This is a story about a business that’s first in its industry, but it’s also about a fascinating woman behind her brand. Her passion for humanity, her perspective on life, and how we gain perspective is why we need businesses like hers. It’s also why we need people like her at the helm of organizations, so we give rise to positive company cultures, and make positive impacts on people and communities.
Her name is Rachel Renock. She is the CEO and Creative Director at Wethos*, the first cause conscious freelance platform built specifically to connect nonprofits and socially conscious businesses with professional contractors who are interested in focusing their skillsets on projects geared toward causes and movements they care about. It bridges the gap between the resource disparities nonprofits face everyday by connecting them with creatives in advertising, design, development, and production.
The idea began when Rachel worked on a socially conscious advertising project for Hershey called Project Peanut Butter. Coming up with solutions and marketing tactics for that kind of organization lit a fire in her. And from then on, she made it her mission to work on social good projects on the side to keep that momentum going. But when searching, she found there wasn’t a single source out there that gave her the access she wanted to those types of organizations and projects, so she created it herself with Wethos.
Before handing in her two weeks at her full-time corporate job (yes, she bravely quit her job to focus 100% of her energy on Wethos), she and her team spent the summer of 2016, nights and weekends, and every coffee break in between, building it, learning about the industry, and forging crucial relationships with freelancers and nonprofits to launch the beta version in October 2016.
Today she has over 100 organizations and over 600 freelancers who are actively engaged in her community. She’s now focused on forming investor relationships to raise money for this amazing organization she and her team are working to grow**.
She’s been a part of teams that have created some of the most iconic marketing and advertising campaigns for some of the biggest brands in the world: CoverGirl, Hershey and K-Y. And because of her work in advertising, she’s currently a finalist for Google and The Ad Club’s Young Innovator Award, an award that is all about excellence and innovation by young professionals who are making their marks in advertising, marketing, and media.
What’s more, Rachel has a special kind of empathy she found (and shares during the interview) once she stepped into her own truth. She radiates that truth in sharing her story. She talks about how she’s using that energy to build an incredible community of social do-gooders, and to create a business that is more than just a money generating entity, but a positive force for good.
Aside from the business logistics of how to plan for and implement your business idea, and how to build relationships with investors to raise capital for your idea, she shares how her new found perspective helped her shape her business. She also shares what you can do to gain perspective, how she quit her job so she could harness all of her energy into creating a community she absolutely believes will positively change an industry and the way we do business with nonprofits and social enterprises, and how perspective is more than just an empty word, but a constant energy that can change your life and comfort you in times when you feel lost and hopeless.
Watch a snippet and read the entire interview below.
AP: Tell me about Wethos.
Rachel: Wethos is the first cause conscious freelance platform that’s built specifically to connect nonprofits with freelancers.
We’re trying to bridge the gap between the resource disparity that’s happening in the nonprofit sector with the flood of people who are in advertising, design, development, and production who really want to get involved in causes they care about. So we’re trying to give them better access to the sector, as well as a tangible way to really use their skills to give back.
“Wethos is the first cause conscious freelance platform that’s built specifically to connect nonprofits with freelancers.”
We launched in July and we launched the beta in October. Now we’re here and we’re working to connect people.
AP: Where were you before you started Wethos?
Rachel: Before Wethos I worked in advertising. I worked with some big clients: CoverGirl, Hershey, and KY. That’s really where all of this was born. I was having fun. I got to go on shoots and I was traveling, but there was still a sort of emotional distance I was feeling. I’ve always been a problem solver at heart, and I just felt that I wanted to be working on more stuff that really mattered.
While I was working at Hershey I had the opportunity to very briefly work on a project for an organization called Project Peanut Butter. It never got past the conceptual stage, but I remember coming up with solutions and marketing tactics for that kind of organization, and it just lit a fire in me.
From that point forward, I started freelancing. I started doing stuff on the side to keep that momentum going. I was Googling and searching, trying to find something that would give me better access, and there really wasn’t anything that focused on it.
So, long story short, we made it. We built it. We spent all summer working nights and weekends to get this thing live, and we’re really proud of it.
AP: What have the last couple of months been like since launching Wethos?
Rachel: (Laughs) So this is the craziest thing I’ve ever done. Hands down. I’ll be very honest and candid about it. It’s incredible hard.
It’s emotional drawing… It’s up and down… Everyday is different… Your schedule is all over the place. But I’ve never been happier.
“Every challenge has a solution to it. It just takes a little bit of time and a little wiggling to figure out how to get around those obstacles.”
I can sit here with a $100 in my bank account right now, thinking about next month’s rent, and say that I’ve never been more fulfilled or happier than I am now. My team is amazing. We support each other emotionally and mentally. Without them, none of this would be possible.
It’s not easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it. It’s a lot harder than I thought it was going to be definitely. But the challenges only prove to be “tackle-able.” Every challenge has a solution to it. It just takes a little bit of time and a little wiggling to figure out how to get around those obstacles.
What can I say about quitting my job and doing something that I care so deeply about? It’s been an amazing journey. Even to have the privilege to be able to do that, to have a family that supported me, and to have a job before this that allowed me to have a savings account that enabled me to do this… I’ve never been so grateful.
It’s hard, but fulfilling.
AP: Walk me through what it was like to quit your job and start your business. Do you think there’s a “right” way to quit your job to start a business?
Rachel: (Laughs) No. If I could go back, I may have stayed a little longer for more money only. Only for that reason, honestly.
From an outside perspective I think it looks very spontaneous, but we spent the summer gathering as much as we could in order to do what we needed to do. When I put in my notice toward the end of July, I was really at the end of my rope.
“There was never a question in my mind of what I wanted to do or needed to do.”
I was stretched to thin and I was looking at a fork in the road that was: Do both things poorly or do one thing well. And at the end of the day, the answer was so clear. There was never a question in my mind of what I wanted to do or needed to do.
I can’t stress enough how much my team has done to get us to this point. It wasn’t just me quitting my job, I had three other people follow me into this, into this beautiful mess. And that has been invaluable.
I’m never alone. If it’s three in the morning and I’m up wondering, “Oh my god. Will this work?”, my team is there. They have gotten us this far and have done so much work. I don’t even know how to describe it.
“In terms of taking that actually leap, it was scary. It was terrifying.”
In terms of taking that actually leap, it was scary. It was terrifying. I had about six months worth of rent in my bank account to make it work, or at least prove to myself that it could work. For the record, six months is never enough to make anything work, just in case anyone’s wondering (laughs).
But in the end we took the leap, and I’ll never regret that. Even if this thing crashes and burns, I’ll never regret that. They say starting a business is like jumping off a cliff and building the plane on the way down. And that is exactly how it feels. But like I said, without those extra set of hands, who knows where I’d be right now.
I would encourage anyone who has the ability to, to do it. If you can, do it. I know that’s such an easy thing to say. But if you actually have the ability to do that, I always tell people, “Take the leap. You’ll only regret not doing it.” It’s all up to you. It’s in your hands.
s: Tell me about how you developed your relationships. How did you and your team get 100 organizations and over 600 freelancers to subscribe to and believe in your brand?
Rachel: We just launched the beta in October, which was about 90 days ago. It’s been scrappy. We self-funded up until this point. And every organization we have on our site is a lead we chased down ourselves.
It wasn’t a Facebook ad we put out there, a banner, or something like that. With nonprofits, they want a connection. They want to feel like part of a community. So we really made sure that everything we do, everything we build, every business model we make, benefits the organization.
“Every organization we have on our site is a lead we chased down ourselves.”
We never want to be those ones with the hidden fees or anything that could potentially damage their ability to access resources, because at the center of the company, it’s really that connection. It’s getting them the resources they need and paying for only what they need to get.
We’ve grown that user base from freelancers being extremely passionate about working on projects they really care about, and them spreading the word for us. And the organizations, developing relationships with people and people talking to other people, and really trying to listen.
“We always start by listening. That, by far, has been the most effective way to get them what they need, and that’s what they want.”
We find that people who come from the for-profit sector don’t listen. Therefore, nonprofits aren’t actually receiving what it is that they need for that reason. We joined a slew of groups and email lists, sat back and read. Read about stories. Read about barriers and talked to our nonprofits.
Every move we make is based on those things, because we can no longer assume we know what the nonprofit sector needs. We always start by listening. That, by far, has been the most effective way to get them what they need, and that’s what they want.
AP: Describe the startup process from the beginning: the idea; building it; getting people to believe in your idea; and now the final stage, raising money. What has each stage been like?
Rachel: The first stage was excitement. It was adrenaline. I probably went three straight months on adrenaline just from feeling like, “I’m on to something. I really feel I’m on to something.”
I was working a lot off the hard drive while I was at work (laughs), outside of work, at night, on the weekends, and during lunch whenever there was a slow period. When everyone was taking a coffee break, I was designing a new icon, taking whatever time I could to dedicate to it.
“I was working a lot off the hard drive while I was at work (laughs), outside of work, at night, on the weekends, and during lunch whenever there was a slow period. When everyone was taking a coffee break, I was designing a new icon, taking whatever time I could to dedicate to it.”
We went to a lot of events. We met a lot of people in the nonprofit sector that I didn’t have access to before. I will tell you, I had many, many biases going into this that I had no idea I had. I approached it originally the way any for-profit person would approach it, which is to think they know what’s really going on when they don’t.
The summer was a big learning curve. It was like: Okay, maybe my ideas about overhead are wrong, maybe my ideas of how charity should function are wrong, or how the people within charity should be using their money are incorrect or are just undeveloped thoughts.
Then we quit. And the tides changed. Suddenly you don’t have a job anymore. You’re doing this full time. We were excited, still riding that wave of, “Oh my god, this is going to be awesome!”
I remember the day I put in my two weeks. Although, it was a sad day. I did love my team, and I was making really cool stuff and I was having fun. But I remember the feeling that I got that I was able to work on this full time. That has followed me to this day. The feeling that I could wake up on Monday morning and work on something that was my blood, sweat, and tears, and my team’s blood, sweat, and tears.
The fall was spent being naive, in a good way. We were naive to how much money we would need. We were naive to how many resources we would need. We were definitely naive to our product road map and how that would all roll out. It was based on past experiences and what I knew in advertising, which is: You work, you work, you work; you launch something and then it’s, go be out in the world now.
But this is very different. This is a constant update. It’s always going to be a rolling work in progress. We had to sort of ease off of our perfectionist mentality a little bit. And we had to realize, it’s better to put something imperfect out, let people sort of find what’s wrong with it, and then fix it, than it is to spend so much time in a vacuum trying to make something perfect. Because in the end, what you deem perfect is not what your users are ever going to deem perfect.
We learned a lot about acquiring customers and building relationships. We learned a lot about not sleeping, even though we are full time now (laguhs), and really just networking. If you would have talked to me six months ago, I would have said, “I hate networking. I hate networking”, but the skills that learned trying to just meet people, they’re invaluable.
I saw it when I went to holiday parties. I was less of a shell. I was much more able to speak to people and talk to people, and find common ground with people. I think that’s why a lot of those things are very important, especially being a head of a company now.
“I remember the day I put in my two weeks. Although, it was a sad day. I did love my team, and I was making really cool stuff and I was having fun. But I remember the feeling that I got that I was able to work on this full time. That has followed me to this day. The feeling that I could wake up on Monday morning and work on something that was my blood, sweat, and tears, and my team’s blood, sweat, and tears.”
Raising money is interesting. It’s hard. I don’t come from a finance background and I don’t come from business. I read a bunch of finance books over the summer. I’m always reading. I have an alarm actually on my phone that goes off every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday that says: “READ. Anywhere.” The rule is to stop what I’m doing, unless I’m literally in a meeting, and go spend an hour and read.
But in terms of raising money, it’s one of those things that you kind of have to go out and learn as you do it. The learning curve is very, very steep. My first meeting I walked in and I did what I thought I needed to do. It went well. It was fine, but after that you’re constantly learning how to evolve and improve your pitch. You’re constantly getting questions that you didn’t think about before that you need to go back and find the answer to, or need to be prepared for, for the next time.
That was a huge part of the latter half of the fall. Learning how to do that. Learning how to build relationships. Figuring out where we made mistakes, where our missteps were and improving on those things, and having a solid wall of reason and research to back us up.
“In terms of raising money, it’s one of those things that you kind of have to go out and learn as you do it. The learning curve is very, very steep.”
In January we hit the ground running with a totally new breath of fresh air. We learned a ton. We had made mistakes. Today, the business is doing really well: We have new projects on, we’re getting new organizations on, and we’re super excited about all of that. We’re walking into these meetings now more confident with more knowledge.
A big mission of ours has shifted into finding our voice as a company and as a brand. I don’t think companies can be neutral so much anymore. If you’re not standing for something, you’re standing for nothing. So for us, we spent a lot of time finding that voice.
Now, a lot of what we do is we advocate for people to open their eyes about charity and rediscover what it really means to be charitable, and to find a new respect for the people who work in the sector. Too often I think people are condescending or assumptive – they sort of have this pity for them.
But when you take a step back and look at the sector, a lot of these people who work for these organizations are saving lives, whether it’s refugees, women, the LGBT community, or people of color. That’s what they’re doing. They’re saving people’s lives. So to be condescending toward anybody whose life has been dedicated to these missions, seems very backwards. But it’s very, very common.
So as a company, a lot of our communication and a lot of our marketing, is to dispel those stigmas, to really get people to see things a different way, and to find a new respect for the nonprofit sector that, it seems, has been ignored for so long.
In doing our own “listening tour” and finding our own biases, we found a voice for our company. That has been the most important thing that has happened for us over the last six months or so.
AP: Is there anything you would do differently from the time you quit your job to starting your business?
Rachel: Yes. Yes and no. I think if there was one thing I’d do differently, I’d start developing investor-type of relationships earlier.
“I’d start developing investor-type of relationships earlier.”
They say that you should start looking for money six months before you actually need it, which is very true. I would even extend that to a year before you actually need it. Investment in a long game. There is no: “Here’s a check. See you later!”
It’s not just about: Is your company going to work? It’s about: Are you going to work? Are you going to get it done? Can you really drive this ship to where it needs to go?
And you can’t prove that in one meeting. You can’t prove that over a coffee date. You do what you can to continue to develop those relationships. In an awkward way, it’s almost a dating game. So if I were gonna do something differently, I would start looking or start meeting people earlier.
“I’m not one to look back too much. We made the decisions we made and they led us here. Where we are, I’ve never been more proud of anything in my life. If I were to go back, I think I would probably do it again. Maybe I would change things here and there. But I think actually being so naive, we were able to go at things differently than what normally would have been expected of us.”
Other than that, I’m not one to look back too much. We made the decisions we made and they led us here. Where we are, I’ve never been more proud of anything in my life. If I were to go back, I think I would probably do it again. Maybe I would change things here and there. But I think actually being so naive, we were able to go at things differently than what normally would have been expected of us.
We were able to cultivate better relationships and a better community. And it’s less about numbers – the “How many users do you have? and “How much money are you making?”
We were able to approach it in the way of: What’s the big picture here? What are we building? When we have 100,000 organizations and a half a million freelancers, what are we going to look like? Are we still going to be the same brand? Are we going to still feel like a community? Are you still going to get an email from our team that says, “Hey, just checking in.”
The goal is to stay that way, to scale in a way where we can still feel like a community, because we find, especially in the nonprofit sector, that’s an important factor. We really want to find people who care about their causes and who really want to be a part of something. We’re not just a double-sided marketplace, which is what somebody in tech would probably call us.
We are trying to create a movement, and we are trying to encourage more people to build tech for nonprofits. We’re shifting the tide around how we talk about charity, giving back, and moving that forward.
AP: How do you build relationships with investors if you’re just starting out and don’t have the answers to their questions?
Rachel: When you don’t have the answer to something, for the most part it means no one’s been there before.
I don’t have data on certain things about the nonprofit sector or necessarily everything about freelance. I’ve been asked: “What portion of the freelance world would really be interested in working with nonprofits?” I don’t know.
When you don’t have the data for something, it really just means that no one’s ever done it before. When I get questions like that, I admit it: “I don’t know.” There’s a certain level of BS and that just goes with anything. But when I truly don’t have an answer to something, I will be the first to admit it and I will be the first to say, “I will contact you the second I know that answer.”
I think that shows that a) I’m in touch with reality, and b) We’re open to keeping our eyes peeled. This goes with building my team too. I try to bring in people that bring in different perspectives. I think you really can’t have innovation if you don’t have people who can look at the same things differently.
Knowing, even as a CEO, that I am not the end all, be all, and that I don’t have all of the answers… I really lean on my team and we round table a lot of things because they bring a lot to the table that I wouldn’t have seen. So when you can’t answer a question, it’s part of that relationship building. Admitting you don’t have the answer, but letting them know you’ll keep them in the loop and reach back out. That is why why a lot of this takes so long because they want to know things that you don’t always have solidified data for.
But when you lie to an investor, you lie to yourself. It’s really important that you are aware of the holes in your own business model and in your own company, and that you’re working to fix those. If you’re truly in denial about those things, they will come back and bite you, and only you.
So when you go into that meeting and you’re bluffing, blowing things up, or maybe stretching stuff a little too far, you’re really only lying to yourself. That means you aren’t being truthful and you haven’t taken the time to really think about how you’re going to solve that problem.
That’s all they want to know. It’s okay when there are problems. They know risks are involved. They know there are gonna be issues. They know there are gonna be roadblocks. The question at the end of the day is, how do you deal with that stuff? And if the way you deal with it, is to deny it’s happening, that’s never going to work.
AP: What advice would you give your younger self?
Rachel: Care more. I think I was apathetic for too long. Somewhere along the way, a fire was lit in me: I came out.
That lit a fire in me, and I think my apathy disappeared.
It’s very hard to experience empathy if you have not experienced something yourself. As a white woman, sure I had experienced my certain forms of oppression. But as a gay woman, that took things to an entirely new level.
When I came out, when I saw, and when I really experienced what it was like to be part of the LGBT community, and to identify that way… And most people assume I’m straight because of whatever preconceived notions they have of what a lesbian looks like. But for better or for worse, I can go undercover if I feel I’m in danger, if I need to be, or if I don’t have the energy to expel that.
That is a privilege that I carry as a gay woman that people of color do not carry. It’s one of those things that really causes you to start to see things differently… Once I felt that form of oppression that LGBT people feel, lesbians in particular (I think it’s tough to group gay men and lesbians together – they experience the world very differently and they fight very, very different stigmas).
But to experience the stuff that lesbians do when there’s no men involved in something and when that’s no longer a spectacle for men, that can upset people. There’s a lot that goes into that, that caused me to shed my apathy because I didn’t have a choice anymore. Once that unraveled, I just completely unraveled.
I started seeing sexism more strongly. I started seeing racism more strongly. I started seeing things in everyday life that I had never seen that way before.
My entire world had been turned upside down. Not even just from a “I need to deal with my own feelings about being gay” status, but just as the world is, that heteronormative masculine world became very visible to me very quickly. From that point forward, I think I could no longer be apathetic. I no longer wanted to be.
“I came out. That lit a fire in me, and I think my apathy disappeared.”
So if I could tell something to my younger self, I would say: “Do it sooner.” I’m sure a lot of people probably feel that way. At the same time, I also would say: “Don’t be afraid.” I think a lot of the hiding comes from a place of fear that really comes from inside you. Not even the fear of how other people are going to react. A lot of those fears are you projecting how you feel about yourself on to other people. Recognizing that was probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to come to terms with.
AP: Who or what has been your biggest inspiration?
Rachel: In recent years…honestly I have to say Hillary Clinton. She’s not perfect, but the amount of criticism and backlash that she’s put up with through the years has made her into the person she is today.
When I go back and read about her, not about the email scandal or whatever the news is saying about her this week, but about her history and how she accomplished what she did. Hillary’s been working for the last 30 years fighting a man’s world. She’s had to do and say things she probably wasn’t proud of and I cannot begin to imagine what that would have been like just 20 years ago.
And my parents – I had to sneak them in here. They’re amazing. I honestly would not be here if it weren’t for them.
AP: How important is perspective in life?
Rachel: So important. Perspective changes everything. It’s so simple.
“Perspective changes everything.”
Perspective isn’t something you can buy. You don’t need money to get it. You don’t have to go to college to understand it. You don’t have to be able to read to understand it. Perspective is something you experience. It’s something you have to be willing to experience.
“I think in times in which you feel lost about people’s motives or in which you feel lost about why things are the way they are, perspective will save you.”
I recently read a book about the deep south, and the white working Americans and how they felt. It was written by a sociologist. It’s called, “Stranger In Their Own Land”. The sociologist goes in and lives in Louisiana for five years to gain perspective. She comes from UC Berkeley. She’s very liberal.
She meets these people and she lives with them. Through that, she starts to understand their world a little bit better, and she gains that perspective. I read it for exactly that, which was perspective.
I think in times in which you feel lost about people’s motives or in which you feel lost about why things are the way they are, perspective will save you. That’s what that book kind of did for me.
It was at the height of the election. I couldn’t understand the other side. I couldn’t understand that anger. I couldn’t understand the way they were acting. I needed perspective. I needed something I could digest that would help me put myself in their shoes, to help me understand where all this was coming from.
Granted, a lot of it is just terrible, but the book identified a lot of factors and a lot of things leading up to this point that I think are important to take into consideration. For me, getting that perspective, even if I don’t agree with it, even if I think it’s wrong, even if I think it’s way off base, or it’s based on misinformation, is still important. It’s still important to listen. And it’s still important to hear people out, especially when I’m addressing those tough conversations I mentioned earlier.
A lot of those conversations are born from questions. When somebody doesn’t agree with you or somebody has a different perspective, it’s good to just ask questions: Why do you feel that way? What about “it” in your experience has led you to believe that or to think that?
In those times when I feel lost, or I feel hopeless, or I feel like there’s no answer, or I don’t understand something, perspective is the first place I turn. And that comes from straight up asking people about their experiences. Anyone from any class, or any race, or any sexuality, or any gender can gain perspective, if they’re willing. And that is invaluable to me.
AP: What does having an Amazing Perspective mean to you?
Rachel: The more perspectives you add to your knowledge, the more complicated everything looks. But it’s good because in that complexity, comes clarity.
Moving here to New York City from Syracuse University – which is great, I love it; but not the most diverse campus in terms of background, race, or much of anything – gave me perspective. Coming out gave me perspective. Working with people of color gave me perspective. Working with nonprofits gave me another perspective. Reading books about the American right gave me perspective.
“Empathy rules everything and there’s no way that the world could get worse with more empathy. Those things are all linked together. And I think the more you can see something for what it is, the better off you’ll be in the end.”
And all of those things I’ve gathered and I’ve pieced together. It allows me to approach problems and it allows me to approach situations more thoroughly. It allows me to think more before I speak. It allows me to process things and to really take the time to understand all angles before I form an opinion on it.
I think everyone can have an opinion, but there’s a responsible way to form that opinion. And I think if more people were responsible with how they go about it, perhaps we’d probably be looking at a totally different world right now.
The ability to empathize and to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, is something that I carry as a leader of this company, as somebody who wants to lead a community, and as somebody who wants to bring people together. Empathy rules everything and there’s no way that the world could get worse with more empathy. Those things are all linked together. And I think the more you can see something for what it is, the better off you’ll be in the end.
Keep up with Rachel and find out about Wethos: