AlexAnndra is a Co-Founder & Ballet Dancer
AlexAnndra Ontra, co-founder of Shufflrr, talks about her passion for ballet dancing, how those skills apply to her work, when she feels the best ideas come, and much more!
• Getting into ballet dancing
• Comradery in ballet
• How her skills in ballet apply to running a software company
• Talking about her ballet at work
• Why it’s important for the leaders of a company to create an open space
• The best idea comes when you’re relaxed
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Welcome to Episode 469 of What’s Your “And”? This is John Garrett. And each Wednesday, I interview a professional who, just like me, is known for a hobby, or a passion, or an interest outside of work. And to put in another way, it’s encouraging people to find their “and”, those things above and beyond your technical skills, the things that actually differentiate you when you’re at work.
And if you like what the show is about, be sure to check out the book. It’s on Amazon, Indigo, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop, a few other websites. All the links are at whatsyourand.com. And if you want me to read it to you, that’s right, this voice reading the book, look for What’s Your “And”? on Audible or wherever you get your audio books. It goes more in depth with the research behind why these outside-of-work passions are so crucial to your corporate culture. And I can’t say how much it means that everyone’s reading it and writing such nice reviews on Amazon and, more importantly, changing the cultures where they work because of it.
And please don’t forget to hit subscribe to the podcast, so you don’t miss any of the future episodes. I love sharing such interesting stories each and every week. And this week is no different with my guest, AlexAnndra Ontra. She’s a cofounder and president of Shufflrr. And now, she’s with me here today. AlexAnndra, thanks so much for taking time to be with me on What’s Your “And”?
AlexAnndra: Hey, John. How are you?
John: Doing great. I’m excited to have you be a part of this talking ballet. This is gonna be awesome.
AlexAnndra: I’m excited to be here. So, shoot, let’s get to it.
John: Yeah. But I have my I have my rapid-fire questions, get to know AlexAnndra right out of the gate here. So, this will be fun. I think this will be an easy one. Favorite color.
AlexAnndra: Yellow. It’s the color of sunshine.
John: Oh, okay. That’s a great reason. How about a least favorite color?
AlexAnndra: I don’t think I have one. I like all colors. Not to sound corny but, I don’t think I have a least— I have colors that don’t look good on me. But since we’re on a podcast and no one’s gonna see me, it really doesn’t matter.
John: Right? There you go. That works. That works. Oh, this one you definitely have. Favorite adult beverage.
AlexAnndra: Oh, a big warm cabernet in the middle of winter.
John: Okay. Oh, it’s specifically winter. Okay.
John: I like that.
John: All right. And since you are at seasons, favorite season, summer, winter, spring, or fall?
AlexAnndra: All of them. I like variety. And then I just moved to Florida. So, I might have to readjust that going forward, but I like the change of seasons because there’s always something to look forward to.
John: Okay. All right. Fair enough. Fair enough. How about a favorite actor or actress?
AlexAnndra: Oh, let me think about that. Favorite actor… You know, I’ve been liking a lot lately is Reese Witherspoon.
AlexAnndra: She’s been on so much, but she also produces her own stuff. She’s got her own production company, which I believe she recently sold for a ton of cash.
John: Yeah, because she needed it. So, good for her.
AlexAnndra: So, good. And then she’s an entrepreneur. Like I feel her pain. She built a company and she started acting, doing one thing, and then she grew that into all other aspects of that industry. And she recommends books. And all her books that I read on the Reese Witherspoon Club, I was like “Oh.” You know, they’re just light easy read. So, as an “and”, reading for leisure just to escape whatever’s going on in my life on any given day, one of my “ands” is just reading before I go to bed at night.
John: Yeah. No, that works. Awesome. How about chocolate or vanilla?
John: Okay. You’re like offended I even asked.
AlexAnndra: Well, you know, I love the smell of vanilla. I love baking with vanilla. But if I’m gonna pick up a— if it’s ice cream, it’s chocolate. If it’s a candy bar, it’s chocolate. I don’t think I’ve ever had a vanilla candy bar nor do I want one.
John: That’s a good point. I don’t know if they exist. And yeah, we’re good without them. We’re good. How about more talk or text?
AlexAnndra: Talk. I’ve been in a pandemic for 20+ months and I miss people. I miss people. Texting is easier. It is way more convenient. It can be kind of fun and you have a record, so you can always scroll back on the text. Sometimes that’s a really bad thing. Sometimes it’s a good thing. That can go either way. But generally, as we’re getting out of this pandemic, I wanna talk to people. I wanna see them face to face.
John: Yeah. Yeah. Even better. How about puzzles? Sudoku, crossword, or jigsaw?
AlexAnndra: I’ve been doing a lot of the crossword puzzles lately. I’ve gotten addicted to the New York Times. They have a daily mini puzzle.
John: Oh, a mini one.
AlexAnndra: It’s a mini one. The big one is like “Oh, that’s just too much to look at, but the mini one you can get it done in like 3 minutes.” I was like “Oh, I feel so smart. I just finished that.”
John: Oh, yeah. And you accomplished something.
AlexAnndra: I accomplished something. It is a mini puzzle. It’s not rocket science.
John: No. No. I love it. That’s awesome. How about books since you’re a big reader? Are you audio version, e-Book, or real book?
AlexAnndra: I do e-Books and I like historical fiction.
John: Oh, okay.
AlexAnndra: Before I go to bed at night. I always read a novel of sorts before I go to bed at night.
John: That’s great. How about a favorite number?
AlexAnndra: I mean, I could say 6 because my birthday is October 6, but I think that’s copout.
AlexAnndra: 8. 8 is infinity.
John: Oh, it’s infinity just standing up.
AlexAnndra: Endless possibility.
John: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. All right. How about are you more of an early bird or a night owl?
AlexAnndra: Right in the middle.
John: Oh, wow. Okay.
AlexAnndra: Sorry. I mean, that was a boring answer.
John: No, no, not at all.
AlexAnndra: But yeah, right in the middle. I wake up around 7-ish, and I start getting sleepy around 10-ish. So, I’m right in the middle. I’m not one or the other.
John: Yeah. Yeah. You’re both. That’s impressive. How about your computer, more of a PC or a Mac?
AlexAnndra: Oh, PC totally. PC.
John: Yeah. Me too. Same. And your mouse, right click or left click?
AlexAnndra: I’m looking. I’m not really looking at my—
John: …click or right click?
AlexAnndra: I’m a left click person.
John: Yeah. Making decisions, just “bam” let’s do it. There you go. How about a favorite Disney character?
AlexAnndra: I would probably say Belle from Beauty and the Beast.
John: Ah! There you go. Okay. That’s a solid answer. There you go.
AlexAnndra: Well, you know, it might just be because, you know, in my early 20s when I was single and living in New York and I had 2 roommates, who were both friends from college, we had the VCR and that was hangover go-to video on Saturday mornings when we’re just yelling and totally zoning on the couch. We would be like let’s watch Beauty and the Beast, and we would just like watch it.
John: That’s incredible.
AlexAnndra: Yeah. Well, I liked all the little moving and talking furniture.
John: Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s super cool. How about Star Wars or Star Trek?
AlexAnndra: Oh, Star Wars.
John: Yeah. Me too. Same.
AlexAnndra: Like who doesn’t love Hans Solo?
AlexAnndra: I mean, okay. Now, I’ve totally given my age. I am a woman of a certain age, but yes, I had a huge crush on Hans Solo.
John: Yeah. He was awesome. Two more. So, what would you say favorite presentation application?
AlexAnndra: Oh, Shufflrr, of course. I’ve been living it and breathing it for the past I don’t know how many years. It’s my company.
John: That was a trick question, So, good answer. That was the right answer. And last one, the favorite thing you have or the favorite thing you own.
AlexAnndra: The favorite thing I have, I would have to say it’s a tie between— And this is gonna sound sappy, but between my health and my friends because, without either one, there’s no use in doing anything. Why build a business if you have nobody to share that with? Why have your health if you can’t go out and spend the time with your friends? On the other hand, if you have really good friends and your health fails, then you have somebody to help you through that.
John: Yeah. It goes down full circle there.
AlexAnndra: Yeah. And that’s what makes life worth living.
John: But no, that’s perfect though. I love that so much. So, let’s talk ballet and how did you get started? Was it something you did from when you were very young?
AlexAnndra: It was something I did when I was very young. And when I was very young, they discovered that I had dyslexia or some sort of learning disability. And to this day, I still don’t really know my left from my right. Driving with me is a delight. So, my mom put me— I mean, she put me in ballet classes, dance classes, piano lessons, all sorts of extracurricular development building. I really loved ballet.
AlexAnndra: And I just kept doing it. Yeah.
John: So, do you have some of the shows that you were a part of that were more memorable?
AlexAnndra: Well, every year, at the Miss Louise School of Dance— and that was half jazz and ballet— we had recital every June. And you know, you would graduate as you got older and, you know, move up. In college, I did it for my fine arts credit and then I just started doing extracurricular just to stay in shape. It was my form of exercise. And then when I moved to New York, there’s so many dance companies in New York and so many places to take open classes. And you know, you can just be a novice like me and you’re dancing right next to somebody from New York City Ballet because all dancers go to class regularly. They never stop taking classes. They never stop trying to perfect their art. And they will go to different teachers all the time because every teacher is different, and they see different things, and there’s something to learn. So, I think being in New York made dancing as an “and”, as you like to call it, very easy because there’s classes everywhere all the time that you can find one that you like.
John: Yeah! And it’s cool that you’re with people that are a part of the New York Ballet and it’s like “Woah! I mean, I’m here, and I’m learning, and we’re all in this journey together in our own lanes.” And that’s encouraging I’m sure to be a part of that.
AlexAnndra: Yeah. It is inspiring ‘cause then you sit there. You’re in class and you get a front row seat to some of the best dancers in the world. You’re like “Wow!” It’s also intimidating because you don’t wanna do a pirouette turn some professional dancer and you’re like “Okay, I need to go back to the beginner class. I don’t really belong here.”
You’re gonna get in the back of the room.
John: Yeah. Right. Right? I’ll go last. I’m last. Don’t worry about it. Yeah. Like I enjoy dancing ballet, you know. Like it doesn’t matter if, well, you know, what troupe are you with, or what shows are you doing, or are you getting paid. I enjoy it. And you’re doing it for your own enjoyment, not for someone else’s approval.
AlexAnndra: Right. And a lot of professional dancers, they appreciate that because it just builds their art. It builds their audience selfishly. I mean, it’s really a labor of love because they’re not doing it for the money. That’s for sure. So, you know, it’s a really beautiful, kind hearted, welcoming community. It gets a bad rap, ballet dancers being super competitive, and super anorexic, and all that crazy stuff, but all the ones that I’ve met and come across are really awesome people. And there’s just so much camaraderie and support for their fellow dancers. It’s a beautiful community to be a part of.
John: That’s awesome. And I guess do you feel like there’s any of that skillset from dance that carries over to your career?
AlexAnndra: Absolutely. Absolutely. And you would never think it. I have a software company. I have code writers who build our product. Code writers come into problems all the time. How do we solve it? How do we build this feature? How do we make it do what the client wants it to do? And I have this great teacher that I’ve been going to his class for 20+ years. His name is Francis Petrelli. And in the middle of every class, we do an adagio. And adagio, for those who don’t know, is a slow, romantic, melodic, very dramatic piece. It’s not fast staccato, bom, bom, bom, bom, bom. It’s very slow and dramatic, and it’s beautiful, and it’s hard. And the thing with moving slowly is the audience sees everything you do. So, they see what you do beautifully. They also see the mistakes you make. And it’s much harder. It’s much harder to move slowly than it is to move quickly.
And after every adagio, when he gives the combination, he asks— He goes around the room to every student and he says— he asks “What was the hard part for you?” And he would make you verbalize it and explain it. “What was the hard part for you?” And what he said is “You know, I do this because once you understand the problem, you’re 80% of the way to a solution.” You know, if I say I had a hard time stepping on to my right foot, the minute I say it, it’s because I realize I’m not shifting my weight over my right foot to get there. The minute you say it, you start to realize what the problems are and then you figure out the rest and get it right.
So, when I sit there with my developers— and I am not a code writer— you know, they’ll say “Well, it won’t right click.” “Why?” “Well, because it doesn’t want to right click.” “Why?” “Well, because the mouse only has a left click.” “But why does it only have a left click?” It’s almost like be a 5-year-old and say “but why, but why” and then you keep going. And then usually, the next day, they’re like “Hey, Alex, look at this.” And they figured it out. And by asking why, and then why, and then why and going down that path, it’s almost like you’re peeling the skin of an onion. The problem is an onion and you just peel away the layers. You get to the core. And the core is the solution. It’s there. You just keep— Little by little, you go through that process. So, what I learned in my ballet class from honestly a person who doesn’t count beyond 8 I have applied to these super-duper magical, you know, code writing demons that I have the privilege of working with.
John: Yeah. And plus, you have fresh eyes in there in the trenches. And so, for them to, you know, “it just doesn’t work”, whatever, and you have a different view and a different angle, and it’s great to slow it down, like you said, and work it through with them and then they come up with a solution. You don’t have the solution or the answers, but you help them to see it differently. And that’s such a great takeaway that you wouldn’t even— Like no one in any of your education told you, you know, go learn ballet because it will make you a better cofounder and president.
AlexAnndra: Yeah. It’s problem solving. And I don’t know if anybody in a ballet class would say “Yeah, this is problem solving.” Because I work with computers, so I’m like “Oh, this is problem solving.” I have that perspective.
John: Yeah. And it’s awesome that it spills over like that. That’s really cool. And so, is ballet something that you’ve talked about with coworkers or clients throughout your career?
Is it something that people know about?
AlexAnndra: Yeah. I mean, I’ve had some of my coworkers who’ve actually like come to some of my performances, which is kind of fun or a little risky depending on how you look at it.
John: Yeah. That’s awesome though I would imagine because, I mean, I think the risky side is in our head as the performer. I mean, I was a comedian. So, yeah, when people would come, I’m like “Ahhh.” You know? But then you do it enough and you’ve done it enough too where it’s like “Look, I’m doing my show. If you’re here, great. If you’re not here, I’m doing the same show.”
AlexAnndra: Yeah. For me, it’s so much fun just to be on that stage. And just to be fair, I’m more like a prop.
AlexAnndra: I’m more like the scenery that I am an actual decorate. I’m just kind of back there in the cast in the background, but I don’t really care because I’m having a great time. Being on a stage is like being in the page of a storybook the way it’s all decorate. It’s all fantasy, and it’s so much fun.
John: Yeah! And you’re on fire. You’re in your element and this is me. And they get to see you on fire, which is great, you know, and that’s got to be cool. I mean, I would imagine 100% of the time they’re excited about seeing you, you know, and they think it’s awesome. And the risky part is in our own head and not at all in there, you know.
AlexAnndra: And that’s the other thing you learn, I think, doing a production like that. On stage, as a dancer, that performance is as good as the worst dancer on stage. So, if your dancing partner is messing up, you gotta help them. And in a business, your business, your product is as good as the worst part of it. Your production team, your coding team is as good as the worst coder, so lift them up and bring them up to speed or, unfortunately, sometimes you just have to cut bait.
John: Sure. Yeah. But you try.
AlexAnndra: You try. It’s a team effort.
John: Yeah. No. I love that. That’s such a great parallel as well. And I guess how much do you think it matters on an organization to create the space to allow people to share their hands or how much is it on the individual to just kind of start in their little small circle of peers or what have you?
AlexAnndra: I think it’s important for the leaders of the company to create that space because you never know where your best idea is gonna come from. And I think your best ideas come when you’re relaxed, you know. If you’re still intimidated by all your coworkers, you’re gonna be too busy being afraid to think of some great thing. But you know, it’s like people always say “oh, my God, I have the best idea, I dreamt it last night” or “my waking hour is at 4 a.m., I get the best ideas” and it’s because your mind is relaxed. So, the same thing goes to business, but there’s a balance. You gotta keep people motivated. They gotta know who the boss is. They gotta stick to their deadlines. This is not a party.
John: You gotta get work done. Absolutely.
AlexAnndra: You gotta get work done, but I think leaders and colleagues who foster just an open dialog in a relaxed atmosphere so people can be their true selves will ultimately get the best product from their employees.
John: Yeah. Totally. I mean, when I speak, I tell audiences all the time, even organizations I do consulting with, is that if your people aren’t living their best life, they’re not gonna do their best work. And so, you know, how do you make sure and care about them living their best life, you know, and are you doing your ballet? Are you going to ballet shows? Are you going to practice? Like are you doing these things that really light you up?
AlexAnndra: That light you up and give value to your life and that was what was so painful about being in isolation. We didn’t do anything. If we were lucky enough to have jobs where we could, you know, work through a computer and do it on Zoom, we’re basically just sitting there sending emails, and slacking, and doing Zoom meetings and the meeting, at least for me, just started and it’s my company, and I have a lot of vested in it, so it does personally mean a lot to me, but that meaning of life is like “Okay. So, this is it? I wake up. I log in. I log out, watch some TV. What do I do next? Go for a walk? Just stay away from everybody?” You know, it’s those other activities. And getting back to your other question, what makes life worth living? The people that you share them with, they give meaning. You know, a parent might be working at a job they don’t like, but it pays really well and that might pay for their kids’ college. Therefore, it’s worth it. It has meaning beyond just the task that you’re doing.
John: That’s such a great point, you know. And sometimes, it’s so I can have money to go do cool stuff. But if the organization doesn’t know what the cool stuff is or what the meaning is, then you’re just another company with people that work there and whatever. But if you tap into that meaning, then it really makes that sticky and brings that engagement level just really through the roof, and I love that.
That’s awesome. What a great point. And I guess do you have any words of encouragement to anyone listening that maybe they have an “and” that they think no one’s gonna care about because it has nothing to do with my job?
AlexAnndra: I think whatever that “and” is, just keep doing it and don’t be afraid to do it. Like honestly, if you ever saw me dance, I have a horrible turnout. I don’t know my left from my right. I am not limber. I am not a good dancer at all, but I still love doing it for a lot of different reasons. So, if you like baseball, but you’re not a good baseball player, go play anyway. Find that lead that will want you to compete with them, but there’s a million other people just like you. Just do it anyway. You don’t have to be great at something to do it. If you enjoy doing it, do it.
John: Yeah, I love that.
AlexAnndra: Don’t stay on the sidelines.
John: That’s so perfect. That’s so perfect. And what a great way to wrap it up, but I do feel like before we do close the episode, it’s only fair, since I so rudely asked you so many questions at the beginning, that we turn the tables and make it the first episode of the AlexAnndra Ontra podcast. And so, thanks for having me on. I booked myself. But either way, I’m all yours. Whatever you got, ask away.
AlexAnndra: So, I’m always curious and this is a personal question, but sometimes these are the things that motivate people or change people. What was one of the hardest things either personally or professionally that you’ve had to face and how did you get through it to the other side?
John: Yeah. So, there’s several to choose from.
AlexAnndra: Yeah, the list gets longer as we get older.
John: It really does. I’m also sharing my age because my list is very long, but I would probably say one of the ones that was very hard for me was that I had interviewed to be a field producer for The Colbert Report when Stephen Colbert had a show on Comedy Central after The Daily Show. And that was pretty much going to happen and then letterman announced that he’s retiring about 2 weeks later and then Colbert is taking over for Letterman, so then Comedy Central does a hiring freeze and I am now no longer going to be on staff at Colbert Report.
AlexAnndra: Oh, bummer.
John: And that was hard. And it’s hard because you don’t control it. It wasn’t because I’m not good enough or someone was better. It was going to happen and the universe decided otherwise. And actually, thankfully, because of that is what made me shift from more of the comedy only to keynote speaking, and having this whole What’s Your “And”? message, and now being on the AlexAnndra Ontra podcast. You know, like that never would have happened otherwise. So, it’s one of those things where in the moment it hurts and it still stings a little bit. But you know, it’s also so much better on the other side. So, that’s definitely one that was tough.
AlexAnndra: Well, that’s an interesting point that you said that you’ve had no control over. And I think most of the things in our lives we really don’t have any control over.
John: No. You’re right.
AlexAnndra: You can try to micromanage, and control everything, and study, and prepare, but the only thing you can control is how you react to something. That’s the only thing you can control, is your reaction to it. You can’t even control your emotions, but you can control how much space you give those particular emotions to affect what you do going forward.
John: Totally. Your podcast is like therapy. This is great.
AlexAnndra: Well, you’re a very good teacher. So, thanks, John.
John: But that’s a great question though for sure. So, thank you so much, AlexAnndra, for being a part of this.
AlexAnndra: I had so much fun.
John: It’s so great to have you be on What’s Your “And”?
AlexAnndra: I’m glad I got to meet you today.
John: Everyone listening, if you wanna see some really, really cool pictures of AlexAnndra on stage, or maybe connect with her on social media, or check out Shufflrr, be sure to go to whatsyourand.com. All the links are there. And while you’re on the page, please click that big button. Do the anonymous research survey about corporate culture, and don’t forget to check out the book.
So, thanks again for subscribing on Apple podcast or whatever app you use and for sharing this with your friends so they get the message that we’re all trying to spread, that who you are is so much more than what you do.