At first, it was a one-off: An after-hours event, exploring how gender functions in language and behavioral economics. There seemed a real appetite at Babbel for such discussions. The raw material was already on hand — the relationships, the speakers, the event space. As with much of what drives the culture here, it didn’t come from on high, but was an employee initiative.
As it turned out, it struck a chord.
From Mandate To Mission
From this, Babbel: Perspectives was born as a quarterly event series run out of our Berlin headquarters. When the company offered to put resources behind it as an ongoing project, the mandate was pretty broad: Initiate a conversation intellectually or artistically challenging, though not necessarily connected to technology or language-learning, and for an audience larger than just Babbel’s employees. As the dust settled from those conversations, we found ourselves with a budget and more discretion than either of us anticipated. Like kids who’d just slipped one past the grownups, we shared a glance, eyebrows raised.
What followed could’ve gone any number of ways. There’s an obvious, and well-worn template for these sorts of things in the tech world. We weren’t terribly inspired by it. With one of us closely connected to the academic world and the other plucked from social movements, we were hardly lacking in our own ideas. We mostly wrestled with the question: How much can we get away with?
So far, we’ve put behavioral economists in conversation with a computational linguist about how our lives are gendered at the granular level, a cognitive scientist in conversation with an African Studies scholar on how white space conditions our attention in virtual and lived environments, and two technology researchers on the tension between how mobile technologies serve social movements and the private ownership of mobile infrastructure.
How Our Values Inform Our Project
What matters to learners matters to us. Babbel’s learners, much like our 500-some employees, are incredibly diverse. This is also true of the surrounding Berlin community. Any assessment of what matters to any of these audiences is going to turn up similarly diverse results. So, the question then becomes: What’s already being addressed? What lays beyond that is what interests us. It’s where we see our work.
Diversity makes us stronger. Following from that, we work with a keen attention to who’s speaking, who’s being listened to, and whose experiences are presented as normal. Instead of using our resources to promote the same, already-prominent voices in society, we choose to invite individuals with different perspectives and experiences. We believe we should get outside ourselves and meet the world with a deep curiosity. It’s not just part of our intentions, but also our processes and structures. At every stage, we seek to upend assumptions about who we stand to learn from.
We make the complicated simple. Intellectual life and thought-provoking conversations are for everyone. We firmly believe that anything can be made accessible, and we take this very seriously when curating Babbel: Perspectives events. Our aim is to take challenging, provocative and even unsettling subjects and deliver them so that our audience is moved. Rather than exclude topics, we look for entry points that make them real and intuitive for people.
We love what we do. Truthfully, what we’re doing wouldn’t be possible otherwise. If we didn’t love our work, the emotional labor of bringing different voices together on difficult topics and the tedium of the logistics wouldn’t be sustainable. We work from a very deep love of this audience, the speakers we invite and the world we all share. If nothing else, we want the outcomes to reflect that.
Working in tech, it’s very easy to slip into a detached, disembodied view of what we do day to day. Babbel’s users are literally everywhere, and so much of what we do is virtual. That can feel immaterial, at times. On the other hand, Berlin is very much Babbel’s home, and the city’s character is part of our DNA. It absolutely informs the transformations we’d like to see in the world and how we want to help catalyze those transformations.
Therefore, it makes sense to us to interact with Berlin in an organic way, to question the world together as people in a particular place and time. Looking forward, our hope is that Babbel: Perspectives will be a sort of standing date with Berlin — a conversation that challenges us as much as it does anyone who walks through the door.