think about the one word, that's empathy. And with that, you build it empathetic to the community needs. A lot of listening. It sounds cliche, but listening to surveys, understanding the community needs. The CEO and user success team, they do a lot of customer journey tours where they talk with customers, understand what their needs are, what's not in the platform that they would need to do their job better. Right? Then you take that back to the team and develop a community, the developers of the team and try to build it in. And then from my perspective for the community is, okay, think about how people learn. People learn through examples, people learn through conversations, people learn through show and tell. So how do I surface members of the community who have created awesome data visualizations, or either at different stages of their learning journey who will create on the platform, and share their stories. And then also we have an ambassador program. So how do we leverage our ambassadors to be advocates out in the community, to evangelize about the product, to increase word of mouth, to bring in different people from all stages, from beginners to immediate, to advanced developers understanding that, hey, this is a platform that has a barrier of entry. You can do everything in the browser, you can collaborate, you can create dashboards, you can build some very detailed data visualizations. And it's not hard. And now with the ambassadors being advocates and being out in the community and other communities that we need to reach, again goes back to empathy.
Ivana: I really have a big respect and admiration for building with empathy because I see a lot of people building products and being very disconnected with the people that they're building the products for. So building with empathy really allows anyone to build products that are meaningful and they can actually add value to people, which is, at the end of the day, what we all should be doing. I actually met you, Wayne, at one of your meetups in San Francisco that happened right after the Observable Insights Community conference, if I'm not mistaken. And what I was really impressed by is that at that meetup, I also met some of your engineers and some of the people from your product team. And I spoke to them and they spoke with so much passion about the product that they're building. And they shared with me stories of how they attended these conferences and they spoke to users. And for me this was really fascinating because it was really a proof that you're not really building your community by having a community department and doing some initiative. But community is really part of everything you do and all the teams are involved in it. And I find that very fascinating. Can you also please share how do you work together with all the different departments in Observable to build all of these initiatives and to build relationship with your users?
Wayne: Yeah, I would say that is an evolving process. Right. We are remote first company and we use Slack internally like many companies. But it's also evolving, right? You have a company that started right before the Pandemic and then we have an office now, like you mentioned, but it was going to all be in person and then evolved. We were being remote. So a lot of sharing. We do stand ups. There are different projects that are cross team projects. We have to overcommunicate, try to collaborate as much as possible. Collaboration is part of one of our values. So we need to be collaborative internally. So, for example, I think about the conference, that was a team effort. Myself and the team, community team led the charge. But being a developer for this platform and everybody at the company is not a developer, so we need support. We need an engineering team to be there to help answer questions, provide any technical support. We have a great design team that really try to design with empty in mind as well and be creative and fun. And so when we're looking for design resources, we have a use assess team and product education team, and we all need to share and collaborate on, okay, this is what we build in. But does the community know about it? And we shared it one time. How can we keep reminding the community about this feature if it's something that we know that we heard that they wanted, but everybody might not know that we have it or remember that we have it? It's a constant communication and a constant struggle, but it is a constant evolving process that I'm sure all companies can do better, but we continue to work on.
Ivana: Fantastic. And Wayne, what are your measures of success as a community lead, or what are the goals that you try to achieve with your efforts?
Wayne: Oh, wow, that's another great question and an evolving question. I feel like if there was a question of the year for a community, how do you measure, how do you measure impact? What's your ROI of community? And this is evolving with me in the company in the past couple of weeks. So bear with me on this one. I think about measure success for community. I try not to think about how many people just attend a meet up, or how the number of ambassadors increase, or the hard numbers, just in terms of a metric of success of community. With community building, you can measure numbers like you grew the site community from zero to 300 in a month. You have organized ten meetups and you have, for example, and out of ten meetups a year, you have had average of 50 people attending to 500 people a year, right? And out of 500, you can measure, say, ten of those people became ambassadors. You can do measures of tests around community, around that. I like to think that short term insightful data to have around community building, the community, but to me, community is the long term impact, right? Say 500 people may attend your meetups throughout the year, but it may be six months or a year before someone who may attend that meet up is now a paying customer. And yes, you can track that over time. You have your sales team, you see our place, you look buddy, oh yeah, that person did this meet up six months ago, right? Or that person may have learned a new skill and now is creating more notebooks and helping other people in the form of Slack. And they're never going to be an ambassador that's impactful because that is and they posted a form in Slack. And now that person now has helped educate 20 other people 30 other people. Right. You can point to the first interaction that that person that you have with an individual where they tunnel me up, but it's been successful. So, in short, the most successful for me is, are you creating engagement as helping people learn? Are you creating engagement as helping people collaborate, create engagement that is helping inspire people, and if you're doing that, your community is going to grow by default.
Ivana: I totally agree with you that how do you measure success is the question of community building companies this year? Everyone is talking about it, and I constantly have this conversation with companies that I work with. And what I always tell them is that community is a long term investment. And if you're only looking at short term ROI, then you're doing it wrong. Wayne, your community is made up of data, practitioners, developers, analysts. So these are people that are traditionally used to working in silos and maybe not traditionally collaborate with a lot of people. Right. How do you build a community with a group of people that are historically used to work in silos?
Wayne: Being an introvert and nerd myself, I get it when you just want to go to a coffee shop and just sit by the computer and not interact with anyone and just code, right? I get it when you just want, it's like reading a book. It's just you and the book. It's you and the story. When you're a developer or even a designer, you're just trying to solve the problem. You're trying to add on to the code and see how the code connects to the rest of whatever. You build it and trying to solve that problem, I'll just learn what I need to write to continue on to the story. Right. It's like being an author, right? It can't be a silo, not lonely, but individual thing until you get ready to push the code to GitHub and collaborate and so on, look at your code and do a review and so forth, but then get that interaction. So to me, it's being mindful of that, right. And we're at Observable are being mindful that, okay, individuals may want that same experience in the browser. Some are already doing it that have that same experience in the browser, or just coding in the browser, not in the IDE app. But no matter if you're designing something, you're writing a book, you're building a website, you create a digitalization you writing code, at some point, you're going to need help, or you're going to do research. You're going to have to look something up. And those things what we try to keep in mind with Zorba.is we have the forum, so, okay, you may get stuck or you need help asking the form. Right? We have a Slack community, need help asking the Slack committee. We have support, need help, ask support. Someone to look at your code and collaborate on it. Or you may have a bug and someone may catch it and they may fork it and submit to you, hey, here's a bug or area code. Let me fork this so I can show you where your area is at and you can add it back to your code. And so, keeping that in mind with the platform and with other areas of Observable that's not on the platform. So individuals can continue to work how they normally work, like heads down, creating data, vision, coding and browser.
Ivana: Right. So basically, it comes down to building spaces and experiences to serve the people that are using the platform so that they can keep doing what they do best in the way they do best.
Ivana: And you also have such a wonderfully diverse and creative community. I was looking at different notebooks right. Or spaces that you guys have on the Observable platform. And I found so many that I found interesting. And what is really interesting is also that they all have different diverse skill sets, backgrounds and goals. And leading this type of community is really fitting for you, as you're also a leading voice and catalyst in diversity and inclusion, as you mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, and also, as you mentioned, the co-founder of Change Catalyst and all the tech inclusion programs focused also on building inclusive tech ecosystems. In line with this, what are some advice that you would give to companies and communities, both when it comes to building diverse and inclusive ecosystems and communities?
Wayne: Yes. What is saying historically has been you can't be what you don't see. Right. And so I think about diverse inclusive ecosystems, you really should have representation if you want to build a community of diverse developers or community of whatever, the representation should be there at some point. Often, if the representation is like the face of it, does it have to be? But let's say if you're trying to build a community of Lego builders, right? But the person leading the charge is not a Lego builder. They like Legos, but they're not aged and not like a hardcore Lego builder. All right, you may have someone who's their first passion is sports and they want to build Lego, but they're leadingLego. So what should you do if that's the case? You work at a company and you want to build a diverse community of Lego builders. But this person, they like sports, then the individual should go out and collaborate, partner, work with a diverse community of Lego builders, maybe hire some, maybe give some, maybe establish some partnerships, invite them to speak credit advisory committee, who are diverse Lego builders. Then that person who may be in the sports, but they're leading the charge of the Lego building community. They are now more experienced. They have now this team they're working with. They collaborate, they understand the problems, more than the community Lego builders. Then they go out and can do the work, right? And so I think it may be a cheap example, but from a parable standpoint, that's something that people should do, but also they should listen to what the community of Lego builders want and need, right? Often we see people reach out to underrepresented people or black communities and it's like, oh, well, we care about you support, we try to solve your problem, we try to hire more unrepresented talent or black people intact. Okay, well, have you talked to your black employees? Have you talked to your disabled employees? I'm not sure if we put the same disabled apologies, but have you talked to your women employees trying to build more women leaders? Have you talked to your leaders, women employees at the team? And so it's a lot of listening, a lot of empathy, a lot of collaboration. There's no one thing that you can do to solve all your problems with building diverse and inclusion ecosystem. A lot of people in tech, especially, I've seen over the years, that they want one solution. They want like, hey, give me the blueprint, give me the outline to help make my company more inclusive, right? And so it's a lot, it's not a single one thing, but it's a lot that starts with empathy, understanding, and also how we talk about communities in the beginning of the podcast around guidelines and so forth, there needs to be clear cut guidelines. Policies start with leadership, HR, and people working on culture collectively clear guidelines as to what the company is going to be, what's going to stand for, what's allowed and what's not allowed for everybody
Ivana: For sure. And, you know, like, there is definitely no blueprint, as you mentioned, to creating a diverse and inclusive environment. But yes, empathy, listening, having very clear guidelines and enforcing those as well is very important, but it's not always easy. And as someone who leads communities, I also sometimes find it very challenging, because I deeply care about the people in our community and I care about their experience. I empathize with their problems as well. I empathize with their passions and I care for them. And sometimes it can be very draining on my mental health as well. And also, you're always constantly focused on building relationship and empathizing and talking with others. You yourself are a founder of the Icon Project. So you've been addressing mental health and professional development needs for black and brown men in tech and you openly discuss about your own mental health journey on your blog and on social media. And I really wanted to ask your view on first, what is the correlation of communities, let's say, and mental health? And second, how can people leading communities make sure that they build while also protecting their mental health?
Wayne: Yeah, great question. It's something that's not discussed enough. And the why is because there is this stigma still going into 2023, this stigma still on talking about mental health and as being something that everyone's not okay to do and that people look down on. People judge. We look at how people celebrate people who made it, people who look like they have a hyper successful and they just overcame all the challenges, mental health, financially, whatever. They just made it. That's what we celebrate. We don't celebrate the people who say I'm hurting, I need help, or I want someone to talk to, or I need a break right now because I'm dealing with life. Or we don't really celebrate or talk about or make it normal for people who may be just let's say this is not all mental health, but this is still human behavior and things we deal with, we can talk about this hypersensitive deals with OCD, ADHD. We kind of shy away from that a little bit because it could make other people feel uncomfortable because it's not a normal conversation. We talk about things like that when it's kids and we give them medicine often, right? Say, hey, take this, go deal with it, you'd be okay. That's not often the case. So or childhood trauma, for example. We don't talk about trauma, how it affects, how it shows up. And then in the workplace we have, especially in tech, we always put the narrative we have always shared a narrative about people working in the garage, staying up all night. You love the company, you're going to work hard, you're going to give it all and celebrate the people who have made this fake sacrifice or real sacrifice of giving up everything and not taking her to bodies and mine and just working all day. And then they went on to do something amazing and made a lot of money and whatever, but that comes at a cost, right? And so you take those two value, those two kind of cultures, so to speak, of people who are in need of taking care of mental health and well being and people who won't demand of individuals in the workplace or managing a community, for example. They going to bump heads, and they have been bumping heads, and people have been hurting, and people have died because of it. Because of the demand of we put individuals to have some sort of perceived success for working all day, all night, or what they have other individuals overcome because they didn't have to deal with these things. Or they may just dealt with them in a different way. Drugs, alcohol abuse, taking their trauma, projecting on others, hurting others, creating a cycle of pain. People have dealt with it in their own way. It may not have been helpful as well. So in community, we have to pause and really check in on people and think about human first versus thinking about just what we trying to get out of people. And I think that's where the coalition was like, okay, are you checking the community, how you're doing? Or are you just saying, hey, buy this, share this, sell this to individuals. And as a community builder, that can be very as a community builder and maybe as an extrovert depends on who you are. Even at some point as an extrovert, you got to take a pause and refill your cup, so to speak. It can be very difficult as a community builder because community building often where there's that mass of hey, meetups event social media collaboration, join this, connect people. Often you connect people or you build relationships. You can take on other people's energy or what they're going through in that moment and that's going to impact you in different ways. Even though you and your pocket take all the individuals interviewed, those conversations impact your behavior and your mindset and what you learn, and you have to take time to take care of yourself. But being a community builder and mental health, taking care of mental health should be a hand to hand dialogue.
Ivana: I really agree with you and I really think that this is a topic that people should talk about more, especially because nowadays we live in this world where there is an epidemic of loneliness and depression and there are so many people dealing with all these issues. And needless to say, even if we live in a world that is more connected than ever, people are so isolated and so lonely and they're going through so many things. And it's really important, as you said, to build communities with mindfulness in mind, with putting the people first and the people experience first, both for the people that we're building the communities for and for ourselves. Because at the end of the day, you can't take care of people if you don't take care of yourself.
So Wayne, how do you create your own community for yourself to help you with your own mental health and career as well?
Wayne: Yeah, over the years I've started various communities for companies or from organizations and then I say, around 2017, really started developing my own community. For me, the first one was a Slack community for black and brown men in tech. It grew out of being in San Francisco to Silicon Valley. Historically, there has not been a lot of black people in tech. Black men. I know I was the only one that was struggling with mental health at the time and wanted just to collaborate more and see more and create opportunities for others to connect as well. So started a Slack community and that was huge for me in 2017 just to see just to know that was not alone. Right. You know, start you running your own company back then and doing work in D & I, and it felt like, you know, you talked to several companies and you see or you go walking to a startup or a company in San Francisco, Silicon Valley may see one black person like, okay, hey, how are you doing? That's how I did it back in the day and then around I think the same time a little bit later when things change in American politics. I stopped using Twitter and other platforms with some of my close friends and we created a single group and those are like my family. My family is five of us and we share everything, we talk about life, talk about world and it's our safe place. We can share with feeling have a bad day,there's no judgment. And so that Slack group has changed my life and where Ivent about work or life or the world, things that I can't control but I just want to outlet. So do things like I said in the beginning, connect to your hobbies, connect to your past and connect what you love and correct your learning skill development.
Ivana: This really inspires me because oftentimes when we talk about communities, we also forget that the communities that are the dearest to us and that we are the most involved in, most often the communities with our friends, with our family, with the small circles.
Community is everywhere nowadays. And I feel like I'm seeing that word all the time and companies of all sorts are building them. You shared a lot of different advice throughout this podcast, but if you can single out one thing, what advice would you give to companies who are starting to build their own community?
Wayne: Start small and listen. If I dive in more than that is if you're a company that is building top of mind. I think about where Twitter is shut down the newsletter platform, right? And I saw on Twitter that another company has a similar tool and they're like, hey everybody, import your newsletter to our platform, you don't have to wait until join the product. Like right now it's a closed beta, right? So I think about that and I'm like okay, off the bat, if people see that they're going to have an early adopted community. If people import their newsletter from Twitter's newsletter to their platform, off the bat they're going to have these early adopters and these group of individuals who have to change their workflow from how they used to do things to this new platform. That group is your early adoption community and it's your transition community and you may have to do some different onboarding with them and then you just learn from what their pain points were from the other platform they're coming from and what they would like to have. That's where you get your feedback from, that's your learning group. Now you can say oh, I need to build just this. And I think about companies, not just that particular example, but when you start small and you listen from people pain points, from coming from a platform being shut down, or you build in one feature that you know is solving the core problem for your community or certain individuals. When you start listing and say, hey, they want this, and you start acting on it fast. I know five people want this. May not be 100, but five people want this feature. Those may be the five who spoke up, but maybe 100 wanted it. And you listen. You start building on it and keep really in that process and listen with empathy. Community builder is not that hard after that.
Ivana: And lastly, what is a community that you've been a part of that's really changed your life?
Wayne: I'm going to put a smile on the face of the motorcycle community. I'm going to go with that. I'm going to say the community I've been proud of, it changed my life is the motorcycle community. Because I've seen a lot of people in the motorcycle community who don't look like the stereotypes, do things that I didn't think that was possible for me and it inspired me to do. Ten years ago, you do a cross country motorcycle trip solo. Now, I didn't think I could do that or like, my wife and I rented, we went to Spain. We rented a motorcycle around Spain and France and the mountains. Beautiful. Didn't think I would ever do that. We took a trip somewhere bougie right now. But we took a trip to Baja California for a month of August, and my wife and I rode the Apple. We rode motorcycles all the way down from San Francisco to the tip of Baja California back. And it was amazing, life changing, being out in nature, it was impactful. Made me feel grateful for life, feel grateful for this planet, what we need to do to take care of the planet. It made me feel great for what I have at home. Also made me realize I have too much stuff. I need less. I don't need as much stuff as I have. Made me feel good for a job. Also made me feel great for how I can help others. So those moments out in nature, disconnected from everything happening in the world really puts things perspective. So most of the community helped shape me in a different way. I didn't think that it would be more adventurous. Maybe we want to get out more.
Ivana: Wayne, that sounds wonderful. Thank you so much for your time today. I'm super grateful to have this chat with you, and I hope to talk to you soon.
Wayne: No, thank you for the opportunity and good luck with your podcast and always keep learning.
Ivana: Thank you Wayne.