Founder + CEO of Summery, Erin Michelson, a frequent keynote speaker and author of the Adventure Philanthropist book series, is motivated to create profound individual, organizational, and societal change. Summery delivers AI technologies that quantify individual values and organizational culture. By leveraging behavioral science, they measure, assess, and activate stakeholder engagement and organizational cultural alignment.
What does “entrepreneurship” mean to you?
EM: To me, entrepreneurship is equal parts exploration and measured risk-taking. Entrepreneurs have an innate curiosity, as well as an ability to formulate new ideas and to create a vision for the future. But we need to balance this thrill of the unknown and appetite for risk with a business sense based on sound decision making. The goal is to create not just a profitable company, but one that serves the greater purpose of fundamentally enriching the lives of both individuals and communities.
How did your company come to be?
EM: I wrote a book series called Adventure Philanthropist after traveling the world for two years volunteering with humanitarian organizations. My goal was to share the joy I found in volunteering and to inspire others to find professional and personal fulfillment through social impact activities. And yet, while the book was successful, folks couldn’t see themselves living my extreme lifestyle.
So I decided to build the tools to help people first understand their values and then easily activate their values. I recruited an ex-Google engineer to build the prototype of The Kind Quiz and quickly assembled Summery’s A-team to help build out this vision of participatory philanthropy—where we can each engage in a way that is highly customized and personally fulfilling.
How has your business changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
EM: Summery’s products are 100% virtual. We were also a dedicated-remote company before the pandemic, so our business operations haven’t missed a beat even though the need for our product usage has dramatically increased. The organizations we work with—companies, colleges, nonprofits—now more than ever are seeking to create a shared culture and build an authentic community through social impact.
What is your proudest and darkest moment so far? Share a key high and a key low from your journey if you can.
EM: Lows – It’s always a somber moment when someone leaves our team. It’s important to me to create a positive, supportive work environment where everyone can make a significant contribution and grow their careers. When a colleague departs, I take time to reflect on why and how we could have better fulfilled the promise of the partnership.
Highs – I get so excited to see how our products create value for our clients. And during the last few months, we’re seeing record-level ROI. For instance, one client had their initial mailing list triple with qualified donor prospects in less than two months. Another client recouped their initial financial investment in just two weeks.
How is your company changing the landscape?
EM: Organizations understand that a healthy culture is important for employee fulfillment and organizational growth, but until now there was no way to measure culture. Summery leverages behavioral science and AI to quantify individual values and cultural alignment between key stakeholders and an organization.
We then provide opportunities to activate your values by matching you with personalized social impact activities. At the organizational level, we create a baseline for executives and Board of Directors to measure changes in organizational culture, as well as assess and monitor the alignment between aspiration and action.
What do you wish you knew when you started? Is there anything you would do differently?
EM: Entrepreneurship can be lonely, especially as a solo founder. And while I wouldn’t change my decision to strike out on my own, this means that you alone make the hard decisions and the pressure can be intense. To counter this isolation, I’ve learned to be more vulnerable and to actively reach out to my team of advisors, not only to solicit their professional opinions but also for emotional support.
What advice/credo do you live by as you grow the business / what is your professional and personal mission statement?
EM: Our entire business is based on the idea that kindness is compounding. When you are kind to yourself, you’re more likely to be kind to others, and as a result, the world becomes kinder. We use this lens of kindness as we leverage advanced science and technology to align values and culture so individuals and organizations can thrive.
On a more personal level, my team and I are committed to an ethical approach to AI and data analytics. We do this by centering the individual’s privacy and protection. We also strive to remain vigilant as technology evolves and to be open to change. You can read more about our approach in this two-page overview: Summery’s Ethical Data Policy.
Where do you find inspiration when faced with challenges?
EM: I’m a huge fan of the Japanese concept of “forest bathing” or shinrin-yoku, which is the improvement of one’s mental or physical health by being in the presence of nature. If I start to feel overwhelmed, I head outdoors to recharge, gain perspective, literally give myself the space to breathe.
What does “success” look like for you? What do you think will help you achieve it?
EM: To me “success” is systems change—enhancing the lives of individuals and creating lasting benefits to society. Our goal is to harness our collective kindness through social impact to build a more humane experience and existence for us all.
Has personal or professional “success” changed for you since the COVID-19 pandemic?
EM: With the pandemic, the pace of our business has picked up. There is now an urgency to our work. Before with onsite work environments, the culture or essence of the company could be shrouded in lunch-time perks and employee benefits. But the pandemic has laid bare the importance of shared values, an aligned culture, and an authentic, active community.
What’s it like to work alone or with your partners? What advice do you have for fellow entrepreneurs about building and leading teams?
EM: The best lesson regarding team building came early. Because I bootstrapped the company, there were limited funds to compensate consultants, so I relied heavily on my advisors, asking them to trade their talents and experience for equity. Each time they said “yes,” I was grateful for their generosity and trust. This mindset has stayed with me. I never forget that the people who work alongside me are doing me a favor and so I approach my closest professional relationships with a sense of gratitude.
Many entrepreneurs continue to perfect their daily routines to support their work and greater vision; would you mind sharing your morning routine or a regular ritual that grounds your work each day? How has it changed in recent months?
EM: Since the pandemic, I’ve realized a greater need for balance and recently changed my schedule to work 6:00 am-6:00 pm. This not only makes me more available to our East Coast and international clients, but I’ve learned to treasure the quiet before sunrise and take the first few hours of the day for reflective work.
What keeps you motivated during this time?
EM: Our business is to help people find personal and professional fulfillment and for organizations to create a culture that reflects and amplifies this unique set of shared values. Right now, I think people are scared and lonely. Many are searching for meaning in their lives and seeking connections. We provide a way for people to understand their values and find community.
What kind of an entrepreneur do you want to be known as, as in, what do you want your legacy to be?
EM: I’d like to be known as someone that not only believes in a more humane, generous existence, but also creates the opportunity for all of us to participate by contributing our own unique value profiles. Collectively we can realize this vision of a better, more equitable, and just world.
What is a quote or some words of wisdom that help get you through the tough days?
EM: There are no right decisions. Only a series of decisions that compound, creating a compelling business.
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