Jamie-Alexis Fowler is the founder and Executive Director of Empower Work, an organization that provides immediate, confidential support for challenging work situations. Jamie-Alexis is on a mission to create healthy environments where employees are valued, supported and empowered. Her company harnesses the knowledge of trained peer counselors who utilize their robust skills, not just on the Empower Work line, but in their workplaces.

Learn more about Jaime-Alexis.

Learn more about The Passionistas Project.

 

FULL TRANSCRIPT: 

Passionistas: Hi and welcome to The Passionistsas Project Podcast where Amy and Nancy Harrington and today we're talking with Jamie-Alexis Fowler, the founder and executive director of Empower Work, an immediate, confidential support system for challenging business situations via text or web chat.

Jamie-Alexis is on a mission to create healthy environments where employees are valued, supported and empowered. Her company harnesses the knowledge of trained peer counselors who utilize their robust skills, not just on the Empower Work line, but in their workplaces.

And beyond offering one-on-one support, Jamie-Alexis’ goal is to use the aggregate anonymous data from the conversations to inform new approaches, tools, trainings, and policies for systematic workplace change.

So please welcome to the show Jamie-Alexis Fowler.

Jaime-Alexis: Thanks for having me. I'm excited to chat.

Passionistas: Yeah, we are too. So what are you most passionate about?

Jaime-Alexis: For me it's really about people growing up. My parents had a phrase, how you treat people is important. And I think that that has been a central theme in every facet of my life and has been particularly part of it at work where I spend most of my time.

Passionistas: Tell us about what you do for work and how your passion translates to that.

Jaime-Alexis: Empower Work is a national organization that provides essentially a crisis text line for work. And one of the reasons we started that was that a couple of years ago, as you know, many of these MeToo headlines were raging and of course still are. I was increasingly doing these sort of whisper network style conversations. And after one particularly tough conversation, I hung up the call and thought there has to be a better way than doing this.

And the person I had in particular just spoken to was, you know, first generation to go to college. She was working in this really small startup. Nobody in her family had worked in technology and she was struggling with a lot of different competing factors, the financial pressure of student loans. She was also supporting some of her family. And what had been the promise of, of technology that she could go and make this great salary and you know, lift her family out of the experiences that she'd had growing up was suddenly at risk. And there were these multiple competing factors. And I just left thinking like, there's gotta be a better way to do this. There was nothing in her company that she felt was trusted or safe. There were no resources either. There's no HR and no EAP or any other kind of resource. And so I turned to my husband and said, “You know, there's gotta be some kind of crisis text line for work.”

And we started Google searching that night. You know, I was like, oh yeah, let's just keep that in our back pocket. Let's just like be aware of what other resources exist. I was familiar with all of the traditional resources that are available through a company. So, Oh great, you've got your employee assistance program or you can access and have a conversation with your trusted HR business partner or whatever. Like you know, whatever the situation may be. And honestly, what floored me was that there were no third party resources that what existed with either you sell to the company or you sell to the individual. And so with that left were as I started looking into it as a 40 million Americans work in workplaces with fewer than a hundred people. And that leads to all kinds of disconnections when people face these really challenging situations. And of course when you think about that, that disproportionately impacts low income workers, those with less social capital.

And so at the heart of it for me was this fundamental inequity that we are meant to be this land of opportunity. And we're told that jobs are the means of doing that. But when you face an adverse situation and suddenly your job is on the line, where do you turn? And that threat becomes really real. How do you pay rent? How do you pay for childcare? And unfortunately that means that people are putting up with really toxic situations in order to get that paycheck. And that's leading to all kinds of negative emotional and financial outcomes for workers.

Passionistas: You Googled it, but then how did you actually put it into action?

Jaime-Alexis: I did not set out to start a company. I mean, I really was following my passion around how do we make sure that people are supported. And so the question was what do workers need? And just because we couldn't find it and just because my husband and I Googled around and couldn't find a resource didn't mean there needed to be one. And there certainly didn't mean there needed to be a company. So it really started with in-depth user research. So we started with a simple, I started with a simple survey. I, I say we because it quickly grew into a lot of other people. But you know, at the first it was just me, you know, setting up a Google survey.

But you know, a friend of mine had done polling before. I had other friends who did user research. And so they helped me think about how to set up the survey that started with this simple series of questions. Suddenly we had, you know, hundreds of responses from different folks all around the country, different economic situations, different education backgrounds, different working environments. And in that thread we saw some really key themes. And that was, you know, 90% of people had faced an adverse situation. Overwhelmingly people felt like they didn't have a trusted resource to turn to and that it had significantly impacted people's emotional and economic wellbeing. And there's also additional research that goes into us. We started doing market research and seeing, you know, what existed, what didn't exist, what research was in this space. And then I started doing really in depth interviews. So I did over 200 in depth conversations with labor organizers, HR professionals, labor rights attorneys, just this whole spectrum of folks who touch the workplace.

And they, those conversations reinforced a lot of the gap that we were seeing, which is that folks really felt like they didn't have somewhere to turn. And the impact of not having that support was really negative. And so from that we thought, okay, what would shift that trajectory? And so we started with really simple pilot, which was, you know, me getting a Twilio number, I call it like sort of like band-aiding it back together. And it was like we banded this thing together and I went to Office Depot and printed off these, what I think now are like really sketchy looking flyers, you know, it's like, alright, you know, do you have a tough work situation? And I walked the streets of San Francisco and hung up these flyers just to see like would people use this, you know, before we build out a whole service, let's just see if our theory is on track that like someone would text him on those flyers.

We didn't say whether to text or whether to call. We just showed a number and overwhelmingly people texted us and within six weeks we had folks from 10 different states, not from those sketchy flyers because it rained a couple of days later. I was like, Oh yeah, that's really, don't look, they look, you hit scratch here. But we started doing small digital tests so we would share in a Facebook group or things like that. And people would reach out and say like, I can't believe I've never heard of this before. This is amazing. Like this is exactly what I needed. And at that point we had, you know, more people involved who helped build out the pilot and we really knew we were onto something.

Passionistas: And what's your professional background? What did you do before this and what skills did you learn on other jobs that you brought to this to make it happen?

Jaime-Alexis: I have done a lot of different things. I jokingly refer to myself as a recovering academic. And so I started my career thinking that I was, that my mission in life was to educate, to become a professor and do research and to teach. And that is not the trajectory that I pursued. But I think a lot of the skills that that were part of that and my love of people, my interest in really like connecting with others and, and supporting people to success in various ways has translated across my whole career. And so predominantly I've worked in the social change sector and predominantly in areas that use those skills around connecting with people and writing. So it's marketing communications. But in almost all of those situations, I've been part of the senior leadership team at a variety of organizations and through that have been really passionate internally about building healthy workplaces.

So how do we support a culture where people can thrive and how do we make sure that people feel really valued and heard? And not just with my individual team, but thinking about that as sort of the, the cultural level for the organization. So it's always been something that I've held really from the center for my career. And in part why I was getting a lot of these kind of whisper network conversations because people would be like, Oh, Jamie loves, this is a great manager. She's run into X, Y, or Z before. Like you should, you know, you should talk to her because it feels a little weird to say about myself. But that was a lot of what people would reach out to me and say like, Oh, so-and-so said you were a really great person to talk to.

And that's not scalable. Like people leveraging their LinkedIn network or their personal network to solve a work crisis is not a scalable solution. A theme in a lot of my work is how do you, whether it was code for America or Pathfinder, like how do you work with government to affect large scale change. And so although we're not doing that specifically at Empower Work at this point, one of the goals is how do we learn from the work that we're doing and inform government practices or policies. You know, why don't we have a 4-1-1 for folks to easily connect in. You know you have to go to six different places if you, you're trying to figure out like Oh is this a wage theft issue? Is it that people don't use the term wage theft? So if you Google like I'm not getting paid, you get a lot of different weird articles, you're not necessarily going to get connected to your wage and hour division to log a wage complaint.

So right now we just have a lot of aspects of the system that are inaccessible to people. Part of I think why folks feel like not only is what they're experiencing profoundly unfair, it's hard to understand why there aren't other protections in place. And that's really frustrating for folks.

Passionistas: When you started to put this whole plan into action and you realized you needed a team, how did you bring people in to build this?

Jaime-Alexis: Oh, that's a great question. At night immediately it was like, okay, I'm not a coach. I'm not, you know, I don't have a, an HR background, like who are the folks that we need involved? And so I started, before we even launched it, before I walked those sketchy flyers around, we pulled in folks from every kind of angle. So it was like folks who had an HR background, folks who had operations experience, folks who you know, had PhDs and organizational psychology.

So one of the folks who's now on our board, Jennifer Habig has a PhD in organizational psychology. She's a longtime trainer, executive coach, and she's built out all kinds of trainings. And so she was one of the first people I connected with. And I still remember our conversation. I was sitting in my car between meetings and I was still working another job and I kind of floated this idea to her and you know, she's done in person coaching her entire career and she was skeptical. She was like, well how do you, you know, how do you do this high level coaching over text? And also, you know, what do people really need and how do you incorporate rights-based information or resources? What would that look like? And now, you know, she's one of our biggest advocates and I think for her, I can't speak for her, but it from, you know, from what she shared, it's really meaningful to see the shift that happens in these conversations where someone comes in feeling like extraordinarily stuck, confused, overwhelmed, and in the course of a conversation says things like, you know, to the volunteer, like, are you a fairy God mother for work?

You know, like, this is amazing. We had someone who, I mean we've had multiple people, but just someone last week who said, I had to pause because I'm just in tears. Like this has been the most meaningful conversation I've had. And we had someone last week who said, this was really life altering for me. And it is, it's profound to see that shift happen in an SMS conversation, but there's, there's a level of impact that it has cognitively to type something out. It's an interesting space for reflection because people can write something, think about it. And then it's also a way for people to, you know, people come back and tell us like, Oh, that practice that I did with the volunteer around how to have that conversation with my manager. I then had in my SMS history and I could go back and read it and like get ready for that conversation.And so there's a lot of power to those pieces.

Passionistas: Talk about the actual process of using Empower Work.

Jaime-Alexis: It's pretty seamless so you can easily connect in over SMS or web chat. So we offer both. If folks want to text in, it's a (510) 674-1414 you text us and say hi, I want to talk to someone. You get a quick auto response that says, you know, we got your message, we connect people with a real person under two minutes. And so you're able to start that conversation really seamlessly. There's no barrier to entry, no intake form. You don't have to pay anything. And that's really important because overwhelmingly the folks that we support are isolated. About 40% of the folks that we connect with are lower, lower income. A lot of folks feel like their livelihood is online. So you know when your boss puts a meeting and asks you to come into a meeting in 15 minutes and you're worried you're going to get fired, you don't have time to like fill out a bunch of stuff and try to find someone in whatever you're just in that moment.

So it looks connected on average conversations are about 90 minutes, you know, that can be folks connect with us on their commute, like on the bus, on the way to work sometimes on their lunch break. You know, kind of the benefit of our structures that we meet people where they are. So you're able to say, you know, we have folks who are like, I just, sorry, I took a pause because my, my boss walked by, you know, they're texting us at work, so it's pretty seamless to connect. And then the course of the conversation, we really spend time that a volunteer spends time and understanding what's going on, what's at stake for the person, what do people value? Because it's different for everybody. Like if you're, you're worried you're going to get fired, sometimes that's actually fine for the person. They're like, that's great. This is toxic.

I want to leave. If I get fired, that's mine. I can file for unemployment, I can move on. For other people it's terrifying and they don't lose that job. And so we talked through what does someone want to see happen and then we'll provide space to practice a conversation if needed or an approach. We'll talk through pathways, we'll talk through pros and cons of particular decisions and we'll also provide resources if needed. So if someone's really unsure, like, hey, should I, you know, should I talk to an attorney about this? Is this something even that has legal protections around it, you know, we'll, we'll provide additional resources and information or things like someone's lost their job and they don't know how to access healthcare. We, you know, we provide that as well.

Passionistas: We’re Amy and Nancy Harrington and you're listening The Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Jamie-Alexis Fowler. If you or someone you know is facing a challenge at work, text (510) 674-1414 or visit empowerwork.org. Now here's more of our interview with Jamie-Alexis.

What's the typical background of the volunteers that you have? How do they know all of the things they need to know?

Jaime-Alexis: The main skill or value that's important for volunteers is really empathy. What we train around and our approach is, is really around how to be a deep listener. How to really hear what's going on with someone, what's at stake, and to ask really powerful questions to help someone unpack and like think about what's going on. So that's first and foremost. People come from all different kinds of backgrounds. We do ask that everyone has experienced in the workplace just because it's part and parcel of understanding what people are going through. Those backgrounds can be anything from, you know, chefs to like HR professionals. We have a really a wide spectrum. We have a lot of folks who, for instance have an MSW and you know, have a background in social work, but maybe doing something totally different now and this type of giving back kind of reconnects them with aspects of, of their background that they really appreciate.

One of our volunteers who works in HR said being a volunteer helps her put the human back in HR, that it gives her a chance to really spend time on the people part of it, which is really important. But a lot of folks who volunteer interested in coaching, they're interested in management either because they are a manager and they want to become a better manager and we see that volunteering is really a win-win. It's a way to give back and build professional skills. So we have volunteers who come and say like, I just got a raise because of the skills that I built, volunteering or you know, I just found a new job. And like I talked about how I've built these other, these other skills through Empower Work. So it's, it's really wonderful to see the impact, not just for the folks who connect with us, but for the volunteers. It's not just a one sided, it's really a two sided interaction. And to your question about how do we, how do folks know all of the things, that's one of the benefits of technology. So no one, no one has to remember like, Oh what's the labor information for, you know, X city or like X state. Like they have access to resources around that. So there's, that's not in anyone's brain, it's just part of the platform.

Passionistas: Are the calls confidential or do you look at the calls to see if there are overarching themes that keep coming up so that you can build your resources in a particular area?

Jaime-Alexis: Absolutely. So all the conversations are confidential and one of the reasons we built Empower Work as a nonprofit was that in our initial research we saw, you know, as I mentioned, people work at places where their company wouldn't be willing or able to pay for something as well as the fact that people didn't trust what was provided by companies. This is a little bit of an extreme example, but we don't ask culturally someone who's being abused to go to the abuser for the source of solving that. And that's not to say that companies aren't responsible that companies shouldn't invest in resources. Absolutely. Should we see Empower Work as fitting into a landscape of resources? Companies should have a responsibility and cover resources and should people trust and be willing to go to those. Fantastic. Sometimes it's a yes and like connect with Empower Work, talk through something and then go talk to your HR partner, go to you know, or go use your reporting platform internally.

That's a lot of what we talked through with folks that like evaluating whether or not to do that. So all the conversations are confidential and we do look at those larger trends and themes and one of our goals in the next year is to actually surface a public facing visual of some of our data, and again, totally confidential, but just these higher level themes. So some of the top ones that we see, not surprisingly job decision, job decision tied to many different factors, but job decision is one of the top issues that people start with. Like I'm trying to figure out if I stay or leave this job and it can be tied to a sense of being treated fairly. It can be tried tied to a bad manager. There are a lot of different connections that are part of that. We also see trends and people emotions associated with the issues.

And so top emotions that we see are feeling stuck, feeling isolated. We hear the only a lot. So like I'm the only mom on my team, no one understands that I need to take this time and go to a doctor's appointment with my kid because I'm a single parent. And embarrassment around that for a sense of they shouldn't feel embarrassed but they're being made to feel embarrassed because people aren't supportive. And that's really hard. You know, we see a lot of the stress and anxiety that are tied to these issues and a sense of really being on like an edge I would say. Um, and how tie that is to work and that's really hard. And one of the things that I think as a, as a country we really need to talk about to say what's wrong with the way that things are structured that people feel like they are so on edge, even with a job that seems to pay. Okay. Like you shouldn't feel like you are constantly on a cusp of losing something.

Passionistas: What have you learned about your own personal management style in doing all of this?

Jaime-Alexis: One of the things I kind of knew early on with that, I'd had a lot of positive feedback on being a manager before early in my career, a mentor of mine said, you know, I think you would be a really great manager. And I said, well, I don't really know. Like what does that entail? Like what does that mean? And she actually laughed and she said, you know, I'm not sure, but I kinda just feel like you, you have that. And so I spent like a couple of years, he like, what is good management? Have to know all these like pros and cons and things like that. And I think at the heart of it, I believe one of the reasons that I'm still close with a lot of folks that I worked with him during his teams is that I've set a lot of intention around creating space, people on my team in a way that balances the business need with the individual need.

And that's been really important to me in terms of what I've learned. I mean, so much. And one of the things I often talk to people, it's like I'm someone who loves to jump to solutions. And even though I just talked about, you know, creating space, a lot of times I've now realized how often I would jump to like, well, have you tried, you know, blah, blah, blah. Um, and I have now very intentionally tried to remove, have you questions out of my vocabulary, like to friends, to my partner, like just at all. Because seeing how disempowering that can be to someone because it's like advice wrapped in a question or hidden in a question. And so really trying to take that out is hard, but I'm working on it.

Passionistas: What do you say instead?

Jaime-Alexis: Instead of saying like, Oh, have you talked to HR? I'll ask something like, what have you considered so far? And it creates a more of an openness to it as opposed to like, well, you should have talked to HR, you know, even if your intention is like, Oh, you're just trying to get more information.

Passionistas: What's your vision for the company?

Jaime-Alexis: We have a pretty ambitious goal to reach 3 million people in the next five years. And that's, it's a big, it's a big job. But what we saw when we started was a huge need. I mean, 90% of working Americans have faced something challenging. So the scope of that, you know, 3 million in relation to the overall need is actually pretty small. But we really started with impact. We wanted to understand does this text based intervention have an impact positively for both the people who reach out and for the volunteers. And so rather, you know, it's like yeah, we could probably go out and find millions of people who have adverse situations right now. 

We really wanted to understand like what goes into a successful conversation, how do we improve the emotional outcomes, economic outcomes. And so across the first year that we started, every time we ran a training for volunteers, it changed because we were constantly taking feedback from conversations we were seeing from approaches and like re-crafting that into our training. We were building a training completely from scratch. There's no, I mean I say that there's no nothing that's existed in the last three years of doing research on this. I have not come across anything that combines the emotional and tactical support that we provide. And so although we searched high and low, because we did not want to reinvent the wheel, we had to invent the wheel. And so that took a lot of investment. And now we're at the point where we see the positive impact and you know, we have folks coming back to us saying like, Oh my gosh, I got the raise.

You know, like thank you so much for talking that through with me. Like I got it and I paid off more of my student loans and I like, you know, I'm looking for a better place to live that has windows. You know, like you hear these, you hear these stories, you're like, Oh my gosh, this is, this is really impactful. And so now we want to serve 3 million people in the next five years and then keep building this out so that we can build practices across networks, companies to really improve the way that people interact with one another at work. And then we also really want to contribute to structural conversations. Like what are the gaps in policies and approaches. There are some really innovative work happening. For instance, in California, there's a future of work commission in California. There's also a commission on mental health at work.

And so to have these initiatives that California is putting a stake in the ground and saying like we want to be a leader in looking at like what does healthy work environment look like in the future? And so we really want to contribute to those conversations with our data, with perspectives and you know, at the heart of it look at like we know that work is changing. What work used to be 10 ,15, 50 years ago is now totally different. Everything from you know, remote work to things like policies around gig work and how do we support workers in a different way. So we see a huge opportunity to be part of that through our data and through the worker voice that we see when folks are connecting with us and sharing these really powerful perspectives. Like a lot of what we hear from workers is like, I just want to feel valued. Being asked to come in last minute when I'm supposed to be off for two days is not a request where you feel respected and it might be okay, it might be lawful, but it's not. It doesn't feel good. And so how do we support workplaces where folks can thrive?

Passionistas: Thanks for listening to The Passionistsas Project Podcast and our interview with Jamie-Alexis Fowler, if you or someone you know is facing a challenge at work, text (510) 674-1414 a visit and empowerwork.org.

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