Aliya Shaikhina is a commercial analyst at U.S. Consulate General. She is passionate about public speaking, mentorship, leadership, planning and setting goals as well as learning languages and exploring different cultures.

I met Aliya at Toastmasters Almaty when she had the Ice Breaker speech about building a community. Trust me or not, I took photos of most of the slides, as I found Aliya’s insights very pragmatic. For me, the current world crisis is about physical, not social distancing. Being a part of a community can be one of the ways to stay mentally healthy. We asked Aliya on how to build a community from scratch.

Aliya Shaikhina

What is building a community for you?

Community-building is a way to get people of different backgrounds together around a common idea or topic. For me, it is also about creating an inspirational atmosphere and energy of encouragement and growth, evolving into a platform for self-improvement.

What’s the #1 rule for creating a community?

If you are about to start, I would name consistency as the primary rule. If people don’t know your community, you would have a hard time getting the word out, getting the audience and building it strong around the idea you’re all passionate about, if they don’t know when and how often you meet. It gets down to solid logistics later.

Also, talking about consistency. It is important not to feel discouraged if you didn’t see a big turn out. Be grateful to those 1-3 people that do show up. Treat them warmly, be grateful and enjoy the process, focusing on facilitating quality community events. People talk to each other! The word will get out there. Eventually, it will.

In the beginning

About 10 years ago, I realized I have an area to improve in – I was painfully shy. I knew that if I wanted to succeed in life, I had to get out of my shell. My job required me to speak up at meetings with high-level people, present to large groups and even, facilitate and moderate discussions.

So a friend of mine recommended to find a Toastmasters public speaking club. There was one in Almaty but it wasn’t official. The idea of speaking in front of people terrified me but I loved the idea of helping others overcome it! I was already more interested in getting it up and running, instead of speaking myself.

I came by to Tom Bartkoske, who was running unofficial Toastmasters meetings with his friends since 2006, and said I want to help him get it officially registered.

Almaty Toastmasters

We soon had a group of regulars, our eight official Club founders working together from 2010 to 2013 and formalizing it. I was the VP of Public Relations and I was trying to learn social media management but soon I realized that my intuitive focus had to be on creating events and building our community. So we had monthly movie nights and social outs after regular meetings. I would say about a year later, when we switched from biweekly to weekly meetings, the efforts paid off. So 2015 onwards, we started welcoming amazing members who understood to benefits of the Club and a warm community was starting to evolve.

Building my own community –Betterin12week

By the end of 2015, things were working pretty well and I felt the urge to create my community just to see if I can and also, you want to put to good use all the skills your build at Toastmasters.

From November 2015, I started a self-development Club, with some of my friends from Toastmasters called Better Than Before based on Gretchen Rubin’s book. We would meet biweekly to set up goals and plan out… well, our lives. Every 12 weeks, we would “graduate” from the goals we set and either leave the group or set new goals and so it lasted for years! Right now, we meet at the beginning of the year and are in touch digitally as most of the people are scattered around the world (talk about achieving your goals!). One of the goals I had set in there, was to create my language club.

Language Mixer

I have long seen two issues: my expat friends complained they do not have a chance to practice the Russian language that they need (more than English and Kazakh) in Almaty. I guess that’s the reality of life here. At the same time, my local friends would complain they have either nowhere to practice and improve their intermediate English or other languages they are learning. So I thought, there must be a way for me to bring them altogether. I, myself, needed a place to practice my French.

On February 2, 2016, I started gathering weekly meetings of our language club at Starbucks that just opened in Kazakhstan (thanks to my friend who runs Starbucks and invited me to host them) and it was for English practice at first and gradually, it evolved to what it is now.

Aliya Shaikhina

To-date, we had over 20 languages and cultures we explored through the years and recently, celebrated 4th anniversary with our community. I also have an incredible creative team – Aituar and now, Nilay and Aigerim – that joined to support the Club as they were drawn to it and loved the idea.

What does it mean to be part of a community?

There is that ‘family-feel’ to it, when the community lasts for years when you watch people grow, improve, achieve their goals and become close friends. It’s almost ineffable, the effect of it.

People from my communities inspire each other a lot and I call it a circle of inspiration. Seeing people learning a language and finding a job or moving to a country of their dreams to study or work, changing careers, running a marathon that they had been scared of, improving their test scores and getting into Masters program thanks to the new skills, and starting their projects. At Toastmasters, we had people starting their businesses, beginning amazing education and other projects, recording podcasts, etc. The community support at all times is truly indescribable.

Besides the solid inspiration you get from the communities, the friendships you build are really strong and powerful. They become a family that trusts each other as they see each other through thick and thin. Not just to withstand personal storms but because you saw how they work as volunteers, you know that you would want to work with or hire them or build a business with them or even, a life with them (yup, we have succeeded in matchmaking people!).

A strong community is a place where like-minded individuals with similar outlook and values get together. They are open to learning something new, to meeting new people and while ‘the entry’ is through one common topic, they end up expanding their minds and experiences, learning so much more about the world from each other.

How to start designing your own community events?

1. Idea

Pick an idea or a topic that simply ‘burns’ your heart; that either you are happy or frustrated about, that you want to do something about. Just as in business, a community works well around a problem that needs improvement. For example, in Toastmasters – it’s public speaking and leadership skills of individuals, for Language Mixer – it’s learning more about other cultures and practicing and tasting languages, for Better Than Before – it is getting regular and disciplined with personal goals setting.

The key is to understand what in it for the participants, what’s in it for you – why do you want to help create this platform and be honest with yourself. People follow honest, authentic and clear ideas and processes. Write out the original objectives as they will help your future pitch and getting the word out there.

2. Location

If you are creating a sports community or language club, assess the settings you need. They need to correlate with your idea and well, be equipped for it. Whether it’s physical or virtual. It is your job as a facilitator to organize it well. The quality of the organization will reflect on the reputation of the community. You build trust starting from this point.

3. Consistency

Once you figured out the idea and location, you have to commit to getting the community together regularly. Annually, quarterly, weekly, daily- whatever you have in mind. More importantly, whatever you can 100% commit yourself to for a long period of time. I was grateful and happy with one or two people and friends coming in to our language meetups – we had fun together. Next thing you know, they came with their friends, colleagues, family members. They remain committed community members to this day, and always remember how they were greeted with warmth. Some people ignore this point and give up too soon. Keep faith.

4. Get the word out

Do not shy away from your friends’ support but be sure they are there because they need it. Then, if there are consistency and an appropriate promotion, including partnerships, cross-promotions, you will soon see people hearing about your community from multiple sources.

5. Create the right environment

The atmosphere is crucial. The energy you bring as a facilitator will determine how your community grows and the kind of people it attracts. Maybe you want it to be formal, maybe fun and easy-going. Consider this as a critical factor as it will also, affect whether you retain them. Whatever factors you build in, make sure it is warm and promotes respect for each other at all times. As you get to create it, to set the right tone, have fun with that responsibility!

Globally- vs Locally built communities

I think it is easy to ‘stand on the shoulders of the giants’ and bring in a global organization, such as Toastmasters to a local community. As you have the tools and instruments, including education and promotional materials to do it with more ease.

For starting a community from scratch, it is a little more challenging. This is where your commitment will weigh in: first towards the steps in creating and designing it and then, ensuring it grows and is sustainable.

The global community-building is a growing phenomenon. It is now easier to build a global community, thanks to social media. The more digitalized our world gets, the more people crave a chance for human-to-human interaction and finding like-minded individuals. Also, I had seen it firsthand, how communities help its members grow and inspire each other. Making people happier to be part of them. Human support mechanism.

There is a famous TED Talk about a 75-year Harvard study about how human relationships are linked to personal happiness. I think building communities around different causes, ideas and products is a way to bring people together and allow for that human connection to evolve and thrive. I encourage everyone to explore communities in their hometowns around causes they are passionate about and if there is none to join, then creating it using the steps above, building a legacy if your own.

How to build a virtual community?

My only experience so far had been with in-person communities and physical presence at meetings. At least, at first. Watching the effects of COVID-19 unfold, I saw how our current communities are growing and even have interest from international participants (the power of social media), it is easy.

I think if there is a universal cause, it is incredibly easy to find ways to create a virtual platform for them.

From the steps above, your would have a digital location, instead of a physical one and well, getting the word out would still be social media promotion, word-of-mouth, global friends, exploring close partnerships with other organizations and communities that have tangent causes and having a win-win strategy and approach would help too. The rest of it remains in the virtual world too: consistency, atmosphere, and commitment. Now I am curious to challenge myself with it!

This is how major global brands and startups already operate these days. If you are unable to create a community around your product, you will not likely be able to sustain its growth for a long time.