Five Things: Karen Borchert at Millwork Conversations

Alpaca Founder and CEO Karen Borchert shared insight into her journey from nonprofit leader to tech executive to startup founder at the latest Millwork Conversations fireside chat.

Karen Borchert

Alpaca Founder and CEO Karen Borchert shared insight into her journey from nonprofit leader to tech executive to startup founder at the latest Millwork Conversations fireside chat. Borchert launched Alpaca, a teacher recognition and retention platform, in Omaha in 2022. Prior to that she served as chief operating officer at several companies, including Flywheel.

Here are five takeaways from the conversation:

Focus on the little wins. Don’t get discouraged by the scale of the problem you’re trying to solve. Taking small actions can still make an impact. “Solving teacher pay is a 30-year problem with a 12-year lifespan.” It’s hard to make progress because people are generally only concerned about the problem while they have children in school. In the meantime, putting money back in teachers’ pockets by providing them with classroom supplies they would otherwise spend their own money on is a “little win”. So far Alpaca has provided teachers with around $1M worth of school supplies, one care package at a time.

Your organization doesn’t have to be a nonprofit to do social good. Alpaca was founded with a mission to help teachers feel appreciated and has evolved into other areas of employee experience for educators. Alpaca is a for-profit company because the team is building a market solution to a market problem. “When we have solutions in the open market, to problems that address the market, then we can all win bigger.”

Don’t underestimate the power of community. Parents, school districts and principals pay the subscription cost to provide teachers with care packages as a gesture of recognition. The care packages are curated by educators for educators. Thank-a-thons and packing parties bring community members, including other startup teams, into the Alpaca office to help assemble care packages. Community plays an important role in Alpaca’s success.

Just ask. The Alpaca team started sending teachers a survey with their care packages, initially to collect feedback and requests related to the packs. “How are you doing?” was added with a list of words to select from. The response was overwhelming. The Alpaca team currently has around 16,000 responses tracking teacher sentiment across different cities. They are using that data internally to inform decisions about how and what to build, and working to make the insights actionable for their community of schools.

It’s all about culture. Some industries are known for attractive workplace culture, i.e. tech startups. Others, like education, are not. There is an opportunity to improve workplace culture and employee experience by applying tactics from industries that are already successful in those areas.

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