Startup Detox Series — Part 1: Why Being Mission-Driven is not Enough

Jessica Newfield
Dec 12, 2019 · 9 min read
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Since the internet-technology boom of the late 90s, Unicorns and tech-based companies have dramatically influenced and changed central human activities — how we shop and socialize, how we get our news and information, what jobs we value and how we spend our time. We’ve entered the Fourth Industrial Revolution and tech companies have become the cultural influencers of the 21st century with legal backing to become so through such regulations as the US JOBS ACT. If “Your doctor smokes camels” comes to mind for the Mad Men era of big business where Tobacco lobbyists ruled and advertising giants made smoking cool, think for today: “Your dev used to work with Zuckerberg and invested early in Bitcoin, but has three side hustles now for funsies”.

VC firms and angel investors are the modern day lobbying powers and influence deregulation of the tech industry while reframing it as fostering the growth of the “sharing economy”. Yet this convenience-based sharing economy is seemingly oblivious to its inherent incompatibility with safeguarding our future. If the 7.6 million people turnout for the September #ClimateStrike is not enough of an indication of global discontent with business as usual climate adaptation measures of governments and corporations, then the latest IPCC report should scare you enough to realize that GHG emissions pose the most serious climate threat of our entire existence as a species. And yet it’s like watching in slow motion a drunk person get into a predictable car wreck.

But aren’t unicorns and the “sharing economy” trying to address these serious challenges through mission-driven companies?

And Gen Zers feel the same as millennials. And guess who is going to be the next wave of young hires graduating from college in the next couple years? Gen Zers. Millennials and Gen Zers aren’t naïve — they know profits are both necessary and a priority. Deloitte’s findings suggest that corporations should set out to achieve a broad balance of objectives that include:

  • Making a positive impact on society and the environment;
  • Creating innovative ideas, products and services;
  • Job creation, career development and improving people’s lives;
  • An emphasis on inclusion and diversity in the workplace.

Employers understand millennials’ expectations that the company they work for should “make an impact” in the world. I ask though, what kind of impact? And impact for whom? It seems like these days every privileged human and their mother is running a startup that is building the next big thing that will disrupt this or that, commodify free resources like the air we breathe to then “democratize its access for all”. How well are these kind of companies putting their money where their mouth is? Are unicorns equipped to prioritize the implementation of long-term focused measures to guarantee the health of our ecosystems and ensure that the most marginalized communities don’t continue to be the most impacted by the climate crisis?

Unicorns fail and will continue to fail by design to accomplish their impact objectives.

Unicorn values are fundamentally in contradiction with longevity. Hypergrowth, driven by fast 10x returns has become the central focus of investors and distorted organizational priorities, preventing company leadership from building out long-term systems to support diversity, employee wellbeing, and professional development programs.

When an organization’s “world-changing” jargon does not get translated into concrete internal systems and corporate practices, this cognitive dissonance breeds a significant culture shock.

As someone that has grown up in a family of activists, doctors, and academics, I have always been guided in my personal life and work by a strong sense of social duty. Therefore, I look for employers, collaborators or clients that share the same values around empathy, inclusion, community wellbeing, and empowerment, and don’t feel they need to compromise on these values to make bank.

If a startup I work for claims to embody the same values that I hold as tenants of my professional and personal life, I expect them to follow up with action. Because of the environment I’ve grown up in, I am very skeptical of “mission-driven” startups using their mission statement for anything more than branding and cultural capital.

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After having worked in 16+ countries and traveled to 37, I can say without hesitation that the biggest culture shock I’ve ever experienced has been Unicorn Startup Culture, specifically working with startups that identify strongly with high-valuation financial goals and a bootstrapping ethic of scarce resource utilization to reach unicorn status. I did not experience this level of culture shock doing fieldwork as a community consultant in Northern Quebec, Canada in Cree communities, nor interviewing entrepreneurs, nonprofits and conducting hardware testing in Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haïtien and Ouanaminthe, Haiti, nor organizing workshops and events in Argentina, Colombia and Mexico.

What I have witnessed working with these unicorn- aspiring startups is that their financials reveal how they are not prioritizing the values they advertise in their mission statement, but rather expenditures for short-term projects/wins that show quick returns. Creating a work culture entirely focused on achieving these high-valuation goals can manifest as employers squeezing everything out of their human capital while hoping that the “cool perks” and social validation they offer will be enough to keep their employees spinning on the hamster wheel. Don’t get me wrong, I love kombucha on tap and competitive ping pong like the next millennial girl. But give me those perks after you’ve ensured for me full coverage health care, clear third party HR support, legitimate professional development programs, appropriate work hours and personal boundaries.

If providing me with resources to improve my wellbeing as an employee and feel better supported comes not only second, but almost last in the laundry list of an employer’s priorities, I start to experience the symptoms of this type of work culture. I start to feel both physically and mentally checked out, emotionally drained, and reticent to try to implement change completely on my own. You’re undoubtedly familiar with toxic masculinity. Well this is toxic unicorn culture. There’s a reason millennials are now being called the burnout generation.

We were told that a new wave of tech leaders and companies would change the world for the better and solve the needs of future generations, but what I’ve experienced and still continue to observe is a repackaged old corporatism of the 1960s where graphic novel t-shirts have replaced the suit and tie, and the 5 o’clock whiskey has made way for beer pong league time.

“ The old tech industry was run by engineers and MBAs; the new tech industry is populated by young, amoral hustlers” — Dan Lyons, Disrupted

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Mark Zuckerberg at Senate hearings regarding Cambridge Analytica scandal. Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Technological breakthroughs are useless without the right leadership approach.

Being a sustainable company doesn’t just equate to associating yourself with ethically-minded brands or sponsoring charity fundraisers. Being a sustainable company means that from strategy to service or product delivery, systems change is at the core of the business. Diversity cannot be an afterthought. Employee wellbeing cannot be an afterthought. Your company culture cannot be an afterthought. We don’t have that luxury anymore — ALL of our futures depend on it.

A company’s leadership is continuously shaping its organizational structures, practices, and culture. It is therefore essential for leadership to recognize its role in influencing its employees and clients, not only through the embodiment of its core values, but also through its commitments to implementing its promises. As we co-create the future of work, we need to also consider the type of organization that we are building and our role in leading change across industries.

At the foundation of the unicorn ethos lies a false paradigm that making an impact and being profitable are two mutually exclusive goals. If you are a mission-led organization, you not only make an aspirational commitment, but also a financial commitment to transforming your corporate habits and practices and reallocate capital and resources to new relevant programs. A new wave of organizations called Zebras embody this:“they balance profit and purpose, champion democracy, and put a premium on sharing power and resources (…) they create a more just and responsible society who will hear, help, and heal the customers and communities they serve.” Studies show that promoting diversity in the workplace presents clear business value for management, and provides a broader, richer experience for a customer base. If we’re in it for the long game, there will be much higher returns on investing in our systems and people now. So what are we waiting for?

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Photo credit: CMO.com Team Adobe

Introducing inclusive, equitable, and innovative organizational models into company structures and practices generates a competitive advantage.

As we strive to become true leaders in the sector, we must carefully consider our leadership approach, choose which best practices in organizational management to implement, and what metrics to use to measure our progress.

Instead of asking yourself how your startup is going to reach “unicorn” status through VC funding in the next 1–2 years, what if you worked with your network of advocates that believe in your business to explore alternative business models or what flat and cooperative governance for your company would like?

What would the global startup community look like if we all thought more about how to build evolutionary organizations like zebras and resilient innovation ecosystems that promote inclusive, community-designed solutions that solve real-world problems?

What would our smart cities look like if we moved away from food/laundry/”insert convenience of choice” apps to building holistic organizations and solutions that tackled concrete food justice and housing issues?

When the Convenience Economy fails to solve social and environmental problems, what would our companies look like if they focused on building a more “human-centered” circular economy?

What would the world look like if we designed and led organizations to make every employee feel valued by their employer and peers, and empowered them to make decisions that directly served their community? What if our startup teams were composed of the most marginalized communities we’re trying to “help”?

I would like to live in a world where widespread corporate culture strives to make all organizations, nonprofit or for profit, provide real human value for society by designing and leading them for longevity. Organizations that strive for equality and justice. Organizations that are equipped to tackle the most pressing issues of our time and our future.

Now that’s the kind of culture shift I’d like to witness.

The necessary future of work.

As feminist writer and activist, Grace Lee Boggs, eloquently observed:Deep in our hearts we know that our comforts, our conveniences are at the expense of other people.”

Baby Boomers and Gen Xers were sold on the idea that if you specialized and worked hard enough, your economic safety net would always be safeguarded by free markets. In less than one hundred years, these free markets have disrupted our global ecosystems’ health in such a way that a safe future is no longer a likely deal.

We’ve passed enough tipping points to know that climate risk is already changing financial markets and affecting trade policy decisions. Shortly, no one will care if there’s a food delivery app that beats time records when our freshwater sources are largely depleted. How we manage our planet’s resources through collective leadership is the only next big thing that matters now.

“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence― It is to act with yesterday’s logic.” — Peter Drucker

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