YC's Director of Events Domonique Fines with Elpha CEO Cadran Cowansage | Transcription
Transcription for the video titled "YC's Director of Events Domonique Fines with Elpha CEO Cadran Cowansage".
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Dom’s intro (00:05)
>> Yeah. So I am Director of Events at YC. I basically do all of our public facing large-scale events. So anything from demo days, a few more founders conferences, our outreach tours, and then also just most recently work at a startup, and then several things in between. >> Awesome. So how did you get started in events and working at YC?
Dom'S Journey And Perspectives On Tech Events
How Dom started in events and her background (00:25)
Was this a planned path or have you been figuring out it out as you go? >> Yeah. I would say I've been figuring it out as I go. I have more so a jumpy background. So originally I was planning to go to school to become an attorney, and I would say about a week before I was supposed to apply to law school, I definitely just changed my mind. I was working at an entertainment law firm at the time, and I just figured out that it just wasn't something that I wanted to do. I told myself that I wanted to plan tech events, and at the time I had no clue what that even meant. Like what does that mean? You want to plan tech events? I didn't know. I just knew I wasn't going to law school. So I moved back from Atlanta. I went to Clark Atlanta University, and I moved back from Atlanta home to Oakland. From there I was just working at a law firm during the day from 9 to 5, and then at lunchtime I would actually sleep in my car, and then after work I would go to my family's club, Me Lounge, and I would run that at nighttime, and then I would do that same thing every day over and over and over until I found a job that allowed me to do events. So I ended up at Frog Design as an office manager, and they allowed me to do events at South by Southwest and different hackathons. So from there I was able to create a portfolio and make sure that I was marketing myself as an events person. And from there YC found me. That's awesome. I love that and that you sort of hacked getting into it. I want to jump back to your sort of deviation from going to law school for a second. You said you changed your mind a week before you went. What was that process?
Deciding to not go to law school (02:00)
How long did it take to make the final decision that you were going to make that change? Yeah. Well I would say it took me quite a while, of course, because I waited that late to go ahead and change my mind. But honestly I was definitely afraid. This was one thing that I knew my entire life I wanted to do. That's the only thing I knew. I was going to be attorney. I was going to be attorney. That's the only thing that everyone knew about me. I was into fashion and also I wanted to be an attorney. So for me to just have that feeling inside of me just thinking like wow I just really really don't want to do this. And I know that if I don't do it I'm going to be disappointing so many people. I was really really hurt and afraid and also I didn't know how to explain what I wanted to do at the time. So it just came down to a simple call. I basically just called my mom and I told her I was like hey you know like I do not want to be an attorney and I'm going to move home and I'm going to plan tech events. And she's like great where are you going to live? And I was like what? I have a room. Like a nice little room. It's still there. I'm sure it's there. And so that was a learning experience for me too but I would say it was the best decision I ever made because if I didn't make that jump or take that step then I would probably end up doing things that I'm not like I have no enjoyment of. And right now I'm like super passionate about events and I always will be. That's awesome. And so how did you know it was tech events? You know? Yeah odd story.
Choosing to work on tech events (03:30)
So when people would get dropped off at the mall like in high school or junior high or whatever, I would get dropped off at Radio Shack. And it's really weird but I loved Radio Shack. I love seeing how things worked. I love taking things apart. And then at some point I started to walk around the store and act as if I was working there. It was weird at first within the manager when it's hiring me. So I've always just been interested in how things work. And so I knew that that was always a part of tech but I had no idea that tech would blow like this. Totally. And so did it feel like making that transition, did it feel super scary or you just sort of went for it or how did you get your start? Yeah it felt very scary especially because my entire background had nothing to do with events but also it had everything to do with events. So my professional background didn't have any event planning experience but my personal background was I was always the one bringing everyone together. I was doing the one doing the events for my sorority in college, Delta Stigmatatus Sorority Incorporated Sigma Chapter. And I've just always been a part of events and I've always loved the little details of it. And on one side of my brain people are left sided and right sided and I would say that I'm both. Like I'm really serious about the details but also like the creative side is what drives me. Very cool. And so I have one sort of funny question but so is like what are the big differences we're creating an event for like in a club context versus tech context? I mean I think we can think of some obvious ones but are there any sort of funny interesting ones? I would say the main thing is the target audience of course. For clubs you kind of just want anybody there like you want someone to show up you need that number and for YC and for tech events it's all about the quality and who we have come to the events and then the outcome of it and the outcome of the club is just like how much money did we make? Yep. And can we make more? Yes for sure. Yeah yeah. So that sort of leads me into my next question which is about outreach.
Outreach to underrepresented founders (05:35)
So I know that you think a lot about who is actually attending these events and you have sort of taken on supporting YC's outreach efforts particularly with black students and in the black communities and I'd love to hear more about sort of how you think about that and also the work you're doing. Yeah. So I would say well right now or in the past couple of years I've worked with Code 2040. I've given scholarships with team arsenal, Bay Area Seminoles and then also my church, New Life Community Membership Church and basically what I've done is try to think about things that I've learned at YC that I had no idea about and that I could have known just from being in the area. So what's happening right now in Silicon Valley is there's all these different companies and all these different information and all these different people coming out of this space. We're right in the backyard as Oakland and there's people that have no idea what's going on and not that they're not brilliant people or that they can't do those things but they just have no access to it and they don't know. So the things that I've been learning I've just been learning to like start pretty small and that's just basically teaching people exactly like oh well you know what is Silicon Valley? What does tech mean? What does they start up? What's a start up versus a small business? You know how can I get involved in that and I think that starting small is something that you need to do in order to go larger. So I've worked with Oakland Public School Districts and doing like different career weeks and teaching them all about YC and startups and then also I've also worked with big brothers and big sisters of the Bay Area kind of just ushering them into this space and then one thing that I was super proud about that I was very passionate about was bringing in their raiders. So I met with them and I got them to come to some of our startup schools to learn how to invest in companies and then also got them to come to our demo days so they can invest in companies themselves and I feel like you have to start small but also you have to use those people that are role models like teach them first and they can like branch out and teach others as well. Oh that's super smart. I really like that idea. Have the role models been really receptive to the work you're doing or how have you been? Yeah they're super receptive and also I think they feel very comfortable with talking to me because I let them know and I'm very upfront about this with everyone that I had no idea what YC was or what it did or like anything about the startup space and I kind of just dug into it and figured it out and of course I learned a lot from YC as well but sometimes it's very intimidating when you're in this space and you feel like everyone knows so much and you don't know anything so you tend to just be shy or kind of just like stand back or like standing the shadows and not wanting to ask those kind of questions that could make you look or feel like you're less than. So I feel like they feel very comfortable with talking to me about things like that and it makes me feel good as well and then I'm super honest. I'm like hey if they ask me something then I don't know. I really don't know but I can probably find someone that could answer that for you. That's awesome. Yeah being comfortable saying when you don't know something is really hard especially like in a work context. So yeah I relate and understand completely. Very cool. And so are there any common misconceptions that pop up over and over with students or when you're meeting with people who don't really know about tech that you want to just get out there get people over.
Common misconceptions about getting into tech (08:50)
Yeah I think that the most common one is everyone thinks that you have to have like a particular background or like they have this background that's like oh you had to go to MIT or did you go to Harvard or you know like what's your tech background and honestly I do not have a tech background. I think if people just follow their own dreams and goals versus trying to follow a path that others have created then it will work out. And then also this misconception of there are no women at YC. There are no black people at YC. There's no, there's all these things and it's like when I'm working around with all these different people it's definitely very diverse and we're doing everything that we can to possibly bring more people in. But I think it's also very important that I do things like this so people know that you know I am here and I am a voice and I'm helping out a lot. And those are the two things that I think are the things that are like definitely over like during misconceptions for sure. Got it for sure. And you work with your university as well.
University outreach (10:10)
Tell me a little bit about that. So basically during the outreach tour we go to a bunch of different stops at domestic international and we host office hours. We do different talks and most recently I did an outreach tour at Morehouse College which is basically right across the street from Clark Atlanta as a part of the AUC. So we did office hours there and then we did a talk there and I'm planning to go back in 2019 to do like an entire AUC tour. I think it's very important that everyone has access to all the information that there is this space and that there's other jobs that they can apply for. Just everything is not all about being a doctor, a lawyer, a dentist and you know engineer at this point. You can be in tech and not be an engineer or not have a tech background. Yeah absolutely. Yeah. And so one of the things that I've been super impressed by you know as we've gotten to know each other at YC is just the way you sort of proactively identify you know holes or problems that you see and they have nothing necessarily to do with your job but you then just go tackle them. You know how do you think about that? Is that something that is you have sort of you've built up the muscle for over time or you've thought about actively or tell me a little bit about that?
Identifying problems to fix and not being blocked (11:20)
I'll say that my total frame of thinking is totally different ever since I started at YC. So now when I go about things I'm always thinking about what's the problem I'm trying to fix here. And that's my wife, Seebull. He's just like he hasn't better this inside my brain. I find myself like working on things when I first started I would work on things and be like just working on it for so long and then he'd be like I'm sorry. Like what are you trying to fix here? And I'd be like well I mean I guess nothing. I guess I'm not trying to fix anything here. So now I try to make sure when I am working on things or I'm looking for things that are broken to find those ways that I can fix them. And how do you avoid feeling blocked by them? Like as an employee I think sometimes people feel like oh there's a problem in my organization but I'm just one person. You know I'm not a leader in the classic sort of terms like how do you go about sort of doing the things that you know are the right things to do and you know can help sort of fix problems and avoiding that. I would say it's still very nerve-wracking and that's like a normal thing to feel I think in any role. But instead of thinking like oh I'm just one person I think to myself I am the person. So there has to always be one person to step out and do it for others to follow. Everyone's not going to be that leader. Sometimes people ask like oh well how many black people are at this company or how many black people are at that company. And all the time you're not going to always get the answer that you want but how about you be that person and then others will follow you. Yeah for sure. Do you feel like you've started to see the work you're doing make a difference in terms of like you know folks you've talked to going and trying out tech or like applying to IC or things like that or how has that been going? Yeah definitely. I feel like so last year or this past year I did three female finals conferences. One in New York, one in Seattle and one in San Francisco. And the one in New York was amazing. I'm sorry I love Seattle. Love it. Love it. But the one in New York was so diverse. It was crazy. I remember Jessa came up soon and she was like wow Dom. She was like look at all these different kinds of people here and I was like I know and I was just standing back and I was looking at the room and I was like wow. I really did that. You know it's like you work on things for so long and you're always thinking about the future. What's your next step? What's your next step? But you never kind of like sit there and like kind of flourish and just realize what you're doing and what you're working on now and how it's and how the outcome has affected people. Yeah. So yeah it feels good. Yeah that's awesome. Good work. Thank you.
Reflecting on accomplishments (14:10)
Do you take time to sort of stop and reflect and think about how things are going or how do you incorporate that into your life? Honestly I haven't and that's bad. That's not good. I don't suggest that. So I just keep, I kind of just like keep going and going and going and going. Of course I know like when my stopping point is like I know when it's time for self care. I know when it's time to just like kind of fall back and take a break. But it wasn't so recently like I just listed out all of the events that I've done and why I see it and the people that I've worked with and I was just like what? What? Like who is this person? Like who is this girl? So I've just recently started to do that and I think I'll do it more. That's awesome. Yeah I think making those like very positive lists about the things that you've accomplished is really, I find also really useful because I don't do it naturally either. And so do you have like a plan for your career about where you want to go and what you want to do or are you sort of figuring it out as you go?
Dom’s career plans (15:05)
I'm sort of, I'm just figuring it out because this was my like in goal. I wanted to be like an event planner like for the top tech company. Like that was my thing. I'm going to be an event planner for the top tech company. And now I just feel like, you know, I'm there and I'm definitely making a difference in doing things and there's only, there's so many like ways of creativity that I can change my role here. But right now I don't know, like I have no idea what's next. I think that the only clear option here is to work for Beyonce. I don't know what else would come after this. Sounds pretty cool. That's awesome. And so do you do you put any pressure on yourself to have like know those things or you know, sort of play it by you? You know, I used to. That was a huge thing for me in college and even before college like in high school, like being pressured to figure out like figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life. Pick a major right now, like get these scholarships, you know, but it's not about that. I think it's about figuring out as you go and I've learned that I've accomplished a lot more without putting those certain constraints on like my career because at that time I was just only going and moving towards that specific direction. But now there's all these different areas, directions like I can just literally like do you can do whatever you want to do. It's just about like how you use your time. And I don't want to limit myself. It's just one different area or like where to go. That's why I'm not interested in grad school. Got it. And do you think you'll ever do a startup?
Will Dom do a startup? (16:40)
You know, I never thought I would before YC when I find myself like creating all types of startups in my mind. And if there was a startup that could create startups, then I would go to that startup to make my startup. I think you're at. I think you're there. Okay, maybe, maybe. I don't know. We'll see. Very cool. Very cool. So I'm talking a little bit more about like you're obviously super busy and you've taken on a lot.
Avoiding burnout (17:10)
How do you balance it? How do you avoid burnout? What is your practice for your balance life? I think that well, it also helps that I create the YC calendar, the meds calendar. So that helps. That helps like kind of spacing things out. It's important to know like when you can't do anymore. I feel like when you continue to work and you're burnt out, like you're not offering the best of the work that you can do. And then the outcome of it is not the best. So what I do is after each event, I do like a staycation or I go to town, like everyone knows like I love traveling. So like that's my thing. But I can do anything from, oh, I'm a way I'm staying in a tree house. Like, oh, now I'm staying in a yard or now I'm going to be sleeping on the beach. I don't know. But it's good. But it's good to just like get away and shut off and just kind of like just refresh and replenish because you can never be successful while you're like running on the go, go, go, go and burnt out. And that's one thing that I really appreciate about YC is like, you know, they respect like how I work and like they know like that's that's the way that I can do it. And that's the only way that things are going to get done. So that's pretty cool. Do you like when you're on those trips, when you're reflecting and refreshing, are you reflecting also on the work you've been doing or do like put that somewhere else for dinner? Yeah, I don't think about work at all while I'm there. So I try to just shut off completely. So the things that I'm thinking about are, okay, where do I see myself in 10 years or maybe I want to learn how to, you know, do aerial dancing. Maybe I should just join so I do so like I don't know. Like, so I'm thinking about all the things that I never get a chance to think about while I'm working because I don't think that people understand and realize we run a like really small close knit team. And I appreciate that about YC. But I think that people feel like or think like we have this entire events team and they don't realize that I am the team. There is no events team of one. Right, exactly. So a lot of my brain is dedicated to events and it really shuts off. So when I do go away and I am like not working, it's kind of difficult to shut it off. I'm constantly thinking about events. It can never just go away. But I would say while I'm out, I think about it less. That sounds good. Yeah. Yeah. And when you're on these trips, like, you know, are you checking emailed? You totally cut off. How do you do it? I would say in my friends would tell you I never totally cut off. Yeah. It's 75, 80% cut off. But there's always that moment when my phone goes off and I have an instinct to like just grab it because I need to know who's emailing me. I'm addicted. I need to see. But it's a really good feeling when I do finally just shut it off. Like I can go a day. Maybe I feel like I can't go longer than a day without just shutting off. But I would say I don't respond as frequently as I would during my shutdown time. You're shut down. Yeah, yes. During my shutdown. And is there anything?
The importance of just getting started (20:20)
Any parting words before we go that you want to share? Yeah. I just want people to know that it doesn't really matter like how small or how big you start. But I think the main point is to just start. Like do something. Whatever it is you want to do. I mean, I don't know. You could be wanting to learn how to fly a kite. You could be wanting to be the next president. Not sure. But just start somewhere. I think like the longer you wait, you start doubting yourself more and more and more. Yeah. And fear stop you from who you are truly supposed to be. So just start wherever. Wherever that is for you, just do that. Yeah. Big or small. Yeah. That's good advice. Thanks Tom. Thanks.