How to Grow and Engage a Community: An Interview with Dr. Fane Mensah
Fane Mensah is a moderator, facilitator and scientist turned life science, community builder. He sat down with Panion to talk about his trajectory towards success and shared his expert knowledge on how to grow and engage a community.
Panion: Can you tell me a little bit about your academic background?
Dr. Fane Mensah: I started my academic career with a bachelor's degree in biomedical science at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences (2007-2011) in the Netherlands where I am originally from.
I was always interested in science and this was a great first step to explore the different fields in life sciences. After an enjoyable internship at the transplantation lab at the Erasmus MC Rotterdam. I really started to develop a passion for Immunology and especially for B cell immunology, my then supervisor encouraged me to do a Research Master in Infection & Immunology also at the Erasmus MC (2011-2013).
This was a great eye-opener for me as during the research master I was able to spend quite a lot of time in the lab, both in academia and in Industry (TiGenix, Madrid). Besides gaining more knowledge about the human immune system I also really enjoyed communicating this with my colleagues and fellow students.
The next normal step on the academic ladder was for me to conduct a Ph.D., and I really wanted to do this in London at a top University. Don’t ask me why, but that was my goal... period!
Looking for a Ph.D. was a big challenge, but I got a great opportunity at UCL to work in the Rheumatology Department as a research assistant, with the option to convert into a Ph.D.
I worked hard on the project and managed to secure funding for a Ph.D., write a Ph.D. proposal and set up strong collaborations with research groups-- nationally and internationally. I guess this was the start of my entrepreneurial career.
Throughout my Ph.D. (2014-2019) I have learned a lot about academia, specialized in B cell Immunology, published 4 papers, expanded my collaborations with researchers from the US, Australia, and Norway and got the opportunity to speak at different conferences and meetings.
I had a very enjoyable Ph.D., in which I discovered my strong points- building relationships, communicating my science and out of the box thinking to unveil scientific questions.
But my Ph.D. also made me realize in what areas I would like to further develop myself in and made me think of the next step in my career.
P: How did you shift into community building?
DM: Although I did enjoy my Ph.D., I always knew I wouldn’t end up as a lab scientist in academia or industry. But I also didn’t know what I would see myself doing, so therefore I already started exploring different career paths in the 2nd year of my Ph.D.
It started with scanning through Eventbrite for events in life sciences and biotech. Attending these events made me realize how easy it was for me. to make strong with a variety of people, from service providers to investors and from start-up founders to a variety of other industry professionals.
Not only did I get to know a lot about the industry, specifically biotech and pharma, whilst speaking to people, I also got exposed to all the different career opportunities and career paths of people who have been in a similar situation, like I was, when they started their career. Something I would have never got to know by just visiting the university career center.
My presence and activities got noticed by a small start-up called Clustermarket, which is like an Airbnb for academics and small startups to get access to scientific equipment. They approached me and asked if I would be interested in starting this new community in life sciences for early-stage founders and their companies, and academics that were “Entrepecurious.” I made this one up myself!
This was the beginning of my first scientific community: The Science Entrepreneur Club. Set up by graduate and postgraduates, this was a community completely run by students, with the support of Clustermarket and the strong connections we’d already started building in the London life science ecosystem.
We were hosting events, sharing blog posts featuring life science professionals and start-up founders, and really started to build a strong presence in the golden triangle. And we still are. Running this and other activities next to my Ph.D. was hard work but I knew this would be vital for my next career step and at some point rewarding.
P: How did you end up creating the Computer-Aided Biology Community?
DM: The Science Entrepreneur Club was doing great, we had a great team and everyone was very motivated and determined to make this work.
It was at this point I realized we have built a great community for young scientists and founders, providing them with the right exposure and content to get more familiar with the life sciences ecosystem.
We were hosting various events including pitch events and panel discussions. It was during one of the panel discussions I hosted, where I met someone from a company called Synthace.
Based on the discussions we had in that panel, I realized that they were doing some really cool stuff, of which I thought was futuristic and somehow unreal. But because of that I was always interested in learning more and kept a close eye on them, after all, I was finishing my PhD so I had to seriously start to explore jobs.
I was so keen to join the company, I remember applying for a position that didn’t match my profile but I still wanted to try, unfortunately, but as expected, I didn’t get the role.
Then another role came available for a scientific community manager, they were looking for someone with a scientific background to build the Computer-Aided Biology Community.
Unlike the other role, I felt the job description literally described me and I was not the only one who thought so as two other connections of mine pointed me towards that role. I knew this was the one for me!
It had everything I wanted, and reflecting back to the observations I made during my Ph.D. on the things I enjoyed- and matched my skills- and the things I wanted to learn more about and explore, this was the perfect match for me.
Based on Synthace’s product Antha, which is an online software platform, the idea was to build on the vision of computer-aided biology: "Biological research, R&D, and manufacturing using 21st-century tools."
The idea was for the community to be an interactive one that would encourage discussion, collaboration, and best practices that drive biological research and development forward.
With my scientific background and experience in the lab, I would be able to explore computer-aided biology (feeding my curiosity) and build connections with people working in that space.
Along with my skills-- science communication, relationship building out of the box thinking-- as well as the experience I had set up the Science Entrepreneur Club, I felt I had all the attributes I needed to build this new community.
P: Tell me more about your community’s growth. It seems like it's happened quickly, but it must have been a lot of work!
DM: Building a community from scratch is hard, you can’t just go out and think you can build something you are passionate about, not knowing if others think the same.
So the first thing I did was defining a “what, why and who” for the community. I wanted to make sure that the purpose of the community was clear for people that have never heard of the Computer-Aided Biology Community, knowing that this will be new for a lot of people.
Next, I wanted to create a buzz and spark a flame to bring people together, which we did very successfully with our launch event back in October 2019, hosting 100+ people from the industry.
Next up was stoking the fire to make people stick together, and this is where “the hand-raisers” from our launch event became important. Those were the people that said “This is interesting, I want to get involved” or “Hey I want to know more about this”.
We brought these people together, allowing them to connect and openly discuss computer-aided biology. This was the start of the formed group of hand-raisers: the Community Core Contributors. These were industry professionals with different backgrounds active across the industry, with whom we are building and growing a sustained and thriving community.
When we had built a core group of the community, we had to work on the next important step- generating content and hosting events that would get people excited to know more about the community.
We had to make sure that we can provide people with something that gets and keeps people talking. So behind doors, we worked hard on our different social media channels and generated content not just to share the concept but also to connect and showcase the people who are working in the field.
This all resulted in the gradual growth of the community. Within six months, we’ve surpassed 500+ members and I can now proudly say we are stable and are reaching more and more people every month. We do this through our news updates and articles, our events (now moved online), our monthly podcasts where we speak to the who is who of the community, and more.
We are now exploring new ways to keep on growing and attracting new people because one thing which is important in building a community is keeping track of your performance and always continuing to innovate to keep people connected and engaged!
P: What are the biggest mistakes people make when trying to grow a community?
DM: I’d probably say thinking they can build a community like they would do marketing for a company: sell, sell sell.
A lot of communities are judged based on growth and the number of people in the community, which is great when you have a big product or brand behind you, but if you have to start from scratch it’s all about making sure you’re firstly building something for the people and not for yourself (or the company you work for).
Building a community is about sharing a vision with people, and making sure they understand the purpose and benefit of a community. Once you’d be able to bring that across they can then pass this over to others and they pass it on to others again, and that’s how you can grow a sustainable community! Our core contributors initiative is a great example of that.
I think another big mistake people make is failing to keep up with the community, which comes back to the final point I made about growing a community.
I keep a close eye on metrics and engagement rates of the community online and offline, and I think the current COVID-19 disruption can be taken as a great example.
A lot of our activities and social media engagements were tailored around our physical events where we bring people together, but after lockdown, this wasn’t possible anymore and we noticed a dip in our engagement rates.
We quickly reacted to that (agility), by creating a list of CAB Companies fighting COVID-19 and we made sure that we could bring that people feeling back into our new virtual rooms and adapt our content to that. Boom! Our numbers were back on track and managed to engage with people online.
So, don’t think what you’ve been doing always works, keep a close eye on what the community wants and don’t fail to keep up with them.
P: Tell me about your core contributors? How do you foster their engagement?
DM: These are all professionals which means they are busy in their specific roles, so it’s important to make their involvement not a burden for them.
- Make your expectations clear, but also try and provide them with as many tools and resources as possible so it’s easy for them to move along with you and the community.
We’ve, for example, created a 1-pager outlining how they’d be able to contribute to the community so it’s clear for us and them of what the expectations (and responsibilities) are. We also have a Slack channel in which we can communicate with each other.
- Be aware that they are giving you their time, and in many cases for free, it is therefore so important to raise their profile and that of the company they work for when you can.
- Make them the faces of your community. Just like other community members, they also benefit from meeting people, for example, we’ve seen core contributors linking up with each other for purposes separate from the community. This will encourage them to even get more involved with the activities you run across your community.
P: The community has recently become a trending topic. Why do you think that is?
DM: I think a lot of companies have realized the importance and value of a community. Think about it, within a company you have people working on a certain product and or service and they become very passionate about it which eventually also means that they only see that particular product or service and somehow become a little biased.
This is great, but what is even more important is to have a vision in which clients, partners, and or customers all understand and share that vision of a product or service. Therefore it’s important to have open discussions, enable collaboration, etc.
A good community allows all of this to happen. In the future, and we already see this now, collaborations will become even more important, so we have to realize it’s not just a product or service that your working towards, it’s a shared vision and this has to be a vision in which a specific (but diverse) group will be able to openly discuss, test and criticize things which can feedback to a company or group of companies.
P: What are your 3 top tips for people trying to build a community?
- Define your “What” “Why” and “Who”, it might be very clear for you what you want the community to look like, but don’t underestimate how other people experience it, so make sure you communicate those 3 clearly.
- Find your “Hand raisers” and convert them into core contributors. If they are interested and passionate, they will get other people excited as well. You won’t be able to do it alone so find them, make them important, and provide them with the necessary tools and exposure. This also includes the team you’re working with, like any other initiative teamwork is so important.
- Communication is key to your community, with all the technologies available try to spread your content over different channels in different formats. Think about how you would like to digest information.
For example, recording a 60 min podcast for your community is great but not everyone would have time to listen to it. A great option is to share short snippets which are strong and powerful messages on social media.
P: How do you see the future of community building in the context of changing technology and the “new normal”?
DM: The recent COVID-19 pandemic has been a great test for a lot of companies and communities. Technology nowadays allows us to be flexible, and agile and that is exactly how communities should be.
As mentioned earlier we need to be able to move along with any disruption or crisis that will cross our paths. Community building is not something which is new or will change over time, it’s been there for years and it will always be there.
What will change is the era we live in and the new technologies we embrace (or not). As community managers we need to be able to spot all the changes and the only way to do so is to keep a close eye on what happens in the community through the people, the content you develop, the events you design, and the metrics you keep on all of them.
Another important aspect next to technology is diversity and inclusion, recent data has shown that millennials and generation Z even to a bigger extent value diversity a lot! So, I think this will massively affect community building as well.
Every action you take as a community needs to reflect the population or group you’d like to reach so being aware of having diversity present in your content and your events are very important.
P: What kinds of technology help communities grow? What features seem to drive engagement and interpersonal connections?
DM: I would always say face-to-face interaction is key, and for me, it has always been important in finding out more about people and understanding what they’re doing.
Building communities is quite similar, you want people to get excited about your vision so you need to understand what they would like to gain or what drives them and the best way to do that is face-to-face.
Obviously, when that’s not possible like we’ve realized in the last couple of months, it’s important to embrace technology. I am quite lucky that my partner has a background in psychology and it was her who taught me about active and passive listening, and I think this is a very important feature in driving engagement and interpersonal connections.
Showing someone that you are listening to them has been neglected a lot in society and in many cases that’s due to technology. How easy is it to grab hold of your phone or start wandering your eyes around the room looking for people while you’re having a chat with someone. These are all instant killers of networking and building connections.
Highlighting these features across a community will enable it to grow “you are what you want your community to be''. You can do this offline at events, but you can also do this online by incorporating attention into your content.
There are also some great platforms out there, that allow meaningful connections to happen. One platform that really got me excited was hopin. It was not only easy to use, it really makes networking easy. It also has great features allowing people to openly discuss things in a virtual room.
I am aware there are a lot of these kinds of platforms and surely more will follow, but it’s important for you to figure out what works best for you and your community.
P: What are your passions and interests apart from community building? Are you currently working on any other projects?
DM: As a community builder, you are also entrepreneurially driven so I think there’s always a passion and interest in things that you come across in your community. I think it’s important not to just overcome an issue, but making sure you can share that experience with others so that they don’t have to go through the same pain or struggle, we sometimes forget that.
Because of my past where I had a similar struggle, with very little exposure to different career paths for people with a scientific degree whilst studying, I am now working on a really great project about careers in the cell and gene therapy space with 2 other companies.
Another thing I am also very passionate about is promoting diversity in companies and communities, I don’t have to go into more detail after the recent developments around Black Lives Matter.
Being a proud black man in a sector that is not that diverse, I feel like I should act as an example and showcase the great work diversity within communities can lead to.
The previous generations perhaps didn’t focus on this that much but we will now, so let’s build on this promising future.
I am also a big sports fan. I’ve always been an active football player throughout the years, no matter what I did whether it was during my undergraduate studies or during my Ph.D. it doesn’t matter how busy I was I always managed to make time for sports.
There’s so much you can gain from sports, whether it is for fitness purposes, to just clear your mind or have that team bonding feeling whilst you go through a competitive season, it all helps.
Dr. Fane Mensah is the Founder and Head of the Computer-Aided Biology Community, a focussed network at the intersection of biology and technology. He is very passionate about building relationships within the life sciences to drive biological science and innovation forward. This is the second community he has set up to enable people from a variety of backgrounds to connect, and he loves it. He is charismatic, a good listener, and a great connector. He always thinks out of the box to keep innovating.