Social Innovation Profiles are a series on Impact Hub NYC’s local members. In this social innovation profile, Ariane Hunter interviews local Impact Hub NYC member, Evan Walden of ReWork.
“The whole premise for starting ReWork was that our team believed that human capital is the biggest lever there is to changing the world, that people are the most important piece to every business.”
Ariane: What’s your name, your role, and the mission behind ReWork?
Evan: My name is Evan Walden and I’m the CEO of ReWork. Our mission is to help exceptional professionals find meaningful work. We do that by matching them to companies with a mission that goes beyond profit in some way. So, that could be a nonprofit organization or a for profit organization, but really just an organization that has a very clear mission and focus.
We’re seeing more and more companies shifting focus from bottom line profits to having a sense of purpose. Can you speak to what you think is causing this shift?
That’s a fun question. There have been a lot of organizations working this way for a long time and it’s starting to really become a movement. Young people especially are becoming more vocal about not wanting to compromise where they work. So, in some ways, I think it’s talent-driven but it’s also because things are starting to break. Big social systems are starting to break & big environmental systems are starting to break. Smart people are finally saying that we need to be more conscious about the way we behave and the way we do business. There have been people in the movement – like Impact Hub, like B Lab – who have said ‘hey, we’re going to start doing this and we’re going to put a flag in the ground.’ It used to be that if you wanted to do good in the world, you had to make a bunch of money and give it away or work for a tiny nonprofit. Now, that’s a false dichotomy. There are so many options in the middle – companies that are doing well and doing good at the same time are getting more traction. Pioneers in the space have led the way and now we’re seeing so many other purpose-focused businesses popping up.
I was just talking to Josh Tetrick, the founder at Hampton Creek. He expressed that, in order for all of this to actually work, purpose-focused business has to be more attractive. It has to be easier to do good than it is to do bad; It has to be cheaper to do good than it is to do bad; it has to be more profitable to do good than it is to do bad. His whole philosophy is that we can’t just convince people to be good, we have to make it worth their time and worth their money. Hampton Creek makes plant-based products that are like egg substitutes. They have a product called ‘Just Mayo’ which is a plant-based mayonnaise. It’s scaling and their business is growing tremendously. I look at companies like that, like Warby Parker, and a few others that have exploded on the consumer side. There’s more public exposure for these companies, and therefore more opportunities for consumers to spend money where they think they can make a difference.
Do you think that it’s a risk for companies to start mimicking this model of doing good?
It’s a risk to talk about doing good without actually investing in it. Executive leadership in big organizations are beginning to understand that the public wants them to consider the positive & negative externalities of their business. However, I think few organizations are saying, ‘how do we make systemic investments across the business that actually make an impact on our externalities?’. Some organizations have created social good marketing initiatives but haven’t deeply invested in social good as part of their business strategy and it’s becoming apparent. These organizations are getting called out and that’s a big brand risk. With that said, it’s a start. It’s a double-edged sword to condemn companies that aren’t investing enough in CSR because they’re at least trying something. As a community, we should be supportive & help them double down on their efforts.
For smaller businesses, I don’t think it’s a risk at all. It’s going to be business as usual in 10-20 years – I hope. That’s what we’re all gunning for and working on.
I come across a lot of my clients who want to connect with something bigger than themselves. It’s not ok to just have the typical 9-5 anymore and they’re looking for more. I read an article in Fast Company, called The New Rules of Work and they talk about how we’re shifting away from antiquated ways of doing business. One of the things mentioned was 9-5’s are going to be a thing of the past and now it’s going to be work anywhere from your mobile device or anywhere in the world. It also talks about what people are looking for and what’s more fulfilling to them. It’s not just the salary, it’s being connected to that mission. In your opinion, who has the power to shift the way companies do business?
When I think about consumer buying power, I think about how you & I hold the power. As consumers, we vote with the ways in which we spend our money. I think about this in the same way that I think about time – you vote with the ways you spend your time. 10 years ago, a company like ReWork probably couldn’t have existed because there weren’t enough companies figuring out how to make money while having a positive impact. Now there are lots of opportunities for people who want to integrate their values with the work they’re doing.
The whole premise for starting ReWork was that our team believed that human capital is the biggest lever there is to changing the world, that people are the most important piece to every business. Your only unique competitive advantage is your talent. The most talented people say, “I’m going to work for a company that is awesome”. After a while, companies that don’t care about the world won’t have the strongest talent working for them anymore.
Companies who incorporate impact into their mission see how powerful it can be as an attractor for talented people. And that’s probably reason enough to invest – invest in different places, or change your supply chain, or invest in the community in some way. The payback you get from recruiting talented people are worth that investment.
What do you notice as the common denominator of the companies that you work with?
I think it’s thoughtfulness with stakeholders, making an impact, and that the company’s mission is something their entire team can articulate. When a team goes to work with one of these companies, they actually feel and care about their mission. Sometimes a mission becomes a cliche – the mission is up on a billboard in the corporate office and nobody really knows what it is. For the companies that we work with, their mission is the only reason they exist. If you don’t know what the mission is, you wouldn’t understand the company. It’s all very laced together.
The people that Rework serves want to work on something they care about every day, they want to integrate their values with their work. A lot of the companies that Rework tries to find and work with are companies who are providing that opportunity to people. But it can be hard. Almost all of our clients are less than 200 employees, so we’re working with small to medium size businesses who have typical business challenges in addition to staying accountable to their impact. Just because you have a mission doesn’t mean you’re immune to cultural issues or cash flow.
Tell me about a project at ReWork that you’re most proud of.
There are so many projects that I’m proud of. Off the top of mind, I can’t help but think of a recent big transition for our team. Our CEO, Nathaniel, just became head of Talent Acquisition at the Hillary Campaign. I just transitioned into the role of CEO and Abe became our COO. I’m really proud of the way that our team handled that. Everyone really showed up and we were able to have conversations about the transition in a way that was very open and vulnerable. It’s hard to go through a transition like that, especially in a short time period. I’m grateful to have a team that’s able to do that – to take something, roll with it, and make it into a new opportunity. It’s really cool and it’s a huge accomplishment for us. It’s a huge accomplishment for Nat and it’s something that is very present for us right now.
I can’t say that I’m surprised because I know how awesome our team is, but I’m in gratitude to see something like that happen and look back and say “Damn, that was awesome.”
I noticed the phrase ‘reinventing resources’ on the ReWork website. What practices and strategies would you advise to recommend to organizations who are looking to do this?
It might be cool to talk about the framework that we use when we talk about meaningful work and what that means. There seems to be four key ingredients when it comes to meaningful work. We came up with this idea from reading tons of people’s research and studying as much as we can find about these concepts and meshing all the insights together.
- The first thing is Legacy, which is what happens in the world as a result of the work that you do. So this may be the mission of the company that you work with.
- Mastery is the second thing. This would be skills, professional development.
- Freedom is the third. What is your lifestyle in the context of your work, vacation, benefits; these kinds of things.
- And Alignment is the fourth thing. So it consists of culture and are your values aligned.
In looking at each of those four things, companies can really think more deeply about how they frame the organization, how they value these things, and how they communicate them.
With Legacy, being able to articulate the organization’s mission becomes a beacon that speaks to people who are excited about that mission. The more clear you can be about exactly who you’re serving, the more likely it is that you’ll find people who are diehard for your company’s mission. These people are running and kicking your door down to work for you. Organizations always have a challenge articulating who they are, so that’s something I always recommend.
When it comes to Mastery, professional development is so huge. We oftentimes hear from people that they don’t necessarily care about making more money if they’re growing, if they have more responsibilities, more autonomy, or if they have a mentor who’s really taking care of them or clear leadership. I think companies have a huge opportunity to provide professional development, not in lieu of salary, but as an added benefit to be competitive and to fulfill people who are excited to grow in their career.
In terms of Freedom, there are a lot of companies who implement HR policies that feel archaic. There’s not necessarily a thoughtful reason why some HR policies exist other than it’s how things have always been done. ReWork encourages companies to be more flexible or at least to have a good reason why things are being implemented. I’ve talked to lots of organizations who have said that they can’t retain any of these “darn millenials”. When I ask how much vacation they give, and they respond that they don’t give any vacation until the first year in and then it’s 2 weeks, I say that vacation is a place they might want to start re-evaluating. I believe – and there’s amazing research on this – that taking a break to step away from work and rejuvenate enables people to come back so much more effective and productive. It’s an old school mentality that you have to control everyone at every moment.
And then when it comes to Alignment, I recommend being really clear about your values in a similar way to your mission. Ask questions like: How do people operate? What are the norms of the organization? What do you care about? What do you say yes to? What do you say no to? Be intentional about describing your organizational culture and put words to it. It’s not easy and I don’t think there’s any right or wrong culture, it’s just understanding what is your culture. What do you stand for? Again, it just allows people to self-select or not.
What does Impact NYC space and community mean to you?
I personally see the world in networks, people, and connections. That’s just how my brain works. Networks mean a lot to me and to ReWork in so many ways. When we first started the business we went through a program called ‘The Unreasonable Institute’ in Boulder, a very accelerated program for impact-driven entrepreneurs. They bring organizations out to Boulder for six weeks every summer and match them with investors and mentors to help them scale their companies. It’s a unique program and it’s absolutely the premier organization doing this in the world. The network that Unreasonable provided us from the beginning was insane. We were coming from nowhere, we were first time entrepreneurs, we had no backgrounds. I was selling pesticides for Dow Chemical and Nat was just finishing his degree in sustainability so we didn’t have networks in the space. We very quickly realized that the impact world is made up of a lot of really good people, genuinely good people.
The best way to make traction in this space is to genuinely give and help others. The word genuine is so important because you can’t really fake that. It’s hard for assholes to exist in this world because you eventually breakthrough that. In terms of literal space, we’ve worked out of coffeeshops, we’ve worked out of coworking spaces, and we all moved into a house for two months in Denver one time to get the business tight. We’ve jumped around spaces a lot. This space [Impact Hub] has been great for us. It’s a unique mix of coworking but we still have private space in our office which offers a more effective space than any other coworking spaces we’ve been in. And, for an organization like ours, it wouldn’t be cost-effective to get our own office in New York City. Being able to work at Impact Hub let’s us have our private space, be part of a community, and go to awesome events that are being put on all the time. We’re good friends with a lot of people in the space, and it feels like ‘our people’ that we’re all working around. We don’t need to have that many interactions during the day. It’s just nice to be in the same space knowing everyone cares about the same thing. Impact Hub is a good curator of good people.
Where do you see ReWork headed in the next 2-3 years?
When we started ReWork, we saw this very small space of innovative nonprofits & social enterprises trying to advocate doing good in the world with your work. At first, we were pretty focused on a small community. This community included Impact Hub, which I’d consider to be a cornerstone alongside with Ashoka, Echoing Green, Unreasonable Institute, and Starting Bloc. When you say social enterprise, these organizations come to mind. As we started working in that space, we noticed that there’s an umbrella of industries that I would consider to be impact-driven and where impact is a part of the DNA. For example, healthcare, education, international development, community development, natural products, sustainability, clean energy. These are really big industries that exist independent of each other in a sense. I think it’s really interesting to ask the question: can we tie a thread between all of these industries and say that – at a higher level – we’re all pushing a common mission forward? From a talent standpoint, we find a lot of people who are transitioning out of an industry that they’re not excited about. They want to get exposure to something else. We hear things like: “I’m so curious about education, but I have no idea where to look” or I want to move from San Francisco to New York, but I’ve never even been there and I don’t know what should I do and who I should talk to”.
I would love for ReWork to be a place where professionals can come and dive into a new world or new industry. Or, for professionals to learn about awesome jobs and awesome companies in their current industry that they never knew existed before. For companies, I would love for ReWork to help identify and hire talented professionals. I think there’s a great need to improve the hiring process. No one really gets taught ‘hiring’ in college or in MBA programs, eventhough it’s arguably one of the most important things you could do at an organization. For companies – especially companies who don’t have full HR teams internally – it’s really hard to get that right. It’s really hard to do that without being in emergency mode when you wake up one day and needed someone yesterday. For companies, I’d love for ReWork to be a way for them to find really good people when they need them, and ideally before they need them so that when they need them, they’re ready.