#Changemakers: Dalia Katan ’15

Feb 18 2021
By B. Rose Huber
Source Princeton School of Public and International Affairs

Dalia Katan '15 is the CEO and founder of Presently, a social commerce startup helping people celebrate special occasions more meaningfully while also empowering conscious consumerism.

In this Q&A and bonus podcast episode, she gets into what motivated her to create Presently and how she uses her Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) training to be an effective leader in today’s changing world.

Q. What is/are the most important policy issue(s) facing us today?

Katan: It’s hard to pick one. It’s a pretty busy time for us Americans. I think a lot of our biggest policy issues are just coming to the surface at the same time — from social justice to climate change, health care, and job security. And obviously Covid-19 has accelerated the need to create meaningful change in each of those policy areas.

What I’m really interested in at the moment is the future of work and job security. Both employers and employees alike are realizing what they thought was possible when it comes to work has been completely turned on its head. At the same time that many people have lost their jobs, Covid-19 has also accelerated the use of technology in the workplace. It’s forced new models of collaboration and learning. It’s shifted the importance that we place on what we now call essential workers — from grocers to teachers, areas that are traditionally lower paying, despite how crucial they are for our society to function. The pandemic also placed a lot of pressure on working parents. So, there’s definitely a lot going on right now, and there’s going to be a lot of disruption and movement in the employment policy landscape in the next few years.

Q. Can you talk about how you founded Presently? What current project or initiative there are you most excited about?

Katan: This is one of my favorite things to talk about because it brings me back to my family. I’m the oldest of four children, and about two years ago, I was back home for Thanksgiving, went up to my parents’ attic and literally just saw boxes and closets stuffed with toys. It made me realize the ways we show love aren’t necessarily the best ways to connect with the people we love. So, I first started Presently as a group-gifting platform for kids with the goal of removing the environmental impact of gift waste and removing the negative developmental impact that excess gifts have on kids (like increasing their likelihood of ADHD or OCD, or decreasing their creativity.) I also started Presently to figure out how can we bring more joy and connection to the people we love without all that junk.

A lot has changed since then. We’re no longer a kids group-gifting platform. True to the iterative nature of startups, we are now known as a group-celebration platform. We are bringing people together to celebrate the moments that matter and the people that they love. I would say this is one of the things I’m most passionate about right now — the idea that now more than ever, we’re struggling to connect with the people that we love. Even before the pandemic, this was an issue. So, I’ve been working on this in order to work toward that future where people can come together and build more meaningful connection around celebration.

Q: Can you walk us through what it’s like to set up a group gift on Presently?

Katan: The first step is to figure out for whom you’re organizing a group gift or card! If it’s a group gift, select the gift and why you chose it, and upload a photo of the recipient to customize the page. 

Then, Presently generates a custom contribution page for you, where you can invite friends and coworkers to contribute. When the gift meets its goal or exceeds its goal, any of that excess money goes toward either a charity of your choice or toward the person’s savings account. The average group gift on our platform gathers anywhere from $300-$400. 

Finally, we send the recipient an email that says, “Your friends have a surprise for you!” They open up their e-card to view the gift and all the messages from loved ones — who may not have known each other before the process started! 

Q. Over the course of your career, what are the most important skills/strategies you’ve learned?

Katan: For me, I think it always comes back to being curious. Curiosity is a muscle we forget to exercise after years in an educational system and sometimes even work environments that prioritize the right answer over the right questions. I think that’s actually something that SPIA and the Keller Center both do a really good job in — training that next generation of leaders to become not just problem solvers, but problem finders. As far as skills or strategies that enable that, I think what’s helped me be successful is learning to become a good ethnographer and design researcher. So I use human-centered design tools almost every day in my job, whether it was as a consultant or whether it’s now as a founder. This means always going back to the people that you’re creating solutions for and really getting to know what their day-to-day looks like, as well as what their needs, hopes, aspirations, fears and pain points truly. Only then can you test and design solutions with them in mind.

Dalia Katan '15
Dalia Katan, CEO and founder of Presently.com. (Photo credit: Egan Jimenez, Princeton University)

Q: What advice would you give to someone who has a problem they want to solve, but they’re afraid to take the plunge?

Katan: Take a “creative sabbatical,” if you can. You don’t have to know what you want to do. In fact, I encourage you to not have something in mind because the whole beauty of a creative sabbatical is that you’re opening up a new opportunity to explore and to create and be curious. But have a plan in terms of there needs to be something that’s drawing you out of the work environment that you’re currently in as opposed to pushing you out of the work environment. You should always leave if you’re unhappy with work, but you shouldn’t leave just because you’re bored. You should have something that’s drawing you.

Also, have a financial plan. Really get to know how much you have to save to be able to take 6 to 12 months to have that space for exploration. Talk to a lot of people. There are so many books and so many people who, if you DM them on Twitter, would be super happy to hop on a call. Get to know the different paths that people have taken — whether through LinkedIn, Twitter, or books like “When to Jump” or “Designing Your Life” — ways to kind of expand your thinking and expand your knowledge in the unknown unknown.

When you give yourself the time and space to just let all that information that you’ve taken in just settle and let your mind do what it’s wired for, which is finding patterns and connecting the dots, that’s when I think true creativity comes out.

Q: When it comes to decision-making, what are some of the more effective strategies?

Katan: I, by nature, am a pattern seeker. I think many of us are but we don’t explore that side of ourselves. I find myself optimizing for breadth of perspective and information and then letting my experience and intuition point me to the best plan forward. So, when I say perspective, I mean making sure there’s diversity in the decision room and further creating a culture where those divergent perspectives are not only welcomed but are celebrated and encouraged to break group-think, which is actually a term that I learned through my coursework in SPIA. Diversity has been shown to improve creativity, productivity, and decision-making. It’s definitely something that can’t be overlooked.

When it comes down to those critical decisions when there can’t be a consensus or when intuition isn’t enough to get you there, I think that’s where trust and leadership comes into play. Teams won’t always be aligned on best path forward, but I strive to let everyone on my team know and feel that their voice is important and that it matters and is considered. I think that’s what helps them trust me more as their leader.

Q. In what ways did the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs prepare you for your career?

Katan: I don’t think I’d have the career that I have if I hadn’t majored in SPIA. I came to Princeton thinking I would be pre-med and very quickly realized that was not the path that I wanted. I was immediately drawn to how interdisciplinary SPIA was. It was the only major at Princeton that drew on everything — economics, psychology, policy, entrepreneurship, philosophy. And I’ve always been a jack of all trades, so the concentration worked well for me.

I think there’s a misconception that if you’re a jack of all trades, then you’re at a disadvantage rather than being just the master of one. But I think the School really disproves that, and it teaches the importance of an integrated education and how to integrate those different skills and experiences and disciplines to actually become a strong leader or CEO.

How do you think the School trains students to be policy leaders or leaders in general? What were the tactical skills you gained while at the School that you still employ today?

Katan: I think it goes back to that interdisciplinary nature of both the program and of leadership more broadly. A lot of the classes I took at SPIA had a huge focus on precepts, and I think that precept dynamic is super conducive to decision-making and leadership because you see what happens when you have that diversity of perspective because Princeton students come from all around the world. And when you’re in a big lecture class, you don’t really get that level of bouncing ideas back and forth. I think the precepts were definitely helpful to train me at least in what it meant to make sure that all voices were heard, to value all those different perspectives, and also to learn about how my own creativity works. I definitely play off of other people. If you give me a white canvas, I’ll pause and freeze and think, “I don’t know what to do with this.” But if you put me in a room with a lot of people or a lot of different stimuli or inputs, that’s when my brain starts doing its thing and that’s when I think I’m most productive and most creative.

Q: When you think back to your time at Princeton, is there a moment or memory that sticks out as one that shaped you or a favorite memory?

Katan: When I think about moments at Princeton that changed the course of my career, it was probably my thesis advisor declining my original thesis proposal, saying I had to pick a different topic. I wanted to write about French film policy. At the time, I was considering minoring in French, and I had studied abroad. When he said no, I decided to do something that was really close to home and chose interethnic integration, specifically focusing on how we can bridge divides in Israel and Palestine. That definitely changed the course of my career. Without it, I wouldn’t have founded Deloitte’s refugee inclusion program, and I wouldn’t have had this perspective on what it means to integrate diverse perspectives in a workplace.

Q. How can young people entering the workforce or people doing a job switch be successful in doing that?

Katan: I think part of that answer relies on those young people as individuals and the other part on the organizations themselves. For people entering the workforce for the first time or switching careers, that’s where the importance of learning to communicate, to collaborate with others, and not just be a problem solver but to be a problem finder is a helpful skill. And maybe most importantly, not being afraid of having a different perspective, not being afraid to truly show up as your full self, and maybe not even have such a separation of who you are at work and who you are in life.

I truly believe that work should be adding to our lives and that we should be working because we choose to on our so-called time off. We should be living on our time on and working on our time off. I would say it took me a few years to learn that, but really taking the time to understand who you are and not being afraid to share your perspective and your life experiences, and to be comfortable showing up as your full self is a great thing to learn at any age, whether it’s your first job or your second job or later on.


#Changemakers: Alumni Making a Difference is a series featuring alumni of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.