Trishala Pillai: Co-Founder of The Dialogue X-Change

The Dialogue Xchange // Media Organization Services // Waterloo, Ontario

Questions:

Tell us about your business:

My business is called The Dialogue Xchange. In its simplest form, we’re a community-powered media organization focused on normalizing difficult conversations. In today’s ever-changing social and political landscape, opinions, yet alone opposing opinions can easily be shut down. Living in an echo-chamber that solely validates and amplifies your beliefs can be dangerous and contribute to more division and ignorance.

We bring these crucial, high-stake dialogues on timely social topics to the forefront of the communities and corporations we work with, providing them with a framework that allows them to better understand their problems, track their engagement and develop multi-faceted solutions, all while using conversation as a hard tool.

At the core of our company is a mission that is deeply rooted in building stronger and more resilient communities that make everyone a part of the solution and an equal stakeholder.

It has been a rollercoaster ride - I’m not a fan of rollercoasters but I’m so glad I got on this one. It is an exciting time to innovate in the service industry. There is so much product innovation in the world today and a system built to support it but the service industry has a lot of opportunity and room for growth. To quote a recent McKinsey article I read, “a focus on service innovation that matches the intensity and attention that product companies bring to R&D is required”. So, this is exactly what we’re doing.

We’ve been operating for a year now and still in our experimental phase where we’re constantly testing new things, reiterating and co-creating with the communities we work with.

I’m happy to chat more about what we’re doing with anyone who is interested and/or wants to be a part of one hell of a social experiment where we’re trying to test the world’s limit (haha!).

What were you doing before your business?

Before my business, I was a student, pursuing my undergraduate degree in Economics but also pursuing a ton of opportunities in the student leadership space. My days would be spent in class, memorizing equations. Most of my evenings were spent learning more about the entrepreneurial ecosystem here (attending workshops, bootcamps, mixers) or working on my own passion projects. I’d definitely say that one of my student experiences that contributed to starting The Dialogue Xchange and plays a pivotal role in my career is that of curating a TEDx conference.

Is this something you always wanted to do?

Yes! For as long as I remember, the problem has always been something I’ve been passionate about.

Let me tell you a really funny, mildly embarrassing and probably not entirely relevant story. As a kid, I thoroughly enjoyed playing with my barbies and imagination (haha) but I found myself often playing this one game where I’d act like a journalist and cover silly events (that stood out to my 7-year self obviously) like a reporter.

Back then, I thought it was the power trip it gave me or perhaps using my hairbrush as a microphone (who knows) that made me love this game but it was only as I grew up that I realized it was raising my voice and having it heard that made me fall in love with the game. It made me feel important.  

As you grow up and interact with more of the world, that same voice and opinion can so implicitly and explicitly be shut down - sometimes by strangers, other times by people near and dear to us. You see fear, you see complexity. All of this brings me back to my first statement. I truly fell in love with the problem from a very young age and the more I saw of the world,  the more it stood out to me as a problem. I didn’t know the solution my team and I would come up with would look like The Dialogue Xchange but the problem is something I’ve always wanted to try to tackle.

What were the steps that you took to open your business?

There are no steps I’d say, it is really an ongoing process. Opening a business or starting it rather is just the first step but by no means the end goal. The process before starting it looked like organized chaos - a lot of running around, a lot of interviewing stakeholders, joining bootcamps and incubators, reading. This is still the process we’re in, one year later, so it’s ongoing and should be. There are no concrete steps. It is often some of the “steps” you’d least expect that get you one step closer to starting your company. For me that was TEDx but for someone else it can be something completely different. Invest deeply into your experiences, you never know what it turns into for you.

What are 1-2 resources that you used in the (GTA or Waterloo) to help you?

For those with a passion for social change and impact, I’d 120% recommend St. Paul’s Greenhouse. I always tell people that Greenhouse for me is like finding another home, 11,000 km away from home. I attribute a lot of my journey today to the unconditional support and opportunity I received at Greenhouse during the early days.

The second resource would really be the events, conferences and mixers in this city for you to attend. There is so much out there. On average, I see 4-5 community events happening that grab my eye. Start attending them, meet people and most importantly, talk about your ideas. You never know who ends up listening and what kind of feedback you can get.  

What surprises or challenges did you face along the way?

Three simple surprises I’ve faced so far that taught me a lot about the world(but I’m better for it!):

  1. Wanting to make the world a better place will still come with the same amount of criticism, negativity, despite the intent being there. In other words, you are going to have those days where you feel like the world is almost stopping you from making it 1% better everyday but you must persist nonetheless. Humans are complicated so are the ones behind the venture (a.k.a my team and I!) so coming to terms with that was an interesting process.
  2. Figuring out a communication model that works for everyone - I think this is not entirely attainable because communication styles change for every community and every person. Figuring out how to facilitate conversation across communities is a challenge we’re currently facing. How do we chat about a particular topic as a group when everyone speaks a different language? This is a fun challenge to tackle and one that we’re doing a lot of research on.
  3. Learning to sustain and handle growth and traction. In our first year of operations, we saw a lot of validation, a lot of interest but our company was not built in a way that allowed us to hold onto all of it and move at that pace. Growth and interest is great but learning to manage it is hard and choosing to slow down a bit because you want a firm foundation and want to move at a pace that works for you is imperative.

What are 3 traits you feel contribute to where you are today?

Great question!

  • Ambition - I expect a lot from myself, in a way that makes me productive for the most part. There is so much I want to do and see, so many places I want to go, so many people,organizations and communities I want to work with. I constantly have this fueling fire in me to get things done.
    1. Persistence - I don’t give up easily on things that mean a lot to me. I might take a break, I might rant, I might shed a tear or two (or ten!) but the next day, I pick myself back up and I keep going.
    2. Confidence - I believe in myself a lot and I learnt this the hard way but confidence alone can get you so far. Sometimes you’re confident because you know your shit inside out, other times you fake it till you make it but you’re still confident. To any woman reading this, I recommend you read the confidence code, great book on this!

    How did you keep yourself motivated during hard times?

    I usually detach myself for a short period of time and then revisit whatever it is that is giving me a hard time. I instantly feel much better. I also remind myself of why I started and how I feel when things are going really good.  

    Did you have a mentor? How did they shape you as a leader?

    I have many mentors that I learn a variety of things from - they coach me on different things. However, since this is an interview that is going to be read by women in the KW region, I’d love to talk about one of my favourite mentors, Tania Del Matto, Executive Director of St. Paul’s Greenhouse. Mentors like Tania are hard to come by and as I always say, the world needs more Tanias.

    I met Tania back in my 2nd year of undergrad. She was the first person who introduced me to the concept of social entrepreneurship. I remember calling my mother after hearing Tania talk at a conference and saying “I found something that is exactly up my alley of interests! It combines business and philanthropy!”. Since then, Tania has coached me relentlessly from not only mentoring and sponsoring me to putting her reputation at stake to give me opportunities for growth. She’s the first person I reach out to when something great happens or when something awful happens. I always admire how invested she is in her students’ success but also their happiness and she is a huge role model for me.

    What advice would you give to someone who is starting a business?

    There is so much start up advice floating around but I’m going keep my advice quite simple really. Start a business for the right reason - not because it is the cool thing to do today. There are a 1000 incentives and reasons to be an entrepreneur today but be honest to yourself and choose the one(or more) reason that really matter. When you sign up to be an entrepreneur, you sign up for the whole package - the good, bad and the ugly.

    What’s one non-glamorous trait that contributes to your success?

    Hmm! I’d say it is the fact that I’m quite stubborn when I need to be. It doesn’t always work to my advantage, I must say. However, as an entrepreneur, I’d argue that to a certain extent it is necessary. People are always going to tell you what you can and cannot do, always going to offer you advice and being stubborn, I take everything at surface level but ultimately go with what I (and my team) think truly feels right. This way I don’t have anyone else to blame for whatever goes wrong with my company. My stubbornness also makes me want to stick with the problems I’m working on because it makes me feel accountable. There is a flip side though, as with anything in life, where because of my stubbornness, I learn things the hard way! (haha).

    // Connect with Trishala! 

    Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/trishala.pillai, @tdXchange

    Twitter: @_TrishalaPillai // @tdXchange

    Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/trishalapillai/

    If you are a female entrepreneur and would like to be featured in #SheMeansBusiness please contact me.