On Episode 26 of Melissa Diamond’s “He Said What” podcast, The Academy co-founders Kasia Urbaniak and Ruben Flores discuss the ways that women’s power has the potential to reshape the world as we know it.
Melissa: If you guys don't know about The Academy, it is an incredible company that teaches women to increase power, agency, and influence in all areas of their life, and so they provide incredible courses that really teach people how to navigate through different situations in life, and you guys can tell us a little bit more about that. First off, how did you get started with The Academy?
Kasia: I had this whole life trajectory that taught me things many women don't see, don't know, mainly through a very strange combination of working as one of the most successful dominatrices in New York–if not the world–while training to be a Taoist nun.
Melissa: Wow. Those are kind of contradictory.
Kasia: They seem to be, but they ended up meeting in a really interesting place. I saw power dynamics in a very specific light in the dungeon, because every single time I went back to the dungeon to work, I was coming back from weeks or months of intense training with energetics, martial arts, medical, Chinese medicine, being able to see and feel people more deeply, see their intentions, and read bodies, see exchanges between people. When it came to the thing that I was doing just for money for a really long time, a lot of that training started to seep in, and I started understanding that to have powerful influence over another person and to be able to share a space with them where something really transcendent and new, a new kind of way of relating can be created.
Kasia: There was no way for that to not happen. I was this young... I started when I was 19, and I was working with men twice my age who were way more powerful, and I had to play this game of, for money, “I'm going to pretend to be more powerful than you.” How do I make it real? How do I actually erase the status, the money, the fact that I'm being paid, their way of being by default and by training, and my own, to create an experience where they are fully owned and surrendered and submit to me?
Kasia: This led to a series of realizations, especially through the years as I saw the difference between me and my girlfriends, and how they were dealing with men, and the things that they were experiencing. I'm thinking that I have cracked the fucking code and that I know something really specific about women's power, and then I meet Ruben Flores, my co-founder, and his background-
Melissa: Yeah, very, very different backgrounds.
Ruben: I worked as a humanitarian. I worked with Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, other organizations, setting up emergency hospital projects in conflict zones and disasters. For me, the turning point was, working in Chad–and I'll always remember this–there was a big malnutrition crisis, and we're doing a big nutrition assessment to figure out how many malnourished children are in this vast area of essentially desert, and do we need to have an emergency medical intervention here or there? It was the end of a very long deployment. It was incredibly hot. It was a really bad day, and I was going to meet some village elders to figure out, what is this situation? When talking about malnutrition, we're talking about children primarily, so we're going to talk about maternal and child health, and I remember driving into this village, and outside of the village are the fields. The harvest was nonexistent, and you see the women and the children are working in the fields. We get to the town, and there's this big tree, and there's these mats on the floor, and all the men are sitting in the middle drinking tea, and they were filming a documentary at the time, and I was one of the subjects.
Ruben: I saw a photo later of that meeting, and there I am, sitting in the center of all these men, and we're discussing the health of women and children, and the only women you can see are far off in the distance by the well, and I remember my first instinct was, “these people, these men”–my own neocolonialism well at play–and it bothered me, and the more I looked at it, the more it was impossible for me in this picture to not see myself there implied in that, and I said, "I am a part of this, and it doesn't work. Why aren't there women here? Why aren't we asking? Why don't we do a better job?"
Ruben: I took a sabbatical, and I said, "I'm going to figure this out. I'm going to... I need to do something personally about this. I can't just give it lip service. Are we or aren't we people of our word?” That's how I was raised. If something bothers you, go do something to actually change it. Put your money where your mouth is. In all my studies, and I had done academic courses and taking workshops and everything. And I met somebody who said, "You have to meet your evil twin, this woman, Kasia."
Melissa: Hi. Nice to meet you.
Ruben: "You two are going to have a lot to talk about," so we did, and here we are-
Kasia: We sat down and we basically started talking and didn't stop for six months.
Kasia: For me, what was really fascinating was when Ruben described his stories of working in these conflict zones and how many situations he was in where no people shared a common language-
Kasia: And there were really high stake situations, negotiating, hospitals at borders, and people with guns, kids with guns on drugs essentially.
Melissa: Holy shit.
Kasia: He has a piece of paper that says, "I'm allowed to do this." Nobody gives a fuck. How does he do this thing called influence in a space where you can't even rely on spoken language? And that was the first thing... that was the first overlap because, as a dominatrix, in a dungeon, most of what I'm saying is not true, and the real communication happens primally. It's beyond the thing that people call body language. It's so much more than that, how power dynamics are established, how they work, and Ruben was an amazing example of somebody who was telling me stories about how he got shit done, being a man, the things that he knew how to do where language was not involved.
Melissa: That's beyond impressive, truthfully. If you don't have communication, you could achieve those things, that's phenomenal.
Ruben: But it's the presence and it's the thing that has someone walk into a room and everybody in that room knows to look at her, knows to look at him.
Kasia: This is exactly what we're talking about when it comes to women's issues because it's even beyond saying the right thing, not being heard, not getting credit, not being taken seriously, not having your authority followed. What's up with that? There's something going on there that's beyond language. That was the jumping off point for a conversation that we were having in his interest to understand gender from a man's perspective, and with what I knew about where women get stopped, blocked, where they go invisible, where they do it to themselves, where they don't do it, when they're shut down, all of those, the mechanics of all of that suddenly started to become really like a visible architecture, where, from there, it was easy for us to start taking... We didn't call them students because, in the beginning, it wasn't a school. We were just curious. We were experimenting, inviting people over, interviewing them, and experimenting with how to move them past where they're stuck, women specifically. We worked with couples, too, but this was really just an experiment.
Melissa: How'd you find the people?
Kasia: Well, in the beginning, he was just calling over friends, and at the same time, I was writing a little bit about my findings, posting a little bit online, and it really even want that much material, but it was enough to spark so much interest that within no time, there were 500 people being like, "Workshop, workshop, workshop, workshop."
Melissa: Oh, my God. Wow. So many people can relate to everything you're saying. There are those gaps, and they need improvement, and they need to learn how they can empower themselves and better themselves. That's phenomenal.
Kasia: The school was started that way, basically.
Kasia: We didn't even really want to do it.
Ruben: There were just so many-
Kasia: We were like, "We'll just have them over. We'll do a Q&A. We think we'll find that
Melissa: Now it's a full-blown thing.
Kasia: We had an eight-month waiting list from the start. It was out of control. Then when #MeToo happened, when Trump got elected, each time, it was a bigger, bigger explosion, and then there was a media explosion. It's just one thing after another, and the school, right now, we're just like, "Holy fuck." Every week, it's another “holy fuck.”
Melissa: How many students do you have actively attending the school?
Kasia: It depends on how you count it because we have about 500 really hardcore students who've taken years of classes, who've taken every class, and then we also have [people who take] online classes who float in and out, but there's a real tendency for people, once they take a live, in-person class, to start embodying the work and wanting to teach it. It's become very activist lately, like they want to share it with their coworkers and their families.
Melissa: Because everyone can... it's so important. I was doing a little reading up on the courses, and there are so many things that I wish that, in the past, I was able to take those courses and learn so much about not being stuck in these situations as a woman and letting fear of the unknown and fear of what could happen if you open your mouth influence your life. What kind of courses are you the most passionate about? I'm sure all of them, but is their one or two or a few that really stand out?
Kasia: Absolutely not, because, for me, it's so interesting because people think I teach different courses because I teach a course on money, I teach a course on... We teach Foundations of Unshakeable Power, which is the expensive course. There's Power with Men. There's topical courses. To me, the essence is always the same. Liberate the woman's fucking voice. Show her how power dynamics work, because it doesn't matter if it's a romantic relationship or a work situation. There are women who want to advance their careers who come to the school. There are women who want to date better. There are women who want to reinvent their relationships, their marriages. There are women who just want to reinvent their lives. The pivot point is always the same. It's always the same.
Melissa: Wow. That's amazing. I think that, especially what's going on in society today, there are so many more people that are probably coming forward. What, if you can share, are there any students that their stories really captivated you to another level? I can see the passion in both of you guys. It's phenomenal. I'm sure your students have some crazy stories that people can't fathom.
Kasia: Well, one of the best things is how unconventional some of the victories are, married couples engineering these incredibly beautiful, velvet divorces, having really unconventional ideas about how to divide assets and assign people roles. A woman who was doing the job of two people, and through one of the tools around asking, ended up getting her boss not just to... the victory would have been if she got paid double the salary or the second role was replaced, but, instead, an entire new branch of the company was devised for her through a series of asks, essentially, where she could run the show, had a much higher position, made more money than those two salaries combined, and used the demonstration of being able to do those two jobs as evidence. There are women who do everything from find the love of their lives, to have full on harems, to explore one-way polyamory.
Melissa: Very different spectrums.
Kasia: Yeah, and the thing is that I think that thing that Ruben and I are most proud of, and please stop me if I'm speaking for you and womanterrupting and you'll explain it-
Ruben: Don't worry, I'm an expert.
Kasia: Is that the things that they get are so varied and so unique and unconventional that I know 100% that I'm not telling them what's valuable, what's preferable. “This is a good thing to have, it's good to be rich, famous, and have a TV show.” It's not like that.
Kasia: Yeah, but they come in like that. They come in with, "I want the love of my life, I want a raise, I want a little more money, I want my family in harmony." They do the work and they see this expansive possibility of play, of power playfully. When that happens, when they feel that confidence and that power, imagination blossoms and suddenly they're living legends. Suddenly their stories are movie worthy, so it's not just like the victory of “I figured out how to get my teenage daughter” or ...“I figured out how my pain in the ass mother to have a better relationship with me.” It's like reinvention from the inside out, like from your most creative, delicious, wanted things. From like the paranoia and the endless, endless string of superstitions that a woman creates for herself and with her friends when she gets an ambiguous text message from a man or from a lover, from a woman or from a man, whatever, depending on your sexual orientation.
Melissa: It's so true.
Kasia: But it's that is an energy investment and basically an entirely superstitious untested, untenable waste of energy and time. The desires when they come in are pretty small in reference to what they end up getting, because they just want to get through that part. Once they learn how to sense and test their way through that scenario they're like, "Fuck this, I'm going for the moon."
Ruben: I agree. I think that is ultimately the thing that I am the proudest of. Enough of the world telling women what they should do, what they should wear, what they should want. We're completely agnostic about [how a woman should be], if a student has a desire to create something in the world that doesn't exist. There's one thing that we're certain of: that they're going to come into contact with conflict, that they're going to get a no from the start, and our job is to give them the tools to deal with that conflict without violence and to be able to live in a world of peace without conformity, without silence. It can be anything from the raise to the annoying conversation with the boyfriend or the husband that happens forever that suddenly she does something totally new and it moves forward or a woman that says, "You know what, my whole teenage life and college life I sleep with a guy and the next day I am just destroyed wondering. Now before I even see him I'm like, "Listen, if we're going to hang out, I need to be texted tomorrow, will you text me tomorrow?" She says, "And I did that and suddenly because of that might, that is a huge victory," and her joy then becomes the reason that it's worth doing this. The world that I think I want to see hasn't even been imagined yet. I think one of our students has the potential and to imagine something that doesn't exist yet that we can all live into. Because none of the things that are being suggested just to repair the harm that's done is not enough, we want more.
Kasia: I just want to highlight one of the things that Ruben side which is navigating resistance. One of the most fun things is having a graduate here and now and go, "Oh, yeah, game on."
Melissa: I love that.
Kasia: And the discovery that when there is resistance on the other side, when you ask someone for something or confess a desire and there's resistance, right behind that resistance there is something they're trying to protect, that they care about. It doesn't matter if it's stupid, it doesn't matter if it's vanity, it doesn't matter if it's pride, but so long as they care about something, they will put up resistance to protect it. Once you teach a student the skills to navigate the resistance, to get at the thing that they really care about, there's a connection and an intimacy that happens that makes what Ruben's alluding to, that third possibility, like to repair the damage is not enough. That's in the macro context, it's in the context of what's going on in the world. “Women have been shamed for their sexuality, let's shame men for their sexuality, game even.” No. There is something even better and what it takes is women who are powerful enough to be able to afford to be playful and imagine something even better. To go from the place where you're fighting against something to the place where you're fighting for something. When you're fighting for something so irresistibly, you could pour your heart into it, you don't care if your heart gets broken, that is something so beautiful. Like just the privilege of having a student body that is so committed to not only dreaming bigger, but having fun doing so, and getting really turned on when somebody goes, "I don't think so." The importance of inoculating women against the shock of hearing no is super, super important because basically what most women care about, the world is a no to.
Melissa: It's true. I work in sales with predominately all men, so everything you're saying resonates with me, it's so true whether it's going to your boss and trying to ask for a raise or hearing men talk about a woman that was promoted internally and they're like, "Oh, she must have slept her way up to the top." That boils my blood, because I see gender as not men are better, they should be paid more, they should have this privilege. Fuck that, it's women's time now. We shouldn't be paralyzed by fear because we're afraid of the what if? The fear of rejection, the fear of the unknown. I can relate to that, I'm sure many, many people can, it's so true and it's not just in a work environment, it's in life really.
Melissa: That's amazing, I love this. So the message that you guys had was incredible. What would you say to someone who's listening to this who is afraid to really speak out or speak up about something that happened to them that they weren't okay with? And the fear of speaking out about it is just too overwhelming for them?
Kasia: Well, that depends on the situation, right? It is so specific and unique, if you're talking about something that's sexually inappropriate that was traumatic: the degree of trauma and the amount of time that has passed has an impact on what the woman needs in order to soften, melt, self-express, to create a support system for herself. Also, it depends on whether she's confronting an individual or an organization. If she's just sharing it with her partner or her family in order to be better seen and understood and supported, or whether she's making a move to overthrow a government. Right? It really depends.
Melissa: Yeah, there's a big spectrum.
Kasia: In cases if we are talking about something like harassment, assault, or something sexual: there are two people that have an interaction. One that sustains damage, the other that may have intended to do so, may not have intended to do so, that may have known they did it, may have not known they did it. So here we have a problem, because we have the perpetrator who might not know he's a perpetrator, might very well know he's a perpetrator, might be skillful at being a perpetrator, might be a clumsy motherfucking dude. So we have this whole range of possibility on one side. And then through the culture that we have, we have women that are repeatedly traumatized to the point where one trigger can be enough to have them lose their voice and shut down.
Kasia: So now in this process we have a huge gap. People do not learn well way after the fact in conceptual rules. So if I tell you, "You did something wrong 10 years ago," and then they gave you a whole list of things that you should never do, it's going to be very hard for you to learn it. Especially if you are not consciously aware of doing it in the first place. A lot of this male behavior that we're talking about it's not conscious, especially-
Kasia: Yeah, especially, things like manterrupting that are not sexual, right?
Kasia: We have to allow for a degree of believing in stupidity.
Melissa: Yeah, that's right.
Kasia: When women don't even have the tools to express in the bedroom with their lovers when they're not getting off and they're faking orgasms, like men really don't know.
Melissa: They really don't.
Kasia: I know that there are many cases where they should know better, but they really don't know. So what we have is an ingrained social dynamic that makes women… that creates pain, and self-censorship or shut down for women making them furious and in pain. And the same social dynamic that's ingrained is making men more and more uninformed or stupid or lost. Right? So how do you do that? The reason that all of the exercises and tools in The Academy are relational, meaning we practice teaching women in real-time to express themselves in a way that gets their message to land. And not just land like, beat them over the fucking head–only if that's necessary–but to be able to deliver a communication, in real time, that affects the entire being of the other. Using things that are beyond language, like we started talking about primal communication, body to body.
Kasia: Capturing them using the right degree of severity from a light touch to a fucking verbal slap well depending on the situation so that the other person can learn in real time, the impact of their behavior. That is called social learning. Social learning is how we learn more effectively than anything else. We have laws, and some people follow the laws and some people don't, most people know the laws, but whether we follow them or not is not dependent on whether they're written down as laws. What we do and don't do is based on what appears to work. Now if we take this ingrained social dynamic where there is this huge gap between what women experience and what men do, and we bridge that gap, so that in real-time–this is why I'm talking about liberating women's voice, in real-time-
Melissa: Because otherwise they won't know.
Kasia: They won't know, and when you ask me the first question, the amount of time that has passed between the thing that happened and the communication about it also has an impact. Because now we're at a point where a woman, who's talking about something that happened to her two days ago and 10 years ago, is also feeling the pain of every single damn thing that's happened to her in her entire life. So a guy can look at her sideways for seconds, and without her– and this is innocent. I'm not saying anything negative about– unleashes a shit storm...
Melissa: A fucking beast, yeah.
Kasia: (Yells fiercely.) That is important and cathartic for women, but still not the best way for men to learn. There's a lot required here before the right action gets the right smack or the right communication or the right soft touch. That's why Ruben and I don't do anything but work. Because this is what we teach, this is what I do.
Ruben: I remember this one... She forwarded the email chain. This woman, she's a training executive at a large company. She had written something, an email. They had canceled the training, so they were going to do a makeup date. She wrote makeup, as in putting on your makeup, in the email. This guy, who's known in the organization to kind of just be a douchebag, was like, "Ha ha ha. Then you're going to teach us to put on mascara?"
Melissa: Are you kidding?
Ruben: To this large email to a bunch of people. So she went through her process of–because it's not to deny the impact of statements like this–she said, "I'm going to play with this. I'm going to engage this." She wrote him and she said, "Your comment was like this and it had this effect. I want you to know that." And he immediately called her and was like, "I had no idea. I said that. I'm scared by how unaware I was." He sent an email to everybody on that email chain and said, "My comment was not only completely inappropriate, for those of you who are new to this company, it's the exact role model of what we're trying to not do here. I'm trying to show you how to correct this thing." Called her again, apologized, and since then has completely changed his behavior there.
Ruben: You see this email exchange and you're like, “that's amazing.” If he had said, "Oh, it was a stupid joke. Get with it," she would have known how to play with that too, and take it up and change it. But it's not going to stand uncorrected. That's how we create culture.
Melissa: Yeah. Not in a work environment setting, but I remember distinctly when I was a child I was bullied a lot, for a million different things, whether it was religion or not fitting in my own skin, whatever it was. There was one specific person that tormented me. It stayed with me for years. It actually really messed me up. I think I was afraid of guys and I was a late bloomer with guys because I didn't feel comfortable because of this one experience. It wasn't just one. It was a number of them. It stuck with me. I never confronted him.
Melissa: Fast forward. It was probably two years after I graduated college, I ran into him on the street in the city. It was like no time had passed truthfully, and I just felt like that little girl again that was stopped by this fear of speaking out for myself. Except now I'm an aggressive person. I say what the fuck is on my mind. And I stopped him and I confronted him about it. I said, "You were really awful to me. I never did anything about it. I want you to know that you fucked me up." I remember saying that to him, and he looked like he had a deer in headlights. He had no idea that he had done this to me. He said, "Melissa, I had the biggest crush on you when I was younger. I didn't know that I was tormenting ..." He had literally no idea.
Melissa: I remember thinking to myself, how fucked up is that? That he literally had a crush on me and that's what his behavior was. It's so true. Not talking about it and pushing it down and having it resurface in such a way where I'm walking on the street of the city, I'm not seeking out talking to him or whatever it was. I think it's just important now, everything in my life, if there something that happens that I feel uncomfortable or if something isn't right and I see something, I always talk about it then. Because if you push it down, nothing will happen.
Kasia: Yeah. Also, you demonstrated something really, really, really incredible. When a woman speaks, she's also testing. There are vile predators out there and there are clumsy men out there who are well meaning, and everything in between. In that moment, you not only got to speak up for yourself, you not only got to teach him the impact of his behavior, but you also got to see that even though he did what he did, he had a crush on you.
Melissa: Yeah, that was the most confusing part of it.
Kasia: Yeah, but that's also one of the most beautiful parts. What I'm finding is it's so easy to just want to kill all the men right now.
Kasia: Right? Without looking at them. Without testing them. Without checking. What you did is you tested him. You put forward a communication and you tested him. He showed up. He showed up as somebody who expressed a crush in a way that was very damaging. Does that make him a horrible person? Does that make him a wonderful person? It doesn't make him anything, but it tells you what you need to know. This process allows women to discern better, but also to love men more and to create allies. If every woman he ever came in contact with was as brave as you, he would probably have an entirely different set of behaviors. Because what he learned from talking to you was what he did wasn't going to get you to be his girlfriend.
Melissa: So true. In the eighth grade.
Kasia: Yeah. I bet you that that lack of education, that could have patterned his behavior for years.
Melissa: It's so true. Who knows how his actions were after we were in middle school, but there was something so empowering about walking away from that situation and being like, “I told him how I felt.” It was baffling that he had a crush on me, but it was a relief to know that all of those years of being pissed off at something that happened as a kid, I was able to express it in a way that was healthy.
Kasia: Stand up for yourself, yeah.
Melissa: Yeah. It was amazing.
Kasia: So good. So many good things in that one move.
Melissa: Thank you guys. I appreciate that. I want everyone to learn a little bit more about how they can keep up with you guys, where they can go to sign up for courses. I know there's a long wait list, but I'm sure there are plenty of people listening to this that are very excited to learn more and attend these courses. Tell us a little bit about that.
Ruben: Should I do that?
Ruben: We run a number of-
Kasia: Wait. First thing is our website is WeTeachPower.com.
Ruben: Our website... She just womanterrupted.
Kasia: I just womanterrupted. That's right.
Melissa: I love that term.
Ruben: I'm the only man who works in our office.
Melissa: No way!
Ruben: The reversal of roles is fascinating.
Kasia: It's so fun to take what Ruben just said and say it better.
Melissa: I love that.
Ruben: It's great. We can have conversations and laugh about it, which is great. Our website is WeTeachPower.com. We do lectures throughout the year in New York. Those are...
Kasia: And around the world now.
Melissa: Yeah, all around the world.
Ruben: We try to make those super accessible. If someone can't afford to pay, they can come for free. We teach a monthlong class called Power with Men 101. We do that several times a year. We teach a semester long class...
Kasia: That's very intensive. It's all the way. We go all the way in that class.
Ruben: It's like 20 weeks of...
Melissa: 20, wow.
Ruben: ...for a group of-
Kasia: That actually usually gets extended.
Ruben: For a group of like 16 women.
Kasia: It's 20 sometimes. Yeah, but we go on a journey.
Ruben: We go on a journey.
Melissa: That's amazing.
Ruben: We teach... We're now starting to do-
Kasia: We're training the next generation of revolutionaries. We need 20 weeks.
Melissa: You literally are starting the best army of people ever.
Kasia: That's what they call themselves.
Ruben: Yeah, army. We now teach online courses, as well. We're starting to go into that route. We are obsessive about doing everything we can to get our students results, which is why our classes have remained quite small over time. It might make us bad business people, but that's not why we're doing this.
Melissa: Yeah. It gives people more of the attention than being in a huge classroom of 500 people. You have the personal attention with them.
Melissa: That's amazing. Any social media they can find you on other the website?
Ruben: God, we suck at that.
Melissa: It's okay.
Kasia: No, it's ridiculous and funny. We've had waiting lists since the beginning, so we haven't had to, but we really should.
Ruben: I was our first webmaster. I put a password on our website.
Kasia: Our website was password protected for...
Melissa: A password?
Kasia: ...two years.
Ruben: It's like, well, we have a really long waitlist.
Melissa: It may be time to hire a social media coordinator.
Ruben: Yeah, the learning curve has been steep on that end.
Kasia: Also, I'm proud that we don't give a shit about that. I'm proud that we’re mostly word of mouth.
Melissa: Yeah, people waitlist. It doesn't fucking matter.
Kasia: Yeah. I'm starting to do bigger and bigger things, like thousand person lectures, but those are just a couple of hours. Give one or two tools that a woman can use.
Melissa: That's amazing.
Ruben: It's been wild.
Kasia: It's been wild.
Kasia: We're having universities study our work, neuroscientists. It's just-
Melissa: You guys are going to be writing books for...
Kasia: I'm already writing books. Yeah, no, for school. Yeah, that's already happening, too.
Kasia: And the military and ...
Melissa: You say one of your students will change the world, but it sounds like you guys are on your way to already to that to be honest.
Kasia: We need to do it together. There can't be enough of us, you know.
Melissa: Yeah, everyone has to come together. It's not going to be one person. We have to, like you said, the army. That's amazing. Thank you guys so much for coming on the podcast. Seriously ...
Ruben: It's been a pleasure.
Kasia: It's been a pleasure.
Melissa: I’m blown away by both of you. Very, very incredible people.