Interview by Tyler Calder
Flexibility is the future of feminism. You’ll find these six words splashed across the Werk homepage, and for good reason – they tell you exactly what this budding New York-based company is all about. Just a few short years ago, Anna Auerbach and Annie Dean – a Harvard Business-educated consultant and real estate lawyer respectively – met to talk about balancing ambition and motherhood. Within days, they decided to join forces on a concept which started by acknowledging and saying aloud an undeniable truth: “Work as we know it is not working for women.”
As new mothers witnessing firsthand how antiquated professional structures posed unique obstacles for women, they decided it was time to take a stand. Now, they’re using Werklife to change the narrative around workplace flexibility, and they’ve created FlexCert™ to get businesses and employees trained on integrating flexible working practices. Recently, we sat down with the co-founders and co-CEOs as they dished on motherhood, partnership, and, of course, Werk.
We love a good origin story – how did you both get from your first careers to cofounding Werk?
AA: I’d been working in consulting at McKinsey, and then in the philanthropy world, and had been brewing the concept of flexibility as the future of work for a while.
AD: I’d been in corporate law and hit a wall once becoming a parent, realizing that I couldn’t work like I didn’t have a family or parent like I didn’t have a job. I asked my friends to connect me with the smartest women they knew so I could talk to like-minded women and figure out how to manage my career ambition and being a parent. When Anna and I connected and discussed her concept, it became clear to both of us right away that we were the women to make this happen. And here we are.
When we think about the idea of self-care, flexibility feels like a huge part of that. When did you know this was the idea you wanted to build around?
AA: Standard work as we know it now is clearly not sustainable for modern society. Nine to five was created centuries ago with the understanding of 8 hours of work, 8 hours of leisure, and 8 hours of sleep. Do you know anyone who lives that way now? “Balance” is thrown around a lot, but [at Werk] we talk more about compatibility as the metric for success in the future of flexibility. All of our products are designed to promote high compatibility between employers and the roles they need to fill, employees’ skillsets, and optimizing productivity.
AD: Historically the onus has been put on women to figure out how to do it all. The system itself is broken, and we see ourselves as treating the disease, not just the symptoms.
How did you know you were ready to take an entrepreneurial leap and start Werk? What did you learn along the way that you’d pass forward to other women looking to take a similar leap?
AA: I’m not sure there was one single moment. For years I kept a notebook of all my ideas, but had convinced myself for some reason that I wasn’t going to be an entrepreneur. It took having the right idea and then meeting the perfect partner to make it a reality. I think we both just kept putting one foot in front of the other and eventually we were outside of the plane. The biggest advice I have is to fully commit if you are going to do something entrepreneurial. It’s hard, if not impossible, to do it in your free time. It takes tenacity and commitment to make any idea a reality.
AD: I had been a corporate attorney on Wall Street for 6 years, and I had known all along that I was going to build a company, but I had no idea what it would be — and it was not for lack of trying. I was always working on 23 concepts at any given time. Then my second son was born, and I was faced with a significant, unexpected challenge: he was born with a rare genetic disorder and I was thrown into the experience of uncovering and managing his health challenges. It was clear to me that I couldn’t waste any more of my time; I needed to find something to put all of my energy behind.
I was pretty strategic about investigating myself and my skills to determine the type of life I wanted, the type of skills I had, and the type of problem I wanted to solve. It helped me know exactly what the right opportunity looked like. I met Anna on a Tuesday and by Wednesday we got to work. A few weeks later we had a business plan; and within six months we had raised a small amount of money and had quit our jobs. It was clear to me very quickly that we were meant for this.
What are you most excited about that’s coming up with Werk?
AA: We just launched FlexCert™, a 4-module e-course that is the first flexibility training and certification product on the market. It’s not your average HR video, to say the least, and we’ve gotten an incredible response so far from HR managers and even employees looking to bring more flexibility into their organization. We’re really proud of it, and it’s available for $199 per learner.
AD: And we’re launching WerkLife too, our content vertical through which we’re changing the narrative about flexibility, showing examples of what IRL flexibility looks like, and talking about how to start new conversations at work.
Any advice you have for a woman looking to advocate for her time and get employers onboard with the concept?
AA: Take FlexCert™!
AD: Get to know our Flexiverse where we name and define key types of flexibility and how to implement them in the workplace. Conversations around flexibility have historically been highly nuanced, emotionally charged, and just plain difficult in the context of lingering stigmas in most workplaces. It gets a lot easier to discuss something when you can use formal nomenclature and the Flexiverse is the first foundation for that.
How do you change a narrative and how do you change the way people think about work?
AA: It’s the hardest part! The prevailing narrative was that women are not speaking loudly enough, not taking a seat at the table or negotiating as well as men, and that’s actually the wrong narrative. When we looked at the data it showed that women are essentially being forced out [of these conversations] and off the leadership track because the structure of work is completely incompatible with caregiving. And the way our society is set up, women are the dominant caregivers – it’s starting to shift a little bit but we still have a ways to go.
We show a lot of data frankly because data is compelling. We’re showing that it has less to do with if women are better negotiators or if they’re as aspirational – which they are – and it has a lot more to do with the bias and the existing structures. We’ve introduced a whole new language around flexibility. So, we never say “work-life balance.” That already has a whole narrative around it. When you hear work-life balance, you think not serious, not as focused on work, not as ambitious. So as we think of shifting the narrative, we’re creating new language around compatibility. To shift the narrative, you have to change the language and get people to break with some of the baggage they have around the language they’re currently using.
What has the response looked like from women you’ve spoken to about Werk?
AA: The conversations are amazing – they’re the best part. On our first website, we asked for a lot of feedback, and we’d get pages of responses from women, and that’s when we knew we really struck a chord because very few people were out there saying that work isn’t working for women – and that’s what we said. The structure of work is completely incompatible with the lives of ambitious women. And I think that really resonated.
If you think about programs that typically focus on women’s advancement, they’ll put the higher burden on the woman, here’s the mentor YOU need to find, here’s the way YOU need to speak, here’s now YOU need to network. It basically says if you haven’t succeeded, it’s your fault, and that isn’t true.
What have you learned about your female friendships and relationships from working as a duo of women?
AA: I think having your girl crew and women you can rely on for honest advice but also to prop you up is so, so important. I feel so lucky Annie and I connected so well from the beginning. We were texting last night and I was like, “I’m so happy I have you,” and she was like, “I couldn’t do this without you.” My husband laughs because she’s like my work wife! We work on our relationship, though. Since day one, we were very clear about our communication styles and we said that we would always bring up if something was bothering us. I think a work partnership is not that different from a marriage in that it takes work. Any relationship, friendship, partnership is work, and you’re going to get out what you put in.
What does self-care mean to you at this moment in your life?
AA: Yoga is my self-care. It energizes my mind, body and soul, and is some of the little time I get alone these days.
AD: Gawd! This is a great moment to ask me because it’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot. After two intensely stressful years I have really had to focus on my health. I don’t recommend spending 200 hours at the hospital managing major medical crises for an infant child the same year you found a startup, while also raising a toddler, and then giving your husband the OK to commute to the west coast for his job 5 days out of the week.
One of the most important steps I took this year was to seek the care of an integrative doctor (Dr. Morrison at Morrison Health Center) who has helped me identify how to be ‘more healthy’ instead of just ‘not sick’. I’m dipping my toes into meditation. I quiet my brain by reading. And I’ve learned how to ask for help, which can mean getting childcare to cover personal time I need for a break between the demands of my job and the demands of parenthood
How do you take time to prioritize it while juggling the demands of your personal and professional life?
AA: I have to proactively block off my calendar and carve out that time for myself. It’s easier said than done, but growing a startup is nonstop and I have to remember than an investment in myself is an investment in the company when I’m a leader.
AD: I couldn’t agree more about investing in myself being a positive investment in the company. I ask for help when I need it, I schedule two hours of “thinking time” per day, I go out to dinner one night per week by myself to catch up on things in a way that feels like a treat, and I’m rigorous about not scheduling more activities (business or personal) than I can handle. I am patient with myself, which is a skill that I’ve learned as a mother, and especially as a special needs mother.
What are your favorite recent self-care products or rituals?
AA: Yoga! Annie can tell when I’ve skipped a week and reminds me to go and to practice self-care.
AD: It’s kind of silly how many vitamins I take. I’m also particular about my creature comforts. I live in my bathrobe and constantly have the WQXR app playing at home. I try to spend minimal time on things I don’t love doing, which means a lot of Amazon and the Caviar app. I’m also trying to reconnect with some of the creative things I used to love, like singing — except now it’s singing to my kids of course.
What’s your favorite way to reset after a particularly stressful stretch?
AA: I love to travel. I take a lot of inspiration from being somewhere that is totally outside my comfort zone. Late summer, after we got through our seed round, my husband and I went on an expedition to Greenland and it was the most incredible, fulfilling and perspective-creating experience.
AD: I like to lie in a horizontal position in a dark room with no one touching me while I listen to science podcasts.
First thing you do when you get home from work?
AA: Put on sweatpants.
AD: I usually enter the apartment singing a greeting to my kids and corral them into a singsongy group hug before I sneak into the bedroom to change into pajamas (to save my outfit from drool).
Book on your nightstand?
AD: Lincoln in the Bardo.
Women who are inspiring you right now?
AA: Michelle Obama.
AD: All the women saying #metoo.
Favorite TV show or podcast lately?
AA: Game of Thrones.
AD: Game of Thrones!
Most recent splurge?
AD: A weekend babysitter for a Saturday nap!
Lede photos by Lydia Hudgens. Follow Werk on Instagram at @werk. Follow Anna Auerbach on Instagram @annapikauer. Follow Annie Dean on Instagram @anniedeanzait. For more interviews with women we admire, go here.