Welcome to Daring To, a podcast that finds out how CEOs and entrepreneurs navigate today’s business world – the conventions they’re breaking, the challenges they’ve faced and the decisions that they’ve made, and lastly, just what makes them different.
Jenn Graham is the founder and CEO of Civic Dinners, an award-winning civic engagement platform that brings diverse voices together over food for conversations that matter. Civic Dinners works with cities, regions, government agencies, foundations, nonprofits and companies to design and launch community conversations that spark real and lasting change.
Jenn is also the founder of Aha! Strategy, a social innovation design firm working with nonprofit and government leaders at the national, state, regional and local level to design issue-based campaigns and interventions that drive positive social change.
Her work has received recognition from President Obama, The White House, The Atlantic, Atlanta Magazine, Creative Loafing, Atlanta Business Chronicle, American Planning Association, Urban Land Institute and the Public Relations Society of America. In 2016, Jenn was recognized by the Atlanta Business Chronicle as one of the 40 under 40 and graduated from the Regional Leadership Institute Class of 2016. She was a 2017 New Leaders Council Atlanta Fellow, a 2018 Civic Innovation Fellow, and is currently one of the 15 women entrepreneurs as part of the 2018-2019 Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative led by the City of Atlanta. And she is a 2019 Civic Innovation Resident with the Center for Civic Innovation, funded by the Sara Blakely Foundation.
Intro: [00:00:02] Welcome to Daring To, a podcast that finds out how CEOs and entrepreneurs navigate today’s business world. The conventions they’re breaking, the challenges they faced, and the decisions that they’ve made, and lastly, just what makes them different?
Rita Trehan: [00:00:19] Hi. Well, I’m delighted today to do my first podcast in Atlanta. Joining me today on this first podcast is Jenn Graham. And you are the CEO of Civic Dinners. Is that right?
Jenn Graham: [00:00:30] That’s right.
Rita Trehan: [00:00:30] I think we’re going to have a really great conversation today because these podcasts are all about people that all daring to. And having read a bit about you and seen your website and what your company is trying to do, there is no doubt in my mind that you are daring to do something that is not only very different, but it’s breaking the bounds of what many people won’t even be thinking about today. So, I think you’re going to bring some really interesting perspective.
Rita Trehan: [00:00:54] So, let’s start, Jenn. Let’s talk a little bit about you. I read about you at college, there you were, a business major, like hitting you out of the park. And then, you had, I guess, like an aha moment. I think you used the word aha quite a lot. And you described it as like kind of thinking like the video game has come to an end, and you’ve kind of won, and you’re thinking about, “Well, what now? What do I do now?” So, that you on a track to go join the corporate world, do everything that’s textbook in terms of a career, and it sounds like you made a bit of a transition from that, did you?
Jenn Graham: [00:01:28] I did. I had always been a closet designer my whole life, but I never admitted it to anyone, or thought it was an actual legit career. I had assumed that anyone who went into the art world or the artistic space would end up making quilts, living in a trailer with nine cats. So, I assumed-
Rita Trehan: [00:01:46] And do you? Do you have a trailer and nine cats?
Jenn Graham: [00:01:47] No.
Rita Trehan: [00:01:47] No, okay, good.
Jenn Graham: [00:01:48] No. And so, I kind of always thought that I would end up being some kind of professional, right, bound to have something that my parents would be proud of, that I could have a decent living and earning a wage. But this love for design and just as aesthetics really started to tug at me when I discovered graphic design. It was the senior year, second semester of my college at UNC. And I had snuck into a couple different communications courses, studying all about website design, and logo design, and identity, and was just blown away about the power of using design to actually change people’s behavior.
Jenn Graham: [00:02:25] And so, I actually had — it was a network journalism networking night at the College of Journalism at UNC that I snuck into. I wasn’t actually allowed. It’s only for journalism majors, but I found my way in. And I heard this amazing guy speak about how he, at age 30, was basically — and worked commercial real estate, and would tell the story of his warehouses through the perspective of a ghost and used his creativity to sell warehouses.
Jenn Graham: [00:02:59] But then, an ad agency in New York got a hold of it and was like, “Oh, my gosh, this is a brilliant prospective. Are you in design? Do you want to go and design? You should.” So, they sent him to the school in Atlanta called Portfolio Center, where he learned the art of storytelling, the art of graphic design and identity, where he then went after graduating, moved to New York City, ended up working in the agency, won a ton of awards. Then, moved back to Chapel Hill, and started his own company that was doing some incredible grassroots guerrilla marketing work.
Jenn Graham: [00:03:28] So, first, the lesson to me was, well, it’s not too late. It’s not like you set your course, and you’ve got to continue the way you’re going. You can always change. And he had been 10 years older than me when he had changed his career and gone back to school. And the, second thing was like, “Wow, there’s really power in design to actually not just persuade people to buy things, but actually persuade people to think differently.” And in that moment, I decided in my head, I’m going to go to Portfolio Center in Atlanta. I had no idea, didn’t know how to tell my parents, or my mom and my dad that, “Hey, guys, I just graduated but going back to art school.” But when I told them, they were like, “What took you so long?”
Rita Trehan: [00:04:05] So, they already knew.
Jenn Graham: [00:04:07] They already knew. And it just had taken me that long to finally give in to the natural talent or desires that I had always been feeling. So, it came down to Atlanta, fell in love with just the art of storytelling, design, design thinking where there is no rule book, there is no curriculum, there’s no case study, there’s no best example. You’re given a project to create an identity for a company that doesn’t exist, and you’re told to create a world that doesn’t exist that no one can live without. And so, just your mind explodes, and you dive into research, and you uncover the problems and the real challenge, you talk to people, you understand the root causes, and then you design solutions that fit those needs. And so, it really opened my eyes to human-centered design and the need for that, the need for complex approaches to different problems solving that isn’t taught in business school, and it should be.
Rita Trehan: [00:04:59] And it seems like it’s a really important thing today. If I look at businesses today and how they are trying to basically build cultures that are all-inclusive and appeal to customers, or clients, or stakeholders around what they’re doing, and they’re recognizing there needs to be a higher purpose than that, that storytelling is really important in terms of signaling their differentiation.
Rita Trehan: [00:05:23] This seems like you’ve taken it to another level in some ways because, actually, what you’re doing today in terms of what Civic Dinners is, which I think people are going to be curious to know what that is, so I’m going to ask you about that, but you describe yourself, right, as a social innovator and designer, a social innovation designer. I go, “Wow, that sounds so cool. Can I be one of those?” Like, what does that look like? I haven’t seen that job description yet. How do I find that job?
Rita Trehan: [00:05:51] But actually, it, sort of, seems like it connects some of the things that you’ve been talking about, the social piece of like understanding what people want and talking to people. The innovation piece about thinking very differently that there are no rule books. And then, this design concept of actually producing solutions that matter. So, what is a social innovation designer? Please tell me.
Jenn Graham: [00:06:15] I think you just described it. To be honest, I made it up. There was no job description about it. But in essence, it takes the core pieces of what I care most about. So, one is social. Meaning that we are social humans and social beings, and we need love, we need that direct connection to people. And, also, the social impact areas. We need to be thinking about more than just profit. We need to be thinking about the impact that business has on society, and on the environment, and the longevity of our actual species. So, the humanity element.
Jenn Graham: [00:06:52] The innovation exactly, that’s a social innovation. Meaning coming at a problem not with an immediate solution. So, not parachuting in an existing solution and expecting it to work, but really looking internally, analyzing it, and being able to tweak and modify. And the design part is exactly that. It’s part of as a creator and as a natural kind of design thinker, there are no templates to work with. So, we have to design new processes, methodologies. We have to design how we approach and how we even tell the story. So, the design, I feel like, there’s no better other word for. It’s way more than graphic design, but it’s actual systems design, and the processes, and just kind of how we approach problem solving in today’s world.
Rita Trehan: [00:07:40] Well, problem solving is a big deal, right? Because we got a lot of problems in the world. And I wish we didn’t, but we do. And Civic Dinners has really been, I guess, put together and formulated with this vision and this idea. It brings civic engagement to a different level. You described civic engagement as needing to be fun, meaningful, and interesting, and engaging. And I’m sure there are other words that you use to describe it. But I bet, if I went out on the street today or, in fact, in this studio that we’re in today, and ask 10 people, “Tell me what you think civic engagement is,” do you think they’d know?
Jenn Graham: [00:08:14] No. They’d probably think it’s going to their local neighborhood association meeting, or a community meeting, or maybe filling out a census survey perhaps or voting. Some people think it’s their civic engagement is showing up at the polls. But it’s way more than that. And I think civic engagement, like our whole country and many other countries are built on the notion of democracy. But in order for a functioning democracy to be healthy, it’s dependent upon people to be educated on the issues and to be knowledgeable about not just one-sided arguments but fully understanding the complexity of the challenges and how connected and interrelated so many issues are. You can talk about transportation without talking about education, or property taxes, or a property itself, or affordable housing as part of that.
Jenn Graham: [00:09:04] And so, what we’re trying to do is to make civic engagement easier because a lot of people want to be involved in what they care about their city, but they just don’t know what steps to take or how to actually make that first step. And so, what we’ve done with Civic Dinners is make it fun. Make it fun and social.
Rita Trehan: [00:09:25] How did you decide that that was the path that you wanted to do? There must have been something that triggered it that said, “You know what, I’ve done all this design work. I’ve worked for some big companies. I’ve done the storytelling. I’ve done the design thinking. But there’s a bigger purpose for me in my life.” It sounds like that there was a bigger purpose that kind of hit you in the face that got you going into Civic Dinners. So, tell the audience what that is because, often, people want to follow their passion in their dreams but don’t do it. So, what was your kind of daring-to moment, if you like?
Jenn Graham: [00:09:59] Yeah. Well, I a lot of people find their calling. I fell into mine. So, literally, on my way to work, I had a parallel grate.
Rita Trehan: [00:10:08] So, you did literally fall into it.
Jenn Graham: [00:10:10] Literally fall into it. And my front wheel all got stuck, and my bike stopped, and I kept going. So, I supermanned over the bike. Thankfully, I was okay. There are no cars behind me. But I had a bloody nose and a broken arm. But from that experience, immediately, my first instinct was, ‘This shouldn’t be here. This is illegal.” And I emailed the entire communications arm of the mayor’s office because I didn’t know who else to reach out to. Who do you talk to in that situation?
Jenn Graham: [00:10:40] And so, I emailed them. I took photos. I said, “You need to fix this right away.” And they did. Within 48 hours, they had sent even photos to prove it. So, I was feeling pretty good for a little bit of a civic win. I got in touch with the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition and found out there were 200 other parallel grates just like that that had been reported but not fixed. So, I put pressure on them, said, “Please fix this. I am also going to be on the media, so please fix this.”
Rita Trehan: [00:11:07] How could we help?
Jenn Graham: [00:11:08] So, that did help because I’ve contacted the commuter dude of Atlanta and said, “Hey.” They wanted to do a story on it.” And then, when they did the story, it was embarrassing. I was called the two-wheeled tumble. They made a big deal about that. They had me staring longingly at the grate and dramatize it with bloody nose and dangling arms. She escaped from the lane. You know what media does. They like to dramatize things. But at the end though, the commuter dude said, “Well, good job, Jenn. You fixed these parallel grates, That’s awesome. But Atlanta is not a bicycle-friendly city. I wish it was, but it’s not.” And at that moment, I was furious. first of all, he used my story of fixing something to, then, twist it to support the same narrative that has been told that Atlanta’s not bike-friendly. I wish it was, but it’s.
Rita Trehan: [00:12:00] So, therefore, it was okay.
Jenn Graham: [00:12:01] And that it was okay.
Rita Trehan: [00:12:01] He’s basically saying it was okay not to change.
Jenn Graham: [00:12:03] Exactly. He was reinforcing the status quo. And my response to that was, “Oh, no. Get ready because I’m about to pour every ounce of everything that I’ve ever learned into making Atlanta more bike-friendly just to prove you wrong that this is not okay. The status quo is not okay. That we can’t let people, who want alternative modes of transportation, to risk their lives to get from home to work. And a lot of people who aren’t — it was an equity issue for me. It was like, “Yes, I have the means to have a car and get to work. But for those that don’t, that’s not okay. And the transportation is not okay. The lack of transportation infrastructure is not okay.”
Jenn Graham: [00:12:43] In that moment, I decided I went to the back to the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. I said, “I’ve got skills in design, organizing, anything. What can I do to help make Atlanta more bike-friendly?” And that’s when she said we got this project called the Atlanta Streets Alive. It just started. It’s on Edgewood. We’ve got maybe 5000 people that come out, but it’s an open-streets event where they closed the streets to cars and open them to people where anybody can come out. They ride their bikes, they scooter, they cartwheel, they do Zumba, they do yoga, they do whatever they want to do in the street for four hours. It’s a temporary experience. And my mind was blown. I got to experience one. And it was exactly what my design teacher had taught me. She said, “Your role as a designer is to create a world that doesn’t exist that no one can live without.”
Rita Trehan: [00:13:28] I love that.
Jenn Graham: [00:13:28] And if you can for a moment just create that world, allow people to experience it, and then say, “Well, why can’t we have more of this more often?” And so, that’s what we did with Atlanta Streets Alive. I helped rebrand it. We organized it. We gave it like human-powered amusement. We made it fun. We had the circus theme going on. We literally brought the circus to the streets. We had partnerships with the local amazing organizations on the ground to make it so whimsical, so people could feel like they’re a kid again, and go out, and experience the streets. And then, that has grown from the first 5000 to 15,000 to 20,000 to 60,000 to a hundred. Now, 140,000 people-
Rita Trehan: [00:14:07] Wow!
Jenn Graham: [00:14:07] … come out three times a year to Atlanta Streets Alive. It’s the largest one in the country. And it’s how I met my husband. I was speaking at a conference in LA on behalf of Atlanta Bicycle Coalition and discovered there was a gentleman who was all about making the world more bike-friendly. And so, I also stalked him and brought him to Atlanta.
Rita Trehan: [00:14:29] Look, guys, if you’re listening, not only is it a really good thing to do. Not only is it creating, I guess, sort of, inclusion in a way, and equality, and making the street sort of free for people to be able to move around, meet other people. It’s also potentially a good way to meet other people, right?
Jenn Graham: [00:14:46] Exactly.
Rita Trehan: [00:14:47] So, there’s an added benefit on it. And most of all, it’s environmentally friendly, right, which in today’s world has to be important. We have to be thinking about the environment. And I get the sense that Civic Dinners, in terms of the organization, is building on that. Is that the case?
Jenn Graham: [00:15:05] Yes, yes. So, what I learned from the success of the Atlanta Streets Alive is that we gave people a role to play. If you could just show up, if you could just — one thing, it’s just come participate. The second level is you could host an activity. So, we engaged hundreds of different partners from yoga studios, to Zumba instructors, to any kind of organization, the Beltline, to help activate and provide an activity that had to be some kind of physical — physically active, doing it on the street, on the route, whether it’s three miles or eight miles. They would have a location.
Jenn Graham: [00:15:38] So, we gave plenty of opportunities to participate and to activate. And that created a sense of ownership and love that it became Atlanta’s most beloved community event. It was free. It was open. People could participate for free. There was no charge to be part of it and that it was fun. We would have a bicycle parade where people would dress up into costume, and just make it fun, and create a community event.
Jenn Graham: [00:16:06] So, what I learned from that was make it fun, make it social, and make it meaningful. The fact that it’s been meaningful is how — it’s actually helped raise the profile of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. They have a seat at the table. They’ve hosted candidate forums for the mayors. They’ve helped double the amount of bicycle lanes that the City of Atlanta has. And they even raised funds to get a chief bicycle officer-
Rita Trehan: [00:16:30] Wow.
Jenn Graham: [00:16:30] … because of it. And so, they’re really able to harness the energy that comes from these big events to actually improve policy change and improve bike infrastructure, which, at the end of the day, is what the whole point is.
Rita Trehan: [00:16:43] And do you think that some of the lessons that were learned from that are actually applicable to business today? I mean, if I think about all the businesses that I work with and their real desire to, one, sort of engage their workforce into coming up with solutions and ideas, and feeling that they’re part of a company today, which I think is particularly important when we’ve got five generations working together in the same workplace but, also, in terms of the expectations of their customers and clients, how do you make the parallel self like connection between that?
Jenn Graham: [00:17:14] Oh, my gosh. Well, where do I start? Wow! Just that people look to cities as if they can solve everything on their own. But in, actuality, companies, especially local companies, play a huge role because they hold the employee base and have on its sleeve, usually, the most diverse audience. They’re right there sitting with them from 9:00 to 5:00 every day, and an opportunity to engage them in civic and social issues within the local level. But also, customers are demanding, and they’re expecting more of companies. It’s true, especially millennials, which are now the largest workforce in the country, the world-
Rita Trehan: [00:17:57] Don’t you want to be one? I want to be one.
Jenn Graham: [00:18:00] I am one, actually.
Rita Trehan: [00:18:00] You are, you are.
Jenn Graham: [00:18:00] On the front end. Very, very front end, but what do they call that? Like immature millennials. But what I’ve learned is that we, millennials, crave companies that actually take a stand for something. And if you’re not taking a stand for something, people will find out. We’re live in a transparent world where we’ve got the smartphones at our fingertips. The world is at our fingertips. We can look up a company and know where they stand on certain issues. And if they don’t align with our values, we quickly have other options and shop elsewhere or partner with other organizations that support our values. So, it’s so important for companies to — they can’t just hide behind this agnostic role anymore or hide behind any opaque — what am I trying to say? Curtain.
Rita Trehan: [00:18:51] Yes. Just giving the vanilla kind of view that-
Jenn Graham: [00:18:54] Yeah.
Rita Trehan: [00:18:54] Right? Without actually really having a say in what they’re supposed to stand for. I think that’s very true.
Jenn Graham: [00:19:01] And especially now that social issues are creeping into the workforce environment more and more from the Black Lives Matter to the Me Too Movement. You can’t ignore these topics. And if you do, you’re going to appear very outdated and very out of touch with reality. So, giving companies the tools to be able to have these meaningful conversations is crucial, whether they’re starting them on having conversations on race, or internally, or even on gender and identity, LGBTQ, and how a lot of companies are struggling with exactly, how do you create an inclusive culture? And cities are having the same struggle as well, and so are nonprofits on how do we make sure everybody feels invited and engaged in their workplace and work space, so that they feel like their best ideas can be heard and that it improves the ultimate bottom line.
Rita Trehan: [00:19:50] And so, Civic Dinner sounds like it’s trying to do that, right? It’s trying to get that social engagement of people within the community to actually help shape the community and the cities that they want.
Jenn Graham: [00:20:03] Yes.
Rita Trehan: [00:20:03] And tell us about some of the successes of what you’ve had since you started that. And, also, maybe some of the lows. Like, if you had any lows where you’ve gone like, “What did I do this for? Where did I get this crazy idea?”
Jenn Graham: [00:20:16] Oh, daily. So, where do I start? Also, first, at Civic Dinner, the model is so simple. And we’ve tried to boil it and simplify it down to, really, a recipe. So, we have a host, 6 to 10 guests of different backgrounds or perspectives. It could be race. It could be gender. It could be identity. You, as the host, get to help curate it or just have it available up on the platform for random people to sign up. And then, you get three big questions, which we provide the hosts guide on a specific topic, whether that’s bridging the racial divide, the voice of women, or the lovable city. And then, the only rules are it’s equal time to share with one voice at a time, so that you walk through the questions that are provided and share.
Jenn Graham: [00:20:59] And so, the format is flexible to be used for a broad different number of topics but, also, different size events. So, we’ve had everything from small group conversations, 6 to 10 people in people’s homes, or in restaurants, or in pubs, or office spaces during Brown Bag Lunch, or like large conferences. We’ve had over 300 people participate in a Civic Dinner during an aging conference event in partnership with the Atlanta Regional Commission. And phenomenal, as long as you have, at least, a person who’s at the table that’s able to help facilitate, and guide, and keeps this conversation on track and on time, but the question and the hard work has already been done as far as creating the desired flow.
Jenn Graham: [00:21:42] And then, what we’ve had, we just, two weeks ago, had a conversation within Coca-Cola as part of their launch of Unlabeled. And so, imagine the world’s most recognizable brand removing their label from their Coke cans to start a conversation about labels.
Rita Trehan: [00:22:01] Now way. Wow!
Jenn Graham: [00:22:01] Yes way! So cool. And we were so excited to be involved and engaged in this conversation to help them really frame, how do we have a conversation about labels? Where do they come from? Which ones have we been labeled? Do they give us wings, or do they give us chains? Can they be chains? And then, also, when have we labeled someone else? And when did they surprise us? Or how can we create environments in the workplace where people feel like they can bring their whole selves? And so, conversations like that that are so needed and wanted in the workplace but then in the city, in general.
Jenn Graham: [00:22:39] We’ve had tremendous — I mean, really, we were born out of work with the Atlanta Regional Commission. That was the first real collaboration between just our idea of using dinners to actually influence policy change at the regional level. And so, all the way back in 2015, we partnered with ARC, the Atlanta Regional Commission, to design with their millennial advisory panel three big conversations – one on mobility, livability, and prosperity. And we, over the course of three months, had over 35 dinners with just these millennials, and they engage more deeply into their counties that they represented. And what emerged were eight key themes that were reflected across no matter which dinner you attended. These themes seemed to emerge.
Jenn Graham: [00:23:27] So, one was the need for regional transit vision. Another was for healthy food on every corner. Another was affordable housing. I mean, they’re kind of the same themes that we’re hearing now, where it’s the same ones we heard back then. But what we did was we get caught. These are the themes. Now, it’s your time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. So, we invited them to join an action team on each of those eight core themes. We gave them assignments. So, they had to develop a point of view and write an op ed as a group to use their voice to actually influence other perspectives. Then secondly, they had to interview other people using the design center process, right, to talk about the issues, make sure they’re not reinventing the wheel in their recommendations.
Jenn Graham: [00:24:08] And then, lastly, create a pitch to regional leaders where they actually got to be onstage, presenting to the who’s who of Atlanta, from commissioners, to city council members, to mayors, and philanthropic leaders from across the region. And there, they got to present what their story, why this matters, why this issue matters to them, and what they expect to do something about it, to what they want to do about it, and what they want the region to do about it.
Jenn Graham: [00:24:37] And since then, all of those ideas have been incorporated into some form of policy change, whether the one around transit turned into Advance Atlanta that has actually helped put critical referendums on the ballot, including the one that passed two years ago for the City of Atlanta, over $2.8 billion referendum. Another one, we had two other teams, a forum where it helped pass register resolutions from affordable housing to even getting something passed in the state regarding even like sex and rape kits that were that were needed. And then lastly, we had five members run for office, including Bee Nguyen, who took Stacey Abrams seat when she ran for governor and is the only Asian-American female and House representatives.
Rita Trehan: [00:25:20] There we go. Shout out to her.
Jenn Graham: [00:25:21] Yes.
Rita Trehan: [00:25:22] And I think it’s a really important and very interesting insight that you’ve just given, which, I think, the listeners should really take heed of, which is actually what you did there was not simply create something that resulted in a change, but it’s a sustainable change-
Jenn Graham: [00:25:39] Right.
Rita Trehan: [00:25:39] … because my assumption is that these individuals that have now got engaged are not stepping away from that-
Jenn Graham: [00:25:45] No.
Rita Trehan: [00:25:45] … but they are engaging more.
Jenn Graham: [00:25:46] Even more.
Rita Trehan: [00:25:46] And it feels like it’s almost like a multiplier effect.
Jenn Graham: [00:25:49] Exactly.
Rita Trehan: [00:25:49] Do you see that happening?
Jenn Graham: [00:25:50] Yes, yes, yes. And we have only just begun to start reaching back out to those who have participated in Civic Dinner. We’ve had over 1200 around the world. And we only know the impacts of just a few because that’s when we ask. Actually, just found out about the fact that two women met at a State of Women’s Civic Dinner three years ago, and they ended up founding a company together called Love the Lola, which is all about creating a community for women and a coworking space and community to support women and women entrepreneurs.
Jenn Graham: [00:26:26] And so, how cool. I only found out about them because they happened to be presenting after me. And they were like, “Oh, by the way, we met at a Civic Dinner.” And so, those kinds of — like where we know that what we’re really trying to do is help awaken, help connect, and help inspire the next generation of civic leaders.
Jenn Graham: [00:26:45] And if we can do that just by getting the right people in the room who care about the community, who care about the issues, and want to make it better, then that’s the hard work, the convening part. And then, giving them the conversation, tools, and guidelines to really go deep and get kind of beyond just the surface level, topics, and conversations to build trust, build a sense of camaraderie, and then give them kind of gentle nudges about potential suggested actions that they could do moving forward.
Jenn Graham: [00:27:17] And then, once they know that they have permission to change the world, once they know that they have the tools and the access to the right people, that they can just go out and create what they want, then that’s pure magic.
Rita Trehan: [00:27:30] So, do you envisage that playing out in sort of governments and how governments sort of get people’s opinions today? I’m from the UK. You’re from the States. Both our countries are going through significant political change at the moment. We won’t pass comment on what we think about that. We can maybe have that conversation afterwards. But the bigger question is, really, how do the governments hear the voice of the people and design countries, cities, and the fundamental aspects that are so important to life, from education, to work, to the engagement, to inclusiveness? How do governments apply some of what you have shown and proven to be true? What advice would you give them?
Jenn Graham: [00:28:16] Oh, wow. First, the advice I would give is really listen. And when we listen, create opportunities to really listen to what people have to say. And I know it’s tough because a lot of city leaders, all they hear from people when they ask for feedback or complaints. And I think that anybody who receives a lot of negative feedback would be hesitant to ask what people think or really feel. But I think the way we’ve designed our conversations are really meant to kind of think about it the opposite way. Rather than asking for feedback or even line editing a plan that they’ve gotten just to checkmark the box of, “Oh, we asked the people, and they said they like it. Let’s roll with it.”
Jenn Graham: [00:29:02] But in reality, instead of like, “Let’s get deeper. Let’s start to really listen to the concerns that they have at the root level and the whys. And then, even just capturing that and reflecting it back to them just to make sure that they know you heard them.” That alone builds the sense of trust and transparency that is crucial for working and functioning democracy. And I think, we did this actually when we first launched our platform officially after we built it through 2016. In 2017, we launched it and New Zealand, partnered with a group there called Action Station, and worked with them. We had 92 dinners across the country, their winter, our summer, and all around the values and visions for the future of New Zealand because they were about to go through their general election.
Jenn Graham: [00:29:52] And it was phenomenal. People hosted in cafes, and people’s homes, and it translated to include the Maori language. So, we had the values that represented their indigenous people. And it was — just blown away, the feedback. And what we did was we captured it. It was also like surveys as part of that to reach people who couldn’t come to a dinner or community conversation. We had big events that they launched and managed. But overall, then we reflected back, “Here’s what we heard. Here are the key themes that emerged,” and created almost like a people’s agenda. And then, asked the candidates to respond to the people’s agenda. So, it’s the other way around. “Here’s what we want. What are you going to do for us? What policies are you going to create that address our needs, and our wants, and our desires.” And since then, that election has been — Jacinda Ardern was elected prime minister.
Rita Trehan: [00:30:45] I was just going through my head and thinking like, well, they obviously had a massive impact if you just think about the reaction of the New Zealand prime minister with that.
Jenn Graham: [00:30:52] I’d like to hope. I’d hope so. Yes.
Rita Trehan: [00:30:53] You have to believe that.
Jenn Graham: [00:30:56] I have to believe.
Rita Trehan: [00:30:56] You have to believe it. It was like some small part.
Jenn Graham: [00:31:00] Some small part. Even just knowing if we played some small part in that, it’s just magical. She’s such a badass, and just a mother, a new mother as myself, and relate to her on so many things. And I think that’s the kind of leadership that we want, and we need. And I think, once we get real clear about what we, as a society, expect just in what we want for our future, then our leaders need and have to respond to that, and they have to live into that.
Jenn Graham: [00:31:26] That’s what the role with servant leadership. They work for us. And therefore, we need to tell them what we want. But there’s, right now, no real clear mechanism to do that. There’s no receiver, especially in the US right now. There’s no federal entity that’s receiving from people about what they want or what they hope. And unfortunately, most of the mechanisms for community feedback are even closing. Those doors are being closed. And so, what we want to do is provide cities, states, and even agencies or nonprofits with the tools to be able to create almost like a third-party way of asking what people want, and then being able to reflect that back to city leadership and, also, back to the people to create that simple, “Here are the key themes that emerged. Here’s what you can do, and here’s ways. Here’s what the people want.”
Rita Trehan: [00:32:16] And it sounds like you’re trying to do that with what you have termed as lovable city. And you have a very ambitious goal, I think, by 2020. Is that right?
Jenn Graham: [00:32:24] Yes.
Rita Trehan: [00:32:25] So, talk a little bit about that because I think, this, again, is really important. If you think about — I put it in the context of businesses where I spend most my time, but also with some governments that I’ve done some work within the past, and say what you are trying to do in terms of the engagement and to build a future.
Jenn Graham: [00:32:42] Yeah.
Rita Trehan: [00:32:43] And it’s really about future thinking. Talk about what the — by the way, I just love the name of it, right? Lovable Cities, you want to love the city. You think about having some people ask you like, do you like Atlanta? Don’t you like where you live and where you happened to have come from? And you’ve kind of switched it and called it lovable-
Jenn Graham: [00:33:01] Lovable.
Rita Trehan: [00:33:01] … which is taking it to the next level. So, talk a little bit about Lovable Cities.
Jenn Graham: [00:33:05] Yeah. Well, it started, the idea came about because that’s really the root of how Civic Dinners started. Back in 2014, Atlanta was easy to hate. We had just failed to pass the TISBUS, which was promised to unclog our roadways and transportation funding. We also had our public-school system cheating scandals all over national news. And so, it was a kind of a “Wah, wah,” The mojo and energy of Atlanta was quite low.
Jenn Graham: [00:33:37] And so, we felt there were a lot of people that genuinely loved Atlanta and wanted to make sure that they had a voice in creating the future that they knew was possible, the potential. It’s like a bloom, a small flower that was about to bloom. And it could go really well, or it could go really wrong. So, how could we actually have a voice and also change the narrative? Going back to knowing how important narrative is and how people believe or perceive things. How could we actually focus on the positives and not make as much room for complaining?
Jenn Graham: [00:34:08] So, we decided to launch a dinner party project. And the conversations were threefold. What’s your favorite secret spot? What do you love about Atlanta? What would you love about Atlanta? So, what would you want to love? And then, what role do you want to play in creating that lovable future? And it was such a hit. We ended up having like 60 dinners in six weeks with no marketing. We had no plan. Those are just the questions itself. But we struck a chord, which is a common theme around, “I love my city and I want to make it better, but I don’t know how. I don’t know where to go.”
Jenn Graham: [00:34:40] And so, this was an invitation for anybody who loved Atlanta or even just was curious to meet others and get plugged in, whether you’re a newcomer to come in, or you’ve been here your whole life, but you see it changing, and you want to have a voice in that. But what we learned from that was that they wanted to be heard by leaders. They wanted to make sure that their perspectives and voice were actually going to be listened to by leadership. And they wanted you to know the next steps.
Jenn Graham: [00:35:06] And so, with the Lovable City, it kind of hit me on the head on a flight back from a conference in California where, why don’t we just go back to what really started this, and invite other cities to just kick this conversation off in their own town, and to see what magic might emerge? Because when we bring people back to focus in on kind of more of a general conversation, most of ours are more topic-centric, whether it’s around transportation, or education, or sustainability. But even just opening up first with like an introduction conversation around the love of your city, and using that as a way to pull people in, find ways to just appreciate each other for our commonalities, and even find ways to communicate with others or even bump into others that you may not have seen or ever interacted with.
Jenn Graham: [00:35:55] And then, from there, be able to consolidate and synthesize the key ideas and issues that might emerge. How cool would it be to have a list of the top ten things people love the most about Atlanta, right? We’ve never really done that before. Or what are the top things people would love to love? And what’s on that list? And how does it marry up with the priorities of the city right now? Just to reflect back what the people want.
Jenn Graham: [00:36:22] And so, that’s what we aimed to do. And we do have a crazy, ambitious goal of trying to get a hundred cities across the US initially. Also, we just launched with the Global Shapers National or the North American convening this past weekend and had over 30 cities be like, “Yes, we’re in. We’re going to figure this out and do it.” So, October is going to be the month, but we’re really literally flooding restaurants, and homes, and parks having the conversations around what people love about their city, and how can we then reflect back across individual cities to find what makes-
Jenn Graham: [00:36:57] Because each city is unique, and it has its own unique challenges, but there are also shared challenges across all cities that we can then roll out in 2020. Some really amazing conversations around race, around gentrification, affordable housing, climate change, and the future of water, the future of work, really national conversations that need to be had that we just, right now, don’t have a mechanism for having, convening, or even receiving the responses and reflecting them back.
Rita Trehan: [00:37:24] And I love the idea that, actually, you’re taking massive issues, like big issues for the world but, actually, synthesizing them down and saying, “Let’s start small. Let’s just start the conversation first.” And it will, as you say, “kind of like that flower will bloom. And then, you can get into the much bigger topics, which if you start with, some people might be very nervous about, “Can I contribute to this? or “This is just too big a topic.” So, I really hope that we do see you, not only reach that target, but like knock it out of the park.
Rita Trehan: [00:37:54] Now, I want to shift just a little bit of conversation because we’ve heard about what the Civic Dinners is about, and how you started, and how you’ve grown. But I have to say it, you are a woman, you are a CEO, you are in the technology field. Talk about negative press, what they get, like there aren’t enough women. We don’t have any women in tech. I’ve interviewed several women that are in tech who are CEOs and who are changing the world. But let’s be honest, it’s not the norm. So, how do you convince — and you talked about like you are the voice, that you have a millennial voice, right? That’s probably the group, amongst others, that we want to target. You said earlier on, it’s never too late.
Jenn Graham: [00:38:37] It’s never too late.
Rita Trehan: [00:38:38] So, how would you help other women think about becoming leaders within the organizations that they’re in today, becoming the CEO of their own business, and/or guiding others around “It’s possible”?
Jenn Graham: [00:38:53] Yeah, wow. I would say just do it. I believe that — well, one of my favorite people in the whole world is Lynne Twist. And she’s an incredible humanitarian working around the world, working in Africa to help end hunger. And she’s also been a part of the Pachamama Alliance. I just butchered the pronunciation of that. But she’s done some work in the Amazon protecting the rainforest. Anyway, she tells this amazing prophecy of where we are in society right now, she said, this prophecy talks about the Bird of Humanity. And apparently, for centuries, the Bird of Humanity has been flying lopsided with one wing fully extended, but the other wing only partially extended, being the feminine wing. So, you’ve got the masculine wing fully extended to the right, and then the feminine wing only partially expanded.
Jenn Graham: [00:39:53] Because of that, the masculine wing has had to flap violently in order to stay afloat. But in response, as you know, it flies in circles because of the imbalance. But apparently, we’re living through the Sofia century, which is the century where the feminine wing finally fully extends itself. The masculine wing can relax, and the Bird of Humanity can finally soar.
Jenn Graham: [00:40:19] You hear that, guys? If you can just relax. We can fly. We can fly. And, actually, it could create a perfect balance, which is actually what you want, right?
Jenn Graham: [00:40:28] Exactly, it’s balance.
Rita Trehan: [00:40:28] You want to create that perfect balance, right? Just like the listeners can’t see this, but it’s like my body was almost like turning, and I am trying to see what does it feel like to be lopsided versus, like, balanced. So, like, it’s amazing what they can’t see. But like visually, I hope that they are visualizing just the picture that you gave because, I think, it’s a fantastic way to describe actually what’s in play today. We are seeing changes.
Jenn Graham: [00:40:53] We are seeing changes. And that’s what gives me hope. More women stepping up to run for office and actually getting into office. There are more women fighting for their role than leadership, whether it’s in the companies or stepping into our own confidence, and credibility, and where we stand. And I feel I’m guilty of this. My weakness is not asking for the limelight as much as my male counterparts do. My male counterparts will just have an idea, and get on NPR, and then that’s it. But for women, we often have to prove that it works. We have to come with years of experience.
Rita Trehan: [00:41:29] Yeah, let’s stop that now, Jenn.
Jenn Graham: [00:41:29] I know.
Rita Trehan: [00:41:29] I’m going to give you some tough love on that.
Jenn Graham: [00:41:34] I know.
Rita Trehan: [00:41:34] That’s what I did to other colleagues, and CEOs, and friends. It’s like we don’t have to wait for it to be perfect. We have to have the confidence and the courage to do what our fellow-
Jenn Graham: [00:41:45] Exactly. Just get it out there and just live in that. And like one of my colleagues just say, you’ve got the credibility. You’ve earned it. You’ve got all the backing to do it. Now, you just have to stand in it and not like just melt.
Rita Trehan: [00:42:02] The listeners that don’t know, you were one of the 40 under 40 in Atlanta and have won a number of awards. So, not only are you following your passion, but you are creating a business with purpose, which is so important in today’s world, and trying to create this inclusive world, which is about civic engagement, which is about getting people involved of all nationalities, preferences, diversity of thinking. It’s bringing that together. And all generations. Even if we can only make small steps-
Jenn Graham: [00:42:33] Definitely.
Rita Trehan: [00:42:34] That’s a significant step forward for the world of tomorrow and for your child that you’ll be growing up in this world for many years to come from now. So, let’s talk about some of the — I want to come back to two questions before we end today because, I think, they’re quite important questions. One is, like, there must have been some challenges, right. We’ve heard some great start.
Jenn Graham: [00:42:57] Oh yeah.
Rita Trehan: [00:42:57] But talk about some of the challenges because, I think, sometimes, people, when they think about being CEOs, they think, “That’s not my life. My life’s not like that. I’ve got this challenge and that challenge. And I woke up today, and I just thought I am going to pack it all in.” So, talk about that because there is a way through that adversity. And it’s not accurate to think it doesn’t exist.
Jenn Graham: [00:43:19] Yeah. Oh, my gosh. I think a founder, when we have an idea, and you want it real instantly, you want it so bad that you want it ready to go and launched like a month from now. And I think the reality of what I’ve had to kind of just admit in myself is that my sense of urgency can only be extended through 24 hours a day that I have, that I have to work with, and I can control myself. But then, society just — what’s the right word to say this? But you have to kind of work within the environment that you’re in.
Jenn Graham: [00:43:58] And I would say, like, I didn’t just jump into this, I let it be a slow burn from an idea to a spark, to kind of catch fire a little bit, and just kind of test it out, fan the flame here in there, pilot it. We tried it out in different ways. And I held on to my day job working at a design firm for five years before knowing that I was learning the skills that I would need to run a company eventually but, really, trying to absorb anything that I could learn potentially in the future. And so, from there, once I had enough side hustle going where I had-
Rita Trehan: [00:44:35] I was just going to say that word.
Jenn Graham: [00:44:36] Yeah.
Rita Trehan: [00:44:36] I’m so please. I know it now. I liked every opportunity I can bring in.
Jenn Graham: [00:44:41] Yeah, totally. And I started Aha Strategy, which was a social innovation design company that was mostly meant to work with nonprofits and local governments on the side, just to help them tell their stories, and from a brand perspective. And so, I got my feet wet, and just managing clients on the side, and running, making sure that I was able to (A), provide a service that I could run on my own or pull in other people and perspectives initially. So, I was able to still keep my security, and my roof over my head, and be able to pay off my student loans with my current job, which I love. But then, also, being able to flex other skills and other muscles and develop new skills that I knew I would need if I was going to be running my own company.
Jenn Graham: [00:45:25] And then, once I got comfortable where I could let go and jump in, I kind of just started really nurturing the relationships that I had first off. I grew organically through referrals or word of mouth through some of my clients. I know that for consulting, that works pretty well. For other companies, marketing is essential, but I didn’t have any marketing when I first started. And then, from there, word of mouth started spreading. And then, through different projects, I learned different things.
Jenn Graham: [00:45:53] Civic Dinners really spun out of work that I had started with Aha Strategy working with the Atlanta Regional Commission, and just exploring, and following that curiosity. I remember, it was after I got married in 2016, my husband and I had a bike date, and we strolled, and he asked me a question because we wanted to start a family. We knew that was our next big step. Get married, check. Buy a house, check. Now, it’s time to start a family. What are we going to do?
Jenn Graham: [00:46:23] And so, as we’re thinking about timeline, we knew we would give ourselves about two years. So, this is three and a half years ago. And I was like, “You know what? Based on what we learned from the Millennial Advisory Panel, I want to make this thing fly. I really want to pour everything I can into building this.” And he’s like, “Let’s do it.” So, he’s been with me the whole time. I’ve been learning from him. He’s also an entrepreneur in the tech space as well and lent me. I borrowed his developer at cost internally. And we were very resourceful in covering our costs and kind of keeping things going. But the timeline, of course, looking out in 2016 when the election happened, I was devastated because I was like, “If this existed now, we wouldn’t have this problem.” And I felt this sense of real sadness, and grief, and urgency around like, “I have to put everything into this now. The time is now. And I need to accelerate and get this together.”
Jenn Graham: [00:47:18] So, I started signing up for incubators and accelerators that were free and accessible in Atlanta. Anybody that would except me, I was in, and was just trying to absorb and learn how to manage a team. I’d never done that before. How to grow? How to create enterprise relationships? How to create systems and infrastructures that I could scale? Because I knew that this work couldn’t just be in Atlanta. It had to really open its wings and become a system that others could use in. As we learned from the Millennial Advisory Panel, we soon got — after winning several awards for that process, other regions and non-profits started reaching out saying, “How do we use dinners to engage our alumni, our members, our students, you name it, and citizens, residents and just community members?” So, we knew we had found something. It was just a matter of building the technology that would help support it and really working with the right clients to help build it with them and for them.
Jenn Graham: [00:48:17] And so, Atlanta Regional Commission kind of became our founding partner in this. We got to test a lot of things with them, make sure that it was actually something that people wanted, and would buy, and would reuse, and it would be useful for them. So, designing tools with them and for them. And it took way longer than I had ever imagined. But now, we’re finally at a point where we know we’ve got a system, a process, and a platform that works, and then gets real results. And now, we’re ready to bring it to other cities around the world.
Rita Trehan: [00:48:44] I think there’s so many nuggets of great advice and learnings for anybody listening to that and hearing about your experience of how you’ve kind of taken this business, this idea, and really brought it to fruition, and recognizing that there’s still so much more to do. You have inspired me beyond belief. I’m sure that we will continue this conversation. Unfortunately, we do have to bring this podcast to close. But anybody that’s listening internationally, here in Atlanta, anywhere in the US, anywhere in the world, in fact, if they want to know about you, Jenn, what’s the best way for them to get in contact with you?
Jenn Graham: [00:49:18] I’d say first, follow us on all social media. We have Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. It’s @civicdinners. So, Civic Dinners. And then, if you want to reach out, if you want to learn more, if you want to bring us to your city, we’d love to join you in this work. And so, you can email us at email@example.com.
Rita Trehan: [00:49:37] Okay, great. And if you want to hear more about Dare Worldwide, you can find out about Day Worldwide on www.dareworldwide.com. If you want to follow me on Twitter, it’s @rita_trehan. And of course, if you listen to Daring To, the podcast, you’ll get to hear Jenn, lots of other people, but most importantly, you’ll get to hear from entrepreneurs and CEOs who are really daring to change the world. Thank you so much.
Jenn Graham: [00:50:02] Thank you so much.
Rita Trehan: [00:50:02] Thank you, listeners. I hope you enjoyed this episode.
Outro: [00:50:05] Thanks for listening. Enjoyed the conversation? Make sure you subscribe, so you don’t miss out on future episodes of Daring To. Also, check out our website, dareworldwide.com for some great resources around business, in general, leadership, and how to bring about change. See you next time.