EO Talks: A Look At The Evolution Of Corporate Culture

My first job out of college was in customer service. I worked for an online retailer that sold boutique furniture and household products.

The role was simple: I had to call people who’d paid for goods that were ‘out of stock’ and offer them equivalent store credit.

Here’s the catch: most of the stuff we sold was always ‘out of stock’. This was never made clear on the website; it was 2008 and people could still say technical issues were out of their control. There was no CTO, no IT team, no technical support, and management couldn’t help. We had a ‘web guy’ who mysteriously never answered the phone.

As you might imagine, customers were pretty irate when they heard from me. For the most part, I spent my days getting yelled at by perfect strangers. Some screamed. Others calmly said they’d find me and break my legs. Lots of people begged for a refund.

Without a doubt, the worst was when people implied that my job said something about me as a person. “How can you live with yourself ripping people off everyday? Does this make you feel powerful?”

Of course I didn’t.

I needed a job — any job.

At the time, the idea of having a fun, values-driven company culture was an alien concept. The economy was tanking and people were doing what they could to stay afloat. In a few short months, the recession stretched its legs and started running down businesses across the world.

At lot has changed since 2008. Fast forward to February 2, 2017. I attended EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organization) Talk, an event hosted by Portland Business Journal. The morning’s itinerary included four presentations from local founders and CEOs of the region’s fastest growing companies, each discussing their experience with business growth.

Overall, two things stood out and connected the presentations. First, they were very personal and rooted in meaningful experiences. Secondly, their talks centered around things that mattered to the emerging workforce, rather than the company’s strategy: culture, values, and investing in people. Things that were very clearly not a part of my first job.

Cameron Madill, CEO of PixelSpoke, kicked things off with a session entitled, “Bringing Purpose into Capitalism: Refugees, Social Impact, and Authenticity.” In fifteen minutes, he was able to clearly explain why volunteer opportunities at a business (which, for him, means working with refugees) are valuable, even though they don’t make money: because employees value them.

This was followed by Augusto Carneiro, Founder and CE of Nossa Familia Coffee, who unpacked “Carving a Niche In A Crowded Market,” in the least aggressive, least sales-heavy way. His key message was ABMF: Always Be Making Friends. As far as he was concerned, growth happens when you reach out to like-minded businesses (even competitors) and lift one another up — and he has the results to back this up.

Sharon Soliday, Owner and CEO of The Hello Foundation, framed her session (“Don’t Let Others Red-Line Your Future”) around a test she took in the seventh grade that would decide whether or not she could take algebra. After failing the test, she had to advocate for herself and challenge the system to get what she wanted. It was a sweet story that would set the tone for her life’s work as an advocate for children.

During the last talk of the morning, Adam Stites, owner of Mirth Provisions, asked the EO Talks audience who was still at their first job.

As expected, nobody raised their hand.

“Looks like we’ve got some quitters on our hands,” he said, joking.

This was how Stites and Barry Raber, owner of Bargain Storage, introduced their topic: ‘Pivoting to Something Better.’ Both had been very successful early on in their careers. Individually, they built solid businesses that grew quickly and ultimately fell victim to the recession. When faced with very tough decisions and limited options, each of them discovered a hidden opportunity to rebuild their careers. Focussing on culture, values, and customer relationships, they set about establishing Bargain Storage and Mirth Provisions, which are flourishing today through people.

It was a good way to wrap up what had been a morning of uplifting, positive, and engaging talks from a collection of Portland’s most savvy business owners. I couldn’t help thinking back to my first job and analyzing the difference between my experience back then and what I do for a living today.

In the 9 years that have passed since I made rent by calling people who’d been ripped off, corporate culture has come a long way. The increase of millennial influence, coupled with an evolving and innovative economy, is forcing companies to reimagine how they attract and retain talent.

Because without people, there’s no business. People always come first.

Clayton Truscott is the brand content coordinator at NetRush, a digital retail agency that manages brands on the Amazon Marketplace.

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