Tag Archives: Passion Projects

How sweet it is! This Googler carves fruit into art

During work hours, Leonard Ko collaborates with teams of engineers on Pixel phones. But he’s also known for a unique talent outside of tech: creating intricate sculptures out of fruit. It turns out fruit is just the latest medium for Leonard, who has been creating art for decades—and only recently decided to make his art edible. 

Leonard Ko kitchen

Leonard Ko in his kitchen.

Leonard has always been interested in expressing himself through art, and first worked on traditional Chinese paintings and oil paintings of landscapes. But eventually, his love of art translated into making art out of food. 

At first, his prowess in the kitchen came through baked goods. “I liked to bake cakes and pipe them with buttercream and chocolate, but they are so sweet and unhealthy,” Leonard says. He changed his materials to avoid all the junk food. “I chose the art of fruit, since it’s natural and healthy,” he says.

For the past three years, Leonard has been making his fruit sculptures every two to three weeks and, until COVID-19 led people to stay at home, bringing them to friends’ picnics and parties. He says fruit carvings can be as simple as creating “rabbits” from orange slices by turning the peel into “ears,” and as elaborate as crafting a shark’s head out of a watermelon, then putting other fruits in the shark’s carved-out “mouth.”

For the past three years, Leonard has been making his fruit sculptures every two to three weeks and, until COVID-19 led people to stay at home, bringing them to friends’ picnics and parties. He says fruit carvings can be as simple as creating “rabbits” from orange slices by turning the peel into “ears,” and as elaborate as crafting a shark’s head out of a watermelon, then putting other fruits in the shark’s carved-out “mouth.”

Leonard Ko with his daughter

Leonard’s daughter and number-one fan.

Usually, it takes around two or three hours for him to complete each fruit sculpture, though his most detailed ones, for parties or special events, take up to seven hours to carve. He once created a fruit sculpture for a team-building event at the office. “My coworkers thought the sculpture came from a professional chef, and couldn’t believe it was my work,” Leonard says. 

The biggest fan of Leonard’s work is surely his daughter, who often looks on with wonder as he creates little animals out of fruit. “She is very interested in what I am doing for the sculpture,” Leonard says. “She will stay with me and ask some questions, like, ‘Daddy, why did you do this? Could you use other fruits?’ After she saw the finished sculptures, she loved them.”

Since like most Googlers he’s working from home these days, Leonard is keeping busy working and taking care of his daughter, which doesn’t leave much time for fruit sculptures. But he’s still staying creative in the kitchen, cooking a decorated meal once a week. Recent dishes have included yogurt topped with a rainbow of fruit and purple sweet potato tarts. The watermelon sharks will have to wait a little longer. 

Leonard’s cooking from home while working from home.

 Leonard’s cooking from home while working from home.

How sweet it is! This Googler carves fruit into art

During work hours, Leonard Ko collaborates with teams of engineers on Pixel phones. But he’s also known for a unique talent outside of tech: creating intricate sculptures out of fruit. It turns out fruit is just the latest medium for Leonard, who has been creating art for decades—and only recently decided to make his art edible. 

Leonard Ko kitchen

Leonard Ko in his kitchen.

Leonard has always been interested in expressing himself through art, and first worked on traditional Chinese paintings and oil paintings of landscapes. But eventually, his love of art translated into making art out of food. 

At first, his prowess in the kitchen came through baked goods. “I liked to bake cakes and pipe them with buttercream and chocolate, but they are so sweet and unhealthy,” Leonard says. He changed his materials to avoid all the junk food. “I chose the art of fruit, since it’s natural and healthy,” he says.

For the past three years, Leonard has been making his fruit sculptures every two to three weeks and, until COVID-19 led people to stay at home, bringing them to friends’ picnics and parties. He says fruit carvings can be as simple as creating “rabbits” from orange slices by turning the peel into “ears,” and as elaborate as crafting a shark’s head out of a watermelon, then putting other fruits in the shark’s carved-out “mouth.”

For the past three years, Leonard has been making his fruit sculptures every two to three weeks and, until COVID-19 led people to stay at home, bringing them to friends’ picnics and parties. He says fruit carvings can be as simple as creating “rabbits” from orange slices by turning the peel into “ears,” and as elaborate as crafting a shark’s head out of a watermelon, then putting other fruits in the shark’s carved-out “mouth.”

Leonard Ko with his daughter

Leonard’s daughter and number-one fan.

Usually, it takes around two or three hours for him to complete each fruit sculpture, though his most detailed ones, for parties or special events, take up to seven hours to carve. He once created a fruit sculpture for a team-building event at the office. “My coworkers thought the sculpture came from a professional chef, and couldn’t believe it was my work,” Leonard says. 

The biggest fan of Leonard’s work is surely his daughter, who often looks on with wonder as he creates little animals out of fruit. “She is very interested in what I am doing for the sculpture,” Leonard says. “She will stay with me and ask some questions, like, ‘Daddy, why did you do this? Could you use other fruits?’ After she saw the finished sculptures, she loved them.”

Since like most Googlers he’s working from home these days, Leonard is keeping busy working and taking care of his daughter, which doesn’t leave much time for fruit sculptures. But he’s still staying creative in the kitchen, cooking a decorated meal once a week. Recent dishes have included yogurt topped with a rainbow of fruit and purple sweet potato tarts. The watermelon sharks will have to wait a little longer. 

Leonard’s cooking from home while working from home.

 Leonard’s cooking from home while working from home.

This Googler is crocheting a royal dynasty

In recent months, many of us have been taking up eclectic new hobbies while stuck at home. But Danish Googler Christine Sørensen didn’t need social distancing to inspire her unusual passion project: She was already well on her way to crocheting all 54 monarchs in Denmark’s history. We spoke with her to learn what inspired her, and how it’s had some unexpected intersections with her day job.

Margrethe 1 - princess leia.jpg

Christine's first crochet project, Queen Margrethe I

What’s your role at Google?

I work in the Government Affairs team. I talk to politicians about how Google can contribute to the Danish economy and society with our innovations and ideas.

Where did you get the idea to crochet Danish monarchs?

One day, when I was visiting New York for business, I was in Chelsea Market and noticed a book teaching you how to crochet the Star Wars characters. I like Star Wars, so I got the book and started on Princess Leia. I also really like history, and as I was crocheting I realized that Leia looked a lot like Queen Margrethe I. I modified the dress, and there she was. And then I thought, we’ve had 54 kings and queens, why not do them all?

How far along are you now?

I started in 2017, but it wasn’t a priority. Then, at the end of the year, our queen made a speech that inspired me. Instead of always striving to accomplish something, she recommended doing something that wasn’t at all useful, something colorful. I thought, “That’s me!” and I really started in on the project.

Quuens birthday parade.jpg

Queen Margrethe II, the current queen of Denmark, giving a birthday speech to her assembled forerunners

It’s been a great opportunity for me to learn and think about the way our monarchy has evolved over a thousand years. It’s a story of hard power turning into soft power: In the year 1000, the monarch decided everything. They had all the power and the resources to enforce it. Now, monarchy is a very soft power—we send the queen to whatever country we’re trying to get a good trade deal with, for example.

I’ve done 27 of them now. Number 28  is King Christian X, who is portrayed on a horse. That played a very big symbolic role for the country: After the First World War, southern Denmark was finally reunited with the rest of the country, and he rode over the former border as a symbolic gesture. Then in World War II, when Denmark was occupied by the Germans, he rode his horse around Copenhagen every morning at 10:00 as a reminder of Danish sovereignty. I’ll have him ready by July 10th the 100th anniversary of the reunification of Denmark.

So before this you’d never crocheted anything?

No, I just taught myself from the Star Wars book. Since then, I’ve realized that there’s a major crochet community online, and people are very helpful whenever I ask questions. For example, right now I’m at great pains trying to figure out whether King Christian will be attached to his horse or not, and how to even make the horse in the first place, and I’m getting tons of very good advice.

Christine with Queen margrethe 2.jpg

Christine poses with her crocheted Queen Margrethe II

Chat with Helle Thorning.jpg

Former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Christine's crocheted Queen Margrethe I

Has this project had any unexpected effects on your work?

A lot of my job involves talking to journalists and politicians, and many of them will check in on how the crocheting is going—there’s always a nice conversation to be had if you’re stuck waiting around with someone. And then there are some unexpected similarities between certain monarchs and some of the politicians I meet with. For example, I brought together Denmark’s first woman prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and my crocheted Queen Margrethe I for a “chat” about what it was like to be the first woman in each of their roles.

What are your plans for your collection when you’re done?

My moonshot is to get an exhibition at the National Museum of Denmark—stay tuned! For now, I’m slowly building up a community on Instagram. I travel a lot all over Northern Europe for work—or at least I used to—which means not only do I have time to crochet while I’m on a plane, but I can also bring the kings and queens to the places associated with them. Harald Bluetooth can go to the city of Jelling, where he marked his introduction of Christianity with a massive runestone. Christian IV can go to Oslo, a city he founded. Valdemar the Victorious can go to Estonia, where the Danish flag miraculously appeared to him in the sky. 

Recently, when coronavirus spoiled further celebrations, Christian I held an anniversary speech at the Copenhagen University Ceremonial Hall, which he founded 541 years ago. But the kings and I can’t wait to go explore the realm (and the past) again.

This Googler is crocheting a royal dynasty

In recent months, many of us have been taking up eclectic new hobbies while stuck at home. But Danish Googler Christine Sørensen didn’t need social distancing to inspire her unusual passion project: She was already well on her way to crocheting all 54 monarchs in Denmark’s history. We spoke with her to learn what inspired her, and how it’s had some unexpected intersections with her day job.

Margrethe 1 - princess leia.jpg

Christine's first crochet project, Queen Margrethe I

What’s your role at Google?

I work in the Government Affairs team. I talk to politicians about how Google can contribute to the Danish economy and society with our innovations and ideas.

Where did you get the idea to crochet Danish monarchs?

One day, when I was visiting New York for business, I was in Chelsea Market and noticed a book teaching you how to crochet the Star Wars characters. I like Star Wars, so I got the book and started on Princess Leia. I also really like history, and as I was crocheting I realized that Leia looked a lot like Queen Margrethe I. I modified the dress, and there she was. And then I thought, we’ve had 54 kings and queens, why not do them all?

How far along are you now?

I started in 2017, but it wasn’t a priority. Then, at the end of the year, our queen made a speech that inspired me. Instead of always striving to accomplish something, she recommended doing something that wasn’t at all useful, something colorful. I thought, “That’s me!” and I really started in on the project.

Quuens birthday parade.jpg

Queen Margrethe II, the current queen of Denmark, giving a birthday speech to her assembled forerunners

It’s been a great opportunity for me to learn and think about the way our monarchy has evolved over a thousand years. It’s a story of hard power turning into soft power: In the year 1000, the monarch decided everything. They had all the power and the resources to enforce it. Now, monarchy is a very soft power—we send the queen to whatever country we’re trying to get a good trade deal with, for example.

I’ve done 27 of them now. Number 28  is King Christian X, who is portrayed on a horse. That played a very big symbolic role for the country: After the First World War, southern Denmark was finally reunited with the rest of the country, and he rode over the former border as a symbolic gesture. Then in World War II, when Denmark was occupied by the Germans, he rode his horse around Copenhagen every morning at 10:00 as a reminder of Danish sovereignty. I’ll have him ready by July 10th the 100th anniversary of the reunification of Denmark.

So before this you’d never crocheted anything?

No, I just taught myself from the Star Wars book. Since then, I’ve realized that there’s a major crochet community online, and people are very helpful whenever I ask questions. For example, right now I’m at great pains trying to figure out whether King Christian will be attached to his horse or not, and how to even make the horse in the first place, and I’m getting tons of very good advice.

Christine with Queen margrethe 2.jpg

Christine poses with her crocheted Queen Margrethe II

Chat with Helle Thorning.jpg

Former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Christine's crocheted Queen Margrethe I

Has this project had any unexpected effects on your work?

A lot of my job involves talking to journalists and politicians, and many of them will check in on how the crocheting is going—there’s always a nice conversation to be had if you’re stuck waiting around with someone. And then there are some unexpected similarities between certain monarchs and some of the politicians I meet with. For example, I brought together Denmark’s first woman prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and my crocheted Queen Margrethe I for a “chat” about what it was like to be the first woman in each of their roles.

What are your plans for your collection when you’re done?

My moonshot is to get an exhibition at the National Museum of Denmark—stay tuned! For now, I’m slowly building up a community on Instagram. I travel a lot all over Northern Europe for work—or at least I used to—which means not only do I have time to crochet while I’m on a plane, but I can also bring the kings and queens to the places associated with them. Harald Bluetooth can go to the city of Jelling, where he marked his introduction of Christianity with a massive runestone. Christian IV can go to Oslo, a city he founded. Valdemar the Victorious can go to Estonia, where the Danish flag miraculously appeared to him in the sky. 

Recently, when coronavirus spoiled further celebrations, Christian I held an anniversary speech at the Copenhagen University Ceremonial Hall, which he founded 541 years ago. But the kings and I can’t wait to go explore the realm (and the past) again.

Family and history inspired this Googler’s photo series

Editor’s Note: Welcome to Passion Projects, a series where we highlight Googler’s unexpected, fascinating and often inspiring interests outside of the office. In our latest installment, we’re focusing on a recent project Sarah Torney, a Googler from the Chrome Enterprise product marketing team, put together during her time sheltering at home in San Francisco. Over to Sarah...

I’m a fifth-generation San Franciscan and fourteenth-generation American. Recently, to fill my time as I shelter in place, I’ve been sifting through old family photos. I discovered a series of photos my great-grandfather took in the days after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. My great-grandfather, Edward “Ned” Johnston Torney Sr., hit the streets with his camera to document the devastation caused by fires following the “The Great Quake” on April 18, 1906. He was able to continue shooting for days after, documenting the path of destruction caused by the fires.

After sharing my great-grandfather’s photos with close friends during a virtual happy hour, an idea hit me: I decided to recreate a “then and now’’ photo series, heading out to the same locations and street corners my great-grandfather had photographed (all while following social distancing guidelines, of course). Not only has San Francisco's shelter in place emptied the streets of many cars and people, similar to the impact of the fires, but the timing is also significant. It’s been 114 years to the month since the 1906 earthquake. 

Cable_Car.gif

Present-day photo of Market at 6th facing west; a cable car on the streets of San Francisco in 1906.

Heine.gif

Geary at Powell facing east towards the Palace Hotel on Market, in 1906 and 2020.

Hibernia.gif

Hibernia Bank, Jones at McAllister, facing north, in 1906 and 2020.

Some things have clearly changed: New, modern buildings have replaced many of the ones that stood in the early twentieth century. Our methods are different, too; to document the crisis of 1906, my great-grandfather used the trendiest equipment available at the time, a Kodak “Premo” camera. I recreated his photos with my camera of choice, Pixel 3a. It’s interesting to see the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake juxtaposed against the ghost town that is downtown San Francisco amid the COVID-19 crisis today.


Working on this project has been a fascinating history lesson on San Francisco—and better yet, it’s surfaced family photos and stories that I will be able to remember and share for generations. 

Special thanks and gratitude to Warren Finke, Richard Torney and Eric Torney for photo preservation and publishing permission.

AF1QipNbLbQcp96ADQao7LRm8Y35qWM6EOHUrJ1hAbpV=w2048-h1147.jpg

Sarah Torney and her great-grandfather, Edward “Ned” Johnston Torney Sr.

In Mexico, one Googler gives girls their “tümü” moment

When a butterfly comes out of its cocoon, it uses the most fragile part of its body—its wings— to break free. In the Otomi dialect, which is spoken in the central region of Mexico, this magical moment is called Tümü. So when Paoloa Escalante and her co-founder decided to create an organization to help support young women, they decided that Tümü was a fitting name for it.  

“The idea was to create content that promotes determination, self-esteem and assertiveness during a moment in girls’ lives that's constantly changing,” Paola Escalante, Head of Google Mexico’s creative consulting branch, called the Zoo, says. The pre-teen and teen years are challenging, and in recent years, social media has made this time even more complicated. “Adolescence has always been the same, what has changed is technology,” says Paola. “With so much access to information, decision making can be overwhelming and social media is setting new standards not just regarding beauty, but also lifestyle and accomplishments. There’s a new layer of vulnerability that grows at a very fast pace.”  

Tümü began as an after-work project that Paola started about two years ago. She and her co-founder, Zarina Rivera, had noticed that instead of reaching out to family and friends with their questions or problems, more and more often girls turn to internet communities. So they created a platform where girls can find content as well as ask questions and get answers from experts in a friendly way, and hopefully navigate what can be a complicated time more smoothly. 

Paola never imagined how big Tümü would become or how much responsibility she’d feel for the girls using it. Some of them ask questions about eating disorders, or about being pressured into sex or into sending intimate photos. Some girls ask about depression. Sometimes, their mothers even turn to Tümü’s experts for answers. 

Tümü has become more than just an online resource. The organization also hosts workshops and small events, which Paola hopes they’ll be able to offer to more communities in the country, and bring in more speakers to talk to the girls. At Tümü’s first offline event, Paola invited 19-year-old astronaut Alyssa Carson to speak. “That day I cried so much. I couldn’t believe that more than a thousand girls had gathered to hear her speak. And then I couldn’t believe that they had stayed for all the activities,” Paola says. “We gave them a journal and the girls were filling it willingly, writing down their reflections, how they saw themselves in five years, what they wanted to learn.”     

The way Paola sees it, what girls need has less to do with empowerment and everything to do with being given the space to get to know themselves and their self-worth. “As grown-up women, we have different movements focused on women empowerment, and we need them because we are a generation of women who need to regain the power that culture has taken away,” she explains. “But younger generations have that power. They don’t need to be empowered—they need to be pushed to believe in themselves and figure out how to become the best version of themselves.” And, she says, young women should be given the opportunity to realize what they want before being pushed to get it. “I also don’t think that the message for them should be achieving their dreams. Very few girls know what their dreams are, and they don’t need the added pressure to have one and go after it. In order to figure out what they want they need to be happy with who they are now and understand themselves.” 

Paola is proud of the work she’s doing through Tümü because she knows how important these kinds of resources are for young women. “I would’ve liked to have a helping hand when I was that age. It took me a while to have my ‘tümü moment’ as I call it, I don’t think I had it until I was 30,” says Paola. “I want to help build a better world for future generations.”

How one Googler creates more than music at Carnival

While many Brazilians grow up celebrating Carnival, this wasn’t true for Christiane Silva Pinto. It wasn’t until college when she joined her first bateria that it became an incredibly important tradition to her. “When I was playing in college, I loved the music and practicing with the band, but I also loved that I got to know more about that culture I hadn’t been in touch with when I was a kid,” says Christiane, who played the drums in her college bateria, which is a Brazilian percussion band. 

“Some of the people who played with us had experience playing in the Carnival parades, and those stories were contagious.” Today, in addition to working as an Associate Product Marketing Manager for Google helping small and medium-sized businesses in Brazil, Christiane is part of a band that plays every year during the iconic Carnival in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where a sea of spectators gather every year. 

Carnival lasts for four days, and much of the celebration happens in the streets. While there are different traditions in different cities in Brazil, people in Sao Paulo enjoy parades, food and most importantly, music. Bands called blocos or bloquinhos (which include the traditional baterias along with other instruments as well as singing and dancing) set up temporary stages or hire trucks and offer free, wandering concerts.

In 2013, Christiane and her friends founded their first Carnival bloquinho and she was excited to see 30 people had turned up for their show. She would’ve never imagined that her band would become so popular that around 10,000 people would gather to watch them play, like they did for last year’s Carnival. In her bloco, where Christiane plays a kind of tambourine called tamborim and the snare drum; they play traditional Carnival songs, original pieces they’ve written and even reinterpret contemporary songs with Carnival rhythms from bands like Pink Floyd or Rage Against The Machine.

Aside from making music, Christiane sees carnival as an opportunity to unite Brazilians  and generate equality awareness, as well as connect with her African heritage. “We have a lot of inequality in Brazil. Most people are poor, and most of the poor people are Black. Race is very related to economy, and unfortunately you will probably see that during Carnival the white people are having fun and the Black people are working,” she says. 

In fact, in her bloquinho there are only two Black women, including Christiane. While the majority of Brazilians are Black, they’re hugely underrepresented, and she’s proud to bring her perspective to the celebration and give visibility to her culture and ancestors. 

Christiane also wants to empower women through Carnival. She recently joined a second bloquinho dedicated to empowering women through music and body positiveness. This bloco is exclusively for women, which is unusual; it was formed in 2015 by one of her friends after she was harassed during Carnival. “We founded a feminist bloco where women could come together to celebrate freedom, to be safe and to be able to express their bodies.” She’s also helping campaign local government to pass initiatives that protect women against harassment.   

Christiane’s dedication to Carnival began with her love of music, but through it she’s found a way to make underrepresented voices heard. “Many people say that things are so bad that they don’t understand how some people can still enjoy Carnival and forget about the country’s problems. But that’s the way people who don’t live Carnival think, because they don’t understand its culture. For me, it’s a way of cultural resistance.” she says. 

“Music is a powerful way to express your ideas and your values. Being able to create music is very beautiful and powerful. And for me, it’s priceless to keep my culture and my ancestors alive through Carnival.” 

A Googler’s illustrated guide to teamwork

Ah, team projects. They spark dread in the hearts of middle schoolers and business professionals alike. But Googler Stephen Gay, a manager on the Ads User Experience team, says teamwork doesn’t have to be so hard. 

Stephen recently published “Why Always Wins: A Graphic Resource About Leading Teams,” a graphic novel focused on effective leadership. In the conversation below, Stephen talks about writing the book and reveals a few tips for leading high-performing teams.

Where did the idea to create a graphic novel about leadership come from? 

I’ve been so fortunate over the past 20-plus years of my design career to have great coaches and mentors who shared guidance along the way, and I wanted to pay it forward. But, a classic business leadership book is, like, 300 pages of text. In my day job, I’m a user experience (UX) designer, which is all about guiding the user through a journey. I realized that a long book might not be the most engaging format, so I had the idea to put the advice into a more consumable, fun format.

Stephen Gay

Stephen with his graphic novel “Why Always Wins."

How did your day job at Google influence the book? 

For the past two years, I’ve led a team that helps design the UX for Google Ads. Our work allows businesses to create and place ads all over the web, which helps millions of advertisers and publishers. It’s high-impact, high-visibility work, so there’s tremendous pressure to move quickly. 

To do that well, we need to focus on both what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Research at Google has shown teams with established trust and strong working relationships produce higher-quality work...and at faster speeds.

Screenshot 2019-12-30 at 8.25.14 AM.png


What’s your best advice for leading a high-performing team? 

It’s actually where the title of the book comes from: “Why always wins.” Difficult situations at work inevitably occur, but instead of immediately reacting, it’s important to stop and really assess what’s happening. That starts with self awareness and awareness of the team and the situation.

As a leader, we might come into a situation and want to advocate for our own position right away. Try leading with inquiry, instead of advocacy. Ask why. 

How does asking “why” help? 

Let’s say you notice someone texting on their phone while you’re presenting. Your natural inclination might be to assume they’re not paying attention. By asking why, you might learn that they’re actually dealing with a family emergency or texting a coworker to come check out the presentation because they’re so impressed.

So, if “why always wins,” what always loses? 

“Lose” might be a harsh word, but I see friction and unhealthy tension start to build up in teams when leaders don’t solicit a variety of perspectives. There’s a technique we call the “boomerang” that can help. 

You can bring in the boomerang when a group conversation starts to get heated, typically between two people. To boomerang it, you throw the question back out to the rest of the group to collect everyone’s opinions and then formulate a next step. At Google, we talk a lot about creating a culture of inclusivity, and the boomerang is an easy technique to open the conversation back up to more perspectives, and especially allow quieter voices to be heard. 

Why Always Wins


Besides “why,” what’s a key phrase leaders should get comfortable with? 

Not speaking at all. There’s a lot of power in a pause. One of my early mentors used to say, “Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.” When you’re in a heightened state of confusion or frustration and speak rashly, you can make bad decisions. Sometimes you need a moment for the water to clear, and then you can guide your team forward in a more mindful way.

“Clapping back” at racial stereotypes in a new book

Elijah Lawal just published his first book, but he’s been writing since he was 10 years old. Back when he was a kid, he wrote a story about a boy who ran away from home—and eventually became the president of Panama. His new book, published in the U.K. earlier this year, has very little to do with his imaginative works of little-kid fiction, but it came from a similar refusal to accept things the way they are. 

Elijah, who works in communications in Google’s London office, just wrote “The Clapback: Your Guide to Calling Out Racist Stereotypes.” He says it’s his attempt to debunk harmful stereotypes aimed at the Black community, and to give people the tools to respond when they are faced with such myths. 

Each chapter introduces a stereotype, explains its origins and shows why it’s harmful. “If there's a stereotype that Black people can't swim, and if I believe that false stereotype, then it means I'm very unlikely to go swimming,” he explains. “It means I’m very unlikely to take my kids swimming. That feeling is passed on to them, and they're very unlikely to take their kids swimming. Then before you know it there's not enough Black representation in Olympic swimming.”

Elijah certainly wasn’t drawn to writing for the glamour factor. “Writing a book is hard, lonely and often boring,” he acknowledges in his writing. He worked on the book every weekend for three full years, because he felt compelled to help others. “I just felt that I've been blessed with this knowledge, and so I've got to try and share it with other people,” he says. “I thought the best way to do it was with a book.”

Elijah Lawal poses with his book

Trying to get the book published was equally unglamorous. With a full first draft in hand, he started pitching his book to literary agents, trying to find the one who would represent his work to publishing houses. The rejections immediately poured in—so much so that Elijah had to change his way of thinking about them. A former colleague convinced him to think of it like he was seeking rejections instead of acceptances, and make it like a game. “Trick yourself into believing that the aim is to get 100 rejections,” Elijah recalls learning. “Then when you get rejected 100 times, go for 200 rejections.” 

Eighty rejections in, and more than a year later, Elijah finally got the response he’d been hoping for. In fact, he got three agency acceptances in quick succession. When the first one appeared in his inbox at the end of a long workday, he got up from his desk, ducked into the nearest meeting room and did a little dance. The hardest part was over, and the agent he chose helped find a publisher. 

In fact, things went so smoothly from there that he’s already got ideas brewing for two or three more books. “I kind of pictured this as a trilogy, so: debunking racial stereotypes, then debunking gender stereotypes, and then debunking religious stereotypes," he says. And a fellow Googler gave him the idea of turning “The Clapback” into a kids’ book, an idea he’s also considering.

The project has broadened Elijah’s horizons both personally and professionally. When he started working on the book, he was in a job that didn’t require much writing. Committing himself to a regular writing practice not only filled a creative void in his life, but also helped him be more creative at work.

And his colleagues have loved the result. “The reception of the book has helped me realize how willing people are to engage on this issue internally at Google—I’m amazed by how many people have been so supportive,” he says. “That’s been one of the joys of having this published.”

The Googler whose art springs from “useless” objects

When Jeff Sundheim first moved to New York in 1996, he went running in his neighborhood every morning. He always ran by the same dumpster, which was packed full of oddly shaped pieces of wood. The nearby store, which built new and refurbished antique billiard tables, considered the wood pieces to be trash, but Jeff didn’t. He returned to his apartment after each run with armfuls full of material. That’s how Jeff started making art. 

Jeff is in his 13th year at Google, working with advertisers and publishers on creative campaigns and helping companies find ways to appeal to wider audiences. And he says his love of sculpture perfectly complements his work at Google. “There isn’t a dichotomy between my life and work life and creative life,” he says. “It’s all pretty fluid.” For example, he works with advertisers all the time, and the ad industry’s bold fonts and company logos frequently inspire his art. His artwork is varied, including colorful compositions made of discarded cardboard boxes and phone book listings. Recently, he’s been playing with steel, working outdoors and on a larger scale.

Jeff Sundheim

Jeff at work at the Art Students League in New York.

His latest work is in New York’s Riverside Park, right next to the Hudson River. Jeff noticed the park lacked seating, so he created a sculpture that invites passersby to take a rest. The piece, named “Wavehenge,” features a wave of steel towers acting as a sundial over four benches of wood. And it contains a secret: Four times a year, at a specific time, the shadows of the steel wave perfectly align with each of the benches. He says he’s loved seeing how people interact with his piece of art. Kids even bring chalk up to it, creating their own art on his sculpture.

Wavehenge

“Wavehenge” acts as a sundial, facing New York City’s Hudson River. 


Jeff says a new perspective can bring welcome change to everything from a piece of wood to a sculpture or a park. He’s also recently pursued a change himself, undertaking a rotation at Google, spending several months in a new role in Mountain View. There, he worked as an evangelist on a wide range of topics with visiting executives from Google’s largest clients. “It’s an extraordinary way to learn about the company, get a bird’s-eye view and meet incredibly interesting people,” Jeff says. While working out at the gym on campus, he ran into an accessibility researcher and invited him to present on multiple occasions to Google visitors.  

Making something beautiful after it’s no longer useful endows an object with new purpose, Jeff says. In his work and his art, he’s drawn to projects that require him to imagine a new future for information or objects that are often taken for granted. “So much of what we do at Google is making things useful,” Jeff says. “I love taking materials I’ve found that have been cast off and giving them a new life, transforming them.”