Paths Diverge

An Interview with Paloma Medina

Paloma Medina is the founder and owner of 11:11 Supply, a company that incorporates the psychology and science of life and work improvement into the curation of office supplies and organizational tools. 11:11 Supply also offers workshops in which attendees learn everyday tips on how to enhance their work and personal life.

Photo courtesy of Creative Mornings PDX

Interviewed By Sara Magalio

Paloma is a performance coach and trainer that specializes in brain-friendly methods to enhance clients’ work and life outlooks and practices. She has worked with tech companies such as Etsy, nonprofit organizations in healthcare, as well as individual leaders and CEOs. She was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, but has lived on the west coast of the U.S. since she was eight years old.

While Paloma’s Portland-based store has had to close temporarily due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, she is working to bring the store to a new and improved online platform, and she has also pivoted the main focus of her work from the psychology of office supplies to another passion of hers—workplace equity and inclusion training. I spoke with Paloma to learn more about this new direction her work has taken, and how she envisions 11:11 Supply evolving in the future.

Sara Magalio: How did you translate your research on the psychology of productivity to creating 11:11 Supply?

Paloma Medina: Before I started 11:11, I was a leadership coach and trainer, working with managers and leaders. I incorporated a lot of elements of neuropsychology into my work then. And it was pretty popular, I was surprised by how many people responded positively to it. I was working in the tech field, and I think that after a while I realized that meant that who I was reaching was pretty demographically specific. I missed having an impact with more types of people.

I began to think about how I would transition out of what was a really amazing career into something that was more unknown, but that reaches more of a wider audience. I spent two or three months doing some really deep brainstorming work, and one of the things that I found was when I looked back on my past experiences, some of the fondest memories I had were in working in retail, which I had done a decade ago.

I thought about exactly what I loved about working retail, and one thing I loved about it was that you get to interact with anyone who walks through the door of a store, and offer them knowledge, services, advice, and support to help them in their shopping experience. I also realized how much I love physical interaction. At the time, I was working more and more as a virtual trainer, because I had moved back to Portland and my client companies were in San Francisco and New York. So much of my world was spent alone and only having virtual contact, and the more I experienced this type of virtual work environment (an environment most of us have had to embrace in recent months), the more I realized how much I love physical interaction and objects. After this realization, it was a pretty fluid process getting to my final concept, because I could clearly see this relationship between retail, stationary office supplies, and the psychology of those elements. When I talk about the psychology of productivity or the psychology of self care, it is often through the lens of objects and how they can improve our daily lives, whether that’s using a notebook, a planner, or how your desk is organized.

SM: Do you have any advice for someone who is looking to branch out and start their own business?

PM: One big part of it is knowing yourself. There’s an awareness strategy that I talk about, which includes the six core needs that you should strive for in your work environment. The acronym for them is BICEPS. That’s belonging, improvement, choice/autonomy, equality/fairness, predictability, and status.

I think that if you are going to be an entrepreneur, you need to be aware that you are now responsible for making sure that you’re getting all of your core needs. It’s important to not underestimate the work that that takes. For example, a lot of people do not realize how much working for someone else and being a part of a company provides a ton of predictability, not just from a salary, but also in your daily work and in your calendar year schedule. When you become an entrepreneur, this instantly goes away.

Understanding Your Core Needs in the Workplace

So understanding what your core needs are, and which ones of the six matter most to you, and then preparing to provide these needs for yourself is essential. For example, I knew early on in my journey that I would not want to have a business partner for my company, because I have found that one of my biggest core needs is freedom of choice and autonomy, and I know that I am not an amazing equal collaborator. Also, I would recommend seeking out folks that you really have an affinity with and getting their advice. Don’t seek the advice of people who you don’t connect with, even if they are considered experts, because in entrepreneurship, I have found that people’s advice is often about their own experiences specifically, so you want to seek out mentors who have similar situations as you so the advice relates more closely to your path. 

Photo courtesy of TEDx Portland

Transitioning Away From 11:11 Supply

SM: Now to the not so fun part, I would love to talk about how your business has evolved from a brick and mortar store to what you are doing now, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to have such a huge impact on our daily lives. What have been some of your biggest obstacles?

PM: It’s bonkers. I thought it was bonkers a month ago and now it’s double bonkers. I have pivoted the business twice now, in the four month period since the pandemic started. The first pivot, which was the biggest one, was that I went from a 100% brick and mortar business with a 1,300-square-foot store and workshop space, with a team of four other people, and a huge chunk of my job being CFO and COO and an equity and inclusion trainer on the side, to trying to launch a fully online business, which was a six-month project that we tried to get done in two weeks.

In those two weeks, I think I came to my senses and realized that to continue the illusion that the company could stay at the same size and with the same vision was just not possible. I would have had to essentially double my debt, put my family in financial risk, and probably push myself to the brink of breaking my mental health. I know that there are business owners who are doing all of those things, but I made the decision that I was not going to do that, so that meant by month two, laying off my entire team, which was all kinds of painful. I think that besides the logistical changes of what it takes to close down a store, lay off your entire team, and cancel all of your plans for a year, the biggest shift for me was the realization that I would have to become a company of one.

The Second Shift: Equity and Inclusion Training

At about the same time that I was supposed to turn over my store keys to my landlord, and I had already done all of the work of the liquidation sale and cleaning and emptying the store in a week, the George Floyd protests began. I had already done equity and inclusion training on the side while running the store, and now I was a team of one. I made the decision, because at this point I could without really impacting anyone else, that I would close the online store for a couple weeks, and just focus solely on equity and inclusion training.

This new shift, which is what I am currently working on, was made possible or at least was greatly facilitated by the fact that I had already had to become a company of one.

SM: The importance of equity and inclusion training has become so much more evident recently, and it’s amazing that you are so committed to sharing your work and expertise even with how significantly coronavirus has impacted our daily work. Could you explain what your equity and inclusion training is comprised of?

PM: The training that I have been focused on for the past four years or so is kind of my niche, in that it involves the neurology and the neuropsychology of equity and inclusion in the workplace. That means that we talk a lot about unconscious biases, but more from a neurological perspective, and I think that many people find that interesting, to learn the neuroscience of what is happening in their brain, versus just a political conversation about biases.

The Four Levels of Equity and Inclusion Training

The work that I am focusing on now is addressing that just knowing about our biases does nothing. We need to consciously strive toward these four levels of equity and inclusion in the workplace, and understand the neuroscience of what happens in the brain when we work to implement these changes. These are:

  • Cognitive: the work that we do in our head.
  • Personal habits: the tendencies that we need to start changing.
  • Team habits and team systems: How can these be adjusted to promote equity and inclusion?
  • The Macro Level: Across all of the people that work in a company or department, how can changes to promote equity and inclusion be made for potentially hundreds of people?

In working through these levels, I also often pass companies on to a consultant, or a pre-established equity and inclusion committee within the company, who can help the business through the daily work of implementing these changes. SM: Recently, have you seen a greater demand for this kind of work, now that equity and inclusion in the workplace and in life in general is receiving such resounding attention? PM: Yes, the spike in demand has been significant. In the past I would get maybe 1-2 requests in a week for equity and inclusion training. It dropped slightly during the beginning of the lockdown, because people were having to shift their business practices so quickly and with short notice. Now, after the protests started, I get 1-2 requests a day.

My colleagues and I are curious if this spike in demand for equity and inclusion training will allow us to build momentum and hold employers more accountable to what they can and what they absolutely should be doing to create a more equitable workplace. It’s an opportunity, because business leaders are receiving many more demands for change from their employees and from the national conversation. I have also seen that business leaders are much more curious about how they can implement these changes to promote equity in the workplace, and that’s a cool combination— curiosity about change from the leadership coupled with a strong demand for this change from the employees.

SM: Focusing now on your own story with equity and inclusion, during your 30s you worked hard to un-assimilate yourself and reverse the negative effects of Americanization. You’ve said this process has greatly informed your business decisions. How so?

PM: When I was 30, I started unpacking my own assimilation, as an 8-year-old girl who immigrated to the U.S. and worked so hard throughout my childhood to assimilate into white Americana culture. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I really began to understand the implications of this mentality, of focusing only on what the dominant group is concerned about and what their interests are, and not focusing on you. I also realized one really sad thing about this is that I will never really know who I might have become, had my 8-year-old self felt free to really be herself.

Working Toward Un-Assimilation

Fast forward to my adulthood, when I was figuring out how to shift from working in larger tech companies to starting my own business, I realized that I was again focusing on assimilation questions, like—What does the market want? What will sell?—instead of focusing on celebrating my individuality and using that to my advantage to bring about success.

I began asking myself—What do I want to see in this world? What am I hungry for?—and asking these questions really brought about the birth of 11:11.

When I began to work with business consultants as I was developing 11:11, I again was asked a lot of assimilation-related questions, like—Who is your target demographic? Who are your competitors?—and I really annoyed these advisors, because I refused to pick a demographic or a mold for my business to be in. After living a life trying to assimilate into a culture and then doing all the work to un-assimilate myself and find my own identity, I realized that I don’t have a specific demographic that I fall into, and I didn’t want my store or my customers to have to fit into a specific category either.

Finding her Audience

I was met with a lot of resistance, not conforming to the standard processes for starting a small business, but I saw the reward when the customers began walking through the door of my store, I was continuously surprised by the wide array of individuals that found value in what I was providing.

For instance, a large chunk of my initial supporters at 11:11 were personal trainers; I hate the gym and never go, I don’t like dieting, literally none of the conventional personal trainer components fit me. But when these people came in and shared which parts of the store they were in love with, I had so much to talk to them about. It clicked with me that these personal trainers are essentially helping people make changes for the long term and that is what I do too. So we would talk for hours about psychology and helping people, and I found a whole demographic of people who were really early champions for my store that I may never have had if I had restricted the target market for my business.

Photo courtesy of 11:11 Supply

SM: Looking to the future, when do you see the 11:11 Supply online store returning fully?

PM: I think that the bigger question for me is when to take it from passively fulfilling orders as they come in to actively focusing on the business and its evolution, which takes a ton of marketing and content creation, because ecommerce doesn’t just happen, you have to make it happen.

I hope to resume the business online in earnest in the fall, because one thing about focusing on equity and inclusion training, is that in the past I have never been able to do it full time, because of how emotionally taxing it is for me. I know that I need an outlet, I need something else to also focus my energy on, and working on the online store is kind of a form of self care for me, since it’s such different cognitive and emotional work. Now the question is how I can set myself and my clients up for success around equity and inclusion, knowing that I can’t sustain doing this work full time indefinitely.

In the past, 11:11 Supply was such a complex business that it was really taking a lot out of me, and I had to turn to other forms of self care to take a break from the store. Now that my focus has shifted; however, I am trying to make sure that building up the store as a one-woman business is more cathartic than stressful, so that I can continue to do equity and inclusion work in the long term too.

SM: When you do begin to focus in on your online store again, do you think that the types of products that you sell will change, since the nature of the office space has shifted so much over these past few months?

PM: Yes I do. Previously, I focused a lot on obviously the psychological impact of objects, but also how they feel to hold and how the physical structure of the object can affect a person’s response to it. In the past the sale of single pens in our brick and mortar store was one of our major revenue streams, because people would just pick up a pen, like the feel, and then buy it kind of on a whim, and we’re talking 3-dollar pens here. But that model doesn’t really work with an online business, because to process one online order is so much work, you can’t sell just one pen, you can’t even sell 10 pens and make it worth it.

So with ecommerce, I think that the idea that you just simply switch your inventory to an online market is very oversimplified. You do have to rethink everything.

Adapting to the Online Market and the Social Distanced Shopper

One of the ways I have changed my offerings is through developing what I call “exploration packs.” One of the things that has really dropped for people from a psychology perspective is novelty, because the internet can only provide so much novelty, and lockdown of course really decreases the amount of novelty that you are exposed to. I have been thinking about how so much of physical shopping was about playing, and giving your brain new things to look at and feel, and so I started creating these exploration packs, where customers get a surprise bundle of objects, like with our Self Care or Badassery Mystery Boxes, or a bullet journal kit with psychology tips, so you don’t really know what you’re getting with the pack, but you know that you love pens or journaling, so it’ll work out.

I also plan on doing virtual workshops that mimic the workshops that we used to offer in the store. I did a couple when the lockdown first started, including one on the psychology of virtual meetings, but I want to continue providing additional online workshops on different topics in the future.

Another exciting thing I plan on offering is one-on-one virtual sessions, where clients can schedule time with me, and I would build them a customized notebook or planner while they watch, and we talk about what their needs are and how the product can best facilitate that. We used to do this in the store, where we would build a notebook or planner from scratch with a person, so I am looking forward to continuing to have those experiences with people even if it’s through a remote meeting.

I hope also in the future, when we can be together again, to work with other companies or organizations to curate live events surrounding elements of my work, like workplace productivity, and I get really excited thinking about how I can impact people with my work outside of the parameters of a brick and mortar storefront. So everything from changing what I sell to restarting these workshops and appointments through a virtual platform, to eventually being a part of events focusing on the psychology of the workplace, all of it will help to bring 11:11 Supply back and help me evolve the store looking to the future.

SM: Do you think you will ever entertain the idea of opening a storefront again, or do you think that you will continue to focus on the new business strategies that you are looking to implement in the near future?

PM: I think that if you would have asked me that toward the beginning of the lockdown, I would have said that yes, I will absolutely open a new store in two year’s time. The more that I sit with the idea of a company of one, and of staying nimble, the more that I appreciate how during this time of protesting and uprising, I was able to pretty seamlessly pivot my priorities. I am starting to think that, at least for me, maybe overhead is overrated, and there are other ways that I can pursue my goals. That being said, one of the things that I loved about the store was creating a completely immersive environment and having full control over that for people. I always upheld that the store was like a museum installation, where every detail is curated to specifically impact the experience of the people who interact with it, and I do miss that part of having the store, designing that immersive experience. I know that there will be ways to do that in the future in a popup exhibition setting, though it will be a little harder, but like everything else, who knows where the world will take us.

From Design Museum Magazine Issue 016