It’s no surprise Jenn Graham is a natural entrepreneur. She’s been hustling since the tender age of eight, when she used to sell custom (custom!) order friendship bracelets at her pop-up shop on the back of the school bus. That passion for business took Graham to the top as she became a community activist and leader.
The entrepreneur left her gig at a design studio and jumped head first into non-profit brand design — first with TEDx Atlanta and then led the redesign of Atlanta Streets Alive. Now, as a social innovator designer and CEO at Aha! Strategy and CEO of her new startup Civic Dinners, Graham hopes to spark important conversations about infrastructure, education, and ongoing social issues in the city and beyond. She’s also currently leading the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Millennial Advisory Panel. Like we said, her passion for entrepreneurship and this city are strong.
Get the scoop on how she stays on top of her global team, why community engagement is important for your brand, and what made her fall in love with Atlanta.
How did you decide to make the jump from your 9-5 to your own business? What are some things you wish you knew then that you know now?
I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 8 years old, [laughs] selling cookies and lemonade from the sidewalk. I knew it was a matter of time before I would launch out on my own, and gave myself 5-6 years to learn as much as possible, make lots of mistakes, and grow a set of skills from account management to strategy to design. The final push out of the nest, so to speak, was the culmination of many things. 1) I had just finished organizing (co)lab summit with Leadership Atlanta that was amazing, all consuming and one of the greatest risks Atlanta has ever taken and 2) Atlanta Streets Alive was taking off.
Both of these projects were pivotal in my development as a leader and as a community activist, and between the two, I felt that my best work would only come if I aligned my skills with my heart. And my heart kept pointing me towards work in early childhood education, alternative transportation and community engagement. I knew that to do that kind of work, I’d have to go lean. So I jumped! And thanks to my supportive mentors, amazing clients, and an insane work ethic, it’s worked out really, really well. I wish I would have known how easy it is to work for oneself, as I would have done it sooner. The freedom to choose my clients, my projects and my team is electrifying. You can do great work for great organizations and still have a great life.
You took over the branding of Atlanta Streets Alive near the beginning. How did you approach the project and what elements were important to make the brand succeed?
Atlanta Streets Alive was my very first community-based branding initiative. I’d been fascinated by the concept and experienced it on Edgewood that summer in 2011. But I had noticed that the original brand wasn’t nearly as exciting as the idea. So when I dove into the rebrand of Atlanta Streets Alive, I strived to recreate the feeling of being a kid again, as if going to the circus for the first time. The new brand helped create a sense of wonder, mystery, magic, spontaneity, participation and ultimately “human-powered amusement.” What has made this brand so exciting is that the brand reflects the experience. It’s a bit unpolished, edgy, authentic and perhaps even rebellious. You can’t ignore it and that’s what makes it so lovable. It has a point of view, a reason for being, and that’s to get more people out to experience streets designed for people, even if it’s only temporary.
Your team is spread around the world. How do you manage them and stay on top of projects?
I have a fantastic team! I’ve been lucky to meet super talented people with a wide range of skills, which allows me to cobble together specific teams for specific projects. I’d have to say the most challenging part is keeping up with time zones, especially when traveling. But between Google calendar, email, Slack, open communication, solid follow-through and lots and lots of trust, we manage to stay on top of projects and key deadlines. I’d say the key to successful project management is a defined scope, proper estimation of time up front, and clear budget. I take pride in that I have super talented people excited to work on these projects not only to get paid, but mostly to do great work for the community and really make a difference. We believe in using our talents for good, and always keeping that front and center helps make sure the work is award-worthy and that our clients are thrilled.
As Atlanta becomes a large hub for tech and enterprise, why is community engagement an integral part of a company’s brand?
As a Millennial, I have profound respect for the power of technology and can’t imagine my life without the smartphone. But with technology comes great responsibility and we must not let it distract us from our most pressing challenges, especially those that aren’t solved by quick clicks. Instead, we crave experiences. We want to be part of the change. So how might tech companies in Atlanta reimagine experiences and help us solve some of our not-so-sexy challenges? For example, Civic Dinners is a new startup I’m leading, and its purpose is to reimagine our experience of democracy. Its brand is similar in spirit to Atlanta Streets Alive, in that it’s all about creating shared experiences that are fun, social and meaningful.
What kind of conversations do you hope to spark with Civic Dinners? Tell a little bit more about its mission.
Bringing people together over food is not a new idea. In fact dinner parties were the original social network. But Civic Dinners is about using technology to bring diverse voices to the table, face-to-face, and make it easy and fun for anyone to host conversations that matter. So our first goal is to make it fun to dine with strangers, and help cities get to know their citizens and help residents get to know their neighbors. The second goal is really about bringing greater awareness and understanding to issues that matter—that Atlanta isn’t quite comfortable having—such as race, economic inclusion, gentrification, immigration and infrastructure. And the third goal is through these fascinating conversations, we uncover a city’s collective soul, its vision, our shared truths and our common values. I believe we have way more in common with each other than we realize and I hope that our platform allows for more genuine understanding of one another. Civic Dinners is just the beginning, it’s the invitation to get more engaged, more connected and more committed to their community. Because once they’re hooked, the real work (and progress) begins.
You’ve led strategy from city projects to TEDxAtlanta. What are some things you’ve learned when coming into a company and making your voice/opinion heard?
As a consultant, the best way to have my ideas or voice heard is to first ask boatloads of really good questions and just listen. Since my projects and strategy are never the same for any client, I make sure I understand the root challenge and core need before offering any approach or strategy. The other thing is that I have learned to become extremely process oriented, which helps break down a big idea into bite-size chunks into step 1, step 2, step 3, etc. It simplifies what might appear to be an overwhelming process. So in my proposals, I start off with the grand vision (the who, the why, the opportunity) and draw out the various steps. This allows both kinds of decision-makers, the idea people and the implementation people, to have confidence in the plan and process. Of course, I always allow room for adjustment, as social innovation requires the same patience as the scientific process. We start with a hypothesis, and design an experiment, but we really never know what will emerge when we’re relying on humans. All we can do is design the approach, setup the framework or technology, tell the story in such a way that attracts the right people, and then sit back and watch the fireworks.
How does ATL weave into your story?
I’m a true southerner. Born in Baton Rouge, raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, spent summers in Memphis, Christmas in Birmingham and spring breaks in Charleston. I’ve basically been circling Atlanta my whole life, much like many people circle our airport before finally landing. But it was design school that brought me to Atlanta, Portfolio Center, exactly 10 years ago, where I learned the art of storytelling and immediately after landed my first job at a strategy design firm called Unboundary. At the time I wasn’t exactly “sold” on Atlanta and perhaps even saw it as a stepping stone on my way to San Francisco.
But while at Unboundary, I was lucky to help organize TEDxAtlanta, back before people even knew what TED was. And honestly, I am still in Atlanta because of the amazing people I met through TEDxAtlanta. Rockstars like Ryan Gravel, Monica Campana, Ellen Dunham-Jones and so many more. I began to fall more and more in love with Atlanta — flaws and all — and decided that if I was going to stay, I’d need to roll up my sleeves and help make it what I wanted it to be. Ever since then, I’ve been invested in Atlanta’s growth, helping to tell its story, pointing out its strengths and working on its weaknesses. So much of my professional and personal life is tied within Atlanta. In fact, I met my husband purely through my love for making Atlanta more bike-friendly. Being in Atlanta right now is an honor. It’s at such a fascinating inflection point, with people eager to move back to the city center, and all the challenges that brings.
What tech/tools are essential to you?
Tech tools I can’t live without: pen and paper. Seriously. I am a visual thinker and I have to draw in order to think. I have at least 4 dozen moleskins from the past 10 years, that capture my ideas, thoughts, working sketches, notes from books I’m currently reading and more, like a time capsule. And since ideas never die, going back through them every once in a while brings back old ideas in new light that sometimes sparks a whole new solution to an old challenge.
The second best tool is actually my Creative Suite software. I feel that one of my advantages is having taught myself InDesign and Illustrator, which comes in handy for graphic design purposes, but more importantly helps me articulate my ideas in more than just words. I believe every leader should learn how to use InDesign or Illustrator.
All photos provided by Jenn Graham. Photos by Ross Oscar Knight. Atlanta Streets Alive photo by the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. Working photo by TEDx Atlanta.