How start-up Kindred is pushing companies to improve on workplace equity and social justice

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Ian Schafer knows something about dysfunctional workplaces and bad bosses.

One of the veteran marketer’s jobs early in his career was VP of new media at Miramax, the entertainment company co-founded and run by someone you might’ve read about in the papers in recent years — Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood mogul whose head-spinning fall presaged the sex scandals of a string of other powerful men.

“I saw firsthand what a toxic workplace can do to human beings,” said Schafer. That experience helped inspire him to build a more equitable, affirming — and respectable — organization when, in the early aughts, he launched the interactive marketing agency Deep Focus. (It was acquired by communications and marketing services group Engine U.S. in 2010.) “I was bored of people like me,” he said. “It was important to me that we surround ourselves with different thinkers, different perspectives, so we built a diverse team in every way.”

Now he’s promoting workplace diversity, equity and social consciousness on a global scale, as the co-founder and CEO of Kindred, a membership-based network created to help companies support better citizens. Launched in 2020, Kindred has quickly built a roster of around 200 members, mostly C-suite executives, from some of the world’s best-known corporations — among them, consumer brands Nike and Kellogg’s, social media companies Facebook and Twitter, media companies HBO and The Washington Post and marketing and communications firms including Ogilvy and Porter Novelli.

“The nature of our professional networks continue to evolve, and finding peers who align with your personal and professional values is more important than ever,” said Laura Barger, CMO of Financial Health Network, who joined Kindred as a founding member “to benefit from and support the growth of a group of driven, passionate professionals who represent the next generation of leaders across industries.”

“There are a ton of executive leadership communities — however, not many of them are rooted in integrity and making the world a better place by starting with making yourself a better person,” said Nate Nichols, founder and creative director of Palette Group. “Kindred enables you to access services that support you in your personal and interpersonal development, and resources to up-level your professional development. I can’t stand networking, but I adore community building with humans who see me and my values inherently.” 

The motivation for companies to respond to social change — both in the culture at large and inside their own company’s walls — is strong. That is because increasingly, employees and customers are demanding it. And bosses are being held accountable like never before. Half of Americans changed their buying habits because of the actions of a company’s CEO, according to a Harris poll from February for The Stagwell Group and MDC Partners. The same survey found that while 72% of older Americans believe there is more risk than reward when CEOs speak out on social issues, 56% of young consumers and 55% of Black Americans say just the opposite.

After over a decade in the marketing industry, Schafer said he realized the biggest looming business disruption was one born out of a lack of trust between employees and employers, between consumers and the companies they do business with, and between the public and our institutions. “That trust has been eroded because of the inequities that are being felt,” he added.

Kindred has ambitions to make a difference in just about all of the issues confronting society including, diversity, equity, inclusion and sustainability, according to the company. The startup, which has raised more than $8 million in funding to date, provides opportunities for peer-to-peer collaboration and access to research data as well as experts who can help business leaders make better-informed decisions about company policies and actions. (Its first-ever national conference, slated for last May in San Diego and featuring speakers like the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s and Chance the Rapper, was scuttled due to Covid-19.)

Kindred recently introduced something called Expert Hours, which is exactly what it sounds like. “We realized, wouldn’t it be great if we could provide our members with the environment where they could ask leading experts questions and get quick answers? Not every question needs to be solved by a webinar,” added Schafer. 

Kindred members have launched their own lobbying efforts — including a coalition, led by representatives of Facebook, supporting the #StopAsianHate movement; another member launched a GoFundMe effort backing the cause.

Creating a level playing field in the workplace is also an area where corporations, overall, continue to lag. A recent study by Rebel & Co. for Shareworks by Morgan Stanley, a division of Morgan Stanley at Work, found that a vast equity compensation gap exists among American working women and BIPOC employees. Of those who have been granted equity at U.S. corporations, just 25% are working mothers, versus 60% of working dads. Meanwhile, just 12% of those receiving equity compensation are BIPOC.

In other words, business leaders still have their work cut out for them. Schafer insists there’s no time like the present to act. “How do you get over saying something needs to be done and start actually doing it?” he said. “Everyone is waking up and dealing with the accountability that’s been waiting for them.”

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