Ed Catto: Leading…by Getting Out of the Way
Back in business school I learned that there are many different styles of leadership. A good leader has several different styles at his or her fingertips and employs them based on the particular situations at hand. But this week I’d like to focus on two people who lead in a manner that’s generally not easily recognized. They lead, and in doing so contribute to their community and help build character by getting out of the way.
Brave New World Comics is a California based store run by two engaging and effervescent women named Portlyn Polston and Autumn Glading. Like most comic shop owners, they are energetic entrepreneurs who work hard to keep their customers happy, attract new shoppers and have a little fun along the way. One thing that sets them apart is their commitment to fanning the flames of geek-focusd interest in women and girls. But as you’ll see, it’s much more than that.
At their comic store, they don’t have a “Girl’s Section.” When I asked, they laughed at me and explained how absurd it would be to create some sort of cordoned off area, painted pink, with girly things for sale. In fact, they couldn’t even come up with specific product that would be ‘more appropriate for girls.’ Instead, their strategy is to create a clean, well-lit, open space were everyone feels comfortable. Then they just let consumers find what they want. Oh sure, they offer suggestions and guidance, but that’s based on the individual. In fact, they joke that their favorite thing to sell is the last thing they sold. “We don’t have an agenda,” says Portlyn. “Girls can read anything.”
In addition to running the store, they plan some very creative activities. Geek Girls Night is a quarterly get-together designed to encourage women of all ages to fly their Geek Flag. And there aren’t a lot of rules or guidelines about what constitutes a geek passion. It can be comics or Doctor Who or steampunk or Alice-in-Wonderland. The explained that one girl attended who only liked Michael Jackson. But she was deep into it. The group chewed on that for a bit, nodded, and then agreed, “That’s fine.”
These events often include a trivia contest and a panel. And at the panels, given the spirit of the events, the questions are entirely freewheeling. Several groups attend, including, but not limited to, cosplay groups, writing groups and girls doing-live-action video games. I’m still not sure what that means. Furthermore, Autumn and Portlyn devilishly boast they are “really good” at getting vendors and publishers to contribute “good stuff.”
Their Geek Girls Society is kind of like the Girl Scouts for only the coolest and nerdiest girls. It’s an after school program designed for girls 8 to 16, and is meant to be a place where can girls can enjoy their own geeky pursuits and be exposed to the geeky passions of others. Respect is the watchword here. The organization’s mantra stresses that whatever you like is great, and whatever anybody else likes is great too.
The ‘mean girl’ phenomenon isn’t limited to girls in middle school. It often starts earlier and lasts way too long into adulthood. And one could argue that it’s not only about girls, either. At the Geek Girls Society, their foundational thinking is one of respect and non-judgmentalism. Is that a real word? If not, it should be soon, as it’s imbedded into the DNA of this outstanding group. Autumn explained, “We teach them that you don’t have to hate. Every event is about respecting.”
Portlyn and Autumn talked about their personal passions, and how when they were younger, they were unaware that other young girls liked the geeky things they did. There was no internet when back then, so they struggled to like what they liked, and keep liking it. They wanted to combat the unfortunate natural way of things, as young girls grow up and then eschew the things they like for fear that their peers or society will label them or look down upon them. That’s where the Geek Girl Society comes in – a place where girls can enjoy their passions, and keep on enjoying them.
New York Times columnist Nickolas Kristof often talks about how the best way to end poverty, especially in regions of extreme economic distress, is to give a girl a book and teach a girl to read. In the local environs of Brave New World Comics, it’s not that dire, but they are applying many of the same principles to helping girls build positive self-esteem and contributing their community.
How far comic shops have come. Back in the 70’s, so many of those early comic shops seemed to be just one-step above the local head shop in the retail pecking order, resolutely shaking a metaphorical fist at their local communities screaming, “Leave us alone! This is our thing and we don’t want anything to do with the establishment!” Now we have stores like this one, where two women make a living selling stuff, and satisfy a sense of purpose by not only contributing to the local community, but leading. They’re helping others fly by giving them a little bit of runway. More proof of the incredible influence of Geek Culture and the local comic shop.
For more on Brave New World and the Geek Girls Society, please visit their site.