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Focus on Founders: Anna Auerbach redefines work with Werk
March 21, 2017
Anna believes a few things to be true. First, continuous, progressive workforce participation is central to career advancement. Second, the demands of home and family aren't compatible with traditional workforce participation, and women tend to bear the consequences. Third, structuring jobs in ways that allow continuity and care to coexist is part of a formula that can keep women on the path to career advancement. That is the mission of Werk, the New York-based marketplace helping top companies reimagine the structure of employment and connecting them with talented women looking for work flexibility. 

This is the twenty-seventh in our 'Focus on Founders' series of articles about alumni entrepreneurs.

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“More Fortune 500 CEOs named David than female Fortune 500 CEOs”

Pointing to the four decades since the start of the modern women’s movement and “the conversation about women and leadership,” Anna Auerbach (BOS 05-07), founder and CEO of New York-based opportunities marketplace Werk, describes the persistent lack of gender parity in the area of career advancement despite the increasing reality of the majority of families being comprised of two working parents.

“If you look at entry level, it's pretty close to 50/50. The gap really comes up one to two years after having a child,” Anna says. “And at that point, you see a dramatic decline of women staying in the workforce and women seeking advancement track work. And it's because of the reality of parenthood.”

“We're still seeing so few women at the top of leadership positions in companies,” Anna adds, and recalls, “One of the saddest things I've read recently is the fact that there are more Fortune 500 CEOs named David than female Fortune 500 CEOs.”

Rewriting the rules of the game

Thinking about what it takes to rise to senior leadership in business, Anna embraces the philosophy of “leaning in” at work (“Sheryl Sandberg is such a role model to all of us. I inhaled her book”) but looks at the forces that take women out of work and penalize them for doing so.

“The challenge is that leaning in is not enough if leaning in does not help you win and succeed," she says. "If the rules are broken, you can't win the game. We're really trying to change the rules of the game.”

She describes those “structures” as the mechanisms that prioritize face time and penalize parenting. In most cases it is mothers who find that resuming their old career trajectory after having a child is a difficult proposition. They are just as able to work and just as ambitious as they ever were but aren’t able to be in an office from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. So Werk is changing those structures to value productivity over physical presence and keep women in the career game.

“Our whole premise is that one of the best ways to get women to the top of the leadership funnel is to just get them to stop leaving. Our idea is ‘keep women in the workforce, keep them on advancement track roles, build in flexibility.’”

She continues, “What we've started working on is creating work structures that create compatibility between life and career. We're trying to create, essentially, a third option to work.” 

Redefining a misunderstood term: The mechanics and efficiency of flexibility

Much of Anna’s work – beyond management and membership – is messaging around one particular concept. The term 'flexibility,' she says, is fraught with negative connotations, and her challenge is to convince potential partners that flexibility and productivity are not mutually exclusive.

“Most people hear flexibility and they think, ‘Work less,’ or ‘work part time.’ “Flexibility doesn't – by any means – mean working less.”

“That's actually one of the reasons we've created this concept of a ‘Flexiverse,’ which is a trademarked term that sort of packages flexibility into its component parts,” she explains. “It's a menu of options where a company can select what they're willing to offer. And for the first time, we're creating clarity around something that has been vague until now.” 

The messaging is clearly working. The companies that partner with Werk are discovering that flexible employment conditions are not a hindrance and that they can actually be a driver of efficiency.

“What we're seeing is that, because flexibility is just so important to a very talented level of women and men, frankly, that companies are finding better talent more quickly. We're getting better talent during that time. And people are accepting offers much faster.”

Anna Auerbach
Anna and her co-CEO, Annie Dean

Practicing what she preaches

Werk is pioneering a new approach to opportunity in employment, but Anna herself is the founder of a startup. Just as dismal as the share of female CEOs are the success rates of women entrepreneurs. As a member of the latter group, Anna is trying to make a meaningful contribution to a shift in the former group. So when asked if she is able to find the same level of flexibility as an entrepreneur that she’s trying to build for working women she responded, “This is just such an interesting question. Because I think what's hard is, for women founders, frankly, the odds are stacked against them. I recently read that last year, looking at Silicon Valley and the companies that receive Series A funding, only 8% were led by female founders.

“At Werk we live and breathe what we espouse. My partner and I job-share the role of CEO to make sure we could build in that flexibility. And we also really are clear around what flexibility is necessary for us to be a part of our families in the way we want to be, and for us to also take care of ourselves.”

Anna adds, “I have so much more flexibility than I ever had before, but I actually get more done. And I probably work more hours, but they're on my terms, and they're much more compatible with the life I want to have.”

A team built on “boot camp-trained” go-getters

Only about a year in, Werk is growing in every possible way, including in staff numbers. It takes a special team to change the rules of the employment game in the context of a startup. Anna describes the unique skillset this type of work requires.

“One of my favorite parts of the job is coaching and developing my team, but one thing I can't coach and develop is ambition and hunger. I look for somebody that's just really hungry, really passionate, and wants to learn.”

She adds that a resume that includes McKinsey is a strong indicator that a candidate is ready for the challenge. Anna maintains that the Firm provided her with valuable learning opportunities. “I learned more in my time at McKinsey than I did as an undergrad and – if I can be forgiven for saying this – in business school. The fact that two studies into my time at the Firm I was presenting to a CEO, the fact that I had exposure across a variety of different sectors and a variety of different functions, and that I also was able to focus on what was really interesting to me, was invaluable.”

This kind of experience, she says, prepares people for the rigors of entrepreneurship. “The number-one thing I look for is people who've had this kind of 'boot-camp training' experience. And to me, that's something like McKinsey or other professional services.” 

She goes on, “I've just noticed a remarkable difference in the people who have had really solid professional training: they're fantastic communicators, they're structured, they're go-getters, they question what they're doing, and they push back on things.” 

Bit by the entrepreneur bug

There was a time when Anna didn’t think of herself as an entrepreneur. Despite the push of family and friends – and the “million ideas” she had for businesses – she stayed away from the startup game. After taking the leap, however, and experiencing its unique rewards, Anna is hooked and probably never going back. 

“I always felt that there was something very specific that entrepreneurs have that other professionals don't have, and that I just didn't have it. And what's crazy is I was completely wrong.”

Anna says she is now dedicated to the entrepreneur life. “Hopefully I don't have to look for a job any time soon,” she says. “But if I did, I am absolutely committed to launching something else again. Being able to build something from the ground up, and having to toggle between small operating details in solving small problems on a day-to-day basis – the big-picture strategy that McKinsey trained me so well for – is something that I'm just completely addicted to. I don't know if I could ever go back to a situation where I’m not building something myself.”


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