From hosting dinner parties at her tiny college apartment to heading up a fintech community of more than 1 million members, Willa has always been a natural community builder. Here, the Director of Community at Public.com talks empowering members by busting taboo topics, the power of active listening, and how not to take things personally.
Willa: “I inched towards a Community role when working in Customer Experience for a reproductive health startup called Lola. I really enjoyed interacting with our customers and the ability I had to strengthen their connection with our brand through making sure our interactions were human and personable (not just another customer service interaction).
I got involved with some of our community-building initiatives there, which included things like in-person breakfasts where we worked to normalize conversations about periods and sexual health. From those, I was able to articulate my belief that creating comfort and safety around stereotypically “uncomfortable” conversation topics is an incredibly powerful tool to help people feel more empowered and less ashamed in their daily lives.
When I was looking for my next role, I was really excited about the opportunity to lead Community at Public, an investing app whose community has grown to more than 1M members, for similar reasons. Sure, the transition from reproductive health to fintech may seem like a leap, but both reproductive health and money are things that we tend to shy away from in conversation. Opening up conversations about money and investing so that everyone felt they could confidently & authentically participate was a task I wanted to take on, and I’ve been immersed in a full-on community building role since.
That being said, looking back at my interests growing up, I think I’ve always been drawn to creating community. Whether as a barista at a local coffee shop during a high school summer or hosting dinner parties at my tiny college apartment, I’ve always found joy in making people feel seen and facilitating the creation of connections to their environment.”
W: “Active listening is my superpower. It may sound overly simplistic, but I think it’s the keystone to making people feel seen & valued, which is essential to community building. When you actively listen, you not only hear someone’s words, but you’re able to make better connections and ask more engaging questions. There’s a difference between hearing something and listening to it, and in order to get to know the humans in your community and what matters to them, I think really listening is crucial.
W: “We often talk about the fun & rewarding parts of community, but the unfortunate reality of the internet is that there will always be people who try to detract from the environment that you’re working to build in your community. The first time I saw someone disrespect another member, I felt like it was my fault and thought I should’ve been able to prevent that from happening. Taking it personally, though, made it harder for me to solve the problem and I was slower to react and create clearer moderation procedures. I realized that my inaction & paralysis was more problematic than the actual content that required moderation. As a result, I’ve since created moderation policies and processes that allow our Community Team to react both effectively and efficiently, and make our community values clear. We can’t prevent everything outright, but we can minimize harmful impact by taking swift action. I also sleep better now that I don’t spend as much time taking on others' negative actions in our community as my fault!”
W: “Being human is a strength. I work in tech, where we’re often focused on moving quickly and hitting measurable goals, and so focusing on creating human- and connection-centric moments can feel out of place at times. The way I do good work looks different than some other teams, but that doesn’t mean that I need to conform community building to the way the rest of tech operates. There is value in the conversations, connections, and people-first things that we do, and I do my best work when I lean into what makes me most human.”
W: “I hope that we think more about the people and less about the business impact. Community does have a powerful impact on brand loyalty, retention, and other measurable business goals, and we as community builders have spent a lot of time and energy helping people understand that recently.
That said, I don’t think that community exists to serve the goals of our business — it’s the opposite. Our business can do more good if we’re serving the goals of our community. I hope that we’ll prioritize doing that, and spending the time digging deep into who is in our communities, what their goals and dreams are, and how we can help them accomplish that.”