Hi there. You're probably here because:
you're interested in the company I co-founded, Switchboard
you’ve heard my voice on the radio
you’ve seen my calligraphy
Confused? You're not alone. This is the first time these lives have co-existed. I'll start at the beginning.
I was born to a cellist and painter. I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For most of my life I could count on one hand the number of people I knew with 9 to 5 jobs. I was surrounded by artists, musicians, Rolfers, montessori teachers, midwives, writers, blacksmiths, new age bookstore owners. Everyone was happy, the children ate carob, and very few of us had health insurance.
I went to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. I studied Russian. To be clear: I had little interest in Russian. I studied it to sit at the feet of a life-changing professor. "It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are," as Wendell Berry put it. Let us call this Theme One.
During my summers I did what you’d expect from a liberal arts student: performed ultrasounds at a women's clinic, toiled away at a cubicle researching welfare-to-work reforms, taught art to Balkan orphans on a Croatian island, and translated briefs for a multinational law firm. I owe my entire life to Reed College. I know this sounds hyperbolic. But it was there that I met my future husband, many collaborators, and the people who remain a source of daily inspiration: letterpress artist vinegar makers, community photojournalists, physicists vintners, Slovene painter professors, saber fighting political scientists, capoeira practicing programmer classicists.
For much of my 20s I busied myself with the awkward experience of early adulthood. This meant exploring every industry I was curious about, or apprenticing myself to anyone I could learn something from. I worked in higher ed, for a doctor who studied night eating, with Russian middle-school students, as a florist, as a food writer, with puppeteers, labor unions, and countless non-profits. I curated art exhibits, wrote budgets for pharmaceutical companies, and, for three years, authored a weekly newspaper column that granted me the opportunity to eat dinner at strangers’ houses. By the end of this time my CV was a (fairly ill-considered) series of cards categorized by skill. Depending on your perspective, I'm an unapologetic dilettante (from dilettare, to delight) and/or a recently rooted nomadic leader.
In 2009 I started a calligraphy business called Neither Snow. That fall I enrolled in Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism thanks to the remarkable, Medicean patronage of two families and a generous scholarship. I wanted to transition to radio, and learn from reporters who are my heroes. I would wake up at 5 AM to address hundreds of envelopes for Upper West Side brides. I went to class covered in ink. I took the Q train to Jamaica, Queens to report on a story about mortgage fraud that consumed my life. I audited classes at the Business School and on network theory. After graduation, I was a daily reporter for WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR affiliate station. Then I went freelance full-time and starting reporting nationally. This is because I made a better living as a calligrapher than a reporter (read that as a statement on both the booming wedding industry and the decline of journalism). And that’s been my life since, covered in ink with a microphone in hand in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Florence, Italy, with stints in Oxford, England, New York, and Portland, Oregon.
All of these experiences are bound by a common thread: people need each other. But people don't just need other people to make themselves as individuals feel better -- when individuals are connected with the right people, communities function better. The Rolfers need other Rolfers, the cellists need other musicians, the saber fighters need other saber fighters, and the winemakers need other winemakers. Communities function best when they're connected: when the union members find organizers, the fraud victims find lawyers, the medical students find mentors, the journalists find sources, the welfare mothers find child care. Over and over again I’ve watched people try and fail to find who and what they need. I started Switchboard because at every stage of the odyssey I’ve just described I’ve been helped by other people, many of whom are listed below. I’ve received patronage, hospitality, life-changing advice, opportunities out of nowhere, instruction on the art of living. To say I am blessed is an understatement.
Switchboard started at Reed College to better connect students and alumni. The seed was planted while I served on the Alumni Board, buoyed by a philanthropic initiative of 20 of my alumni friends, and made a reality by my technical co-founder, Sean Lerner. It was something we wish existed when were were students. Through Switchboard I’ve mentored young aspiring journalists, found hosts in cities I’m traveling through, hired outstanding employees. It's now the first place I turn to ask or offer for help. Theme Two: Ask and ye shall receive.
Switchboard connects communities through only two types of posts: asks and offers. It’s a pretty simple idea: it should be easy for people to help one another. Members of trust networks ask for what they need and offer what they have to give. I once described Switchboard to my grandmother and she replied, “That’s the way my world has always worked, we just didn’t have computers.” This sums it up. It’s an attempt to solve a universal problem: how can I find what I need from the people I trust.
Here are other ways at describing it. It's like a non-creepy Craigslist. It's an online gift economy for niche networks. It turns classifieds from transactional to transformative. Existing social media is a place to share about ourselves through photos and status updates; Switchboard is a place to share of ourselves through asks, offers, and acts of generosity. "It is true that when a gift enhances our life, or even saves it, gratitude will bind us to the donor," says Lewis Hyde in The Gift: This is the foundation of Theme Three: kindness and gratitude bind us to one another.
It turns out if you want solve a problem on the internet you go about it by creating a start-up. This was news to me. Switchboard was accepted to Wieden+Kennedy's Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE). Unlike a lot of incubators, PIE values founders with non-traditional tech backgrounds who aren't motivated by million dollar payouts. They also value failure. And everyone from Michael Jordan to Ira Glass to Debbie Millman will tell you how important failure is. PIE provides us with mentors, investment, office space, and some modicum of legitimacy as a start-up founded by two clueless humanists.
In an era of LinkedIn, Switchboard writes thank you notes. Our corporation, Weathergram, is named after a poem on a paper bag. Our team is made up of college students. My work as a calligrapher, designing mostly tattoos, provided the money necessary to get Switchboard off the ground. I never aspired to be an entrepreneur. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. We wanted to solve a problem, and share that solution with others.
Brands, companies & organizations
I’ve reported for or worked with:
National Public Radio, Harvard University, Nike, Samsung, University of Pennsylvania, Boston Globe, Philadephia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, Fendi, Martha Stewart Omnimedia, Alzheimer’s Association, American Councils for Teachers of Russian, Tiffany & Co., Hallmark, National Center for Children in Poverty, Public Citizen, National Organization for Women, Domnio Magainze, Philadephia Magazine, American Public Media/Marketplace, One Kings Lane, Wieden+Kennedy
I've been changed by...
FROM THE 505
Mary Lou Cook
D & I, J, K, L, M
Gail & Zachariah Rieke
FROM THE 503
Kat Bobbitt & Asa Miller
simon max hill
Emily Johnson/Emprint Press
Marshall & Mikalina Kirkpatrick
Laura Lo Forti
Wendy Stokes & Alvin Lucier
PIE + Alumni + Mentors
Vanessa Van Edwards
Amy Sample Ward
Rob Anderson & Loic Marc
Deb Pang Davis
Donna Di Spirito
Karin/Fattoria San Martino
Helene Schjerbeck + family
Betty Soldi & Matteo Perduca
Sarah Berns, Daren Belsby
& Spring Creek Ranch
Chris Boicos & Charles Myara
Yaacob & Julie Dweck
Brendan Isaac Jones
Fabrizio Lelli & Flora Filamino
Lyerka Miller & Joyce Knapp
Nobu & Nancy Siraisi
Pig Iron Theatre Company
Frank & Helen Rachubinski
Drs. R. & R. Soricelli
Nicholas Terpstra + all Terpstras
William & Patricia Utermohlen
Adam Woods +