A new chapter for Hearken, a new chapter for me

Jennifer Brandel
Jun 25, 2020 · 13 min read

Hi reader. Thanks for seeing this headline and being curious enough to click.

The TL;DR: I’m moving out of the CEO role at Hearken and into leading strategic global partnerships at the company and chairing the board. Translation: I’ll have way more time to consult and support other organizations who are interested in engagement. Can I be helpful to your business? Want to collaborate? Reach out!

The longer story … for the curious.

An Accidental CEO

Since 2012, I’ve been set on proving out that journalism could improve if reported with not just for or about the people it serves. After showing the idea had traction via Curious City at WBEZ, I was eager to see if the idea could scale so that even more people (and more kinds of people) could be heard and represented by news media and shape it. That’s what prompted me to start the company Hearken in 2015.

I’ve never wanted to be a CEO or had hopes for leading anything. What brought me into that position was the same things that attracted me to journalism: extreme curiosity, a conviction that there was something worth investigating, and a desire for a more just world. In my case, I wasn’t compelled by the typical journalistic justice in which a news organization holds a powerful person to account. I was actually interested in holding news organizations, which are very powerful, to account. To help them see the ways in which the culture of journalism is complicit in perpetuating processes and narratives that consolidate power, uphold white supremacy and limit the democratic imagination.

If you know my work and reading this comes as a surprise, it’s because I knew coming out and saying this directly would be met with defensiveness and not be a successful pitch given where the culture was at (I tried and it failed). So I found another way in: nudging forward change by showing how listening can improve the business metrics newsrooms care about and result in original, consequential reporting. I’m grateful that the winds have shifted enough in the past eight years (accelerated in the past few months) that now I can come out and say what prompted me to do this work to begin with.

It’s been eight years of proving that this public-powered process works — across hundreds of newsrooms across dozens of countries. And it’s been five years of growing pains through learning what it takes to run a company, raise funds, find great talent, generate revenue and create a culture that seeks to do things differently.

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Me looking exhausted from trying. This framed message was a gift from you guessed it, Mara Zepeda.

Of all the lessons these experiences have yielded, the key one is: the way to build energy and the power to effect change is not by asking people who already have power to share it or give it up, but to find colleagues, customers, investors and other leaders who are interested in similar problems and are open to collaboration in order to generate new power (see the very end for the long list of collaborators to which I’m forever grateful).

Enter Mara Zepeda

Ask anyone who knows Mara Zepeda how to describe her and you’ll get a variety of answers: visionary, artist, connector, leader, possibilian, rabble-rouser, “the Buckminster Fuller” of systems work. If you have not heard of Mara or her portfolio of work, I blame the patriarchy.

Miraculously, I was introduced to Mara in 2011 thanks to a mutual friend, Kate Joyce, who had a hunch that we’d hit it off. She had no idea how much. And neither did we.

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A snap of Me (left) and Mara Zepeda (right) at Techfest Copenhagen in 2019, where we presented on zebras, led workshops for founders that featured paper-cutting by Danish artist twins (Edition Poshette), family constellation work and performances by a local folk-singer named “Green Dream” that Mara found midway through the workshop, and where Mara delivered a keynote on what death has to do with ethical technology practices and values alignment. A typical trip for the two of us.

Mara and I have traversed alarmingly similar paths: both trained as fine artists, had early careers as public radio reporters, started tech companies to support change in industries we cared deeply about, and for many years, were living across the country from our respective husbands because of work.

Mara started the company Switchboard in 2013 motivated by the same desire for shifting power that I saw in journalism: what if students and alumni drove an institution’s agenda and service? Mara, as I did, saw technology could enable that mind shift. Switchboard’s power was in its simplicity and elegance. It helped create a mutual aid network through “asks” and “offers.” And the colleges that adopted it found that it extended the value of the school’s network immensely, achieving the work of a dozen career services officers when the school could only afford to hire one and meeting a spectrum of more creative, and urgent, needs.

Like Hearken’s public-powered approach and tech, Switchboard’s approach and tech is also extremely flexible, and visionary leaders in other industries started to see the possibility of applying it to strengthen their own networks. And like Hearken, their approach and tech yield results and solve for multiple problems in complex systems through introducing new processes and relationship dynamics.

Throughout the early years of Hearken going from idea to company, Mara was my lifeline. Switchboard was two years ahead of our growth, and her brain was a decade (at least) ahead of the culture. We traded tips on how to approach organizational change through a non-threatening lens, how to show up as authentic leaders when the cultural model of a leader was and remains aligned with masculine ideals, and importantly — how to find aligned financing for a different kind of company that insisted that both purpose and profit could co-exist.

That last point was a real humdinger. While both of us had proven our theories, had paying customers, solid reputations and huge market opportunities, it was absurdly difficult to find investors, let alone the “right” investors.

In 2016, we decided to bust out our writing chops to articulate the lack of alignment we experienced. The result was remarkable: thousands of founders around the world reached out, who also had great companies with product-market fit and revenue, but not fitting into the existing capital paradigm. This energy gave birth to the next post articulating a new type of startup — a zebra, rather than a unicorn (unicorns are companies valued at $1 billion dollars or more). And from that Zebras Unite was born, which now has more than 6,000 entrepreneurs around the world, more than 45 chapters, and we’re launching a fund and a CoOp. (Ironically, through sharing that experience, we both found Zebra-aligned investors. You can read about our experience here.)

The point of all of this is: Mara and I are energized by starting things. We are builders. We love taking an idea and manifesting it into reality. Alongside our two companies and Zebras Unite, Mara co-founded Business For A Better Portland and XXcelerate Fund, and I co-founded Civic Exchange Chicago and a host of other initiatives.

Which brings me to Hearken’s next chapter

As both Switchboard and Hearken grew, we knew a different kind of leader was what each of our companies needed. Finding the right person to steward and grow what you’ve poured your heart, soul and life savings into is … a special kind of difficult. But Mara (through her now useful alumni network) found this remarkable human we dreamed of in Chelsea Haring. She joined Switchboard in 2017 and expanded the business from technology to include consulting services. Growth soon followed, which meant more people and institutions could be helped and better outcomes could scale. Chelsea shepherded Switchboard to the next level, and was the kind of leader we so admired: fiercely intelligent and caring, tremendous at getting shit done, razor sharp intuition, and has the ability to motivate a team to align and execute.

Seeing this incredible expansion of Switchboard’s consulting work, I knew Hearken needed this same leveling up. So Hearken hired Mara and Chelsea in 2019 on contract to help us build out a consulting arm, too. The Hearken team responded so well to their leadership, approach and theory of change. We were so energized by having trailblazers help us through the evolution. What we were all doing was essentially the same thing in two separate industries: listen and serve, and add tech to scale results.

As our teams started formally collaborating, it became increasingly clear that we were stronger together, and that adding another technology and suite of consulting expertise would help Hearken help more institutions help the people they served (B to B to C, for those of your business types).

And So, Hearken & Switchboard Have Merged

The “new” company is named Hearken, but now we also have Switchboard’s terrific team, smart investors, and the supremely timely and relevant Switchboard Community Management System. On it, people engage with one another, and build connections, networks and solve problems together. Take this recent example of Oregon businesses using Switchboard to use excess truck capacity in a COVID-19 emergency. Switchboard was made for this moment.

Our combined theory of change and technologies serves the same problem set associated with introducing and operationalizing engagement, and works across sectors and industries.

We are thrilled to have each made it as companies when most fold within a year of starting, and when women receive less than 3% of startup funding and these are two women-led companies.

But more than that, we are thrilled that a new chapter is starting with a new leadership team who are primed to grow Hearken’s ability to serve.

Meet Our New Leadership Team

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Chelsea Haring, CEO

Chelsea Haring, CEO

When I first met Chelsea, I knew I was in the presence of someone very special. She possesses an incredible ability to practice the “listen and serve” framework as a servant leader. She has experience scaling multiple teams, products and organizations across higher education and technology. Chelsea was a college athlete, the first person in her family to navigate a traditional college experience, which she cites as being the perfect training for surviving in a startup environment, and has the drive, perseverance and execution skills that a top executive requires. From her home in rural Oregon, she’s been leading the team through this transition despite having three kids and three goats 🐐 and one dog looking for her caregiving. I cannot wait for our partners and collaborators to get to know Chelsea. Here’s a terrific post she wrote about ROE — Return on Engagement — which is packed with insights.

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Kavya Sukumar, VP of Product

Kavya Sukumar, VP of Product

Kavya had been on Hearken’s radar for a few years. Her work at Vox Media always impressed us, and seeing her around our favorite journalism conference and community solidified our interest in getting to know her better. Kavya brings tremendous experience to the team, having cut her teeth at Microsoft and transitioned to journalism to marry the power of technology with social good. In her spare time, she reads fine print about airline rules to travel places cheap (she once travelled to India round trip business class for $25), teaches undergrads, and codes data visualizations for stories that are finalists for Pulitzer Prizes. She’s leading our engineering team and charting the path forward for our multiple technologies, and bringing her signature humor to every encounter.

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Kaori Freda, Director of Operations

Kaori Freda, Director of Operations

Kaori recently joined the team after years at Salesforce, Nike and startups as a financial analyst and overall dot-connector. We’re finding she possesses the rare combination of the right and left brain being equally strong, and seeing it in action as she leads the team in figure drawing classes and other artistic endeavors alongside her business modeling work. Kaori also comes with passion and expertise in DEI processes and supporting a culture that allows everyone to play their best role. Fun fact: she came into our orbit as she was a steward for Reed College’s Switchboard when she was a student there! Her commitment to care and top-notch client service experience is a boon to our company.

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Tina Hart, Chief of Staff

Tina Hart, Chief of Staff

Another star athlete on the leadership team, Tina Hart is hardcore. Having spent more than two years on team Switchboard as an engagement consultant and chief of staff, alongside her other work as an event organizer and community catalyst, Tina has the ability to spin a thousand plates at once without dropping a single one. She’s an incredible problem-solver, supporter, and thoughtful advocate for getting everyone’s needs met. On the weekends you can find her doing triathlons in high altitude and other activities most folks would not consider “relaxing.” Her drive and energy has been critical to making this merger work and will provide fuel for the next leg of our journey.

A New Chapter For Me

I hope it’s clear from what I’ve shared that I was not: ousted, not asked to “step down,” not leaving “for family reasons,” or any of the other typical reasons a CEO is no longer in that role.

An incredible gift of starting something from scratch is that you have to do just about every job, and you then acquire new skills, learn what you’re good at and not good at, and what drains and gives you energy. What I’ve learned is that I am energized by the stage of work that focuses on going from idea to reality, and that I am drained by key responsibilities of being a CEO. Finding Chelsea Haring was a complete gift. She is energized by and truly excels at growing and managing teams, strategic planning and making it all sync up.

I feel absurdly lucky for the opportunity to now grow Hearken with my strengths out front — focusing on new partnerships, communicating our values and sharing the insights of our work, to serve more people and organizations who are committed to change. This shift in roles has allowed me to start Election SOS alongside my colleague Bridget Thoreson and Jay Rosen from NYU / Membership Puzzle Project and Joy Mayer at Trusting News, and to serve my hometown, the City of Chicago, on multiple events and COVID-19 responses that were based in listening.

As SVP of Global Partnerships and chairwoman of the board, I’ll be out of the day to day decision-making and focused at another altitude. I’ll also be focusing on how to grow our Northern European subsidiary, based out of Denmark from a distance (hopefully not for too much longer).

Mara Zepeda and I will get to continue our collaboration not only at Hearken (she will be a Senior Consultant and on the board), but also through growing Zebras Unite. I’m going to be able to carve out more time to focus on this emergent organization as well as another I co-founded, Civic Exchange Chicago.

Through working beyond the journalism field and in the startup and civic innovation sectors, I have the opportunity to see and experience how all of these threads of democracy intersect and reinforce one another. As a student, I was always confused and resentful of needing to pick a major or a field or a specialty as everything felt like expressions of the same thing, and the divisions are somewhat arbitrary. So I guess you could say I’m finally in my happy place.

Working from my happy place is the place I want to serve from. So, how can I help you? Want to partner or collaborate? Hit me up.

A very special thanks to all the folks who believed, collaborated, supported and made this wild ride possible:

Kate Joyce, Torey Malatia, Shawn Allee, Logan Jaffe, Sue Schardt, Josh Stearns, Tom Glaisyer, Molly de Aguiar, Corey Ford, Lara Ortiz-Luis, Jake Shapiro, Ben Werdmuller, Aniyia Williams, Astrid Scholz, Rose Afriye, Vieve Nielsen, Derek Eder, David Cohn, Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen, Corey Haines, Sarah Gray, Sam Withrow, Andrea Fritsch, Andrea Wenzel, Jen Masengarb, Aaron Wickenden, Andrew Berns, the late Lori Brandel, Bruce Brandel, Todd Brandel, Pete Brandel, Lara Wolff, John Balbach, Jenny Choi, John Bracken, Quinn Hearty, Anne Wooten, Roy Bahat, Christen Carter, Anders Waage-Nilsen, Umbreen Bhatti, Laura Starecheski, Megan Reed, Lulu Miller, Sholeh Samadani Munion, Craig Rothman, Kari Carlson, Ellen Mayer, Remy Schwartz, Anna Nirmala, Kevin Davis, Alex Allen, Paula Ellis, Jenny 8. Lee, Alix Blair, Margo Hooper, Geneva Overholser, Elise Zelechowski, Dan Lurie, Betsy O’Donovan, Bec Feldhaus, Andrew deVigal, Joy Mayer, Rebekah Monson, jesikah maria ross, Peggy Holman, Eric Liu, Shannon Heffernan, Sarah Geis, Vanessa Roanhorse, Federica Cherubini, Caitlin Clarke, Tricia Bobeda, Julie Shapiro, Christie George, Julie Menter, Alex Keefe, Rachel Coddington, Mike Rispoli, Sarah Alvarez, Doug Smith, Quentin Hope, Kristen Muller, Ashley Alvarado, Jacqui Cheng, Lewis Wallace, Neenah Ellis, Melissa Small, Fitz, Jeremiah Chiu, Renata Graw, Talie Smith, Nick Butcher, Nadine Nakanishi, Jesse Hardman, Andrea Silenzi, Monica Guzman, Julia Kumari-Drapkin, Anayansi Diaz-Cortez, S. Mitra Kalita, Eve Pearlman, Jeremy Hay, Julia McEvoy, Olivia Allen-Price, Angela Evancie, Jessica Clark, Dr. Carrie Brown, Johanna Zorn, Kara Oehler, Emily Goligoski, Ariel Zirulnik, Steve Edwards, Linda Lutton, Jesse Shapins, Lindsay Wagner, Jen Balderama, Brian Boyer, Adam Brault Avenir, Elise Pepple, Jennifer Armbrust, Jen Mizgata, Andrew Haeg, Andrew Losowsky, Aron Piholfer, Simon Galperin, Arthur Jones, Andrew Ramsammy, Darryl Holliday, Andrea Hart, Bettina Chang, Harry Backlund, Jim Friedlich, Roxann Stafford, Jennifer Preston, Angelica Das, Morten Andersen, Torben Frigaard Rasmussen, Hearken and Switchboard investors, and my colleagues: Julia Haslanger, Bridget Thoresen, Chelsea Haring, Mara Zepeda, Kavya Sukumar, Alison Jones, Yvonne Afable, Jill Villaneuva, Jen Wong, Morten Ro Jorgensen, Tina Hart, Kaori Freda, Malii Watts Witten, Meredith Turk, Stephanie Snyder, Summer Fields, John Ketchum, Kieran Hanrahan, Kate Richey, and Grace Alexander.

It truly takes a village.

Press Release (it’s way shorter than this)

Our shiny new website

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and…

Jennifer Brandel

Written by

Accidental journalist turned CEO of a tech-enabled company called Hearken. Founder of @WBEZCuriousCity Find me: @JenniferBrandel @wearehearken wearehearken.com

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help: http://www.wearehearken.com/

Jennifer Brandel

Written by

Accidental journalist turned CEO of a tech-enabled company called Hearken. Founder of @WBEZCuriousCity Find me: @JenniferBrandel @wearehearken wearehearken.com

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help: http://www.wearehearken.com/

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