Community//

Networking, Reimagined: How Orbiit Activates Communities Through AI and the Power of Conversation

Co-Founders Bilyana Freye and Luuk Derksen Connectivity is at an all-time high, and there’s no ‘off’ button: our work days can feel like one endless Zoom call, we are bombarded by notifications, and subjected to 24/7 waves of email. But the recent coronavirus pandemic has shown us that non-stop communication is not synonymous with a […]

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Co-Founders Bilyana Freye and Luuk Derksen

Connectivity is at an all-time high, and there’s no ‘off’ button: our work days can feel like one endless Zoom call, we are bombarded by notifications, and subjected to 24/7 waves of email. But the recent coronavirus pandemic has shown us that non-stop communication is not synonymous with a genuine feeling of connection and belonging, which can have an enormous impact on wellbeing and productivity.

Orbiit, a new community engagement platform, has reimagined networking to improve both company productivity and employee wellbeing. The platform curates networking and knowledge-sharing between community members based on shared goals, experience, and expertise. Today, the PeopleTech Partners’ team sits down with Orbiit’s CEO, Bilyana Freye, to discuss Orbiit’s evolution from a job shadowing platform, the blind spots of traditional networking, and the focus on community that makes organizations more productive. 

Bilyana, what gave you the idea to start Orbiit?

While running our former platform, Hoppin, the world’s first job shadowing marketplace offering users the ability to try out careers by experiencing them firsthand, my co-founder Luuk Derksen and I saw how interactions between people unlocked learning opportunities across companies and industries. Over time, we learned a few key lessons that would help us develop the idea for Orbiit. 

First, people want to understand how their peers at other companies approach problem-solving. Job shadowing is a more reliable and interesting way to get this information than traditional static learning materials, which get outdated the moment they’re created. And in a world where mindless scrolling through feeds has become the norm, people love the participatory nature of the experience. Connecting face-to-face (or screen-to-screen) with someone you’re eager to learn from is always more energizing than reading a document. 

Lastly, we found that many of our customers were seeking regularity in their experiences. They wanted frequent opportunities to learn from and connect with peers outside of their companies, which they saw as the best way to keep up with today’s fast-paced times. 

How did that evolve into what Orbiit is now, and how did PeopleTech Partners influence this pivot?

For us, the silver lining of COVID was that we could immediately put these insights to use. We repurposed our tech and started inviting people to 1:1 virtual coffee chats with fellow community members on trending topics like “managing remotely” and “adapting and thriving in a crisis.” And we were blown away by the response. 

We saw our community members coming back week after week to have conversations that improved not only their working lives, but also their companies’ successes. This experience coincided with our participation in a PeopleTech Partners cohort where we received product development guidance from seasoned business leaders in the people tech space. From both of these groups, we learned that communities aren’t just built from shared interests; they’re also defined by frequency of touch. So many communities make the mistake of focusing too much on commonality of purpose and don’t provide frequent-enough opportunities for member interaction. This can also lead to inboxes flooded with one-directional newsletters, webinars, and updates from impersonal discussion boards. 

None of the communities that we were a part of as individuals—like alumni networks or networking groups—provided a curated, seamless way for us to connect with others. We realized that we could increase our impact exponentially if we offered our virtual networking solution to all communities, not just our own. 

How do you identify “community,” and why do you think communities are so important for our professional lives right now?

At Orbiit, we work with a wide range of communities. Some have 100 members; some have thousands. Some are professional networking groups looking to elevate the experience and impact of their members, and some are venture capital firms keen to increase knowledge-sharing across their portfolio companies. Companies are communities, too: 

a 2020 study by Deloitte showed that 79% of organizations said that fostering a sense of belonging in the workforce is important or very important for their success in the next 12-18 months, but only 13 percent say they are very ready to address this trend.

Communities are the fundamental building blocks of society, bringing us together over common interests, characteristics, and goals. They are instrumental to our wellbeing, and even longevity. Take the concept of “Blue Zones”—regions of the world where people live much longer than the world average. In addition to a healthy diet, life purpose, and regular physical activity, a main driver of wellbeing and longevity is community. The critical role that communities play in our lives has been highlighted during the pandemic. 

What do you see as the biggest challenges community managers are facing? How does Orbiit aim to solve those problems?

Many communities take pride in the strength of their network, but don’t focus enough on how activated it is. Like everyone else with a busy job, community managers struggle with limited bandwidth. They don’t have a systematic, data-driven process for keeping track of and connecting individuals who might benefit from networking with each other. It’s also virtually impossible to scale the matching and scheduling of connections at a manual level. One of our clients who runs a community for diverse talent, Badassery, told us that she was spending so much time facilitating 1:1 connections between members that once she started using Orbiit, she took her first week of vacation in a very long time. 

Orbiit provides a systematic approach to community activation. While we’ve created a seamless experience for the end-user, we built our platform with the community manager in mind. Once they set meeting parameters—like topics or frequency of interaction—Orbiit handles all communications, scheduling, feedback collection, and analytics. But they can still monitor all developments in real time, from community participation all the way down to impact. With each interaction, they can gather insights to create more personalized programming.

The number one mistake we see community managers make is overthinking their approach and getting into analysis-paralysis. These delays leave their community’s biggest asset—its members—underserved. Orbiit removes these roadblocks and facilitates collective learning, connection, and growth to benefit both the individual and the community at large.

How does Orbiit differ from other networking platforms?

We believe that each conversation has the potential to be life-changing. But we also know that time is our most precious commodity, and we don’t like leaving things to chance. Orbiit is not a conversation roulette program or a networking platform where you have to speak to 20 people to find one good conversation partner. Our approach has been shaped by the conviction that one bad match is one too many. 

Our process and technology focus on scalability, and we use AI not to remove the humans from the equation, but to put them at the forefront. 

Can you share one of your favorite connections facilitated by Orbiit?

A London-based VC fund invited their portfolio talent to connect on the topic of ‘Contributing to a Diverse, Inclusive Culture’. One of the matches was between the VP of Legal & Compliance at a digital insurance agency and the Head of Strategy at an investing platform: two people very unlikely to connect organically through their work, but who had a lot to learn from each other. One participant told us how impactful it was for her to meet another high-level female executive not working in her field, and said that “comparing notes, sharing insights, perspectives, and generally finding camaraderie was surprisingly empowering and comforting.”

This story represents pretty much everything we’re trying to accomplish for the communities we serve: more insight sharing, access to peers, and supportive, empowering conversations.

How do you see the future of communities changing? And how does Orbiit fit into that? 

We have many exciting plans for Orbiit. Aside from being the most intuitive platform for 1:1 interactions at scale, we will soon be enabling group connections, making it really easy to assemble cohorts for regular roundtables. We’re also working on virtual job shadowing and rolling out the ability to match an individual with someone who can provide support and knowledge based on a specific need.

We believe that our need for support and connection through community will continue to grow. As the workplace becomes less centralized—64% of US professionals say they could work anywhere, and 71% of organizations have put remote work policies in place—frequent peer interactions will be crucial. For communities, allowing members to connect and participate virtually is more important than ever.  

This year, we’ve seen the power of connection as a force for positivity, empathy and growth. Our mission feels more relevant than ever before: to enhance human potential through authentic connections and shared experiences. 

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