Creating Connections IRL
Once a month over on Instagram, I chat one-on-one with talented creative professionals across various industries and communities to engage in uplifting conversations around creativity, entrepreneurship, mental health, and how we can show up in our work as our authentic selves.
Today I want to share highlights from my conversation with Maxine Williams, creative producer and founder of We Met In Real Life @wemetirl - a New York-based relationship-building organization that produces in-person dating events for singles to meet in a fun, new, and fulfilling way.
We Met In Real Life, which has been featured in the New York Times, is wildly popular – so much so that there’s often a waitlist for the events.
Maxine created We Met In Real Life after her own experience with a speed-dating
event felt uninspired and overly routine.
Among the many things Maxine values, community is one of the most important. We talk about this and so much more.
Lo Harris: Could please share more about your work?
Maxine Williams: It's been really awesome to do something different, to create a space for a different experience of dating than what we're used to being on phones all day. I've really enjoyed it and I'm excited to continue to grow and expand.
LH: Can you talk a little bit about the experience you had that ultimately led you to creating We Met In Real Life?
MW: I would say it was a combination of things. I think number one being the COVID pandemic happened. And so, we were all forced to be on our screens to socialize safely, especially before the vaccine and before we knew what we know today about COVID. And I just felt like there was so much screen fatigue. I was working remote and then I'm swiping and all these apps are like “Try a video first date.” And it just seemed like Black Mirror vibes to me, honestly.
I just never felt like that was the way we're supposed to socialize or meet, especially someone that you want to pursue romantically. And I just kept having these conversations with my friends: “I wish I could meet someone in real life. I want to have a meet cute. I just don't want to be on the apps anymore.” But it seemed like there was no alternative.
And then I ended up looking up like singles events in New York City just on Eventbrite and I dragged one of my friends along with me to one. It was all white people on the flyer and we're two Black girls, so we were like I don't know what to expect today, but it should be fun. And it was fine. We were the only women of color there and it was like 50 people. It was just kind of shocking that there wasn’t any singles in-person thing happening with diversity in mind -- especially in New York. We have so many cool parties and pop ups that happen like every single week and yet when it comes to speed dating or a singles event, there wasn't really anything that looks cool to people in my age range 25 and up.
So after attending that event, another one of my friends was like, “You should just do this and make it better.” So I remember just messaging pretty much everybody I knew in New York asking, “Would you ever go to this?” and I got a lot of yeses. I got a lot of nos too, but I decided to try it and see how it went. And the first event was really great. And I posted a TikTok of that and that video went viral and that was the affirmation I needed to continue going and so I just decided to keep doing it.
LH: What was your process in getting over any fear or trepidation that you had about that rejection from people not wanting to go to something like this or did you even have any blocks?
MW: I definitely had some blocks but I think I’m lucky in that the first video did go viral. I feel like if it flopped, I probably would have quit, to be honest. It was definitely hard to do the first event, even to post it on social media outside of my network. But it was just so affirming to hear from strangers that this is cool, when is the next one. It was so sought after. And I think that was my main motivation. You know when you start something on your own -- you start a business or a new Instagram page or something, you might get like 10 followers from your main account, and it's just really hard. It's a grind. It's an uphill battle to keep reminding yourself this is important. Of course, I have my family as my main support system in this. When I first told them the idea they were all like, “Yes, this is genius. Do it.” That was really helpful too. But all the attention I got after the first event really helped affirm my idea that this is going to work.
LH: You mentioned posting on TikTok. What other things are you doing to get more exposure? And what are your goals? Do you want this to be something that hundreds and hundreds of people are trying to fight to get into or do you want to keep it smaller? Do you want to do brand partnerships? What is your vision going forward?
MW: As far as strategy, I try to post on TikTok when I come up with an idea. I'm definitely not consistent. I know some creators post three things a day and even more than that. I just post when I have an event. Last year I did one event per month. So, I’d post a video each month and see how that goes. Another thing we did was during the summer me and my volunteers did street interviews talking to people about dating, which has been really fun just to talk to people who we don't know and get their opinion on the dating world, especially in New York.
As far as the vision, I definitely would love for my brand to be the standard for in-person singles events, especially for 25 to 35 year olds. I feel like a lot of singles events out there are for older age ranges when people are like, “Alright, it's time to get married. I need to be serious.” I think they kind of assume that younger people are happily on the apps but we're not. At least the people I hear from, none of us want to be online. We want to be in person. So I would love for my brand to be the standard for that and in a few cities like if you’re in Chicago and you want to try speed dating, you’d go to an IRL.
LH: Can you take us into the room where it happens a bit? You talk about We Met IRL being the standard. What is it like to attend one of these events? Can you talk about what role creativity plays into how you plan these events or what you're doing differently?
MW: It's simple, but there's a lot of thought that goes into each event and I won't say everything that happens because you got to come to experience it. But we always have an icebreaker to get people comfortable. We know that putting yourself out there is really hard, especially now, and most people are used to just being on their phones to connect with people. People our age aren't just approaching each other. That just doesn't happen. So we like to warm people up to the experience and even from the moment you step in me and my volunteers are greeting you and making sure you feel comfortable getting you settled and telling you what you will experience for the night. And once we get everyone seated for speed dating, you get four minutes per person. It goes by pretty fast.
It's pretty easy within those four minutes to see if there's chemistry there. And I think it's a great experience to put yourself out there and say, wow, I met 20 people tonight. Even if you didn't hit off with anyone on a romantic level, you can say, I met 20 different people and I learned a lot about myself in all the variety of conversations I had and the different types of guys and men and women you meet. And usually the women make friends with who they're sitting next to, and same for the guys. So, it's just a really good social experience. And it's different. There's nothing like it right now. I think that's the coolest part.
LH: In a previous interview, you talked a bit about the questions that you set up for people to ask. Explain why it's important to you that people adhere to the questions you create.
MW: Everyone gets a question card with random conversation starters. Some people use it, some people don't. If you're outgoing, you really don't need that. But I thought it was a great idea because when I went to a speed dating event, I had the same conversation twenty different times: “Hi, where do you live? What do you do? Where are you from?”
And that's pretty much four minutes if you guys both say that stuff. And I would just hate for you to sit in front of someone who you have a lot in common with but because you have different jobs, you're from different cities and live in different neighborhoods, you don't get to that topic in those four minutes.
I think it's nice to have something outside of that because it's a high pressure environment. People are nervous. You might not come up with a creative question. It was nice to have something in front of you. One of the questions is “Show the first photo your camera roll and explain.” You don't have to do that if it's an inappropriate photo, but that gets you going.
LH: How deep do these questions get?
MW: We try to keep them pretty surface level just because it’s only four minutes. But I think there's a good enough variety to get a feel for a person in that time. And then if you hit it off in that four minutes, then maybe after the speed date, you find them and you can go into those deeper conversations.
LH: Can you tell me about any exciting success stories?
MW: We had a Christian singles event last summer and there is a couple that is still dating from that event. I think that's the longest standing relationship we've had. So yes, it's very exciting.
LH: Putting yourself out there isn't just for dating and social activities. It also works in the professional sense as well. Do you have any encouragement for why putting yourself out there is important in both dating and in life?
MW: I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves when it comes to socializing, in general, and I think we have to realize you're not the only one that's nervous or shy or hesitating or in your head about yourself. And once you resolve that with yourself, you're gonna have so much more fun and so many better experiences. You go to a networking event and you’re like, I don't want to seem weird approaching people. But everyone's thinking that. Just go talk to someone. If you don't hit it off, that's cool. Just say, “Hey, it was nice to meet you,” and keep it moving. It's totally fine.
And that's the same with dating or whatever it is you're pursuing. Keep an open mind. You're gonna get some nos. But each no is gonna get you closer to a yes. And I think that's the mindset we need to have. That no is a blessing in itself that we don't realize. That wasn’t supposed to work because down the line, you see what did work out. Enjoy the journey.
LH: On another podcast you mentioned that you don't like yes people. You'd rather have people who give you hard truths. Why is it important to sometimes get a no?
MW: I just think it's really great to have some constructive criticism. I feel like the people that give you real feedback on how to improve, they're the main ones that are invested in you succeeding. You write an essay, you have a friend read it over and they’re like, sounds good to me. But then you turn it into your teacher and there's red marks all over it. And your teacher’s not hatin’. She wants you to have the best piece of writing that you can present. And that's the same when it comes to a business idea you have, an outfit you're wearing, a hairstyle you're trying.
LH: How has your self-confidence been activated by your community?
MW: Your network, your people, they’re the ones you hear from the most. They’re the ones hyping you up even when you have your doubts. I'm very grateful to have people -- my family and my friends -- who I can talk to and they say, “You’ve got to keep going. This is just a setback. It's not the end. Keep going. Keep persevering.” I think it’s good having that safety net of people to fall back on when you have a hard day. Another thing about going viral is you get a lot of negative comments too. And we notice the negative more than the positive sometimes, unfortunately. I'll be upset about a negative comment when there were 50 positive ones.
Even after an event people always come up to me to say I'm so glad you're doing this. And that's all the affirmation I need versus social media because sometimes it doesn't feel like it's real people, even when you see all the views and likes. It's different than face to face. Someone is saying you did a good job and they don't even know you. That's huge. Because I do events and it's community building I'm gonna hear from the community I'm trying to build, the space I’m making, and it's always good feedback.
LH: Any parting advice for budding entrepreneurs, space makers, community builders?
MW: Remember the vision on the hard days when it doesn't feel like it's worth it because I think that will help see you through. Just remember why you started.