A Startup’s First Hire is a...Chief Community Officer?

A friend reached out to pick my brain because he knew I had many years of community development and education under my belt. One conversation led to another and here we are, an early stage tech startup consisting of an engineer and community lead. 

For context, Avala is developing a platform that brings economic opportunity to people through mobile devices. There is no need to own assets, beyond one’s smartphone, to access paid work. 

Too often, roles involving “community” refer to employee engagement via volunteer efforts, corporate social responsibility programs, or philanthropic endeavors -- siloed efforts that are more of an afterthought and not foundational to the business model of a company. Avala choosing to bring me on, especially as a first hire, is incredibly nontraditional for a tech startup that needs to rush to build its product. Avala Founder, Emal Alwis, decided early on that Avala would always lead with its community and that long-term commitment starts here. Let’s dig a little deeper into what this says about our team and our vision for the future. 

  1. It signifies that Avala means it when they say they are focused on being a people-first company and product. 

    The decision to hire not only a “non-technical” role, but a community-focused role to join their leadership team is something most would consider a huge risk. Some might even believe that this is a mistake because it goes against startup norms. Avala is confident in its choice to do things a little differently. These are the “risks” and moves we should be expecting of all leaders, especially now. 

  2. It signifies that Avala sees its impact on the community as fully embedded in its business model. 

    It is clearer than ever that the problems we face as a society are systemic. Many of our businesses are built on exploitative practices and are fundamentally exclusive. Fighting for justice is not a social media post, public statement, inclusivity training, book club, one-time donation, or day of volunteering. It’s so much deeper than that - it’s the foundation on which a business is built, how it’s structured, the values of its people, the investors and shareholders it’s involved with, who and how it hires, the products and services it sells, and so much more. 

  3. It removes the label of “user” and that transactional relationship from the equation. 

    While the terms “user” and “customer” are standard, there is room for sensitivity when it comes to working with different populations. I have spent most of my career in the nonprofit sector and learned to stop using terms such as “help” and “service,” because there’s a clear power dynamic in that relationship. Yes, Avala is trying to make peoples’ lives a little easier, but we work alongside and in collaboration with communities. 

  4. It signifies that the community has the opportunity to be on equal footing and an equal voice, meaning they are just as valuable, if not more so, as the product itself. 

    We’ve all heard companies say that they are taking a “human-centric” or “people-first” approach, but as mentioned earlier, that needs to be woven into the fabric of the organization, otherwise it’s easy to just be lip service. I cannot stress enough how much this decision speaks to the priorities of what we are building. Our community will not be a separate program, department, or initiative -- they will be our number one priority. While we are still in the early stages of building the product, we are very conscious of who we involve in that process, ensuring that solutions are being built with these important voices at the forefront.

  5. It signifies that the company is forward-thinking, challenging business as usual, and walks the walk in the values it claims.

    Not only is it largely nontraditional to bring in “non-technical” folx at this stage of building a startup, but it’s nontraditional for the for-profit sector as a whole. Many companies are now seeking Chief Diversity Officers in the wake of the racial injustices being seen all over the news and our social media feeds. Companies are starting to be held more accountable by their investors and shareholders (see this example of a proposal by Activision Blizzard’s shareholders) and some are finding themselves scrambling to figure out their baselines, set their targets, and create their programs. Challenging business as usual requires an investment in building a solid foundation.

  6. It demonstrates that the company values diversity in its leadership. 

    Okay, this one is unrelated to the CCO role, but both of my colleagues are men and knew that they wanted diversity of thought, experience, and background on the team. For an industry that is so male dominated, the awareness that went into this was also significant. Worth mentioning, too, is the fact that the three of us represent the Philippines, Colombia, and Sri Lanka as a combination of immigrants and first generation Americans. Starting with diversity is another essential part of building that solid foundation, versus adjusting for it after seeing where a company falls in its demographic breakdown. This will play a significant role in our ability to connect with our global community. 

Avala made a commitment to its approach and its intention as a company. At the end of the day, it was a greater risk for Avala to not make this decision. Deciding otherwise would ultimately result in costs to Avala’s mission, bottom line, time, and financial resources, and worst of all, a disservice to its partner communities. While we will be figuring it out as we go, this is a really, really good place to start.