Meet the Ladies Making it Werk

werk joint photo.jpg

Your next job could have built-in flexible work policies thanks to the startup Werk, a new job marketplace that allows ambitious job seekers to discover career-building opportunities, all with pre-negotiated flexibility. Werk’s founders Annie Dean and Anna Auerbach met around September 2015. Annie's second son had just been born with special needs and she became focused on directing her energy towards a career that would help build a better world. Looking for a new direction, Annie asked her friends to introduce her to the smartest women they knew and they introduced her to Anna. They were planning to discuss arts philanthropy, but pivoted when Anna shared a business idea she'd been thinking about – and Annie recognized it as a huge opportunity. Within six weeks they had basic plans in place and within five months they both quit their jobs. Now, about two years later, they’ve raised $4 million in venture funding and have a growing business with a team of 12.  

Kondomar Herrera, board secretary of the New York Metro chapter, reached out to the duo for a Q&A about their journey.

KH:  As women, what was it like trying to raise money from angel investors and venture capitalists in New York City and elsewhere? What advice would you give women who are facing difficulty in this area?

AD: Fundraising is hard – so if you're facing difficulty, it's normal! Our strategy was always to be as professional as possible, and leverage our business and professional services skills to bring investors the most buttoned-up version of the company we could muster, along with a compelling social vision. We sought introductions with investors who we thought would be excited about our company and were very focused on speaking to a high volume of the right type of investor (to account for the industry's high "miss rate"), rather than taking any conversation we could get. As you're going through the process keep your ears perked for patterns of information; the fundraising process is one of the best places to pressure test your ideas. That said, don't be afraid to filter out advice you don't believe in. At the end of the day, you know your business better than anyone.

KH: Anna, what was it like as a refugee coming to America from the former Soviet Union at the age of 6?

AA: It was a very formative experience because I suddenly found myself in a completely foreign place with a language I didn’t speak. At the time I didn’t understand the “why” of why we moved – but I knew everything had changed around me. One of the earliest lessons I learned was to advocate for and fend for myself in whatever way I could.

KH: Annie, what was it like as a mother of two working in big law? What were some of the challenges you faced/lessons you would like to pass on?

AD: I was young when I had my first son and I was very eager to take on the best work and prove myself. But the reality was that working 16-hour days for multiple days in a row was not compatible with my life as a parent. Days would go by that I wouldn't see my son awake. I really came close to a breakdown – I couldn't work my way out of the problem. Nothing I did changed the amount I had on my plate, and I was crumbling as a person. The thing I want to pass onto others struggling in this way is that it is not your fault. If you feel like you're failing, it's because the rules aren't designed for you to succeed. That initial realization is important and freeing. After you've had it think about how you can put yourself in a better environment. Be extremely thoughtful about the environment you need to succeed and then find it by advocating a flexible schedule for yourself in a business-first context, and then showing results in the flexible arrangement. No one should have to experience what I experienced as a young mother in big law – and you shouldn't settle for that reality.

KH: How is Werk paving the road in closing the gender pay gap and increasing access to opportunities for women looking to move up their career ladders to the executive level?

AD: The reality is that work was not designed with women in mind; today's workplace is a relic of the post-industrial, single-income era. Women face structural barriers that often force them to choose between care and career, causing more than 30% of the most talented women to leave the workforce after having a child. This attrition is not necessary – 70% of the women who dropped out would have stayed if they had access to flexibility. Our definition of flexibility is “modifications on a traditional full-time role that increase compatibility between the objectives of the employer and the needs of the employee.” If our jobs are compatible with our lives, we can continue to pursue both our work inside and outside of the home simultaneously. That means more women can rise to positions of leadership over time. An increased number of women in leadership is just good business. Gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their peers, and women-led companies tend to have better working conditions and fewer layoffs.

KH: What could women do in their current workplace if they want to see more flexible work policies?

AD: Speak openly about what you need to succeed. Make the concept of flexibility approachable to others. Hang pictures of your family in your office. Have conversations with your colleagues about your life outside of work. And when you're ready to ask for flexibility – be strategic. Place your needs in the context of the business's needs and be prepared to deliver results.

KH: Where do you see Werk in five years?

AD: We see Werk as the industry-standard flexibility solution helping all people successfully identify and thrive in flexible roles, and helping enterprises implement and manage their flexibility policies.

Follow Werk on Twitter & Instagram

Mikki Brammerq&a, gender equity