Alumni's company re-imagines the meaning of work
- By Amanda Kenyon Waite
"Hey, man, do you want to make some money?" Nat Koloc ’08 was quick with his pitch when he called Evan Walden ’09 to propose joining him in ad sales at the Vermont Cynic.
So it was that the duo, who met in a UVM Honors College class, first morphed their friendship into something like a business partnership five years ago. But while pocket change was the motivation for two college kids selling ads at the student paper, today they're in business to answer a higher calling. ReWork, their Boulder, Colorado based start-up, helps match companies making a difference on some of the world’s most pressing issues with talented employees who share that commitment.
Launched in 2011, ReWork provides a solution for people trapped — or who fear becoming trapped — in cubicle land, clocking hours doing a job that doesn't feel meaningful. The expectation that a job should align with your values and be in service to a mission you care about is especially prevalent among the Millennial Generation, they say. "So many people of this generation — and not even just Millennials, but people of this era — are feeling like they want more out of work. And they aren't sure what to do about it," Walden says.
That's where ReWork comes in. It's connecting professionals to hiring managers at companies that are part of the "purpose economy," or organizations with a mission that's not purely profit-driven. That includes companies that are improving delivery and access to education or healthcare, for example, or working in the realm of microfinance and global poverty, or organic and natural foods. By helping these companies hire staff who are passionate about their mission, ReWork is increasing the odds that the organizations will survive and that their work might deal a blow to these chronic issues.
"Hiring is arguably the most important thing you do as an organization," Koloc says. "And entrepreneurs typically don't know anything about the best practices of hiring. Because of that, there's a lot of turnover that happens early on, and that's just the worst time to make a bad hire. Bringing someone on who doesn't fit the culture you're trying to build or someone who doesn't have the skills needed for the job is just a huge hit." And when that hit happens to a company developing renewable energy sources, for example, it matters.
Their focus on companies in the social and environmental impact sectors isn't the only difference between ReWork and a traditional recruiting firm. Rather than placing CEOs, CFOs and COOs, ReWork focuses on the middle of the organization chart. Both decisions are connected to the company's values, but both also make sense from a business standpoint. There are many more mid-level jobs to fill than top-tier positions, and their target industries have seen growth in the past years, avoiding the slowdowns of the global recession — in other words, more opportunity to place more people.
Koloc and Walden hit the job market themselves at the recession's depths. Koloc recalls struggling to find something that would help move the needle on these issues, which were also the focus of his self-designed global human impact studies major. For two years, he bounced from fundraising, where he raised $1 million for non-profits in his native Pittsburgh, to outdoor education leading trail crews, to manual labor in the form of rain barrel and insulation installation. "Nothing was the right mix of having a good paycheck, professional development and having an impact," he says.
So Koloc entered a graduate program in Sweden, earning a master’s of science in strategic leadership toward sustainability. Returning to the United States, he applied to the Unreasonable Institute in Boulder, a think tank for entrepreneurs looking to find solutions to the world's problems. There, he worked with mentors on an idea that was a precursor to ReWork, a fellowship-based program similar to Venture for America. But Koloc wasn't convinced that idea was scalable enough to make a dent in the issues he so passionately wanted to address.
Meanwhile, Walden, a business major who'd always felt the pull of entrepreneurism, knew when he graduated that he wasn't ready to start a business. "If I'm not going to be an entrepreneur," he reasoned at the time, "then I should just go out and get the biggest job I can possibly find at the biggest corporation, learn as much as I can, save a bunch of money, and figure it out after a few years." Walden says. "And that's what I did."
A position with Dow Chemical helped him realize another dream: a move from the Northeast (he grew up in Albany, N.Y.) to California. There, he sold pesticides in a sales area comprising six counties. While he says the mentorship he received at the job was "amazing," ultimately the position didn't feel like the right fit. "I would go to these corporate meetings and people would pull me aside and confess, 'I eat organic food!' And I thought, ‘Oh my God. There are probably people all over corporate America who are just playing the game. But they don't realize what else is out there for them.’"
So when Walden visited his college pal at the Unreasonable Institute in the summer of 2011, they worked for two days straight to brainstorm ways of improving Koloc's concept. The exhilaration of the work ruined Walden for his return to the chemical sales world. "I came back for about two weeks and couldn't focus on anything. I was just obsessed with the idea of what he wanted to build," he remembers. He booked a flight back to Boulder and told Koloc that if he and his then partner, Abe Taleb, wanted to get the new idea going, he'd quit his job and move to them. He did just that the following Monday, and the three founded ReWork. The mentorship of the Unreasonable Institute has continued to benefit the fledgling company, which now has contracts with seventy-five employers, as well as six full-time and seven part-time employees.
Walden and Koloc also trace their inspiration back to UVM. Part of the Honors College’s inaugural class entering in 2004, Koloc remembers visiting the university and being "blown away by Bob Taylor and Don Loeb explaining what they were going to do in the Honors College." One speech that Taylor, the college's first dean, gave to that class made a lasting impression on Koloc. "He said his only hope for us in college was that we'd fall in love with something — whether an area of study or a person. It was this amazing, powerful speech, and it's what we care about at ReWork. What we think matters is meaningful work," Koloc says. "The world would be a better place if people were connected to what they do."