I recently had the pleasure of co-hosting a Hudson Valley Tech Meetup at SUNY Orange in Newburgh NY. For the first time in a public setting, I shared several pieces of my personal story leading up to the origin of Volum8 and some of my thoughts on technology and culture. Here’s the original script…
My name is Charlie Graham and I’m the founder of Volum8 Creative, a local design company here in Orange County. Originally I had planned to share the story of one of our clients, but as plans sometimes go, that didn’t pan out. I think Mike Tyson said it best when he said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Now although I did’t get punched in the mouth, I am eating my own words, because I’m not here to tell you my client’s story and I don’t have a presentation for you. Instead, I’d like to have a conversation and share with you a bit of my own story. I felt the topic was relevant seeing as how we would like to do this regularly and I would like to get to know each of you and what you do.
I’ve always had an interest in technology. I was intrigued by how simple things worked. Things we often take for granted. Things like lightbulbs. As a child, I remember wanting to see what was on the inside of one. Now in 1986, you wouldn’t have googled it, or seen it on a television program. So I wanted to know; what made it glow? And why did it just stop working one day? I grabbed the light bulb and tried to wrestle it open. When that didn’t work, I carefully hit it against the floor. Nothing happened. I examined the annoying white frosting on it, but I still couldn’t see inside. I just wanted to see inside. So I hit it a little harder, and a little harder. Well, I eventually got it open, but I don’t actually remember what was inside that lightbulb, because what the broken glass did to my hand was a bit more immediate.
When we’re children, everything around us is new and exciting. We’re constantly exploring and discovering. Daring and taking risks. There are no preconceived notions of the way something is or how it should be. As children, our curiosity drives us to learn and our imagination inspires us to create. I believe this is our natural state. Until it isn’t.
For me, that day came after I dropped out of college and was told I needed to get a job. That was the first time I entered the world of sales and marketing. I was pretty good at it too. I slowly climbed the corporate ladders eventually working for a dotcom startup. I was getting paid way more than any irresponsible 20 year old should have, but our company had made it through the crash of 2000 and everything seemed just fine. However less than a year later, all of that changed. I remember being called over to a window by one of my co-workers. His jaw was wide open and he pointed my attention out the window, and off toward the horizon. We watched in horror as the twin towers fell. That day, when every bridge was closed and there was almost no way back to the Valley, I made a decision. I chose a different story for myself. I never again wanted to forfeit my passion for convention. Life was just way too short for that.
So I left corporate America and dared to dream again. I went back to my first love; music. It was as a music producer that I learned the finer points of working with creative people. And it was probably around that time, when I started losing all of my hair too. Altogether, I spent a decade working in music. From engineer to producer, songwriter to publisher, I learned a lot about cultivating talent and inspiring creativity in others. Between my music and my curiosity, I had the pleasure of exploring parts of Asia, Europe, North and South America. When traveling, I couldn’t just visit a place. I had to immerse in the culture. I had to see what was inside. I met and lived with people from all walks of life during that time period. I discovered a passion for writing and a desire to be a better communicator. I also learned the value of storytelling, but more importantly, the value of the stories we tell ourselves. I understood for the first time that we have the power to write and rewrite our own story.
Now aside from being stranded in the Amazon, one of the most impactful experiences I had, was working with a group of poets. Together, we toured the US performing and hosting workshops for people in underserved communities, much like the city of Newburgh. It was one of the most enriching periods of my life. I learned about the economics that created extreme poverty and got to know first-hand, the people who had to live in those conditions. I also saw how something as simple as telling a child they could be anything they wanted to be, could have such a profound impact on their life.
In 2010, I found myself living in Newburgh, about 8 blocks from this very space. It wasn’t the safest neighborhood, but throughout my travels, I’d lived in worse. One day in late summer, I recall returning from a 3-day workshop in New Hampshire. When I arrived home that afternoon, something felt off. I had this tense feeling and my hairs stood on end, a rush of adrenaline filled my veins and I looked toward the front door of my house. There was no front door. It was broken in half, one side hanging from the hinges, the other side dangling, still attached to the deadbolt. I proceeded to walk inside and realize one of my greatest fears; all of my recording equipment and backup hard drives had been stolen.
Every piece of music I had ever written or recorded was on those drives. My entire life’s work was gone.
After collecting myself, I borrowed a truck from a friend, drove to Home Depot and bought the sturdiest door I could find. Once the door was replaced, I posted a message for everyone in the neighborhood to see. It read as follows:
To Whom It May Concern;
It would have been of greater benefit for you to have learned how to use the tools you have taken from me and to pass those skills on to our community with knowledge that I would have taught you freely, had you asked.
And should you return with my belongings, then I will honor this offer with no ill consequence and welcome you into my home as a friend.
But should you return as a thief then let these words serve only to warn you;
You will never escape the hell you live in by depriving another man of his living.
And so with that, I decided to pause my career in music. It was time to create a new living, to move to a different beat.
Thinking back, the strangest part of that experience is that I wasn’t angry. I had no hard feelings. I didn’t blame them for what they had done. Rather, I felt I knew them. I had lived with them or met them before in the favelas of Brazil, the barrios of Venezuela or the streets of Detroit or Atlanta. It wasn’t completely their fault. They simply lacked guidance. Their passions were misaligned; they had not been given the opportunity to develop.
That winter I left Newburgh with my laptop and a camera. I moved to the south and focused on design and photography. I started freelancing and traveling again. It wasn’t until three years later, that my greatest challenge would come to being; the challenge of fatherhood. And for the third time in my life, I was in for a BIG change. Unless I wanted to raise my child out of the back of a car while freelancing, continuing to travel wasn’t going to cut it. I had to build a solid foundation. So, I laid all my cards on the table and asked myself the following two questions;
“What am I willing to devote the next decade of my life to?”
“Where can I do the most amount of good within the least amount of time?”
My answers brought me to the intersection of technology and creativity and in March of 2013, my daughter Solstice and my company, Volum8 Creative were born.
People said it was going to be hard, but I truly had no idea what I was in for. Hundred hour workweeks, no sleep for days on end, constant pressure to learn… As always, my passion brought me headfirst into the unknown, but this time and for my daughter’s sake, failure was not an option. Even though according to forbes, fortune and bloomberg, 90% of all startups fail within the first 2 years.
Well, despite the odds, Volum8 turned three this year and I like to think we’ve built one hell of a team along the way. We’ve won several awards including startup of the year and have had the opportunity to build apps and sites that empower good people to do great things. Sometimes i feel like we’ve achieved the impossible… and we’re just getting started.
What I’d like to point out, is that if this is what 8 of us can do working together, then imagine what an entire community can do together. A community centered around technology.
Throughout my story, the value of creativity is apparent, but where does technology come into play?
Aside from the fact that it’s tattooed on my neck, there’s no escaping it. It is by far the most effective route to achieve the most good in the least amount of time. Technology is wonderful. But not all of its wonder is beneficial. As much as it has the potential to help us, it also has the potential to hurt us. Our children are growing up with decreased social skills; sitting down at a table to eat together, yet each is having their own conversation, staring at their phone. Technology is also a huge cause of poor sleeping habits, stress and a lack of empathy. An increase in pollution and energy consumption are also byproducts of modern technology. And the list goes on and on… As members of the tech community, it’s up to us to change that.
I’d like to close by asking 3 favors of you.
1 – Use technology responsibly
Technology as we refer to it today is so much more than silicon wafers and wifi. There is a new culture emerging from modern technology. One that practices agility, values design, promotes disruption and embraces innovation. A culture that could solve just about any problem we throw at it. It can help a paraplegic walk again, convert water into fuel and connect cultures across the globe.
This new culture is changing the way we communicate and function at an alarming rate. The paradox is that culture ITSELF is a technology. And we must use it as such. Thousands of years ago, culture developed AS a technology to pass along vital information. It created behaviors, traditions and stories that informed people within a locality or a tribe. Culture was always inherently local and mindful of the future. For this new culture to succeed, it has to remain self-aware, local and mindful of the future. There are an unlimited number of things we can do with today’s technology, but we are also responsible for what what we leave behind.
2 – Change the story
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with an acclaimed designer in the the city. She is responsible for some of the most prestigious hospitality brands in New York City. When she asked me where our company was located, I told her, to which she replied “The Hudson Valley… Isn’t that a deadzone?” A deadzone? I thought to myself… Now I won’t go into the wave of emotions I felt…
There is still a prevailing story about Newburgh and the Hudson Valley in general that needs to be rewritten. And it IS being rewritten. I ask you to take part in that story. If you subscribe to the idea that this area is a deadzone, then change the story you are telling yourself, because it’s not. It’s a bed of fertile soil and something new is growing here everyday. Here, right here in the city of Newburgh, there are a lot of people working hard to make a difference. People like Bill Kaplan who recently launched a code school at his Newburgh Armory. Or people like Bill Fioravanti, Decora Sandiford, Philippe Pierre, Paul Halayko, Mike Ciaravino and everyone else that I don’t have the time to mention. Ask around. Lend your expertise, pool your resources. Choose projects that will make an impact. Let’s make the Hudson Valley an epicenter for responsible technology and set an example for other communities to follow.
3 – Keep it local
Bloom where you’ve been planted. Help strengthen THIS community. Learn from each other, work with each other. There is a wealth of talent and power in this room. Start here to fill your needs. If you’re in a position of power, then lean on this community to solve your problems. We love a good challenge.
Technology has made the world a much smaller place and everyone in this room has an important role to play in the future of our community and beyond. And that future isn’t somewhere we’re going, it’s what we’re creating right now.
What do you want it to be?
Hudson Valley Tech Meetup is a monthly gathering of creatives, engineers, entrepreneurs, educators, students, and genuine lovers of technology who share their passion for all things tech in the Hudson Valley of NY State.
Check the group out here: http://www.meetup.com/hvtech/