Create regular opportunities for your team to bond as regular people. It amuses me how so many companies think that hosting one expensive off-site a year will create a long-lasting and meaningful bond for their staff. Think about it: If you were in a relationship, would you expect a single weekend getaway to create all the trust and connection necessary for your relationship to stay healthy and strong forever? No, it must be worked on all the time, in small and large ways. It’s important for people to learn about each other, to understand the complexities of each other’s lives, and to know what truly matters to each other beyond just their job descriptions so that they can have more context and understanding about each other. Support your staff in having recurring meals or coffee walks together. Vary the group size to allow for different interaction preferences. And allow people a measure of autonomy over how their time is spent. Model openness and vulnerability by sharing about yourself too. You’re likely to find that others will follow your lead and then overall rates of belonging and connection should follow along right after that.
Asa part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kat Vellos
Kat Vellos is a trusted expert on the power of cultivating meaningful connections, as well as the loneliness epidemic, community-building, and healthy work environments.
She’s the author of We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships which was called “marvelous” by BookLife, a subsidiary of Publishers Weekly, and which Kirkus Reviews compared to the work of Norman Vincent Peale and Cicero. Since its release in January 2020, it’s been helping adults around the world heal from disconnection and loneliness.
Kat has twenty years’ experience creating communities where people find belonging and authentic connection. A veteran facilitator, she founded Better than Small Talk and Bay Area Black Designers which was profiled by Forbes. Both groups have provided tools for creating connection for hundreds of people across the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond.
She’s also a seasoned researcher and UX designer. She’s worked for Slack, Pandora, and multiple Silicon Valley startups. She’s graced the stage as a speaker for Design for America, UX Week, Social Good Tech Week, and been a contributor to the Transforming Loneliness Summit and other gatherings focused on cultivating belonging and connection.
Kat has now turned her UX expertise towards combating the loneliness epidemic, by helping millions of people experience greater wellness and fulfillment through thriving platonic relationships.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Mycareer started out in print design. I spent a few years as a graphic designer and editorial art director for an award-winning investigative newsmagazine. But I wanted to feel like I was making a bigger impact in the world. So I spent some time designing and facilitating IRL experiences for non-profit organizations that prioritize education, social justice, art, marginalized youth, personal development, and service to community. During that time, the iPhone was invented and the world of design adapted to new realities. A little while later, I came back to digital design full-time, with a passion to combine my expertise as a visual designer with my passion for helping people get their needs met. UX (User Experience) Design was the perfect vehicle for doing both of those things simultaneously. My design philosophy is driven by curiosity and empathy. I am most inspired to create solutions when I can learn deeply about the problem and the people affected by it.
More recently, that’s looked like using my UX expertise to combat the loneliness epidemic, by helping millions of people experience greater wellness and fulfillment through thriving platonic relationships. That’s what I spend my time doing now: consulting for products and services in the social wellness space, as well as speaking and coaching.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Since I’ve been working for myself for a little while now, I can tell you that the most interesting thing that’s happened is actually something one that occurs on a semi-regular basis. It’s when I hear from customers around the world who’ve read We Should Get Together and its guides and they are using the strategies to cultivate closer, more fulfilling platonic connections and community. I knew my book was going to be available worldwide, but there’s nothing quite like hearing from a real person on the other side of the planet who is positively affected by something that I created.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
At my very first design job out of college, was actually not in tech, but in editorial design and advertising design for a weekly magazine. While designing one of my first big ads, I forgot to change one small setting that determined whether a brightly colored background would appear behind/around a black and white photo, or show through it. When the magazine printed, all the photos in that two-page spread (that I was so proud of!) printed with the colored background showing through the photos instead of behind them. I was mortified. The publisher was very forgiving and took it in stride; we were able to reprint it again in the following week’s edition. The lesson I learned from that was: even your worst mistake doesn’t last forever. Also, I never forgot to change that setting again.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My role is unique because I have this background in both design and the nonprofit world. But this is a perfect representation of my own heart: I’m passionate about design and I’m also passionate about serving the world. A lot of companies in tech only care about making money, and a lot of designers only care about working on something flashy and “cool.” But I think the coolest thing possible is to use design thinking and technology to truly improve the world and people’s lives in an undeniably positive way.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The most exciting thing happening right now is everything that’s blossomed from the release of my book, We Should Get Together. Since releasing it, the most remarkable doors have been opening all over the place. I’ve received requests for collaboration, partnership, consulting, interviews and speaking engagements — all from other wonderful people who are also deeply committed to helping other people thrive. Writing this book was such an act of vulnerability, and so it’s deeply rewarding to be met with such positivity. Every week I meet fantastic people who are on the same wavelength and committed to the same mission.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I’m definitely not satisfied with it. In order for the status quo to change, it would require full-scale dismantling of systems of oppression that currently favor one group of people who hold the highest level of privilege (essentially white men). In order for this all to change, we would have to live in a society that prioritizes justice and equality above power and privilege. Those who have the most power and privilege would have to understand the benefits of relinquishing some of it so that everyone can have more equal access to experiences and opportunities. They would have to understand that this doesn’t just make things better because it’s “more fair” — this makes this better because the result is that we get better decision-making and better outcomes when teams and communities are diverse and well-balanced.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
One of the most pervasive challenges we face are the constant second-guessing and erasure of our contributions. I can tell you countless stories from my own life and from other women I know in tech who can describe a time when her ideas were either ignored until they were repeated by a male coworker, or who flat-out had her contribution erased and the credit claimed by a man. On the most basic level, we deserve to be acknowledged and respected for our ideas and contributions. To address this requires men to open their eyes and ears to see it as it happens, and then to be better allies who call each other out and make it clear that that kind of disrespect and erasure are not acceptable.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
One big myth is that women are not as interested in, or capable of succeeding in, STEM or technical roles. That’s the reason for the high attrition of women from these roles. This myth simply isn’t true. The reason why this myth is perpetuated is because women often experience exclusion, stereotype threat, alienation, disrespect and harassment when they enter STEM and technical spaces, and those challenges are what often force women to leave their roles in these industries. It’s not because they’re incapable of the work — it’s because of toxic environments that make these roles unhealthy and untenable for them to sustain.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
5 Leadership Lessons I’ve learned are:
“People don’t care what you know until they know that you care”
I first heard this Teddy Roosevelt quote from one of the best managers I ever had — a woman named Monda Holsinger. She had this amazing ability to blend expert professional excellence with having a huge, open, compassionate heart. Most people lean one way or the other, leaving gaps on the professionalism side or gaps on the empathy/heart side. Monda could do both equally and it was an incredible learning experience to work for her. I think of her almost every day and she continually inspires me to level up in everything that I do.
“Always leave it better than you found it”
This is another one I learned from Monda. It applies to the way we treat our physical spaces and the people around us. She instilled in her staff the importance of bringing our best and making a positive contribution in everything we do.
“Good leaders listen first”
I’m an avid reader of personal development, communication and leadership books and this lesson is one that I picked up from the book Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. She shows how important it is for leaders to have open and empathetic curiosity. She posits that they should use their ears before they open their mouths. Too many so-called leaders think that filling up all the available air space talking in grandiose ways will prove how important they are. I believe that a good leader demonstrates that they care about their team by listening to understand what the team knows and cares about, and then the leader should synthesize that information to show people that their contributions have a meaningful impact on the direction of future work.
“Hold people capable and able”
I learned this leadership lesson from one of my first facilitation teachers, Hanif Fazal, who is the founder of multiple organizations and trainings centered on personal development, equity, inclusion. The core of this lesson is about letting others know what the expectations are, believing them capable of meeting those expectations even when it’s a stretch for them, and allowing them the space to be accountable and step up. When given this kind of space and trust, people will often rise to the occasion.
“Trust the process”
This leadership lesson was demonstrated for me by one of my greatest facilitation mentors, Peggy Taylor, the co-founder of Partnership for Youth Empowerment and the Heart of Facilitation training. In our many hours leading programs together, Peggy demonstrated with grace and ease how to hold a plan loosely while staying open to the moment and meeting people where they are. Trusting the process means being fully present in the moment and knowing that you can still get to your end destination even if the path to get there takes some surprising turns along the way.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
The advice I’d give to other leaders — of any gender — to help their team thrive is to incorporate the best practices of experiential facilitation into their team. It will lead to higher psychological safety, and a stronger, more connected team
- Create and uphold a set of norms or agreements about how you will all engage with each other. This should be a small set of behaviors that you all agree to adopt in how you will and won’t behave towards each other. These agreements should prioritize respect, inclusivity, emotional wellbeing and safety. One of the best managers I ever had took this very seriously. She even had a “no sarcasm” rule, because she knows that many people grew up being teased and bullied, and that sarcastic put-down jokes have that tiny dagger in them, even when said in a joking way. She refused to let people on her team talk to each other that way and it created an incredibly safe environment. She took communication and kindness seriously, and made sure that we all did, too.
- Set the stage for where you are and where you’re going as a group. Be transparent with your team about what the plans are for what will be happening in your team, department and company. No one loves surprises, so as much as you’re able to, share your information with the team and allow them to share their feelings and thoughts about those plans with you in a non-judgmental space where all feelings are valid.
- Celebrate the strengths that each individual person brings to the table. No one likes to be compared to one or two favored superstars. Check yourself if you’re constantly referring to one or two staff as the only role models of people worth learning from. Don’t expect people to be clones of each other, and don’t paint the expectation that there’s only one or two ways to be successful. Help people create individualized plans for success based on their own strengths and goals, and as you measure growth, only compare people to past versions of themselves.
- Show your human side, including your emotions. Society and corporate habits paint this idea that business leaders are supposed to be stoic, emotionless, and reserved at all times. But that comes off very robotically, and it sets an expectation that other people on the team are supposed to show up that way too, especially if they want to get promoted. But this disregards people’s humanity. Staff won’t feel safe bringing their whole selves to work if they perceive that parts of themselves will be rejected or unwelcome. The best boss I ever had showed up as a real person, with real feelings and emotions. She was able to project and expect excellence, while also revealing her humanness, hopes, fears, and ideals. The more you show up as a full person, the more you make the workspace a safe and inclusive space for your staff to show up as full people too.
- Create regular opportunities for your team to bond as regular people. It amuses me how so many companies think that hosting one expensive off-site a year will create a long-lasting and meaningful bond for their staff. Think about it: If you were in a relationship, would you expect a single weekend getaway to create all the trust and connection necessary for your relationship to stay healthy and strong forever? No, it must be worked on all the time, in small and large ways. It’s important for people to learn about each other, to understand the complexities of each other’s lives, and to know what truly matters to each other beyond just their job descriptions so that they can have more context and understanding about each other. Support your staff in having recurring meals or coffee walks together. Vary the group size to allow for different interaction preferences. And allow people a measure of autonomy over how their time is spent. Model openness and vulnerability by sharing about yourself too. You’re likely to find that others will follow your lead and then overall rates of belonging and connection should follow along right after that.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I’ve only managed small teams, but my advice from that angle would be to:
- Listen deeply to understand the needs, challenges, and hopes of your staff. Don’t just listen to the more senior staff, there are lessons to be learned from people at every rung of the ladder.
- Prioritize fixing the biggest issues that are impediments to your staff’s success.
- Delegate to allow others to shine and to allow yourself the chance to focus on bigger issues.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I love this question! There are so many people who have been a part of helping me get where I am today, and the one I’d like to recognize here is Kristy Tillman. Kristy is an incredible leader in the design industry. From our very first interaction during one of the office hours that she offers the community, she showed me warmth, realness, and a trusting welcoming presence. One major way that people who have achieved her level of success can give back is by “holding the door open” for others behind them, and being a supportive sounding board along the way. Kristy’s done that for me before we worked together at Slack, during our time there, and she continues to do so even after I’ve moved on from the company. Her belief in me and her support has been a real gift that’s benefitted my life in invaluable ways.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I do this by creating opportunities and building bridges so that other people can have access to the kinds of resources and communities that I wished for along the way.
One way I did this was by creating the group Bay Area Black Designers. In my first ten years after college, I only met one other Black female designer. I was sick of feeling like I was the only one. And I didn’t want other Black designers to feel that way either. A lot of people of color leave STEM due to the challenges associated with being underrepresented in those spaces. In the tech industry, less than 5% of the workforce is African-American. As underrepresented people in the tech industry, we are working in spaces where we don’t see a lot of people who look like us. And it’s pervasive even outside the workplace where we are often “the only one” at conferences, in meetups or in college classrooms.
There are real challenges associated with being underrepresented. In order to cope and move through these obstacles, people of color need access to strong, supportive communities. They give us a place to safely talk about the challenges we deal with as an underestimated population within the tech industry. A place to be a source of support to each other. A nonjudgmental place to learn and grow. When I started the group, there were about five of us. Now, there are over 450 of us. Members express how grateful they are for having access to an affirming community that validates their presence, their path, and their journey.
Similarly, I created other communities and events which grew out of my own challenges navigating friendship in adulthood in a new city. I used the UX design process to investigate that problem and offer a slate of solutions for it with my book We Should Get Together. My biggest hope is that it would help people create the strong platonic connections they long for. In the short time since its release, it’s already working for people. I want to spread this as far and wide as possible so we can begin to reverse the isolation and loneliness that plagues our world.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would start a connection revolution. I’m already trying to do that with my book We Should Get Together, haha! My biggest hope is that it will reach everyone in every country in every part of the world that needs it. May it grow like wildfire. May it spark a million more ideas, quality conversations, and deep bonds of connection. May it inspire neighborliness go viral. May we look back one day in confusion as we wonder, “How on earth could we have ever been so disconnected?”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In my final year of college I had one extra elective spot and I filled it with a philosophy course since that was something that I’d been curious to study more but hadn’t had time for during the bulk of my design degree requirements. I completely loved every minute of the course and was moved by the dictum that Socrates gave at the trial that led to his death: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This has stuck with me ever since. I resonate with what these words implore us towards: self-reflection and objective inquisitiveness; to review the self while trying to stand slightly outside the self; to make the most of one’s life through honest self-examination.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Any of the following, in this order of preference: