Rob Smith, Founder of The Phluid Project, joins the program to discuss how and why he founded the world’s first gender-free store and community space. Rob shares insights about the future of gender and the generational differences when it comes to gender identity. He also reveals what organizations can do to create an inclusive work environment.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Rob’s diversity story and how he came to found the Phluid Project (7:30)
- Why the Phluid Project is more than a store (17:00)
- How Rob used the retail space and online presence to build community (19:30)
- A mindset shift when it comes to gender identity (23:30)
- Rob’s insights into gender pronouns (25:30)
- The need for leaders to listen and seek feedback (30:00)
- How companies can create safe spaces for all (36:00)
- How to intentionally create a culture of inclusion (40:00)
- The need to unlearn and relearn (41:30)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Rob, welcome to The Will To Change.
ROB SMITH: Thank you, Jennifer. Good to be on.
JENNIFER BROWN: I walk by your store all the time because it’s in my neighborhood by NYU in Manhattan. It’s called Phluid with a P-H-L-U-I-D, and I cannot wait to bring your story of founding this unique store to our audience, telling us the whys and wherefores and how you ended up starting it and how it’s so much more than a store, so we’ll get to that, but I always like to start with our personal diversity stories. Everyone answers this in a different way, but we believe on The Will To Change and in my work generally that everyone has a diversity story and often multiple stories and often many of them are invisible. And sometimes we’re surprised by them and sometimes they’re vulnerable, sometimes they’re humorous. But what would you share with our audience to acquaint us with you before we start to talk about business?
ROB SMITH: Sure. And I love the idea of each person having a story because you could even be a white, Caucasian male. 50-year old guy and have a story about diversity because we’re all diverse in our own way, so I love that you’re teeing it up with that. I am going to go back to, gosh, 1992 when I was an executive at a company called Burdines in Florida, which is now Macy’s. And I was a young executive and I don’t know, I guess I was a super corporate-y suit wearing guy with a briefcase and bow ties, and I was pretty dorky and a conservative. Then I came out to my family and colleagues and this was in Miami in the 90s.
And everyone that always laughs, they said I didn’t just come out of the closet, but I came out screaming and raging and letting everyone know that I was an openly gay man. I made up for lost time.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love it.
ROB SMITH: I refused to wear a blazer. I’d wear a vest. I refused to wear a ties. I pierced my ears. I wore make up. Again, it was the 90s in Miami, and it was a time when that was normalized with Duran Duran and Culture Club and those types of-
JENNIFER BROWN: We’re the same age. We are really.
ROB SMITH: Yeah, yeah. And I think what was so interesting was I expected a backlash from and I almost provoked people in some ways like, “Hey, this is who I am. Can you deal with it?” And I was really blown away by the majority of people just accepting me. One, it was I was good at my job, and two is that I expected more of maybe a rebellious backlash. And everyone was like, “Okay, cool. That’s Rob.” And they would ask me to take out my earrings during a corporate presentation and I would put up a fight. And then I would do it because I realize they were just wanting me to be successful and be well-received by everyone.
I haven’t had a lot of issues. It wasn’t until a time when I was ready to be groomed to be in the c-suite at Macy’s. And they wanted me to dress a little more conservatively and present myself more conservatively and I think it was around that time it was time for me to probably move on into the next part of my career, but I spent almost 22 years at Macy’s. And they were great about letting me be me, a kind of irreverent… Yeah, but really smart… Pushing and challenging all of the things that were traditional and pushing the company forward.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, that’s fascinating.
ROB SMITH: I don’t have any bad stories. I don’t have bad stories. I just have good stories.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, good stories. I mean, do you, and looking back and knowing what we know about intersectionality and identities and privilege, do you think the blows were softened for you because of the way you appear as you walk through the world? How do you think about that?
ROB SMITH: Well, I think that’s interesting. And if I get really pretty deep right now, when I was a young kid, I was not your typical boy in a hetero-normative family. I was feminine, I played with dolls, I didn’t like sports. My dad was a professional football player when I was born. My brothers played sports. My dad coached. And I was into music and theater and arts. And then I realized life wasn’t working out for me, so I manifested this guy who went to high school and played sports and was in school politics and hung out with the popular kids. And I manifested this person that became very successful in business.
And so I would say because of that, because I was able to pass in a world full of straight people, I was given opportunities that I might not have gotten if I was maybe more effeminate. And maybe pushed off to the visual side of things or creative side as opposed to corporate leadership. Yeah, I would say that was a strategic move on a 13-year olds part that has played out, and me creating Phluid is basically an amends to this kid that I left behind and partially creating something, not just for our community, but creating something for my younger self.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness. I just got so many chills. That’s really beautiful.
ROB SMITH: Wow, we just got right into it, huh? Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s it. That’s all we need. Good-bye.
ROB SMITH: There you go. That’s it.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s really, really beautiful. I do think that a lot of us that do this work are doing it to heal ourselves.
ROB SMITH: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: And our younger selves. And what a neat time to be alive to found a store like Phluid for you to reach back to that younger self and create a safe space for him. And it’s just beautiful. I’m the same, for sure, performed a role and could pass in life and still can. And so I really always talk about the fact that I don’t want to take advantage of the passing privilege. Because that doesn’t feel authentic or courageous to me, so every time I stand on stage regardless of how I feel I really challenge myself to share my story and who I am. And make sure that that’s clear because that wasn’t what I felt I was able to do for a very long time.
Yeah, and it’s huge and it makes the future you, that little you is watching and every time you… And now you’ve created this visible brand, but you’re really honestly changing the world with it. Thank you for that. That was beautiful.
ROB SMITH: Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Tell us about Phluid. I love this story about how this came to you as an idea. You were in Peru, and I’ll just leave it there. What happened? And how did this idea occur to you?
ROB SMITH: Well, I’ll back up for a second. Yeah, so there was a moment where I don’t know. I was living two separate lives. I was being a corporate guy making companies a lot of money and growing companies. And then at night, I was working with non-profits. Particularly, Hedrick Barton. The Hedrick Barton Institute, which is the first ever LGBT after school program based in New York City. And serving, gosh, kids who aren’t represented in and not given opportunities that other kids are given primarily because they’re young, queer, often minorities, and often coming from families that aren’t very supportive, so offering programs and services for these young kids.
And then I don’t know. I had a moment where I thought, “I’ve got to do something more. I’ve got, let’s say, 15 years left of working in my life of my profession and I’m getting close to the peak and what do I do with it?” And I wanted to work for a company that had values aligned with mine and looking at companies like Warby Parker and Patagonia and TOMS and thinking, “Gosh, I would love to be a CEO of one of those companies.” And I know the chance was zero percent of that happening. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I just knew I wanted to do something different, so I quit my job and I threw on a backpack and I left on February 1st. And I wanted to learn about ancient.. it was very thoughtful… ancient religions, civilizations, cultures, traditions. And I went to Central America first. Then to South America.
And that’s where I ended up in Peru, and doing some shamanic work, and ended up in a ceremony. Writing in the morning, in the journal I wrote, consider opening a gender-free, non-binary shopping environment. And I wrote fluid in quotation marks on April 14th, 2017. And I thought, “Okay, that’s what I’m going to do.” And I still had to finish my journey in India, Nepal, and Tibet and studying Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. And then I finished my retreat and journey, I guess a pilgrimage you could call it, in the northern part of Wisconsin with my mom learning about the Ojibwe Indians where her grandma was born.
And I learned about two spirits, which is the third gender in indigenous civilization and cultures in societies and they were equal amount male and female. You might call them transgender now. Certainly, out of the binary world and I came back and created an LLC and called it two spirit and launched the Phluid Project. It was a pretty magnificent five months. And then I opened up… Let’s see, we opened up March 1st, so I opened up 10 months after my idea was born. And about six months after I signed the lease. It all came very fast.
JENNIFER BROWN: Rob, that happened so fast, and yet it probably felt like the truest thing you’d ever done in your life. And that was 2017… No, 2018 you launched, right?
ROB SMITH: 2017, I took my journey and then I opened in 2018 and that was a year and… Gosh, about… Let’s see, March, April, May, June, July. About a year and five months ago. Not quite a year and a half yet.
JENNIFER BROWN: Okay, and I’m sure business is amazing. I know that other brands have tried more gender fluid lines. Tell us about how your endeavor is different. And it’s more than a store for sure.
ROB SMITH: Yeah, I think in a couple ways. First of all, when I looked at what other brands had tried, brands like Zara and Abercrombie, had tried gender neutral or genderless clothing and that was usually colorless, shapeless clothing. I also looked at designers that were in the space and creating product that was $500 to $2,000, and I wanted to create a space that was and product categories that were for young people. So being sensitive to the price point. And realized that I had to create most of the product myself. And then piece together other products.
Creating t-shirts… you go into the process, you go into a trade show and you realize it’s very binary. That there’s male and female departments. That’s there’s really little product for the space in between, so it’s hobbling and pulling stuff together to create an assortment. What was interesting, researching, I found out that we would be the worlds first gender-free store. That no one had done this before, fully committed to breaking the binary around gender expression and gender identity. And so we’re the first.
And then opened up a store, and you mentioned the Phluid Project being the store so the store fluidity is based between the binary. It’s a form that flows easily between the two. And the P-H on the front represents balance and the idea that P-H is balanced. And project I put at the end because it’s a work in progress, and I am a Virgo perfectionist and I thought if I could put a project at the end I’d realize that was never going to be finished. I could always walk in and realize it was a state of forward motion.
JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful
ROB SMITH: Yeah, thank you. Opening up the worlds first gender-free store, so that was what we did. And then since then have launched a really robust website, have built a community, which was the intent of opening up a retail store that people challenged and like, “Why would you open up retail when brick and mortar’s dead?” And I thought, “Well, if I’m going to build a community, if I’m going to get to know this community, if I’m going to build trust and it’s going to happen organically this is how I do it.”
And then launch the web platform, so yeah, within a year and a half we have almost 70,000 organic followers. None paid for. We have an active community that’s international. I think of our followers, only a quarter are within the New York. The rest are around the country and around the world following us. And participating in the brand. I feel great about that. And it’s super engaged. And within the store, it’s not just a retail space. Two-thirds of the space is devoted to retail and the other third is coffee shop bleacher seating. A non-transactional space where people can just hang out. We do about four events a week where we provide a space for the community to have events.
We are not just a retail store. We’re a community of activists and passionate people who are working together to make the world a better place. Yeah, just trying to save the world.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, right. That small thing. I read that-
ROB SMITH: But it is nice to have a safe space especially in New York City.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
ROB SMITH: A safe space that doesn’t exist all over the world. I mean, there’s not a lot of safe spaces especially that are open. You could find services or programs that are serving communities, but the cool thing about Phluid is that it’s open to everyone. It’s not just for a specific group of people, but it’s for everyone. And it’s a company grounded in purpose. And at the core who it’s for is transgender, gender non-conforming, young, queer people. But it’s also for people who believe in purpose and mission and value and we believe in women’s rights and queer rights and racial equality and income equality. And the earth and social corporate responsibility we believe in all of that. It’s baked into our DNA. We’re not sacking into it as a big company. We’re leading with it as a new company can.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my gosh. And that is so resonant with millennial and Generation Z generation. We talk about those a lot in the corporate world. You haven’t been in it for a while, but they are taking the corporate world by storm and bringing their inclusive values to the workplace, which is going to create some really interesting tension. Which I am personally very grateful for because they’re going to create and are creating a C-change in terms of how we view identity and talk about identity and incorporate identity into our productivity and into our happiness at work. And our sense of belonging.
What can you tell our audience who’s largely, for sure, not Generation Z, but maybe not even millennial-focused around what did you learn about these younger generations in terms of expression, definitions of identity? What are the latest words that they use to identify their gender and what do we need to know and perhaps maybe you’ve had your own learning, I’m sure you have, in catering to this customer? You’ve had ah-ha moments, maybe there’s some mistakes you’ve made as you’ve learned more about them and how to really serve them.
ROB SMITH: Yeah, well first of all, I’ll start off by saying that I was given an opportunity to represent a community and I don’t think this community would choose me. I’m a 53-year old Caucasian cisgender guy and don’t really reflect my community although I can represent them. I took it seriously. I hired a coach for about 10 hours to teach me, well a year and a half ago the language, and surely does continue to evolve and I love the fact that this generation has created a language to help what was previously a linear… It was very linear, now it’s multi-dimensional. And we stopped talking about who we’re going to bed with, but now instead who we’re going to bed as.
And it’s a huge shift that I don’t think companies haven’t got their head around yet that young people are forcing them to do it. And for me, it’s been such a gift to be engaged every single day with the community. And so I feel, at a certain point, about three months ago I started to realize that I can help larger companies navigate through this conversation, so I started a consulting business and had a speaking with some major companies like Macy’s and Nike and Steve Madden and educating the senior leadership team on how to understand what’s this young consumer and employee base is looking for. And how to address the language.
Right now, gosh, over half of Gen-Z… I saw on a quote they’re talking about on this new channel pronouns they/them. They’re talking about using that and she finished and said, “You know, it’s only one percent of the population. Just keep it at that.” But then you look at this young generation and over half of them know someone with a pronoun other than he/him/she/her. So it’s a small number on a grand scale, but when it gets to a generation, it’s much bigger. And it’s not necessarily even if it’s about me. But it’s about you respecting my peers. And that means that you lead with pronouns or you eliminate gender pronouns and just use they/them, which is what we try to do at Phluid all the time. Unless someone’s adamant about their pronouns, just try to refer to someone as they/them.
It’s pretty simple.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I know a few people.
ROB SMITH: Yeah, 90% of usage of pronoun is they/them, so it’s really only about adapting the 10% that we gender.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. That’s so interesting. Hadn’t thought about it that way. Going to bed with versus going to bed as. Stealing that. Very good.
ROB SMITH: You got it. It’s fascinating isn’t it?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, it is.
ROB SMITH: Thinking about sexual orientation and now young people don’t even define… I think over half of Gen-Z is not strictly heterosexual, so on a fluidity scale, they’re not even defining themselves as straight like they used to. Now they’re defining themselves as pansexual and more open and they don’t want labels like being gay or lesbian. They don’t want those. They want to be open to possibilities, and I think the other part is identity. And now identity is more fluid. It’s fascinating. It’s caught a whole generation above them off-guard. It’s like somebody coming in and speaking a different language in a group of people who don’t understand this. And I love teaching people about the different forms of gender.
JENNIFER BROWN: Me too.
ROB SMITH: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Me too. Me too. And I loved in one of your articles and I’ve heard this, as well, we’re dropping the preferred pronoun. We’re dropping the preferred part, so it’s not just preferred, it just is.
ROB SMITH: You talk about how things change quickly. We’re doing our opening party and we had write your PGP, preferred gender pronoun. And someone said, “Oh, no it’s not preferred anymore. It is my gender pronoun.” You don’t prefer to have the pronoun he/him. That is your pronoun. And I thought, “Oh, that’s fascinating.” Those little nuances.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. And I’m curious-
ROB SMITH: We’re constantly in a state of, always through our lives, of unlearning and relearning.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
ROB SMITH: And if when you think about it, our parents had to unlearn that interracial marriages could be allowed and then they relearned it. And they’re like, “Oh, okay.” And then they had to unlearn and relearn that same-sex couples couldn’t have a normal relationship and get married. And then it became an unlearning and relearning. And I think we’re in an unlearning and relearning now around gender identity.
JENNIFER BROWN: Agreed. Thank goodness it’s the latest. I really feel my audience has moved… They lean forward when I bring up pronouns and I will ask show of hands. Say I’m at a, I don’t know, a defense company. And I’ll say, “How many of you know why it’s an important signal for inclusion to share our gender pronouns?” And I will see no hands. And so you’re right that there is a lack of awareness, and I think it’s a real risk. I mean, you were in corporate for years. I think people are going to be blindsided by the changes, and I implore leaders to please if it means speaking to your kids and educating yourself because this change is happening all around you in the workplace environment if you’ve got one in five people that identifies non-straight and non-cisgender on your team, in your coworkers, in your family if you don’t today you will in the future.
It’s adopt now and start to exercise the language. And I’m curious, how do you advise people? Because they’ll come up to me afterwards and they’ll say, “Okay, I get it. I think I can share my pronouns, but I feel awkward about doing that. How do I actually broach that topic?” Say I have a new team or I’m… How does it come out organically?
ROB SMITH: First of all, you have to get comfortable with it and that’s why I teach a two-hour work session on the future of gender and Gen-Z. And it’s a safe space where people can… I can educate them and get them comfortable because it’s when you have a conversation with someone if you’re comfortable with the language and you can at least come in and not just avoid it altogether and just say, “Hey, whatever. I don’t want to get into pronouns because whatever.” And people do that. They don’t want to offend anybody, and we’re in such a culturally sensitive time and feeling vulnerable because I’m a older person and I just feel vulnerable right now. So I just prefer not to address it at all.
As opposed to saying, “Hey, listen. I’m learning this right now. I have taken some time to understand gender pronouns and I understand that many people go by pronouns other than he/him/she/her. And so my pronouns are he/him.” “And I am somebody identifies as they/them with their pronouns.” And you’re just aware of it and you say, “Hey, listen, I’m going to be sensitive to the fact that I may mis-gender you at some point, and I give you the authority and permission to correct me when I do it incorrectly. And I think that goes a long way for someone. At least you’ve made the attempt to learn and then you’re open to feedback.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love the, especially the part you just said, I may mis-gender you. And I want to learn and I want to know. And I want to make that correction, so please tell me and my door is always open to that. And I think that’s all we can do. Can you imagine having heard that from your boss or a colleague?
ROB SMITH: No.
JENNIFER BROWN: No. I mean, never.
ROB SMITH: You’d be blown away.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
ROB SMITH: And I think that’s so important. First of all, you made the attempt to learn, which goes a long way. We need to give people permission to understand that you don’t learn overnight. And you’re going to make mistakes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
ROB SMITH: And then, I think, and then just keep trying. But of course, by the 20th time you continue to mis-gender someone. If somebody called you Pat instead Jennifer, and correct them at a certain point you’d be like, “I’m tired of this guy. He’s calling me by the wrong name all the time. It’s getting annoying. He doesn’t respect me or care about me, too, actually.” Yeah, follow through.
Yeah, and the other thing I also think encourage everyone to… I’m the pronoun police at work. I encourage people who subconsciously mis-gender someone by the way their appearance or the way they believe that they’re gendered to be by the way they perceive someone. And I just, “Hey, listen, I just noticed you just mis-gendered someone three times in that conversation.” They’d be like, “Oh, my gosh. Thank you so much.” Not in a hateful way, but we’re all working on it together.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
ROB SMITH: I’m learning and relearning.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. And I love the fact that if you identify as an ally within the community, I think a lot about my aspired ally identity. I aspire to be considered that. I know that I can’t call myself that, but for you, I know I was reading and I so relate to this. It’s questions about you’re capitalizing in a demographic to which you don’t identify and regarding you skeptically about your motives. And how do you view using your voice in this way? And do you still hear things like that? And how do you feel about them? Because those are arising for me, as well. I get, occasionally, the question of whether I belong in doing this work. And it’s an interesting question. Can be hurtful, but also was very… it’s just I try to look at it with love and say, “We all have a place in this work.”
I wonder how you handle that.
ROB SMITH: Yeah. I mean, I think by now people have known that I’ve invested my personal wealth in this project and it’s not to get rich. It’s to do what the right thing is. And I think when you do the right thing, we’ll see how it plays out, but I’m doing this because… in part because it’s selfish because I’m doing something for my younger self. I’m doing it in part because I can. Because I have done financially well in my life. I do have great connections. I am caring about this community, and it’s done through a place of authenticity. I can’t change the way I look. I am this way. But I think about using what I’m born with. The word privilege gets thrown a lot. I don’t want to use the word privilege because it’s an opportunity.
I think we’re all given the same chance to finish the finish line. It’s just I think I was given a head start because of where I was born, what color my skin is, what gender I am. I was given a head start. I passed through the gay thing, which 20 years ago was a thing. Today isn’t a thing really. Except you have to remember in 26 states you can still be fired. You’re not a protected class in 26 states. You can still get kicked out of your house.
But in large part, it is being a gay, white man is no longer a burden in this world. Now it’s about looking back and saying, “Who else can I help lift up and bring across the finish line?” And for me, it’s young gender, non-conforming, transgender folks. People of color. It’s bringing the rest of the queer community with me across the finish line. That’s my role. That’s what I feel my mission is, and I’m leveraging and using Phluid as the platform for that.
JENNIFER BROWN: More chills. So good. That is exactly what I think about all day and reaching back, supporting, standing alongside or behind or wherever I need to stand in order to represent and be a channel and a mechanism for people’s stories to be heard. And to really shift the composition of the world and particularly those in power, which I’d really like to see in organizations in particular because the role-modeling is so sadly lacking. And corporate America continues to spit out people who aren’t equally represented in marginalized identities and it continues to not do what it needs to do to shift that.
But you meanwhile are tackling that. The younger end of the pipeline or perhaps the folks that we need to see more of in these positions. Hopefully in the enlightened companies that would welcome them and all of who they are when we say, “Bring your full self to work.”
ROB SMITH: It takes time and one of our key initiatives we’re launching for Fall is creating a platform… First of all, our campaign will be elevating our young queer community into power positions and showing what they look like in power positions. And then collecting their resumes and working with big companies to collect job descriptions and try to pair them together and strategically help place our community into companies that have an open mind. And are ready to embrace this young generation, but I also tell them there will be a workshop where they have to understand that you need a third gender on your job application. You need to have genderless bathrooms.
If you’re going to pull this community in, you have to create a safe space for them when they get there. And there has to be lessons on pronouns. You can’t just drop somebody into a company who’s got positive attention without creating a safe space for them when they get there.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right, and I know you probably have some strong views about rainbow capitalism. And tokenizing queerness. And having just gone through world pride. There was a rainbow flag in every single window at more companies than ever, which is great. However, I think more and more. Yeah, more and more we’re like, “Are you walking the talk? And like “What are you really doing?” Are you doing the hard work internally in your culture, with your policies, with the infrastructure, with your processes, with your HR forms and really with inclusiveness. How the culture feels on a day to day basis. Because you’re right, if you can bring them in but you can’t keep them then it’s like, “What the point?” It’s all about retention and that comes down to the day to day feeling of belonging or lack thereof at work every day.
I think you’re really right to say, “Look, we’re going to give you an amazing pipeline, and we’re going to do our part. But if they land in infertile soil, they aren’t going to flourish.” And that’s-
ROB SMITH: Absolutely. And still have a high turnover.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
ROB SMITH: When I was at Macy’s and we launched the employer research groups, and I remember one of them was the LGBTQ, this was probably 15 years ago, and as a senior leader on the executive team each team got a leader and every one assumed I would choose the LGBTQ resource group and I said, “No, no, no. I choose the…” I think it was the, I forget the acronym, but it was the black employee resource group. And they said, “Why?” I said, “Well, first of all, look around our senior leadership team. There’s no one representing this community. And then this is an opportunity for me to learn, as well. To learn about why is turnover so high. Why are we not retaining young black people? Why are we not promoting black people?”
And it was a year and a half into it. They finally just closed the door, and they said, “Rob, we trust you now. We can tell you why people are leaving and what it’s like.” And it was nothing obvious. It was all very subtle… Very, the context in which things were said it was not overt, but it very, very subliminal and people left. And I was like, “Wow, I’ve been given a gift.” And so you have to do the work. You can’t just say, “We stand for this.” But you have to put the work in it and listen and get mentors and be open to real honest feedback.
Sometimes it’s real simple like a gender-neutral bathroom. Sometimes it’s, gosh, I’ve been in every meeting for the last year have been mis-gendered by most people in the entire company. And I’m going to leave. Yeah, you just have to be open to feedback and insight that sometimes it’s things you don’t want to hear or don’t expect to hear.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right, and then we run into the, “Well, I’m colorblind.” “I believe in diversity,” and this sort of denial, I suppose. Or belief in ourselves as good people. And that we have… our intent, our good intentions are enough. And I feel like I just wrote my second book all about that to say that cultures don’t create themselves. They have to get invested in the way that you said, “No, I want to be in a leadership role or in a visible champion role for a community that’s not represented that’s not mine.” That’s a powerful… something we recommend actually for the more cutting edge companies who are asking us, “How do we expose our executives to the knowledge that they need? And how do we really get under what’s happening with these certain communities and why they are not staying?”
And the trust it took you a year and a half to build, I’m not surprised. Why should they trust you?
ROB SMITH: Why should they? Right. Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
ROB SMITH: I’m an executive who’s going to… They’re not going to spill the beans to me. It was showing up every single month consistently and listening and listening and listening and then the day they closed the door I thought, “Oh, my God. This is it.” It’s like giving a secret code. I was blown away by things that were said. And I don’t think the intent was malicious. I don’t think the intent was racial. Or maybe it was just… It’s just a bias that exists that people are unaware of, but when you’re subject to that bias, you’re very aware of it. And words are important. Language is very important. And unlearning is very hard and relearning is… It takes work. And I think a lot of people feel like, “Well, gosh, I’m an open-minded person. I see everyone equal.”
And you can feel that way, but if your language doesn’t reflect that, no one’s going to know that but you.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s right. Oh, my goodness. I should have written about you. Well, you’re in my book in spirit because-
ROB SMITH: Okay, yeah, that’s all I need.
JENNIFER BROWN: You are. It’s really good stuff. Really, really good stuff. And I love the way you’ve activated your voice. I love the Phluid Project. I encourage people to find out more and patronize your store online. Tell us, you said only 25% of customers are in New York City, so you have this huge online community. It that the one that’s growing the fastest? What is your commercial growth like? Can you share with us anything about what’s in the near future? What are your long-term plans with the store and the project?
ROB SMITH: Yeah. Yeah, so gosh, the long-term plans are right now we have a store with a website and a whole sale business. And a really fast growing consulting business as companies try to understand this and go to some experts. So that’s growing really quickly. But that’s not as much the strategy as the strategy is to raise money. And I’m looking to raise half of it right now. I’d like to open up on the West Coast at some point within the next 12 months to 18 months. Continue to invest in the website and continue to invest in experiences that happened at the Phluid store so I can share it online so you can experience our panel discussion.
Whether you’re sitting in the space itself or you’re in Mumbai or you’re in Minneapolis or wherever you are you can experience the conversations that happen here. That’s where I want to start investing and then ultimately I would like to have a global business that has flagship stores around the world. That’s having conversations around the world. That is 25% of our businesses, artist residency, joint designers who bring their product to the space, and we do a profit share. And they’re the ones who cultivate and find these young designers who are creating product and give them a platform to launch their product in their city and their country, but also then ultimately around the world. That’s what gets me excited.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s economic development. That’s real stuff that changes lifetimes and trajectories for generations to come. Well, Rob, this has been amazing. And I hope people check out the brand and visit and read about it. I know ThePhluidProject.com, right, is your URL. But let us know where can we support you, patronize the brand, support the mission? All of that good stuff.
ROB SMITH: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, so go to ThePhluidProject.com. Sign up for email blasts. We do one or two a week, and it’s not just selling products. It’s also insight into who our Phluid family is. And purchase something certainly helps going a long way, the more people support this business the more trajectory it has and it’s faster to grow. And if anyone knows of investors who believe in investing in a mission like this, certainly reach out to info@ThePhluidProject.com. And I would say sometimes people are like, “Well, Rob, I don’t have the money to do this. Or I don’t have the interest.”
Just follow us and followers send a message to people saying this is a relevant brand. And the more followers we have the more people see it as a relevant brand that is taking traction because we don’t buy followers, we acquire them through word of mouth and through brand values.
JENNIFER BROWN: So @ThePhluidProject on Instagram. On Twitter, @PhluidProject. And you’re on Facebook, as well. I love that call to action, and I hope that you will find extremely enthusiastic people in The Will To Change audience for what you are creating, Rob. Thank you so much for joining me and everything you’re doing in the world.
ROB SMITH: My pleasure. Thanks for doing what you’re doing and spreading the word. We’re all in this together. We are a society that is moving forward, although sometimes it feels like we are facing resistance all the way. We are united and we’re making progress every single day, and it’s exciting. It’s an exciting time.
JENNIFER BROWN: I believe that, too. Thanks, Rob.
ROB SMITH: All right. Take care.
- Accessing our Infinite Power: Change Agency and Abundance with “In Your Power” author Dr. Sharon Melnick
- NASA’s DEI Journey with OD Specialist Diane Cain and JBC’s Adrienne Lawrence
- Doing the Work and Doing it Right: Deconstructing DEI with Author, Speaker and Consultant Lily Zheng
- Building the Damn Thing: Takeover Episode featuring VC and Author Kathryn Finney interviewed by WatchHerWork Founder, Denise Hamilton
- Through Thick and Thin: Employers Supporting Employees Through Health Crises with Cancer Channel Author Sarah McDonald