Lullabot converted to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) in January 2021. Since then, at an organizational level and in individual discussions and ruminations, we have been thinking more deeply about what it truly means to be colleagues as well as co-owners.
What does equity mean to us?
In a cooperatively-owned endeavor, what does ownership look like and feel like, and what does it mean to have a truly equitable stake in the company's future?
Equity means different things, depending on the context.
- In the diversity, equity, and inclusion space, equity (see this graphic on equity vs. equality) typically refers to the ability to have fairness and justice in how people are treated and how policies are implemented, particularly with respect to historically marginalized populations in the United States. The majority of our Bots are based in the US, and I'm writing from my perspective as someone born and raised in North America working at a US-based company.
- In the capital markets, equity means an actual ownership stake in the production of outcomes in the form of equities: stocks or shares, or even rents or royalties based on ownership of the property.
- In the decision-making process, equity refers to allowing wide stakeholder contributions to the discussion and fostering a longer deliberation process and an ultimate end decision that has been collaboratively agreed upon by all.
What about at Lullabot? What does equity mean to each of us? CEO Seth Brown has written that "We have always believed in equity and inclusion as central tenets of our culture. Becoming 100% employee-owned through an ESOP allows us to take these values to the next level and show the team we really mean it."
Note that each Lullabot has a true stake in the outcome (this is also the name of a book that many of our leadership team have read and recommend, called "A Stake in the Outcome: Building a Culture of Ownership for the Long-Term Success of Your Business," by Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham). Each person on staff has an opportunity to be a beneficiary of the ESOP trust and to provide guidance and direction on how our collaboration evolves. With 65 people currently on staff, we sit with much potential and possibility, and we desire, as a whole, for our people - our colleagues and co-owners – to feel they can bring all of their skills to the work, to know they are a valued part of the ongoing process, and to contribute to making our company a better, more inclusive, equitable place for all of us - where each of us may continue to grow, learn, and thrive.
Some basic concepts that are important to us as a company, that have been thought-through by the co-founders and senior leadership and have percolated to all aspects of our company, include:
- Belonging as a large part of our culture: fostering the sense that, like the open source Drupal DNA from which we originated, all of us are able to do our best work by bringing our full selves.
- Co-ownership as a guiding principle: the ESOP continues Lullabot's drive to create a sense of shared responsibility and mutual respect toward building a vehicle that helps all of us get to where we want to go as colleagues and co-creators.
- As always, our Core Values lead all of our decisions: we continually review and refine these values to become hands-on, practical embodiments of our company. Our values help us clarify what type of environment we are co-creating and help us cross-check if we are, indeed, following through with what we stated.
- Psychological safety as the bedrock of the organization has been a practice we think has helped us navigate the very tough problems we are called upon to solve on behalf of our enterprise clients.
Everyone wants to make a positive difference in their life and work. We believe our direction as a company helps facilitate this. We get to work with like-minded, ambitious, smart, and proactive teammates on complex projects that touch millions of users.
What some of our people say
One of our newest additions, Iesha Copeland, explains, "Aside from the literal definition, equity means action. It goes beyond the theoretical concept of being equitable and intentionally displays actions that show commitment to creating space for everyone to thrive. Before joining Lullabot, I had observed DEI being mentioned at organizations haphazardly, with equity often being completely overlooked. At Lullabot, the difference is apparent. From being an ESOP to having an extremely collaborative culture, the company's dedication to seeing each employee thrive as people (which ultimately makes them all the more committed to their jobs) is exhibited every day. Equity is a part of the foundation and reverberates through the culture."
Flash Gooden, who joined in April 2022, mentions, "For me, having equity in Lullabot means I'm trusted to have an impact to help create change and bring my own expertise into the company. I think that it's important that everyone's voice can be heard. I feel like Lullabot helps set that stage by having conditions and conversations that help newer Bots feel empowered. Being an employee-owner here helps me feel like I have a real responsibility to help the company succeed. I understand that the biggest asset is myself and the effort I put into this organization."
Lacie Stiewing, who joined the team in October 2021, shares her reflection: "Lullabot is unlike any company I've ever worked for, and for this, I am eternally grateful. From the job post through the hiring process to the start of my employment, I was treated like a human. An individual. I was treated professionally from my very first contact. When you join Lullabot, you are immediately trusted. Our CEO schedules a meeting with every new hire, so you can get some one-on-one time to get to know each other. Remarkable. This is also not the standard practice I've experienced elsewhere.
"Lullabot hires people you'd want to co-own a company with. Everyone on the team recognizes the value of diversity in race, ethnicity, gender, experience, age, etc., which is key to a successful business. My co-owners are brave, humble, talented, curious, kind, fun, and everything one could want in a coworker. Technically I am not vested as an employee-owner until 1-year with the company, but I have been treated as an equal/employee-owner since the very first day I started... Coworkers give credit for the work you do and recognize you kindly and with fervor."
Andy Blum mentions, "My understanding of equity is that it's equal access to outcomes as opposed to equal access to opportunity or equal access to help. If social equity is equal access to outcomes of social matters (quality of life, happiness, treatment under the law, etc), then financial equity as an employee-owner at Lullabot would be equal access to the outcomes of the company. When Lullabot enjoys financial success, then the employee-owners do as well."
Megh Plunkett responds, "For me, overall, it means that I have a stake in the company doing well, beyond Lullabot just being my employer that pays me a salary. There is more impetus to think about ways to improve and to do things that make the company thrive and continue to be successful. Ultimately I will benefit from that success based on my shares. Now that we are an ESOP, it isn't up to only the owners to decide how to spend profits, there is an ESOP board that the leadership answers to."
An employee-owner hire from the class of 2022, Stephanie Ganzer, relates, "Equity has so many layers for me. Very few companies strive to implement equity from a social, professional, and financial front. From day one, Lullabot trusts and empowers their bots to make decisions based on their experience and expertise and gives them the opportunity to put their personality into the role. As a company focused on the success of each of their fellow bots, I was blown away by the support and resources the team provides, no matter the ask. The community created within Lullabot is unmatched and creates healthy (safe) spaces for everyone to be themselves. Additionally, having financial equity in the company fuels my excitement for Lullabot's growth and success and pushes me to bring my best to the team."
Upon creating the ESOP, former CEO and co-founder Matt Westgate wrote, "Our north star has always been that the company's goals can be aligned with the team. I know of no more significant way to demonstrate that than through employee ownership. They all have earned their stake in the outcome."
As a group of colleagues and co-owners, we are continuing to build as equal co-owners and sharing our knowledge along the way. We invite you to learn more about ESOPs at the National Center for Employee Ownership at nceo.org.