We Are Rosie’s Stephanie Nadi Olson built a business with diversity, inclusion, and life balance in mind. As COVID-19 has changed everything about work, hers is the model to follow.
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Stephanie Nadi Olson doesn’t look like your typical start-up founder—and that’s the whole point. The first-generation college student and daughter of a refugee founded We Are Rosie in 2018 to challenge our nation’s notion of work and dismantle the structures crafted to keep women and people of color from claiming professional power.
Olson sees remote work as an equalizer for people of color and women: “We believe that freedom and security can, and should, coexist,” she says. “We know that modern enterprises are truly people-powered, and the organizations that embrace open talent models are promoting a new version of the American Dream: freelance talent as entrepreneurs, innovators, and small business owners.”
We Are Rosie helps their community of nearly 4,500 marketing experts at the intersections—with specialties ranging from content creation and media strategy to C-Suite leadership—achieve that dream, and their model of curating teams of talent for corporate projects has proven to be a boon for marginalized workers. People of color made up 40 percent of the talent We Are Rosie placed on projects last year, and women landing work through their platform in Q1 of this year were paid higher internal and external rates than their male counterparts.
The business itself is booming, too. Olson’s company boasts 100 percent client retention, and they signed 20 Fortune 500 brands in two years. During this current economic crisis, Olson hired three people to her own staff. The company’s first-ever Rosie Report in June will also serve as a blueprint for the corporations and business-owners across the country who have been so impressed by the work of Rosies that they’ve gone ahead and put them on their staffs.
It’s clear now, as the country’s workplaces collectively cope with the consequences of COVID-19, that Olson was on to something. Long-term flexible work is finally on the table, and feminists are fighting to rebuild the economy on their terms as our nation grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, which has distinctly hurt women workers. We Are Rosie has become a powerful blueprint for a way forward—and a direct antidote to our federal government’s failure to adequately support women workers and businesses owned by people of color, and especially the women of color set to face the largest losses in this disaster economy.
I always start with an inception story. What inspired you to launch We Are Rosie?
I grew up in a very diverse household—Arabic and American, Muslim and Christian—and from an early age I learned the power of diversity, as well as the insidious ways we marginalize people in this country, particularly through work. After spending 15 years in the marketing space, I felt I had enough inside knowledge to support my hypothesis that there is a better way to get work done.
I received the kick in the butt to go do something about it after becoming a mother to my two young daughters. When I quit my job to start We Are Rosie at the end of 2017, I was driven by the notion that I could improve opportunities for my daughters through this business. I named the company after my youngest daughter—a constant reminder of the change we are working to create for this generation and those to come.
Talk to me about the better way of working. What’s the We Are Rosie model, and how is it changing the game for workers?
At its core, We Are Rosie serves as an access point for major corporations. We provide thoughtful access to 4,500 of the most talented marketers in the world by dismantling the traditional constructs around how agencies and consultancies operate—we’ve removed any waste by tapping into a freelance or independent talent pool for our projects. We are nimble, diverse, prescriptive, quick and sincere.
We are also an access point for those 4,500 marketers to all the good parts of work—camaraderie, training, upskilling, resources, community, weekly pay, access to healthcare and 401K. Traditionally, independent talent in marketing is found by word of mouth. Our model bridges the gap and widens the opportunities. The fact that we take care of our community changes the game for freelancers. The very notion of freelancing is that you’re out here on your own, and any mental or financial safety net is on you. We don’t agree with that. We prioritize caring for our talent—whether they’re working or not—with resources, networking, mentorship, and a sense of community.
The mission is to provide access for our Rosies to the career they want and the life they deserve: working on their own terms.
What does that mean for the industry?
We vastly overcomplicate what it takes to be inclusive and thoughtful in how we care for people doing work. This is why I am a huge proponent of underrepresented founders getting into the entrepreneurship game: We need more people out here creating the world they want to see. Sometimes I wonder if it’s even possible for huge companies to retroactively inject an inclusive culture and practices into how they do business. I take solace in the fact that more and more underrepresented people are emboldened to speak their truth in these organizations so that we can make progress on this front—and generations after us can take it even further.
Our POV into the marketing industry gives us a peek into a wide variety of organizations we serve—from Fortune 500 companies to holding company ad agencies to tech companies. One of the things we saw before the global shutdown was that remote work is a form of inclusion. By breaking down the physical boundaries of hiring, companies inherently open themselves up to a wider pool of talent. Why hire only in your city when you can hire pros across the country who bring something fresh to the table? We’ve put together what we call our “unicorn teams”—hand-picked teams of talent for projects—and the talent doesn’t always live in the same place, might not have ever met in-person, but we always see incredible thinking from them. This is a lightbulb moment for our clients: They realize the magic in our model, and the ripple effect is that they end up going back and evaluating their own organization’s practices.
We have learned that all boats rise when you care for people with dignity and respect. Our internal motto is “happy people do better work.” When the talent is empowered and emboldened to work on their own terms, on any project they want, we’ve learned that they produce better work. The old paradigm told us to stay in one place for a long time, but we see that when people are able to do a variety of projects that light them up, they thrive.
That old paradigm may be the way of the past—because after COVID-19, we may re-emerge into a new way of working. What was broken about our workplace before, and what should we leave behind when we rebuild it?
Where do I start? Patriarchy, hierarchy, racism, wasted hours of life commuting for more wasted hours in meetings, rigid work structure that alienates and marginalizes people who can’t conform to the mean, reliance on a linear career trajectory that often sidelines women who choose to have children—there are so many things we’ve been doing wrong, and we won’t be able to fix them overnight. But I think we can fix several of these with one big change.
My primary hope for the future of work is that we start taking inclusion seriously. That we recognize that remote work and flexible work arrangements are a form of inclusion, enabling racial, neurodiverse, and gender parity in many ways. And that we give DE&I officers actual influence and power and money to bring their vision to life. I hope that publicly traded companies start to include diverse voices in the C-suite and at the board level. Honestly, if we can get more types of people in positions of power, all of our other problems will fix themselves.
If we allow employees to work in a hybrid capacity—in an office when they truly need or want to be and remote otherwise, we will create a more empowered workforce. People who don’t like going into an office because they feel tokenized, uncomfortable, or marginalized will be able to work in a way that suits them. They won’t leave the workforce, and they will actually be playing on a slightly more level playing field. In the long-term, that means a more inclusive workforce, environmental sustainability, innovation from a more engaged workforce, happier employees and lower overhead.
How has the pandemic impacted We Are Rosie?
Our business was prepared for this moment. We’ve effectively spent the last 2.5 years living in this future. It’s just that now, the rest of the world has joined us. We’ve been fully distributed, remote-first, and have leveraged our own bench of talent for burst and overflow capacity since day one.
The amount of flexibility in this business model has allowed us to continue to thrive financially. That being said, the psychological toll and uncertainty in front of us is pretty extensive. We have had to make sure we are doubling down our efforts—an increase in community outreach, resources, and one-on-one connections for our Rosies and no furloughs or layoffs, Fridays off, and an open forum to ask for help without judgment or shame for our core team.
What advice would you offer women looking to make their own leap to freelance work or women entrepreneurs looking to launch their own businesses?
You’ll never be 100 percent ready. I got advice early on in my career that has stuck with me: When you are about 60 percent ready, you’re ready. Women put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get it perfect from the jump, but that’s just not possible. Those expectations we place on ourselves will keep us small.
Whether you want to build a billion-dollar empire or a one-woman freelance business, the process starts with single steps. Don’t get overwhelmed by the enormity of your dreams. Every great business, including my own, was built one step at a time.
This is the first in our new series, Future Shift: The Leaders Shaping Tomorrow, in which we profile women leading movements, changing systems, and otherwise reshaping the framework of our lives so that more of us can succeed.
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