Can there be design without community? Can complex social and design challenges be solved independently? How might true curiosity, conversation, relationship connection, and social justice values advance the work of any organization? If questions like these resonate, you need to meet Sloan Leo. The possibility, honesty, joy, and creativity shared in our conversation with the committed and brilliant founder of Flox Studio will brighten your day and might help you recognize a connection.
“A lot of the organizational leaders we work with either have a brand-new CEO or Executive Director, or they've had a significant amount of change in their executive team. Change that’s created enough room and social/political will for a new approach, and that approach should be more collaborative and more equitable. When you get people who are on that kind of precipice of a new idea in an organization, and they come to us then I start to say, do we vibe. Do you or are you willing to embody the principles that allow for productive relationships?”
Welcome to the ONEder podcast. It's your host CCB with another conversation with ah another interesting character I'm going to say. And I say character because we're all characters in our lives and this particular life has a lot of joy and a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of community. I'm going let Sloan Leo explain a little bit more what community means. And let us all know that we had the good fortune of meeting Sloan Leo at an IIDA Leader's Breakfast where Sloan Leo gave the inspirational kind of morning conversation and truthfully, people walked out of … they always walk out of the Leaders' Breakfast feeling inspired … but there were people that were kind of bouncing off the walls being so motivated in a way to like, smile and you know, feel a little bit more joy. And I could not like help but send a note to Sloan Leo and say could you please join us because I'd love to share, we love the opportunity to share that kind of enthusiasm for life with our listeners. So welcome Sloan Leo, thank you so much for joining us.
Tell us a little bit, introduce yourself.
Thanks so much CCB I am thrilled to be here; I love the IIDA community. It was a wonderful, wonderful breakfast experience for me also and I also left feeling a lot more joy and a lot more sense of possibility. My name is Sloan Leo, my pronouns are they/he, and I'm the founder and lead facilitator at Flox Studio. The best way to understand what I do now is to understand how I got here a bit. So just 2 sentences about a little bit about how I got here which is that growing up my dad worked at Kodak, and my mom was a facilitator for the State Department of Education, amongst other things in her role there. So, for the last I don't know, 40 years of my life I've been a facilitator in different ways. And now I run a studio that does facilitation and strategy for folks who are trying to design with community.
So, I was so curious as you left the conversation, at the IIDA breakfast and I went back and looked at Flox Studio. And just as a note to everyone, we'll have links to all of the references that Sloan Leo mentions and to Flox Studio. So don't worry about trying to find these things because we'll help you find them. However, that being said, when I went and looked at your website, first off, I was struck by the continuation of the joy and that sense of possibility by the visuals. And then I was struck by the fact that it's so based on Community, and I'd love for you to define what does community mean to Flox Studio.
It's one of my favorite questions. So I get that question a lot, like what is community, and my favorite response is that community is not a what, it's not a noun, it's actually a verb. It's an action. So, a lot of times we think - oh where can I find my community? What communities am I part of? I'm not in a community. I feel really lonely. And that really removes the agency that I think of when I think about my role within community. Like what community means to me. At Flox Studio, community is something that happens when people show up time and time and time again. We started off as practice of community. We started off in my living room in January 2019. I had this like loft apartment on Madison and 28th in like Midtown Manhattan, and I got the apartment because I knew I wanted to host these gatherings to explore design, innovation, social justice, nonprofit management, retreat development, and I did the crazy thing which was to put on EventBrite “Hi, I'm looking to host an event about sustainability and design and community. Come to my house and hang out.” Now I should let you know CCB, it was a very New York apartment. The living room area could host like 25 folding chairs. But my bedroom was about like maybe three feet tall and involved crawling up some stairs and like laying kind of sideways to crawl my way into bed. But people showed up, and over the course of 2019, we had one of these dinners about almost every month. And over the course of that year, two hundred people showed up at my house. So community to me was people who show up. People who are committed to reweaving is another definition. That definition comes from Hil Malatino’s book Trans Care. So, it's like people who are willing to create connection, to heal, to repair and to find ways to move forward together.
I completely appreciate that definition and I wanted to say when I was thinking about talking with you, I said what is community and why now. And why now I mean to me that's like a very obvious why now, but could you go a little bit deeper into the why now? why? Why are you so motivated now.
We started the studio as a project that wasn't going to be a business. It was just like I wanted to have more community to talk about the things that I'm curious about, with people who shared the curiosity. And then in January 2020 I got laid off, in Feb 2020 I moved into a new neighborhood, and then by March 2020 I was like actively getting divorced, totally unemployed, in a brand-new neighborhood and then lockdown in New York City, right? I was in like a personally acute moment of crisis and development, And so were a lot of other folks but for different reasons. The pandemic lockdown really revealed to us all the ways that our communities were limited, and that we had become so isolated even before the pandemic right? Especially in places like New York where you think you can do so much on your own. You have food delivered but to your house, you go out and do your thing, like there wasn't a sense of like deep connection, and what the pandemic revealed was a need for that connection because we didn't know what we're facing. We were lonely, we were scared and the challenges that have emerged since 2020, in a really acute way, like climate change, like the wildfires the heat disasters, like the crazy moment in New York City when the air was so thick and orange, and I was like I don't know where to go next, the challenges we're facing as a species are collective challenges.
And this idea that we can somehow show up independently to solve them is a myth that I personally believe grew within capitalism, but you know you check your own analysis. But it's like we aren't going to solve climate change independently. We're not going to solve global poverty and economic inequity alone. We're not going to solve issues around disability access, by ourselves. They are all ecosystems that require collective responses.
So, you’ve focused on the social justice, the social equity, social economy that those folks to. be part of your community building or be the focus of your efforts, which I think is really interesting, if you look at your list of clients on your website, it runs across a broad spectrum of social entrepreneurs if you will. But also, educational institutions. And just what you've said makes me so desirous of seeing you involved in, seeing Flox Studio involved in more of the corporate…Is that a is that a goal that you even are interested in?
It's an awesome question CCB, and one that I've spent a few years now figuring out right? Like I am a first-time entrepreneur in a lot of ways. I've started small projects and like business ideas. But I always I spent you know the first fifteen years of my career working in nonprofits, doing strategy, doing fundraising, doing governance, and what I've realized over the last three years of running Flox is that we are actually for a lot more people than nonprofits. We are specifically working with mission driven leaders who want to have values-aligned organizational structures. So that looks like, we have right now a corporate client KNOWN. They're a financial services firm, building the wealth of the global majority, so that's like black and brown folks, And they are one of our first corporate clients, and I really want to give them a shutout because they said you know, we're going to build the next BlackRock, the next big financial services firm. And we want to do it differently. We don't want to do our annual planning, our evaluations, our staff retreats the same way. We want to infuse them with the values of the social justice world. And that's what I find really exciting as far as growth for our studio. Over the last three years we've had about 20 clients. We've grown from like me in my studio apartment in Bushwick where I had one client, which is the Wikimedia Foundation, to now having a roster of 6 clients or so in every cycle we do our work. And grown from you know, $0 of revenue to nearly a million dollars in gross revenue and a team of 8 people.
And now we're setting our sites on bigger projects. Like how can we work with organizations like a Google, like a Miller Knoll, to really say how do you gather differently? How can we use conversation and relationship connection, social justice values, to advance the work of your institution.
And, given all of the external context and the pressures and the factors that we're all facing, it feels like it's a great time. When I had this this other kind of curious thought that you know how do people find you, and how do you find people. And that to me is you know there's the the laws of attraction. But there's also you know what intention goes behind finding, not only the right clients to work with, but the right people to work with.
I love that question, you know, CCB, I spent a lot of my life feeling isolated right? Like I'm black and I'm fat and I'm neuro divergent and I'm trans and like all these identities, all these kind of social identities that made it hard for me to feel like I was part of a mainstream community. And I went to my dad one time, and I was like Dad you know I just want to find my people. How do I find my people? And my dad looks at me and he goes - sometimes you have to be a beacon, to be the lighthouse and then people can find you, And I took that advice very seriously over the course of my life. So, when I first started off kind of working in my career, I remember, the local paper, I grew up in Albany New York CCB, and the paper of record is the Times Union. And the Times Union had these blogs, this was when blogs were new, so like you know, not to date myself but to say. And I was like, I'd like to be, I wrote them a cold email, and said there's no black professionals writing blogs for your news outlet. And I know that there are black professionals in this city who want to work together, who deserve professional development and should be seen. And they were like, sure random person, and I got this blog. And so I used that opportunity to then build future opportunities. I started writing for the Huffington Post, I started writing for LIBO League and now I'm a contributor over at Forbes, talking about community design and leadership. So, I spend a lot of energy finding opportunities to get my voice out there so folks can find me, And finding the studio has looked like doing events with folks like IIDA, speaking at the Queer Design Club, speaking at the Design Trust for Public Space in New York City, working with the Van Allen Institute and finding other folks who are curious about this intersection between design and community. And then luckily, I've been able to make some great new friends, folks like you, who say listen. I've got a platform, I think what you're doing is great and I'd love to have you involved.
I am sincere in my statement here that I hope many people listen to this and hear and reach out to you and have more conversations. Because truthfully, the work that you're doing… when you see a room of 500 people all walking out smiling. I mean I like had tears, running down my eyes, my face, because I was just like, this is spectacular. And I said to you, gosh I wish there were more people like you, and you said that it takes all kinds of people, and I was like okay, you're right and you know, but you can have ideals, I mean you can! Okay so I looked at when I was looking at your process, okay, compared to design thinking process and I just do that from our design conversations, design thinking is a very iterative process that kind of is it continues to flow and, the Flox kind of process does a very similar thing. However, at the , you say Transition Out of Project. So, I kind of want you to walk us through and say from the very beginning when you identify community, the community of the conversation, you then co identify priorities. And I wanted you to help us understand the co-identification process. What does that mean?
Yeah, so when I started getting curious about design, I went to IDEO.org's website, they had like IDEO University. And this is eight or nine years ago I started getting curious about design thinking, and I looked at the human centered design process. And then I spent a lot of time In my free time after work, before work, on my lunch break when I had my full-time job, trying to parse out what should be different at every stage of the design journey. To insert more mutuality, to insert more community, to insert more feedback cycles. So, when we get a new client and they come to us and say, we want to have a new strategic plan, like the New School which is one of our big clients right now. What we know is that the defining of what is the need and what is the challenge and what is the output needs to be, so often comes from like two or three people in leadership, right? The New School was ahead of the curve in that they had had a whole steering committee, staff, students, and faculty, to help define. Like we need a strategic plan, but to what end? But then we go in and we meet with those stakeholders really early in our process. We do interviews with sometimes up to 25 people, to get a sense like that's what our discovery process is, to say, is there actually alignment between your organizational community and the proposal you sent us? We identify where there's discrepancies and then we find ways to respond to the community to say: this project will address these, but it won't address these issues. So, we do a lot of that in discovery through interviews, and then we continue that along the whole process. And I just want to note, you talked about the transition out. And that's a big site of difference for us as a studio is that we look at our work as Capacity Building. So, for a lot of our clients, even if we're running an annual team retreat, we offer facilitation training. So that by the end of our engagement… there's new capacity within your organization, to be better at having the conversations that matter.
In many ah moments in my career, I've actually felt that way, that the smartest thing to do would be to work myself out of a job, by increasing that level of capacity and knowledge and ability within others. But really truthfully it is about: do you leave the place better, do you leave the community better, do you, have you given something back or something to, something in addition. So that's why there were so many kind of parallel thinking that I hear from you, that I was just so delighted to have you explain in your own words the value behind affirming new directions with Community. So, when you get there, I'm sure across the spectrum, the communities are in different places - from awareness, from kind of recognition - and what does it look like when a new direction is affirmed.
Well part of that is aligning on the fact that there is a new direction that has emerged, So let me think about like a really great example of this, In a project that we had done with the National Institute of Reproductive Health. It was right before the Roe v. Wade decision, maybe a year and a half, and they were working with their board of directors on issues of governance, issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. And they originally had like been thinking about how else they could really engage their community and their board in the work of equity inclusion across their organization’s programs. And as we are having conversations, new ideas start to emerge, and so then we have to hear those. And you have to really look for those as a facilitator, because oftentimes it's someone who speaks quietly. It's something that's like unspoken but you can feel it in the room. And this is also just me as like a longtime facilitator, it feels very natural and intuitive, but I heard a new idea. But then we go back, and we use more like aesthetic and traditional design to create a presentation deck or a tool or an experience that reflects back to the community, to the board, your team, what have you, that says, this is what we heard, did you hear that too? Right now, we're going into a retreat next week with Swipe Out Hunger, they're working to end food insecurity on college campuses. We're going to be working with their board and their staff to develop what's called a theory of change. Like how do you use your resources to get the outcome in the world that you want. And in that conversation, they're going to be coming up with, who could we be five years from now and how might we get there? And then we are going to distill those like 50 pieces of conversation and threads of dialogue into a few core themes. And then key is reflecting back to the community again and again and again, so, they're going with you to the change that you find is much more durable.
Your comments keep bringing me back to the, you know, how do people find, how do you find people. I can sense that it's, the movement is spreading, and the communication is spreading. But from the standpoint of finding the right people to work with you in this, is it a framework is it a filter, a set of filters. What are you looking for, because I can imagine people hearing the story will be like. I think I might have to work with Flox Studio, they sound fantastic. What does it look like?
It looks like an authentic connection. So, I do use filters around, where are you in your organizational journey, right? A lot of our organizational leaders we work with have either a brand-new CEO or executive director, or they've had a significant amount of change in their executive team, where there's enough room and social/political will for a new approach. And that approach should be more collaborative and more equitable. When you get those people who are on that kind of precipice of a new idea in an organization, then they come to us, and I start to say. Do we vibe? CCB, like you and I, we have a good vibe. We just like have a natural connection, there's a rhythm to our dialogue. I was meeting with a new potential client last week or two weeks ago, and we got on the phone, and she was likr in the middle of like a personal appointment. I couldn't see her face on the Zoom. And I told her the truth. I was like you know, I really would love to see if we are the right fit, but I got to say I need to see your face. I want to take the time to really connect with you as a person. And I honestly thought, I thought I was either just like not get another chance and I was willing to risk that because the connection matters so much. And so, we met again last week and now we're at the process of moving forward to a contract. Because she was like you know what, you told me no, you told me that there were standards for how you wanted this relationship to look. And that allowed her to see the kind of integrity that I have as a business owner, but also as a person. So, these kinds of like principles are things that have guided us, whether it be about communicating bravely, embracing slowness, having people that know how to communicate care, those principles that we have on our website like are the filter for the kind of relationships I want to hold people to. So it says as much about where you are in your organizational journey as it is about do you or are you willing to embody the principles that allow for productive relationships.
Again, everyone's going to be able to go to the website and kind of spend more time walking through because in 30 minutes, no one can explain everything that's going on. And there there's such simplicity, such rich simplicity in the website ah in the FLOX Studio website. And I say that because it's so easy to read and understand. And we get, we're bombarded with communications. We're bombarded with information on a regular basis, and when you're in ah in a sense when one is looking for some form of answer, the simplest often tends to be the most attractive because it helps me cut through the noise. Okay, but I'm gonna go back again to this question about, that's clients. But the people that work with you, those people, I can imagine again there's attraction of, oh my gosh I'm so excited about this and the more that people hear about Flox Studio, the more that people might want to you know, become a part of it. And how do you look for those people?
We got a lot of traction over the last couple of years. I think some of it was me doing more speaking engagements, writing more articles, writing a chapter section for a book called The Black Experience in Design, writing a new chapter called Queering Design for a Service Designer's handbook. So, a lot of that is like people read that stuff and they're like that's the kind of place I want to work. So, what we did last year is that we did a call on Linkedin and said if you've ever wanted to work with Sloan Leo or work with Flox Studio, sign up here. We then did a big group meeting, so we had about, almost 30 people showed up to that call. And they all are people that are now part of our Floxaverse. We do invitations to them to events and so we're cultivating these relationships right now with about 30 folks, who over the course of our timeline as we move into year four as a business, might work with us. And then we work with them to do scopes for new projects, and really begin to integrate them into how we work, which slows down, speeds up the pace of onboarding when they get involved.
The other thing I want to say is that I really struggled actually for a bit to understand who do we hire, like who is the right fit for talent at Flox Studio. And I was in the I was at the end of one of our kind of like team happy hours that we had last month, I was swimming in the pool. We're all just hanging out and I dawned on me, we hire people who are in transitions. We're not the kind of studio where we're going to have like 10 fulltime people, like we may grow to that, but right now it's like the goal is like 5 full time people that have great benefits and all that stuff. But we hire graduate students who have just finished their degrees in design or innovation, who are like, I don't want to go work at Ernst and Young or Deloitte right away, I want to work in a small shop, where I can really connect with the clients on issues that matter. We work with people who are taking sabbaticals, like Mari Nakano who's the former director of the mayor's office for service design, is like I'm taking a moment between this job and my next job and I want to try new things. I want to partner with you to practice some things here and I want to go into food justice and design, so places of exploration. And the third people we hire are people who are like I don't exactly know what I want to do next, but I'm fortunate enough to have some space to like be advising People who are kind of at towards the end of their career who are like, I'm not exactly sure but I know a lot of stuff and I want to be a mentor, I want to be a strategic advisor so all of about energy and dynamism. Really fits us very well.
Okay, everybody, you just heard that if you fall into those 3 categories. We've got Sloan Leo's contact information and we're going to be able to share with you. Now I want to go into a little bit more of the personal Sloan Leo, if you will go there with us. And tell us you're an artist as well. Which makes perfect sense if you're if anyone's sitting here listening you will get it, but tell us a little bit more about why making things makes you feel better.
I mean where to start with that question, CCB. I grew up like a lot of kids who were in the gifted and talented program, very anxious. I was like a very anxious stressed-out kid. I had a really loving home, and I also was like aggressively bullied in school for being different. And I was like a little too smart for my own good and couldn't slow my brain down when I needed to just relax and focus. And I had a therapist and a therapeutic community when I was a kid who said, one way to slow down is to like get out of your head and into your hands. So, I started making collages, I started drawing, started making puppets. My mother supported me by like going to all these like art-making summer camps. And as an adult I lost track of all of it. I just like got so cerebral again. I moved to New York City, and I was like I got to make enough money to pay the rent. The rent is due every first of the month I can't slow down. But in the last few years starting during lockdown, I started getting into print making. So, I actually make risograph prints, which is this technology like a screenprint and a Xerox machine kind of like smushed together. And it's a place where I can be playful. There's less risk, and I don't feel the need to know so much. So, I got a risograph machine for my house which is a very weird decision. People don't do it. They're usually for like, print firms. And I'll go upstairs on a Sunday, and I'll just try to make something. I don't always know what it's going to be, the machine breaks, and like the instructions are like in Japanese and I'm like on Reddit trying to figure it out. But it's just that room for like 2 hours of adventuring, where I don't know what's going to happen next. And that process of like, I'll take a photo on my phone, print it on a polaroid, scan the Polaroid into the machine and print it in 4 different inks. The hyper-processing, slows me down and gives me just like this weird kind of tickle of satisfaction that is a sensation I kind of chase. And if I didn't have to work, I probably would make a lot more prints.
Ah, okay, well you know, there's always time. Time is absolutely you know one of our biggest gifts and um, most precious commodities. And I always share that with myself, I have to remind myself of that same thing. I wanted to ask I just actually had the great good fortune of being in Santa Fe, New Mexico for a weekend to visit with some friends and I was reminded of when I lived there, why it slowed me down. And it slowed me down because of the absolutely beautiful nature but also the very, it's high desert and low color. So, it's this combination of just calming, to slow down that, you know, that constant speed of thinking and speed of movement. And I know we each find our places or our activities, to help us get to that slowing and that kind of reflective, time for reflection. Given the fact that we're coming on the end of our 30 minutes, I wanted to ask you the question about Sloan Leo never slows down really. There's this constant thinking and constant iterating, constant questioning. And what I kind of want to say is, what does the future bring? But that's such a silly question because we never really know. But how about if you take the Watermelon project and move that into the future for us. Tell us a little bit about that.
Yeah, A Watermelon for Leo was a mixed media installation piece I did in New York City the fall of lockdown 2020 and the gallery Pen and Brush, and Don Delicat who's the executive director there, really prioritizes work by women and gender nonconforming people. And when I said I had an idea, basically Don had seen me do this piece of video work around watermelon and public blackness and the experience of race and gender, and said to me, listen we've got this 1200 square foot space, how would you transform it? I turned it into a series of stations that were related to my grandfather and my grandmother who were church people. They were like, my grandfather was a minister, my grandmother was the first lady of the church. And that work, where I got to explore objects in relationship to gender and race and religion and family, as I think about like what that would look like in the future, it's actually about facilitating an experience in a space that allows you to like reveal what it means to move from being an individual to a part of a community or a collective. So right now, I'm talking to some lighting designers who I want to do like experimental facilitation by using lighting design to move people, kind of like way finding their way through a very large kind of all white box space, to go again from that individual to the collective. So, I think that even though the Watermelon for Leo project I wouldn't do exactly the same way, that idea of moving and realizing that we're part of a whole, that will continue in my work until I think the day that I'm not here.
Well, I don't even want to think about the day that you're not here Sloan Leo, however, it is time for us to end this so I'm going to say thank you so very much. Thanks so much for sharing and
Ah, thank you.
One of the beautiful things about the ONEder podcast is that it is snackable. It is like these moments of sharing that people can access and then do more research and find more about the people that we're talking to. Because we/I love people that have wonderful stories and that are doing wonderful things and Sloan Leo you are one of those people. Thank you very much.
Thanks CCB, this is awesome.