About the Founder


👋 I'm Danu Poyner – founder and chief grokkist around these parts.

I'm an Australian living in New Zealand. I started Grokkist in 2022 as a self-funded social enterprise that celebrates the joy and excitement of sharing knowledge for its own sake, free and for the benefit of all.

For the moment Grokkist is just me and runs on the fumes my enthusiasm and the energy I get from my supporters. I'm paying my bills as an academic research performance consultant while I work towards making Grokkist my full-time gig.

I have a decidedly squiggly career and an unconventional CV, which is something I've started to embrace rather than apologise for. I am a gleeful interloper across disciplines and subject matter intersections and I have so many interests that I've had to start outsourcing them to the community.

LinkedIn is where I house the glossy version of my background and accomplishments, otherwise read on if you want to get to know me a bit better on a human level.


The short version

I grew up in the outer suburbs of Brisbane. I did well at school but hated it. I dropped out of high school and worked in retail jobs before starting my own graphic design and IT training business at 21, which was fun but failed and I went bankrupt. Humbled, I went to university as an adult and did well but hated that too. I did some teaching and research assistant work, briefly toyed with doing a PhD and instead fell into the weirdly niche world of research management, performance and information systems, where I have since made something of a name for myself. Older, wiser and better resourced, I now have a freshly-minted Executive MBA and am ready for round two of building a business.


The longer version

Perhaps the best way to make sense of my trajectory and what drives me is to track how my core interests have collided with various formative experiences to synthesise an overall direction of travel.

Teaching

I've always loved teaching and teachers but never loved school. Much of my life has been spent trying to make sense of how the latter gets in the way of everything I love about the former. I have a long list of informal teaching expertise, beginning with running after-school classes for my high-school teachers in the mid-1990s on how to use computers. That experience later became the basis of X-Spot, my IT support and training company that aimed to excite and empower people who were curious and confused about technology.

Later, when bankruptcy gave me forced time to reflect on what I'd learned about teaching computers, I self-published a book about it.

Later still, I spent a few years as a university tutor teaching undergraduate courses with names like 'Power and Governance', 'Society in a Global Context', 'Research Methods', 'Public Policy' and 'Economics for Social Sciences'. This was hugely enjoyable work and for a while I entertained an academic path until I realised that the machinery of academia all but ensures that a dedication to quality and accessible teaching is among the first casualties of career success.

In the world of corporate administration, my educative impulses found expression through change management, internal communications and preparing high-quality training materials and workshops.

Technology

I see technology as a force for good and transformative empowerment, while maintaining a healthy awareness and criticism of its misapplication and pernicious social effects. Coming from a loving and supportive but relatively humble background of limited means, my familiarity and engagement with technology has always been my primary driver of upward social mobility. Being a safe pair of hands who understands the technology is what has opened doors for me throughout my life.

I credit my granddad for this interest from an early age – from the early 1990s he would buy the latest computer every couple of years and give me his old one. I grew up on computer games, bulletin boards and the dizzy freedoms of Web 1.0.

Because I'm a grokkist (although I didn't know it then), I've always actively sought out jobs, people and opportunities that would help me learn by doing. I've had various jobs selling and supporting phones, computers and technology, including a stint as a Genius Admin at a busy Apple store in Melbourne. More recently, I was the Asia-Pacific representative and product specialist for a prominent research information database used by academic institutions, governments and science organisations. I've also led digital transformation projects at a couple of universities.

These days I have an active interest in game-based learning and the digital creator economy for education, which is of course the engine that drives the development of Grokkist.

Soft/Enduring Skills

I trade on my reputation for getting results through applied emotional intelligence, empathy and my relatable, tailored individual approach, all with a large dollop of enthusiasm, excitement and psychological safety.

I am fortunate enough to have natural attributes that I have developed and honed through years of experience in relationship roles, especially during the early period after I dropped out of school when I worked in a bunch of short-lived low-level retail and customer service jobs. It is actually crazy how much I still draw on that time of my life today.

I've also been involved in a bunch of informal and semi-formal activities that involve communication, public speaking and leadership. Fun fact - I even used to MC a local chamber of commerce organisation and hosted a political candidates' debate! Wild.

The fact that people call this stuff 'soft-skills' to me reflects a lack of understanding bordering on distaste for what's really going on in the space between two or more people.

'Soft-skills', including an ability to diplomatically navigate university politics at the highest levels, is what enabled me to successfully lead and crisis-manage a 1000-person national research assessment project worth $75-million and substantial reputation to the university where I was working.

I prefer the better but no-less-vague term 'enduring skills', which has been gaining traction recently. Even moreso I prefer the term 'practical wisdom', which usefully encapsulates both an orientation towards action and the importance of ethical imagination.

A human encounter animated by practical wisdom is what makes the difference between 'perfectly ok' and 'I will remember this moment fondly for years to come'. There is no secret to it, but it's still surprisingly rare enough to find in individuals, let alone institutions. An aspiration towards practical wisdom is what animates the Grokkist approach to education.

Anxiety, Depression and Burnout

I am a fairly private person, but I believe in using my public voice to talk about personal things where it can help give space for reflecting about the less-talked-about parts of human experience, such as mental health and toxic organisational culture.

As a person who enjoys a rich emotional life, I'm naturally optimistic but hardly immune to struggles with mental health.

I've experienced three serious periods of depression, anxiety and burnout in my life so far. Notably, the year after I went bankrupt wasn't one of them. I was lost, hurt, drained and overwhelmed, certainly. And I spent a fair amount of time feeling numb and sitting on the couch binge-watching episodes of House. But I don't recall being depressed as such. It was more about the time needed to properly grieve something important that had been lost. It was also a weirdly free and creative time. I even wrote a book.

The times when I've been truly depressed or anxious have been about feeling hopeless, powerless and trapped. Nothing to look forward to, no hope of change and no way out. Humour goes first, optimism next and eventually even the fiery anger of disappointed idealism dulls to hardened cynicism before slowly fading to an overall numbness and silence. Sleep is elusive and waking hours are empty and aimless.

All of my three periods of major depression and anxiety have taken place while enmeshed in institutions of formal education. The first was in high school, the latter years of which were unbearable and drove me to 'suicidal ideation', as they say in the biz. 1999 was easily the worst year of my life. I experienced a near-total loss of self, which I reclaimed only through making the decision to drop out with a few months left to go.

The second was when I was working as a teaching assistant at a university in Melbourne. I loved the work but was living the precarious existence of the sessional academic while trying to finish my own postgraduate studies, which I loathed. The university routinely forgot to pay the entire sessional staff cohort in my department and also utterly failed to support frontline teaching staff through a difficult period of complaints and abuse by students that was brought about by the school's own mismanagement. There was an 18-month period in particular where I was broke, beholden and barely recognised myself.

The third was while employed as a senior manager at a university in New Zealand. Once again, I loved the work and many of the people but not the toxic culture of the organisation and specifically my department. I experienced bullying, gaslighting and lack of support from all levels of the institution when I brought them complaints substantiated with evidence. The university was subsequently the subject of a high-profile independent external investigation and my former boss was quite publicly fired for sexual misconduct (though he wasn't the source of my problems).

The late economist Albert O Hirschmann usefully suggests that there are three possible responses to decline in firms, organisations and states - exit, voice or loyalty. In all three of my experiences, after finally exhausting the possibilities of voice and loyalty, I chose exit as the only option for self-preservation.

I mention all this here for two reasons. First, these experiences have all been deeply formative for my own outlook and how I move through the world. Secondly, I have come to understand just how common and widespread the experience of anxiety, depression and burnout is, and how crippling their effects can be for otherwise highly-capable people.

Building a company from scratch represents a rare opportunity and responsibility to foster an emotional culture that respects my own flawed and fragile humanity and that of the people I serve and interact with. It is a responsibility I hope to live up to through my actions, and a reminder to be kind to myself on the occasional days when the black dog bites.

I'm the kind of person who believes that in a troubled world, each new beginning is an occasion to hope that maybe this time it can be different