Loralyn Mears, PhD
The World Needs Sweaty Changemakers More Than Ever
This article was originally published on March 31, 2020 at https://gritdaily.com/women-in-tech-changemakers-atlasgo/
COVID-19 needs no introduction; it’s changed how we breathe, work and live. But it doesn’t mean that we stop trying to be the changemakers that our world needs us to be right now. Instead, we must try harder and find creative ways to stay healthy and be part of the collective effort helping the world. Now, more than ever, people are struggling to come to terms with a new normal, they’re working at home if they can, foundations have canceled the runs and walks that are critical to their existence, and people can’t participate in outdoor activities the way that they once did.
But there’s a solution to some of these challenges. The three founders of atlasGO, Thomas Querton, Magali Mathieu and Olivier Kaeser hail from different parts of the globe but united in Silicon Valley around a shared passion for social entrepreneurism. These changemakers have developed a fitness and wellness app that helps your employees stay healthy & connected, organizes virtual races for charities and plants trees every time you walk or run! Everybody wins with atlasGO.
Grit Daily caught up with Querton and Mathieu to learn more about their organization’s efforts to create an army of “sweaty changemakers.” atlasGO tracks your fitness and well-being initiatives and turns those efforts into dollars for charity. In simple terms, the organization is founded on the premise of “sweating for the cause.”
Grit Daily: Tell us about where the idea of atlasGO came from.
Thomas Querton: I’m a serial social entrepreneur so I’m always thinking about ideas like this. I was running in Belgium in a 20 km (12.4 mi) race about 6 years ago and noticed that everyone was running for a cause they cared out. Some people were running as a means of self-care, health and wellness but most of the runners were also participating because they wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves. That was the impetus; to be part of a community that was making an impact. I had this idea for an app that changemakers could use every day as a means of funding the non-profit interests of their choice. The only challenge was that I didn’t know where to start. That’s when I came to San Francisco and met Magali and Olivier. We sat down together to figure it out and that’s how atlasGO was borne.
GD: Here at Grit Daily News, we’re focused on stories, causes, founders and investors that support women. How does atlasGO enable, promote or support women?
Magali Mathieu: More than anything, the effort started with us becoming a united team. Oli, Thom and I understand the importance of diversity and recognize that gender isn’t the only factor. Today, we have 10 people on our team representing eight different nationalities: that can create some challenges around communication but that’s also precisely what makes things interesting. Through a chance encounter that’s only likely to happen in Silicon Valley, I was in a ride-share vehicle returning home after a yoga class and the woman who shared the ride with me was part of a Facebook Tech Group. Three days later, we met up and we instantly knew that she was the perfect CTO for us because she asked about our team dynamic, how we planned to make an impact and if we were offering a team experience or a job. She was our first hire who then hired another woman as our first junior developer. Soon thereafter, we added a Director of Marketing who is also a woman plus two other developers, both male, to balance us out.
GD: How was the name, atlasGO, generated?
TQ: We thought about it a lot, actually. “Atlas” represents the world and “go” represents movement, together, they describe exactly what we’re doing. We’re building a global community of sweaty changemakers who are on the go, literally moving for their fitness and wellness, but who are also moved enough to take action to help solve the problems around them. Change takes time, effort and a team effort to move the needle.
GD: What’s the response been to atlasGO thus far?
MM: The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and we’re extremely grateful. Everything takes work but it’s so gratifying when you see results and when you’re building something for others who share your mindset.
GD: Given the global pandemic, can you tell us how you’re helping employers stay engaged with their employees and helping non-profits with ‘virtual races?’
MM: We’ve built exciting #flattenthecurve employee engagement challenges. These challenges will help encourage employees to stay active & mindful, allow employees to connect with virtual high fives, photos, positive message and other efforts to preserve the company culture in this difficult time. The idea behind these initiatives is to keep employees engaged, connected and active while practicing social distancing. We have also been launching virtual races for nonprofits and other organizations looking to raise funds for their cause and keep their communities active. These virtual races don’t have to be distance-based, they can include any activities for any duration.
GD: The tech community is pretty small and tight; everyone seems to be well-informed about other companies’ efforts. We’ve heard stories about how well you all work as a team, how do you do that?
MM: We are learning as individuals, as leaders, as a team, and as a company every day. To grow together, we need to have strong communication and open dialogue. Each month, the three founders host an in-person “Courageous Conversations” session. We check in with each other on a deeply personal level, genuinely interested in how we’re each doing and then we dig into how we feel about the team and our growth. We ask each other if we’re having the impact we want if we’re still on-point with our vision or has our vision shifted? By design, we make ourselves both vulnerable and accountable to each other. “Well-being” is the ethos of our company. Each meeting begins with a brief meditation to get us all grounded and focused, we check in personally with a red / yellow / green traffic light personal assessment of our how the day is going and then the meeting starts. Demonstrating that we care for each other first enables us to move forward with our business.
TQ: In addition to what Mag said, we’ll sit in a café together, ask how the person we’re with is really doing. Creating that safe space for people to share with and listen to each other is one of the reasons why we work so effectively together. This level of communication allows us to spend a lot of time together yet remain connected and united on the vision. Like other companies, we’ve had our share of difficult conversations, particularly equity. That’s a topic that isn’t based on technology or clear objectives, it’s all about ego and emotions so it’s very tough to work through.
GD: You’re mentioned how much you all care for each other and promote self-care, can you give us a concrete example of what that looks like?
MM: Here in Silicon Valley, it’s a toxic “busy culture” tech bubble where the less that you sleep and the more that you work, the higher the esteem that you garner. That goes against who we are. When we first started, the three of us went without pay or a vacation for more than a year and it was a real wake-up call for us, what kind of business were we building, promoting health and wellness as changemakers, when none of us could take a week or two off for a vacation? We want there to be openness, respect for each other and our different religions and genders, but we want employees to feel comfortable talking about the things that matter to them in front of others. For example, if one of us ladies is having horrible menstrual cramps that day, we say it, we take the time off work that we need to ensure that we’re at our best when we’re here.
GD: You’re coming up on your 3rd anniversary of launching your app. Congratulations! And, what have you learned?
MM: One of the big learnings is how long it actually takes to evolve from an idea or concept into an actual business. By the time that you build your team, raise funds, and start generating revenues, you become faced with figuring out how to sustain yourselves then how to move onto the next level. It takes way longer to get up and running than you’d think it would. We all thought it would have progressed much faster. We’ve asked ourselves if we knew what it was going to take, would we still have done it? The answer, of course, is an emphatic yes. And it has to be – if you’re not doing what you’re passionate about it, you’ll never make it through the rough patches and unexpected surprises, like how we grew so fast internationally given each of our origins and what that meant for our business in terms of app flexibility, language translation and more.
TQ: It is so cool and humbling to see people running all over the world as a tech company that’s having an impact on a global stage. On a personal level, I thought that I needed to have the answer for everything as the CEO and to be this visionary that had it all figured out. What I learned is that I needed to ask the right questions and figure out who to ask. And that I needed to listen. This mindset shift alleviates the pressure to be right and perfect all the time and it works if you surround yourself with others who are smarter than you and can teach you what you need to learn. The “5-year Cash Out” mentality we’re surrounded by here isn’t one we share so we’ve tuned it out. Here at atlasGO, we’re in it to win it for the long haul which means we need to make an effort not to burn out or flame out. This mindset towards self-care company-wide makes us more productive, and healthy.
GD: Pivots are an interesting and often difficult aspect of life, work and business. Have you had any personal pivots? What about atlasGO, has the model changed in any way since you launched?
TQ: We launched with the concept of a free app where sponsors paid for it every time that you worked out so that those dollars were converted into funds for charities. At that time, we counted on ads revenues which was a challenging business model without a big user community. From there, we evolved into an offering that companies providing as an internal initiative to drive employee engagements which turned out to be the better model. So far, we’ve raised more than $1 Million and we’ve worked with over 100 clients and partners around the world and we’ve created a community of more than 50,000 changemakers. We listen closely to what our customers want: our sweaty changemakers wanted us to expand beyond running so we added biking, meditation, yoga and more. We also wanted to shift our focus to environmental sustainability and creating communities that rally around a single cause, whatever cause that is that our clients want to raise funds for and be it for a virtual activity or an in-person one. Beginning now, with Earth month ahead, we’re committed to raising funds, through our atlasGo app, to plant 100,000 trees here in California.
GD: To date, what’s the strangest reaction that you’ve seen to atlasGO?
MM: We get a lot of people that smile, laugh and like the tagline about “sweaty changemakers” because it’s different. In Europe, we’ve had a few people from financial institutions said we have a sweat fetish and we use too many emojis!
TQ: Having left the restrictive culture of corporate France, we’re enjoying being away from it and having freedom. That fun and relaxed culture brings a different energy to meetings and people really appreciate it. Of course, you need to respect cultural norms and differences, but we still bring the energy!
GD: Tell us about your selection process to identify the right co-founders and any best practices that you’ve learned about working with them.
TQ: The combination of being able to meditate and hold “Courageous Conversations” with each other was a key way to establish and maintain that we’re united in our philosophy and working together towards something greater. When one of us is having a “red light” day, it means that we need space and a little TLC, which we offer to each other to keep the energy in the office going.
GD: Do you wish that you had done anything differently?
MM: It’s more of a continuous improvement thing, where we’re always looking at how to do things differently and for the better. We’re still a startup with revenue targets and we can sometimes get siloed. When that happens, we say, ‘Hey, let’s take a breath, what’s the impact here? Are we just being service-level or how can we get deeper?’ It’s just too easy to get caught in the hamster wheel so we have frequent check-ins to ensure that we’re not blindly just hitting the numbers. We want to be here for the long haul and that takes constant learning.
TQ: It’s easy to look back and say, ‘We should have or shouldn’t have done X’ but, at the time that you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing, you don’t know any better. We’re changemakers and we learn from our own efforts and those of others. In hindsight, you can look back at what you did as a means of guiding how you’ll move forward. For example, we’re now better at stopping things that aren’t working sooner and we’re more realistic and honest about what’s not working. We’re getting better at loosening our attachment to things but it’s hard to let go. We’ve been slow about letting people go, even when we know things aren’t working out and that’s not good for us, for them or for our business to give those employees second and third chances in the hopes that they break up with us. We need to learn to hire better and let go sooner, even though it’s hard to do.
GD: Without divulging anything confidential, what’s on the horizon for atlasGO?
MM: We’re going to be planting lots of trees! We’ve previously done 1- and 3-month challenges, now we’re launching 12-month challenges which is more than unlocking dollars for a cause. Now, we’re changing the theme each month to focus on holistic wellness including mindfulness and acts of kindness to move a company’s culture into the sphere of well-being.
TQ: As changemakers, we’re very excited about our tree-planting initiative. Sweaty changemakers need to run four miles for every tree that will be planted. We’re focused on global reach and have the partners that we need to make it real for all our changemakers. To sign up for #Go4trees click here: go4trees.org