EnrichHER Edition: Civic Dinners with Jenn Graham

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Personal Story

Jenn Graham is a social innovation designer that blends business strategy, behavior change theory, the art of storytelling and the power of design to build issue-based campaigns and community-based interventions that drive positive social change.

Honored to feature Civic Dinners on #StartupFunding EnrichHER Edition: https://goo.gl/LACU8p

Behind the Scenes

 

  • Roshawnna:    Hi. I'm Doctor Roshawnna Novellus, host of Startup Funding. Today, we are in the midst of our Enricher Initiative. We have Jenn of Aha! Strategy, who has this awesome program called Civic Dinners. Can you tell us more about Civic Dinners and what you're up to?
  • Jenn Graham:    Absolutely. Thank you for having me, by the way. Civic Dinners is all about bringing people together around the table face-to-face to have conversations that matter. In today's day and age, when civility has hit a crisis level, we need more forums to bring people together face-to-face. What we hope to do is make significant challenges and the big issues of our time more accessible, more personable, more actionable so that we can activate a whole new generation of citizens.
  • Roshawnna:    Right. How did you come up with this idea?
  • Jenn Graham:    It started, honestly, as a social experiment. It was a few of my friends in my living room. We were wondering how do we find other people who care as much about Atlanta as we do. We know that they're out there, so we created a platform and a host tool kit to allow anyone anywhere to host a dinner and to bring people together to talk about what they love about Atlanta. It hit off. We learned a few things, like people wanted to make sure that they were heard by leaders. They wanted to know what was next. Where does the conversation go? How do we turn ideas into action? 

    That's when we partnered with the Atlanta Regional Commission to launch with the Millennial Advisory Panel and used dinners to bring 300 millennials together across the region to help plan what they dream, what they want for the next 25 years. Then that led to all sorts of other organizations coming to us, from non-profits and other governments saying, "How can we use dinners to engage younger audiences or a broad swathe of audience to bring people together to talk about issues that matter?" whether it's transportation or race or anything regarding ... Even bringing entrepreneurs together to share ideas, stories, and solutions to help make our world a better place.

  • Roshawnna:    Yeah. I love having food as a startup place to bridge the gaps out there, because over food, people are more comfortable. Then they start talking about the things that really matter. Now, you've taken it from only food and that conversation to action. I really love that. Now, what are you most excited about that you're working on now?
  • Jenn Graham:    I have to say, out of all of the projects, Civic Dinners is the thing that I'm focusing on most. What excites me the most is that, since the election and given our current times, a lot of people are finally woke. They've woken up to the tensions that are happening. More people are showing up. Actually town halls are finally being used. People are going to town halls. Civic engagement is a thing now, and so we want to try to capture that energy and enthusiasm and provide structure to it and some longevity, and create ... Basically become the platform for other organizations and cities to launch conversations that matter.
  • Roshawnna:    What does success look like for Civic Dinners?
  • Jenn Graham:    That's great. I would say three things. The long game is really about creating a culture shift, from trying to ... For example, right now, our face-to-face time has largely been replaced by Facebook feeds, and we're less likely to be friends with people who aren't like us. A, having more people reach out to the other, so to speak, and be comfortable in sharing ideas and hearing one another. A culture shift in that we don't try to separate ourselves. We seek out what's in common more than what's different. 

    That's the ultimate outcome, but I think another key factor to success is basically that serving dinners becomes the norm. Much like how Ted Talks helped bring structure and elevate the level of a presentation so that it's not just educational ... It's actually inspiring and delightful to be a part of ... we want to create that same experience around the dinner table, so that your average dinner party where you typically only talk to the people in front of you and aside from you, you actually create a whole table conversation. You hear from everyone, and you walk away feeling better than when you came in, not just with exchanging cards or information with just one or two people. That's the kind of the ... Making that. Finally, having Civic Dinners be the platform for cities and regions and companies to launch conversations that matter.

  • Roshawnna:    Now, I can imagine when you started telling people you want to get different kinds of people together for a dinner, they were like, "Well, how is this the business? How is this going to grow?"
  • Jenn Graham:    Yeah.
  • Roshawnna:    Can you tell us more about how you overcame that obstacle and how you got so many organizations to team up with you so that you could be successful?
  • Jenn Graham:    That's a great question. People have been coming together over the dinner table for a millennium, and other programs just like ours have been popping up all across the country, especially after the election. The big question is, "How do you make money? What is this? How is this a business?" Technically, it's not yet. We have two different versions of our platform that's available. We have free conversations that are going to be global that we end up having a dozen conversations that anyone anywhere can host for free and have those. 

    Then we use that as basically our calling card to say, look. We can also ... Any cities or big foundations or non-profits that really want to launch a conversation but don't want to necessarily manage it or have to organize it or even have the time and energy to dig in and figure out how to manage a program like that, we can do that for them. We have the platform. We have the tools and the host guides and the training all set up so that we can go in and target their particular constituents or their donors or anyone that they want to help stir up their existing fans and also create new fans by reaching new audiences.

  • Roshawnna:    Now I know the people who are watching this video or listening on the podcast want to know how they can support you. What can they do right now to bring Civic Dinners to the next level?
  • Jenn Graham:    That's great. Well, I would say if you know of an organization that is just rocking it, has energy behind it, but you feel like you can't quite engage with them. Maybe they're only sending you, "Hey, donate or volunteer this." Maybe suggest that they consider using Civic Dinners as a way to really get people to help understand what they do on a deeper level and help create more advocates in their community. That's one thing. The other easy lift is we have two conversations right now on our site. One's the beloved community, and one's the state of women. You can sign up to host or attend a dinner in your city or community and try it out. It's an amazing experience. You'll get to meet new people. You'll walk away with a whole new understanding of different perspectives and ideas and feel better for it.
  • Roshawnna:    Will do. Thank you so much for participating in the Enricher Initiative. I know that so many people will be impacted by your ideas, and I just really appreciate you being here today with us.
  • Jenn Graham:    Thank you. Thank you for having me.
  • Roshawnna:    Of course.  Startup Funding is partnering with the Enrich Her Initiative to showcase the best women-led enterprises from the city of Atlanta. Go to startupfunding.co, and click on enrich her to learn about every entrepreneur that we showcase and how you can take part in this amazing initiative.
  • Speaker 1:    Thank you for listening to Startup Funding with Doctor Roshawnna Novellus. Visit startupfunding.co for tools, resources, and events. Join us next time for another edition of Startup Funding.

BIOGRAPHY

Jenn Graham is a social innovation designer that blends business strategy, behavior change theory, the art of storytelling and the power of design to build issue-based campaigns and community-based interventions that drive positive social change.

She leads an Atlanta-based social innovation design firm, Aha! Strategy, working with select leaders of nonprofits, coalitions and governments—at a city, state and national level—to move the needle on important social and civic issues, from early childhood education to transportation to community engagement. Jenn has been recognized and honored for her outstanding community leadership, recently named Atlanta's "40 under 40" in 2016 by Atlanta Business Chronicle, Outstanding Atlanta Honoree of 2016, graduate of Regional Leadership Institute Class of 2016 and is a New Leaders Council Fellow for 2017.

Through her work, Jenn has helped raise the Millennial voice by leading the Atlanta Regional Commission's Millennial Advisory Panel and sparked a week-long conversation on regional transit leading the The Great Exchange on Transportation in Gwinnett. In partnership with the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, Jenn helped raise the visibility of bicycling in Atlanta by rebranding and reorganizing Atlanta Streets Alive, which is now the largest open streets event in the country. She’s led the brand strategy, communications and community engagement for Get Georgia Reading and Talk With Me Baby, a coalition funded by United Way working to bridge the 30 million word gap by training nurses to coach parents on the power of language nutrition. And Jenn has helped inspire innovation in education through branding and design for various Teach for America events, programs and social impact reports.