Repairing Instead of Disrupting, Mara Zepeda & Jennifer Brandel, Podcast #120

Founders of Zebras Unite, Jennifer Brandel (CEO & Co-founder, Hearken) and Mara Zepeda (CEO & Co-founder, Switchboard) is a founder-created and founder-led movement calling for a more ethical inclusive culture in the startup and investing community. They believe creating an alternative to this status quo is a moral imperative. I spoke with Jennifer and Mara about what led them to start Zebras Unite, and the work they’re doing today to push their ideas forward.

I am going to post the podcast every other week for the next few months as we start to think about the next generation of this podcast. Any and all ideas are welcome.

You can listen to this on iTunes here.

Comments (Archived):

  1. awaldstein

    I will try to send along some concise input from my perspective.There are very few places these experts are getting heard and that is my starting point. That alone is important though the value here is much more imo.

  2. Bryce T.

    Repairing Instead of Disrupting, Mara Zepeda & Jennifer Brandel, Podcast #120“We have built this movement the way we build our companies, which is we are constantly listening to, responding to, and working in participation with the founders that are self-identifying as zebras and the investors.”0:52 Where both went to college. Mara attended Reed, Jennifer attended University of Wisconsin.1:00 Backgrounds, how they found each other. Both have a background in public radio, “That was our passion, Jen and I are both naturally very curious people.” 1:28 Mara was working in Philadelphia as a radio reporter at WHYY during the financial crisis from 2008 to 2010. “And what was interesting is, you know, if you were paying attention on the ground…if you were out on the street watching what was going on, you would have way more powerful information way earlier on, where you could of seen this pattern happening way before reporters did.” “That was one of my first experiences where I recognized that we need to bring institutions closer to the source of knowledge. Which requires building a bridge between the two. And especially for institutions that are core to democracy.”2:42 How intuitions have culturally been run. “You have to wonder, where’s the empathy for the people that are being effected.” “These institutions all started as top down and authoritative.” “And what we see right now, is that they’re so out of touch with those that they’re serving, that if you don’t have leadership that is curious, that is asking for feedback, that is reciprocal and responsive, then you just get further and further away from knowing who you’re serving and what their needs are.”3:29 Jennifer worked for WBEZ in Chicago. Reporting on art & culture, then general assignment reporter. Was working part-time for the Baha’i faith. Really curious about their faith and their approach to community building. Started to apply some of their principles of community building to own reporting. Did an experimental series there, that started by asking the public, “What do you not know that reporters can find out for you?”4:13 Institutions and top down approach, and politics. JW: “It never works from top down…ever. It only works from bottom up.”5:11 You were in radio Mara, but then you have had many careers since always with a constant connect the dots about caring about other human beings. “Went from radio and then started to do a deep dive in higher education at my own alma mater, Reed College.” “The success of today’s college students is the success of our country. And we’ve completely gutted their future.” “It was the same place of Jen, why don’t we just ask students what they need?” “If you stopped making assumptions about what curriculums should be or about what student and alumni services should be, the institution would function more like a connector and a facilitator, a community. Because you would have like a customer service department, for lack of a better word.”6:40 This next generation of college students “is much more interested in a happy lifestyle than they are as making money, and there’s also such a range of jobs.” 7:09 “Our institutions have to keep up with the changing needs of the audiences they’re there to serve.” “Jen and I have both been so surprised at how entrenched these systems are, but then also so inspired and amazed by the institutions that are brave enough to take a posture of humility.” 7:50 How Jennifer started her company after leaving radio. “I did something I never intended to do, which is started a company. It’s called Hearken, which means to listen.” Almost year five, worked with more than 200 newsrooms in 25 countries. 9:03 “They find the same pattern, that when you stop assuming that you know what others need to know, and you actually ask, you get incredible questions that you never would have thought of that lead to incredible stories that break news.” 9:34 Both (Mara and Jennifer) have started their own organizations that are profit organizations. What was that like for both of you for fundraising? Mara: “I think you were my first investor. You were among the first three. I’d love to shout that from the rooftops.” “It took people that actually understood.” “Every single person builds something in a different way based on their own lived experience.” “It took visionary investors that early on saw that the way of doing this, which is essentially drive value first to the end user, and then they will come to value you.” “It was coming much more from a place of how can each one feel valued. Because then you have higher retention and satisfaction and word of mouth.” “The reason why we chose for profit is because then these institutions bottom line grows. Because they now have a much more active, engaged, loyal, and giving customer base.”11:55 And how did you (Jennifer) do in terms of fundraising? “It’s been a real path.” “Fundraising I thought after we had proven the model we had a million in ARR, which everyone told me was this magic number and I was very proud we got there in just a couple years. I thought fundraising is going to be easy now.” “I talked to fifty-four investors…and I found zero. Because we did not fit their paradigm. We weren’t just a product company. We weren’t a content company.” “And since we really were like a paradigm shift company and a process change company (it’s hard for anyone to believe in.)”13:43 So how did the two find each other? Through a mutual friend. Met up at SOCAP conference. Zebras Unite was born out of that meeting. 14:23 Sex & Startups, first essay that articulates their own personal struggles. “Talking about how the masculine nature of those who typically have money are looking for masculine patterns in the companies that they’re investing in.”15:58 And so what have you done with that exactly? “We have built this movement the way we build our companies, which is we are constantly listening to, responding to, and working in participation with the founders that are self-identifying as zebras and the investors.” Now have Zebra chapters all over the world. 16:59 “The value set is one over repair and not disruption, collaboration and cooperation instead of competition.” JW: “This concept of disruption in many ways doesn’t make sense, because it’s really evolution.”18:35 “We’re at the point now where we have a critical mass of founders. We’re sitting on data that’s really really valuable about what are their gaps in funding that we can design capital instruments around to solve for.”19:02 Funding from the Omidyar Network and Kauffman Foundation. “What they’re recognizing is that you can’t make any assumptions about who these founders are. So what they have supported is a survey of Zebras so that we can get a handle on what are they?”20:02 “What we discovered is that the capital needs and the corporate structures don’t actually exist to support these types of companies.” “The hope is that out of this we will be able to come up with more creative and flexible corporate structures and capital instruments.” 20:31 “We now have a path forward that can start to actually build these businesses, reinvest in economic development, and close the generational wealth gap and the income inequality which this country faces.”20:50 Angel investing and local communities.22:24 “What scales also can destroy.” 22:43 “One of the reasons why Zebra is such a great metaphor for what we do is that there’s all sorts of patterns that we need to recognize.” “There’s all these different funding patterns that we need to start to recognize that have been left out of the equation, and when we can create those opportunities then we can create those small business of different sizes and help people find capital at the moment they need it.”24:00 “So I think the traditional venture capital model is set up to have such a specific pattern recognition that it’s eliminating creativity and diversity.”26:30 “And how many incredible companies could still exist right now and be really making a huge difference in people’s lives if they weren’t forced into this foie gras style of company creation.” 26:55 What do you see as the next steps in where you want to be in 1 years or 5 years? “It feels like we started a band. And then people just join the parade with their instrument. This is a very inclusive movement.” “We have this theory of change. And we’re recognizing that it can be applied to any industry.” “We’re going to come in and help you learn how to reconnect with your audience and your purpose so you can stop wasting time and resources.” “We’re kind of a culture change company as much as we are software.”28:23 How do people work with you? How do people find you? “I really encourage women especially out there that are struggling with your software businesses, open up a new line of revenue and do services. You have so much expertise and so much industry knowledge about the area that you work in, somebody will pay you for that.”30:14 “We’ve found that of the types of change there are in the world, there’s decision driven change, or there’s behavior driven change, and what were doing is fundamentally behavior change, and so that cannot just be via a software that has to be through new experiences.”31:55 JW: “It’s big thinking. And I think that big thinking sometimes scares people.”32:10 “We’re looking for more women who can be rewarded for bold and big thinking and not just rewarded on proof, but also on the promise what their vision is.”

    1. Gotham Gal

      Thank you!