The Human Centered Design Podcast with Gerry Scullion

"Empowering Resilience: The Journey of Lilli Graf"

John Carter
March 14, 2024
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"Empowering Resilience: The Journey of Lilli Graf"

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We have the pleasure of hosting Elisabeth Graf, affectionally known as Lilli. We connected a number of months ago on LinkedIn and I was so impressed by Lilli’s awesome background and devotion to applying design to enable a greater sense of resilience for both businesses and the planet.

Hailing from the beautiful area of Verona in Italy, somewhere I’ve never been but want to go, Lilli is truly on a mission to scale her knowledge, to maximize her impact, not only in her locale of Verona, but also globally through her dedicated community IMMA Collective, which we talk about in greater detail.

Lilli, as you will probably get to see, is a wonderful human being and a really truly genuine example of what I refer to as a change maker. She’s taken personal and professional risks to really help enable change and I believe it is 100% worth connecting with her through her website or LinkedIn.

Without further ado, let's dive into Lilli's incredible journey and learn more about her inspiring work.

Episode Transcript

This transcript was created using the awesome, Descript. It may contain minor errors.
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[00:17:15] Gerry: Lilli, I'm delighted to have you on the podcast. We've been bouncing back and forth about doing an episode, I think it's been a couple of months, but I'm delighted to have you here. So maybe for our guests, or for our listeners, should we say, we'll start off by telling us a little bit about yourself, where you're from and what you do.

[00:17:39] Lilli Graf: grew up on this remote mountain farm in the Italian Alps and to go to school I would wear a head torch and cross the forest. So

[00:17:49] Gerry: So cool.

[00:17:50] Lilli Graf: that's my environment. So very close probably to nature and that kept kind of being the red thread through all my Like life, but I was very curious and I did everything that I could to get out of this tiny place.

[00:18:04] And so I, yeah, I ended up first in Verona because I like to just make my life sometimes a bit more complex. And so from taking all the kind of go to school in German, then I decided to study in Italian from one day to the next. And. And then studied there more like HR and human resources, because I couldn't define.

[00:18:26] I found people fascinating. And but then later on, as I worked on this innovation projects, uh, founded by the European Union, and we would actually work on circular economy in 2009 or open innovation. And, um, we built a lot of platforms that didn't work and nobody would use them. And so it was like. Okay.

[00:18:47] How can we make things better? Uh, what kind of, this doesn't work. And so that's when I discovered design and service design. And then I started just kind of teaching myself and trying things out at work, experimenting. And then I thought, okay, I can't really get anywhere with this. And so at a certain point, I just decided to quit my job, go back to university and do a master in service design.

[00:19:13] Gerry: Yeah, yeah.

[00:19:14] Lilli Graf: And.

[00:19:15] Gerry: I want to take you back a little bit to the, uh, the story you mentioned there about growing up and wearing a, a headlight going across the forest and stuff. 'cause. When we were chatting earlier, like, you know, your name has German heritage, but you're Italian and for our listeners, it was a kind of a revelation for me because I've always associated where you're from with the language.

[00:19:36] Um, but Lilli, we were chatting about the fact that Your heritage is German, but you were born in Italy, but you, your first language is German, uh, and your father is Italian and doesn't speak Italian. So what do you feel that this, um, kind of paradox gives you as a change maker, like the fact that, um, you would have some sort of, uh, what people might see from the outside as being a bit of a different identity?

[00:20:13] Lilli Graf: I think it's nice because you can hold two things at the same time. You can now have the kind of German structure and organization and Italian flexibility and adaptability. And I think that many people, there are so many commonalities around people who are growing up at the borders or like where there was.

[00:20:33] are the intersections. And then the other thing is growing up in mountains. Because whenever you do something in the mountains, it requires effort. So if you want to just have a nice time and climb that peak, you probably need to put in quite a bit of effort. So effort comes very easy to any mountain person.

[00:20:56] Gerry: For sure, there's something on that great edge kind of piece of where you're, you don't hold true to the convention of kind of, well, I'm Italian. So, uh, you know, I must have a brother called Mario and we must have a pizza shop and a pasta shop, all those stereotypes that we hold true. And it kind of questions the whole kind of our kind of original kind of thinking or initial thoughts around what it means to be something.

[00:21:21] Um. And it allows us to question those probably a lot deeper, like, you know. Do you, is this something you've run into in your professional career where people are like, Oh, you're Italian. And then you're like, well, I'm sort of German as well. Is that something you've faced before?

[00:21:37] Lilli Graf: I find it even more, because the thing is, I'm not, I'm South Tyrolean, which is even a completely different identity, and was South Tyrolean, we would joke about the German people. Because most, we have German tourists, and they are very precise, and we are a bit more kind of, And let's enjoy life. Um, and there is a certain ethic.

[00:21:57] So I work, I have clients in that region and it's, I find it very easy to work with them because I grew up in there and then I

[00:22:05] Gerry: You understand them.

[00:22:06] Lilli Graf: the world.

[00:22:08] Gerry: And you truly understand them as well, of course.

[00:22:11] Lilli Graf: Yes. And this blend of mix of, of cultures. And it's even so strong because there was a time in which this identity was suppressed.

[00:22:20] Gerry: Yeah.

[00:22:20] Lilli Graf: If you would look at history of this region more in, in detail, we are actually a region that is studied because it's a, one of the best protected minorities in the world.

[00:22:33] Gerry: Yeah.

[00:22:33] Lilli Graf: And it had a whole history that is super fascinating for some time. We were not allowed to speak German and it was not allowed to teach German. And so we had this hidden schools and, um,

[00:22:48] Gerry: Oh, okay. That's kind of similar to, you know, our, my own culture and my own heritage in Ireland. To be like hedge schools. So, this is probably going back a couple of generations though, is that when, when that was the case? Or your

[00:23:00] Lilli Graf: It's my grandma, like she speaks better, like she speaks more Italian or spoke more Italian than my,

[00:23:07] Gerry: Your

[00:23:07] Lilli Graf: And, and yeah, and my granddad was Austrian when he was born. So yeah, we're still part of Austria.

[00:23:14] Gerry: I love this. I love this. So, it's probably no surprise then. When you look at all the factors that, um, you've just defined, that you found yourself working in the world of service design, but also now more around kind of climate resilience and, you know, understanding sustainability and circular economy and, and all those pieces, especially coming from the mountains, because it's probably an extension of your, yourself in that sense.

[00:23:39] Is that true?

[00:23:41] Lilli Graf: Yeah, I actually had a conversation and. Um, somebody said this for your family, the work that you do is menacing because people are so like, touched to nature and so close to nature and they can see the, um, the impacts of climate change on a daily basis, much more than anybody who lives in the city. And so you, when I mentioned what I do, there is usually a silence in the room.

[00:24:09] Um, or that makes people feel uncomfortable. And actually, that's one of the things for me has been the major insights because as a designer, I came in and I thought, I want to work on climate resilient climate adaptation, which essentially is about focusing on what are the impacts. So reducing risk and vulnerability.

[00:24:30] I'm not actually addressing the root cause of the problem, which most traditional, uh, sustainability work does around reducing emissions. I'm actually. And we can't adopt our way out of this, uh, but I just think that if we, when things are breaking down, that's our window for opportunity to redesign them in a new way.

[00:24:49] And so I'm just preparing for that. But when I came, I thought I would be invited to redesign things or kind of do this transformative adaptation. And then I realized that people actually. Don't know what adaptation is and why we should care about climate resilience. So I started being much more visible and talking about the topic and talking in a way that is not driven by science, science or kind of make science accessible.

[00:25:14] And also it's usually policymaker because it's mostly addressed in the public sector. And then I realized that actually it's not even the knowledge that people are lacking. It's a bit the kind of the holding space. for the grief that comes with recognizing that the world we thought we have built and that stability is no longer there and that we're entering in this age of disruption and discontinuity and what that means for for us for the dreams that we have for our future for our lives for our family and that's so painful that quite Many naturally kind of subconsciously consciously avoid thinking about it than I procrastinated and so I realized actually as a designer I just don't need only to design the responses everything that I do needs to have an opening act where we acknowledge the discomfort that comes.

[00:26:08] With this topic.

[00:26:10] Gerry: Yeah, so just going back to your, your family, you mentioned there about it being menacing and all of those pieces when you speak about what you do and then there's silence. You were referring to your, your kind of first family, like your family back in, um, in Girona. Was that, is that correct?

[00:26:31] Lilli Graf: Yeah, so it's basically, it's called, yeah, Southrill, and I'm in this tiny village called Stulles or Stulls, and it has like 300 people, um, who live there, and it overlooks the whole valley, yeah.

[00:26:45] Gerry: So I'm sure they've been exposed to the change over the last say 50 years because there's, you know, probably a couple of generations around that table. What are their thoughts as regards everything that's happening around climate change and climate resilience and so forth? What, what, what are they seeing?

[00:27:05] Can you give us an, sort of, um, a perspective on what's happening in their world?

[00:27:12] Lilli Graf: So they, they saw different signs. They saw that there is less snow. They saw that suddenly you could grow wheat right now, grow potatoes at 2000 meters of altitude, like where our mountain hut was. Nothing would grow there some time ago. And those were tiny things, but what happened over the last two years is suddenly because of more drought.

[00:27:36] Um, you have this bark beetle, which is a beetle that usually it lives in forests, but essentially it is a whole invasion and explosion. And what it means is that you have whole areas of forest that turn brown because the, basically the tree that's die and now they have been cut. And so when you have this landscape in which you start really seeing, um, the change and then My brother actually saying to, he was talking with, um, with another person saying, yes, we will see it in our lifetime that there will be no tree left in this valley.

[00:28:11] And that feels like, uh, really losing, um, a place. Um, and so people start to think about, or also if I remember in this last. walk that I had with my mom. We, she, we were talking about water resilience and water scarcity because it's not slowing. So you can't really store. And then I said, she was like, Oh no, no, I don't want to think about it and talk about it.

[00:28:36] And I said, no, let's talk about it because you know, there have been civilizations in Peru living in areas that didn't have much water. But what they did is creating a whole canal system in which they just captured water and stored it for longer. So they adapted and they created those systems. So If we talk, start talking now about this is, is fantastic because we can, we can prepare and I, what I found fascinating because I'm working with the local government on these issues and, and to see how they were starting to realize that this is actually much more systemic and the solution and the processes that they have no longer are fit for purpose.

[00:29:20] Um, but we're still in the planning stage and not in the

[00:29:25] Gerry: so scary. I mean, it really is so scary to think, you know, what it must be like for your parents generation and your, your Nona's generation to really see that change to be, be able to compare. Um, so I know you, you said you, you changed careers in 2021 and you kind of morphed into freelance, um, Freelance up manure or a sort of an entrepreneur.

[00:29:54] I'm not too sure how to describe what you do next like so I can understand your origin on the problems that are faced to your immediate family. But what led you to kind of take in the first steps? Obviously service design is a great segue into understanding like the systemic implications of our, of our actions as designers and changemakers.

[00:30:20] But you formed something that is somewhat, um, purpose led, if you want, called the IMA Collective. And it was the bit that whenever you emailed a couple of months ago, I was like, actually, this is a really, Sound proposition from where I'm looking at, um, so maybe we'll just take a back, a step back and tell us about the Emma collective and the journey that you took to get there.

[00:30:43] Lilli Graf: Yeah. So I think I, so I was working in London in different agencies and it was a fantastic time to experience and see how service design is applied in so many sectors and probably like many service designers, you can work from healthcare finance to travel. And I was like, okay, it's nice to see so many things, but what is actually, where do I want to focus?

[00:31:07] And so for me, that was around sustainability, but then saying, I want to work in sustainability is like saying I like sports, but what sport is it running? Is it yoga? Is it football? And so what I did is I already during my time in London, I started Negotiating and having a four day week so that I could have one day in which I started prototyping freelancing.

[00:31:34] Because for me, that was a bit my next step, but I had no clue if this was something that I was made for, I could do, I really would enjoy it. And so this was a nice way of kind of. Dipping my toe into without the risk, um, and also building up a bit of a, a network around Italy, because I thought if I move back, then I need to work with Italian clients and I need to get a good network.

[00:31:59] Gerry: Yeah.

[00:31:59] Lilli Graf: I started working mostly around the social innovation space, um, and, and providing service design trainings and workshops. And then. With the pandemic suddenly didn't matter anymore from where I was working. So I just moved back to Italy, um, to son and pizza and, uh, decided to. Yeah, continue this.

[00:32:20] And then suddenly the work picked up and, and my agency decided because it became frog. They decided you can't work anymore from abroad. So I said, okay, then I'm just quitting and I'm going full time freelancing. And the first years of freelancing are a bit like, you need to figure out is this actually, can I do this?

[00:32:39] And so you, you have different jobs that come your way, but you have this more reactive version of let me get, and I was quite. Lucky in the sense that I got quite a few projects that I enjoyed because they were more around how do you develop responsible and sustainable AI, how do you create a new value proposition in the fintech space that potentially helps people build financial resilience.

[00:33:03] And so over time, I realized I wanted to really focus on climate adaptation because suddenly I realized that this is something where, where my heart is after having explored circular economy and many other aspects. And by just every time dipping your toe in, you understand what you like, what you don't like.

[00:33:24] And what happened then is that. At a certain point, I always defined a bit, what is my enough, like how much is my revenue goal. And then I was like, you actually need to, you have achieved this. You need to do what you said you would do. So I took a sabbatical from client work and I said, okay, now I'm going to just shift my whole practice.

[00:33:45] On climate adaptation and resilience and see what I need to design. And as a designer does, I started having those conversations and interviews with my clients and or potential clients that had a certain design maturity and asking them about where, who in the company is actually working on. Resilience or how do you prepare for the impacts?

[00:34:06] And they're like, what's that? Why, why should we care about this? And then I thought, okay, let me find the organizations that already work in this field and see what could my role be in that. And they were like. What is service design and why should we care about design beyond how things look? And I was like, okay, I'm really in this tricky spot.

[00:34:27] Nobody kind of understands what I could provide. They have no clear needs. So I need to create that need. Well, that takes quite some time, but what I noticed is that everybody in every conversation was asking me. How can I personally prepare for this future? How, what can I do to become more resilient? And I thought, ah, people want to understand what, how they like an individual level before they can do the big thing.

[00:34:56] And then I, Started analyzing what, what are all the elements that would make a personal life more resilient. And so what can you do with your finances? What can you do where you live? What can you do with work, your relationships, community? And I understood that the number one key factor was how you make a living.

[00:35:17] And it actually working for yourself would give you the agency to decide from. When you work, what you do, where you do it, um, how, and that working for yourself is one of the most resilient options. And yet we see it as one of the most uncertain options. And so this contradiction was fascinating.

[00:35:37] Gerry: tension between what we're sort of sold as teenagers and in university, like, you know, go get a job, um, having that question, you know, linger over your head as a 30 year old and a 40 year old is kind of a little bit more daunting. You're like, well, what do you mean? Of course. You know, it's, I don't know if it's a path for everyone, but, um, and I can obviously speak from my own perspective.

[00:36:05] It's given me the opportunity and the agency, I love it when people say that word agency, to make those decisions and to kind of explore and experiment. But there was a line in your email that I remember reading and I was like, actually, you know what, this is, this makes total sense to me. And I'm going to read it out here.

[00:36:24] As a result, I founded in my collective, a community of solopreneurs focused on climate and social impact because building a solo business together is the most resilient career choice. And that there is, is a really powerful statement and something that I've learned over the last decade or so that, um, working with people and understanding people and trying to build a business together, it's very difficult.

[00:36:51] Um, they don't always work. Um, so Tell us a little bit more around the purpose behind Emma Collective. Um, I know you want to bring people together to get great social outcomes. Um, but tell us how it operates. Tell us, you know, what the value is for people who've got maybe a social impact initiative that they want to get involved and join the community.

[00:37:15] Mm

[00:37:16] Lilli Graf: Yeah. So exactly. As you mentioned, there is one part around where people, we never learn how to work for ourself because. Either university prepares you to be an employee and then you have accelerators who want to build the next unicorn and there is nothing in between for people who want to stay relatively nimble and small.

[00:37:36] And you also think you need to figure everything out on your own. And I thought, I want to actually help people do this. But I want to do it only for people who want to do work in climate and social impact and actually use their work to transform. And so by bringing people together, essentially in IMA, I create a space to connect.

[00:37:56] And to get that support, but also to get the, the structure sometimes even through rituals to help you work and create the space to work on things that are usually important, but not urgent, because when you work for yourself, you don't have a boss. You have just self imposed deadlines. And usually you could be in this more reactive. Approach in which just, ah, let me get the next client and then do the thing. And then not think about what are really the things that are important, that are the solid foundations that you need to build this up in a resilient way. And so I just create the space for people. Usually there is, everyone has a kind of core elements.

[00:38:37] There is the part around self reflection. So giving people prompts to really focus on the business. Um, and what is important to them and sometimes, for example, what also led me to be having this conversation with you was like, okay, if, if your goal was to get three rejections, what would you dare to try?

[00:38:57] And, and then I asked them and that pushes people to actually make more progress. That pushed me to say, ah, except I'm not waiting around for opportunities. I could actually go out and seek them. And the other thing is, um, what I also do within IMA is a hard part is finding opportunities because most of the work comes from personal connections.

[00:39:20] So if you don't have a good network, you're not, don't find those opportunities, but because usually they are hidden. And so what I do is essentially we go on more than a hundred job boards that are focused on climate and social impacts. And I pick out all the freelance opportunities. Or really help people to connect and get those opportunities and the referrals and the

[00:39:41] Gerry: Mm,

[00:39:42] Lilli Graf: that are necessary to find work. And then, of course, there is all the other aspects of helping people to. Yeah. Understand how do you deal with finances? How do you deal with visibility, marketing, and sales? Like suddenly as an entrepreneur, if you, if you are your business, you have so many more hats to wear. You can't be covered by everything and you can't.

[00:40:08] Somehow upscale very quickly. You can do it by trial and error. And Emma just kind of helps you shortcut that trial and error thing because you do it together with others. And also I believe it's not, there's quite a lot of people who teach you how to freelance, but. I don't believe in the one size fits all element.

[00:40:29] There is no one recipe. Everybody needs to figure out what works for them in their context, in their environment. Because maybe, you know, to come back also from my origin, when I'm dealing with Italian clients, I know I need to take them out for lunch. We need to have, we need to have a meal together before we can do business.

[00:40:49] When I'm speaking to clients in the U. S., It's all about what is your problem? How can I help us solve it? Yes, let's get to work. It's a completely different also mindset of how, how you need to develop those relationships.

[00:41:04] Gerry: I'm, I'm on the website here at the moment, scrolling at the same time and like there's the whole piece around the seed piece, um, where you pay 450 euros a year and you get a year access to the community and presumably there's probably things for them to learn in there to kind of get stress tested on in certain perspectives on their, their business models.

[00:41:28] Um, well, what else do they get for the 450 euro?

[00:41:33] Lilli Graf: I think a lot of templates and the kind of guidance on getting more clarity around what is your offering, because that is the hardest part, uh, often to figure that out, because when you start out and especially as a service based business, you could do so many things. There's just the sheer overwhelm of choice, which makes it so hard, and especially for people who have been working for companies a long time, in a long time, um, they might have even had certain positions in which they had a certain leadership and seniority, and maybe a lot of your responsibility was around stakeholder management and that part, and you have lost a bit the craft.

[00:42:12] So you need to really kind of re, re understand this. What do I actually offer? Am I going to be a practitioner who sells a specific craft? Am I actually going to address specific problems and I become the expert of solving that problem? And what from all the problems that I could do, could that be? Um, so it is. Incredibly powerful moment, and if you do that in a very conscious way and a structured way, you can find their answers more quickly. I personally did more sometimes trial and error, and then I developed things that I thought I should offer. But when you offer something that is not aligned with truly who you are and what you believe in, it's going to be incredibly hard to sell that.

[00:42:58] You don't want to show up, you don't want to promote it because it doesn't feel right and aligned with you because it's not. And, and I also found that with Emma, it took me a long time to really figure out what it is that I wanted to build and how it would be set up because, um, and it's in constant evolution because It's also bringing people together and understanding what is it that they need?

[00:43:22] What is kind of really,

[00:43:24] Gerry: The same with this is 8cd. Like we're always kind of monitoring it and seeing where the opportunities are. Like, you know, one of the pieces that I guess for the success of IMA to continue to grow is looking for designers and change makers out there to take that first step. Um, so what do you say to those designers who are kind of Um, trying to understand the implications of taking that first step and what it means to the perceived safety net of a full time job or, um, even a part time job.

[00:43:59] What does that look like, um, from somebody who's already established? What advice do you give to them?

[00:44:06] Lilli Graf: I usually would say, take advantage from where you're, when you're still in that position of a job and really figure out a way of how you could prototype and start exploring what you want to focus on, what you want to build up. So it's about building up your network, um, and connections. Even when you are in a job and sometimes actually if you have a certain privileged position, it's so much better if you do it if you're still in a job, because people will talk to you because you have a certain brand name.

[00:44:36] Once you start out on your own, you lose that name. Um, and you need to build up yours from scratch. And then it's about getting clear, like, what could you potentially offer, as well as putting the money aside so that you have that, call it like a freedom fund, that allows you to, when you take that leap, to not feel under pressure.

[00:44:57] To absolutely make money because having money put aside is the best negotiation tool. You could just walk away from a project, um, that doesn't align with what you truly want to do. And it doesn't put you in such a scarcity mindset that it's really hard. And you might not totally not enjoy, um, that leap.

[00:45:19] Because even if I had put, I who had prepared everything very Kind of, no, probably I'm, I'm relatively a risk adverse person. So I set myself up probably for success. I trialed it out for two years, few years before I take the leap. But I remember in that period, I just had such an existential fear. And that I would just wake up in the morning, um, because suddenly you lose all that structure that the security of the job has given you for years.

[00:45:49] And I remember I didn't have my period for a few months. I mean, that level of just stress where your body says, like, I just kind of try to preserve myself right now. Um, so.

[00:46:01] Gerry: it's like it is a really, really stressful time for everyone. And there are like, you know, highs and lows, peaks and drops or however you want to say it when you work for yourself. Um, but you're right, it does take, it takes a perseverance and a resilience to, to keep going. Like there's been times where I'm like, Oh, it must be easier just to work for, um, work for a business.

[00:46:24] But There's pros and cons to both sides of it. And overall, I think what works for me is the, um, is just the ability to, to choose and build something that I have ownership of. Um, just going into the IMA collective piece a little bit more. So can you give me an example of, say, some of the kinds of businesses that you're helping to work with?

[00:46:51] Um, just so people can maybe self identify and say, well, that's like, that's actually me. You know, that, that could be, that could be me. Cause I, I really want to stress like, you know, I've got no affiliation to ML collective. I just want to promote it. Cause it sounds like it's a really purpose led organization.

[00:47:08] Um, Lily's awesome as you can potentially hear here, but I just would love to, you know, kind of support it in any way that I can. So maybe just tell us a little bit about, you know, what, what they can look like and what are the kinds of things that you do with them?

[00:47:23] Lilli Graf: So you can have different versions. I see. There are some people who come in, for example, Sophie, she runs a communication agency and she then just focus that specifically on organizations that are purpose led. Then Janina, she's just a charity consultant. She really helps charities set up things in, in a specific way.

[00:47:43] And then you have people who are actually much more going into Future needs and future problems like Camille, who just launched recently her closure hotline, because she wants to be, and she defines

[00:47:56] Gerry: Her clothes line, is that what you

[00:47:58] Lilli Graf: as a conscious closure consultant, because in this world, world, in which we go through a transition, we need to close down things and she helps organizations end.

[00:48:12] kind of programs, initiatives, organizations.

[00:48:17] Gerry: yeah.

[00:48:18] Lilli Graf: And then you have, for example, Tess, who does another thing that is amazing, I find, and so probably needed. She works on fluid leadership, because you usually have this binary thinking, but actually we need to go beyond the huge usual binary way. And how do you What does fluid leadership look like in a culture?

[00:48:38] How do you actually bring that to an organization?

[00:48:42] Gerry: Yeah.

[00:48:43] Lilli Graf: And, and so there are some people who really work on the forefront of things that people don't know yet that are needed, but are emerging. Um, and others who are. Taking their skills that they have and just applying it very specifically to a certain sector and their, their needs.

[00:49:03] And so, yeah.

[00:49:05] Gerry: that's, is there a case there for like, you know, you mentioned Tess and a few other people, um, that they, they don't look to you for the answers. They, they look to the community for answers. So is that the kind of proposition? It's, it's less around, um, you know, you, you being up here and then I've got a question, you go to, go to Lily.

[00:49:24] Um, Okay. Is that kind of, uh, is that one of the metrics of success for you, I guess, in terms of building the network where people can go to each other and kind of serve each other?

[00:49:35] Lilli Graf: Yeah. I called it in my collective and I just, just generally, I knew that I needed to be visible to start it so that people could believe in it, but I don't have, I don't pretend to know the answers that only I see myself. As the kind of the, the coordinator, the weaver, and I've described in my collective often as we are like a community garden.

[00:49:56] Everybody has their own plot of garden and there are different things that grow in your plot than in mine. But the fact that we actually do that in a shared space allows us to share advice. We can share seedlings. We can have sometimes a garden party together. Um, also because. working for yourself. Often we think it's a very alone venture where you're, you don't have much of the, the, the community space, even just kind of recognize that other people are going through the same issues as you.

[00:50:26] And so, um, creating those occasions to connect, but everybody still kind of has that independence. And this is sometimes also a bit, the hard part around IMA. I'm doing something that is very collective for people who have chosen independence.

[00:50:44] Gerry: Okay, but it's not like a Y Combinator kind of seed venture where there's an equity um, there's some sort of acquisition happening in the background where Lily is like, sure I can help you, but uh, I want to get a 2 percent equity in your social impact, because it's none of that. So it is really autonomous in terms of, um, it is community for social impact and, um, sole entrepreneurs really.

[00:51:10] Lilli Graf: I, yes, and I'm, what I'm trying to figure out is how can Emma become truly a regenerative business model in the sense that I would love for people to be able to make a living thanks to and through Emma. And I have a bit of a vision for that, but I think it's always also recognizing where did I start?

[00:51:26] And for now, like it felt like last year, it's like me just investing lots of time and resources in something that I believed and slowly it's taking form and you can see also people. Um, emerging and in every monthly kickoff session that we have, I always create a interactive exercise for people to ask how let's design this together.

[00:51:46] What is your favorite day? What is, uh, what is the topic you want to talk about next? It's like, okay, how can I create this in a co creative way? And ideally that It also me always thinking about resilience right now. It's mostly online and sometimes we have events in big cities like Berlin, London, Milan.

[00:52:08] Um, but in the future, I would love to have this also more localized so that people could physically meet in a place and that it is truly resilient because right now just unplug the thing and it's gone. Um, so how can Emma live without electricity is the typical question that me as a designer who works on climate resilience thinks about and Starts keeping in mind right now, even if it's maybe not necessary, but that's my, my way of thinking even about this community.

[00:52:40] Gerry: It's kind of counterintuitive in some ways. You're like the more you grow, the more energy and electricity you're using, which most likely is coming from fossil, um, reserves. So, um, it's, yeah, it's a quandary. All right. Like, um, What are the metrics of success then for you, like in terms of um, say you imagined to do in a collective for the next decade?

[00:53:04] It's been going a couple of years, two or three years already. Is that right?

[00:53:07] Lilli Graf: No, actually it's like one year. And if you think the community in itself, I just launched at what, beginning of January, like that I

[00:53:14] Gerry: was 2021. You transitioned. That's what it was. You went freelance. So you've been doing this for a year

[00:53:19] Lilli Graf: Yeah. And also not creating without the space because now I have like what those 30 founding members and we're just starting to create it. But again, it's.

[00:53:27] Gerry: ah, even.

[00:53:29] Lilli Graf: started when we kicked it off, I asked them to help me define the measures of success. So I asked them, how do you want to feel in this? And so what came out is the want to feel supported.

[00:53:41] And so every month I asked them, how supported do you feel? But also how much support have you given others? Because support is a two way

[00:53:48] Gerry: There's a connection, 100%. There's a connection between the two. So you do, you do an online kind of event every month with the people who are members. Is that right?

[00:54:00] Lilli Graf: So it's, it's run on circle as a platform. So community platform and there are different monthly rituals. So it starts by kicking off your month and planning the month ahead. Then you have a networking session in the middle of the month that is open to everybody who is curious about just again, to expand that network.

[00:54:18] And then there's like,

[00:54:19] Gerry: of the membership or just people within the membership.

[00:54:22] Lilli Graf: Nope. Also people who are outside who are curious, um, and they can meet the people within the community. We have now just started, um, weekly procrastination power hours because people just loved the, the idea of having a space where they have more accountability and then are like, we have a session where we talk about finances and pricing and those types of issues and, or finding clients.

[00:54:47] How do you go about that and share how everybody approaches it in different ways.

[00:54:51] Gerry: Very

[00:54:52] Lilli Graf: And then there is always the monthly end of the month reflection, because when you work for yourself, you never really get a pat on the shoulder. So this is actually for you to look back of what have you done during the month?

[00:55:05] What is the, um, the progress you made, but also what has the biggest impact and to be very intentional in how you do things and what I've been running that session for. The last year for free for everybody. And you could see like, are that really at least also for me, but also for others. It changes so much over time.

[00:55:24] I just believe in the power of small rituals, um, rather than one big thing that shifts everything.

[00:55:30] Gerry: Yeah, absolutely. Um, so it sounds like you've kind of hit a sort of a period in your life where everything is kind of starting to connect in some ways. How would you score yourself in terms of five being like completely purpose led at the moment? I've met my kind of purpose, I've made my purpose a reality and one being like eh, not nowhere near it.

[00:55:55] Where would you say you're at at the moment?

[00:55:57] Lilli Graf: I'm five totally. I think, yes,

[00:56:00] Gerry: straight out of the gate. There was no pausing there. You heard that folks five out of five. Okay. Right. So,

[00:56:06] Lilli Graf: I feel it's easy. I feel this is more a vocation than it actually is a job. I feel that I, I

[00:56:13] Gerry: can you sustain yourself though, doing, doing the community? Cause this is the big thing. I know we want to talk about being purpose led and making sure that we're kind of aligned to our values, but is this something that you could see yourself doing? And earning a living from, um, I mean, you mentioned something in our prequel about being just enough.

[00:56:32] And it's something that, um, it is a mind shift for a lot of people. But is this something that you think you can grow into a sustainable, um, model to sustain your life?

[00:56:43] Lilli Graf: yes, I was, I was applying for a program last week. And so I was basically looking at the commercial model and I'm not the perfect person. And so, and so I think what I realized is And also looking, I wrote my vision and then my vision was bigger than I actually kind of had in mind of the others. And so it kind of made me realize, do I want to just build this in something that works well for me, that is relatively small and it can sustain me and my life.

[00:57:08] And it's like, okay, I cap it. And that is it. Or do I actually want to go full in on how can I impact more people? How can, This potentially be scalable. And then for me, I have in my mind, it's like there is in this forum note, you have usually nonprofit business, and then you have for profit and there is one thing in between where you have.

[00:57:30] What some call, or Jennifer Hinton calls it, not for profit business, is businesses that reinvest in their purpose and in their mission. So I think sometimes about myself, it's, okay, what is the enough? And above that, how can this actually give back? Because then that is a truly regenerative business and it sounds something idealistic and sometimes there is the part of me that has grown up and has this inner capitalist that is like, Okay.

[00:57:55] Thank you. What the hell, how could you do that? Because you invested so much money. You gave up on so many things to just build this and take it out of the thing. And then there is the other part of me saying, Hey, you actually want to change things. You truly need to do that differently. And you need to reevaluate how things are.

[00:58:11] And I think those both things can currently also coexist and it's normal that they are in conflict. And I just, I know that also things will evolve over time. And I've been speaking with some people who. invest in revenue business because I couldn't apply for normal VC funding because it just against the logics that I want.

[00:58:33] But I realized that also on that front, everybody's just trying to figure it out. There is no playbook. Um,

[00:58:40] Gerry: There is nothing. It is following your heart and following your, your kind of instinct and some of this stuff. Um, so what's next then for the next, uh, 12 months, 18 months for, for you, Lily and, you know, within the collective, like what, what's on the horizon and what can people expect?

[00:59:00] Lilli Graf: So for now, what I've been doing is I still kept my consultancy practice at the side so that I have that financial income to some extent, so that I don't need to put Emma under pressure to need to hit the numbers. Because for me, it was important to have, to grow it more on quality. And rather sometimes I'm not, I'm not pushing as much.

[00:59:23] We're not trying to sell as much because I rather have a good group of people who connect really well and to. really figure things out and to not be under that, uh, I need to sell to make this work. I didn't want to have that. I know that will happen at a certain point. And so right now, I think it, it starts to be a bit harder to manage both things in terms of time wise, but it's a constant readjusting.

[00:59:47] And then I think I still Because actually I'm so tied and connected to climate resilience, I thought I need still to be advised on climate resilience and I have a couple of projects, but it's all so very diverse. So it goes from focusing on local government to exploring how a resilient organization is structured and it It's also this nice part that probably many service designers have that I have is I'm a curious person.

[01:00:14] I just love,

[01:00:15] Gerry: Yeah.

[01:00:16] Lilli Graf: exploring new things.

[01:00:19] Gerry: Curiosity is at the heart of I think 99. 9 percent of the service designers that I've worked and trained with. Um, and you definitely have that in spades. Um, I noticed on your website there's a newsletter people can sign up and stay, stay across what you're doing and how you're doing it and when you're doing it.

[01:00:37] So maybe we'll put a link to that in the show notes as well as a link to, to Emma Collective. But if there's anything else people want to ask you, um, Lily, what's the best way for them to do it and get in touch with you?

[01:00:50] Lilli Graf: Yeah. Usually I'm very active on LinkedIn, so people can just reach out. That is my space. And then usually I also run those sessions of like explore Emma, where I just kind of. Give people together and they can do it because I also think that it's not, I'm just one person, but there is, you need to see like, who are the other pieces who show up?

[01:01:11] Do you want to spend time with them? Uh, and I think that's a bit, uh, the, the way of how I want to do it. That just, this is not about me. This is more about the community and the people you find there.

[01:01:21] Gerry: Absolutely. Look, Lily, I can't believe it's taken us so long to connect. Like every time I speak to someone on the podcast, I feel like I know them really well at the end of it. A quick chat. Um, so I finish every episode and this is 80, but thanking them for coming on and, you know, being vulnerable enough to allow me to probe and ask questions that, you know, they're not prepared folks.

[01:01:45] We don't do, um, a scripted interview and this is eight city as you've probably become aware of at this stage, but really look, just thanks for, for coming on and sharing the story. And I wish you every success within my collective. It sounds amazing. Um, folks, Do check it out, like, you know, show Lily some support.

[01:02:02] You might know people who are interested in this space. Send the link on to them because it'd be great to see this really take off and provide everyone with the kind of frameworks that Lily's been working on. So kudos to you.

[01:02:17] Lilli Graf: Thank you. Thank you for having me and thank you for the work that you do in kind of sharing ideas out into this world.

[01:02:24] Gerry: listen, it's, it's always enjoyable, especially when you get to speak to people like you, Lily.

[01:02:29] Lilli Graf: Thanks. Really appreciate it.

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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