Isvari Maranwe is the CEO of The DG Sentinel, a community media nonprofit uplifting global minority voices through inspirational stories and a vibrant online social space. She is also Cofounder and President of Dweebs Global, an international platform providing free career mentorship and long-term mental health support in over 35 countries around the world. Isvari was inspired by her own mental health struggles and loneliness to provide a voice to others like her.
Isvari has researched at CERN, Fermilab, and the Lawrence Berkeley Lab and has a background in particle physics and supernova cosmology. She is a former award-winning cybersecurity and national security attorney (Department of Defense, National Commission on Service, Sidley Austin) and prolific columnist and writer. Isvari holds a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center and a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley.
How do you take a runaway viral movement and transform it into an effective and sustainable organization on a global scale? How do you create a culture and work environment that protects and safeguards your highest values as an organization? And how do you do all of this with the slimmest of budgets, all powered by unpaid volunteers spread across the world?
In this episode, Isvari Maranwe, ex physicist and cyber securities lawyer, and CEO of Dweebs Global and DG Sentinel, talks about how an early pandemic experiment to help others turned into a global movement, the challenges and rewards of building an enduring organization by taking yourself entirely out of the picture while still working full time on it, recruiting and motivating a global volunteer force, and much more.
Links and Resources
Dweebs Global: international platform providing free career mentorship and long-term mental health support in over 35 countries around the world
The DG Sentinel: Community media nonprofit uplifting global minority voices through inspirational stories and a vibrant online social space
Volunteer Match: Nonprofit volunteer matching platform
Isvari Maranwe: Hi! Thank you for having me. It’s such a pleasure to be here.
Isvari Maranwe: It’s actually a really good question because I think there is a common thread as to why I left everything else I did and how I ended up where I am.
I always felt when I was working in physics and then when I was in law and in other places, that I wasn’t quite impacting the world the way that I wanted to.
With physics specifically, at some point I felt like if I continued to work in this field, I found very interesting, but I wasn’t impacting things that were happening around the world that I cared a lot about. So, I would say that I felt a bit guilty about that.
I felt like I was spending my time in the way that I ought to and trying to figure out how to impact the world in the best way possible has been a huge driving factor as I’ve gone along my career.
Isvari Maranwe: It was the pandemic actually, which I think is true for a lot of people. I worked the last job that I had as an attorney, I was at a temporary commission, so we only existed for three years in total, and we had advice to give Congress legislation to draft. It was a cool job. But it was winding down anyway.
I left around March of 2020, right as the pandemic hit and I was planning to travel, and I just wanted to take a little bit of a break. I’d been working really hard as an attorney. I was tired.
I just wanted a few months off before I went back to probably working in the government and then the pandemic happened.
So, instead of being able to travel I found myself at home along with my co-founders, my husband, and my sister, and we said, “We’re okay, we can’t travel now. Maybe it’s going to take a couple weeks.” We didn’t think it was going to last much longer.
“So, while we are sitting at home how do we help people? We could just post online and simply say that we are happy to help with resume edits or mental health or however we can personally help our own network on LinkedIn.”
That is what I put out and it was never meant to become a big deal. It was just something to do for a couple weeks.
Then it again just took off on its own accidentally. A whole bunch of people joined. Someone else had the idea, “Why don’t we create a Slack page? Why don’t we put all of our names up on a website so that people know who they can reach out to, and they can choose the best potential mentor or potential resume editor for them?”
It all just sped up from there. It was within a couple of months. We had hundreds of mentors who had asked to help other people. We had talked about transitioning off of LinkedIn. We were like, “Okay, maybe we should make this a non-profit and get registered as a 501(c)(3)” and it just sped up from there.
I think the experiences that I had at Dweebs Global are very different than what we are doing right now at The DG Sentinel. I think there are a lot of interesting comparisons there because Dweebs Global just accidentally took off and it accidentally happened and I had no plans to start a non-profit or start anything or be serious about it or any of it.
Then with The DG Sentinel, we are so intentional. It’s been like a year in the making even before the launch. Getting our team together and making sure everything is perfect and it’s just a very different experience and I love both ways of doing things.
But it was accidental entrepreneur again, and I don’t know if it counts being an entrepreneur, starting a non-profit but it was still very accidental.
Isvari Maranwe: It’s a very interesting story and it highlights how accidental it was. So, my family and I, we had a YouTube account where we were just putting out stuff for family and some comedy stuff. We had called it “Dweebs and Dogs” because we are huge dweebs, we love playing board games.
We were just like, “This is a nice channel, we have a dog.” It was like, “This is cute.” When we launched it happened so quickly that we did not have time to think about, “Oh! Let’s get another website! Let’s think of a name. Let’s register another URL, let’s put stuff up!”
We didn’t think it was going to last that long, so we were like, “Hey, we’ll just put a page on our family website. We’ll just put a page thing. If you are looking for the mentorship, then here it is. Here’s a list of the folks who’ve offered to help.” Of course, that ended up taking over the rest of the website.
Within two months, maybe even the first month, we had to take down everything that was about us and about our family and about our books and other things we were writing, and it turned just into the non-profit account and because we had “Dweebsanddogs.com” at the time and we were able to get “Dweebsanddogs.org”, and that sort of stuck.
So, first we were the Dweebs and Dogs Foundation, which was like, “What do we do with this name that clearly wasn’t made for a mentorship non-profit?” And then as we went along that year and did a whole rebranding and whole conversation about how we wanted to portray ourselves into the world, we thought about completely changing the name.
But at that time, the Dweebs moniker part at least had stuck. Our community was really passionate about it. People were like, “I’m a part of Dweebs Global and I believe this is a part of my identity.”
So, we had so much great SEO and so much great branding around it that we had to keep that part. Then we just made it Dweebs Global, and we actually filed to change our name.
So, that’s that and now we are at the Dweebs Global Foundation and we’re at dweebsglobal.org and we’ve been at dweebsglobal.org for a couple years now, but that was as far as we could push the rebranding at the time. So that’s how the name happened.
Isvari Maranwe: So, originally it was people reaching out directly on LinkedIn to people that they found on our website because we had a list there, or people just saw my post on LinkedIn, let’s say, and reached out to me personally.
My DMs were so full, and I was getting a lot of resumes, and I would edit them and give them back and help people find jobs and just help in the early days of the pandemic which was also a very economically troubling time for a lot of folks.
Then, as things went on we instituted a Google form pretty early on so people could come to our website. We encouraged people to be anonymous if they felt like there were things that they couldn’t share and we encouraged people to write why they were reaching out to us.
Is this just for a resume edit? Is this for mental health support? What do you need? And we’ve kept that model to this day. So, we have a Google form, and it is a one-stop shop. You can submit it and it comes directly to us.
Then we had a back end of volunteers deciding who to match with whom and as far as becoming a mentor was concerned, we also have a “Become a mentor” forum that we instituted pretty early on.
So, when people messaged us, we could take everyone’s information in one place. Getting, their name, their background, are they senior, are they mid, are they junior? Where are they located around the world? And things like that.
Now, as time went on, we realized that this is our scalability problem, because having two Google forms, having a lot of mentors come in, once we’ve hit a several hundred or a thousand mentors, then it is too much for any one person to be able to think through all, who are all our mentors in biology?
It was very difficult, even as we split it into different careers. So, what we’ve done over the past year is develop a system that we are going to continue to put AI on and just start to create an automatic mentor-mentee matching process.
So, we are starting with our mental health support and our resume edits, automatically matching mentees and mentors, waiting for our mentors, figuring out ways to match them more effectively and creating long-lasting connections without there having to be a volunteer matching everyone one on one.
But that has worked for two years, right? So, it’s a great example of how if you have a really strong idea and you’re like, “This is where I want to get in the future.” Then just start and you’ll figure out what the problems are, what you need to produce, but it’s worth it to still just start instead of waiting until everything’s perfect.
Isvari Maranwe: I feel like it was really a cascade, but I thought about this question because there was definitely this moment, and it seems so small now, but there was definitely this moment probably in week two or three, when we were in my parents’ attic.
We quarantined with my parents and so it was my husband, my sister, and I, in the attic. We got on this call with a couple of people who had joined early on who had suggested Slack, who had suggested certain tech that we could produce, who were helping us build out the website.
There were three or four people on that call in addition to us and it just felt very real. It felt like, “Oh look, there are these three people who are around the world.” Back then it was less usual for there to be a lot of people around the world on this call and it was just really cool.
So, everyone was on this call, and we were like, “Oh, it’s real. It is more than us, there are these other real human beings in other parts of the world who are existing, who are thinking about this, who are a part of it.” It felt really real and even to this day, honestly, sometimes I’ll be in a meeting where there are 20 or 30 people and we are from all over the world and there is a moment where I’ll be like, “Oh, it’s really cool that these people have been brought together by something that I was a part of and helped create.”
That is very exciting. So, I would say that Google Meet was a moment where I was like, “This is real, and clearly it is going somewhere.”
Isvari Maranwe: The DG Sentinel originally started because we had so many mentors at Dweebs Global who passionately wanted to tell their stories, and we wanted a place for them to have their voice heard beyond our website, because we didn’t really have a way to have their personal blog-style articles shared and what started as just that idea took off very strongly.
We have an incredible board. Some of the first people who joined, such as Kayla Ingram and Scott Lamb – a bestselling author and Vice President of content at Medium. Scott has had experience with Buzzfeed and Medium, so a lot, in this sort of magazine and newspaper space.
As this year, 2022 has progressed, we’ve really seen how important our solution is to the market right now. Having a non-profit community media space in between media and community media is a way for marginalized voices to be heard, focusing on stories that are not from America, not coming from that western bias, uplifting voices of real people who live in countries like India, Nigeria, South Africa, Myanmar, instead of sending in a foreign journalist to like point behind them and be like, “Look at these cute brown people – These brown people live this way!”
It is about just asking these human beings who are capable of talking to tell their story. We are really passionate about that. We are passionate about, honest mental health coverage from people, like people’s actual experiences, humanity, lifestyle, relationships outside of the Western model, thinking about things like arranged marriages, interracial relationships, queer relationships, all of these things. We just really wanted to uplift voices and we’re doing that on the editorial side.
In addition to that, as this year has gone, talking about how this idea has taken shape, we realized we really wanted to build a community to replicate what mentors have at Dweebs Global and bring it to everybody in the world because our mentor community is so strong and so vibrant, they’ve come up with so many powerful ideas that they’ve really tried to use it to impact their local communities beyond mentorship, beyond what we do.
They’ve had animal rights side solutions. They’ve had women’s health stuff. They’ve been working on apps for visually impaired people. They have all these ideas, and we were like, “How do we take that community model and bring it to the public?”
So, we have this sort of social media, community media aspect, the DG Sentinel, where we are really trying to provide a system and tech support and social space and ability to get to know other people who also want to change the world so that you are able to make these meaningful relationships that are not built around fame, money, or power, but are built around our definition of success, which is the good you do in the world.
If I have to tell people about our organization, think like Medium and Buzzfeed with some of the best parts of Tumblr and Reddit in terms of creating social communities.
We are not a content creation site, so not like TikTok or YouTube. If we could call some sites content creation sites, and some sites social media or community media then we are very much on that side.
Isvari Maranwe: One of the nice things about being an attorney is that you just know a lot of attorneys. My husband is also an attorney, so the first thing you think about is, “How do I make this actually work from a legal perspective?”
Anyone who wants to start a non-profit or an organization, if you can find a friend who is a lawyer who is going to come on board, know that they are so valuable because they will do a lot of that work that you won’t realize you need to do.
But they know because we are trained to issue spot in law school.
So that’s really why our first thought was, “Oh, if we get money, is it going to be tax deductible? No, not unless we are registered as a 501(c)(3) and that has to be done way in advance.”
Through the course of starting Dweebs Global, we realized that that takes time. You have to register as a 501(c)(3), then you have to register with organizations to confirm you are a 501(c)(3) and then you can do partnerships with organizations like Google or Amazon and things like that.
They make sure that you are registered with other people like TechUp or other such places. So, we realized very early on that we wanted to be registered. We wanted to have that status. So, Dweebs Global, it was in month two or three that we filed and heard back.
Then I think organizational strategy is key. I think The DG Sentinel is a great example of that because we have had time to build it out the right way this time.
Megan Miller, who is the COO at The DG Sentinel, is just absolutely incredible. I always talk about how important it is to have a people-driven organization. She originally came on board as the CHRO of The DG Sentinel, and that was the first major position that we had at that organization, besides me as the CEO.
I wasn’t CEO until she became a part of it because there is nothing to the CEO until you have a team, and she is the team. She helped build a team.
She was originally CHRO, and I think that is honestly the most important role when you start anything new because people often talk about the CTO, who is super important, you talk about finances, getting money, which is also super important but without people, especially as a non-profit, without volunteers, without being able to create something, you don’t have anything.
So, for me, the CHRO is really the most important role to handle talent acquisition and engagement and structure and policies and procedures. That’s all Megan.
As this year has gone on, the two of us have really worked together to create a very strong team. The way we structured hiring and acquisitions or volunteer acquisition in our case is going out and doing these calls and doing these interviews with people and really asking them what drives them and what is their mission and how do they think they would see this develop?
Especially in the first year, even prior to launch, we were looking for people who are thinking of this as their baby too. People who are going to come and be a part of the founding team.
Vision, mission, time, commitment – these are all very important, but you may still make missteps. So, you have these trial time periods where in the first three months you make sure things are working well and then we revisit it.
Having all these roles we have the structure that I really advocate where we both have a ‘C’ role, like a ‘C’ level role, CTO, CMO, and then we have deputy roles, deputy CMO, deputy CTO, who have the same bailiwick as the C level. That way there is always a second in command ready to step up who can help with that position.
That is a model that I just took straight from the government, from my experiences working as an attorney. You have the Secretary of Defense and the deputy second where I worked, we had the General Counsel, the Deputy General Counsel, and then attorneys.
So, I think that model has worked really well when it comes to making a strong structure, especially when you are all volunteer or predominantly volunteer so that nobody feels overwhelmed, and people have others to lean on.
Isvari Maranwe: One of the things we’ve always tried to do at Dweebs Global is to stay sustainable on little to no funding. A part of the reason for that is because we didn’t want to be reliant on people coming and going or money coming and going.
I should say that changing our model is a little bit of a non-sequitur and then I’ll get back to things just so for context. Dweebs Global is a very marketable model. So, this is true too of The DG Sentinel.
I think one of the most common questions I get asked is, “Why is the Sentinel a non-profit when it is such a cool tech start-up idea that could get a lot of EC funding with the team we have?”
It is a question I get very often and at Dweebs Global the same sort of thing happened when people found out how many mentors we had, how many mentees we’ve had talking to thousands of people – you’re talking a very marketable model where we could charge people a nominal fee to find a mentor, or we could charge companies to put advertising on our app or on our website.
At the end of the day, at Dweebs Global we are very strict about what we consider our ethical guidelines. We never even ask mentees to donate.
So, for reference, we never want to even ask people we have helped even a year on, “Hey, if we helped you, can you please send 10 bucks our way?” The reason for that is because we wanted to literally be easy, completely easy, and completely available to anyone, and everyone who needs us.
We learned in some communities that if you ask people for money, they feel very obligated to give, especially if you help them and we didn’t want to create that obligation.
We realized we are not going to sell these things. We are not going to sell data. We are not doing these things. So, how do we still make money? I’ll get there in a second.
But I think one of the things that we realized is that we need to be able to run on all volunteers and a part of the way that we’ve succeeded at doing that is our mentors are always going to be all volunteer.
We ask for less than two hours a month from some folks. But the idea is that you can mentor as much or as little as you want to. You can take several mentees; you can have few mentees.
It’s just a really a great way to give back and it’s something that people really enjoy. It is a very fulfilling way to volunteer and a very easy way to volunteer because you are just doing what you do at your day job and helping someone get ahead.
So, that’s how the Dweebs Global model has developed because we wanted to make sure we could be infinitely scalable with very little to no funding. In terms of how we then have thought about funding, there’s obviously grants. High net worth donors are something we like.
The DG Sentinel is all about high net worth donors. Finding those initial founding donors who can come in and are interested in fair and open media and media organizations and a non-profit community, as well as a social media platform – That’s all high-net-worth donors. There is potential for that as well on the Dweebs Global side. But I also think about partnering with corporations to provide engagement activities.
We’ve done a whole bunch of different talks with different universities where we basically bring in speakers to talk about a bunch of different topics to mentor in a bunch of different areas, including mental health and we provide these seminars. So, that’s another way where those who have money can provide the ability for us to then go ahead and, offer those same things to people who have less.
I would say that across both organizations, our primary goals as we have developed funding and continue to develop funding, are to take money from places like the United States and the UK where there are high net worth individuals and use that money to run something around the world rather than focusing on more of a crowdfunding model where that burden would equally fall around the world.
So, it is a little more complicated than asking people who actually use our services for money. There are some things that we are potentially pay walling. There are some ways we do funding, there’s swag out.
Isvari Maranwe: You described it so well, because one of the big advantages of smaller sources of revenue isn’t actually the revenue itself, which is always great. It’s actually the community building and marketing aspects of it. So, when you run a crowdfunding donor campaign, what we often feel we are doing is asking people to commit $5 or $10.
Even if a lot of people give that money, that is not going to be enough for us to do anything major with it. But if you give $5 to an organization, you are 10 times more likely to go and check them out every few months to be like, “What do they do?” – because you made a financial commitment to them.
And so same with our swag, honestly, we are not trying to make a ton of money off our swag or any money at all. We just want people to buy a swag and wear your swag. You are basically getting people to advertise your products for free.
They walk around the world wearing your swag. It is honestly more of a way to create a community and to market, especially in the early days more than it is a source of revenue.
Now a lot of our swag team is so passionate about creating something in the future that’s not just a source of revenue, but a source of revenue for local partners. So, at The Sentinel, we’re actually creating something tentatively named the Sentinel Showcase, but basically it’s a swag store where we feature local artists from around the world who create one product for us.
There will be like The Sentinel Makeup Set or The Sentinel Art or like The Sentinel Digital or anything that they create or that they want to sell. That is a way for them to be featured on our store and then you can go check out the rest of their work and the rest of their products.
It is a way for us to, again, uplift these smaller businesses around the world and these different cultural expressions because so much of makeup and beauty and swag is all Americanized, like the foundation and makeup that American people like, or totes, sweaters, shirts, right?
You’re not seeing like a churidar swag. You’re not like, “Here’s the Sentinel duppatta – buy it.” That doesn’t happen and we really want to do that. We want to feature these things from around the world. We want to bring these smaller businesses into the industry. It is a way to community build but hopefully also a way to raise some revenue for these people as well as for us into the future.
Isvari Maranwe: Yes, absolutely. So, the Sentinel is a little bit more open to some of the traditional models of funding than Dweebs Global. A part of the reason for that is because we are a media org. We are putting content out in the world, and we would love to be able to pay people for their work and that is a prime priority for us.
It is not a free mentorship model with that direct help and guidance. We actually are featuring Dweebs Global on our website. So, if you read an article and you’re like, “Hey, I need help.” You can go and get help for free and then we’re not going to bother you because that is a safe space for you to get help.
But you are on our site reading our content and it would be great to support us. Please donate. Please support us. It is the same with the swag when we are looking for partners, we are like, “Okay, create some swag for us. We are getting cut for this. You are getting some great free publicity; you are getting a cut of this and then hopefully people check out your art and your website as well.”
So, it’s very much a win-win situation and it being a win-win situation, like you’re saying, is what allows us to be able to provide this to more and more people in the future.
Isvari Maranwe: A hundred percent. Actually, I have a few very specific changes that could be made to the industry, so I’ll also share those thoughts. But absolutely there is a huge barrier to entry. In fact, as you mentioned, I’ve been in physics, I was in particle physics and then I was in national security and cybersecurity law, extremely white, extremely male.
The non-profit industry is by far the worst place when it comes to funding that I’ve ever worked in. I would say sexism is a little bit less in the sense that there is definitely a lot of power that white women have in the industry through their networks, but the racism and the institutional sexism is pretty hard to overcome.
A part of the reason it stays so cloistered while we make strides to break in as people of color, as minorities, as women to break into other places is because it is so expensive to get into it and really only people who already have money can enter it, or people who are willing to make huge sacrifices.
I’m definitely in that category, but honestly I’m still privileged, right? I was an attorney, which is where I had savings so that I could use those. Then my husband is an attorney, and he went back to being an attorney although he still works on this.
A lot of us have full-time jobs and do this part-time, and that also means that we probably don’t have children, or we don’t have to take two jobs.
In America today, a lot of people are working two jobs. Globally, the economy is very tense. A lot of people just don’t have the time where they would be able to volunteer or start something on the side in addition to their day job.
Absolutely the barriers that stand before you are huge. I think once you’re inside the barriers, just continue. If you are a white person with a funding idea, you’ll get money on the idea. You don’t need proof.
Also, the big thing in the non-profit industry – I just got shared the stat from an advisor of mine, but more than 75% of funds that come from donors come without them looking up your website. They literally give it just on the strength of that connection they feel with you from when you ask them for money.
So, you can imagine just how horrible that is. If you want to go out, like for us, we have incredible stats? Like our dollar per dollar impact is really high but it doesn’t matter because they are not looking to know that their money is making an impact.
They’re looking to feel good. Like most donors are looking to feel good. They’re looking for you to have other celebrities who are going to pat me on the back for giving money and who are going to be like, “Oh, you’re so cool and there’s this really cute thing that you did, and let’s invite you to the gala.” Unfortunately, a lot of the industry is still like that.
You have to be able to afford dress to go to that gala. You have to be able to afford to look and sound like a rich person or like a rich wife, right? “My husband is a rich person, and I can start a non-profit.” – it has definitely got all those problems.
It is very challenging as it requires money to start. I will say that if your goal isn’t to raise money then it is easier to start a non-profit.
So, one of the first things that I will say is that one way the industry can change is just by providing better ways to connect people who have skills and who are willing to use those skills to help other people with ideas in the same space who want to solve a specific issue.
There are a lot of technologists who earn enough money in their day jobs who will code a website for free if it’s an area they care about. There are a ton of graphic designers who will do your logo for free if it’s an issue they care about. There are so many people who will do their day job for free and that’s how you cut costs down.
So, you are able to do this in your free time as a side hustle, but you’re not going to get rich off the side hustle. I have never made a penny from any of the social media content I put out there as an influencer or anything like that.
Unlike many of my friends, because their primary motive with that side hustle was to convert and if your primary goal is to start something that’s good in the world, in our non-profit, you are probably not making those conversions. That may not be your primary goal. But it is still so valuable to have those connections and to go out there.
The second big change that needs to be made is actually, right now you’re not allowed in the United States under the current union guidelines to hire fundraisers on contingency and this has kept out a lot of people, especially smaller non-profits.
Non-profits run by people of color and non-profits working with fundraisers overseas to grow are affected because in America the union says you have to pay a fundraiser from the get-go. They can’t work on contingency and a lot of the reason behind that was to create and keep this barrier for entry in place.
I think I can go into a long story on that, but these are some of the ways I think we should change, the industry and make it more accessible for people to be able to start.
Isvari Maranwe: Yes. This is my perspective in life, but I really hope that more people can do this. You can walk away from the ladder-climbing structure in the United States and in the world after you earn about $75,000 to $80,000 a year, which is still a lot for most of the world. It is an insane amount of money for most of the world.
But after you earn that, your happiness doesn’t increase with the more money you earn. So, there’s no reason to continually chase that. I left law school at 20 years old. I earned $180,000 plus bonus. I will probably never earn that kind of money again given the career that I’m in now.
I would never pay myself that from a non-profit. I think that’s unethical. But I made that choice, and I would make that choice again because I don’t need that much money to be happy. I live in a one bedroom, and I am privileged enough to be able to travel, and I’m privileged. I’m not saying I’m not privileged; these are all privileges.
A lot of people have a lot less than I do. But whenever I talk to people who are chasing the corporate ladder or the money ladder, honestly they make more than I do. They don’t make less than I do, and I know a lot of people around the world who are much less privileged who find the time to give back or find ways to give back or are passionate about community.
What does their family think of them? What do their friends think of them? What’s their impact on the world when they leave? These are things you can care about and you can choose to care about more than how much money is in your bank account.
I really promote that and that’s what The Sentinel is about actually. It is to try and rewire our brains to care more about that instead of caring about how many people have liked your latest social? How many people think you’re pretty, how many can you afford the latest Chanel?
But, instead of that really thinking about, “Hey, I want to brag about how much good in the world I’ve done in the world, I want to be proud of that. I want that to be a really cool thing.” People look up to it and are like, “I want to do that.”
Then it motivates other people to want that, and I think that is the FOMO that people should have. “I don’t want to miss out on making an impact when everyone else is making an impact.”
I really think you can buy out of the system and a lot of people have a lot more than they realize and I hope that motivates people to take some of that and then give back.
Really in America in general, we are very privileged. Very, very, very privileged. People talk a lot about not having enough in America. And it’s true, a lot of people don’t, but compared to what people have in countries like Nigeria, Myanmar, India, South Africa, like just Kenya, like the rest of the world, we have a lot here.
Isvari Maranwe: Absolutely. Actually, I’m so glad you brought this up because we see a lot of corporations, companies, and non-profits today be so reliant on one person in charge. We just saw that at Disney with Bob Iger coming back.
The reason that happens is unfortunately because so many people, and this is not exactly what happened in the Disney case, but so many people today are attempting to build brands around them, around a cult personality. Elon Musk is Tesla. Bill Gates is Microsoft, they are famous. This personality is around them and their talent.
That’s why these organizations rise and fall on these specific leaders. Whereas when you look at these very long-term media organizations like The New York Times, nobody can tell you who runs the New York Times masthead. It’s not about one person, it is about the institution that is the BBC.
That is The Times, that is The Post, they are thinking how are we are going to be around in a hundred years and what is our impact on society? Maybe we’ll be online, maybe we’ll have a newspaper, maybe they’ll be an app. There might be all these different products. But end of the day there is something you’re creating that is so much bigger than this moment, than this potential for you to be able to raise an audience and then exit. There’s so much longer.
So, you think about that from day one and the way you structure an org is just honestly night and day. So, at DG Sentinel, I am always saying that I cannot be the only person talking about the org on social media. I don’t even use the title “Founder” because I don’t look at it like that.
There are so many of us out there. Our TikTok has a whole bunch of people on it. I will step in and help when I can because I know I have time and I can help, but it is so important to me that it is not an Isvari project. I go out there, I always talk about the org and what we are planning to achieve, the amazing folks we have on our advisory board.
But I’m not talking about how I’m so cool and I graduated really young, and I’ve done like a million different things and now I am this cute little kid producing this org so please support me.
But the thing is, that’s what everyone does. You go and you look at the latest companies that are out there and it is all about the person who founded it and it makes sense that people do that because the money goes to the person.
People are backing the jockey, not the horse. I cannot, if I had a dollar for every time someone told me that, “I’m backing the jockey, not the horse.”
Honestly, it is the horse that is important. It is the product. If I leave, someone else is going to come in and it is going to be the same The Sentinel. We are thinking like, “How are we going to impact society? How is this going to be a major player into the future?”
Yes, I have a lot of friends who are start-up founders and I have great respect for what they are doing, and I totally understand what they are doing and why they do it. But they’re definitely on the cycle. They’re serial entrepreneurs. Everyone wants to be a serial entrepreneur. Everyone wants to be in and out and in.
You create something, it’s about you, you’re cool, and then you sell it and it’s the next thing and it’s all about you as a person. That is the coverage people are looking for.
When you do that, it gets tied too much to who you are and tied too much to the success and failure of that one person. I’m very careful about it because it does make you feel like you deserve that and like you are more important than everyone else.
Isvari Maranwe: You are exactly right. It is hard for people to step back. So, one of my huge advantages is from when I was originally a content creator on LinkedIn when I chose to become an attorney when I joined a law firm.
Later when I worked with government, I was not allowed to post whatever I wanted online. I chose that. I was like, “If I work for the Department of Defense, if I choose to leave, if I have to shut down all of my social media, I’m okay with it.” I was never really tantalized by the concept of online fame.
But it is so tantalizing because those companies, they literally have psychologists who study human behavior to reward you for continuing to check, for tying your personal identity to how successful you are online, to how many hits you get to how famous you are and people go back and check, and this is horrible for your mental health. A lot of founders are happy to do the ramp but then it’s really hard to step back.
So, my problem is that I actually don’t like the ramp up. Having been in the social media world for a while, I’ve been an influencer. I’ve had a lot of friends who are influencers. I don’t want to do it.
So, that’s my problem, but at least I won’t have the other problem, which is that sometimes it can be hard to step back.
Sometimes you can feel like, “I did this, I want the credit. I want to be the next, the only name that came to mind was Elizabeth Holmes, but that is not I want to go with.” But that’s how that happens, you don’t want your org to go down with you.
Isvari Maranwe: One of the main things I think is from day one, making sure the organization has a powerful mission and brand that isn’t about you. For me, asking yourself every week, every month, “Am I doing what I am doing for the sake of the org for myself? Is this because I think I’m going to get money from this?”
Even just asking every time you do something, “How does this help the organization?” As a founder, you will have to make sacrifices to your personal brand, and honestly, you should where you can’t say things you want, or you may have to change your brand for the sake of the org.
“How is this for the sake of the org?” Then as you are reaching the point where you are transitioning away and the org has a life of its own, one of the biggest things is to continue to lean on the other people who have been a part of your social media plan from day one. So, have as many founders or marketers as possible.
So, I’m always out there being like, “Hey, CMO, CTO, COO, go out there, talk about the amazing work you are doing. This is equally your thing. You need to go out there and talk about it and share what you are doing.”
Karen, who is our director of social media is on our TikTok channel. She’s not on there being like, “I’m the director of social media.” So, there’s like a lot of equality on our socials. I think from day one, thinking about how you are going to have a lot of people who are associated with your brand.
Buzzfeed did this really well. They had a really great YouTube channel for a long time and there is a lot of controversy about how they treated those performers and those directors but at end of the day, they had so many different people associated with Buzzfeed, they had so many faces who were marketing their product. It wasn’t one person. I think they did that really well.
That is something that you can lean on as you are transitioning away, who are the next people who are going to be the face and who are going to promote the culture and values you have as an org.
Isvari Maranwe: After a whole bunch of trials and errors for the past two years I would say two of the best platforms are VolunteerMatch for just all levels. So, if you want talent acquisition specialists or you want to grow a team of social media managers or grow a team of folks who are going to work on very specific projects, VolunteerMatch is the place to go.
The second is LinkedIn. LinkedIn lets you put out posts for volunteers. The way we do it always is we put volunteer in the title, so nobody misses it. We also market as volunteer using LinkedIn’s volunteer, and then we actually also include a question saying, “Do you understand this position is volunteer?”
So, we do it three times. Just so we are sure we’re not hoodwinking anyone. This is not a paid position. We do that, especially for some of our higher-level positions like the C-Suite or we recruit people, and we get so many applications for our CMO application.
We ended up with 80 applicants over 25 of whom had been CMOs before. So, it was a very difficult decision. We got a really great CMO on board now, and that came through LinkedIn.
The way we do it is we change the countries. So, we will do a couple of days in the United States, a couple of days in India, a couple of days in Nigeria, a couple of days in the UK, and then South Africa.
So, we really try and get applicants from around the world to build out our team. That can be challenging because I wish LinkedIn would just do a global post. But they do make you choose a country. I will say that LinkedIn definitely has a very strong American bias. I want to give those resources out there to anyone who might want them to start.
But I would say one of the biggest advantages that we’ve seen is just by having a really great team of people, you convince people to stay. There’s nothing wrong with volunteer attrition in a non-profit. It’s good when people come in and out.
Our talent acquisition team at Dweebs Global is nearly a hundred for a hundred. People come in using the skills that they’ve learned here and then leaving to get a better job or a job in talent acquisition. So, we’re really able to offer our volunteers career development opportunities personal leadership development opportunities really offered them something as well as they’re spending time with us and just build a community that cares about each other.
So, people stay a lot longer than in other volunteer positions. They really feel like it’s their org and like they’re building something, like this is a side project. It’s not just a two hour a week or three hour a week project where you go somewhere and volunteer and come home. It’s a part of your identity.
Isvari Maranwe: Let me start with the legal and tax side because I think that’s easier. We are incorporated in the United States, so that means we have to follow American laws, but we always have a risk assessment about other things. So, obviously in European Union, we want to follow the GDPR and data privacy laws that are Europe specific.
There are a lot of countries in the world where it is illegal to promote being queer, to promote information about being gay. Are we going to do something about this? We have really great attorneys who are working on it.
Not me actually, it is not my area of expertise, but we really try to have these conversations and we are making sure we are always following the laws in the United States, in Delaware, where we are incorporated. We are making sure we are sticking with the law where we need to.
We are actually really careful and probably overly paranoid about things like data privacy tax stuff and keeping things really clean, keeping the books clean and making sure there are no conflicts of interest between the way the organization operates. Making sure the board has no conflict of interest. I do not sit on either board.
So, being really careful about things like that because for us, the standard of ethics is a lot higher than where the law is at. The law is one thing and ethics is one thing because honestly, sometimes what is legal is not ethical enough.
I would say like operationally working around the world there have definitely been challenges and I think one of the biggest that people say a lot, but it is entirely true, is time zones.
At The Sentinel we have very high-level staff who span the Pacific Coast of the United States. It really starts in Hawaii. So, there are people in Hawaii and then Pacific Coast of the US through east coast of the US and then I guess this way from your perspective.
Then, in Europe and Nigeria, which is on the same time zone. West African time, Central European time, and Israel and then India and then Australia.
There is no time when they can all be on the same meeting. So, it means either we are dropping Hawaii and it will be like early Pacific Coast time all the way to late night Australia, or it will be early morning Australia and we’ll be able to make it up until like late night Nigeria maybe, but India’s asleep or India has woken up Nigeria’s asleep.
So, that’s the challenge I will say is if you have an international enough team, everyone is not going to be on all the meetings at the same time.
Isvari Maranwe: Exactly. Yes. You get interesting groups of people which is lovely.
Isvari Maranwe: For me, I definitely have a lot of the “crisis of faith” going on, like, “Am I doing the right thing? Am I sure that I want to sacrifice a lot of my life, a lot of my earning potential as well to this thing?”
The news can be dismal. It can also be motivating. You can really just see the impact that one person can have and that’s very motivating.
For me, another thing that is a personal challenge for me is volunteer attrition. I’m a very team-oriented person. I think volunteer attrition is a really great thing, people coming in and out is a good thing in any non-profit.
But for someone who is very team oriented, like I love people, I love getting to know people on a personal level. I think that’s been really hard for me to get used to people coming and going out of my life, in and out of my life.
I actually am probably one of those people who would’ve thrived in like the same job for 30 years and working on my desk. I’m actually not a natural leader. I actually really like working on research projects or writing projects or even in project management.
But then getting my little head pats from someone on top like, “Isvari, you did a good job” given my role at the organization, that’s not something that happens. I’m the person people look to for guidance. Nobody is like, “Oh, you did a really good job. Good job working late that night.” You don’t get that.
I had really supportive bosses at my last workplace. It was really wonderful working for them and getting that sort of appreciation. I don’t get that here.
So, I would say those have been my challenges and I think those are always going to be challenges that are harder, at least in my opinion as a woman of color because I’ve come from an environment where community and family and having people around me is so important to me, and in a way that may not be the same pace if you grew up in a more individualistic society.
I see that as well in our volunteer force and workforce, and what’s important to people from around the world, depending on where they came from and how they build.
So, those are my big challenges. I think those challenges probably affect a lot of people. But I do think it’s better than the other side if you have maybe too much adoration for being in charge.
Isvari Maranwe: A ton actually. In my personal life definitely, it has impacted a ton because obviously leaving the law is something that was considered crazy. That’s not something that is a well-supported and “good Indian daughter” thing to do.
Obviously, choosing to do this instead of earning a ton of money or just being in a more traditional career path is something that would be hard for a lot of immigrant families, brown families, black families who are trying to be something or give something back or to their families as opposed to community at large.
I think, a lot of early people who came on board were from India and Pakistan, Dweebs Global, same at the DG Sentinel, and that’s probably because of who I am and where my audience was online and to this day we have a lot of Indians in our organization at the highest levels.
I think that is probably a lot because I am Indian, and so people like to come into an organization where they see other people like them and actually I think this is so true because we get a lot of applicants and amazing candidates who are brown and black from countries overseas as well as black and brown Americans.
I think a part of that is just because they see other people who look like them at the organization. People forget how important that is. “Why do you get so many diverse candidates? We are searching so hard, we can’t find any”, you hear that complaint a lot from majority white organizations.
I think it is because if you don’t see other people, you don’t want to be the only minority at an organization. It’s really painful. I’ve been that so many times. It’s not fun. I think since we prioritized making sure that people came from around the world from day one that we naturally have people from a bunch of different races.
So, now a whole bunch of people know that it is a comfortable place to work regardless of where you come from and what your background is. That has been a huge driving factor for me culturally as well, just growing up with a really strong work ethic, which is like such a cliché, but also just having to manage my own time and be very self-motivated and very rigorous about time management has helped me a ton because obviously I could just let a lot of balls drop, but I don’t, because I have that built in work ethic that I learned that I think comes a lot from my culture, from being a daughter of immigrants, from growing up in a family with those expectations. I think that is also helpful, even though it has its own downsides.
Isvari Maranwe: It has definitely made things very challenging. As I mentioned earlier, it is still very much a white network. There are these groups of white women who have landed wealth or maybe they’ve earned wealth, or they have wealthy spouse and so they have these networks of folks. I’ve been to some of those events and I’m the only person who is not a white woman, or there’s, the traditional white boys club of venture capitalists or angel investors who invest.
I found this to be the case personally in the Indian community – Indians don’t help other Indians a ton naturally. I found that to be the case. It is kind of sad because you see a lot of other communities who will help others who are a part of the community get ahead. There will be these special programs, so I definitely thought about that at first. I found that with the exception of a few amazing folks, of course there isn’t really that sense of insular Indianness.
Another thing is that I’m half Tamilian and I’m from the Bay Area and being Tamilian in the Bay Area, I was like, “Why aren’t you full Tamilian?” So, I didn’t grow up into that sort of network that a lot of folks have here because I was always on the outside.
My mom home-schooled us. We had a really great, a very privileged childhood that way, my sister and I. But she looks North Indian and that ostracized us from a lot of the communities.
So, I didn’t grow up with that network either. I share this as an Indian just to say like, “Come on, we have got to do better. We should be helping other people.”
I think, we should be helping other minorities more broadly. I’ve found a lot of support from black men and women who have done so much for minority communities in general, not just their own just more broadly.
I feel like, “Hey, we could do that. We could be out there, and we could be championing causes that might not be a “what’s in it for me.” We could just do it. That would be so helpful if there were these stronger donor communities or opportunities for people of color.
There are exceptions to the rule, but in general it’s been a challenge. I don’t think there’s been a benefit for me at least. I love my culture. I love who I am, and I love everything about it, but I wouldn’t say there’s any benefit in my workplace at all.
Isvari Maranwe: I don’t think there’s been a moment where I’ve seriously thought about quitting. There have definitely been times that have been really difficult to navigate.
Like when there is somebody important and we need to either ask them to step down or there is some C-suite issue or maybe moments where we are like, “Hey, this really should have gone better, and it didn’t go as well.”
But I’m very much a person who in good times and bad does not spend a lot of time on a thing that just happened. I’m always onto the next thing.
One of the huge downsides of this is that when something good happens, I’m always like, “Oh great, that happened. Where’s our next benchmark?” But one of the upsides is that when something bad happens, I’m just like, “okay, what’s next?”
Isvari Maranwe: It is weird because there are a lot of those that happen at Dweebs Global where you help someone and they are like, “You changed my life.’ Or someone comes back a year later and it’s like, ‘I got this job I would never have gotten if it hadn’t been for you.’ Or we’ve managed to place people at some really cool places like Google, Apple, Mercedes-Benz, like just these really big companies and people who come from India or Nigeria a lot because we have all the ground teams there that have done a lot of work.
There are two markets where there are just such brilliant people in both countries who are just completely forgotten in the global market for no good reason. There are obviously a lot of people in Bangalore who have managed to really break into the global market.
But in East India, or Northeast India, that’s not as much the case. So, I feel like there are all these communities that are forgotten and like when we are able to raise awareness or when we are able to get somebody in a position, that’s really cool.
I feel like whenever I get those messages. My first thought, and this is my own problem, and I’m working on it from a mental health perspective, but my first thought is, “Oh my God, is the fact that I haven’t heard from everyone else mean this is the only good that I did?”
Every time someone new and cool joins our advisory board at The Sentinel, like we’ve had some really cool additions to our board, like Emmy Award winners and amazing producers and bestselling authors, every time somebody joins, I’m like, “Oh, now I need to go find someone else. Clearly this won’t be enough, or this person is going to want us to see more. They don’t want to be the last person to join. Now we just need to go do more.”
So, I need to get better at this. I need to be able to celebrate a moment for more than 0.2 seconds. I’m working on it
Isvari Maranwe: Yes, it is such a good question. If you want to start a non-profit, the big thing is your team and learning how to build a team and remove people if they’re not working, do not let them drag the whole team down.
So, I feel like this is so important and it’s hard for me because as a leader, I always want to be nice to people. I always want give people a lot of time and effort, but who your team is the most important thing. So, I would say 90% of the skills I’ve learned and 90% of the things I want to pass on to other people.
Be sure about the team that you’re creating and that they are committed to the vision, that they aren’t trying to convert it into something that’s for profit if you are a non-profit, that’s really important. It’s easier than it sounds, to turn a non-profit into a for profit. If you have different goals, that’s very difficult.
Make sure you find people who are not going to ghost. It is a hundred percent okay to find people who are going to say, “No, I cannot do something.” Or “I’m only here for four weeks and I’m going to leave.” Or those who are going to tell you with a month’s notice, “Hey I’m going to be leaving.”
Don’t find people who are going to be like, “Yes, I’m going to do something” and then not do it. If somebody does that then immediately take action to ask them what is going on, figure out a good way to fix it. Get a good human resources person, like I said, a CHRO is the most important role. Talk to them about it. If it doesn’t work, let them go and move on.
Since I learned this lately, I will share it. The best way to get someone to step down from a position, whether volunteer or paid is to just say, “Hey as you know, we are doing xyz and this is the job description, and these are the things that we need. Are you still able to meet these goals? Are you still able to perform at this level? It looks like you’re not being able to dedicate these many hours anymore. You may be busier; you may have other goals. Are you still able to do this? We would love to have you.”
You guide them to themselves making the decision that I do not have time for this, and I think I’m going to step down.
So, that way you keep good blood. I feel like a lot of people feel the need to fire someone before they leave. Like, “You can’t fire me, I’m leaving.” No, that’s what you want. You want someone to say, “You can’t fire me. I’m leaving” because that’s so much less drama, especially as volunteers where you are not thinking about this from a perspective of severance or the legality of it.
You are just thinking you want people to feel good about leaving. You want them to feel like they left on their terms, even if you really needed that position vacant.
So, these are the things that I’ve learned that I would love to share, that I would love to pass on, just that team is so important. If you don’t know these things and most people don’t, most young people especially don’t because I never learned in school how to be a leader because that’s not something they teach.
Get a good human resources director, someone who’s been HR director or a C-role of another organization that’s similar or has experience working with people around the world, and has worked through these thorny issues. Director of human resources from yesterday just had such a great tip where he was like, “Don’t ask yes or no questions. Ask people, how are you going to do this? When will I hear from you by?”
These things I learn all the time by surrounding myself with people who have these other leadership skills I can learn from. I think that’s so important. Just make sure the people around you trust are equally committed to move things forward.
Isvari Maranwe: I thought about this, and I always have these little tidbits, but I actually have one that I feel like people always say, “Don’t give up.” I have the opposite. “Know when to give up.”
Know when to say no. Know when something isn’t working, and you have to course correct. Don’t feel like you have to keep fighting down a path that’s full of thorns that isn’t working just to prove that you didn’t fail. It is okay to fail. It is okay to give up.
Just be like, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I have this new idea. This didn’t work. We’re going to shut this down; we are going to do something else”. There have been huge failure points at Dweebs Global where we tried something, and it didn’t work at all.
We probably kept it alive longer than it needed to because we didn’t just know when to give up, when to be like, “This isn’t working.”
We need to just move our resources into a different area. Cut that team that’s not going to operate anymore. So, I feel like this message to not give up has been told so much. I just want to say the opposite.
Know when to give up. If something is just making you miserable and it is not working then you need to try something new. Just give up. There’s no shame in giving up. Just give up, do something else.
Isvari Maranwe: The first thing that always comes to mind is you didn’t ask, but I have a dog, he’s a longhaired dog and he’s adorable. If you ask a dog mom what the one thing I wish you would ask, it is always something to do with this guy.
His name is Rishi. He is on the board of Dweebs Global because when we originally created the organization, he was the dog in Dweebs and Dogs, and we put him on.
Isvari Maranwe: Yes, he’s the dog. He’s The Dog. He’s also on LinkedIn. He’s got his whole profile up there. He’s a very accomplished little dog.
Isvari Maranwe: Yes, he’s a statesman. You may have heard him in the background when I was speaking, barking. That’s his diplomatic negotiations for the day.
Isvari Maranwe: Thank you so much. That’s so sweet of you to say. I really appreciate it. It has been really wonderful chatting. Thank you.