Episode 46: A New Chapter Of Friendship

Hear about book recs, the value of audiobooks, and more from an organizer of one of Meetup’s most successful book clubs on the Keep Connected podcast.

Episode 46 with Alysia Allen

Alysia Allen is the founder of Mocha Girls Read, a Meetup book club that began with 12 women in Inglewood, California, and now has more than 10,000 members across the United States in 14 cities and two virtual communities. 11 years ago, Alysia was an introverted bookworm who never quite saw herself as a leader. Now she sits down with David as an award-winning organizer to share her own personal transformation and the “secret sauce” that makes her book club so successful. They discuss the finer details, like membership expansion through social media photos, as well as how reading stretches your independence and empathy muscles. 

Ranked as one of the top 25 CEO podcasts on Feedspot, Keep Connected with Meetup CEO David Siegel is a podcast about the power of community. For more details on other episodes, visit Keep Connected on the Meetup Community Matters blog.

We hope you’ll keep connected with us. Drop us a line at podcast@meetup.com. If you like the podcast, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating on Apple Podcasts.

In this episode, we are talking to Alysia Allen. She is the amazing organizer of the Mocha Girls Read group. This is a club that has expanded enormously in nineteen different cities, and has won Book Club of The Year. The reason for that is because of the secret sauce that she is going to share with you. If you are ready for the secret sauce of how she made her group so successful, give it a read.

Alysia, welcome to the show.

Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited about this.

We spoke, and I heard the story about the founding of Mocha Girls Read Meetup Group, and I was like, “We have to have this extraordinary woman on our show.” Now, you are here, and I’m so glad. Without further ado, tell us a little bit of a backstory about what happened, why you started a group, and we’ll take it from there.

The backstory of Mocha Girls Read, I was at work one day, and the coworker came in and said, “I need to finish a book I’m reading right now for book club meeting.” I was like, “Go for it.” I’m an avid bookworm. I love reading, but I did not realize book clubs are still a thing. I was constantly reading but not engaging with other people. I thought, “Let me jump on Google and find a book club.” Google knows all. When in doubt, go to Google. I jumped on Google, and the first thing that popped up was Meetup. There were tons of book clubs in Meetup.

I joined more than one. They all look great and I couldn’t decide. The first one had a book club meeting in two weeks. I bought the book. I jammed through it and I was ready. I went to the book club meeting, and everything was great. We started chatting and the discussion was great. All of a sudden, someone says, “I feel like this book is not based in reality.” That started popcorning all over the room and other people are like, “Me too,” and we are reading The Help. If you know The Help, it is about Black women being the help in the 1950s and 1960s. That’s when I realized it was like, “I’m the only Black person in this room. This is becoming very uncomfortable for me.” That was my very first book experience. The help was there prepping our lunch for the after book club meeting.

I’m so sorry that you had that experience. Credits to you for persevering, and I’m guessing going to another book club event.

I did. I went to book club number two. Number two was an hour drive. That’s Los Angeles, everything is an hour away, but this one was very far. I get there. It wasn’t actually a book club meeting. They were having an open discussion to talk about whatever you are reading, which is great. I went and I was ready to talk about this book I was into. I showed up, sat down, and nobody said anything. No one engaged in conversation with me. I tried to force myself into a conversation.

Being the introvert I am, it was not easy at all. After a while of that, I got up and left, and no one even noticed, said goodbye, or anything. That was number two. During this whole entire time, I have a friend staying with me. She was in between moving, so she was staying with me for a little bit. Every time, I would come home and tell her about these horror stories I was having, and she would say, “Start your own book club.” I kept going, “No way. I would never. Why?”

“An introvert like me? Come on. I’m not a leader.”

“I can’t do that. No way.” I went back to Google. Every book club I wanted to join, there was a thing that was a small barrier. The barriers were like fees. I didn’t understand the concept of why should I be paying fees and talk about a book? There were other issues of book clubs that were affiliated with churches, synagogues, and temples. At the time, Fifty Shades Of Grey was the popping book. Everybody was reading it and wanted to talk about it.

KCM 46 | Book Clubs
Book Clubs: Some book clubs usually come with a small barrier. These barriers can be like fees. There is no reason why you should be paying fees to talk about a book. You’re better off making your own book club.

Not a great synagogue and church book likely.

It is not going to happen at a church book club, not at all. That was another barrier. There were book clubs that you had to meet and go to members’ houses, “I live in LA. The parking sucks. Where is everybody going to sit in my place? I can’t do that.” That was another barrier. There are all these things. My friend kept telling me, “Start your own.” Fast forward a month or two of this craziness, I decided to start a blog, MochaGirlsRead.Wordpress.com. That’s what I started working on. The day that I launched it and it was live, I got 2,000 hits that day.

How was that possible? Do you know 2,000 people? I don’t know 2,000 people.

No. Back in the day, blogs were exciting still. There was an event called Blogista. In every Blogista, people would launch sites, and so I did it on Blogista day. I tweeted it out and Facebooked it to all my friends and family. I told them all to share it, and then 2,000 hits.

Nothing like talking about Fifty Shades Of Grey with your grandmother, so that could be great.

It was great. After that I started finding other people and started talking about books. Two months after the launch of the blog, and ladies are constantly talking on the blog about books and what they are reading, I decided, “Let’s bite the bullet and make a Meetup.” I did a Meetup here in Inglewood, California. Twelve women showed up to the very first meeting, and it’s been constant ever since. We are now 9,000 across the US. 16 chapters, 2 of them are virtual.

It sounds like 14 different cities, 2 virtual so people could be anywhere around the world and participate, which is amazing. I’m glad you added virtual. That opens up Mocha Book Reads to many other people. That’s awesome. Hundreds of books. More importantly, thousands of people bonding around shared experiences or even different experiences. How did you go from 12 to 9,000? What advice would you give for people about how you were able to expand? Was it all word of mouth? Was it a lot of blocking and tackling actions that you did? Did you share on social? What were some of the things you did to grow it like that?

All of the above. Honestly, it was trial by fire. Everything was trial by fire because when the twelve first came to the first book club meeting, I was happy. I was ecstatic. It never occurred to me anything bigger than that. I was happy with the twelve, and that’s all I focus on was the twelve. I thought that was going to be it for the rest of my life.

It wasn’t until other women in other parts, they would see pictures because we would take pictures and I would post it up on Facebook. I posted on Twitter all my personal stuff. Then it started to spread, and women started asking me questions about it and saying, “Can I do that in my city? I want a book club like that.”

It happened very organically. You didn’t push a new city. Someone said, “Can I start Mocha Girls Read?” What was the second city?

Tempe, Arizona.

Then you were like, “Yeah.”

I got an email and I was like, “Who are you?”

Do some of the groups read the same book ever, or is it always up to each location to choose what book?

All sixteen chapters read the same book every month.

That’s so great because it means that women can bond with each other regardless of the city that they are in. There’s an opportunity to connect in that way.

It’s great because we have had ladies in Los Angeles go on vacation and they are in New York. They can go to a book club meeting.

That must happen. How many different cities have you been to Mocha Girls Read? Have you been to multiple cities?

Yes, Sacramento, San Diego, and Harlem, New York. That’s it for now.

That must have been surreal. You are like a celebrity walking into San Diego or Harlem, New York, and they are like, “This is the Alysia that started what we do.” That must have been so meaningful.

The first time I went to a book club meeting outside of Los Angeles was Harlem. I told the organizer, “Don’t tell anybody who I am.” The whole entire meeting, I was another member, and it was great. It was nice to be there. At the end of the meeting, I introduced myself. A couple of ladies kept saying, “I knew it.”

When I go to Meetup events myself, I also don’t tell anyone. I’m hiking and doing my thing or doing whatever the event is. Then halfway through it or three quarters of the way through it, I’m like, “I work at Meetup,” and they are like, “What do you do at Meetup?” I say like, “I work in management,” because I don’t want to sound whatever. Then they say, “What do you do in management?” I’m like, “I’m the CEO of the company.” They are like, “What?” It’s amazing.

Let’s talk about you specifically chose Mocha Girls Read, and not Mocha People Read. There’s something very powerful about single-gender experiences or all female experiences that’s different. It’s better in certain ways, different in other ways than mixed experiences. Can you share a little bit more? We have many safe space groups, product manager groups, engineering groups for women, and hiking groups for women. We have lots of that and it’s important. Talk about why you think it’s important, what your experiences have been around having it be all female? You’ve also had some events with non-females, but let’s talk about the female first.

We believe in safe space. It’s nice to be in a room where you don’t have to worry about if somebody is hitting on you or even what you wear. When women come to a meeting, you don’t have to worry about if I’m dressed properly. Just come show up in your sweats or yoga pants. It doesn’t matter. It’s nice to have a space that you are accepted for being you, no judgment and agenda. You are sitting and talking about books.

It’s nice to have a space where you’re accepted for just being you.

What we try to say besides no judgment, we are here to learn from each other. We don’t have to have the same life experiences. We have read books that the main character’s parent passes away, and that is a very emotional conversation. Having a conversation like that, we are passing boxes of tissue around. It’s nice to have like your little sister circle.

To be as vulnerable as you can, which is incredibly important. You’ve had some events that you’ve invited men to the event as well. Talk about that. Has it been a meaningful experience to have those.

It’s super popular. We do co-ed events with our brother book club, Black Men Read. The women love having the opportunity to hear what the men think about certain topics. We have only done non-fiction with them. They are very heavy in nonfiction. That is their favorite. Outside of your sister’s circle, it’s nice to hear other opinions. It’s very popular.

There aren’t as many sweatpants and yoga pants in that one?

Everybody shows up and they’ve got the lipstick on. That one is always on Zoom.

Even on Zoom, they are still making sure that they are looking good. Do you know if anyone started a relationship from the Black Men Read and Mocha Girls Read group or you don’t know yet?

No, not yet. I will check back on that.

I bet it has happened or at least something has probably happened afterwards. You’ve had so much incredible success. Share with us some more advice on the events themselves, post-event, pre-event, or anything you have. I want everyone, all Meetup organizers, and there are thousands reading this, to learn from you.

My number one advice to all organizers is to make a mission statement. It’s a group, and you guys are hanging out, going for walks and hikes, but make a mission statement and share it with the members. Share it and read it every year to yourself because sometimes you might get off track. It’s important to create a mission statement to understand what you are doing and what your purpose is and what the purpose of the organization is.

KCM 46 | Book Clubs
Book Clubs: As an organization, it’s easy to lose track of what you’re all about. That is why it’s really important to create a mission statement. To understand what you’re doing and what your purpose is.

What is Mocha Girls Read’s mission statement?

I should have brought it, but it’s quite long. We are a group of Black women that love to read, want to read more, and meet like-minded women. Everything I found in other book clubs and didn’t like, I used to build our mission statement. We don’t charge for fees. We don’t close our membership. We only have meetings in public venues and never at private homes. This has been a thing. Our pronouns are ‘she’ or ‘her.’ As long as you are accepting it and happy with that pronoun, you are more than welcome. I tell everybody get a mission statement.

Number two. I know this may sound crazy because it’s a Meetup thing. Meetup is very focused on our RSVPs, but don’t focus on the RSVPs. It will make you crazy. Have the event regardless of the RSVPs. It does not matter. Go and do it. I want to say, in the beginning, 50% of our membership did not come from Meetup. We tell everybody, “Go check Meetup,” but a lot of people know through word of mouth or they see us doing something, and they join immediately.

When you’re running a book club, don’t focus on the RSVPs.

That’s the benefit of the public space also, as opposed to if you are in a private home.

Out of our 12 on the very first meeting, 2 of them were walk-ins, and they are still members to this day many years later. Don’t focus on the RSVPs because I have seen organizers cancel events based off low RSVPs. Don’t do it.

It’s about quality, not quantity. Let’s keep it going. Number three?

Number three is be consistent because this goes back to the RSVPs. For Mocha Girls Read, every first Saturday at 1:30, there’s a meeting regardless. It’s a reoccurring thing. Even if no one shows up, I’m still there. I will always be there no matter what. That is a consistent thing. Same time, but the place has changed, but the time and the space are always there no matter what.

Be consistent. We have a lot of older members that don’t use technology. They are not on Facebook. They are not on Meetup. They just show up. They don’t RSVP but they are consistently our core group members. They are always there because they know what time to be there. Be consistent and do things you are planning on doing anyway. I tell the people a lot of organizers are like planning these events and these things. If they have the lowest RSVP, they cancel. If you are going to go do it anyway, just go do it.

Keep going. Number four and then number five, let’s hear it.

Go do it. The last one is the crazy of the crazy ones, but it works. Don’t listen, but listen to your members.

This is like management too. It’s the same thing, but please go. I know what you are saying. Elaborate please.

Don’t listen, but listen. Listen to what they are saying, but don’t change the mission statement because a member came in and does not like one thing. Don’t change the date and time of the meeting because it’s inconvenient for two members. That may be inconvenient for you to make that change, and it’s going to alter your schedule and you are the organizer. Listen, but don’t listen.

Listen to your members, but don’t change your mission statement just because somebody doesn’t like it.

I oftentimes will say, “Hear them but don’t necessarily listen to what they tell you to do. Hear their problem or hear their challenge, but don’t necessarily follow the exact suggestion that they have.” That’s very important because as an organizer and manager, you are trying to make everyone happy, and then you make yourself insane. It’s impossible to make everyone happy in life. You have to stick to your guns and listen to what people are saying. If there’s a theme and a consistency to what people are saying, then really understand that theme and consistency, but you can’t make everyone happy. It absolutely doesn’t work.

The bigger your group gets, the more voices you have.

The more opinions there are. It’s like running a company. It’s a lot of similarities. You’ve got to take over a CEO of Meetup. That’s it. I think you are ready. The next thing I wanted to hit on a little bit is one of the things that you do that I love that I read about is having special types of book club meetings around themes. A lot people can learn from that creativity. Both book clubs and also non-book clubs, hiking clubs, all clubs, and any kinds of hobbies. Talk about the themes that you have had and give us some examples of some of the themes you’ve done.

We do a little bit of everything. We have done baby showers. Book-based baby showers for members that are pregnant and about to have a baby. We have done that. We do head wraps, “Everybody, come in your favorite head wrap,” and we’ll have a little fashion show at the end of the book club meeting. Every December is a cookie swap party. In December, everybody shows up with cookies. It’s the most popular. It’s turned into our family reunion event. Some members we don’t see all year, but we will see in that event.

They come once a year. That’s so meaningful and nice. Do you try to do that in every city?

We try to do that on some of them. Other ones have other events. They may have a Christmas card exchange, but there’s a holiday thing.

You’ve done graduation ones too?

We did a graduation. We have done going away parties. It’s not just book club meeting. It’s book club meeting plus life.

That’s an important message. It’s not just about the book. It’s about building connections between people, and finding those moments when you could take advantage of what’s happening in the world and help people to bond with each other.

Some of our best bonding experiences are between mother and daughter members. Our mothers will bring their teenage or a little bit older daughter. The going away party was a mother-daughter. The daughter graduated high school. She’s going off to college. All the members brought their favorite book as a going away gift for her. We build community.

KCM 46 | Book Clubs
Book Clubs: Some of the best bonding experiences in Mocha Girls Read are between mother and daughter members. It just strengthens community and connections with one another.

That’s really special. When people meet each other’s family, the ability to become even closer is great. Before we wrap up, you must have one story that sticks out in your mind of an experience. Is there one that sticks out as a meaningful experience for you?

The very first time I heard about Mocha Girls outside of Los Angeles sticks with me and will be with me for the rest of my life. We were nominated for The Book Club of The Year and we won. We won again this year 2022. Book Club of The Year number five this 2022. Our first nomination was from a member I did not know. I didn’t even know there was a Book Club of The Year thing until I got the letter. I got an email, then a letter came.

The person that nominated had to say why they were nominating us. She was an online member, and she joined because she wanted to have something to bond with her mother who was in hospice. Her mom was an avid reader. The two of them bonded over whatever book we picked. They had their own book club meeting. Our virtual chapter had Q&A question sessions on Facebook, so she would pull the questions from Facebook and talk to her mom about it right before her mom passed. She said it was the most beautiful bonding experience she had with her mom because they got to bond over books. She said she found out more about her mother and her mother’s life during that time.

It’s so sad but also so beautiful that they were able to have that experience. Books open up worlds. Books allow people to share similar experiences and different experiences. I’m not an avid reader as you. I read 20 or 30 books a year. It’s a blessing to hit the bed, hit the pillow, and open my book and read every single night before going to sleep. As I get older, I find my ability to read for longer before falling asleep becomes more difficult.

I will give you a little cheat. It’s called audiobooks.

It helps a lot, I agree. You joined the Organizer Discord community, and you’ve been helping out so much. It’s an example of you stepping up and looking to mentor. You’ve already mentored so many organizers. I wanted to thank you for what you’ve done, but also the butterfly effect of mentoring so many other people as well as part of what you do. It’s so extraordinary. We are going to go into rapid-fire questions. Are you rapid-fire ready?

Yes.

Quick question. Quick answer. Let’s do it. I think I know the answer to this, but maybe I will be surprised. First time you saw yourself as a leader?

First book club meeting many years ago for Mocha Girls.

Never before?

Never.

You could go to access a time machine to go anywhere in the world at any point in time, where are you going and when are you going?

I want to meet Coretta Scott King right before she gets married. I want to like have a powwow with her for a while.

Have a nice long dinner.

That would be amazing.

Name one thing on your bucket list.

I haven’t been to the Eiffel Tower yet, so that’s on my list.

When you go, make sure you climb to the top. It’s worth it. Even though it’s a tough climb, the view is amazing. Hopefully you go, and maybe you’ll go when you have the Mocha Girls Read Paris.

That’s a work in progress. You know that, right?

I did not know that. Let’s make that happen and then let’s get you to Paris for that. Last question, you’ve accomplished so much, you are going to accomplish even more all throughout Europe and who knows where else. What do you most want to be remembered by?

Teaching young kids how to read. I did that before. Giving literacy to people, I love that.

It’s more important now than ever. The number of teenagers that spend their time reading versus their time doing other things is far less than it used to be. Reading opens up the imagination. It opens up the possibilities. It opens up the ability to have aspirations beyond what one’s world happens to be at that particular time.

Independence and empathy muscle.

Thank you for being on this show. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your empathy, independence, and reading muscle. I’m so appreciative for everything that you do. I can’t wait to see where the world takes you.

Thank you so much for this wholly experience. Thank you for Meetup and all the changes you are making that are empowering the organizers. It’s amazing.

Thank you for reading to this episode with Alysia Allen. There were many great tips that she shared. The importance of having a mission. It’s not about the numbers. It’s about the qualitative experiences. Consistency is so important. Don’t necessarily cancel and find ways of consistency across your different groups. Finally, find ways to celebrate milestones and build connections between people. It’s all about connections, not necessarily just about the reading. If you enjoy this episode, subscribe to it, that way you could keep getting more episodes. Leave a review. Remember, let’s keep connected because life is better together.

I have something important to share. Check out my new book, Decide and Conquer, to get to know my story at Meetup. The hardest thing about community leadership is making tough decisions when the stakes are high. I will tell you that they were never higher than when Meetup was owned and sold by WeWork.

In my new book, Decide and Conquer, I will walk you through a counterintuitive framework for decision making and the epic journey of Meetup’s surprising survival. Good leaders deliberate, great leaders decide. Order my book by visiting DecideAndConquerBook.com or anywhere books are sold. I think you will like it.

Important Links

About Alysia Allen

KCM 46 | Book ClubsPerformance-driven Management Professional with 15+ years of proven experience in improving organizational productivity through the development and implementation of strategies that foster operating synergies and facilitate lasting and positive change. Recognized for the ability to translate corporate vision and mission into division-level strategy in order to meet and exceed organizational targets. Relationship-builder noted for maintaining continuous communication with various level executives and other staff regarding operations, productivity, and performance gains. Effectively demonstrates people management expertise, policy compliance, and management competence.

Last modified on October 4, 2022