When Pranav Ramabhadran enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, he knew he wanted to become an entrepreneur. Two years later, he’s one of the movers and shakers in the city’s startup community.
It all started at a get-together hosted by PennApps, the nation’s first and largest student-run hackathon.
“It was an incredible event,” Ramabhadran says. “I knew I wanted to be part of it. So I made connections.”
Penn is full of students who are already working on a startup company. Take Amira Valliani, who’s pursuing a duel degree from Penn and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She’s working to launch a food startup called Zomida.
Valliani was inspired to start the company when her mother visited her and pointed out her poor eating habits. Her mother wanted to make sure that her busy daughter always had home-cooked meals.
“My mom used to order a few home-cooked dishes every week from women in our mosque who were amazing cooks,” Valliani says. “She figured there must be people willing to sell their home-cooked dishes for some extra pocket cash, but we found it impossible to find them.”
They started Zonida, first employing student chefs and then expanding to the wider community. Valliani’s mentors have included David Fine, a Penn grad who started a food truck called Schmear It.
“I went over to his bagel truck right next to the Penn campus one day, rode around for awhile, and he led me to a bunch of chefs in the area.” Valliani says. “This was a great way to get to know the chefs off the bat.”
Valliani says that she has easily been able to tap into the community.
“I absolutely love being in Philly and the startup community here,” Valliani says. “The support here is far better than elsewhere. I’m seeing more and more folks who want to stick around.”
For startups in the education tech industry, Wharton student Erik Skantze says it’s hard to beat Philly. This serial entrepreneur is involved in a number of startups, including Ivy Standard, an online resource for vocational consulting and tutoring.
Skantze chose Wharton for two reasons: the name recognition of the business school and the willingness for seasoned entrepreneurs to make time for newcomers.
“Coming to Philly, it’s smaller but it’s advantageous if you’re a startup,” Skantze says. “In San Francisco, when you’re pitching as a tech company, there’s a lot of competition, and you can get lost in the weeds. In Philly, it’s different. There are educational resources out here, a solid and growing venture community and you might get more traction here.”
Funding is also getting easier. Ramabhadran of PennApps is also one of 12 partners at the Dorm Room Fund, managed entirely by students. It not only provides loans for startups, but also helps them with legal and accounting advice.
“The number of startups in Philly has definitely grown over the years,” says Ramabhadran. “I can tell by the number of people who are pitching to the Dorm Room Fund.”
I’ve always had this theory that money can “feel” different, depending on where it comes from. That the money you get for grinding out paid work for a company has a different energy than the money you get for your true-blue creative-soul work (if you’re able to get paid for that work at all).
But there are many artists and creatives who make a strong case to the contrary. A group of them came together recently to discuss the intersection between art and commerce at a panel co-hosted by WeWork x BRIC at WeWork 81 Prospect St in Brooklyn, New York. They shared what it means to be a working artist in today’s world, how corporate work can inspire a richer artistic practice, and the trick to maintaining your ethical center when a company is footing the bill.
Every bit of making feeds the beast.
“I’m lucky I get to make art every day,” says Mike Perry, a multidisciplinary artist and illustrator. To Perry, there is no line between “art for them” and “art for me”—rather, all the work he does feeds his daily practice. “I love an assignment because I’m free to explore, learn something, experiment with new materials and ideas,” he says. “I can be influenced by something I’m paid for.” Perry says he can sit down at 7 a.m. and work on a project for T-Mobile for five hours, then turn to his tackle box of oil paints in the afternoon to create something entirely for himself.
This conversation goes way back.
The Baltimore-based street artist-cum-muralist Gaia is quick to point out that art has been dependent on commerce for centuries. Drawing a strict boundary between what is “real” art and what is paid for by someone else doesn’t add much to the conversation, he says—and if taking commissions allows the artist to focus on their work and put food on the table while remaining in touch with the real world and engaging with audiences, why shouldn’t they?
Boundaries spark creativity.
As a creative director at Pandora, Chelsea Campbell works within some of the strictest borders of all: 30-second audio ads. “Constraints make for better creation and better creativity,” she says, noting that the ad can play to the listener’s “theater of the mind”.
Money affords bigger, better projects.
If someone will pay you to go bigger—and let you learn how to do it in the process—could you turn it down? “Scale is hard, and money makes scale happen,” says Perry. Money also allows projects to expand and grow. At Pandora, the algorithm is so good at predicting what music listeners will enjoy because musicologists work behind the scenes categorizing each song by up to 400 traits. This form of creativity is born from technology funded by a corporation … but it trickles down to a pleasurable user experience. When Pandora uncovers your new favorite song, you’re not thinking “What a smart technology company,” but instead, “Wow, they know me so well.”
Ethics drive compatibility.
Finding a brand or company whose mission aligns with yours as an artist is critical to a successful collaboration. When Devin Vermeulen, a senior creative director at WeWork, asks an artist to create a mural for a WeWork location, the project isn’t just in service of the brand. He’s going to them “because we like what they do and want the project to align with their mission,” he says. “We want to see success as a byproduct of having an impact on the world.”
Every project needs to please stakeholders.
Any creative project comes with different voices telling the artist what to do—and that doesn’t change whether it’s a corporate gig or a mural on a street corner. Gaia says it’s important to build consensus among competing agendas and what each person expects to see. “My job is to synthesize and find a balance” between everyone, he says, whether that’s a hotel manager with specific needs for an installation, or a grandmother living on the corner in Baltimore who has expectations for the art that should be on her street.
“Selling out” is different for everyone.
Perry noted a recent uptick in the use of the phrase “selling out,” which he says peaked in the early 2000s and now seems to be coming back around. Perhaps that’s a function of a robust economy—more companies have the ability to commission artists—as more people are ditching the 9-to-5 and identifying as artists and creatives.
But when a brand and an artist want to work together and their missions align, there’s no harm done, says Vermeulen. Campbell put a fine point on it: “Sellout has turned into collaboration.” It’s the artist’s prerogative to decide what “selling out” means for them—if it means anything at all. Getting paid by a corporation may allow them to live their dream in another capacity.
The blur can be good.
Perry recounted creating a giant 80-by-30-foot mural for Jameson whiskey. People on Instagram loved it, and he was confused—It’s an ad, he thought, They all love an ad?! Finally, someone told him, “Mike, we’re just really happy you got a job!”
The public is often less concerned with the distinction between art and commerce than one would think, especially if the merger gives rise to something better. As Vermeulen said: “If I’m going to be bombarded by an ad, I’m glad it’s done by an artist.”
For all the blurring of art and commerce, Perry said something that rang in my ears after the night was over. “Maybe,” he says, “we should think about ourselves as humans and people and not brands at all.”
As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In this column, Work Flow, we’ll delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.
Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard, but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything: email@example.com
Our office has recently moved into a new building with an open-office format, and while I love the collaborative vibe, I’m having trouble with the fact that people assume I’m always available. I’ve tried using headphones, but this does not deter folks from interrupting me—even when I am clearly busy. Any suggestions on how I can better manage this transition?
Headphones are a start. (Are yours noise-canceling? Here are a few options for you, if not.) The trick is, you must sometimes remove your headphones completely—when you’re not in “uninterruptible” time—otherwise they become just another part of the scenery and something people will ignore. Set the expectation that when they are on, you’re working on something urgent and should not be bothered. If someone comes up to ask you a question during that time, tell them politely, “I’m so sorry, I’m on an immediate deadline. Come back at X time and we can talk?” Then get back to work. People should begin to get the point.
You could also ask your boss to send a reminder that headphone-wearing folks should not be interrupted unless the matter is truly urgent, like the copier is on fire. Alternatively, is there a conference room or empty office where people needing extra quiet might work on occasion? Some of the frustration may be from feeling helpless in this situation, and acting in a forward-thinking way can combat that.
How can I exit a job gracefully? People become close (professionally) with their bosses, now more than ever. You follow each other on social media; maybe you even hang out casually outside the office. Can I tell my boss—whom I trust—that I’m looking? Are there new rules?
Every so often, the old rules are the best rules. The long-held standard of two weeks’ notice is there to help you out, as are the general best practices for resigning: Tell your boss in person if possible, write a nice resignation note (even an informal email thanking them for the opportunity and what you learned), don’t steal a bunch of staplers when you leave.
I would not tell even a boss you’re close with that you’re looking for another job before you actually have another job and are officially ready to give notice. When we’re very close with the people we work with, there may be an urge to say, Oh, I’ll stay longer, I’ll help find my replacement, I’ll do whatever it takes to make this transition easier for you, my friend—but don’t do that, either. Quitting a job is like a breakup; setting boundaries, and adhering to them, is important.
And here’s the thing: Your boss is not your friend, really and truly, even if before they were your boss they were your friend and after they are your boss they can again be your friend. Your boss is your boss, just like your company is not just some lovely spot with good coffee where you happen to sit and do work on your laptop now and again. The boss and the company should be treated with respect during your relationship and also as you’re ending it. Think about what you would prefer if you were in their shoes—but don’t undermine your own interests and well-being to achieve that.
Treat the severing knowing that you might want a recommendation from this person down the road. (You don’t have to keep following each other on social media. Kondo that stuff if it doesn’t bring you joy!) The important thing to remember is that this person might be your boss again at some point, but even if they’re not, they can help you figure out other opportunities, connect you to new professional acquaintances or gigs, and even be mentors. Or even better, good friends.
How can you tell someone you love that having their email signature in Comic Sans looks really bad?
Be brave enough to send them this link. In the case that the Comic Sans user is someone you don’t love, let them dig their own grave.
Your local coffee shop may have recently banned the straw, but takeout practices will need to evolve way more radically if humanity intends to keep roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic pollution from entering the environment each year. According to anti-plastic advocacy group 5 Gyres, millions of tons of that junk are byproducts of quick meals we eat on the go: candy wrappers, bottle caps, soda bottles, and clear plastic bags.
The We Company is one of a growing number of companies around the world that are doing their part by eliminating single-use plastics from their daily operations. But making this transition takes time, planning, and a culture shift away from our ingrained, single-use ways.
To outline some best practices, we talked to Lindsay Baker, The We Company’s head of sustainability and wellbeing, who oversaw the company’s six-month transition to single-use-plastic-free workspaces, and Rachel Labbé-Bellas, science programs manager for 5 Gyres, a member at WeWork 5792 W Jefferson Blvd in Los Angeles.
Tackle low-hanging fruit first. Consider your workspace kitchen—and your colleagues’ and your own habits. Is coffee made with single-use plastic pods or in a communal pot? Is water served in a glass or a plastic bottle? Is there a compost receptacle? A recycling container? Do people use them?If your answers err on the plasticky side, start by tackling those problems first by eliminating coffee pod systems or improving recycling options (and coworker compliance). “If you’re in an office where you do nothing else to be thoughtful about waste and your impact on the world, [eliminating single-use plastic] probably would be tough [to start with],” advises Baker.
Demonstrating to co-workers how much waste is saved by replacing plastic water bottles with a water cooler and reusable glasses could help plant the seeds for a bigger commitment to office sustainability.
Don’t swap one problem for another one. When The We Company tackled the plastics in its kitchens, “we really tried to prioritize not replacing single-use plastics with single-use other crap,” says Baker. Ceramic mugs and metal cups replaced disposable cups in the company kitchen, metal cutlery took the place of plastic silverware, and glass jars of honey landed on pantry shelves. “We’ve always had the choice of paper cups for water and beer, but ultimately, reusability was the bigger message here,” says Baker.
That’s because “recyclable” plastic alternatives might not necessarily make it to the proper processing facility once they’re discarded. “Many cities around the world don’t process compostable waste outside the landfill,” says Baker. Your “eco-friendly” paper cup might end up at the garbage dump, and trash in landfills does not break down—it just sits there forever.
Products made of biodegradable plastics won’t break down in the landfill or ocean, either. “They biodegrade in industrial facilities at 4,000 degrees,” says 5 Gyres’ Labbé-Bellas. “It takes that much heat to actually break down that item.”
Finally, 25 percent of properly recycled goods in the U.S. will be exported to another country, increasingly in Southeast Asia, where there’s a lucrative market for waste plastic. Once abroad, it could be reused—or it might be incinerated or end up in a landfill.
Baker recommends using alternative disposable materials only if there’s no reuseable option. The We Company is transitioning away from the use of wood stirrers, for example, with messaging that encourages coffee stirring with metal spoons.
Break it down to dollars and cents. Financial incentives can encourage buy-in from employers. “For us at The We Company, a reusable cup typically pays for itself after about 30 uses,” estimates Baker, which is why it could be in your company’s best interest to buy reusable cups for everybody in the office. And if your office pays for its waste disposal by volume, there could be an additional savings when all those single-use plastics are no longer filling up the trash cans.
Struggling to get the whole staff on board? Labbé-Bellas says that turning green initiatives into a competition—like who can waste the least or recycle the most—with prizes like gift cards or cash bonuses for the winner, can go a long way in changing people’s habits.
Get the messaging right. This involves more than just putting signs up around the trash area. 5 Gyres recommends officewide screenings (or just share the link) of The Story of Stuff’s 5-to-10 minute animated videos that show what happens to everyday items like disposable water bottles once you get rid of them. They may convince even the office skeptic.
When you do start making those signs, suggests Baker, “picking accurate terms like ‘zero single-use plastic’ as opposed to ‘zero-plastic’ will make sure people aren’t confused when they still see plastic around the office.” And one more tip: Labbé-Bellas says that newly-reformed coworkers may end up with stacks of plates and cups in their offices at first, and might need a reminder to return them to the kitchen.
Work with green-friendly vendors. Your office may have rid itself of single-use plastics, but what about your caterers and food-delivery services? For most restaurants, it’s the default move to load up a bag of to-go food with single-use plastic forks and paper napkins. Offices that depend on catered meals should figure out which restaurants are most amenable to reducing waste in their packaging and encourage employees to order their food from those places. Restaurants might cut back on plastic wrap, use bigger trays to decrease the number of cartons, and eliminate plastic to-go boxes. “There are lots of things caterers can do just to reduce [plastic waste] if you ask them to,” says Baker.
Eager to reduce single-use plastic ASAP? Make sure your next coffee or lunch break is free of plastic straws, utensils, containers, and bags. It’s one small way to do your part—and it will only grow from there.
If you’ve ever sat in a Womb Chair or marveled at the period styling of the Mad Men offices, you’ve seen the design influence of Florence Knoll Bassett, a pioneer of American modernism, who passed away in January at age 101. An architect and designer who worked deftly across media, Knoll Bassett—born Florence Schust, and known to close friends as “Shu”—had a rare seat at the table in a time when the design and architecture industry was even more heavily male-dominated than it is today. She remains an inspiration for her countless contributions to design. Below are just a few of Knoll Bassett’s lasting influences.
Her furniture designs exemplified the ethos of 20th-century modernism.
Knoll Bassett was the creative force behind Knoll Associates, the design company and furniture manufacturer founded by Hans Knoll, whom she married in 1946, becoming partners in both life and work. After his untimely death in 1955, Knoll Bassett stepped up to take the reins of the company, serving as president until 1960, and director of design until 1965, when she retired.
Her classic furnishings from this period channeled International Style architecture—precise, spare rectilinear forms with a visual lightness—at an intimate, human scale. While these early works have since reached iconic status, Knoll’s initial goals were less lofty. She referred to her stylish yet highly sensible range of sofas, desks, and tables, which comprised nearly half of the company’s collection, as the “meat and potatoes” basis needed for furnishing the modern home or office.
The spare, geometric minimalism of Knoll’s functional designs, while modestly conceived as “background architecture” for the modern workplace, resonated with the modern era—and replaced the stuffy traditional pieces that were ill-suited to the midcentury boom of high-rise office towers and glass skyscrapers. Today, Knoll Bassett’s furniture designs are held in the permanent collections of several museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, even as many of these seminal works have remained in continuous production. Others, such as the Hairpin Stacking Table (based on her Model 75 stacking stool, first designed in 1948), have recently been reintroduced and brought back into production.
She shaped the look and feel of the postwar American workplace.
To Knoll Bassett, furniture was but one element of an all-encompassing whole. In 1945, she significantly transformed the look of the American office with the founding of the Knoll Planning Unit, an in-house architecture studio that consulted on space planning for Knoll’s corporate clients. Together, the small team planned and designed corporate headquarters for companies such as Seagram’s, IBM, CBS, GM, and Look magazine—all of which occupied some of the era’s most innovative buildings—with the assertion that modern buildings necessitated modern interiors.
These projects presented an optimistic reworking of professional workspaces, channeling transparency, order, and flexibility in a contrast to the dark, heavy interiors of the past. The far-reaching influence of the Planning Unit, which came to be known as “Shu U,” also served as a de facto incubator for young designers who would go on to other architecture firms and start in-house interior design divisions, similarly modeled around Knoll Bassett’s pioneering approach.
She raised the bar for design retail.
In 1947, Knoll Bassett was inspired to establish what’s now known as Knoll Textiles. “It became apparent to me that suitable textiles were not available for our furniture and interiors,” she wrote, matter-of-factly noting a void in the market for custom upholstery that could work with the pared-back style of modern furniture.
Launched with fabrics drawn from men’s suiting, the collection elevated contract furnishings and, with the addition of signature offerings, led to the opening of a dedicated textiles showroom that raised the bar for design retail. Designed with Herbert Matter, the displays featured cardboard-backed swatches and an immaculate gridded display of the division’s many textiles—retail innovations that quickly became the industry standard, admired and emulated by competitors.
She brought us works from some of the midcentury era’s greatest designers.
Orphaned at a young age and taken under the wing of the Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen and his family, who became lifelong friends, Knoll Bassett’s personal life was intimately intertwined with some of the midcentury era’s greatest designers and architects. Through her work at Knoll, she not only commissioned a number of classic works by these 20th-century masters, but visibly credited, licensed, and established royalties for designers, a model that has since become de rigueur.
Anyone with a passing interest in design would recognize many of these famous chair designs, which have remained in production for decades. Among these are the classic wire-grid chairs by Harry Bertoia, a sculptor and classmate of Shu’s from the Cranbrook Academy of Art; and the sinuous, enveloping Womb Chair by Eero Saarinen, son of Eliel, and a close friend since childhood. She also brought into production the steel-and-leather Barcelona chair, which originally debuted at the 1929 Barcelona Pavilion by Lilly Reich and Bauhaus master Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe; the latter was a mentor and teacher whose work heavily influenced Knoll Bassett’s own.
She was an active example of “total design”—and an inspiring figure behind many firsts.
Knoll Bassett eschewed gendered roles and practiced “total design”—an approach that considered all parts and elements of an environment in its entirety—fully in her multidisciplinary work, which spanned architecture, workspaces, interiors, furniture, textiles, graphics, and retail spaces.
As Knoll Bassett firmly and famously asserted in a 1964 New York Times profile, “I am not a decorator.” Her drive and talents pushed the rigor and range of modern design—as well as a path for women—forward in history. As the same Times piece noted, she was “the single most powerful figure in the field of modern design.”