In our last episode of the year, I talk with Maria Boland Ploessl. Maria’s path to technology has been interesting to say the least. A Saint Paul native, she studied Spanish and Latin American studies in college. In 2016, after living in a few different cities (even a year-long stint in Brazil), she moved back to Minnesota. Now, she’s the Executive Director of Minnestar, a non-profit organization with the aim of supporting and growing Minnesota’s tech community.
Maria talks to me about what Minnestar does, the work they’re doing to bring more people of underrepresented groups into tech, married life and how she’s grown from it, and parenthood.
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I met Maria Boland Ploessl a few years ago when she was campus director for The Iron Yard, a code school that shut down in 2017. Maria is a beloved member of the tech community here in Minnesota, but her path to technology has been an interesting one. After all, she majored in Spanish and Latin American studies back in college.
Maria is now the executive director for Minnestar, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to support and grow the Minnesota technology community…
We do that in a variety of different ways. One of the big ways that we do that is through events. We put on MinneDemo, which is three times a year; that’s a tech showcase event for Minnesota-made technology. We also put on MinneBar, which is the region’s largest technology unconference. What that looks like is it’s a full day, usually at BestBuy’s corporate headquarters, that’s 1,200 to 1,500 people, technologies that are getting together… And the unconference part of that is really unique in that this is really built by the community. Anyone can submit a session. As long as something is having something to do with technology or entrepreneurship or something like that and it’s not super salesy, it’s in. So it really is a reflection of the community coming together from a shared learning perspective.
We’re really proud of that, and I think it’s a real testament to the community. If you think about MinneDemos, depending on the capacity of the theater, they’re between 700 and 900 people. And then MinneBar, you have thousands… And it really talks to the strength of the community that we have here, and how people love getting together to be inspired, to learn from each other, and to make those connections.
From our perspective, it’s how are we fostering the community in that way, and how are we providing a value-add and a platform for us to grow and be the best community that we can be.
What is your official title at Minnestar?
I’m the executive director.
Executive director, okay. So what does that mean?
That’s a… Wear of many hats, usually. [laughs] A little background - Minnestar was formed in 2006, and it’s been run by a volunteer board of directors, from 2006 to last year. I mean, it was completely run by the volunteer board, so my role was the first hire that Minnestar has ever had. So on an operational standpoint, I’m kind of like the day-to-day, all that stuff; I’m a team of one, that’s the rockin’ and rollin’… [laughter] But I have an amazing board. There’s this group of people, eleven of them - they’re just incredible. If you wanna talk about people that are real advocates, roll-up-your-sleeves advocates for the tech community - that’s it. So I’m super-lucky in that way.
What do you define as success in this position?
We have a lot of ambitions as it pertains to the community, but it is 100% always rooted in service to the tech community… So success is – you can look at metrics of what makes a healthy ecosystem, you could look at that; you could look at so many different things, of businesses being built, you could look at just the sheer numbers of technologists, but at the end of the day, if we are providing value to the community and we are constantly working to iterate to meet the needs of our community and make our community better - that’s success to me.
[04:13] This tech ecosystem has gotten so strong over the – if you think about the last five years… And you look at something like Twin City Startup Week; that’s been growing and growing and growing each year.
I think that there’s so much potential in our community, and we’re starting to get that national recognition of things that are happening… And I think that if we keep moving the needle, but with always looking at how are we making our table bigger, how are we bringing more people to the table, and how are we intentionally thinking about community in that way… That’s kind of what I think about when I think of “Are we being successful?”
I’d love to talk about The Iron Yard, because I feel like this plays on what we’ve been talking about. I feel that the Iron Yard was trying to solve a problem of education in technology that is still unresolved.
I think also bootcamps are really an opportunity as well for more diverse people to form part of our community, such as people of color, such as women as well. How do you foresee those issues being resolved in our community here, and do you feel that Minnestar is going to have a role?
Yeah, so when we talk about issues still very much at the forefront of our community, that is a humongous one. This is such a core issue, on so many different levels… How are we expanding access and opportunity to multiple different groups of people? Frankly, it’s one of the big reasons that I’m in this community. I’m not a trained technologist, but I’m extraordinarily passionate about diversity and technology. We have so much talent in our community, and how are we expanding this and being intentional about bringing more people into this? It also is very lucrative, and you talk about economic development programs, and you talk about the impact that that can have on communities; that’s huge, too.
I think there’s a long way to go, I think that there are some really, really great things happening in our community… You talk about – the national Blacks in Technology Conference was just here; it was held here, of all places, for the first time, and that was huge. Shout-out to Sharon and Antoinette for putting that together. You talk about Hack the Gap that happens every year… There’s really good things that are happening, and so from our perspective it’s “How are we, as Minnestar – if we are a community organization, how are we supporting and really putting the weight behind promoting and supporting these events and groups?”
We have a lot of ideas. Last week we piloted our first brand new event in I don’t know how many years… It was a MinniDemo format event; we called it “MinniDemo Back to Campus.” All of the presenters were current students or recent graduates, and we had seven amazing presenters. We had one who is 14 years old…
Yeah, it was incredible. And we did a lot of reaching out and getting feedback from community members, specifically folks who were new to the community, who were themselves recent graduates… Kind of saying “What would be really beneficial to you at an event like this?” From that, we did also AMA-style conversation circles with tech leaders during the happy hour. We had a few different topics, like “Finding a job in the tech community” or “Opportunities for founders”, and we had representatives from us, from Minnesota Cup, from Beta.mn, Lunar, we had folks that were talking about building your own company… And being able to grab a beer and talk to these people who have done this before.
[08:02] That was really cool, we got a lot of good feedback from that, and it’s just kind of keeping the momentum of who was not at the table and how do we help that, and how do we kind of push the needle on that?
Maria and her husband Cory have been married seven years now. They met in college, studied abroad together, and spent their first year of marriage in Brazil, on an English teaching fellowship. Now, Maria is eight months pregnant with their first baby, and she says the hardest thing for her has been communication.
I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily marriage… I think just relationships in general. I had to really, really learn to be a better communicator. I think part of that is vulnerability, and being really vulnerable with someone with your truth, when you’re doing your own work of discovering who you are, and your needs.
I really kind of keep going back to everything that we’ve gone through as a unit and as a couple. We’ve been together for almost ten years, and I think that all the ups and downs of that really – bringing us to this point was completely about communication, and really learning and flexing that muscle. It is not perfect, I will for sure tell you, and Cory will agree… I am not the most perfect person when it comes to communicating feelings, but it’s all about just kind of getting better at that, and really seeing people on a human level, and I-statements and all of that fun stuff.
Yeah. It’s so interesting to hear you say that you’re not the best at communicating feelings, because – I mean, yeah, I think that is difficult in a relationship, but especially… I think if both of you have difficulty communicating feelings it’s easier, but…
…but I feel like if one of you has difficulty but the other one is very in tune with their feelings, that can be very, very difficult.
Yeah, and I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the book The Five Love Languages, but…
Yeah, I have heard a little bit about it…
Yeah, but I mean – if you’re not familiar with it, essentially it boils down to the theory that there are five ways in which you show or receive love. You’re gonna have to help me out… There’s acts of service, there’s words of affirmation, gifts, quality time…
That’s four. I don’t remember the fifth one.
Oh. D’oh. Whoops.
Physical touch. Yeah. [laughter] Like, “Oh, yeah. Hugs.” [laughter] Yeah, so that one - it helps give a little bit of context to “Oh, right, the way that I receive love, or my mode of communicating love or appreciation is not the same as someone else’s.”
Cory and I, we’re very complementary humans, but we don’t communicate love in the same way. That can lead to a result of, you know, let’s say that you’re someone who’s very words of affirmation; you’re just like “I love you. You’re the best person in my life etc.” and you’re looking to your partner for that, and you’re just like “Oh, you never say that you love me etc.”, but then your partner is like “But I just did all of these things around the house, and I did this thing that I knew that you really needed”, being more acts of service-oriented.
Yeah. That is my relationship right there, in a nutshell.
Yeah, is it?
Because I am the – and that’s why I said, if both of you have the same love language, I think that it’s gotta be easier. But when you have differences of it, it can be very challenging. I think that that’s the case certainly in my relationship. I’m very communicative about my feelings, whereas Kelly isn’t. She is more acts of service type of person. And it’s interesting, I think, and it’s also personal growth to understand that just because they don’t love you in the way that sometimes you want them to love you doesn’t mean that they love you any less.
And I think that’s a hard thing to accept sometimes.
Yeah, and sometimes maybe it’s even getting to a place in the relationship – I was just saying “Hey, I know this isn’t your love language, but I just need to hear you say X today. Just however you wanna say it, but I need to hear X.” Or sometimes it’s like – Cory is very acts of service, and I do that sometimes, but it’s not my default, so it’s like… I don’t really like cooking, but it’s like “Today I’m gonna make dinner. You relax” kind of thing. And he knows that that means something different than – like, he loves to cook. It means something different, it means an intentional showing of love.
So you’re eight months pregnant…
I don’t even know how to or what to ask about this, but I’ll preface it with my feelings. If it were me a month from having a child, I think I’d be freaking the hell out… But it’s because I feel like I’m in this constant place where I don’t feel adult enough to handle some of this stuff. I mean, how are you feeling right now?
Oh my god, I’ve totally been through that feeling and that phase. For instance, last year we bought a house for the first time, and we were sitting down in the meeting where you sign all the papers…
Yeah. Big deal.
…and I’m just like “You’re just gonna let me do this?” [laughs] I totally felt not adult enough for that. And it’s one of those things where being in the last month – I can always speak for myself, and I’m no expert; this is only my first time around… It’s a lot of different emotions at the same time, where you’re like “Oh my gosh, in a month I’m gonna be a mother…” I guess you could say I am right now, but “I’m gonna be a mother for the rest of my life”, and the responsibility that comes with that… And wanting to do an amazing job at that.
[16:18] There’s that kind of trepidation feeling, but there’s also the very physical, real feeling of like “I’m kind of done.” [laughs] You get to the end, and it’s uncomfortable, and you try and keep perspective of – there’s sometimes where you’re like “Wow, this is just such a cool process and experience, to be creating life…” And I try and take a step back and remind myself of that anytime that I’m just like “Ugh, there’s an elbow in my rib cage” or something like that… [laughs]
And especially for us, where it – it took us a lot longer, and it took a lot of work. So I’m in a place where I’m feeling really grateful, while also having all of the normal feelings of like “Oh my god, what is even happening…? I have no idea.” I’m just going into it just fully well-knowing – I mean, as much of a planner as I am, I know that this is just gonna turn everything upside down, and just being okay with that…
I have a friend who is a little bit similar to me, in that she’s very planning-oriented, and “You control your schedule, you control this etc.” A baby just totally flips all of that up. You think that you have this plan for X=blah-blah-blah, and it’s just like – you know what, you have to meet the human first.
Do you feel that this has given you a different perspective on your parents?
Yes. You kind of reflect on that through life – I feel like I reflected on that as I was becoming an adult. I got a chance to get to know my mom in a way that I didn’t as a kid. You just start to have more open, adult conversations… “Wow, that’s really interesting”, and learning about decisions that she made, that I didn’t really think twice about… Even something as simple as – my mom does not speak Spanish; I’m the oldest, and she sent me to the Spanish Immersion School. At the time, that was one of two – it might have been the only language immersion school in Minnesota at the time.
It was a very new concept, and in my head I’m just like “Oh, yeah, of course. Like, why was that a big deal?” And it’s just like “You have no idea how many people told me I was crazy, told me that I was making a terrible decision for my children, that this was an untested educational paradigm… Why would you do this?” etc. And you don’t have the same context, so sometimes decisions that your parents made, you’re just like “Yeah, of course”, but hearing the parenting head of that… And I’m the first person to tell her, “That is the best decision you’ve ever made for us kids, hands down.” All of us are adults, we all still speak Spanish, and just the approach that that program had on our lives…
But yeah, I totally took for granted that – she got a lot of pushback, and that was actually a very difficult decision. And this is just one little example, but you hear more about these decision-making processes, and some things that you took for granted that were actually very intentional.
I remember one thing that my parents – they wanted to be a united front. There’s five kids in our family, right?
So they wanted to make sure that decisions, or whatever – they’re a united front; you don’t go to mom for one answer and dad for another, you know?
But I can imagine now thinking about this, like, that must be an everyday choice that you’re making throughout the day, and…
…it’s exhausting and hard, yeah. So it makes me reflect a lot on that, it makes me reflect on the type of parent that I hope to become, the things that I really valued from growing up, the things that I value from the way that Cory was brought up… It’s kind of cool that you have the opportunity to write your own story a little bit.
I think for me one of the things that terrifies me of parenthood is the fact that I realize now that I am screwed up in so many different ways, and that is because my parents tried to do their best even though they were screwed up by their parents.
And I think coming to terms with that, with having a child and realizing that you are gonna do things that are going to mess this kid up for the rest of his/her life - that is deeply troubling to me.
I totally feel that. People do the best that they can in the moment, and what they think is best… I’m a big proponent of – you know, therapy has really helped me a lot, and I remember when I first became pregnant, that was one thing that really weighed on my mind. I’m like, I’m someone who has been deconstructing my own self, and knowing where I need to work on, and all of that stuff… I’m nowhere near any sort of finish line. Not that there’s a finish line and you get a gold medal for deconstructing childhood, or whatever… [laughs] But I don’t wanna unintentionally pass on something, or whatnot…
And just recognizing, like, we’re all gonna do the best that we can… And I do think that the leg up that you have in that is your self-awareness of it… At least that’s what I tell myself - I’m self-aware about things that are hard for me, whether or not that was rooted in something that happened when I was a child. Just kind of keeping that in mind, and reflecting on decisions that I’m making, and whether or not they’re coming from a place of reaction, if that makes sense. We all do the best that we can, and it’s just kind of awareness, I think…
That’s Maria Boland Ploessl. She gave birth to an incredibly handsome baby boy, William Otis, earlier this month.
Before we go, Maria told me this funny story about the night she met Saint Paul’s mayor at a MiniDemo.
So it was at the Artway which is a little bit fancier, and we had the mayor of Saint Paul, which was super-nice and awesome… And right as I’m, of course, going to meet mayor Carter, and I’m just super-excited, my shoe breaks… I don’t know why I decided that being pregnant and wearing heels was gonna be a great idea. It was terrible… [laughter] But it was just one of those “How can I artfully hide the fact that I am standing on one leg and saying hi to you?” [laughs]
And how did that go?
You know, I think I played it off about as cool as one could play it off. [laughter]
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