Getting Better at Doing Good | Susan Stevens at Wespire

In 2010, Susan Stevens’ job at the New York Times gave her a front row seat to the social media transformation of our society. She also observed how our phones became tools of both entertainment and personal inspiration.

And like herself, she saw a culture more and more concerned with making a positive impact on the world. An epiphany brought these elements together, and her company, Wespire, was born.

In this episode of UpTech Report, Susan talks about how Wespire combines the interactivity of social media and the fun of game mechanics to help people live better and how companies are using these tools to improve their workplace culture.

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Susan Hunt Stevens is the Founder & CEO of WeSpire, an award-winning employee experience technology platform focused on engaging people in purpose-driven initiatives, ranging from sustainability to social impact, holistic wellbeing, and inclusive cultures.

She founded WeSpire to use her digital behavior change expertise to help people embrace healthier and more sustainable lifestyles after her son was diagnosed with serious food allergies.

She was named an EY Entrepreneur of the Year for New England, a Boston Business Journal Woman of Influence, and to the Environmental Leader 100 list. Prior to WeSpire, she spent 9 years at The New York Times Company, most recently as SVP/General Manager for, a $60M digital media division.

DISCLAIMER: Below is an AI generated transcript. There could be a few typos but it should be at least 90% accurate. Watch video or listen to the podcast for the full experience!

Susan Stevens 0:00
I actually went back to grad school at night in sustainable design. And it was in one of my first courses that I just sort of had this Whoa, what if you could use and develop an app that use social and game mechanics to inspire people to live healthier and more sustainably. And that was the original vision for respire, and candidly at our core, what we’re still doing 10 years later.

Alexander Ferguson 0:31
In 2010, Susan Stevens job at the New York Times give her a front row seat to the social media transformation of our society. She also observed how our phones become tools of both entertainment and personal inspiration. She saw culture more and more concerned with making a positive impact on the world. And epiphany brought these elements together, and our company Wespire was born. In this episode of UpTech. Report, Susan talks about how we spire combines the interactivity of social media, and the fun of game mechanics to help people live better, and how companies are using these tools to improve their workplace culture. Susan, I’m excited to chat with you today and dig more into Wespire and this journey that you’ve been on as a leader to start us off. I’d like to ask you to describe your company in five seconds. What would you say?

Susan Stevens 1:22
We help change behavior for the better at scale.

Alexander Ferguson 1:27
I like that change behavior for the better at scale. This has been not you didn’t start this yesterday, there’s been about 10 years now. Is that right? It has been 10 years. Yes. Obviously, an evolution happens over time. But the problem the the antithesis of why you exist, describe that problem for me.

Susan Stevens 1:49
Sure. 10 years ago, when I founded the company, it was believing that there was convergence happening between three really different factors. The first was what was happening in social and social connectivity with the advent of Facebook and Facebook pages, which I had a front row seat from my role at the New York Times on the digital side to see what was happening. The second was the use of apps to motivate and inspire positive change. And I was seeing things like RunKeeper and lose it and the Weight Watchers app, motivate and inspire people to lose weight and to run faster. And then my own personal passion around sustainability, which really emerged with some health issues that my at the time two year old was facing with food allergies, and we were having to change everything about our life to be healthier and more sustainable. And so I actually went back to grad school at night in sustainable design. And it was in one of my first courses that I just sort of had this Whoa, what if you could use and develop an app that use social and game mechanics to inspire people to live healthier and more sustainably. And that was the original vision for we spire and candidly, at our core, it’s what we’re still doing 10 years later.

Alexander Ferguson 3:08
That is powerful. If you saw the moving pieces as timeless coming together, and you saw how could all converge to solve this problem? The way people were receptive of the concept was maybe not right there. 10 years ago,

Susan Stevens 3:24
10 years ago, people thought I was nuts. But really, I mean, think about it, even if today, somebody said, I’m going to quit this really big job at the New York Times to go found a technology apt to change human behavior for the better. What would they say? I mean, they’d be like, yeah, you go do that. Great. But, you know, 10 years ago, interestingly enough, there actually was a lot of momentum around sustainability. And, and with Copenhagen, and all of the emphasis around climate change beginning to come to the fore. And then it was just a total failure at the global level. And it really set back, you know, broadly at the political realm, the movement for a number of years, and it’s really only been in the last three to four years that I’ve seen sort of the mass interest in sustainability begin to re emerge. What didn’t change in between 2010 and three years ago, were companies recognizing that sustainability could be an absolute force for positive impact in their workplaces. During the recession, the early part and post recession, it was all about cost savings. You could use sustainability to identify energy savings, waste savings, water savings, fuel savings and saving resources, saving money. So it was a big ROI that drove corporate sustainability to start with. But then we were part of companies really beginning to demonstrate that engaging employees and your sustainability initiatives was really good for culture and really good for retention and really good for innovation, and that the talent coming out of our, you know, colleges and our high schools were passionate about sustainability, and didn’t want to go work for a company that didn’t recycle and didn’t provide opportunities to volunteer and didn’t see their their role to be a force for good in this world. So, you know, kind of the corporate sustainability, winds were blowing in our direction, and the talent desires for how companies should operate in this world, we’re going in our direction. And so when we started to run corporate programs in 2012, that really is when we started to see bigger growth. It’s

Alexander Ferguson 5:51
the culture and people that matter in any organization. And it may be the culture shift now, of people a new generation, wants a cause and wants to feel connected. So if a company doesn’t have this part of it, they may not want to stick around two thirds

Susan Stevens 6:09
of millennials and Gen Z will not work for a company that doesn’t have strong corporate social responsibility practices, they won’t even go there.

Alexander Ferguson 6:18
So let’s dig in a little bit more to then your solution, can you help provide a specific story or analogy of a use case of this organization use it this way, which made that had an impact?

Susan Stevens 6:33
Sure. So keep in mind now 10 years later, we actually run programs in four different areas. So sustainability, which we talked about before. We also do run social impact programs, getting people to volunteer and give and things like that. That’s obviously booming. Right now in the age of COVID. We run wellbeing programs to engage people in physical well being mental well being financial well being. And then we run workplace culture programs, diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, psychological safety, innovation, agility, things like that. So the use cases would vary across the different modules. But let me give you an example of a large financial services firm. So they developed a program for they have literally hundreds of 1000s of employees around the planet. And what they decided is at a global level, they wanted to run four very distinct campaigns each quarter, that would engage their employees in very specific behavior changes that they were looking to drive to enable them to hit their sustainability goals. And so one of the challenges in one quarter was all focused on recycling. And so employees would join the the program, which is powered by our technology, it, they get access through their intranet, or a mobile app or things like that. And then there’s a set of activities that they need to do. And as they do those activities, whatever they are, they earn points. They can share stories, they get positive feedback from their colleagues and their managers. And to the extent it’s a competitive program, there are often prizes, or rewards or incentives that go for the team with the most participants or the team that has the most impact or things like that. And then in the next quarter, they changed the focus to be on the circular economy. And they were really trying to educate and help employees understand what is the circular circular economy? What does a world with zero waste look like? What can you do at work to bring about a zero waste world, and then they had a big activation that took place offline, where people brought in shoes, and then those shoes would go to somebody who needed shoes, you know, to show sort of the nature of how a circular economy can work. So those are two examples of how they did those big quarterly programs. And then there were a bunch of smaller local programs and targeted events and things like that, that employees were available that were available to employees as well.

Alexander Ferguson 9:03
How do you get someone engaged because we’re inundated with email already. So it’s like, I don’t need another email in my inbox. And I don’t really know the social platform necessarily go to to check out but how do you marry to keep a workforce engaged on your platform to get communication happening, as well as keep them involved?

Susan Stevens 9:22
So the content design is super important. And we were inspired and influenced heavily by BJ Fogg at Stanford persuasive Technology Lab, when we designed our platform, a technology we have one of the members of his team has served as a longtime advisor to us. And so what we really do is look for anything we’re trying to do is what are the steps that are needed to increase a person’s ability to do something? And then what is needed to increase their motivation to do it? And then how do we use nudges and triggers at the right time in the right place to keep people engaged in this journey, whether it’s to get them to do something once or to get to do it for a span of time, or to create a lifelong habit change and what you do, depending on what you need is different. And so we built templates to essentially automate the process of designing for behavior change. And that has put the power of being a behavior designer into the hands of, you know, engagement managers in our various companies. And so that design is very powerful. You know, it’s hard to demonstrate how critical it is, though, to make sure that these programs are being integrated into where employees already are. And so one of the things we work hard when we go into a client is really understand where employees are ready engaging. Is it in Slack? Is it in Yammer or Microsoft Teams? Is it on the intranet and SharePoint? Is it with the elevator kiosks, you know, or lobby kiosks? Or is it screens in the cafeteria is that their own personal mobile device and making sure that the, you know that these programs are accessible from all of those places. And so I engage initially customize

Alexander Ferguson 11:11
based on whatever platform most

Susan Stevens 11:13
integrated into every single, you know, as we like to say, we sit in this whitespace between the comms layer and the HR systems of record, you know, to design and run campaigns, much like a marketing marketing automation platform would

Alexander Ferguson 11:25
tell me now then, let’s let’s talk about division moving forward. Where do you see a company in the near term as well as long term? So in the next year or so? And then in 10 years from now? What What, Where are you working towards?

Susan Stevens 11:39
Yeah, so it’s almost easier for me to say long term, I’m not sure anyone knows what’s going to happen in the next year. So And I firmly believe that every company is going to need a technology platform to design and run their engagement programs and measure the benefit that they’re having on HR outcomes. I watched this transition in marketing from doing things very manually to then doing a very channel base to then needing to have a you know, an automated integrated platform that is, you know, helping you understand get out the messages and understand what’s working and, and to see the same trend happening in in in the employee side of things. And so, I don’t see, really a limit for the opportunity to fulfill this need, particularly because I think every company is also recognizing that being a force for good in this world is really good for business. And so not only do you need a technology platform that’s going to deliver programs in a modern way, you need to deliver programs that are going to help the company activate around purpose, because they have such huge impact on the outcomes you’re looking to drive. So this one to technology, purpose punch, I think is just going to be really powerful. Over the next year, I think two of our modules are going to be particularly in demand. The first is that the mental health toll that this pandemic is taking on all of us, you know, some significantly more than others, depending on how we’ve been personally affected if we’re a frontline worker, if we’ve been sick ourselves or had a family member sick, we’ve lost a job. But the reality is we all just had our whole worlds shaken up and don’t know and are very uncertain. And and certainly anxiety is not good for mental health. And so I do think every company is going to need to be in the business of well being and and supporting employee well being and need to have the right tools and the right programs to make that happen. And it’s not going to be just fitness challenges, which has kind of been the wellness strategy for the last five years, you know, it’s going to need to be a really holistic well being strategy. I think the other is a social impact strategy. Every company is going to need to figure out how they’re supporting their community because communities are going to be hurting for not just you know, three months, but for 612 1824 months. And companies have a big role to play in the communities that they operate in, particularly if they’re less hurt than others. And so helping companies make sure they’ve got a really updated relevant for COVID Social Impact strategy and tools to drive employee volunteering, employee giving, you know, the foundation and philanthropy is going to be also extremely important. And then, you know, we still have a climate crisis to solve and so every company needs to kind of get through the next year around COVID but can’t lose sight that we have eight years to cut carbon emissions 50% Or this last eight weeks is gonna seem minor in comparison to what’s going to hit and so you know, all of this, I think is is gonna help and oh, by the way, we’re going through the biggest work culture change with remote that we’ve ever seen before. We’ll meet up with that. So we’re gonna be busy, I hope. And I hope we can help. I mean, I think that’s the biggest thing we saw. You know, our clients came to us in the first week of March and said, We need help with, you know, teaching our employees to social distance, we need help teaching healthy habits, we need, you know, remote work, best practices, engaging kids at home. So we put together a great content for them. And then but, you know, we can be of service to the broader world. So we actually package it up, put it on as an offer, and are having every company who needs it right now at no cost, use the technology in this content, because I can’t make a $10 million donation. I don’t have that kind of money, but I can offer our expertise to help people get through this time. And that seems like the right thing to do.

Alexander Ferguson 15:47
Where can people go to learn more? And what’s a good first step then for them to take advantage of that?

Susan Stevens 15:52
Yeah, so they can go to WWE And there’s a big pop up right in the center of our homepage around flattening the curve, they can click on that. And it’s a really rapid onboarding, you know, a couple short legal documents, and we can get anyone up and running as soon as as soon as you need.

Alexander Ferguson 16:08
Be sure to check out part two of my conversation with Susan, in which she discusses some of the personal challenges of running a startup and how important it is to separate the business from your identity.



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