Working Backwards: From The Customer To The Relational Meeting

One of the most incredible conversationalists I know is also among the most curious. (Her runner up shares this quality, but is a distant second.) I often wonder if it’s part of her training — she’s a journalist by “trade” — however, I’m more convinced that it’s her curiosity that has catapulted her on a journey of unparalleled opportunities and pioneering firsts. Today she leads an organization of “entrepreneurial journalists” in major cities around the US, is part of a loving family, makes time to answer friends’ emails and texts with heart-felt warmth, and connects acquaintances to support and promote their work around the world when inspiration strikes her. I marvel at her ability to approach life and work with so much fluidity and dynamism, while making those in her company feel at ease and comfortable.

As I considered which relational meetings I will plan to achieve my goals – profitability at PizzaPlex to finalize our conversion to a worker-owned company, convening a network to explore investment opportunities in women- and POC-owned business – I also considered my friend’s wild success at connecting. Ultimately, I want to connect like she does, with authentic curiosity and open-mindedness (and “open-heartedness,” frankly). The discussion isn’t strained, the next steps aren’t forced. I imagine this stems from a central belief that we all have so much to learn from each other – no discussion is a bust under that thinking. I want to connect in relational meetings with experts – and customers.

In parallel with model conversations, I also thought about my own ability to balance the relational versus transactional. How can I avoid asking without also giving in return? For my goal of obtaining guidance on business activities to strengthen PizzaPlex’s bottom line in preparation for our conversion, I consider how this could look like understanding what customers want more of, and responding to their needs or untapped excitement for good food and fun events, seamlessly and naturally. On the other hand, what resources or support can I provide the local expert in cooperatives I will consult? We had previously arranged to meet again after a preliminary discussion and exchange of ideas. In that initial meeting, we covered a lot of ground around the “why” of our work; as a result of time constraints – plus my lack of clarity on what I needed precisely for my business at the time – there was very little transactional discussion. Now that I can articulate the needs of my business better, I can better prepare for the key focus areas of our next meeting.

When meeting with women entrepreneurs (are they my “customer” in the case of an investment club or network?) or organizations that could provide resources to fund, mentor, or otherwise support women- and POC-owned businesses, I will consider my Story of Self and what aspects of my Story resonate with their own paths. My Story of Self rests primarily on my own experiences as an entrepreneur navigating a complex system; however, I also recall my experience mentoring a young woman for a few years when I lived in Seattle. I met her when she newly turned 17 after release from a state rehabilitation program. We spent years building a strong relationship, and while I did my best to support her educational and career endeavors, so many systemic factors kept her from achieving her goals, ultimately leading to a very tragic separation with her son and family in the US. My experience with this young woman and the painful reality of how quickly the positive influence she had over the lives of her family members and young son could end in the absence of certain privileges (that I’d prefer not to publish publicly) were more than enough evidence for how transformational women’s education – especially women from communities of color – could be towards the benefit of society. I imagine what fate she and her family could have had if she got her diploma and did her life’s work. I felt helpless in all these situations, there was virtually nothing I could do to remedy her story’s outcome. My privilege, access to capital, and resources, were insufficient for my friend to realize a different outcome for her Self. I wanted those same things to exist for her. And her story is not uncommon, so many more women who act as the glue in their families risk repeating this outcome – and I have seen it, sadly, repeated.

When I invite my contacts to a relational meeting to explore investing in women- and POC-owned businesses, I plan to focus on my own experiences as an entrepreneur. I do find that there is a common understanding from other women of color in “getting” the why behind the work. What I need to learn to pitch well is why there is a need to organize differently through a different mechanism to enable this access to capital, and, specifically, reveal that there is a need in the first place. The “customer” of this work, ultimately, is going to be a very successful entrepreneur who knows how to scale her business as well as social and community value. For these meetings, I plan to connect with directors from local social entrepreneurship programs, other women entrepreneurs, and small business financing organizations.

I’ll end with the risks that exist upfront in engaging in this work. First, some of the entrepreneurs or local experts I will consult I consider to be friends. I will need to be careful to identify a clear line between relational and transactional work. I am accustomed to this given the nature of my work, but am always mindful of potential pitfalls. Conversely, I also perform some of this work at my “day job,” and will need to take care to separate the overlap of resources available to a local network versus what I focus on at “day work.” Given all the hats I wear, I am well versed at announcing what organization(s) I represent in any given dialog; I can always simplify my affiliations, however, which may be the ultimate “a-ha” in all of this reflection. Is there a better way to condense and strengthen the impact of my work?

R/S – I am so grateful for how thoughtfully my Generous Skeptics invited me to reflect back on and interpret my own words differently this week. In doing so, I distilled a few themes that pushed me to consider the following in my general approach to meetings and planning (and life):

  • Motivators (values)
  • Positivity
  • Receiving as a gift
  • Inclusivity
  • Facing adversity

The value that drives my interest in my two goals is a commitment to systemic change to scale equal access to opportunity. I can reframe transactional meetings as avenues for mutual benefit, where I can celebrate and embrace positivity first. Finally, by truly committing to equal access, I can consider who I invite to meetings – and affirm I want to engage with a spectrum of needs – and prepare myself for adversity, and actually welcome it to grow. I can play out scenarios of how meetings might go, and determine how I would to respond to each scenario if it results in conflict.

Thank you for the insightful questions and comments – this reflection is only a summary of my key takeaways. Know that your questions surfaced many times throughout the past few days, and gave me pause not only in thinking about my two goals, but how I walk through my daily life.

5 thoughts on “Working Backwards: From The Customer To The Relational Meeting”

  1. “I felt helpless in all these situations, there was virtually nothing I could do to remedy her story’s outcome. My privilege, access to capital, and resources, were insufficient for my friend to realize a different outcome for her Self.”

    This is super powerful, Ale. Thanks for sharing.

    What value did this situation challenge in a way that you found so upsetting? Fairness? Opportunity?

    Is that value still being challenged today? Where? How do you hope the network of people you invite to invest in women- and POC-owned businesses can confront that challenge, and meet it?

    How can you help the people you invite to invest in women- and POC-owned businesses find the emotional resources they need to put in the time and energy on this? How can your work with the young woman help them find some of those resources?

    I bet your super networky friend would have some good answers to those questions and others as you begin to build our that story!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ale — you beautifully describe your friend’s curiosity and open-heartedness.

    Your attentiveness to these qualities may reveal more than you think — right?
    I’ve heard one friend of yours describe you this way as well.

    What might be the unique magic that you uniquely bring to your best relational meetings?

    What’s one elegant step you could take this upcoming week to trying to bring that unique Ale magic (your special twist of curiosity, open-heartedness, + ___ +___) to two or three meetings you’ve already got on your plate?

    Was there any new insight you gained about yourself as you wrote this?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Ale!

    I was totally captivated by your writing! We’re so lucky to have you!

    So now I understand your goal better: To help PizzaPlex reach profitability so it can be converted into a co-op and you’re trying to enlist support (from investors, experts, and others) on how to do it.

    Your question on: “How can I avoid asking without also giving in return? “, I would invite you to put yourself in the shoes of others for this one. I actually got a sense of this today in one of my relational meetings. How do you think people feel when you genuinely want to know what they think? How do they feel when you’re taking notes when they’re talking? How do you think they feel when you open your eyes in surprise, or furrow your brow in contemplation of their ideas?

    A mentor once told me: “Receiving is the biggest form of giving because you’re letting others know that what they have to give is valuable”.

    Oftentimes I feel like, in our westernized culture, we have been taught that there is inherent guilt with receiving and not offering something of comparable value in return. To that I now say: well, making someone feel like their time had an impact and was genuinely useful to shape your direction is a TREMENDOUS gift!
    That also relieves the pressure from you to “have to come up with something”, maybe forced or artificial, to give in return.

    What possibilities do you think would open up to you if you just let life guide your giving and that reciprocal exchange of energies can be a lot more fluid and less time-constrained?

    I can’t wait to see your reflection!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Juan Francisco! In my RS this week, I tried to incorporate my appreciation for your suggestion that I consider what others receive as I receive from meeting with them. I also wanted to address directly in reply to you that you also revealed a gap in my ability to communicate my goals, which is very important for me to see. My goals are actually two, separate goals. One is for PizzaPlex to be profitable – as that milestone will enable us to distribute financial ownership as profit (and not debt). The second is to assemble a network of resources and people to invest in women- and POC-owner businesses, because I believe investing in these business will create more sustainable communities where everyone has access to high quality of life. I hope this helps clarify; however, I also need to consider how I can express myself and my goals simply and succinctly. Thank you for the enlightenment!


  4. Ale, you do a great job of conveying your energy through your writing. I felt the warmth and depth of your admiration of your friend, in particular her approach to generous listening and intentional connecting. I felt your sense of helplessness as you watched your young friend struggle and your heartfelt desire to ensure that other young women have the resources and supports needed to “make it” for themselves and their families. Finally, I felt you pause and hesitate in your reflections on the relational versus transactional as you engage customers (was it just customers?) to learn from them what PizzaPlex can do to entice them to spend more money.

    A few reflections:

    I 110% agree with what Juan Fransisco expressed above about giving, especially when you’re asking people to share their expertise and know that through your asking you are actually validating and affirming their sense of value. I also understand, though, the instinct to want to reciprocate kindness when you’re asking for time from people when you can directly see how they’re helping you shape your thing while your service to them feels/seems less certain or concrete or comes much further down the line. It’s why at my day job we’re at the very least sure to feed our clients very well when we host focus groups and like to raffle off a gift card when there’s money in the budget for it.

    To be honest, though, the people who come to our focus groups don’t come for the food or the chance to win a gift card. Over and over I’ve heard that they showed up because I asked them, because they trust our organization and have benefited from our services in the past, or because a friend of theirs had vouched for us.

    I guess I say all of that to say, when people see you being genuine, when they respect who you are and/or what you’re doing, they feel good about coming to your table and sharing their insights with you; they want to help. Be mindful and critical of the impulse to think that you “owe” someone or, in general, that the weight of this heavy world rests squarely on your shoulders.

    In your research- including your relational meetings- I encourage you to talk to the kinds of women you hope to serve (i.e. being intentional about not just talking to directors of programs, *successful* women , and small business financing organizations). There’s a spectrum of need. Assuming we model that spectrum on a 5 point scale, the 17 year old you mentioned might be at a 5. Are you trying to reach 3s, 4s, 5s, or a mixture? Are you open to the idea of a hybrid – serving 4s, but also cultivating a pipeline so that the fund includes mentoring and other resources to bring 3s up to 4s?

    “What I need to learn to pitch well is why there is a need to organize differently through a different mechanism…”

    In your first post, you expressed a desire to check your assumptions around the value of starting this fund. Before you get to the pitch, are you still committed to following through on engaging others – not to convince them to go along with your thing but to either offer feedback to help you refine a model that you’re kind of wedded to or taking where you start from and allowing it to be truly shaped/co-created through engagement? How curious are you about what others think? How open are you to receiving and reflecting on challenging questions or push back? What’s your game plan for managing your aversion to conflict/disagreement in this process?

    Liked by 1 person

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