How does a guy from Canada who lives on a steep, winding road with no parking get to meet his Palomar Park neighbors? Sebastien Dery, who works in the tech world in the field of artificial intelligence, came up with a foot-traffic-stopping solution: He placed a chalkboard in the front courtyard, where he posts messages daily designed to get people to stop, think and maybe even smile. And a bonus if they’re on foot: Perhaps have a chat with the author of the chalkboard icebreakers.
A posting could be a factoid Dery picked up on the web: “The first Christmas tree was made out of dyed goose feathers,” for example. Or the message-du-jour may be topical: “Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia won the 1960 Olympic marathon without shoes.” It could be an amusing tidbit about a term that arose in 2020: “Blursday. Term to describe the current day when you’re not sure what day it actually is!”
The 33-year-old Montreal native has a background in biomedical/medical engineering and neuroscience and has a graduate degree from McGill University, where he was a research assistant. He came to Redwood City five years ago and has worked for two start-ups, the second of which was acquired by his current employer, Apple. A lot of his work in artificial intelligence is about improving people’s experience using “search,” and he’s come to realize that starting with something fun that piques a user’s interest is a good way to get them curious enough to start asking questions. That thought process somewhat circuitously led Dery to start his chalkboard postings. They’re also on Instagram.
“I started this just as a way to share little tidbits,” he explains, “send people on like avenues of curiosity. ‘I learned this today. Now it’s for you.’ And it’s kind of my way of connecting with a new community, my little tidbit in community-building.” The house on Palomar Drive which Dery and partner Kelly Kelso share is at the entrance to the wooded unincorporated neighborhood, and everybody has to pass by, whether hiking or driving. The chalkboard has definitely been a way to meet the neighbors. “I think it’s a point of curiosity. I’m sitting here working and people passing by, they stop and they read and then they have a smile and keep walking. That just makes my day.” For Canada Day (July 1), Dery posted a message inviting neighbors to a backyard party. “And people stopped!” he says. “I met two Canadians in Palomar that I didn’t know.”
A few years ago, Dery decided to take up sculpting, which has become a hobby he’s passionate about. He does most of the dusty sculpting work at a studio in San Francisco, but he likes to do the fine polishing with sandpaper at home. “That takes time and it’s time that I can spend outside and talk to neighbors,” he says. “I can be in the studio—but it’s a lot more fun.”