Jing Wang Herman: Cultivating Creative Power through Wonder and Play
Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse picture books and online curriculum with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by our interplanetary journalist Spiffy with inspiring Social Entrepreneurs and Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builders, who are advancing the UN SDGs.
Hey, guys! Spiffy here, your trusty interplanetary journalist back again on Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs making a difference in the world! I have another great interview for you this week. Today, I’m excited to cruise around with Jing Wang Herman, the co-founder of 28Muses. Let’s see what she’s doing to have a positive impact.
Spiffy: Thanks for joining me, Jing! Tell me, what challenge are you addressing?
Jing: I’m happy to be with you, Spiffy! The mission of 28Muses is to cultivate creative power through wonder and play. We believe everyone is born creative, but many people don't believe they are creative! Did you know that creativity is widely discouraged and suppressed in schools and in the workplace?
Spiffy: No, I did not! That’s no fun.
Jing: Exactly. With the rise of machine learning, AI, and robotics, creativity is our last advantage against machines, and imagination is humanity's superpower. We want to cultivate this superpower and make it accessible to all - currently, we are working with corporate teams and facilitating (IRL and virtual) creative, hands-on workshops that stimulate curiosity and expression.
Spiffy: That sounds very cool! What motivated you to tackle this challenge?
Jing: My co-founder Alyssa Gundred and I were randomly assigned to be NYU roommates in 2000. We are both artists but went on to work in diverse career paths: I was in finance for 8 years and then tech; Alyssa was a creative director and then head of Ops/HR. Back in our dorm room, we gave people the opportunity to express themselves by painting on the walls or ceiling, building things, and we saw how liberating it was for them and how big a tangible impact it made in their lives. We experimented with many immersive experiences on the streets of NYC throughout the last 20 years, and we saw that the smallest creative action can activate someone's imagination and bring something magical to the mundane. Today, we've figured out a way for that magic to be accessible on demand.
Spiffy: How are you and your team at 28Muses working towards a more equitable world?
Jing: 500 years ago, people believed that artists were given talent by a higher power. Over time, slowly, we've come to believe that everyone can make art and put a lot of emphasis on art in schools for kids. As we age, the power of art and creativity is lost in higher education and in the workplace, and self-criticism, doubt, and judgment set in more and more. The "creator economy" today is a major leap toward everyone having the right to be creative and to be paid for their creative endeavors, but the mere fact that some are called "creators" and most are not still shows the gap that exists. We hope to demonstrate to everyone that they are intrinsically creative and build equitable, safe spaces for teams and groups of people to express their unique selves.
Spiffy: Tell me about a recent initiative by 28Muses. What impact does that make?
Jing: Recently, we have brought virtual teams together from Adobe, Amazon, Etsy, Morgan Stanley, EY, IDEO, Crunchbase, Github, Autodesk, Inspirato, Meetup, etc., to be creative together and feel wonder and joy that may be missing in their daily work. Last month, we hosted a series for MS' Small Business Academy where underrepresented small biz owners were able to tap into their inner power and be equipped with a new toolkit. I also created over the last 18 months BuildTheFuture.Work, now the largest digital cluster of future-of-work builders, to reimagine work and workplaces. At every turn, I've had to rely on creativity coupled with vision and hustle to bring it to life.
Spiffy: Congratulations on those impressive new initiatives! Please share an experience when you faced failure and didn't give up. What did you learn from that experience?
Jing: Our mission of cultivating creativity has been consistent since 2000, but we didn't know how to make it into a business. Early on, we experimented with B2C events in NYC; then we hosted a collective where everyone had creative goals; then we planned to make it an interactive museum and tried to open a small immersive popup in NYC; then we wanted to open a co-working space with creative corners sprinkled throughout. When the pandemic hit, we were glad we had not raised money to sign a lease. Like many, we adapted our product to the virtual world. Though we had plans for an app and tech development, we later realized that the core magic of what we do didn't require any tech or space or app. Today, we are bootstrapping a profitable business!
Spiffy: Amazing! What is something you've unexpectedly learned from someone recently?
Jing: A recent article showed that even a virtual hug or virtual high five releases the same happy brain chemicals/oxytocin that a real hug or high five does. We are in the beginning stages of outlining a landmark study on creativity with professors from Columbia Business School, NYU, and Stanford Business School. It will measure this issue of identity, how changing someone's definition of whether they consider themselves creative or not can affect their work/life, and how virtual vs IRL creative bonding can be more or equally effective.
Spiffy: Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Jing: People equate being creative with drawing or painting, and they equate an adult creative workshop with Paint Night. But if you think about Paint Night or a cooking class, everyone is following instructions step by step with the same expected outcome – there's little room for unique self-expression, choice-making, and a whole lot of unspoken self-criticism and judgment. These classes perpetuate the same systemic problems in education and the workplace that suppress creative, lateral thinking. That's why every 28Muses workshop is designed to have a different outcome for each person. And it's that unique expression that gives someone a glimpse into how their colleagues think and results in authentic connection and empathy for the team.
Spiffy: Thanks again for speaking with me today, Jing—it’s been an honor!
Jing Wang Herman is a co-founder of 28Muses.com and chief builder of BuildTheFuture.Work. She is also an artist, an immigrant, and a former licensed NYC taxi driver. Originally from Beijing, China, Jing moved to TX when she was 10. She graduated from NYU Stern. Prior work includes serving as US CEO of Gett, which is now a billion-dollar market leader in corporate ground transportation management. She was an investment banker and corporate strategist with JPMorgan for 8 years, where she was named one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in Finance in 2012. (Nominated by Josef Scarantino of Hubspot Ventures. First published on the Ladderworks website on August 5, 2022.)
© 2022 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by George Romar. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Corner here.