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Helping CEOs listen

Entrepreneur Claire Lew helps conversations move beyond the basics at work

by Monika Wnuk

“I hated my job – not because I didn’t like the work – but because I felt that my boss wasn’t hearing me,” says Claire Lew, now CEO of Know Your Company.

It was then that the 2011 School of Education and Social Policy alum decided to quit her job and start a consulting practice for CEOs. One of her first clients was Basecamp, a leading project management software company. At the time, Basecamp had developed a fledgling software tool called Know Your Company to help business owners get to know their employees better, and they needed someone to spin it out and become its CEO.

Lew’s passion for helping CEOs build honest, open workplaces made her a natural fit. Basecamp offered her a simple deal – she would own half the company until she made $1 million in new sales. Once that happened, she would automatically own 75 percent. Know Your Company hit the $1 million mark last year.

“As a business owner, when you first start off, you only have five, maybe ten employees. You all know and support each other. Then, you get to twenty, fifty, and you keep growing,” says Lew. “Suddenly, you’ve lost touch, valuable employees are leaving, and you’re the last to know. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve with Know Your Company.”

The company's approach starts with asking employees actionable questions. Far too often, says Lew, conversations around the office start with “how’s it going?” and end with “fine.”

“A question like ‘who would you like to apprentice under?’ helps employers learn about their employee's interests and gain insight into what his or her desired career path is,” says Lew. “It’s a win-win.”

Know Your Company works with businesses like Airbnb and Kickstarter, and serves more than 15,000 people in 25 countries. Last year, Lew and her team launched an online community called “The Watercooler” to give leaders around the world a space to speak candidly about how to build a better workplace. There are now more than 1,000 CEOs actively participating, she says.

Know Your Company

15,000 users

25countries

1,000CEOs active in online community

From the moment she became Know Your Company’s CEO to today, Lew continues to turn to Northwestern’s entrepreneurial community for support. Northwestern alums have been her mentors, her clients, and her friends.

“When I think about what Northwestern taught me in terms of being an entrepreneur, I don’t want to exaggerate,” says Lew, “but it kind of taught me everything.”

Lew first considered entrepreneurship as a possible career path when she took a class in the Harvey Kapnick Center for Business Institutions taught by Troy Henikoff, now a lecturer at the Kellogg School of Management. Henikoff was formerly the managing director of Techstars, a startup incubator, and is now a client of Know Your Company.

“Troy’s class changed my life. It opened my eyes to the possibility of using what I learned from my learning and organizational change major—how to ask questions and implement feedback –to build my own company around what I love to do,” Lew says.

It's amazing to reflect on how much Northwestern has given me in terms of my entrepreneurship career.”

Claire Lew
CEO, Know Your Company 

“Fast-forward a few years later, when I’m actually running Know Your Company, it’s incredible how some of the professors, some of the connections that I made, help me make hires, help me find interns, helped me find legal counsel when I was first getting started. It’s amazing to reflect on how much Northwestern has given me in terms of my entrepreneurship career.”

Lew was invited back in 2017 to teach at the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and to mentor students at The Garage, Northwestern’s on-campus hub for student entrepreneurs – offering mentorship, founder programs, and a makerspace.

“It was truly an honor to be invited, and teaching that entrepreneurship class is maybe one of the most rewarding things I think I’ve done,” Lew says. “I try to tell my students to lean on their community of peers. It’s the best network and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have had my Northwestern community supporting me through my journey as an entrepreneur.”

As a CEO herself, Lew also lives the philosophy she espouses: that leaders have to be agile and stay ahead of trends. To do so, she relies on the two things that have made Know Your Company so successful – asking questions and listening. In the next few months, she will travel the world running workshops for managers at every level who want to learn how to give and receive feedback, drawing from their experiences to make Know Your Company even better.

“What I would love to do is to figure out how to scale that program so that any new manager can learn how to create an open and honest work environment,” Lew says. “If we can help the thousands, hundreds of thousands, or possibly millions of people who wake up every day wanting to make their companies better, that’s when we’ll have done what we set out to do.”

A Supportive Community of Entrepreneurs

Northwestern encourages entrepreneurs, like Claire Lew, to turn their scholarship into impact. From healthcare to energy and the environment, see how our community is working to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

Published: August 07, 2018. Updated: August 08, 2018.

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