Creating a Culture of “From”

By Jessica Henry, M engage Program Director

I am back and (for reasons not even known to me) I am user proper capitalization!

Yesterday, I sat down for lunch with one of the most connected individuals I have met him the Bay Area.

The funny part is…he’s from Ann Arbor.

Or, well, he’s originally from Virginia,  but he’s currently from Ann Arbor. So he – and his skateboard – got out of the Uber in front of Serpentine restaurant in the Dog patch neighborhood…and at this point, many of you already know who I am talking about.

While I met him only yesterday, I have known of Dug Song (BS, Computer Science) since a few weeks (possibly days) into my role with Michigan last spring. His company, Duo Security, is one of the growing number of major success stories of companies “Made in A2.” He was featured in last year’s Finding Michigan’s Mojo feature (“startups are the punk rock of business!”). And he had actually met fellow interviewee Dan Lynch at a skate park in Ann Arbor almost 20 years ago. There was a lot of second-degree connections already (I take no credit in that, I think Dug is second-if-not-first-connected to most people), just as there was a lot of content in our hour+ lunch. And while I did not set out to turn said lunch into an interview or an article – there have been many profiling Dug, his company, and his commitment to Ann Arbor – I am a sucker for any good conversation around people, culture, and talent.

In the last year, a few of my coolest conversations have been with Emily Tsiang (MBA); the work she is doing with CultureLabx is awesome, as they refocus the culture conversation on the people, rather than the “pizza and pingpong.” I loved Brian Chesky’s musings last fall, quoting Peter Thiel’s candid advice to him not about product or management, but about culture. So yes, I love a good culture conversation…and this one with Dug just happened to be a great one.

It was near the end of our lunch (kale salad and Coke for me), as we talked about building a culture while building a product and a company: It is important that we create a company that our team members can be from, not just one our team members work for.

Be…from? Like, being from a company? Wha…?

I have thought about this a lot in the last 24 hours. From. We all consider ourselves from somewhere (the people behind The Home T are banking on that, actually). Whether a recent graduate or retiree, one of the most common questions we get when meeting someone new is, of course, “where are you from?” It provides a point of connection, a point of reference. Where were you shaped? Where is your network? Where is your foundation? We dutifully answer with our home country, state, or city. But: what if we thought about where we are fromin our careers? Where were we shaped? Where did our network start? Would it be your first company, or perhaps your fifth? Or perhaps you haven’t yet had the experience of being professionally from somewhere? For me, again because I have had a 24-hour head start to think about it, I am from a university in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. It wasn’t my very first company (and I have much respect for all of my employers and teams), but it was the one that provided most of my professional foundation.

How wonderfully refreshing to hear a CEO and Founder talk about his company as an organization to be from, as much as it an organization to be in. Dug is truly invested in talent: culture, development, recruitment (Laszlo Bock of Google similarly defines his People Operations team as “find them, grow them, keep them”). He looks at part of his role as a champion not only of innovation but for talent, and promotes development plans (growth for the future) over performance plans (fixing the past). Talent comes in and talent is rewarded, with promotions happening year round and growing talent from within is proven rather than simply touted. So while we might not be able to choose where we are from in the traditional sense, as founders we can create a culture of from, and as team members we can choose a culture of from.

And so I write this to our students currently seeking an innovative internship or full time role within an innovative company: you have a choice not only where you want to go, but where you want to be from. I also write this to our current and aspiring entrepreneurs, the entrepreneurs who are – understandably – focused on their product, diving into their customer discovery data, and worrying about funding. The entrepreneurs sitting at a table-of-one and considering a co-founder, just as the entrepreneurs looking at the team of 100 that they have found/grown/kept. Consider building a company that your team – and you – can be from. One that provides the coaching, the network, and the experiences that turn into career foundations and professional launchpads. And just as Dug is staunchly proud of Duo Security being from Ann Arbor, I am sure his team members are as proud of being from Duo Security.