On this week’s episode of I Make A Living, we’re sitting down with Carl Smith, owner of Bureau of Digital, an online space where owners, operators, project managers, and designers trade knowledge and build each other up. Carl shares his experiences of crafting authentic online communities: his goal is to make everyone feel like they’re supposed to be at his events, and he’s got a team showing him the way.
When Carl Smith’s eleven-year-old daughter started getting into classic rock like Joan Jett, she asked her dad how he wanted to be remembered. Carl had run his own digital agency nGen Works for twelve years, but his daughter’s questions about legacy made him realize his true passion was boosting other leaders into the stratosphere. “If you’re a leader, you probably didn’t go to school for that,” he says and gave himself the goal of figuring out how to help people in leadership roles unlock their potential.
The first Bureau of Digital event was a couple of dozen digital shop owners talking about what worked and what didn’t. And, as Carl says, “We fell in love with each other.” Their mission was to provide community to the digital space.
But from the beginning, it was clear that some folks weren’t in the room. In 2012, there were only a handful of women and BIPOC people at the table, and gender diversity became a bigger issue as the Bureau took off. Carl shares that women often didn’t sign up for owner-focused events, sticking with ones designed for operators. After another gender-unbalanced event, Margaret Lee, who ran Google Maps for nearly a decade, pulled him aside for a chat. She suggested they offer a women’s leadership camp. His response? “Yes, ma’am.”
It turned out to be a half-solution. At one event, he was approached by a participant who said, “White women’s leadership camp is going great.” When he flinched, she reminded him, “It’s going to be work, Carl.” He knew he had to figure out where to go from there, but he couldn’t do it on his own.
Enter Project Inkblot. Co-founders Boyuan Gao and Jahan Mantin work with organizations as coaches to build diversity—the real stuff, not trendy hashtags—into their operations. For Carl, it meant taking a step back and asking them to lead the Bureau of Digital through a process of designing Beyond Diversity: an event, a fund, and a mindset that is honest about why BIPOC people and women often feel sidelined in digital communities and is working to change that. “When there are people who can do it correctly because they’ve lived it, I need to get the hell out of the way.”
Bureau of Digital has experienced an explosion of growth since January 202—membership is up a mind-boggling 750%—and while membership hadn’t been a priority before the pandemic, the Bureau’s 500+ members have changed that. They have a robust and active Slack channel full of people sharing frustrations and solutions on topics as diverse as navigating the Paycheck Protection Program to how to hire remotely. Carl regularly mines the Slack channel for topics to write about in the Bureau’s newsletter.
And while the Bureau may have started in a single room, Carl recognizes that online communities are here to stay. They’re not planning anything in-person until 2022, and “We’re going to have an online equivalent to the in-person events as well.” Score one for accessibility.
Most of all, Carl wants leaders (especially those without formal leadership training) to rid themselves of the mindset that being in charge means they need to know everything. He says there’s “this fear that someone will find us out,” speaking to the imposter syndrome often found at high levels. But not knowing is part of building the right team and the right culture. “Your job is not to contain a team behind a fence; it’s to create a place that is a magnet,” he says. Creating a diverse, authentic, safe place for leaders to actually get the skills they need to lead the way—now there’s a legacy.
To learn more about our guest, go to Bureau of Digital
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