By Elina Ashimbayeva
It has been almost 2.5 years since Steven and I decided to start interviewing our friends and sharing their stories. I remember giving myself 6 months to see if this is something I truly enjoy before even looking at or trying to measure its ‘impact’ and ‘benefits’.
When we thought about what we wanted to create? The answer was: a more diverse, equitable and vulnerable world. I wanted to ask people if they also felt like they were not good enough at times? If they were also worried about the depth and breadth of their contribution? What about their identity & culture? What about gender roles and norms and belly rolls? ✨
I didn’t want to pander to the world that quantifies impact and outcomes. I wanted to taste what it’s like to create art and strengthen communities, and see my own heart and mind change but also other people’s.
I have been on every Diversity & Inclusion committee everywhere I worked, advocated for better and more equitable service and product design, talking to anyone who would listen about representation. When you are a product manager and you really care, and you are kind of loud like me, you almost leave people no choice but to engage in these discussions.
I’ve gotten so used to fighting for better outcomes, that Storyo felt like the most wholesome wonderful break. I got to establish who we interview, how we engage with people, what our values are, what we put on the website, what questions we ask, all of it. I got to be surrounded by the most amazing people who share their vulnerable stories. I got to learn from them and with them. It was smooth-sailing and I could feel its impact.
Over the last 2 months, I decided to see if Storyo can grow or evolve a bit. Could we get sponsorships for all the spending and work that goes into it? Could we share our stories with people who normally wouldn’t choose to spend their leisure time learning about people who are different to them?
I can see and feel all the change Storyo is making me go through. I can see how people feel when you step into the arena and get the courage to be uncomfortable and learn. I can see how people and teams and workplaces can change.
Yet, I never realised how difficult it would be mentally, emotionally, spiritually to be questioned on value per dollar delivered and corporate benefits of this work.
“Don’t get us wrong, we want to support you, but what will we get in return?” is the question I’ve been and I am so afraid of.
I understand that we live in a society where money pays for things that matter to us. When we go to a park or a movie, we can decide if a $20 entry ticket is proportional to the joy it will deliver us. Same thing with companies: they decide whether anything they spend is worth it for the efficiency, productivity, outcomes, internal cohesion delivered.
I know that there is a myriad of proven benefits to having a diverse team, including corporate outputs and outcomes. What does it say, however, about the world that we live in when we prioritise those in a conversation above justice, equity, belonging, fairness, societal shifts, cultural competency & kindness?
I don’t think I have an answer to a question “but what will we get in return?” that I am at peace with.
My thoughts range from wanting to cite all the corporate benefits of better-aligned branding, internal comms, hiring, culture - to general societal benefits of contributing to the world that is more diverse, inclusive and honest - to a very incoherent “because it is the right thing to do” answer.
Maybe it takes time to develop more confidence in standing behind my values. Maybe I need to decide whether I want to spend my mental capacity on trying to “sell” something that some companies and people don’t yet value.
So far, I’ve been so lucky with partners that decided to sponsor our previous projects. They have done this because they believe in this work. A lot of them reached out to me on their own asking if they could contribute, which is so freaking amazing! It gave me hope and drive to continue the work.
Maybe those are the companies that I want to work with and focus my drive and my joy on?
My work with Storyo is all about changing and shifting narratives around “value” and “worth” of people, of projects, of contribution. Showing the value of stories and representation in a society that so needs it. Not because it is going to make the capitalist world richer, faster, better & more efficient.
This duality and conflict, uncertainty and confusion that I have been sitting with is not a project to be solved, neither it is calling out for external (unsolicited) advice. I think it’s a reflection of a lot of people’s work when it comes to social impact, capitalism, corporate responsibility, worth. It’s a journey to finding peace with whatever answer I choose to settle on.