Talking Too Loud: Stories on Building People-First Companies
March 4, 2021
Last year, we launched Talking Too Loud, an interview-style podcast hosted by our CEO Chris Savage and podcast producer extraordinaire, Sylvie Lubow. On the show, interesting and insightful conversations have unfolded as Chris and Sylvie picked the brains of business leaders and entrepreneurs who’ve done extraordinary things.
After interviewing a range of guests, from an award-winning chef and restaurateur to fellow co-founders, we’ve noticed some common themes that have been present across multiple episodes.
One theme that’s been prevalent in our conversations is the idea of companies being “people-first.” We’ve chatted with folks who are building human-first workplace cultures and others who are prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
It sounds obvious — shouldn’t every company put employees first? But in reality, not every company prioritizes putting its people first, and we still have a lot more work to do to achieve equity across industries.
So, what can companies do to become more human-first workplaces? And what does it look like to achieve equity in the business landscape? Our guests had a lot to say.
Nurturing human-first workplace cultures
Three of our guests shared their experiences building companies and cultures that put their people first — Kim Scott, Natalie Nagele, and Michelle Khouri.
Getting candid with Kim Scott
Kim Scott is the New York Times best-selling author of Radical Candor. She joined Chris on the show to chat about the role criticism and praise plays in the workplace, and why “radical candor” is so important when putting employees first. So, what does this concept boil down to in its simplest form? What gets in our way of offering it to one another?
“Radical candor, on the surface, is a pretty simple idea. It means that you care personally about people, and at the same time, you challenge them directly. When you care and challenge at the same time, that’s radical candor.”
“One of the mistakes people make when they hear radical candor is they think it’s all about criticism. And specifically, they think it’s all about the boss criticizing the employees. And that’s not true. First and foremost, it’s about soliciting criticism. But the next step in the order of operations is praise.”
For Kim, radical candor at the highest level is about love and truth at the same time. And, she sees it as an important concept for every relationship — not just professional interactions.
Making space for innovation with Natalie Nagele
Natalie Nagele is the CEO and Co-Founder of Wildbit — the company behind Beanstalk, Postmark, and other brilliant software known for removing common pain points in developers’ processes.
In Natalie’s experience, success is achieved with a happy and energized team. She shared how she nurtures a workplace culture that encourages flexibility, creates a more innovative space, and is reimagining how we define work in the business landscape.
“I think that the core for me is that a business’s success and failure is based on its people. Every business is unique because every person is unique. So my main focus is building a space where we can innovate, and then as long as I have the right people in place and the right culture and we focus all our energies on nurturing that, then we can do anything.”
Natalie dug into this a bit more as she explained how she was on board to ditch a project the team spent several years on after realizing that her team was burnt out.
“WildBit has several products. There was one product, in particular, that the team felt was a great candidate for a revamp. But they spent years working on it. It took them way longer than they had anticipated to come out with it and to get that customer validation they were seeking.”
"Realizing that the team was burnt out, they weren’t having fun, and they weren’t happy building this product — that’s when we knew they had to change their direction and do something different. We collectively decided to stop work on this project and let the team work on other priorities.
They had spent years on this, but no one was happy or having fun. We realized it wasn’t succeeding and addressed it head-on by providing a space where everyone who had spent so long working on this project could be honest about how they were feeling."
WildBit is full of ideas and projects, and the magic for Natalie was realizing that there were other projects people were excited to pursue and work on. Allowing them to work on something else that launched quicker, to see their work out in the wild, and to see the instant value add to the company and to the world was a huge morale boost.
Leading a heart-and-human-centered company with Michelle Khouri
Michelle Khouri is the CEO and founder of FRQNCY Media, a full-service podcast production, strategy, and marketing company. She explained how she’s leading a heart and human-centered company and breaking the rules around running a business in her conversation with Chris.
"You know we’ve said for so many years? ‘It’s just business. It’s not personal.’ What does that even mean? A business does not exist. It is not a living organism. I think that’s what it means to be an anti-capitalism capitalist.
I am a participant in capitalism because that is the system that we have in this country for corporations to make a profit. I’m leading a heart-centered and human-centered company that is completely in opposition with capitalism. Capitalism is neither heart-centered nor is it human-centered. I’m engaged in the system because I have to be, but I’m actively trying to dismantle it at every turn."
When it comes to putting employees first, Michelle isn’t afraid to put in the work required to walk the walk.
"When you set out to start a business, you don’t have all the answers. In fact, you have pretty much zero answers. You start just following your gut and seeing what works and what doesn’t. And, I know from firsthand experience of trying to navigate this myself right now how much effort it takes to build a truly equitable, fair, trusting, and non-toxic workplace. It’s a lot of work. That’s why I’m an anti-capitalism capitalist because, in order to do the things that feel right and feel human, you have to break the rules. How crazy is that?
The misconception is that profit suffers when you place attention on communities and humanity and the people who work to build the company. And that’s actually not at all the case. I’m not anti-profit. We are, in fact, a profitable company. From day one we’ve been profitable and a good example of what it means to be human-centered with a corporation."
Building a profitable company that’s heart-and-human-centered isn’t impossible, and Michelle is the perfect example of how putting people first is worth the hard work. Breaking the rules around running a business that prioritizes profit over people will feel good — just follow your gut.
Tackling diversity, equity, and inclusion across industries
Diversity, equity, and inclusion is another aspect of being people-first that emerged across several episodes. Here’s what David Delmar Sentíes and Obi Omile covered in their episodes of Talking Too Loud.
Diversity without equity is decoration with David Delmar Sentíes
David Delmar Sentíes is the Founder of Resilient Coders, a nonprofit spreading code literacy to young people from traditionally underserved communities in eastern Massachusetts.
It’s not often that the founder of a non-profit says his objective is to become obsolete, but for David, that’s exactly how he feels about Resilient Coders. He shared what he believes it will take to truly achieve equity in the workplace, and how Resilient Coders creates the opportunity for meritocracy in tech.
“Wealth inequality would suggest that white people are working 31,000 times harder than Black people. Is that the case? Either white people are working 31,000 times harder than Black people, or there is a deep injustice at work. So, we need to confront this.”
Throughout the conversation, David explores how diversity efforts can fall short of achieving meaningful results if not implemented thoughtfully.
"An early phase of the process is that companies are making diverse hires but they’re still token hires. They’re internships that don’t convert to full-time employment or they are low-wage jobs that don’t have much growth. Some companies are transitioning beyond that because they understand that that’s not enough. That is not a recalibration of power. That’s a token hire.
Some more progressive companies are starting to think beyond this and give people opportunities for actual growth, for the continued professional development of that individual, which is full-time jobs, market-rate salaries, at jobs that have an opportunity to grow, with an expectation that that individual will continue to grow. And that — that’s power-sharing.
We’re not necessarily talking about having a vote at board meetings. I’m talking about, ‘does this individual have an opportunity to develop themselves as professionals at that company? Is there a runway, or is there a chair that that person shows up at every day, and that’s kind of it?"
David continued by expressing his goal of becoming obsolete — a bold statement for any business leader.
"We need to change power dynamics at these companies across the entire industry. And it starts with having a generation of tech leaders who are Black and Brown, who are from neighborhoods that have historically been economically oppressed in Boston.
My objective with Resilient Coders is to become obsolete. I want to shut us down. I want us to get to a point as an industry where we arrive at justice and an organization like Resilient Coders is just not needed. That’s the goal."
Organizations like Resilient Coders are creating opportunities for meritocracy in tech. As an industry, we have a duty to achieve equity so that one day Resilient Coders doesn’t have to exist.
Disrupting a $20 billion market with Obi Omile
Lastly, Obi Omile is the CEO and Co-Founder of theCut, the largest technology platform modernizing the barbershop experience for barbers and folks in search of a fresh haircut.
Obi spoke on what it’s been like battling the beauty and tech industries in the U.S. and his advice for investors when it comes to investing in more businesses of color.
"I’ve always wanted to flip the script and change the narrative of what people of color can accomplish and what the Black and Brown buying power in the U.S. alone could do. So, it’s been fun to really go out and prove what I’ve always believed is being the case.
There’s a narrative out there around barbershops — that there’s not really any money in the business. So when we’ve talked to investors, that’s one of the biggest hurdles for them to get over. They don’t think people are going to pay for this service. They don’t think that there’s longevity in this fight. They expect more churn, and that barbers are just going to go back to doing what they were doing before. It’s been fun to prove everyone wrong."
When asked about what could be done to change the narrative and provide more equitable opportunities for businesses of color, Obi had some strong ideas.
"My suggestion that I’ve actually given to some VCs is that they’ve got to be more open and trusting — even if you don’t fully ‘get’ the concept. I think a lot of people revert to bias or what they know, and some are more comfortable staying within their wheelhouse. And even if that may be kind of the approach you want to take and it’s harder for you to get out of that mindset, then enlist people within your ranks who you trust — like, scout programs.
Hire people of color who have a better understanding and context who can go out and find these companies. Because one, they’re already going to have a network of founders probably that they know would fit in that mold. And then they have a better understanding of what the opportunity could be. They can bridge that gap for you.
So, my biggest suggestion has always been to enlist scouts to go out and do the work for you if you can’t. And then trust those scouts to find these businesses and really give them free rein to make those decisions."
More work must be done to achieve equity in the entrepreneurial space and include ideas from businesses of color, but Obi’s ideas are one place for investors to start.
Putting people first in the business world
We loved having these guests on the show to hear all about their initiatives and missions for leading people-first organizations and achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion. Check out the full-length episodes of Talking Too Loud to learn more from these entrepreneurs and business leaders about how they’re changing the business landscape for the better. Plus, be on the lookout for more deep dives into the themes we heard on the show!