On the eve of the first Creator Awards in Shanghai, WeWork talked with the finalists in each category about their work, their plans should they win, and what being a creator means to them. For some, creation necessitates social impact; for others, it means forging a new path in life. For all, however, creation has been a matter of hard work and dedicated passion.

Category: Business Venture

Turning Surfaces into a Canvas for the Imagination

Justin Cheng of Hipaint: ‘I think I should thank my daughter’

Company: Hipaint
Founded by: Justin Cheng, 33
Founded in: 2014
Where: Shanghai
Number of employees: 40

Mission: Our mission is to be the generator of new ideas for mankind.

What is Hipaint? Our main product is a paint that turns surfaces into whiteboards. Unlike a board, Hipaint is limitless, with no boundaries. We also sell board accessories, markers, etc. And we’ve been adding paints with additional functions, [like] magnetic paint [and] projector paint.

Why did you start the company? I remember when my daughter was around two (she is now six). She just grabbed a marker and drew on the wall. Other parents may have stopped her. But when I saw that, I joined. We drew giant monsters, jumped around, [and] had a great time. I thought, paper fills up so quickly. An entire wall can hold a totally new world for kids. Back then, I was working in one of the largest paint companies in Britain. Shortly thereafter, when I met a doctorate from Oxford, we started Hipaint. I think I should thank my daughter.

How many customers have you served? Currently we have 1,000-plus office customers (including Apple, Tencent, and Alibaba), 100-plus school customers, and about 10,000 individual users. In 2017 our sales revenue was about 12 million rmb. We have passed our break-even point.

What does the word “creator” mean to you? When I worked in a Fortune 400 company I had a good life, [a] good salary. But I was not creating things, just following the path where I could clearly see the future. The thing I’m doing now, it’s totally new. I’ve created something that never existed. From zero to one. I just want to create something different that can make people’s lives better.

What are you doing to get ready for the Creator Awards? I’m wondering what the event will be like.

What will you do with the money if you win? There are many children in faraway villages, in the mountains in China. I visited their schools; they are in a terrible situation. Our paint is small, and cheaper and easier to transport than boards. Though we are a startup, we want to do something for society, to help kids in poor regions get better education. If we have this money, we will donate whiteboard paint to 100-200 schools in poor regions without any charge.

Tracking a Baby’s Heartbeat from Your Couch

Jiliang Ma of ExtantFuture: ‘A creator is a problem solver’

Company: ExtantFuture, which produces the Modoo fetus monitoring device
Founded by: Jiliang Ma, 29; William Zhou, 46; Rambo Du, 31; and Nicky Shi, 34
Founded in: 2015
Where: Beijing
Number of employees: 30-plus

Mission: We want to create a consumer health product for mothers who want to know their baby more. Also, we want to create a closed circle with medical service within our app to reduce anxiety and frequent travel to the hospital. Finally, as we collect data, we want to gather the world’s largest dataset about the developing baby, which may present a massive opportunity for AI technology to predict more issues and save more lives.

What is the Modoo? Modoo is a wearable device that can stick on a pregnant mother’s belly to track heartbeats and kicks in the comfort of the home.

Why did you create it? When I started this company, I hadn’t even married. A lot of people laughed at me. But in 2014, a lot of friends and classmates started to get married and pregnant. I discovered that if you get pregnant, you receive hospital check-ups just once a month. That’s not enough, both from the consumer and medical side[s].

How many customers have you served? We have sold more than 15,000 units in 12 months, with a 12 to 15 percent monthly increase rate.

What does the word “creator” mean to you? A creator is a problem solver who uses developing tech or a smart business model to solve the problem. A qualified creator is also a businessman. A creator should spread the service/tech to as many people as possible.

What are you doing to get ready for the Creator Awards? Actually, not too much. I was busy negotiating some business in Shanghai and doing clinical trials in the hospital.

What will you do with the money if you win? We are applying for the CFDA [China Food and Drug Administration] and FDA; these certificates have really high barriers and are expensive. We need to have a professional team, make our platform better, hire more physicians, etc.

Genetic Testing Makes Individualized Skin Care a Reality

Le Duc of Uniskin: ‘We want to see what is beneath the surface’

Company: Shanghai Inertia Biotechnology, which produces Uniskin
Founded by: Le Duc, 30
Founded in: 2017
Where: Shanghai
Number of employees: 34

Mission: We want to help skincare customers understand the uniqueness of their individual skin and how each skin should be treated differently.

What is Uniskin? Skin genetic testing in the form of a kit that customers use at home. It includes a swab for saliva and a couple skin patches. Then we offer a series of skincare product lines based on analysis results.

Why did you start the company? I used to be a resident physician in the U.S. and noticed genetic testing and tech was increasing dramatically. Testing is getting more affordable. I wanted to bring it into real life. We picked skin care because that is one thing we deal with every day.

Furthermore, the capability of a doctor is not complete. Sometimes recovery is out of our hands; life is so complex. Technology like genetic testing can help us uncover more information that gives us more control than we previously had. Hopefully we plan to use our genetic data to expand to other areas of medical and clinical use.

How many customers have you served? We’ve served over 2,000 people. Our revenue so far is 2 million rmb received; 5 million rmb in accounts receivable by mid-year.

What does the word “creator” mean to you? A creator must do something innovative, something people haven’t seen before. It then has to be beneficial to a scalable target. If you create something but it cannot be used by people, it’s not creation or innovation.

What are you doing to get ready for the Creator Awards? I’ll just try to relax. Get good sleep. Run the company as usual.

What will you do with the money if you win? Probably we will put most of the money into research and development. We need more analysis people, and we’ll trying to build a new lab to process more samples, more data.

Category: Nonprofit

Helping Children with Cerebral Palsy Integrate into Society

Kate Wang of AngelHouse: ‘I have been preparing for this moment for 16 years’

Nonprofit: AngelHouse
Founded by: Kate Wang, 50, and Lvjiang Li, 57
Founded in: 2002
Where: Nanning, Guangxi
Number of employees: 44

Mission: Angel House is a charity organization that helps individuals with cerebral palsy (CP) integrate into society.

What does AngelHouse do? We provide children with CP housing and rehabilitation, academic courses, [and] opportunities to attend normal school, as well as social adaptation activities, such as visits to the supermarket. Additionally, we provide training and counseling for families and partner organizations in the CP network (currently AngelHouse has 55 partner organizations throughout China).

Why did you start the organization? I have twin daughters, and one of them has CP. Most schools don’t adapt for these kinds of children, and she was not accepted by normal schools.

I am solving a problem with two sides. One is awareness from society: People consider this group to be an in-patient group. But actually, CP cannot be solved simply [with] medical treatment. Secondly, those with CP don’t have their own disability association and representation.

How many people have you served? [On] any given day, we serve about 90 kids.

What does the word “creator” mean to you? A creator is one who can impact and improve history, and in this way, create history.

What are you doing to get ready for the Creator Awards? We are diligently preparing. It feels like I have been preparing for this moment for 16 years.

What will you do with the money if you win? We want to bolster our support system of physical training, education, and social work. Also, we want to support 80 children with CP for one year with full tuition scholarships.

Second-hand Items Fuel Work Opportunities for People with Disabilities

Shujie Jiang of Buy 42: ‘I want to leave something beautiful in the world’

Nonprofit: Buy 42 Charity Store
Founded by: Shujie Jiang, 31
Founded in: 2010
Where: Shanghai
Number of employees: 20 full time, 100-plus involved in various degrees

Mission: Our mission is to have a charity store in every community. Our vision is to change people’s attitude toward used items and recycling, as well as toward disabled people.

What is Buy 42 Charity Store? We started offline stores because the experience is better than an online store. Customers can see disabled people working in our store [and] can touch the products. Sometimes they can dig through the merchandise and discover a hidden treasure.

Why did you start the organization? We encourage people to donate idle resources, as well as corporations to donate samples and overstock to us, which they would abandon anyway. We also resell gently used items: books, wheelchair, toys, etc. As we generate revenue, we use it to support people with disabilities to work. We use idle products and idle human resources to build up our sustainable business.

How many people have you served? We have eight stores in operation [and] nine stores [under] construction. Our biggest store on Jiangning lu has 150-200 customers everyday. Every month our cash flow is more than 200,000rmb.

What does the word “creator” mean to you? For me, a creator has more responsibility on her shoulders, social responsibility. We live only 80-90 years; we’re nothing in this universe. A creator can leave something in the world; I want to leave something beautiful in the world, for my daughter and for the future.

What are you doing to get ready for the Creator Awards? I hope to just enjoy myself and let people see and feel our team’s passion.

What will you do with the money if you win? This year we are building many stores in Shanghai and later in other cities. We will invest the award to speed up the [construction of the] stores, and to build the team’s operation and team capabilities.

Walking 31 Miles to Raise Money for Children’s Charities

Jie Xiao of E.G.G. Walkathon: ‘Young people want to challenge themselves’

Nonprofit: E.G.G. Walkathon
Founded by: Jie Xiao, 33
Founded in: 2011
Where: Shanghai
Number of employees: 5

Mission: E.G.G. Walkathon (Enjoy Give Go) is a fundraising campaign held to support small projects for children’s charities related to nutrition, education, social education, and child protection.

What is E.G.G. Walkathon? E.G.G. is an annual event where teams and individuals walk 50 kilometers over one day to raise funds for charities. Young people want to challenge themselves, do something difficult but that can make a difference for others. You don’t have to be super-rich to be a philanthropist.

Why did you start the organization? E.G.G. was originally conceived to fund a project to donate one boiled egg each day to a number of children in rural western China. We’ve since expanded the usage of the money to funding for library projects, child protection, left behind children, etc. We now have about 4,000 walkers each year.

We fund private-sector organizations because in China, there are many nonprofits, but most are very dependent on government funding. They don’t have enough independent financial resources. And legally there are many barriers for newcomers to grow and register.

How many people have you served? More than 260 charity projects have been supported over seven years. We raise up to 10 million rmb per year.

What does the word “creator” mean to you? For me, a creator could be someone who creates something concrete. A creator can make a vague idea into something real.

What are you doing to get ready for the Creator Awards? Luckily enough, we had a three-day public holiday just last weekend. I spent the days at a temple retreat and had time to think through how I want to present.

What will you do with the money if you win? We don’t have the bandwidth to do public promotion or media purchases. If we win, one thing we’d like to do is help more people know about E.G.G. We’d also like to help fund our research.

Category: Community Giver

Recycling Clothing to Help Kids and Companies

Nick Lim of Baosquared: ‘I feel physical pain when I see nature destroyed’

Organization: Baosquared
Founded by: Nick Lim, 46
Founded in: 2013
Where: Shanghai
Number of employees: 4.5

Mission: Our mission is to minimize environmental damage as a result of the lifestyle we’re all caught up in and to raise public awareness. Every one of the decisions we make every day has an impact on the environment.

What does Baosquared do? We provide people with an avenue to recycle old clothes, and we provide companies [with] an avenue to dispose of excess inventory –– shoes, school bags, toys, equipment, etc. In doing so, we help kids in poor communities, and we help retail brands save money.

Why did you start the organization? I love nature; I feel physical pain when I see nature being destroyed. When I see people running the tap, not paying attention, it pains me. There are people who see something wrong and move on. They think, “It’s not my business.” For me, it’s everyone’s business. There are more intelligent ways to handle products rather than recycling because a lot of clothing is new and clean.

How many people have you served? We’ve sent clothing to 4,596 children.

What does the word “creator” mean to you? Someone who creates something tangible out of an idea. A lot of us have ideas and fantasies about how we want to change and improve the world; not many people roll up their sleeves and get things done.

What are you doing to get ready for the Creator Awards? Nothing really, because I’m trying to launch the project in a few other places. But I’m very grateful.

What will you do with the money if you win? Hire people to make the clothing selection and sorting process better. Sorting clothes for hundreds of kids is time- and labor-consuming, but we can’t compromise that because it’s our goal to make kids feel better about themselves, not to feel as though they’re being handed someone’s trash. We’ll also use the money to expand to different cities.

Connecting Young Women to Create Professional Opportunities

Samantha Kwok of Beijing Women’s Network: ‘Twelve women turned into 4,000’

Organization: Beijing Women’s Network
Founded by: Jessie Wang, 26, and Oma Lee, 26, who are no longer with the organization; currently managed by Samantha Kwok, 26, and Leslie Dong, 26
Founded in: 2015
Where: Beijing
Number of employees: 7

Mission: Young professional women of all different backgrounds, countries, and languages help each other through peer-to-peer mentorship, connections, and resource sharing.

What is the Beijing Women’s Network? We offer panels, workshops, and casual dinners.

Why did you start the organization? A lot of younger women professionals based in Beijing were finding it hard to find mentors, especially those working in smaller companies, entrepreneurs, etc. An initial group of 12 women started to get together regularly to discuss different challenges and issues they were facing within professional settings. Those original 12 women turned into 4,000. Now the committee organizes events every month, [like] panel discussions and professional development opportunities.

When BWN was founded, existing professional organizations for women were a bit older. The founders wanted to find a more relatable group for young professionals. Lean In, which is a similar organization with similar goals, produces events in China only in Chinese. BWN wanted a more expat-friendly organization; our events often have interpreters and translations.

How many people have you served? We have 4,000 members. Proceeds from events go toward one women-focused charity. In the past two years, we’ve raised 70,000rmb for Wheels for Life and Rural Women.

What does the word “creator” mean to you? Someone who makes something out of nothing.

What are you doing to get ready for the Creator Awards? Not much, actually. We’re just really excited.

What will you do with the money if you win? We will hold more professional events. With the funds, we’d be able to continue to drive the growing force that has been volunteer-driven for the past few years. We’d hire an administrator to take care of the logistics, event management, and curation. We’d like to invest in a space, as well as develop a WeChat mini-program, to foster online engagement more efficiently.

Category: Performing Arts

From a College Campus, A Cappella Goes Global  

Zhiyao He of Calculasian: ‘We think this genre is really magical’

Troupe: Calculasian
Founded by: Zhiyao He, 25; Chen Chen, 26; Ziming Li, 26; Xu Chen, 27; Tianyi Wang, 27; and Ye Lu, 27
Founded in: 2013
Where: California (Bay Area), Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou
Number of members: 6  

Mission: We have two goals: to introduce the a cappella genre to China, and to introduce Chinese pop culture to the world.

What is Calculasian? We sing and record a cappella music in Chinese and English. Our debut album consists of 10 covers and two original songs, all with original a cappella arrangements of mostly pop songs.

Why did you start the group? We enjoyed singing together in college, at UC Berkeley. We think this genre is really magical because when you sing harmony together, the brain releases a “trust” chemical, the same that is released when you trust other people. We are attracted to this trusting environment and want others to experience this as well.

For how many people have you performed? We did a crowdfunding scheme when we produced our first album; we’ve used the funds to produce the album, fund our travel and reunions, rehearsals, and marketing.

What does the word “creator” mean to you? It’s something based on your past experience and your passion. You have a passion; you have a goal; you have a mission. And then you use your experiences and your skills and works to achieve that mission. In the process, you create something inspiring and great.

What are you doing to get ready for the Creator Awards? We were really intensively rehearsing, selecting outfits, and making sure we put on our best performance for the night.  

What will you do with the money if you win? We will have the funds to create, produce, and market our new album, which has a strong focus on Chinese musical heritage. Part of the funds will be used to hire world-class producers and engineers in order to achieve the best quality of music, and the rest of the funds will be used for marketing the material on a global scale.

Spreading Joy and Good Health with Jump Rope

Shengxi Li of Yuedong Jumprope: ‘Don’t drink, don’t smoke – just jump’

Troupe: Yuedong Jumprope
Founded by: Shengxi Li, 35
Founded in: 2009
Where: Shanghai
Number of members: 70 full and part time

Mission: We hope we can use jump rope to change people’s lifestyle and to instill a love of sports and health in young children. Don’t drink, don’t smoke –– just jump. Jumping rope is proven to be beneficial for heart health. Our dream is to turn jump rope into an Olympic sport.

What is Yuedong Jumprope? We do jump rope performance, as well as teach jump rope courses. We also make jump rope equipment. Our three studios in Shanghai are in Baoshan and Minghan.

Why did you start the group? When I was a student at university, our professor showed our class a jump rope video, and we thought it was so cool, so interesting, and so funny. So, we began to learn their style. Now, when we perform, other people also say, “Ah, jumping rope can be like this.” We began this group with the joy of jump rope, and we want to spread that joy.

For young children, if they have a good experience with sports earlier, they may become more capable, healthy adults.

For how many people have you performed? More than 600 schools have worked with Yuedong for teacher training, performance, or workshop.

What does the word “creator” mean to you? We say at Yuedong: Jump your style. That means: Be unique, be yourself. In other words, it means: Live your passion.

What are you doing to get ready for the Creator Awards? Our group now practices every day and discuss[es] what we want to let the audience know. We are working very hard.

What will you do with the money if you win? Help our team promote the sport, especially to young children in primary schools. We want to let them have a positive sports experience. We hope to reach out to and work with 1,000 more schools.

Stacy Spikes believes that successful entrepreneurs don’t understand the word “no.”

“I think the people in this room have a part of their brain where they don’t quite hear the word ‘no’ properly,” said Spikes, speaking to a room packed with people eager to hear how he had cofounded the movie subscription service Moviepass. “You have to have that. There are some people in the world that hear the word ‘no’ and they go, ‘OK.’ And that’s it for them.”

Spikes believes that every time an investor says “no” to a pitch, they’re only refining what it will take to get a “yes.”

“Eventually, what they’ve done is that they’ve sharpened your pitch so incredibly that there’s nothing being thrown at you that will stump you,” says Spikes, a longtime member at WeWork Soho West. He recently spoke at a WeWork Labs event that drew more than 70 guests to WeWork Dumbo Heights.

Spikes has heard “no” plenty of times. When he was fired from a film production company in 1997, he rented a small cubicle at the Tribeca Film Center. There he came up with the idea for Urbanworld, which in the past two decades has become the world’s largest film festival for minority filmmakers, actors, writers, and directors. The five-day event takes place in late September in New York City.

In 2011, Spikes and business partner Hamet Watt founded MoviePass, which allows subscribers to see a movie a day for a monthly fee of $9.95. Spikes says they first hit upon the idea for Moviepass in 2005, and despite being told “no” for six years, he and Watt refused to throw in the towel.

MoviePass founder Stacey Spikes talks with entrepreneurs about launching a company.

Spikes says their inspiration came from art-house theaters in New York City that let customers see an unlimited number of movies for a flat fee. They racked up roughly 23,000 subscribers under their original business model, which charged an average of $35 a month. This helped them raise almost $14 million from early investors like AOL Ventures and William Morris Entertainment.

Then MoviePass caught the eye of Helios & Matheson Analytics, a data analytics company that bought the business in 2017. Spikes stayed on to chair the board of directors until early this year, leaving before the stock took a hit in the media and saw its stock price plummet.

Spikes currently working on a new venture, though the 50-year-old entrepreneur has remained tight-lipped about what it will be.

Have the perfect data

Spikes describes MoviePass as a data-driven company that collects information on individual subscribers, like what movies they are watching and where they are located. He believes that the most important thing for a company’s success is having accurate data and has made a point to remember this every step of the way.

“The truth is, if your data is off, you’re just believing your own hype and you’re lying to yourself,” Spikes says. He adds that he’ll often share his data with people outside the industry, just to make sure that the numbers are persuasive

His advice to entrepreneurs starting their own company echoes this, urging people to make sure their numbers are accurate and run their presentations by several people before going too far.

““The truth is, if your data is off, you’re just believing your own hype,” says Stacey Spikes.

“Those things are critical because if you’re not all buttoned up, you’ll pay a price for that,” he says. “And sometimes you can’t walk back in those doors several times.”

Spikes says that when people think of successful entrepreneurs, they imagine someone who is white and male. In the startup world, only 1 percent of venture capital funding goes to black entrepreneurs, and 2 percent goes to females. His advice on how to deal with this? Ignore it.

“I can’t go in the mirror before I walk into that conference room going, ‘OK, you’re black, but you can do it!’” he says. “I have to walk in going, ‘I got a great idea that you should fund.’”

He urges entrepreneurs to continually “ram the gates.”

“You might be that person who gets through the gates,” he says, “and then people are going to look at you and say ‘Well, if Stacy got through, maybe I can get through.’”

Use the right resources

Spikes looks to resources like DocSend, a content tracking solution, to help him get a read on people he’s trying to pitch. By allowing him to see how long investors spend on each slide in his initial pitch deck, DocSend gives Spikes some foreshadowing into what potential clients are thinking.

“It’s a great tool to help me in the [fundraising] process because you don’t want people who are going to waste your time,” he says.

He also advises entrepreneurs to figure out a schedule that promotes productivity. Spikes keeps himself moving forward by breaking up his week. He does certain things on certain days — Mondays are dedicated to tasks and projects, while Thursdays are for finance.

“This makes it easier because there are certain things that you don’t want to do,” Spikes says, “so you’re not stuck doing those things for your whole week.”

Spikes considers himself a voracious reader of biographies, a genre he sees as a handbook of sorts. He likens reading a biography to “an executive coming and sitting with you, telling you exactly how to do things.”

At the end of the day, Spikes stresses that an entrepreneur’s best resource is themself.

“Be smart,” he says. “Find your way into the door and into the conversation. Play the part like you’re there to win. I have a blazer in the drawer because you gotta be ready to roll. You have to think on your feet and use whatever you got to get through the wall.”

Photos by Josh Wehle

 

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