YC’s Director of Events Domonique Fines with Elpha CEO Cadran Cowansage
Domonique Fines is the Director of Events at YC.
00:05 – Dom’s intro
00:25 – How Dom started in events and her background
2:00 – Deciding to not go to law school
3:30 – Choosing to work on tech events
5:35 – Outreach to underrepresented founders
8:50 – Common misconceptions about getting into tech
10:10 – University outreach
11:20 – Identifying problems to fix and not being blocked
14:10 – Reflecting on accomplishments
15:05 – Dom’s career plans
16:40 – Will Dom do a startup?
17:10 – Avoiding burnout
20:20 – The importance of just getting started
Craig Cannon [00:00] – Hey, how’s it going? This is Craig Cannon, and you’re listening to Y-Combinator’s Podcast. Today’s episode is with Domonique Fines, and it’s hosted by Cadran Cowansage. Dom is a director of events here at YC. Cadran is the co-founder and CEO of Elpha. Elpha is a private online community for women in tech. You can find Dom on Twitter @domoniquefines, and Cadran @cadran_c. All right, here we go.
Cadran Cowansage [00:26] – Dom, tell us a few words about you, what you work on, et cetera.
Domonique Fines [00:30] – I am Director of events at YC. I basically do all of our public-facing large scale events, so anything from demo days, if you want founder’s conferences, our outreach tours, and then also just most recently, worked at a startup, and then several things in between.
Cadran Cowansage [00:46] – Awesome. How did you get started in events and working at YC? Was this sort of a planned path or have you been figuring it out as you go?
Domonique Fines [00:56] – I’ve been figuring it out as I go. I have moreso a jumpy background. Originally, I was planning to go to school to become an attorney and I would say about a week before I was supposed to apply to law school, I definitely changed my mind. I was working at an entertainment law firm at the time and I just figured out that it wasn’t something that I wanted to do. I told myself that I wanted to plan tech events, and at the time I had no clue what that even meant, like what does that mean, you want to plan tech events. I didn’t know, I just knew I wasn’t going to law school. I moved back from Atlanta, I went to Clark Atlanta University and I moved back from Atlanta – home to Oakland, and from there I was just working at a law firm during the day from 9-5, and at lunch time I would actually sleep in my car, then after work, I would go to my family’s club, Me Lounge and I would run that at nighttime and I would do that same thing everyday over and over and over until I found a job that allowed me to do events. I ended up at Frog Design as an office manager and they allowed to do events at SXSW nd different hackathons. From there, I was able to create a portfolio and make sure that I was marketing myself as an events person and from there, YC found me.
Cadran Cowansage [02:09] – That’s awesome! I love that and that you sort of hacked getting into it.
Domonique Fines [02:13] – Yeah.
Cadran Cowansage [02:14] – I want to jump back to your deviation from going to law school for a second. You said you changed your mind a week before you went. What was that process like? How long did it take to make the final decision that you were going to make that change?
Domonique Fines [02:36] – It took me quite a while, of course, because I waited that late to go in and change my mind. Honestly, I was deathly afraid. This was one thing that I knew my entire life I wanted to do. Just that’s the only thing I knew I was going to be an attorney – that’s the only thing that everyone knew about me. I was into fashion and also I wanted to be an attorney. For me to just have that feeling inside of me just thinking like “Wow, I just really really don’t want to do this and I know that if I don’t do it, I’m going to be disappointing so many people.” I was really really hurt and afraid and also I didn’t know how to explain what I wanted to do at the time. It just came down to a simple call. I basically just called my mum and I told her I was like “Hey, I do not want to be an attorney and I’m going to move home and I’m going to plan tech events!” And she’s like “Great! Where are you going to live?” I was like “What? I have a room. A high school room. It’s still there! I’m sure it’s there!” That was a learning experience for me too, but I would say it was the best decision I’ve ever made because if I didn’t make that jump, or take that step then I would probably ended up doing things that I have no enjoyment of and right now I’m super passionate about events and I always will be.
Cadran Cowansage [03:49] – That’s awesome. How did you know it was tech events?
Domonique Fines [03:56] – Odd story. When people would get dropped off at the mall, like in high school or in junior high, I would get dropped off at Radio Shack. It’s really weird, but I loved Radio Shack. I loved seeing how things worked. I love taking things apart. Then at some point, I started to walk around the store and act as if I was working there. It was weird at first but then the manager wanted to hire me. I’ve always just been interested in how things work and so I knew that was always a part of tech but I had no idea that tech would blow like this.
Cadran Cowansage [04:30] – Totally. Making that transition, did it feel super scary or you just sort of went for it or how did you get your start?
Domonique Fines [04:40] – Yeah, it felt very scary, especially because my entire background had nothing to do with events but also had everything to do with events. My professional background didn’t have any event planning experience but my personal background was, I was always the one bringing everyone together. I was the one doing events for my sorority in college, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated – Sigma Chapter. I’ve just always been apart of events and I’ve always loved the little details of it. On one side of my brain, people are left sided and right sided and I would say that I’m both. I’m very serious about the details but also like the creative side, it’s what drives me.
Cadran Cowansage [05:16] – Very cool. I have one sort of funny question. What are the big differences with creating an event in a club context versus a tech context? I mean I think we can think of some obvious ones but are there any sort of funny, interesting ones?
Domonique Fines [05:34] – I would say the main thing is the target audience.
Cadran Cowansage [05:37] – Yes!
Domonique Fines [05:39] – Of course. For clubs, you kind of just want anybody there. You want someone to show up, you need that number. For YC and for tech events, it’s all about the quality and who we have come to the events and the outcome of it. The outcome of the club is just, how much money did we make and can we make more?
Cadran Cowansage [05:55] – Yes, for sure. That sort of leads me to my next question which is about outreach. I know that you think a lot about who is actually attending these events and you have sort of taken on supporting YC’s outreach efforts, particularly with black students and in the black communities and I’d love to hear more about how you think about that and also the work you’re doing.
Domonique Fines [06:20] – I would say, well right now, or in the past couple of years, I’ve worked with Code2040, I’ve given scholarships to Team Arsenal, Bay Area Seminoles, and also my church, New Life Community Membership Church. Basically, what I’ve done is try to think about things I’ve learned at YC that I had no idea about and that I could’ve known just from being in the area. What’s happening right now in Silicon Valley is that there’s all these different companies and all these different information and all these different people coming out of this space. Right in the backyard is Oakland and there’s people that have no idea what’s going on and not that they’re not brilliant people, or that they can’t do those things, but they just have no access to it and they don’t know. The things I’ve been learning, I’ve just been learning to start pretty small and that’s just basically teaching people exactly like “Oh, what is Silicon Valley? What does tech mean? What is a start-up? What is a start-up versus a small business? How can I be involved in that? I think that starting small is something that you need to do in order to go larger. I worked with Oakland public school districts and doing different career weeks and teaching them all about YC and start-ups and I’ve also worked with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Bay Area, kind of just ushering them into the space. Then one thing I was super proud about that I was very passionate about was bringing in the Raiders.
Domonique Fines [07:45] – I met with them and I got them to come to some of our start-up schools to learn how to invest in companies and also got them to come to our demo days so they can invest in companies themselves, and I feel like you have to start small but also you have to use those people that are role models. I teach them first and they can branch out and teach others as well.
Cadran Cowansage [08:03] – That’s super smart. I really like that idea. Have the role models been really receptive to the work you’re doing, how has it been?
Domonique Fines [08:12] – Yeah! They’re super receptive and also they feel very comfortable with talking to me because I let them know, I’m very upfront about this with everyone that I had no idea what YC was or what it did or like anything about the start-up space and I kind of just dug in to it and figured it out and of course I learned a lot from YC as well. Sometimes it’s very intimidating when you’re in this space and you feel like everyone knows so much and you don’t know anything so you tend to just like be shy or kind of just stand back or like stand in the shadows and not wanting to ask that kind of questions that could make you look or feel you’re less than. I feel like they feel very comfortable with talking to me about things like that and it makes me feel good as well. I’m super honest, I’m like, hey, if they ask me something that I don’t know, I’m like I really don’t know but I can probably find someone that can answer that for you.
Cadran Cowansage [09:00] – That’s awesome. Yeah, being comfortable saying when you don’t know something is really hard, especially in a work context. I relate and understand completely. Very cool. Are there any common misconceptions that pop up over and over with students, or when you’re meeting with people who don’t really know about tech that you want to just get it out there, get people over it.
Domonique Fines [09:27] – The most common one is everyone thinks that you have to have a particular background or they have this background that’s like “Oh you had to go MIT? Or did you go to Harvard? Or what’s your tech background?” Honestly, I do not have a tech background. I created a space for myself based off of the things that I was interested in. I think if people just followed their own dreams and goals versus trying to follow a path that others have created, then it’ll work out. Also, this misconception of “There are no women at YC. There are no black people at YC.” You know there’s all these things. When I’m working around with all these different people, it’s definitely very diverse and we’re doing everything that we can to possibly bring more people in but I think it’s also very important that I do things like this so people know that I am here and I am a voice and I’m helping out a lot. Those are the two things that I think are the things that are definitely misconceptions for sure.
Cadran Cowansage [10:32] – Got it, for sure. You work with your university as well. Tell me a little bit about that.
Domonique Fines [10:37] – Basically, during the outreach tour, we go to a bunch of different stops, domestic and international, and we host office hours, we do different talks and most recently, I did an outreach tour at Morehouse College which is basically right across the street from Clark Atlanta, it’s a part of AUC. We did office hours there and then we did a talk there and I’m planning to go back 2019 to do an entire AUC tour. It’s very important that everyone has access to all the information that there is this space and that there’s other jobs that they can apply for. Everything is not all about being a doctor, a lawyer, a dentist and an engineer at this point. You can be in tech and not be an engineer or not have a tech background.
Cadran Cowansage [11:20] – Absolutely. One of the things that I’ve been super impressed by, as we’ve gotten to know each other at YC, is just the way you proactively identify holes or problems that you see and they have nothing necessarily to do with your job, but you then just go tackle them. How do you think about that? Is that something that you have built up the muscle for over time or you thought about actively? Tell me a little bit more about that.
Domonique Fines [11:54] – I’ll say that my total frame of thinking is totally different ever since I started at YC. Now when I go about things, I’m always thinking about what’s the problem I’m trying to fix here and that’s Michael Seibel-like. He has embedded this inside my brain. I find myself working on things when I first started, I would work on things and be like, just working on it for so long and he’d be like “I’m sorry but what are you trying to fix here?” And I’d be like “Well, I mean, I guess nothing. I guess I’m not trying to fix anything here.” Now, I try to make sure when I am working on things, or I’m looking for things that are broken, to find those ways that I can fix them.
Cadran Cowansage [12:34] – How do you avoid feeling blocked by them? As an employee, I think, sometimes people feel like there’s a problem in my organization but I’m just one person, I’m not a leader in the classic terms. How do you go about doing the things that you know are the right things to do and you know can help fix problems and avoiding that?
Domonique Fines [12:59] – I would say it’s still very nerve wrecking and that’s a normal thing to feel, I think, in any role. But instead of thinking “Oh I’m just one person,” I think to myself “I am the person.” There has to always be one person to step out and do it for others to follow. Everyone’s not going to be that leader. Sometimes people ask, “well, how many black people are at this company?” or “How many black people are at that company?” And all the time, you’re not going to always get the answer that you want, but how about you be that person and then others will follow you.
Cadran Cowansage [13:30] – For sure. Do you feel like you’ve started to see the work you’re doing make a difference in terms of folks you’ve talked to going in, trying out tech, or like applying to YC, or things like that. How’s that been going?
Domonique Fines [13:43] – Definitely. Last year, this past year, I did three Female Founder’s conferences. One in New York, one in Seattle and one in San Francisco. The one in New York was amazing. I’m sorry, I love Seattle, I love San Francisco, love it! Love it! But the one in New York was so diverse. It was crazy. I remember Jas came up to me, she was like, “Wow, Dom.” She was like, “Look at these different kinds of people here.” And I was like “I know.” I was just standing back and I was looking at the room and I was like, “Wow! I really did that.” You work on things for so long and you’re always thinking of the future. What’s your next step, what’s your next step? But you never sit there and kind of flourish and just realize what you’re doing and what you’re working on now and how the outcome has affected people. It feels good.
Cadran Cowansage [14:33] – That’s awesome, good work.
Domonique Fines [14:34] – Thank you.
Cadran Cowansage [14:36] – Do you take time to sort of stop and reflect and think about how things are going or how do you incorporate that into your life?
Domonique Fines [14:43] – Honestly, I haven’t, and that’s bad. That’s not good. I don’t suggest that. I just keep going and going and going. Of course I’d know what my stopping point is. I know when it’s time for self care, I know when it’s time to just fall back and take a break. But it wasn’t until recently, I just listed out all of the events I’ve done at YC and people that I’ve worked with. I was just like, “What? Who is this person? Who is this girl?” I’ve just recently started doing that and I think I’ll do it more.
Cadran Cowansage [15:16] – That’s awesome. Making those very positive lists about the things that you’ve accomplished is really, I find, also very useful because I don’t do it naturally either. Do you have a plan for your career about where you want to go and what you want to do or are you sort of figuring it out as you go?
Domonique Fines [15:35] – I’m just figuring it out because this was my end goal.
Cadran Cowansage [15:41] – You got here very quickly.
Domonique Fines [15:43] – I wanted to be an event planner for the top tech company, that was my thing. I’m going to be an event planner for the top tech company. Now, I just feel like I’m there and I’m definitely making a difference in doing things and there’s so many ways of creativity that I can change my role here. But right now, I don’t know, I have no idea what’s next. I think that the only clear option here is to work for Beyonce. I don’t know what else would come after this.
Cadran Cowansage [16:11] – Sounds pretty cool. That’s awesome. Do you put any pressure on yourself to know those things or sort of play it by ear?
Domonique Fines [16:21] – You know I used to. That was a huge thing for me in college and even before college, like in high school, being pressured to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life. Pick a major right now. Get these scholarships. But it’s not about that. I think it’s about figuring it out as you go, and I’ve learned that I’ve accomplished a lot more without putting those certain constraints on my career because at that time, I was only going and moving towards that specific direction. But now there’s all these different areas and directions, I can just literally do, you can do whatever you want to do. It’s just about how you use your time. And I don’t want to live with myself with just one different area, or like where to go. That’s why I’m not interested in grad school.
Cadran Cowansage [17:04] – Got it. Do you think you’ll ever do a start-up?
Domonique Fines [17:08] – I never thought I would before YC, but I find myself creating all types of start-ups in my mind. If there was a start-up that could create start-ups, then I would go to that start-up to make my start-up.
Cadran Cowansage [17:22] – I think you’re at a start-up that creates start-ups. I think you’re there.
Domonique Fines [17:28] – Okay maybe, maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know. We’ll see, we’ll see.
Cadran Cowansage [17:30] – Very cool, very cool. Talking a little bit more about, you’re obviously super busy and you’ve taken on a lot, how do you balance it, how do you avoid burnout, what is your practice for creating a balanced life?
Domonique Fines [17:47] – I think that, it also helps that I create the YC calender, the events calender. That helps spacing things out. It’s important to know when you can’t do any more. I feel like when you continue to work and you’re burnt out, you’re not offering the best of the work that you can do. Then the outcome of it is not the best. What I do after each event, I do a staycation or I go out of town like everyone else. I love traveling. That’s my thing. But I can do anything from, “Oh I’m away, I’m staying in a treehouse, now I’m staying in yurt,” or, “Now I’m going to be sleeping on a beach.” I don’t know.
Cadran Cowansage [18:28] – A treehouse?
Domonique Fines [18:30] – It’s good to just get away and shut off and just refresh and replenish because you can never be successful while you’re running on the go, go, go and burnt out and that’s one thing that I really appreciate about YC is like, you know, they respect how I work and they know that’s the way I can do it, and that’s the only way things are going to get done. That’s pretty cool.
Cadran Cowansage [18:53] – When you’re on those trips, when you’re reflecting and refreshing, are you reflecting also on the work you’ve been doing, or do you put that somewhere else for later?
Domonique Fines [19:02] – I don’t think about work at all while I’m there. I try to just shut off completely. The things I’m thinking about are, “Where do I see myself in 10 years?” or “Maybe I want to learn how to do aerial dancing?” “Maybe I should just join Cirque du Soleil.” I don’t know. I’m thinking about all the things that I never get a chance to think about while I’m working, because I don’t think that people understand or realize we run a really small, close knit team. I appreciate that about YC but I think that people feel like, or think like we have this entire events team and they don’t realize that I am the team.
Cadran Cowansage [19:43] – An events team of one.
Domonique Fines [19:45] – Right, exactly. A lot of my brain is dedicated to events and it rarely shuts off so when I do go away, and I am not working, it’s kind of difficult to shut it off. I’m constantly thinking of events, it can never just go away but I would say when I’m out, I think about it less.
Cadran Cowansage [20:02] – That sounds good.
Domonique Fines [20:04] – Yeah.
Cadran Cowansage [20:05] – When you’re on these trips, are you checking emails? Do you totally cut off? How do you do it?
Domonique Fines [20:12] – I would say, my friends will tell you, I never totally cut off. I’m like 75-80% cut off. There’s always that moment when my phone goes off and I have instincts to just grab it because I need know who’s emailing me. I’m addicted. I need to see. But it’s a really good feeling when I do finally just shut it off. I can go a day, maybe. I feel like I can’t go longer than a day without just shutting off. But I would say I don’t respond as frequently as I would during my shut down time.
Cadran Cowansage [20:42] – Your shut down time. I like that.
Domonique Fines [20:45] – During my shut down.
Cadran Cowansage [20:46] – Is there anything, any parting words before we go, that you want to share?
Domonique Fines [20:50] – I just want people to know that it doesn’t really matter how small or how big you start but I think the main point is to just start. Do something. Whatever it is you want to do, you could be wanting to learn how to fly a kite, you could be wanting to be the next President. Not sure, but just start somewhere. The longer you wait, you start doubting yourself more and more and more. Those doubts and fears stop you from who you are truly supposed to be. Just start. Wherever. Wherever that is for you. Just do that.
Cadran Cowansage [21:23] – Big or small.
Domonique Fines [21:25] – Yeah.
Cadran Cowansage [21:25] – That’s good advice. Thanks Dom!
Domonique Fines [21:28] – Thanks!
Craig Cannon [21:31] – Alright, thanks for listening. As always, you can find the transcript and video at blog.ycombinator.com. If you have a second, it would be awesome to give us a rating and review wherever you find your podcasts. See you next time.