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This week I sat down with Rei from The Grand, a community of lifelong learners who actively support each other in making major professional and personal life decisions. It was incredible hearing about how The Grand has fostered a space where members feel comfortable being vulnerable enough to ask and discuss some of life’s toughest questions. As Rei mentions, most people rarely experience situations where they can be that open and it leads to a lasting sense of connection and community.
Q (Rishab): Let’s start with the basics - what’s the idea behind The Grand?
R (Rei): Anita, my cofounder, and I started The Grand a year ago to help people navigate life's biggest questions. We had a lot of previous experience with community at First Round, at General Assembly, and at previous companies and organizations. We had really seen the power of small group conversations in helping people feel more connected and more supported when they're going through challenging moments in life.
One example was at First Round where we used to do these events called Salons, which brought together 8 to 12 people to have one conversation on different professional topics. For example, we hosted groups ranging from new engineering managers to newly acquired founders. We very quickly realized what people wanted to talk about wasn't just management best practices or things related to business, it was really about self and identity. For example, a question brought up at the acquired founder’s Salon was “My company is getting acquired and my relationship with my team is totally different now. How does this affect my sense of identity and my sense of self worth? How does this affect my relationships?”
Because we created these small group environments where people felt safe and had the permission to be vulnerable, they ended up staying for three to four hours to talk to others about these things. And they would leave saying “Oh my gosh, I feel so deeply seen. I feel so connected. I've been holding this weight on my own for the past six months because I don't know who to talk to. Thank you so much for putting this together. I'm so grateful for it and I haven't experienced as deep or as intimate of a connection in many years.”
We saw the power of those conversations and started thinking about how we can bring this model and everything that we've learned about community to help more people. Specifically, to help people with the big transitions, decisions and challenges in their personal and professional lives. That's what The Grand is. In this age where we're more digitally connected than ever before, it's actually harder to find places where you can have real, authentic conversation. A lot of the research shows that two-thirds of Americans are lonely and that the majority of Americans lack a confidante. There isn't one person that they can talk to. And our goal with The Grand is to help everyone find confidantes and have someone that can give them support and provide guidance when they're going through a challenging life question.
Q: So for these Grand Sessions where people are staying three or four hours more than you expected, they’re talking about very vulnerable moments in their life. How did you create an environment that's supportive enough that people feel comfortable opening up?
R: Yeah, so we do a couple of things. Every Grand Session follows the exact same playbook which is designed with a couple of rituals in mind. The first thing that we do is welcome you to the community and introduce the community to you. We have four guiding principles that we read verbatim at every single Grand Session. One is vulnerability is a superpower. We really encourage people to share openly, honestly, and transparently. We tell people that we actively welcome them to the community so they always have the opportunity to share, but nothing is expected of them if they don't feel like contributing at that certain moment. We tell everyone that they're welcome to apply the learnings from what they've heard at the Grand Session to their personal lives, but we ask them not to attribute it to the person that they learned it from. I think creating that shared understanding gives people the permission to really open up and be vulnerable and it tells them that they are in a safe space.
Another thing that we do is start every Grand Session with a short meditation where we ask people to really ground themselves, to take a deep breath in and out, and that helps them become present and engaged in the conversation ahead And then at the end of the session we wrap it up with what we call a closing word. We ask everyone to quickly share how they're feeling at that moment with each other. That helps close it out with a deep sense of connection.
Q: Definitely, that's awesome. So have you learned anything surprising through these events? Was there one of these principles that you added recently or some other thing that you learned that you didn't expect when you started The Grand around how to make people feel more comfortable and vulnerable?
R: The most surprising thing is how we always have some people who come to a The Grand Session and afterwards they’re like, “Oh man. I felt like I was the only person who had this feeling or my thoughts were really niche or contrarian, but now I realize everyone feels the same” We've heard that time and time again. The thing that I have learned is you just have to tell people it's okay to actually say what's on their mind. And once you tell them that, they can kind of remove the posturing that they feel in other environments. They realize they have far more in common with others than they originally thought.
Q: That makes a lot of sense. Are there any times where you have a group or even certain participants that you see aren't necessarily participating as much as you want them to? And do you have any strategies to encourage them to contribute more?
R: Well, with anything in real life, there's no absolutely equal share of voice. We put all of our Grand guides through a training process and we teach them how to be great facilitators and a part of that is the principle around actively welcoming each other to the community. And in the first couple of sessions, we took notes around how often people spoke. But we realized quickly that it doesn't matter if everyone has the same equal share of voice.
People come to the sessions for different reasons. Sometimes people want to come because they just want to learn about the topic and they're actually there to actively listen and absorb information. Sometimes people come because they want to share their own personal story and have someone else bear witness to that story and get it off of their chest and that's okay. As long as everyone walks away from the session feeling like it was a valuable way to spend two and a half hours, then that hits our goals rather than making sure every single person has exactly 10 minutes to contribute.
Q: Yeah, totally agree that freeform feels more authentic. Let’s talk a little bit about The Grand Quest. As I understand it, it’s a 14 week cohort-based program that you've just started. Obviously with many more sessions there's probably a different approach that you take. Can you explain a little bit about the difference in approach that you take with sessions versus the Quest?
R: Yeah, so we started Quest because the feedback that we got after running 20 sessions was that the sessions are amazing but because they're on such big life questions, it’s hard to answer them in two and a half hours. The questions that we cover are, “Should I have kids or not? How do I find the right life partner? How do I reinvent my career?” The sessions are great, but it feels like they're conversation starters. And people walk away and think, “I really wish I could get together with this group again and go even deeper on this topic.”
So that's why we designed Quest - as a response to that community feedback. The way that Quest works is we curate a group so that everyone who is part of that Quest is navigating a big career transition. So you know that you are in a group with like-minded peers all navigating a similar challenge. And on top of that, there are people who have made that kind of transition before guiding and coaching you throughout this process. It's not just the blind leading the blind. There's someone who's been there before sharing their personal experience and helping you better make meaning of your own journey.
The other way Quest is different is that we realized that we needed to provide a little bit more structure to the experience. Since there are multiple sessions, you don't necessarily want every single one to be a free flowing conversation. When you're in something that feels more like a class or a course, you want a sense of progression and you want the content to be able to build on itself week to week. We spent a lot of time designing a custom workbook with exercises and prompts for every session for each participant to do together and share their answers with each other to get further clarity on their journeys. On top of that, we've grouped people not just based upon what location they're in, but also based upon their more specific kind of career ambitions and goals. So we have one pod for people who are all interested in transferring industries. We have another pod of people who are all interested in starting their own business. So even though you have this overall group of everyone who's navigating career transitions, you also have another pod of people that you can deeply bond with because they share a more similar career ambition.
Q: It seems like you’ve been able to create a great community that can be vulnerable, that feels real, authentic, and not transactional. What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to someone else trying to form a community, online or offline, who wants to do something similar?
R: To start, I always believe in starting with asking your community first and having a conversation with them and figuring out what they really care about. So when we first started The Grand, we didn't know what our first couple of topics or themes were going to be. We put out a blank Google doc, tweeted it and it said, “What's keeping you up at night? What are the questions or topics that you wish you could have guidance on?” And people started writing in the questions that were actually keeping them up at night. And they were things like “How do I approach an interracial relationship?” Or “My parents are getting older and they live all the way in Asia. What do I do to gain a strong relationship with them?” Or “I really don't know if I want to have kids or not” or “How do I think about freezing my eggs?” All of these personal things. And we didn't originally know that that was a direction that we were going to head. But seeing that come from the internet and community showed us that there was a real desire to have conversations around these topics.
So my advice is go and ask the community what they want and what they really want to talk about. And the ways that they really want to connect rather than sort of just assuming and kind of artificially engineering topics for conversation. It's always better when it's organic and when it comes from people themselves.
Q: I think that’s great advice. Well, thank you so much for taking the time today!
R: Yeah, of course!