The first time I ever made a WordPress site, I got 180,000 views in 2 days, 253 comments, and (give or take) 7 death threats.
It was 2014 and I was working on an MBA at Florida State University during the peak of the Jameis Winston controversy, where a football quarterback was accused of rape and protected from prosecution by the university and local police. I had used WordPress before, but not a lot. But, in true democratizing publishing, giving a voice to the voiceless fashion, when I had something I wanted to say, I knew just the thing to get it out there with minimal know-how: a free, single page WordPress.com site.
I had just returned to Florida from a summer in New York City. To my amazement, I got the life-changing opportunity, paid for by the university’s College of Social Sciences paid, to go up there for a summer of exploration in the social entrepreneurship and technology circles after pitching Florida State on a concept for financial education.
Beginning the Journey
I had become interested in financial education around the age of 16, when my family became homeless for a month. My mom hadn’t been able to make the rent, so we got kicked out, and then couldn’t find an apartment easily due to my mom’s lack of credit. Later, I started working at a major commercial bank and met hundreds, if not thousands, of people in similar situations (and saw the ways in which major commercial banks don’t help these people, but that’s a different conversation).
Imagine having been homeless at 16. Then, 6 years later, you’re attending graduate school, funded by the university, and that same university also paid for you to live in the country’s most expensive place for 3 months so that you could learn about executing your ideas on how to make a positive difference through technology entrepreneurship.
You would probably be overcome with gratefulness. But you would also likely be extremely protective of the people making such a thing possible.
Now imagine, that while Florida State University’s programs making such an impact on you, a football player’s actions are driving the narrative of this place you want to be proud of.
Imagine me, telling the story I just told you, and watching people connect the dots between what institution was making all of this possible for me, and what they had heard of it. “Oh, my God, with the quarterback that raped that girl?” they would say.
I would link you to the page I created, but quite honestly, it wasn’t a lot more than a profanity-laden rant (of admittedly epic proportions). But, it got a reaction: she needs to shut the f**k up. She’s completely right. She’s an “attention-seeking whore!”. She’s the story we should be focusing on. She’s just upset her Kickstarter campaign failed.
There it was: WordPress had amplified my voice, and everyone else’s, too.
Finding WordPress Business
Today, I’m the lesser-known half of Caldera Labs, makers of Caldera Forms, a top drag-and-drop form building plugin for WordPress. A few weeks ago, we got a one-star review on WordPress.org that called me out by name: “their team is useless, especially Christie Chirinos.” I received caring notes from several seasoned WordPress product developers, reassuring me that these things happen and I ought to not take it personally. “It’s not the first time someone’s been mean to me on the internet, and it probably won’t be the last,” I wrote in a Slack DM to my incredible business partner, the part of Caldera Labs you probably know, Josh Pollock. Josh laughed.
My road from single-page rants on WordPress.com to WordPress product leadership was actually pretty straightforward, although certainly wrapped in incredible fortune. I kept up that blog for a few months at the request of some of those 253 people (and the dismay of some others). Eventually it was forgotten for my financial education project’s website, which went from Wix to self-hosted WordPress.
A professor asked me if I would work on his academic WordPress website for a fee. I was a broke graduate student, so I said yes. Suddenly I had clients. When I graduated, Josh approached me with a proposal to join him in business. I said yes, but my only condition is that I’m moving back to New York City. Josh said, remote work is the norm.
Despite the quote-unquote “formal business education,” I was flabbergasted when the full weight of what a WordPress product business entailed hit me. I didn’t understand the community. I didn’t understand the niche’s culture. Much of what I learned were business norms, were completely non-existent in WordPress. I communicated all of this to Josh.
“I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“Of course you don’t, you’ve never done this before.”
He introduced me to the extensive library of talks on WordPress TV on imposter syndrome.
Diving Into WordCamp
For me, it clicked at the inaugural WordCamp US. I showed up to the event looking like a deer caught in the headlights and was welcomed with open arms. I got to put faces to all of the names I had learned in the last half-year, and surprise: they were nice. They were welcoming. They were understanding.
I scoffed at the idea that I would have anything to contribute on Contributor Day, and then found out that the polyglots team could totally use an immigrant that speaks 4 languages. More importantly, I became completely inspired by the mission of WordPress. I realized that, by total accident (or perhaps completely on purpose), I had become a part of something bigger than myself. I had to stick with it, no matter how hard it was.
In the year after that, I also began to find a small niche for myself. I became “the girl with the MBA,” smart, young, and clearly lucky. “There’s not a lot of people in the space with your background,” said the host interviewing me on a WordPress podcast. Meanwhile, I’m thinking to myself, “oh my god. I don’t even understand why you invited me. I’m very grateful, but I also really don’t know that much about business. Didn’t you notice? Didn’t anyone tell you?”
Move forward a year, and results started rolling in. I spoke at 4 WordCamps and many other shows. Josh published his 2016 Year In Review, where he outlined the explosive growth that Caldera Forms experienced at the end of the year and acknowledged the benefit of having partnered with me. He doesn’t know this, but I cried when I read that (now he knows).
It was surreal: the unlikely thing that we set out to do was working.
This year, 2017, has consisted of taking on the next step in that process: teaching myself how to turn all of those thoughts on their heads. I have had to unlearn “why me?” and internalize “why not me?”, and most importantly, practice differentiating the story that I tell myself about myself versus the evidence-based reality.
A crucial part of this stage has been learning that what I do does not define who I am. That’s a tired joke where I live. The joke goes that you can go to any bar, and participate in the same script: what’s your name? What do you do? “I’m Christie, and I’m a partner and the business manager at a commercial WordPress plugin shop, Caldera Labs” is a story, and it immediately sparks self-doubt. That isn’t an answer that describes an evidence-based reality, it is an answer that describes a story, and stories by definition require effort to be believed.
Who I am, I am learning, is the collection of my experiences, which then drive my priorities in how I do what I do, which is business.
In that podcast interview, I wasn’t told “there aren’t many business managers in the space.” I was told that there weren’t a lot of people with my background in the space. It’s the collection of my stories – of immigration, difficult childhoods, arguments in business school classrooms and accidentally viral WordPress websites, that perfectly positioned me to do what I’m doing right now.
The main reason I wanted to write for HeroPress when Topher offered was to take these thoughts out of my story. The more I grow into this role, the more I’m learning that this is especially common with people like me.
Research is being conducted more and more every day seeking to discover why we don’t become entrepreneurs who fearlessly pursue happiness and high-risk, high-reward situations (the common trope being that privilege is being told to strive to be anything one wants to be, while others are told to strive for an escape from instability).
Most of it boils down to the idea that many minorities, women, immigrants, people from low-income households – take your pick – have convinced themselves of a story that does not, in fact, reflect the reality of their possibilities.
It’s a shame, because there’s almost as much research that demonstrates that businesses with diverse leadership teams outperform homogeneous teams almost every single time.
Let’s start talking about this, even if this isn’t something that directly relates to you. Because, if that is the case, chances are that this is a topic that relates to someone you know. Diversity of thought is an important part of our WordPress community narrative. If you are not the person who must assess replacing a story with an evidence-based reality, you may be someone who is positioned to engage in powerful actions to promote diversity of thought, like encouraging someone else to challenge the stories they tell themselves and the stories they tell others about themselves. “I’m Christie, and I lead all of the business development and marketing for a commercial WordPress plugin shop, Caldera Labs” sounds a lot better.