I met Harry Doull about a year ago. I was at my desk, wearing a sweet AS Roma shirt when he came up to me and said “…nice shirt. Are you a Roma fan?”
Truth be told, I had just returned from a trip to Rome and had bought the shirt as a homage to my trip. But Harry is a big Roma supporter and an even bigger soccer fan. So with that, a friendship was struck.
A few months later, Harry told me he would be leaving Google to start his own company, Keap BK. The startup fuses his love of business with his passion in candle making and over the last year, he and partner Stephen Tracy have been hand pouring candles out of a rented workspace in Brooklyn.
I caught up with him to hear about his new venture and to talk more about his multicultural upbringing. Although Harry may look and sound American, his upbringing is quite cosmopolitan and may help explains his love of AS Roma and Italian soccer.
Because I love them and was spending too much money on them, yet feeling dissatisfied with the companies making them. When my friend Steve and I learned more about how the industry worked, we felt the urge to jump in and fix things ourselves.
We met at Google, one of the, if not the best place to work at. Was it difficult to leave? Was there a moment that forced your hand?
I had been at Google a long time, so it felt like home in many ways. It’s a great company and I felt really privileged to have the opportunity to work there, and share a workspace with really inspiring people. But it also felt like time to graduate and move on, and we had this exciting idea that we were really passionate to flesh out. So it felt like leaving home, but it also felt like a natural personal evolution.
You have a fascinating background. Can you tell me about your upbringing in Europe?
My mother grew up in Chicago and my father is South African; they met in New York but we moved to France when I was a one year-old. I grew up in a very rural and isolated village in Northern France—my parents opened a small hotel there. When I was 11 I moved to the big city in Paris when my father started working an additional office job there. Three years later my parents sold the hotel and we all moved to Rome. I went to high school there and got the opportunity to study in the U.S.
It was quite a lot of moving around, and disorienting as a kid; but it’s a childhood experience that I’m really grateful for.
Something I struggled with as a kid, was fitting in with a culture. I was Mexican but not. American but not. It was tough. What was it like for you?
It was and is still very similar for me. I’ve always felt different, like my American features would be more prominent when I was in Europe, and my European traits would feature more when I was in the U.S.
In our little village in Northern France, I was the only person from outside the region, so being American (never mind South African) was seen as very exotic. At the same time, I spoke fluent French, played the same sports and games as everyone else, and generally felt like one of the kids. I would say the whole experience, with the additional moving, was confusing, and sometimes tough, but I had some sense of pride of being different and even as a child my parents were able to help me see that difference as an asset.
Eventually, my cultural ambiguity became a strength. Do you feel the same?
Definitely. There’s an element of broken-ness—of not truly belonging anywhere. But when you learn to live with that, I think you gain so much strength from having experienced more than one point of view. It’s more than seeing the 2 or 3 points of view you have personally experienced: I think it opens a bigger door into being better able to empathize with additional points of view that you haven’t personally experienced.
Being “the different one” from day one always made me feel sympathy for the underdog, the person who is getting bullied, or who is simply misunderstood. I think this is something shared by people who are either multicultural or have experienced being the minority at some point in their life.
Also to some degree I think being multicultural makes you relativize norms: we know that social norms are contextual to a place or culture and socially constructed, and I think that personal experience makes us less likely to jump on a bandwagon, and more likely to see things from first principles.
Do you feel like a different person when you speak another language (French/ Italian?)
Yes—especially when I was younger. When I spoke French I felt mature beyond my years, partly because I had a very strong mastery of the language. In English, before studying in the U.S. I felt younger, more naive, and less interesting—I found it harder to be witty. And I could see people reacting to me very differently than when I spoke French; in one language I was really confident and in the other I was less so.
Getting older, that has changed—and as I’ve been spending more and more time in the U.S. I feel my default becoming English and my personality and the way I think in other languages moving more and more to my English-speaking state.
How has having a multicultural identity helped you in business?
Coming back to what I was saying about relativizing social norms—I find that taking the leap to entrepreneurship was partly influenced by that background. I don’t think I’m specially good at doing this; but I do think most people’s fear of taking this kind of risk is rooted in social norms rather than a rational risk assessment.
I think being multicultural makes it easier to fight unconscious bias when hiring, working with a team, etc. Being multicultural does not make us immune to it by any means, but I think it helps us be a bit more perceptive of when it comes into play.
Any funny cultural miscommunications you would like to share? (I wink all the time, which is ok in LatAm, it’s like saying hi. But in the US, it’s like I’m hitting on people. LOL)
I used to have a big issue with meeting girls when I switched between the U.S. and France. In France, when you meet someone new, you typically exchange two kisses on the cheeks. When I leaned in to do this in America I got some pretty strong rebukes, making people very uncomfortable—but I was generally able to explain without getting into too much trouble. In France conversely, I remember a time when I gave my hand out without thinking to say hello to a girl, which resulted in a “WTF?” reaction and that was pretty much done.
Did you ever feel out of place back in America?
Yes, occasionally—but in NYC I think I’ve found the place that’s easiest for people like us to feel at home 🙂
New York is a city of lost souls, of people from everywhere—you can’t really beat it for that, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so at home in a place.
Whom do you root for in the World Cup?
Aha! This is really the important question. Strangely enough, I root for Italy. Of all the places I’ve lived, Italy is the one that I have the least attachment, allegiance and sense of belonging to. However, from my earliest days I have been OBSESSED with soccer (insert here usual disclaimer of how I don’t like that word, but am using it anyway). When I say obsessed, I mean notebooks-of-handwritten-made-up-statistics obsessed, daydreaming-about-Totti’s-best-goals-while-I’m-in-the-subway obsessed.
This has been true my entire life. In France, people like me are fairly rare; soccer is not a national obsession. In Italy, soccer is treated like it is in Brazil and Argentina: like a religion. It dictates the rhythm of the week, and when big recurring events happen (e.g. the World Cup), everything else steps aside for soccer—which is in sync with how I feel about it.
Italian striker Roberto Baggio had been my idol growing up, and after experiencing a World Cup in Italy, I couldn’t help but declare my lifelong allegiance.
What’s on tap for Keap?
<insert canned laughter>
Harry, Steve and the team at Keap just launched their Scent-to-Home Product and have new scents coming out soon. If you want to learn more, make sure you check out their site or their swanky IG account. Really artsy pics in there, I promise.