How Jopwell’s Head of Community used Stoicism, Buddhism, and Feng Shui principles to grow a resilient talent ecosystem

🗝 The Keyring // 005

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I have a soft spot for early-stage startup employees. 

Rather than deciding where to work based on brand prestige or investor signal, they choose their employers based on mission alignment and their own estimation of the company’s potential.

When early employees pick right and the company grows, they often need to rapidly scale their abilities and step into responsibilities that are well beyond their paygrade. Ultimately they often end up carrying the torch of the company’s culture as the people and processes around them formalize.

It’s hard to imagine someone who better exemplifies the great qualities of the early stage employee than Tani Brown

Her ability to easily pivot between serious, silly, soulful topics in the span of a single conversation is unmatched. It’s that versatile mindset that’s allowed her to grow alongside Jopwell over the past six years and help lead the company through the turbulent events of 2020.

I’m honored to have the opportunity to introduce her.

Introduction

Explain your job to me, like I’m five.

Employers across every industry struggle to create diverse and inclusive workplaces.

To help them address this challenge, Jopwell built a career advancement platform for Black, Latinx, and Native American talent.

My role, as Head of Community, is to ensure our members get the connections, content, and experiences they need to support their career advancement. 

That said, given I joined the company almost six years ago (as employee #3!), I have accumulated duties that span a variety of functions.

At the moment, my main responsibilities are:

  1. Overseeing the success of Jopwell’s talent community, with the help of our community and marketing teams

  2. Engaging with partner companies that want to get their employer brands in front of our community

  3. Driving our thought leadership to guide the national dialogue on workforce diversity.

What it takes

How do you approach conversations with employers who come to Jopwell looking for help with diversity and inclusion?

DE&I work is complicated. When employers initially engage with Jopwell, they often find it hard to articulate the real problem they need to solve. For example, a CEO might think their company’s problem stems from a biased hiring process when it’s actually that their employer brand turns off minority candidates.

These conversations often elicit strong emotions. Feelings of guilt and defensiveness are normal. But, unless we can help them overcome these emotions and get to the heart of the problem, it’s hard to help them make progress.

To shepherd these conversations somewhere productive requires a high degree of emotional intelligence. This starts with adopting a non-judgemental attitude. Every company is starting from somewhere. Our job is not to judge them for their past, but to help them make progress toward a better future. 

If we can get them comfortable enough to divulge information, our job is to hear them as they wish to be understood. When we do our job right, the floodgates typically open up and they share lots of information with us which we can convert to strategic action to drive change.

Often we’ll leave a call with pages of notes about things an employer wants to work on. We need to parse and prioritize all that feedback into a few tactical action items that will help the employer make progress toward their goals. Because DE&I work can get so philosophical, it’s particularly important to show action.

What’s it like to join a small company and scale with it over six years?

Where to start.

Over the years, I’ve had to navigate defining my role and responsibilities while also carrying the culture as many early members do. 

My relationship with the founders has also evolved over the years as we’ve grown as partners, friends, collaborators, and more. 

Whenever things feel challenging at work I remind myself:

  1. Jopwell provides a solution to a complex and important problem. 

  2. The company’s values strongly overlap with my own.

Those two things, combined with the learning and growth I’ve experienced here -- have kept me firmly rooted in the organization.

What makes this work meaningful to you?

My parents fought for inclusion in the arts and storytelling. My dad did it as an actor. My mom did it as an arts administrator for the first major Asian-American theater in the country. She supported representation for writers, producers, and creators during a time when it was insane to imagine a Japanese-American could play the lead role of a major production of Annie. 

My grandparents fought through a wide range of barriers to live dignified and respectful lives. That allowed me to have the education and life experiences I’ve had. I integrate my job into my life by celebrating identity. We’ll never be post-racial, and I choose to lean into the experiences of race or gender as a means to celebrate and learn.

The Day to Day

What does your daily routine look like?

I aspire to be a morning person, but, in reality, I sleep however long my body and mind need. 

If I wake up early enough, I’ll try to get in a run or 20-minute HITT workout in. If not, I’ll focus on eating a healthy breakfast and then meditating, to ground myself.

Each day, I also try to:

  • Drink lemon water

  • Get some movement in

  • Repeat positive affirmation mantras

  • Spend at least 5 minutes sitting in silence. 

What tools do you use at work on a weekly basis?

What’s a valuable mental model that you’ve learned from running Jopwell’s community?

One underappreciated benefit of building a community is the optionality it provides.

By that I mean, community leaders get to take an expansive view of the business and use our communities to build an ecosystem of relationships that may benefit our companies at some point in the future. 

2020 has been a case study in the power of community as a strategic resource. 

For example, when Jopwell’s talent community went remote earlier this year, we suddenly had a much easier way for employers to interface with our talent. This allowed us to host virtual events with partners who would have found it otherwise difficult to participate. Because we used Jopwell’s already active community to keep these employers engaged, it was easy for us to make the pivot. 

We had a similar experience after the murder of George Floyd, where we could use our employer connections to amplify our vision and messages about workforce diversity.

The key for community builders is to maintain a long-term vision of the business and what it can become. That way, as people naturally flow into the company, you can find the right ways to integrate them into your community.

Following the Path

What are some topics you’ve studied that have shaped the mindset you bring to your job?

I’ve benefited a lot from studying eastern philosophy.

Buddhism taught me to remember that any event must be preceded by a set of causes and conditions. This helps me avoid reacting in emotional ways when unexpected challenges arise.

For example, let’s say one of my direct reports screws up a partner meeting. Rather than publicly berating them, I can examine which parts of their background may have caused the behavior and what conditions of the partner meeting allowed that behavior to emerge. 

Once I understand the causes and conditions of an event, I can adjust my response to bring things back into harmony. In the case of the direct report, I can adjust my management style to accommodate those needs.

Adjusting yourself to match your environment one of the basic tenets of feng shui, which my mother practiced for most of her life. It teaches you to not let yourself be a target for an arrow. Instead, shift your strategy to respond to the events around you so you can pick a course of action that helps you get back into harmony.

In general, studying religion has been useful for community building. Communities, like religions, must help their members create meaning. Both do this by building shared systems of language, symbols, and images that members come to view as sacred. This in turn gives the community power to help shape members’ lives for the better.

What advice would you give to someone who wants your job?

Master the fundamentals of event production. The best planners make every aspect of an event feel intentional– from the invitation design to the interaction format. Try planning and marketing your own events. That will give you an excuse to try out the latest event marketing and management tools.

You’ll also want to practice the art of growing communities. There are lots of growth channels you’ll want to learn including Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium, Newsletters, YouTube, etc. Pick one and start to hone in on a voice and style that generates engagement. Many community professionals fall into this function because they’ve built up their own personal followings.

Who are three people in your field whose work you admire, and why?

  • Ally Love – has built two incredible communities in both her Peloton fitness community and Love Squad (her personal brand). 

  • Gayle King – is timeless, relatable, and unmatched in delivery. 

  • David Spinks – has built terrific educational content around community management at CMX. 

What are three books that have made you better at your job?

  • The Infinite Game - clarifies the importance of painting personal and team-led visions. I use many of these principles in my leadership approach, including the idea of always being prepared for existential flexibility.

  • A Short History Of Reconstruction - a primer on the impact of post Civil War Reconstruction on modern systems like land ownership, banking, voting, workforce development, sharecropping, and more. Recommended reading for every American. 

  • The Art of Living – I was obsessed with the Stoic philosophers in college and I somehow find a way to re-read this short gem every year. The Stoics were all about using internal discipline and rigor to get external results. 


Five Takeaways

Whether you’re growing a community or scaling a startup here are five insights you can take from Tani to make progress in your own career. 

  1. To get others to open up to you, defer judgment and hear them as they wish to be understood.

  2. Building communities can help you and your company preserve optionality.

  3. When unexpected problems emerge, study their causes and conditions in order to formulate your response.

  4. Don’t make yourself the target for an arrow. Stay aware of your environment and adapt your behavior accordingly.

  5. You don’t need permission to try out a new career. By testing jobs on your own, you’ll be better positioned to turn it into a profession.

A big thanks to Tani Brown for sharing her insight.


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– Nick