The last year has brought a string of events that shook society, including pandemic, protests, election and insurrection. In each case, leaders of many companies sought to meet the moment for their teams, even if that meant making space and listening.
For Fells Point-based healthcare AI company Protenus, responding to such events as a company is “beyond important.”
“I think it’s necessary to create a productive and effective culture,” CEO Nick Culbertson said. “We spend a lot of time at work and I think the best employees are the ones who can be authentic at work while embodying company values. We’ve had a number of open conversations at Protenus over the past year and the company is objectively better for it. So, not only is it the right thing to do, but in my experience, it also yields stronger and more effective teams and results.”
To our reading, that approach stands in stark contrast to the actions of companies that are choosing to ban talk of politics and society at work. Last week, Chicago-based Basecamp followed Coinbase in making such moves, and drew plenty of rebukes for doing so.
But for the many companies continuing to learn from the past year, how will that become part of company culture going forward?
Following the guilty verdict that was handed to former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, we sent Culbertson a few questions about how Protenus, with nearly 100 employees, responded, as well as what’s next.
The leadership team’s internal response was borne of a collective belief, he said.
“A white police officer murdering a black person should be abnormal; that is what should cause us to take action. If a white police officer murders a Black person then the officer being convicted of murder should be the standard,” Culbertson wrote. “Protenus’s response, while we’re certainly relieved, was reflective of this fact and while the conviction holds Derek Chauvin accountable for his actions, it still doesn’t bring justice to George Floyd and the countless other victims of police brutality. We know that we have a long way to go and that we’ll need to do more to fight against generational and ongoing systemic racism in order to bring about justice.”
But the conversation isn’t over. To be sure, the verdict doesn’t mean racial justice has been achieved. In fact, all of the major events of the last year underscored the work that remains to achieve racial justice. Yet it’s worth taking time to learn. This era had particular lessons that companies will take with them going forward. It did for Protenus.
“The BIPOC Community, for generations, has been protesting against injustice. What’s been more evident this time around is that it takes all of us, white people especially, to say enough; to make statements, to take action, to support businesses that align with our values,” Culbertson said. “The onus shifted from the communities victimized by the injustice and was put on the folks responsible for the injustice.”
The events came quickly over the last year, changing how we looked at the world overnight in some cases. This has brought a desire to show up for community. Protenus became a founding member of the Baltimore Tracks coalition, which is centering racial equity in tech hiring. But it also comes back to the company’s team itself. Taken together, the learnings of the last year can be applied on a more fundamental level to how a company operates. The response to these big events, in other words, can become part of culture.
“What we’re focused on building now is a framework that aligns our values with what we do and how we respond to events that affect our community. At Protenus, we say that we want to operate with integrity, humility, and thoughtfulness, to name a few — well, what does that mean in the context of racial injustice or democracy?” Culbertson said. “Once you answer that question, then the subsequent action becomes clearer and empowers our leaders and our team to feel really proud of the culture we’re building.”