Community Builders: An Interview with Ashna Kalra
Ashna Kalra is a talented community builder dedicated to creating safe spaces where people feel valued. This spring she launched MeetingGround, with a mission of providing safe spaces for people to show up authentically and provide each other with support. In a world where people are constantly searching for a connection, MeetingGround's goal is to facilitate relationship building and help eradicate loneliness.
Panion: Hi Ashna. Thanks so much for joining me today. Panion is excited to participate in MeetingGround's Finding Your People event. I'm sure it was a long journey to get to creating such a gathering. Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
Ashna: I actually ended up in the community space quite by accident. I had studied international business and finance in college, of course ending up in a financial services role as soon as I graduated.
I realized relatively quickly that it wasn’t right for me. From there, I switched to working in operations at a startup and loved it. There was something about the chaos that allowed me to fully unleash my creativity and bring my whole self to work.
Separate from “professional life,” in my personal life, I knew that I loved bringing people together. No matter what I chose to do in a full-time job, what I did in my free time always stayed steady.
Last year, I had the opportunity to join the Startup Island community as a member of the family and their NYC Community Manager, for the first time understanding that more than just bringing people together, my passion was to build communities.
I realized that all the work I had been doing with various organizations was just that. From there, in April I launched my own initiative around community building, MeetingGround, that I hope to scale.
P: Why is building community your passion?
A: For me personally, I believe that we as a collective have the power to achieve so much more than we as individuals. Alone, many people harbor the same fears and anxieties, yet we don’t try to share them to relate with others.
I started my own accountability group earlier this year understanding that while many of our struggles may be personal, they’re all in some way universal. We all have similar struggles yet we find it hard to feel connected with others.
I want to continuously provide platforms for people to come together and support each other.
P: Support is such a wonderful benefit of belonging to a community. What are the other top benefits?
A: Understanding that you’re all together because you share common goals or beliefs. It’s empowering to feel as though you’re part of a group of people who understand you on some deeper level and that you can share your personal thoughts or fears and have others relate.
P: What are some of the challenges people face when building a community?
A: A personal challenge I face has to do with getting lost in the small details. I work really hard to get things “perfect,” and oftentimes, it’s easy for me to get lost on the big picture of what I’m trying to achieve.
Community building is not always about getting those little details perfect - but about leading with intention and believing in what you set out to achieve.
P: What are the biggest mistakes people make when trying to grow a community?
A: I would say not taking a step back to think about how to engage the most people as a whole. We as humans are so versatile. The key for me is to ensure that your community offers a safe space for a variety of people to thrive and feel part of something bigger.
P: What are your 3 top tips for people trying to build a community?
A: Lead with intention, not perfection: when you’re truly doing what you’re passionate about or strongly believe in, you can make it happen.
Ensure you’re building something that you relate to and believe in: that way, you’ll be inclined to give it yours all!
Don’t forget to make time for yourself. Community building can be very rewarding but also draining work if you don’t take care of yourself as well!
P: That's fantastic advice. How do you see the future of community building in the context of changing technology and the “new normal”?
A: I believe a lot of community building is going to have to move to a more virtual avenue and programming is also going to have to shift to cover it. Earlier this month, as part of MeetingGround, I conducted a sort of market analysis for myself to figure out what drives people to the events that they attend.
What is it that sparks that initial interest, and what keeps them coming back? I learned that many people go to events because of the content, expecting to meet like-minded people there for them to connect with.
A lot of the content-heavy programming they attend does not leave room for building relationships for each other, rather it’s something that happens more naturally - for instance, physically sitting next to someone at an event and starting a conversation/connection.
I found a lot of virtual events focus on the content and don’t leave room for that natural networking that is much easier in person than online. I think organizers are going to have to start thinking of ways via online platforms to create an environment (and opportunities) where people can walk away having not just learned the content, but also has formed a connection - if they want people to keep coming back.
P: What are some of the Panion features that you think will be most powerful and why?
A: I love the idea of having a “database” of people in your community, especially one which specifies peoples’ interests. The "say hi" feature is interesting because the system automatically tells you what you and that person have in common.
Later this year I’m planning a virtual weekend conference around the idea of connection and building relationships. I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of engagement and how I want to kick off building relationships before the event even starts.
I believe Panion is the perfect platform to start that by introducing everyone to each other in a fun and casual way.
P: Apart from community-building, what are some of your passions and interests?
A: Honestly, community building is my passion! It’s always been something I pursued on the side outside of my “professional” life. Otherwise, I’ve recently rediscovered a love for biking, reading, painting, and alternate reality television shows, all courtesy of COVID!
Ashna Kalra has always been passionate about community building and community engagement, interests she has explored through working with various organizations over the years, including Startup Island, The Northeastern Alumni Foundation, The New York Women's Foundation, and her company's ERGs. After getting laid off due to COVID-19, she noticed her network's increased desire for connection as a result of the newfound literal social distances that had been created due to the pandemic. To bridge that gap, she founded MeetingGround with the intention of bringing people together. In addition to growing MeetingGround, she is currently accepting clients who are looking for support or advice in building their own communities.