We talked to Jenn Graham, CEO and Founder of Civic Dinners building a brighter future, one conversation at a time and she had the following to say about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jenn Graham: We are most grateful to be healthy and safe during this uniquely challenging moment in history. I also feel lucky to have had the opportunity to grow our business and our family this year, welcoming baby Rose in November 2020 (alongside our first female Vice President!).
Tell us about the founding of Civic Dinners.
Jenn Graham: Civic Dinners started in Atlanta in 2014 as a social experiment, as a way to bring people together to talk about what we loved about Atlanta. Word quickly spread, and we had 60 dinners in just 6 weeks. What started as a dinner party project became the framework for a new form of civil discourse and civic engagement, where friends, neighbors and strangers could connect outside of their bubbles to talk about the issues facing our communities today. What we discovered was that people cared deeply about their city and wanted to be heard by leaders. And leaders were eager to hear what everyday residents cared about, but just didn’t have the tools or processes in place to really hear them. So we built a platform to help frame the big issues of our time, bring diverse voices to the table, aggregate key insights and ultimately inspire individual participation and collective action around important issues. Since then, over 25,000 people have signed up, and we’ve held over 2,000 Civic Dinners around the world (both in-person and virtual) in 11 languages. We’ve designed over 50 conversation topics that range from racial equity and climate change to female entrepreneurship and inclusion.
Why is it challenging for individuals to discuss polarizing topics?
Jenn Graham: Today, it seems many issues are hot topics. People are deeply afraid of raising important issues with friends and colleagues for fear of rejection. We’ve grown up being taught not to talk about politics at the dinner table so that we maintain civility. In 2021, we are further divided by our echo chambers on social media. When you feel like you haven’t found a community, the fear of loneliness can be very strong. This makes coming together to share views increasingly hard.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
Jenn Graham: Essentially dinner was cancelled for all of 2020. But we were quick to pivot to virtual dinners within 10 days of getting into the pandemic. We knew it was more important than ever; it was to feel connected to a sense of community during a lockdown and social isolation. The push towards virtual dinners has shown concrete promise by increasing the value of our platform and imploring us to focus on how to better connect people in isolating and divisive times. Our team is largely remote and scattered across the world, which has made the transition to work from home fairly simple.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Jenn Graham: COVID-19 has presented challenges and lessons for all businesses. For Civic Dinners, we were forced to reckon with the risk of shifting entirely online. It was a leap of faith to invest in systems that were completely new to us. In the end, as I think back to a wildly uncertain time, the pandemic made us stronger and more nimble as a young business, and I could not be more proud of my team for moving us forward.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Jenn Graham: As a CEO and a new mom, I love spending precious time with my infant and toddler and have really enjoyed spending so much more time at home. When I’m feeling stressed or anxious, it’s 99% likely caused by not having my priorities written down and in front of me. Once I can lay it out and see it, I can tackle each task one at a time. As for personal wellness, I’m all about taking time for self-care, including weekly catchups over croissants and cappuccinos with my best friend and kids (wearing masks outside of course).
What is Civic Dinners’ competitive advantage?
Jenn Graham: Our structured conversation design is world-class. We’ve worked with the largest brands in the market, from Facebook to Coca-Cola, to design conversations that speak to hearts and minds and guide people to open up in incredibly vulnerable ways in a safe space, which few of our competitors do. We weave in inclusive leadership practices as well as culture change methodologies to design an experience. We were the first platform of our kind, and we’ve paved the way, expanding our reach beyond the initial “civic” audience including cities, counties, metropolitan planning organizations and states. We’ve grown to work with large nonprofits, global brands, and universities.
What final advice can you share for other leaders looking to these types of discussions in the workplace?
Jenn Graham: Companies should remember that the heaviness of the current events is weighing on everyone, regardless of their point of view, or their role within the workplace. Employees might struggle with their productivity if they don’t have an appropriate space to vent a little and heal. It’s understandable that managers are afraid to give their people this space because it could feel like opening up a can of worms, but it can be a healthy, useful exercise with the right framework in place. Transparency and openness from a company will go a long way for so many people that want to feel okay, not alone, and that their employers support them in harnessing this energy into something productive, like policy change both within their organizations and outside in their community.
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