When I grew up, granted there were messy things happening too, but overall, I remember when I graduated I was like, “Yes. Growth. Success. I’m going out in the world right now and the economy is going to keep growing and I’m going to contribute.” There was not an ounce in me that ever thought that things could go backwards or that we could see a decline in progressiveness. I don’t know what’s going to happen once my daughter graduates. Is she going to say, “I’m going to make the best of it. I’m just going to enjoy my life.” I really wonder about that, what all of this does to my kids. I’m really an optimist, but given the kid’s sense of potential versus the world right now, it’s really hard.
How do you do it then? How do you remain an optimist for your kids?
I just always try to say that we have to make the world we want to live in. I really wish I realised sooner that I need to be an active participant in the world I want. I know this sounds really cheesy, but for so long I was floating. I was like, “Ooh,” and whatever came my way I was like, “That’s a cool job. Sure, you want me to work for you? I’ll go work for you.” I wasn’t very active in my head planning like, “Okay, if I want to be this type of person, I probably need to work in this type of environment.” Now, in hindsight I’m thinking, Man, the world I’ve created for myself with Friends Work Here and my companies, that’s the world I want to live in. My daughter sometimes gets it because sometimes she says, “I don’t like x.” and I say, “Well, what can we do to create the world you want?” I just hope that maybe that will be in their nature, too, to make the changes they want to see.
It’s a powerful tool. When did it shift for you? When do you think you stopped floating and you created the world you wanted?
When I became pregnant with Ella over 11 years ago. The inventory that I took of my life was just good—I don’t know what happened to me. I mean the pregnancy hormones; they just really took me for a spin. I was like, “What am I doing?” I was working as a design director in a good company but now in hindsight, I was such a chicken and I was just coasting. Then I was like, “Wait, you’ve always wanted to run your own design studio, what are you waiting for? Now you’re making human?” That human better look up to you one day and say, “I have a bad ass mum.”
I knew if it continued what I was doing she’s not going to say that to me, so I started my own studio when she was born, and then about a year and a half later, I opened Studio Mates. Then I started CreativeMornings. Somewhere right in between, I had my son. Again, I wish I had a wake-up call earlier. But it never occurred to me that you could start all that sooner. When your life is so much easier and there are less responsibilities.
What’s interesting about the companies you create is that often they are free to access—CreativeMornings is a free global community, and TeuxDeux was offered as a free app initially…
I don’t like to put price tags on things that are a labour of love. That’s something that I need to get better at [laughs]. For CreativeMornings, I don’t want to have it any other way. I never ever want to charge for it—the accessibility of things I do is really important to me. At the end of the day it’s an exchange of energy. I was at a really small conference where William Ury, the co-author of Getting To Yes, was there and I could see his face light up when I talked about the concept of CreativeMornings. Afterwards, he told me he believes CreativeMornings works because it’s based on non-transactional giving. When people are welcomed into a warm, friendly community with breakfast and an interesting lecture and it’s all for free, you start a relationship with through generosity – people come back, and people want to be part of it, and people want to help.
Just the term non-transactional giving is so powerful…
It makes sense in terms of our growth because people would come to the events and then want to host it in their own city. I don’t think this would have ever worked if we were going to charge for it, ever. We would have had such a different nature and feel because it would have attracted different people that would have seen it as an entrepreneurial money-making undertaking. The people that it attracts as host are generosity-driven community-builders with big hearts.
Do you think an entire economy could ever be based on non-transactional giving?
I mean, community is such a structural element of every society right, and there are not enough non-transactional communities that hold people up and celebrate people and make them feel safe—yet.
There was a recent CreativeMornings talk by Paola Mendoza—the Artistic Director for the Women’s March on Washington—about the role of art in uplifting communities that really touched you. Why is art and community so important in our modern lives?
I’m probably not doing to do Paola justice, but basically she lit a fire in all of our souls because what she made clear was that when we—the creative tribe—organise ourselves and start creating, magic can happen, momentum can happen, and it trickles down into every corner of society. That to me is so powerful and uniting. In my everyday life, I have nothing to do with the grandma around the corner who sits in the Italian pastry shop all day long, but we both contributed by making a sign and knitting a hat, and all these small contributions made a huge impact on the world.
It seems you have a knack for starting a community anywhere—on Instagram, you’re often sharing snippets of friends, neighbours and kids chatting and picnicking on your front stoop. What’s your advice to someone who wants to build a community?
Be generous, be inviting, be warm, and know what your values are. The word community is being thrown around so much right now—just because you have a product, doesn’t mean that the people that buy it are a community. They’re your consumers. To me, a community is people that have shared values or feel welcome in a shared space. I really feel like the face-to-face connection is key.
For many, affording a creative career is a privilege and it comes back to why it’s so important to have communities that are accessible. What do you think is the biggest challenge in terms of building a creative career and sustaining one?
That’s such a big question. There’s a few different angles—for one, it’s difficult for bigger tech companies to actually find people that have the skills that they need. People that study product design by the time they graduate, it’s already outgrown. Well, actually the company’s need because everything’s evolving so incredibly fast. On one hand, it’s actually difficult for young people to know that something like say product design exists, but then also realising that I honestly think people should just learn by working in a company. Companies should actually educate the people that they need and have them learn on the things they need to get solved.
Like an apprenticeship almost?
Yes, actually. Then on top of that, for the company that wants to attract talent, it has to realise people join missions and not companies. Unless you have a mission that really resonates with young people or values that resonates with young people, you don’t get them. If you do and you give young people freedom and you give them responsibilities that are probably a bit over their head and they see they can have real impact, that is so incredibly fulfilling.
For creative people, they want to have an impact. They want to see that their creativity is resulting in something. I feel like I’m really lucky that I can give that to my team. I just feel for young people that are incredibly creative, incredibly talented, but not finding a job where they can live to their highest potential and grow. That must be the most depressing thing in the world, right?
Also, it comes back to just making enough money to get by. I had an interesting dinner where everyone was talking about how New York is so great. After 15 minutes of just listening I was like, “Can you all just chill out a bit?” Let me just tell you one thing, it is really hard for the young, creative class to get by in New York. They’re struggling. And you know what? We’re going to lose them.
With CreativeMornings we can see where the creative class is rising—Louisville, Kentucky, Nashville, Tennessee, Charlotte, North Carolina, Detroit, Austin, these cities are just exploding with the creative class. More and more people are flocking there and there are more and more creative jobs happening there.
Your own approach to making a creative career and business like Tattly and TeuxDeux could be traced to your favourite James Murphy quote, “The best way to complain is to make things.” Can I ask what you might currently be complaining about?
[Laughs] I’m not allowed to do anything new… Actually, I’m already cheating because I started a new founder’s dinner. It is something I wanted to do for so long because it’s really lonely to be a solo founder—there have been times with the mistakes I’ve made I sometimes just wish I could offload with a co-founder or another entrepreneur, so I started this dinner series where I get founders around the table. It’s really lovely.
You say it can be lonely as a solo founder—is it even more so being a woman founder?
A few years ago, if you had have asked me if I feel like I’m not taken seriously as a woman entrepreneur or if I feel I’ve been discriminated against, I would have said no, never. Maybe I didn’t have the sensitivity or I was oblivious, but maybe it had to do with me being tall, loud and being able to hold my own. But over the past few years, I feel my antennas have come out and I’ve become more aware of what women face day-today—there have been a few meetings where I’ve thought wow, if I was a guy this conversation would not be happening right now. I’ve been invited to more and more all-women events and seen this shift within society with women lifting each other up.
I’m now purposely seeking out women in leadership positions to work—because that’s what the guys have been doing the whole time. At the same time, I have a lot of empathy for men—I don’t want to protect them, but I have a lot of men in my work environment who I think are really decent human beings who are very confused, and so afraid of doing something wrong—I want to be very gentle and respectful and lead by example.
How does leading by example tie into your ideas about success— has your definition of success changed over time?
A few years ago I concluded a talk on success being about seeing growth and happiness around me. That still rings true to my heart. Money unfortunately has never been a drive—it probably should be! [Laughs]. But when I’m at the end of my career when I’m sitting on porch somewhere overlooking a beautiful view, I want to tell stories about the people I’ve seen grow—and I hope they come visit me! If my porch is full of people I’ve helped in their career, then my life is a success.
Of all the ideas you’ve seen or helped grow, what are you most proud of?
It’s clearly CreativeMornings. If there is one thing that I feel I am contributing to the world that is so much larger than me and so much larger than I could have ever dreamt possible, it’s CreativeMornings. The fact I was able to be the beginning momentum of something that has had so much positive impact on people all over the world—on their careers, on their outlook of life— is just the best.
So there was never a plan for CreativeMornings to a global community?
No—I’m a hyper-local-let’s-just-do-this-for-kicks kind of person. Sometimes I feel very torn around that because young people today are often asked, ‘Where are you going? What’s your five or ten-year plan?’ But you know, I always feel like telling them, I never had a plan and it worked out!
What else would you tell young people? Scrap that—if you had a microphone and the whole world was listening, what would you say?
It’s really time that we all show up with open hearts and think about what we contribute to the world that makes it better—how can you bring a sense of play or curiosity or kindness into your work, communities, your family, your tiny knitting club? Everyone can be an active participant in creating the communities they want to be part of.