Building Community in a Virtual World

My experience navigating our new, digital version of everyday life.

By: Nicole Shum, Co-Founder

What does it take to form a real connection with someone online? How can I develop a two-way relationship with new mentors after semi-awkward coffee chats on Google Hangouts? As an extrovert, how do I build community for myself both in the realms of recreating a normal social life and as a fresh grad with my professional network in mind?

These are all questions I’ve asked myself since quarantine started in early March. At the time, my instant solution was to source as much work as I could find to stay occupied; it was my solution to the inevitable: simultaneous feelings of loneliness and lack of productivity.

Now, before I dive deeper into why I believe so strongly in community, I first want to break the ice with a few observations. Browsing online every day and night, there’s been a plethora of people offering support for mentorship, resources, referrals, and more on LinkedIn. I’ve been on the Lunchclub platform. I’ve networked with select individuals online. We crave community as individuals, and whether that’s going on Houseparty with your friends, Facetime with a new match from Hinge, to joining a group webinar, people are looking for new and creative channels to retain a sense of community.

Why community has been pivotal to my development

From the moment I started my first internship at the age of 16, I’ve been able to benefit from people around me in practically all areas of life. Because of SHAD, one of Canada’s most popular STEM summer programs, I was able to be shortlisted for a summer placement at a YCS12 startup by my now six year mentor who somehow saw potential in my profile. I did not know anything about AI, tech, or startup culture. I admit, I still don’t know much about these technicalities. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of my journey in tech. One step after another, I owe what I’ve experienced thus far to the people who have helped me navigate my career, honoured my ideas, told me frankly where I’ve gone wrong, and brought me back on track.

As a student up until last month, community development has been the core of my extracurricular work. From founding BOLT as a non-profit corporation over the past two years, to pursuing a social impact fellowship in California for underserved high school students, I’ve recognized that there’s always an opportunity to invest back no matter what stage you’re at. Others have believed in my success, and I’ve always wanted to give back for the same reason.

In this blog, I hope to share how I exactly approached personal growth through community engagement and leadership during COVID.

1. Find remote passion projects through platforms like FLIK

Once classes were over in April, I didn’t have confirmation of when my full time job in product marketing would start, and honestly, whether it would still exist given the mass layoffs around North America. I knew my summer could end up being one of the worst, with grad travel plans, majority of internships, and my social life, all completely cancelled. I decided to venture online seeking new opportunities that would enable me to learn in spaces I hadn’t had the chance to explore in prior summers. Innately, food is what I love most, and I had just finished an independent research study with a professor at McGill University on grocery delivery and innovation, so when I found Jupiter.co on FLIK, I jumped on that opportunity instantly. For context, FLIK, Female Laboratory of Innovative Knowledge, founded by Ravina Anand and Michelle Kwok, empowers females to connect with hundreds of global founders on their free platform. I looked through every single one of the entrepreneurs on that list before identifying my top three, with Anna Pinol, as my first choice. I reached out after researching her background and we set up a call instantly!

Jupiter (YCS19) is a Khosla Ventures backed, seed stage startup in San Francisco providing groceries on autopilot. I leveraged the knowledge I gained from my research findings to explain why I was so passionate about contributing to the startup, especially as it served to be a crucial service feeding families during COVID. I’ve been volunteering ever since as a product growth apprentice with a team of 10 incredibly hard-working leaders who’ve spearheaded this. I get to listen in on all our metric, strategy, product road map calls, and test out brand new growth channels. Even though I’ve started my full time job at this point, I always have something to look forward to on Sunday’s now for our team sync up and find every challenge in this growing business to be real fuel for learning.

2. Give back to the community and make it a high impact, barrier-free opportunity

In early 2018, I decided to make the switch, in pursuit of management consulting to tech marketing, and as a result attended the Canadian Undergraduate Technology Conference (CUTC) in Waterloo, Ontario. Note that at this point in time, none of my friends in business school were interested in tech industries and I physically went to the two-day conference alone without knowing a single person there. Surprisingly, I came out of the event having met one of my favourite people, Kaivalya. Over the past two years, we’ve kept in touch because he’s genuinely been an amazing mentor and friend, as well as an honest and candid individual I love spending time with. He is also just always full of ideas and it’s extremely fascinating to say the least. Kai happened to be on the board of CUTC and that’s how I got looped into finding out about 2020 opportunities.

To put it straight, the foundation was struggling when we had restarted the conversation. The 2019 edition failed and was never able to be hosted. After an interview with the board on my ideas on flipping the conference for the 20th anniversary event, I had an even harder time recruiting a team for an organization many did not recognize. Unlike the attention shifted to all MLH hackathons, the general concept of finding value in student conferences was dying nationally.

I was fortunate to have found one incoming university student who ended up referring the opportunity to all her friends. Collectively, I formed a team of 22, interviewing everyone during my commutes to work and back while I finished my last internship in San Francisco in December. We called every Sunday only to have COVID shut down all our work in preparation for a physical conference by the time it was March.

I need to congratulate the individuals on my team for making things happen efficiently and effectively from that point onwards.

Within three months, we pulled together a virtual conference hosted on Hopin on July 18, three days ago. We barely found 20 speakers and had low registrations up until June, before we pivoted and hustled as a team to set the bar higher than ever before. From our initial optimistic expectation of 300–400 participants, we set an ambitious goal of reaching 2,020 students as our registration goal, in honour of this special year. To incentivize student interest and a discussion around CUTC Reconnect, we honoured our promise of donating $1 per attendee to Black Mental Health Canada. We strived to deliver a once-in-a-lifetime memorable event that students could access anytime, anywhere without the burden of costs.

“Our team was shocked by the turnout, and it just showed that all the work we put in leading up to the event, which initially had no traction, could turn into one of the biggest, most engaging, and inspiring learning opportunities for thousands out there.”

If you weren’t there to attend on Saturday, all I can say is behind the camera, and “backstage” on our platform, seeing the engagement from over 1500 students was incredible. Our Discord channel was going off, and speakers voluntarily joined to help review student resumes live. Henry Shi, founder of SnapTravel, Dave Rensin, Senior Director of Engineering at Google, and Ravi Mehta, Ex-Chief Product Officer at Tinder, were all answering student questions directly on the chat during their sessions. You wanted to know how SnapTravel acquired $22.4M in funding inclusive of investments from NBA star, Steph Curry? You want to know how to make the most of your college degree from new to career professionals at Waymo, Palantir, and Linkedin? CUTC empowered students from Canada, the US, Japan, Nigeria, and more this past Saturday to have all their burning questions answered.

Our team was shocked by the turnout, and it just showed that all the work we put in leading up to the event, which initially had no traction, could turn into one of the biggest, most engaging, and inspiring learning opportunities for thousands out there. Hands down, this was one of the best events I’ve ever organized in my lifetime. There was absolutely no physical element to it from planning, to team building, to execution, but the energy has lived on (read about participant experiences at #CUTC2020).

Initially, I was quite disappointed in myself at several points wherein which I felt that I simply wasn’t great at leading my team remotely. I had never recruited a team primarily consisting of engineers as a business student, nor had I led fully remote in my life, especially for those whom I had never met as well. Candidly, I simply felt that it was one of the biggest challenges to build strong rapport and provide motivation to the team. Over time, however, I’ve learnt how to better communicate instructions remotely, add clarity to expectations, and encourage more active participation among the team, but I’m far from succeeding. I know this is the future of corporate work, or at the very least half of the physical/virtual reality we’ll enter. Rebuilding CUTC from scratch couldn’t have been a better opportunity for me to start this leadership journey.

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The CUTC 2020 student team’s live reaction to surpassing the 2020 registration goal during their final pre-conference meeting.

I want to end by saying that despite the successful end result in pursuit of reconnecting the community, an event as hyped as it is will always fly by. The next wave of opportunity will surely come along. The team, however, was one I was fortunate to have by my side to create history and break records with the foundation. That’s a memory with some of the brightest people I’ll never forget in my lifetime.

Before I conclude, I want to share a few key takeaways I’ve learned over the past few months through the community online.

  • Learning should come without a cost, because your intrinsic motivation is what can define your personal success. It might not represent the entire equation, but know that the first step is to get your head in the game.
  • If you’re bored, waiting for the next opportunity to come to you, take action now. Every day you sit back is a missed day to learn or give back to someone else who wants to spend their Saturday becoming a better version of themself.
  • We all start out as strangers. Never discount the value of relationships and people around you, even if it’s built off a unique online conversation that began during a pandemic. You’ll remember it; they’ll remember it. Who knows — maybe they’ll be your next boss, mentor, even significant other?
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I’m Nicole Shum and I’m 22. It’s just the beginning of my career and I’m stoked to learn so much more from the people and community within tech. Why? Because I’m driven by the challenges of our society that will require tech-enabled solutions, and understand that I’m empowered most by those who surround me.

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