From Surviving to Thriving in the Year that Language Failed

2020. Wow.

According to Google Trends, between March 1 and March 22 there was a seven-fold increase in use of the word “unprecedented”. It was used so often, as part of the first sentence for so many emails, that it soon lost its potency, and started showing up instead in self-aware pandemic comedy routines. By July, usage of the word was down around February levels again, even as we all continued to struggle to find language sufficient to describe the depth and magnitude of our collective experience.

Google trends Unprecedented

Terrifying. Heartbreaking. Illuminating. Transformative. World-changing. These are all words I used this year, in different contexts, as I tried to make meaning out of the cataclysmic crucible of historic events we’ve been collectively cooking in. Pandemic. Political upheaval. Police brutality. Racial reckoning. These are words that concisely summarize that crucible, but mere words cannot ever hope to capture the multifaceted, interconnected, ongoing reshaping of our existence that this year has wrought. There has been so much suffering, so much incompetence, so much awakening to possibility, so much recognition of long-suppressed injustice. So much to atone for. And yet, so much opportunity.

For WholeStory, this year has been one where, first, we survived. And now, on the cusp of a new year bringing with it conditions highly favorable to our mission and market, we are beginning to thrive. On a whole ‘nother level.

Back in February, we were moving. We were part of the Create33 startup community in downtown Seattle and we’d had promising meetings with several VC firms. We were halfway to the customer acquisition targets they encouraged us to reach in order to pitch them formally for a pre-seed investment, confident in our trajectory to reach those targets.

When the pandemic hit and hiring stopped globally, we lost all of our customers and our entire pipeline overnight. We had to lay off our two part-time employees, we slashed spending, and we hunkered down to discern what was next. On multiple occasions, I thought about pulling the plug on WholeStory, and I know Darren & Erin entertained similar thoughts. In those first weeks, holding space for our startup alongside all of the other existential crises playing out within us and around us sometimes seemed both: 1.) too much to manage AND 2.) privileged as hell. Who was I to worry about whether our startup was going to fail, when I still (at that time) had a good day job, a roof over my head, and a savings account? I mean, people were waiting in lines 500-cars long at the food bank!!

But then something happened. At Darren’s wise urging, we entered an intentional space of waiting. Waiting to see what work was ours to do, in that moment and in the recovery that would follow. As the global conversation around racial equity took shape inside the crucible first defined by the pandemic, a vision for our future started to take shape. It was a vision that re-inspired me, so much so that in September (after much preparation and planning with my wife Zarha), I finally quit my job to go full-time as WholeStory’s CEO. The funny thing was, that vision looked a whole lot like the original animating vision of WholeStory, and the reason why we were a Social Purpose Corporation in the first place.

Today, that vision is coming alive and the world is responding to it. What is it? Well, 2020 has changed the world, shifting perceptions around hiring towards a WholeStory approach. Today, when we talk about the importance of hiring resilient, emotionally intelligent, life-long learners and how to identify them through story, people listen in a whole new way. Today, when we talk about the unrecognized, untapped talent pool that is our underrepresented populations, people’s ears have been calibrated to hear it. And today, when we talk about the importance of building resilient organizations out of resilient people to be ready to weather future uncertainty, people lean in. To be honest, our core mission has not changed. But the world has.

What has changed is where we’re putting our customer and partnership focus. We are enthusiastically locating ourselves inside of the workforce development ecosystem, and we are proudly emphasizing the natural power of WholeStory for enhancing authentic diversity, equity, and inclusion hiring strategies. Each of these were things that we were already pursuing to some degree. Today, they are front and center. And the momentum is building.

  • We’ve rebuilt our customer base and pipeline bigger than it was pre-pandemic.
  • We are working with 5 workforce development partners, ranging from large entities like WorkSource and Year Up to niche providers. They’ve trained over 500 job seekers this year using WholeStory, many of them from underrepresented populations.
  • We’ve completed a year-long research study spanning multiple organizations and hundreds of participants, which shows conclusively that WholeStory significantly and measurably improves job seekers’ confidence and ability to talk about their soft skills in interview settings.
  • We’ve integrated video into the platform as a core component of the storytelling and interview prep, based on customer input.
  • We have a large customer currently using WholeStory explicitly for DEI hiring, aligned to their existing affirmative action program as a federal contractor.
  • We’ve teamed up with one of our workforce development partners, at their invitation, to compete for the $6 million MIT Solve and X-Prize contests aimed at transforming the Future of Work.

There is no doubt that we are still in the crucible of 2020, but what is also clear is that we stand on the cusp of the most transformative labor market evolution in a century. Even before the pandemic, the future of work was being defined by the massive pressures of automation and digital transformation. The pandemic and the societal reckoning around racial inequity have further accelerated the transformative potential of this moment.

Today, I believe more strongly than ever in WholeStory’s potential to both have a massive positive social impact AND to become a growing and financially successful organization. Our positioning at the confluence of the job seeker, employer, and workforce developer and our proven capacity to provide value to all three is unique. Underscoring that value is our capacity to be able to do all of that while baking in advocacy for and empowerment of underrepresented job seekers into our platform. We are so excited to see what 2021 brings to the world, and to help shape the employment landscape towards one that is more just, more equitable, and more sustainable. Thanks for staying on the bus with us!

— John
(And the WholeStory team)

About John Roach

John is Cofounder & CEO of WholeStory. His background is as a technology executive leading transformative organizational change at both Fortune 500 companies and small businesses alike. This combined with his profound personal experiences of strength through struggle led him to introduce an entirely new and more equitable approach to hiring.

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