Today marks Realized Worth’s 10-year anniversary and it’s a day to celebrate!
We’re a well-established small business now, but the days at the beginning were marked by a never-ending series of questions; every answer would lead us to another, more complicated and challenging question. Of all the questions, the most important one was, and remains:
“Why are we doing this?”
This question was never an admittance of doubt, but rather a call to remember the answer. Any self-aware founder of a social enterprise recognizes the power and necessity of irrational idealism. We cannot do the work if we do not believe in it. We live and die by the why. And to run a business fuelled by the why, well – first we had to build it.
Building a social enterprise: How Realized Worth came to be
The idea of Realized Worth formed in 2008 when Chris Jarvis and I were talking about life. He asked me, “If you were to make a list of the characteristics of a life that reflects your values, what would it say?” So, we made a list: Culture. Flexibility. Meaning. Legacy. Purpose. Epiphany. Influence.
And then we made another list, this time answering the question, “What would it take to get there?” And finally, “What resources would we need?” This last one is the defining question of every entrepreneur. If you know how hard it is to realize your dream, will you still do it? Luckily, we seldom know at the beginning what we’re getting ourselves into – we only know why we’re doing it.
The new business idea drew from our collective experience. Chris had spent many years as the Executive Director of several nonprofit organizations that worked with communities affected by addiction and homelessness. I based my hopes of success on his history of strategic thinking and ability to galvanize groups of people to realize seemingly impossible plans. At the time, my contribution to the equation was as a writer and communicator – and as someone who had the tenacity to see an idea through from beginning to end. We would both walk away from our jobs to fully invest ourselves in whatever it would take to get this business off the ground.
There were two things we didn’t have back then: an economic engine to power our new company (a.k.a. money) or a network in the world of CSR. And so, we found jobs that allowed for total flexibility and we poured every ounce of extra energy into research, planning, and forming our idea. Chris – with a graduate degree and 20 years of executive experience – served tables at a local restaurant. I cleaned houses.
Don’t just think business, do business
By 2010, Chris had managed to build a strong network and establish himself as a thought leader in the Corporate Social Responsibility field. By this point, we had developed and tested our service offerings and refined our business model. We knew without question that the time was right to focus full-time on Realized Worth. With the help of the owner of Joy Bistro, I sold the cleaning company. (Joy Bistro – now Barrio – still holds some of my sweetest memories from those days.) The money from the sale powered Realized Worth as we took on our first clients. Nothing was easy, but everything lined up in answer to the question, “Why are we doing this?” It was our barometer. If anything we did violated what we’ve come to refer to as our First Principles, it was removed from the equation.
When I started business school a few years after this, my Personal Brand professor asked us to share “something you didn’t include on your resume.” While everyone else shared something spectacular that simply didn’t fit on their resume (e.g. “I speak seven languages”), I shared about carrying my little red bucket down the street, sweating and covered in grime from the homes of strangers. It’s not a glamorous story, but it turns out doing business can teach a person a lot.
Two lessons my MBA didn’t teach me, but cleaning houses did:
- Ducks don’t stay in a row. The b-school obsession with plans, timelines, execution strategies, and cost analyses is misleading and unrealistic. Of course, business plans are necessary, but it’s the art of resilience that is key to survival. How well can you adapt to a constantly changing business landscape? How quickly can you recover when things don’t go as planned? No matter how attentive you are to getting your ducks in a row, they will not stay there. Running a business is about constantly adjusting for the duck that can’t swim as fast as the rest, the one that jumps into the bushes when no one’s looking, and the one that gets eaten by an alligator before you even notice what’s happening. It’s frustrating. It’s hard. And it’s an adventure.
- Great work is only half the battle. Being the best at the work was never quite good enough. No matter how spotless I left someone’s house, I struggled to differentiate myself from my competitors. Finally, I realized I had to be the most human, too. When I learned to strike a balance between excellent work and a personal touch, my business took off. At Cindy’s house, I learned to take extra time to arrange her daughter’s stuffed animals on her bed – and then I enjoyed stories of the bedtime squeals of delight. At Michelle’s, I learned to give the main floor a second sweep before I left, with a nod to the sweet golden retrievers who eyeballed me as I vacuumed the blonde tufts of hair strewn around them. Joey was especially concerned about privacy, so I learned to bring in his mail, give him plenty of space when he was home, and close the blinds on my way out the door.
Sometimes these little touches meant I was less efficient and my profit margin shrank, but it was always in service to the effectiveness of the business as a whole – and it always paid off.
Then and now: From start-up to small business
In January 2015, we took ten employees to the Dominican Republic for our annual strategic planning retreat. Ironically, that retreat marked the first of two difficult years for Realized Worth. We were transitioning from start-up to small business – not quite grown up enough for 401ks, but not novice enough to act like it didn’t matter. Our team fully invested in the struggle like it was a relationship that carried great weight. They designed policies and frameworks, read books and made plans, defined their own roles in ways that enriched the mission. When Harvard Business Review prints articles saying “employees are your greatest asset,” they can’t possibly know the truth that statement holds for me. Realized Worth would still be a fledgling start-up if it wasn’t for the employees who tacked together its backbone.
In 2017, we launched Voyager, the product that allows us to scale employee volunteer training. Since then, things have become exciting! Voyager has opened space for conversations about the potential for employee volunteering to trigger social movements. It has invited companies to tell us how anxious their employees are about our current political atmosphere. It has provided the opportunity to create strategic plans for companies that result in shifting their posture from helping local communities to belonging to them. We have never felt so connected to our why.
To this day, ‘Why are we doing this?” is not a rhetorical question. Every time we ask it, we answer with real reasons, real emotion, real commitment. Charles Duhigg, in his book Smarter, Faster, Better , tells a story of reimagining boot camp. The platoon gathered at the base of a hill called the Grim Reaper. They were at the bitter end of a 24-hour final challenge. The story focuses on the experience of one recruit, Eric Quintanilla.
Quintanilla had been marching for two days by this point. He had slept less than four hours. His face was numb and his hands were covered in blisters and cuts from carrying water-filled drums across obstacles. “There were guys throwing up at the Reaper,” he told me “One person has his arm in a sling.” As the group began walking up the mountain, recruits kept stumbling. They were all so exhausted they moved as if in slow motion, hardly making any progress. So they begin linking up, arm in arm, to prevent one another from sliding down the incline.
“Why are we doing this?” Quintanilla’s pack buddy wheezed at him, lapsing into a call-and-response they had practiced on hikes. When things are at their most miserable, their drill instructors had said, they should ask each other questions that begin with “why.”
“To become a Marine and build a better life for my family.” Quintanilla said.
His wife had given birth a week earlier to a daughter, Zoey. He had been allowed to speak to her for a total of five minutes by telephone after the delivery. It was his only contact with the outside world in almost two months. If he finishes the Crucible, he would see his wife and new child.
If you can link something hard to a choice you care about, it makes the task easier, Quintanilla’s drill instructors had told him. That’s why they asked each other questions starting with “why.” Make a chore into a meaningful task and self-motivation will emerge.
Why are we doing this? If you ask the Realized Worth team, each answer will be different. The “why” is personal. But if you listen for a theme, you’ll find it. And it will probably sound something like this:
We do this because we’re tired. We’re tired of seeing the news and feeling like there’s nothing we can do. We’re tired of systemic racism and gender inequality and governments that perpetuate dangerous ideas. At Realized Worth, we proactively seek to break down barriers and inspire empathy.
We do this because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of selling our souls to the man, we’re afraid of losing track of what we believed when we were young, we’re afraid of forgetting to fight the good fight. Realized Worth requires us to dig deep enough into our own souls to inspire the souls of others. In the words of Clarissa Pinkola Estes, “One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul.” And so, we show our souls – despite the fear.
We do this because we’re idealists. We really do believe people are fundamentally good – and even if they’re not, we want to live in a world that creates space for people to live into the best version of themselves. At Realized Worth, we ask ourselves, our clients, and our partners to join us in challenging assumptions, meeting people at their highest level of contribution, and engaging in critical reflection. With these practices, we become people who make decisions based on empathy and compassion – and we invite our clients and partners to do the same.
We do this to leave a legacy. Our influence as a company will come and go. Eventually, we’ll be a memory in the minds of our families – if we’re lucky. When that day comes, what will our presence here mean? If anything, we know that 2018 has placed companies in the seat of power. Over royalty and governments, companies influence the lives of citizens more than any other entity. And so, we work with them to direct their power toward a long-term future outcome. If we do it well, our daughters will remember a successful company led by women and maybe – just maybe – they will defy the limitations society will continue to place on them. If we do this well, the great grandchildren of employees who experience transformation through volunteering will benefit from who their mothers and fathers became. This is our time and we are motivated by making our presence here matter for future generations.
Today Realized Worth celebrates 10 years. It’s been an honor to work with over 100 companies, to be present at nearly 500 events, and to collaborate with well over 1,000 experts. It’s been life-changing to welcome employees who weave themselves into the fabric of our story, speak to individuals at companies who have dedicated their lives to similar missions, and hear from role models who happen to be see us as role models, too. If anything, we hope the next 10 years continue to offer opportunities to link arms with colleagues, partners, and clients to help each other up the hill.
Realized Worth offers consulting on employee volunteering and giving programs. We are a global agency that specializes in program design, employee volunteer training, and employee engagement. Contact us to learn more!