I like the world better in person than on Zoom.
That’s my takeaway from 2023, and guides this, my last column of the year. I wanted to close the year out by sharing some of the smartest people and places I encountered, and the companies and communities they fuel. It’s not a coincidence that many come from countries outside the United States, where there is often more comfort with the social and socially conscious aspects of work. These ideas literally changed how I work, live, think and lead—and I’m taking them with me into 2024.
Make space for commerce, creativity, and collisions.
In April, I was in Amsterdam to see the rightfully hyped Vermeer exhibit when I looked up Akwasi Ansah, a rapper and broadcast journalist I’d met earlier in the year at a conference. He insisted we meet at the Volkshotel, and upon entry, I understood why. To my right, a popup market of vendors from across Europe. To my left, a coffee shop and cavernous space with a DJ booth. Upstairs: costume makers, podcast studios, and other content creators. On the roof: a bar. While there, we ran into former colleagues of Ansah—he serves as creative director for Zwart, an inclusive broadcast station—who are now doing their own show.
Reflecting on the experience later on reminded me of two columns I have written on the power of competitors cooperating by sharing information and even collaborating. It also made me realize that space and in-person interactions among people can help cut down on the one-upmanship we see on social media, or online snarkiness between warring points of view and different personalities. The types of people attracted to the Volkshotel, a former newspaper factory turned into hotel-cum-meeting space, are creative idealists, and thus they define its culture. That made me think anew about the types of businesses we want to work around as we set up offices of the future and transition from individual enterprises into an interdependent ecosystem.
Principles of ecologically sustainable farming applied to startup life
We were on a family vacation in Costa Rica when my husband asked if my daughter and I wanted to start our morning with a discussion on the principles of permaculture, an approach to land management and settlement.
Yeah, I had the same reaction you’re having.
But stay with me—I ended up taking notes on scraps of paper in my purse. That’s how inspired I emerged at Valle Escondido, a nature reserve, hotel, and farm in the Monteverde cloud forest. It’s run by a college friend of my husband, Jonah Chaffee, who follows the principles of permaculture, an approach to land management where methods are perhaps more important than the outcomes, relying on keen observation and a need to pivot and be adaptable. With such an obvious metaphor to startup life, I was hooked.
Observation over long periods of time is key to permaculture’s success. I thought of the contrast of fast innovation, scale, and results that drives startup culture in the US. How much better might we innovate if we stopped to fully understand—and observe, without acting—the problem we’re trying to solve?
At Valle Escondido, there’s a grassy area near a lovely vista where hammocks are strung about. Local residents have access to the space and use it as a park. But the hammocks also serve as a reminder to stop and think and do nothing as you wait for seeds to grow. As someone who struggles to sit still, this lesson has stuck with me.
When you don’t care what car your neighbor’s driving
We were in Goa, India, over the summer for a family holiday when a filmmaker and entrepreneur I know invited us to come by his office. (If you think I need to learn how to actually relax on vacation better, you aren’t wrong.) The Memesys Culture Lab is a cinema and new media studio housed in a series of connected rooms with beautiful views of the lush, green landscape around. Besides films, it produces games, science and philosophy products and books, and essentially incubates smart thinkers and their ideas for better storytelling. I loved the playful atmosphere of the workplace, the camaraderie among colleagues, and the cavernous, comfortable screening room.
When I asked Vinay Shukla, the filmmaker behind the critically acclaimed documentary “While We Watched,” why he was here, he told me, “If I was back in Bombay, I’d be more obsessed with the car my neighbor was driving than the work.”
I knew right away what he meant. I confess much of my 2023 (and years previous) have been marked by FOMO as I scrolled through celebratory posts of the parties I wasn’t invited to, awards I will never win, dresses I will never fit into. What if we could intentionally remove ourselves from that mindset and just concentrate on the work and our greater purpose?
I WhatsApped Shukla this week to remind him of this conversation. He contextualized why the space works: “We came onboard to build a space open to young people, which would wrestle with the ideas, concerns and ambitions we have towards shaping our zeitgeist.” He bluntly describes them as steeped in intellectual discipline and creating “our literary earth ships in a world which increasingly feels like a dumpster fire.”
A few months later, my business partner found herself in a fellowship that encourages unplugging to achieve greater focus. There, she told me, they have reframed left-out feelings into JOMO: the joy of missing out. Indeed.
You are as great as the energy you project.
Two interviews this year have forced me to look at the energy I am projecting at all times. In a conversation with Peloton instructor Alex Toussaint, I asked how he shifts from being on the bike to off, on camera to off, being a celebrity to being his Haitian immigrant parents’ son.
“My life is always on,” he told me. “How I am off the bike is how I am on the bike. How I am on the bike is how I am at my house. I don’t know any other way but to show up all the way.”
A few months later, I was interviewing Vineet Nayar, the former CEO of HCL Technologies, on his revolutionary strategy of putting employees before customers. And he told me to think about the leaders I admire most. “They were in the business of inspiring people,” he said. “Not managing people, not guiding people, but inspiring people.” Inspiring people is only possible if you focus on the collective success that’s possible, versus on an individual.
I have since thought about both of their words at the beginning of every staff meeting I run. I can still be honest and vulnerable about the challenges, but I share them with an eye toward collective solutions—and with much higher energy and enthusiasm than before.
When people hate you
A few times this year I have dealt with some setbacks and, what do the kids call it, shade. Two pieces of advice have been key. One from my business partner, Sara Lomax, who has worked in Black media for more than three decades. She said, “You don’t get to be successful without a few people knocking you down. It’s absolutely impossible.”
Another mentor weighed in as I grappled with wording an email to someone exploiting my goodwill. I pride myself on responding to most people and agreeing to chat or take meetings, as I have written about before. But not everyone deserves that side, he told me. “You’ve got to start sending messages sometimes without words,” he said.
And so in 2024, I might actually not respond to people who zap my energy. Imagine that.
Being content is good enough.
At a breakfast meeting last week, Rajan Shah, who I met decades ago when he founded the South Asians in Media Marketing & Entertainment and is now CEO of Shah & Partners, reminded me of how far our community has come. Seeing South Asians in movies and on television used to be so rare. We talked about FOMO and what fulfills us now. He quoted something his father had just told him: “We try so hard to chase the idea of happiness over contentment, when contentment is all you need. Find contentment and you’ll be happy.”
In 2024—a year I expect will be a challenging one—I am clinging to this idea. Striving for just enough might be just enough.