Try new things. Even if it is a new recipe. Or a new author. Or a new friend. l’m very, very, very slowly studying Italian. When we try new things, our brains grow, our cognitive complexity increases. We feel energized and connected, even if only temporarily. In isolation, we miss the random, everyday interactions with strangers and neighbors and coworkers and clients and family. Yet these are moments we often feel most alive — in relationship to somebody else.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah V. Pagnotta. Deborah, who grew up in Africa, Europe and the US, is developing a story generator app, ULU, to help employees craft and tell their true stories at work to foster inclusion and community. She has composed a life of several careers: a lawyer, a workplace conduct trainer, a college communications professor, VP of Human Resources, and now entrepreneur. She has also composed a wonderful multicultural, multidimensional extended family.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
My parents, both from the Bronx, New York, each blazed their own path. My dad, as an employee of Ford Auto in 1954, helped create the first planned integrated housing community in the United States. My mum became an architect when only a handful of women had obtained the degree — and, as she recalls, only to spite her high school teacher who told her women could NOT be architects. When I was 5 and my sister 6, my by-then-divorced mum moved us from California to Accra, Ghana. She had been hired by then-President Kwame Nkrumah to help design villages for the massive Volta Dam project he was building. Off we went, like two little boats bobbling along after a steamer.
My sister and I thrived, despite some harrowing experiences resulting from my mum’s adventurous spirit. Our first year in Accra, she went on trek up north with her work colleague, popping us in a home for missionaries’ children for the weekend. But she was in a terrible car accident, left comatose hundreds of miles from any telephone or medical care. Fortunately, local villagers used talking drums to convey the message southward village to village about this near-dead white woman, eventually reaching a very modern village with a short wave radio. The radio message dispatched, reaching the Soviet embassy in Accra first, directly across from the American Embassy. (The Soviets had the taller radio tower — this was at the height of the Cold War). One kind Russian walked across the street and knocked on the door of the US embassy to alert them “one of theirs” was critically injured. My mum was helicoptered to the US military hospital, where she stayed with smashed skull and broken ribs for over a month. For that month, my sister and I stayed with the missionaries, who prayed vigorously but unsuccessfully for our Jewish souls.
Another perilous event occurred when I was 10. In the face of rising violence before Nkrumah was deposed, our mother sent us to a little boarding school in Gstaad, a small town in the Swiss alps. Visiting us that winter, my mum opted to learn to ski. Off-piste, she followed our handsome ski guide across a narrow snow-packed bridge over a roaring mountain stream. She paused in the middle of the bridge, lost her balance and fell some 15 feet face-first onto some rocks in the water. My sister and I burst into tears — we knew this was “the one.” But she stood up in the crashing water and rocks, nose broken and bleeding, and shouted at us, “What the hell are YOU crying about? I’m the one in the river!”
After a military coup d’etat removed Nkrumah, my mother fled Ghana, moving us back to California, then to New Haven, CT, back across the country. My time in the US was punctuated by anti-war marches, Vietnam, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and the moon landing. Nothing felt safe in the US to me, an early expat. Soon, our mum returned to Africa, and with her tiny inheritance from her immigrant, garment worker father, sent us to another then-small boarding school in Villars, Swizerland: Aiglon Collège.
Aiglon had a rigorous academic program but was known for its even more rigorous physical education program modeled on Upward Bound. At 14 years of age, I was going on 3-day unsupervised hiking trips, where our small group would carry our own food, a map, and tent. We routinely went on long expeditions in the fall and winter, including skiing across glaciers, or across snow fields having been warned to be silent so as not to trigger avalanches. And nomads all, we gathered our stories of our adventures, trading them for still others. At 15 and 16, as my mother was busy getting remarried and conducting research in Africa, I spent the summers hiking through Europe with one or two friends, in hostels, on beaches, and picking up the rare parental letter at various American Express offices (this was all before the internet or even much international phone conversation). I’m still friends with many Aiglonites, on Facebook and in person when we can. We last gathered in 2019 back in Villars for a reunion, swapping again the online and offline stories that sustained us then and still. Susie is in London, Chris in Zurich, Catherine in Chicago, Andrew in Australia. Even during this pandemic, we have stayed in touch, as if somehow the wider the safety net of old, old friends, the safer, more rooted and connected we might feel.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In Ghana, we spent much time on the beach, paddling in nearby lagoons and often watching the fishermen and their boats. Each boat had a saying written on its side. One was “one man, no chop.” In pidgin English, “chop” meant food. The saying literally meant “no food for one man,” and figuratively indicated the spirit of community: one man cannot survive alone. That has always stayed with me, underscoring my good fortune in having my sister and friends and far-flung family — and indeed strangers — who have been remarkably kind to me.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Chariots of Fire, a film based on a true story about two runners who compete in the 1924 Olympics. One Eric Liddell, a Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice. Here’s a link to the extraordinary main theme, by Vangelis: https://youtu.be/CSav51fVlKU. Their interwoven stories are deeply personal, each driven by different desires and contexts; and I found great insight and comfort into what may drive us to seek an intangible, a sense of acceptance, a sense of belonging, a sense of accomplishment for what one has oneself fought for. I watched it in 1981 during a visit to my mother. I was going through a difficult time, and she went to the movie theater with me that day. We watched the movie, holding hands (and sniffling a bit). And then we bought two more tickets and watched it again. I felt closer to her than I had for a very long time, in our shared intense, near incomprehensible drive to succeed, with complicated obstacles to overcome.
The athletes’ resilience and determination inspired me, and to this day I rewatch the film occasionally. One scene in particular brings me to tears: when Harold’s coach, not allowed into the Olympic arena, hears the roar of the crowd as Harold runs his race — and the coach murmurs to himself, “my son, my son.”
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
My career has been defined by unexpected lefthand turns. I graduated from law school (UC Hastings ’81, same law school as Kamala Harris!) I was hired by the New York State Attorney General, Robert Abrams, who had turned a sleepy backwater government office into a powerhouse public law firm — famous for having (successfully) sued Hooker Chemicals over the contamination of Love Canal. I was lucky enough to land in the Environmental Protection Bureau, where I became for some years the “Queen of Pesticides.” One of the best jobs I’ve ever had, because of the amazing talented lawyers I worked with who were each brilliant and funny in their own way. I was ambitious though, and accepted a position as Director of Legal Affairs and Deputy General Counsel at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Three years later, a new governor of New York State was elected, a new regime swept in for the first time in 20 years, and three weeks after promoting me to Acting General Counsel, he fired me for objecting to his terminating the agency’s eight attorneys of color. I was outraged, promptly sued, and lost. It was an odd year: I got fired and I got married and I turned 40.
Because I had “touched” nearly every issue at the agency, it was near impossible for me to continue practicing environmental law. So, having learned some very valuable life and law lessons about employment practices, I turned to the practice of employment law and was fortunate to join a small firm, Kirkpatrick & Silverberg LLP. At the same time, I started training companies on sexual harassment, this at a time when harassment litigation was becoming big business. Why? Because, as one of the very few women at a high level in a large government agency, I had been routinely called in to investigate every single allegation of harassment. As a woman, I was assumed to be more sensitive and have some inborn knowledge of the law. I didn’t, but learned it fast, and found the area fascinating, with its focus on human interaction. My training practice grew, and by 2001, I stepped away from litigation, choosing to focus primarily on employer counsel and training as our family also grew. I created a company, Interfacet, Inc. to provide training, mediation, and fact-finding, all on workplace conduct, harassment, intercultural communication and diversity.
In 2008, the world seemed to fall apart. The economy crashed, my corporate clients’ budgets stripped away the soft money items, like training. In addition, I contracted neuro-Lyme disease, creating serious cognitive impairments and deep fatigue — for years. I was very fortunate to have a doctor who provided excellent medical treatment, and also brutal honesty. When I asked him if I could ever practice law again, he gave me the hard truth: “we don’t know. You need to work now with what you have.” And, out of the blue, that month, in 2009, I was offered a position as an adjunct faculty at Iona College to teach Communication 101. I promptly said yes, as it required a different skill set, and one which I could muster. Less analytical thinking, and much more control over the environment and work demands. To my surprise, I absolutely LOVED teaching. I loved the students, the topics, and feeling as if I was making an actual concrete difference in my students’ lives. By 2012, Iona offered me a full-time position teaching a range of communication courses. During this time, I began reaching all of my students, regardless of the course, to tell true, personal transformational stories, based on The Moth podcast model. I did this to help my awkward first year students make friends, feel more comfortable with public speaking, and create connections across “categorical” lines. Within a few semesters, we had so many storytelling students, I started running a juried story slam every semester. Each event became larger and larger, and I was profoundly moved to see how responsive the audiences were and how many students began to step around or through previous walls and social barriers. I focused on the power of storytelling to connect people: stories in a particular format result in both the storyteller and the listeners releasing oxytocin (the “moral molecule”, aka the love hormone which generates a sense of trust and familiarity).
But teaching at the college level pays “bupkus” as my dad would say. My daughter was getting ready for college, when, again out of the blue, one of my old harassment training corporate clients offered me a combination position as Vice President of Human Resources and General Counsel — at a salary I could not refuse. So, I took the leap into the corporate world. I loved the workforce, security officers from around the world, and the challenges presented. But during that time, my mother was diagnosed with dementia, and both my stepparents passed away. I was the daughter geographically closest to both my mum and dad. While my sisters helped, I was at ground zero. My role as daughter came to the forefront: and my life necessarily centered around my parents. Once again, I had to make a lefthand turn to adapt to circumstances beyond my control. In 2018, I stepped down as VP/HR, but remained, working from home, as General Counsel. This suited me, as I had great flexibility in my time. But, then for me as for everybody else in the world, COVID-19 hit. By May 2020, my employer let me go, after they lost numerous clients because of the pandemic.
By June 2020, my mother, 91, was in assisted living and diagnosed with COVID. My dad was 96, and stubbornly living solo. Despite applying to hundreds of jobs, I remained unemployed. In November, my mother was diagnosed with another round of COVID, and life felt very bleak indeed.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
I sat and stared at the wall for a few days. Although I was very happy to leave corporate life, I was not at all happy to have no income. To qualify for unemployment benefits in New York you must provide documents every week to the state, to demonstrate you are truly looking for work. I began applying to a range of jobs, Head of HR, General Counsel, Storyteller. I was rejected repeatedly, for months and months. Constantly. I got nothing. I networked. Constantly. I got nothing. This was beyond disheartening, as I’d never ever not been able to find work. The economy had tanked. I turned 65 in August 2020. And I’ve practiced employment law long enough to know that 65-year-old women are NOT prime candidates, despite deep credentials. It was pretty depressing.
One afternoon in late November, I was idly “doom scrolling” on my iPhone. An article caught my eye about Launch1000, a business catalyst program provided by the Westchester County Office of Economic Development, where I live, and run by EntrepreneurReady. The program offers, in effect, a six-month bootcamp helping new small businesses start up. Because it seemed to fall from the phone right into my lap, I thought, “I can do this.” I had to take a risk — and this felt like a well-calculated risk. So, I applied. And got in! This program has been life-changing.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
I started Launch1000 with the idea of redeveloping diversityDNA®, an app I created 10 years ago, which allows users to identify their internal “cultural dimension” rules, and compare with other individual users or teams of users, to help navigate potential conflict early on. Up front in Launch 1000, I decided to add a storytelling function in, to help users talk about their perspectives. My idea was just a “throw-in,” which I thought would be an easy add because in my teaching years, I had perfected a simple storytelling paradigm to create transformational stories with a dramatic arc. But as I talked with potential customers, one particular gentleman who is very deeply engaged in inclusion work at a Fortune 100 company, paused when I mentioned the storytelling function — and the neurobiology underpinning its power. “Now THAT,” he said, “is an excellent idea.” It felt a bit as if time stood still.
Two days prior, Launch 1000 had a guest speaker, Jesse Wolfe (founder of O’Dang Hummus), who talked about his “aha” moment of realizing that although the market for hummus was controlled by one or two very large companies, nobody was selling hummus salad dressing. He pivoted — and became king of hummus salad dressing. Well, I really wanted that particular client. So, I was listening very carefully to what HE wanted, rather than thinking of ways to persuade him to like diversityDNA®. That night, I Googled for hours to see if there were ANY storytelling apps available. Nope. Just apps to create social media stories — very different than the kind of stories I work with — true, transformational stories. The deeper I looked, the less I found.
How are things going with this new initiative?
A wise woman, Lorie DeChar, once said to me, “When you are on the right path, it is like water flowing downhill. Things will feel smoother, even as you flow around rocks and trees in your way.” I loved that concept. In fact, my daughter’s name actually means “the right path” in Mandarin. Since I made the conscious choice to follow the story app idea — and that was a difficult choice, as I had held hope for dDNA for 10 years — I have been stunned at how smoothly this water has been flowing downhill. In fact, I found a beta partner (a hedge fund) within a few weeks, even without a prototype. Pam Hoelzle, the head of Launch1000, laughed when I told her that I actually had 4 or 5 more betas lined up. She said, “Stop, stop, you only need ONE! They are very time-consuming!” I found an app developer, Juan Cadile, of Salve Agency, to create our inexpensive functional prototype by early June; he shares my creative vision. He was recommended to me by one of my old students, who had won one of the story slams I ran back in 2015. I knew it was a good match when I realized he also created the website for thejuliatree.org, an NFP to create a band of trees across Africa, led by Desmond Tutu’s daughter. Juan and I each donated a tree on behalf of the other. I swiftly found an excellent law firm, Jayaram Law, which works specifically with small tech startups. My team seemed to coalesce near seamlessly.
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?
My friend and bhaji, Fareena Sultan, hired me right out of college to work for a small consulting company, DAA, in Cambridge, MA. Enrolled at MIT, she had courageously moved to Boston from Pakistan upon her arranged marriage to Nesar Ahmad, an extraordinary scholar who taught at Goddard Cambridge. As an anthropology major, I had no useful skills at all, but Fareena taught me how to “code” for DAA’s enormous computer (it took an entire floor). She was an incredible role model: short of stature, but brave as a lion, she went toe to toe with some very, very hardheaded male engineers. I was in awe. As we became close friends, she introduced me to her indomitable mother, who tried to matchmake me with a student of chaos from MIT. It didn’t “take,” but I went on to become the fairy god-mother of Fareena’s daughter Najla, who I utterly adored. Fareena and I entered into this very lightly; neither Muslims nor Jews typically name “god parents.” But when Nesar was killed in 1986 during an infamous, tragic Pan Am hijacking in Karachi, I understood the gravity of my role in Najla’s life. Many years and innumerable visits later, I am proud Deb-nani to brilliant Najla’s two delicious daughters. Najla is god-mother to MY daughter, and my brilliant daughter is godmother to Najla’s girls. We are part of the entire family, including Arsalan Shirazi “the quintessential multihyphenate artist: comedian, actor, hip-hop artist, and founder of ENTITLD, a media company,” and Beejul Khatri, the award-winning beatboxer of the Nor-Easters A Capella group. At the very beginning of my work life, Fareena modeled for me how to be ethical, strong, and focused at work. She never hesitated to speak truth to power, even when that power was a very large individual slamming his hand on the conference table in front of the company CEO and executive team. She stood up and shouted right back at him until he sat back down.
As Steve Jobs famously said, ‘you can’t connect the dots going forward, but you CAN connect them looking backward. “Remember this in all you do. The experiences you are having now, or had in the past, will inform your success going forward. It is tremendously satisfying to connect those dots. I could never have predicted back inn 1977 that a woman who first hired me out of college would give me not only courage but another global family too.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
Oddly enough, as I felt I was vanishing during the pandemic, I stopped dreaming. Nothing. Zip. Nada. And now, in Launch1000, as I move forward with my story app, I dream deeply every night. Long, meandering, almost novelistic dreams. To the annoyance of my family, I insist on telling them my weird dreams, always prefacing, “I had the weirdest dream last night!” I feel as if for the first time in many years, I am truly in my “sweet spot.” My various careers and interests have intersected and merged in a way I could never have anticipated, but now feel was inevitable.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
These are lessons from my company diversityDNA.
1. You can’t make everybody happy all the time. Find a core idea, and stick to it. My original team was tremendously creative, but almost everybody had extra ideas, including myself — let’s do this! Add this little piece on! Y’know, this would be great! But then you become a small engine pulling along a huge train. And you lose sight of the original clean, single concept.
2. Only bring people onto the team who will actually do the work. And show up. Everybody on my team, including myself, had numerous responsibilities. Their day jobs. Their families. Their families’ families. Finances. It is inevitable that life will interfere with your plans and deadlines. But it is critical to keep a balance between accommodating and moving forward.
3. Make sure you own the IP, and that it is in English. Alas, the code for the dDNA app was in Urdu.
4. It isn’t enough to just create it. It’s not like a field of dreams. You actually have to get out there and sell tickets.
5. Be very clear in your communications with various team members. My team members all had different communication styles, some indirect, some much more direct. Everybody was truly committed to the idea we were pursuing. But it was too easy to gloss over the conflicts with “avoidant” language. As founder, it is on you to ensure clear, effective communication, which maintains credibility among all the team.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period? “
1. Do something to lighten your stress level by one percent. Just one percent. You’ll be astounded at how much that actually helps. Read “Atomic Habits,” by James Clear.
2. I have started practicing yoga for the first time ever. My favorite pose is Happy Baby. And today I created the Dancing Pigeon (by accident).
3. I sing to my dog Simon. He is part corgi, part beagle, and sometimes we sing together. By the way, when dogs look you in the eye, they are releasing oxytocin. So are you. If you don’t like dogs, get a cat, or a little fish. Even a hermit crab! Something alive that relates to you.
4. Read, read, read. When we read fiction, we are transported into another world. It is the closest we come to teleportation.
5. Try new things. Even if it is a new recipe. Or a new author. Or a new friend. l’m very, very, very slowly studying Italian. When we try new things, our brains grow, our cognitive complexity increases. We feel energized and connected, even if only temporarily. In isolation, we miss the random, everyday interactions with strangers and neighbors and coworkers and clients and family. Yet these are moments we often feel most alive — in relationship to somebody else.
You are a person of great 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?
Everybody should learn to tell what I now call “ULUstories.” These are the stories with a dramatic arc, as we provide in our app. These are the stories that create an immediate sense of trust, a sense of familiarity and a sense of genuine community even with strangers. Even with people we don’t like. And this connection is long-lasting. It doesn’t cure all evils or even most. But ULUstories provide an incredibly easy way to feel good, to connect with strangers, to make friends everywhere and feel human.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the writer. I thought long and hard about this choice: I immediately thought of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, both of whom I adore and deeply admire. The night President Obama was first elected in 2008, I was with my Pakistani family up in Toronto, and I cried as we watched the world cheer. It was the first time I ever felt truly deeply American. Because his experiences overlapped, just a bit, with mine. His ties to Africa, to Asia, his single mom, him being a lawyer. But I believe that so many people want to have lunch with him — or a beer! — and perhaps I will one day. On the other hand, I thought to myself, whose writing has moved me to tears? Who sees stories in a way I learn from? Whose voice sounds as if it lives in my heart, whose cadences speak to me? It is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. To me she is the truest kind of storyteller, who makes the smallest detail meaningful. And who recognizes that people contain multitudes; none of us is a single story, but a compilation of many.
How can our readers follow you online?
My Instagram account is @ulustoryapp
My LinkedIn account is https://www.linkedin.com/in/debvolbergpagnotta
Readers can sign up to follow ULUstories also at www.ulustory.org
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Thank YOU so much!!