The Creator Awards arrived in San Francisco on May 10, transforming the Palace of Fine Arts into a grand celebration of innovation, creativity, and grit. WeWork gave out $742,000 to five entrepreneurs and artists from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Austin to take their life’s work to the next level.

Adam Neumann, co-founder of WeWork

An estimated 1,500 attendees filled the building to watch entrepreneurs pitch their projects Shark Tank style to judges including former vice-chair of General Electric Beth Comstock  and MoviePass co-founder Hamet Watt. They also came to mingle with recruiters, buy handmade wares, take in wisdom from famous creatives, and dance to the music of St. Vincent and DJ Daddy Kat. Former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth (she’s the one responsible for the magazine’s wokeness) and WeWork CEO Adam Neumann’s sister, model Adi Neumann, co-hosted.

Because, as WeWork says, “big ideas deserve big celebrations.”

These were the biggest, best, and most inspiring moments:

Natalie Ellis, CEO of Boss Babe

Most encouraging advice for entrepreneurs: “As long as you’ve got an Internet connection, there’s no reason you cannot be building an empire from your laptop,” Natalie Ellis, CEO of Boss Babe, a community of female entrepreneurs, told the audience at a master class about disruption. She urged aspiring business owners not to obsess about trademarks, logos, or how many social media followers they have — just take action.   

Most surprising revelation: Queer Eye style expert Tan France (a British Muslim) lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his Mormon husband. He also runs his ladies’ apparel business from there. He told starstruck fans at the “Designing a BIG Life” master class the decision was pragmatic. “If I’m going to have a warehouse, it better be economical,” France said. More importantly, that’s where his husband is based –– “and I really don’t fancy divorces.”

Why we all want to work for Kevin Rose now: The serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist and self-described “biohacker/longevity freak” is working on a way to give employees bonuses for sleeping more (because while it may be a badge of honor to pull all-nighters in Silicon Valley, the research is pretty clear that sleep deprivation is cognitively akin to being drunk). More evidence Rose is serious about taking care of his staff outside the office: He told master class attendees he also gives his staff subsidies to buy their families flowers and to take Ubers for a night on the town.

Chloe Alpert, founder of Medias Heath

Top prize: Medinas Health, a Berkeley business helping hospitals sell surplus medical supplies to small clinics and nursing homes, took the $360,000 award for an established business venture. Since April 1, they’ve started relationships with seven hospitals and closed $60,000 in sales. Chloe Alpert, the 26-year-old founder, said the WeWork money will pay for additional staff to work on solving other supply-chain challenges hospitals have identified.

Amin Bahari, co-founder of Elite Sweets

Sweetest founder story: Amin Bahari, a founder of “performance protein donut” maker Elite Sweets, told the judges he was partly inspired by his own weight-loss journey to redefine how people see baked goods. The audience cheered when he shared that he lost 140 pounds in college, and that the high-protein donuts are made with almond flour, whey protein, and fiber and naturally sweetened with Stevia “so my mother and grandmother could enjoy it.” The judges were won over: The Austin, Texas, company garnered $180,000, which will allow them to move out of Bahari’s parents house and into a commercial kitchen.

La Cocina won in the nonprofit category.

Best news for women in the food industry: Mission District incubator kitchen La Cocina, in partnership with the city of San Francisco, will open the country’s first all-women food hall in the Tenderloin next year. La Cocina, which helps low-income and immigrant women open restaurants, won the $130,000 nonprofit award. Jessica Mataka, La Cocina’s development and communications manager, said the money will go toward a $4 million capital campaign to turn a shuttered post office into the food market.

Mason Funk, founder of Outwords

Most likely to make LGBTQ history: Mason Funk, an L.A. filmmaker building a video archive of LGBTQ pioneers and elders across America called Outwords, won $36,000 as the Community Giver recipient. Funk, 59, choked up while accepting the award, which will pay for another round of interviews (so far, his team has captured the stories of 129 pioneers in 25 states) and begin to lay the groundwork for a searchable, digital platform. “The queer community has our own Greatest Generation,” Funk said. “I was seized by the passionate urgent desire to capture these stories while they’re still alive to preserve them forever and share them with the world.”  

Best birthday present: Winning the Performing Artist audience choice award. Lalen St. Juste, lead singer and lyricist with Bay Area electro-soul band The Seshen, turned 34 on Thursday. With the $36,000 award, the six-piece band will be able to buy a van to do their first national tour, timed to their third album set to release in early 2019. “We’ve just been at this for a while,” she said, crying backstage after winning. “It just feels like it’s the universe saying, ‘Keep going. Keep going.’”

When Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata reflects on his more than decade of playing professional soccer, he says that the trophies and titles have been gratifying. But it’s the sport’s potential to change the world that compels him the most.

“Thanks to a career in football, I’ve been able to travel to many parts of the world, and what I’ve come to find is that this sport really brings people together and has a profound impact on the next generation of boys and girls,” said the Spanish player, speaking to a crowd of soccer fans at Colombia’s WeWork Usaquén.

He realized that soccer could help transform lives at the local level by funding initiatives to battle intractable problems like gender inequality and youth unemployment.

“We started Common Goal for our love of football and as a way to make an impact, a movement we started some 10 months ago,” said Mata.

Juan Mata poses with a fan at Colombia’s WeWork Usaquén.

Common Goal’s connection to WeWork began last year when the organization won $180,000 at the WeWork Creator Awards in Berlin. Since then, a partnership has developed. WeWork has encouraged its members and employees to help support Common Goal and its programs to empower disadvantaged people and their communities.

“At Common Goal, we use football to improve the lives of young boys and girls, and that’s why why are here with WeWork,” said Mata. “We share the same mission of bringing people together. We are thrilled to partner with a company like WeWork to help support us and our mission.”

After joining a panel discussion at WeWork Usaquén, Mata settled in to watch Spain take on Iran in a match during the World Cup. Members there said watching Mata cheer as his Spanish teammates won the match was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

This was one of dozens of viewing parties held at WeWork locations around the world as the month-long World Cup competition unfolded. In Berlin, Common Ground co-founder Thomas Preiss spoke before 150 people gathered to take in the Germany vs. South Korea match on June 14. Half a world away, members at WeWork Seoul cheered their team to victory.

Juan Mata joins the crowd watching a World Cup match at Colombia’s WeWork Usaquén.

As England powered its way to the semifinals, members in London gathered for a series of events leading off with a June 18 panel discussion led by WeWork member Akin Solanke-Caulker, head of the sports talent agency the Athletic Network. Before watching the match at WeWork Old Street, Solanke-Caulker regaled the crowd with tales of negotiating deals with some of the biggest names in soccer, rugby, and track and field.

On July 10, the day France took on Belgium in the semifinals, Miami’s WeWork Security Building hosted a viewing party featuring WeWork member Soccer Shape, a fitness plan started by members of the Miami Football Club that incorporates drills and exercises used by top teams. Members got to kick a ball around before settling in to watch the big game.

When Larry Irvin and Kristyna Jones met at Mardi Gras in 2011, they immediately connected through their shared love of hip-hop and rap. Then the conversation got more personal: Jones gave Irvin her perspective of working in community development in New Orleans both before and after Hurricane Katrina, and Irvin shared his story of growing up as a black man in New Orleans with questions of self-identity.

“Young black men are perpetually trying to figure out who they are supposed to be, because the representations both in our neighborhoods and schools are, a lot of the time, negative,” Irvin says, citing high rates of incarceration and unemployment.

Irvin and Jones came up with a potential solution: getting more black men into the classroom.

“There’s a particular demographic, even within the demographic of black men, who aren’t attached to their academic experience,” says Irvin, 36. “College is something they’re told to do, but not with any purpose behind it.”

Together, Irvin and Jones founded Brothers Empowered to Teach, a nonprofit that urges people of color – particularly black men – to explore careers in education. It seeks to generate a network of teachers who serve as role models for the next generation.

Starting with just seven fellows in 2014, the organization has since grown to have over 40 participants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. It has partnered with over 10 schools across New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and four graduates of the program teach in New Orleans public schools.

Irvin himself is a former substitute teacher, a job he held while coaching high school football. He discovered that he had a special connection with many of the kids.

“Having grown up in some of those same neighborhoods that they did, there was a cultural connection,” says Irvin. “It started to seem like I was meant to do this work.”

Larry Irvin of Brothers Empowered to Teach gets a standing ovation at the Austin Creator Awards.

The organization offers two programs for future educators: a one-year program tailored toward college graduates and those changing careers, and a three-year fellowship geared toward current college students. The organization’s teachers get together on Saturdays for professional and personal development workshops.

“We have intimate conversations about things like redefining what masculinity looks like, around male-female gender relationships, and around sexual orientation,” says Irvin. “We’re trying to create a better version of the individual, which in turn turns them into a great educator.”

Brothers Empowered to Teach got a big boost last year at WeWork’s Austin Creator Awards. When it was announced that the organization had won $130,000, Irvin was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd of more than 2,750 people.

A WeWork member, Irvin uses the company’s spaces when he travels, especially to cities like Austin and Washington, D.C.

While Brothers Empowered to Teach has so far worked with only male teachers, the organization recently opened up 30 percent of its seats to women of color.

“It is really beautiful to see our fellows attached to something, approaching education with fervor and excitement,” Irvin says. “We’re trying to change the narrative and reignite a lost reverence for the education profession.”

When former Marine Corps captain Zach Iscol went out for beers with his former commander, they talked about the 33 men in their battalion who had been killed in action in the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004.

Unfortunately, tragedy did not end there.

“[We] realized that there’d soon be a point in time when we’d lost more Marines to suicide than to enemy action,” Iscol says. “It’s an epidemic.”

That moment six years ago led to the founding of the Headstrong Project, a New York-based nonprofit that helps veterans heal the wounds that have plagued so many of their lives as a result of the experience of war and beyond — in particular, the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Today about 15 percent of the men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. And veteran suicides occur at an alarming rate, with the Department of Veterans Affairs reporting that about 22 veterans killing themselves every day.

Iscol decided he wanted to do something about this problem by providing veterans with top-notch mental health care, free of charge. He joined forces with two staffers at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City: Ann Beeder, a clinical psychiatrist who has treated patients suffering from trauma for more than two decades, and Gerard Ilaria, a licensed social worker and health care professional who has dedicated much of his career to caring for people with HIV. Together they co-founded Headstrong.

Gerard Ilaria and Dustin Shryock discuss strategy at Headstrong.

At Headstrong, post-9/11 veterans can receive confidential treatment at no cost, and without bureaucracy or paperwork — or the stigma that often surrounds mental health counseling.

“These are good people who have to make impossible life-and-death decisions,” says Iscol, 39. “And you have to live with those decisions. And when you’re a good person it can be really hard to live with those decisions.”

There is no cap to the number of counseling sessions veterans can partake in. According to Iscol, the program currently has more than 500 veterans in treatment across 18 cities.

“We’ve treated over 700 veterans in six years,” he says. “And we’ve had zero suicides that have been in our treatment program.”

Ilaria said that helping veterans in the workplace is a big part of the program. It’s an important part of getting their lives back on track.

“Veterans make excellent leaders and they’re great on a team,” says Ilaria, 57. “But they can’t really do well at their job if their mental health isn’t in order.”

Todd Bowers, director of WeWork’s Veterans Initiative, says that Headstrong is a valuable resource for veterans and their loved ones.

“By providing cost-free, bureaucracy-free, and stigma-free treatment for the hidden wounds of war, Headstrong and their incredible team have helped to shape the narrative around post-9/11 veterans and their families by showing that the right help at the right time can heal anyone,” says Bowers, who was a staff sergeant with the Marine Corps serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Life ‘changed in the blink of an eye’

One of Headstrong’s success stories is Joe Quinn, who was a year away from graduating from West Point in 2001. But a week after he received his senior class ring, a celebratory event, the World Trade Center was attacked. “It all changed in the blink of an eye,” Quinn says.

His 23-year-old brother Jimmy was on the 104th floor when Flight 11 hit the North Tower on September 11, 2001. A graduate of Manhattan College, Jimmy was working for Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial services firm whose offices occupied the 101st through 105th floors. The company lost 658 employees, including Quinn’s brother. “All of the sudden there was this punch in the face,” says Quinn. His classmates at West Point realized, as Quinn puts it, “that this is why we’re here.”

He graduated as a lieutenant and joined the Army, serving two tours in Iraq before being deployed in Afghanistan as a civilian counterinsurgency advisor for General David Petraeus. He then earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School and returned to West Point as an instructor at its Combatting Terrorism Center.

For 14 years Quinn held onto a complex set of feelings wrapped up in the grief of his brother’s death and the experiences surrounding the deaths of many of his fellow soldiers. Quinn, now 38, described in a personal essay how his feelings compounded and manifested repeatedly over the years: a heaviness in his chest; a warm flush of blood rising to his head; a sharp jolt of heat stinging his heart. He had PTSD. At first he thought he felt guilt, but eventually realized it was shame. “I placed no value on myself, which led to depression and aggression,” he wrote. “I thought going to war would save me, but it made things worse.”

After referring numerous friends to Headstrong, Quinn decided in 2015 that it was time to seek help for himself there.

Quinn now serves as the executive director of Headstrong, working from his office at WeWork 42nd Street. “I jump out of bed [to go to work],” he says. Quinn, who grew up in Brooklyn, also continues the annual tradition of the “Jimmy Quinn Mets Game” in which he and early 200 family and friends go to Citi Field in Queens for a ballgame.

Quinn isn’t the only member of Headstrong’s management to seek help at his eventual place of employment. Dustin Shryock, the nonprofit’s director of operations, served two tours in Iraq. During his second deployment in 2007 and 2008, he says his unit set a new record for the number of days in a row during which they were engaged with direct fire, indirect fire, mortar fire, and grenades.

Like many veterans, Shryrock, 35, had trouble transitioning back to civilian life. He had left his home state of California for New York City, enrolling in graduate school, but was doing poorly, and began to notice that he was experiencing anxiety and depression. “I was not going home anymore. I was staying out all night. I quit responding at work. [NYU] was about to kick me out because I’d rather be at the bar than at class,” says Shryrock, who also works from WeWork 42nd Street.

Then, in 2014, he sought help. “I was actually told, ‘You look sick.’” Friends referred him to Headstrong and he’s never turned back — first as a client and now running its day-to-day operations. “That’s when you start to do the work,” says Shryrock. “You address moral injury. Consistent bombardment or enemy fire. You address the absurdity of war. Thanks goodness I cleaned myself up.”

Photos by Frank Mullaney

Reporting on the ongoing civil war that had spilled over from Syria into Lebanon, René Cao says she witnessed suffering on a scale unlike anything she’d ever seen before. But despite the hardships she encountered in war zones and refugee camps, she found herself inspired by the selflessness of the people she encountered.

The former reporter for Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV network now works for a bitcoin exchange based out of Shanghai’s WeWork Financial Center. But the Chinese citizen has never forgotten the people she met when she was on assignment in Lebanon in 2011.

“The people I met really shaped my values,” says Cao. “They have driven me to do something for someone else, not just care about myself. As a journalist, I thought I could use my skills to tell their stories and share them with the world. I knew their voices needed to be heard.”

Her determination to help the displaced people in the Middle East led her to found the Ponybaby Project, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for the education of refugee children.

In 2014, she decided to return to Lebanon to document the lives of young people there. Finding a videographer was tough — her first one dropped out after a terrorist attack in Paris — but her editor connected her to Olmo Reverter. Together Cao and Reverter made a documentary called The Hard Stop: The Plight of Syrian Refugee Children, which reached more than 10 million viewers in China alone.

“Flying over with Olmo and shooting that first documentary was really a turning point in my life,” says Cao, who is 30. “I had no idea at the time that I was going to carry on with this project. What I really wanted to do was tell their stories.”

Within a year the team had officially set up the Ponybaby Project. Cao and her partners tell moving stories through articles, documentaries, and photo exhibitions. In honor of World Refugee Day, she and her team hosted a panel discussion on the crisis in Syria at WeWork Shanghai Finance Center.

Cao says the name was inspired by a verse in a famous Chinese poem, which loosely translates to: “Take your dream as a horse, act your glorious youth.”

The Ponybaby Project partnered with Pear Video, one of China’s leading video platforms, to broadcast its Orphans of the World series. It recently embarked on a new series called Their Responses that follows more than a dozen Syrian refugees living across the Middle East. The Ponybaby Project also teamed up with Tencent Charity, one of the leading fundraising platforms in China, to help raise money to help refugees directly.

Niu Song, a professor of Middle East Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, likes the “community spirit” displayed by the Ponybaby Project team.

“I believe that the stories and documentaries displayed by Ponybaby Project, as first-hand information, can honestly uncover the real status of the refugees, including their basic life, children’s education, job employment, and willingness to return to their home country,” says Song, who was among the speakers at the panel discussion.

All of the funds raised by the Ponybaby Project go towards scholarships for families living in refugee camps who can’t afford their children’s school fees, materials, and books.

“Almost 90 percent of Syrian refugees are in debt,” says Lisa Abou Khaled, who works for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Parents are having to resort to difficult choices like pulling their children out of school and sending them to work because they can’t afford to feed the family anymore.”

Since Cao’s first visit to the Middle East, the humanitarian crisis in Syria has claimed the lives of 70,000 civilians and displaced 5 million others. Despite the scale of trauma, Cao says the refugee crisis is rarely discussed in her native China. But that’s part of the goal—to start the conversation by bringing the personal stories of refugees to households across the country.

“Many people don’t have a chance to talk with refugees, so they have a very unclear concept of who they are,” says Cao. “They’re often treated like wild animals, vulnerable and unpredictable. But they want to live with respect and dignity, just like everyone else.”

Photo by Nicholas Tortajada