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“I envision a world where data is not harvested and used against people or where data is not sneakily collected” with Tiasia OBrien

Data by the people, for the people, is my mantra. I envision a world where data is not harvested and used against people or where data is not sneakily collected. I am working on starting a movement where more corporations use a model that gives people opt-in options, where transparency is key, and where co-design […]

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Data by the people, for the people, is my mantra. I envision a world where data is not harvested and used against people or where data is not sneakily collected. I am working on starting a movement where more corporations use a model that gives people opt-in options, where transparency is key, and where co-design and collaboration are key components to understanding their markets.

Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Tiasia O’Brien, a third-time social entrepreneur with a decade of professional experience in leading strategic communications, fundraising, business development, and public-private initiatives. She is the founder of Seam Social Labs, a mission-driven company working to empower disinvested communities. Seam Social Lab’s survey tool, co:census (formerly Synergize Insights) is an inclusive survey and polling software pioneering the collection and analysis of public sentiments for organizations. Our SMS surveys are developed in up to 50 languages and our sentiments analysis provides deep insights on constituent needs, conditions, and experiences to deliver transformational outcomes.

Tiasia’s experience in working with community-based organizations and small businesses has given her deep insights into the complex nature of economic development. Academically, Tiasia is a Qualitative Research Scientist with an Advanced Diploma in Data Analytics from NYU and an M.A. in Sociology from The New School, where she researched civic and community innovations to resolve social inequalities. Her research examines how models of civic engagement are working for low wealth communities. She coined the term, Civic Gap, which highlights the correlation between wealth and civic engagement. Her recent research focused on post-Great Migration Harlem in the early 1900s political engagement in Sugar Hill and Harlem Proper.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Ispent my younger years in the Bronx, but most of my life in Bushwick, Brooklyn. My parents were blue-collar workers who worked hard to have a solid life for my three siblings and me — however, we struggled often. At a young age, I started to understand the art of the hustle and how to be very resourceful to get what I needed. In the fifth grade, I started a business where I took Tiger Beat images, made collages of famous 90s actors, and sold copies of these collages. I would print them at a local copier for 10 cents a page and sell them to classmates for $1 per page. This helped me have extra cash to hang with friends when my parents could not afford to give me that money. As I got older, I took that scrappy resourcefulness with me into my business development career.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

My background stems from a decade as a practitioner in the social impact space — starting as a Business Development Executive and moving to a Development Director who supported a $10 M capital campaign for a new real estate development project in downtown Brooklyn. While this professional experience yielded economic success and community & citywide impact, I aimed to find solutions through innovative approaches.

In 2018, I decided I needed a career shift. There were social issues that continued in communities of color that I felt were not being examined enough; very few companies looked at the root of socio-economic problems. I kept getting this urge to start a business that could be profitable and solve these socio-economic problems at the root. So I started Seam Social Labs, a benefit corporation, and entered grad school to become a Sociologist, which brings me to the work my team and I are doing now with engaging communities through technology.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I think this is a hard question because most interest is based on perception. However, the most interesting stories I have are when I had to work around male leadership who would treat me differently. In my mid-20s, I started to move up in ranks and was eager to have a strategic growth into an executive role. I started to first-hand experience male CEOs who spoke down to me and discounted my constructive feedback in these experiences. It was eye-opening to me, especially because I was so focused on meritocracy; I truly believed then that if I worked hard, that was a major key to success. The most interesting story I can tell is when a male CEO advised a fellow female colleague that she should not wear dark lipstick because it made her look “witchy”. I think this pivotal moment made me question how gender and leadership work and revved me up to start considering my own business.

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?

Being an entrepreneur is dealing with mistakes all the time and growing from them.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Right now, our product co:census is growing and being used by more than 50 cities and organizations across the nation. I am most excited about a natural language processing tool we have developed that allows us to analyze thousands of qualitative data points and succinctly analyze them into single-page reports. I literally cried after our first report was run. Very nerdy of me, lol!

We are very interested in diversity in the tech industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in tech? How can that potentially affect our culture?

Well, we have already seen with Google algorithms what happens when tech is not diverse. Three more reasons to diversify tech:

-Black women get less than 1% of VC funding, yet are the demographic starting the most businesses each year

-Innovation requires a diversity of ideas and experiences. The next “Uber” is cool, but it is not innovative.

-Our tech industry needs to represent what America looks like — not what a wealthy town in the Bay Area looks like.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

-Never back down.

– Believe in yourself, your idea, and your team like no one else!

-Get an executive coach or someone to speak to. As a CEO, it will help tremendously.

-Learn to filter feedback from others

-Spend less time at pitch competitions and more time growing your business and clients (seems obvious but is a challenge in the startup world)

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Take time away from work. I take a few days off each quarter and spend time with my husband, watching tv, playing board games, and not thinking about work. It helps me come back to work with new and fresh ideas.

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. 🙂

Data by the people, for the people, is my mantra. I envision a world where data is not harvested and used against people or where data is not sneakily collected. I am working on starting a movement where more corporations use a model that gives people opt-in options, where transparency is key, and where co-design and collaboration are key components to understanding their markets.

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?

My mom. She is the toughest woman I know and never takes no for an answer. My older brother has autism, and as a younger child, she would often fight for him to get more support at school. I would watch her craft letters and make calls until my brother got what he needed. Her perseverance inspires me endlessly.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I greatly believe the key to entrepreneurship is never giving up and being resourceful, always finding a way to make it happen. So I love Thomas Edison’s quote: “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time”.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Cindy Gallop. I am a major fangirl. She is such a badass.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow me on Twitter @tiasiaobrien.

Thank you for these great insights. This was very inspiring!

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