Co-Founder Health-Ade Kombucha
"[M]eaningful work really comes from the individual, but institutions can help foster and create environments that allow individuals to flourish in what makes for joyful work. Culture is a huge element to company dynamic and is often the intangible force that allows someone to feel meaning in their work. The culture at Health-Ade was second to none and our team ran through walls for the business because they felt ‘it’."
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Meaningful work is the idea that one’s job provides for more than just a decent wage or salary. But what exactly does that mean since each of us tends to have distinct and different notions of meaningfulness. Work might be meaningful because it contributes to the greater good, allows one to do what one loves when not working, or helps to create a better sense of respect and self-esteem. Is there a way we can talk collectively about meaningful work? And if we can, how can we change our workplaces and institutions in view of making work meaningful?
Philosophy2u engages with academics specializing in work, economics, and finance; business leaders, business coaches and consultants, thought leaders to help better understand “What Is Meaningful Work?”.
It is a pleasure to introduce Vanessa Dew.
Vanessa Dew is an entrepreneur, investor, and advisor. In 2012, she co-founded Health-Ade, and, today, it is one of the most successful kombucha brands in the United States, with products sold in over 50,000 stores approaching $300 M in retail sales.
Beyond Health-Ade, Vanessa is an active investor and advisor to other entrepreneurs in consumer-packaged goods. She has helped launch and grow a number of successful emerging brands with a deep desire to uplift and empower other founders and entrepreneurs, particularly those that are female and Asian American.
Originally from Los Angeles, Vanessa received her BS in Biochemistry from UC San Diego and an MBA from the University of Southern California. She’s an active board member of the Asian Business Association (ABA), Naturally LA, and has spoken about her entrepreneurial journey from Singapore to NYC. She sits on the Advisory Council for Goldhouse and has been awarded the A100 Most Impactful Asians and NextGen Innovation Award.
As a new-ish mom of two, her activities lately include toddler music classes and playgroup but would typically include traveling, tennis, cooking, and dancing.
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How did you first become interested in the topic of meaningful work?
Meaningful work evolved over time where the day in and day out operational nature of business began to take a toll on my mental health. Even with the success of a growing and strong brand, I sought something deeper in what I was doing in my business and other areas of life that fulfilled me.
This also came alive for me as we started to hire more people in the business and it was no longer a rah-rah moment, it was about creating an environment for our employees that felt meaningful.
What to you are the most important features or qualities for making work meaningful?
There are many different factors that can contribute to making work meaningful, but I think the 3 most important ones include autonomy in one’s work, purpose or connection to the larger goal or mission, and seeing one’s impact come to life.
What to you are the most important obstacles to meaningful work?
Individually the obstacles could vary; but generally speaking, I believe the biggest obstacles include lack of purpose or understanding to the greater goal or mission, lack of autonomy to fulfill one’s part of their work or job, and not seeing the growth opportunities or impact of the work come to life that is able to propel that individual forward.
What individual steps are necessary for nurturing meaningful work?
The biggest step is reflection and self-awareness about one’s own values and goals. Whatever it is that matters most to the individual needs to be front and center. From there, the work and jobs agreed to or taken on should be fully in line with those values and purpose. There are probably many steps to help nurture meaningful work, but I believe the learning and developing of one’s skillset is huge. This gives confidence and it shows evolution and progress in the exact thing that gives purpose. Lastly, connecting with others and saying out loud what it is that individually gives you joy goes a long way. It’s one thing for a person to know what individually makes them feel joy in the work, but if other people can hear it, it means something.
What institutional steps are necessary for nurturing meaningful work?
I do believe meaningful work really comes from the individual, but institutions can help foster and create environments that allow individuals to flourish in what makes for joyful work. Culture is a huge element to company dynamic and is often the intangible force that allows someone to feel meaning in their work. The culture at Health-Ade was second to none and our team ran through walls for the business because they felt ‘it’. Providing opportunities for growth and development are huge—now this has to be within a realistic range for the company and the person/job, but without growth the people and the company will stay stagnant. Additionally, this idea of fostering community is so important. This shouldn’t be confused with fostering a ‘family feel’, where everyone is too nice to each other. This community connection is about support and care in the person, to hold them accountable and nurture them through the process. Lastly, recognition is HUGE. Big deal. How employees feel when they accomplish something is magnified once their peers and executives know and respect the work. There is a sense of accomplishment. But, again, all of this begins with the individual and knowing what intrinsically motivates them to feel connected.
Do you see any drawbacks for trying to make work meaningful?
For the individual, it could be overwhelming to find this nirvana-like state in the work. Sometimes meaning and that higher purpose are a journey; and people want a finish line. But it’s not like that; and people can become frustrated. Burnout is a real issue, as well as disillusionment, when you are on this quest to do the work that is deemed meaningful and it doesn’t materialize in actually being meaningful. For an institution, a big drawback could be resources devoted to individuals who may not be worth the investment or the efforts; and money could be better used elsewhere to allow for more productivity.
What practices or changes have you adopted to help make your work more meaningful?
I’m at a cross roads where my journey of finding purpose in the work goes deep. I’m doing a lot of self-reflection and slowing down. I think about what makes me happy and how I want to spend my time. It’s a luxury I know that I have, but I’m in search of a different fulfillment now.
Can you share a life lesson involving what to do or what not to do when trying to find a fulfilling career or job?
In business school, I observed a ton of my friends going into consulting. It seemed like the jet-setting lifestyle paid well. They were strategic in thinking and overall very dynamic people to work with. 10 years later, I probably have 1 friend left in that world from sheer nature of burnout and disillusionment with the whole system. A lot of them chased the money and compensation and some chased the clout or title of the work. It was all superficial and nothing actually gave them a career.
Do you have any book, film, podcast, or article recommendations for our readers that might help them better understand work or how to go about making a career change?
E-Myth is a book to help new entrepreneurs stuck in the work and its technical aspects to look outside of themselves and work on the business, not in the business.
Killing It by Sheryl O’Loughlin – really helps to put meaning in perspective for founders, especially women.
What question have you wanted to be asked (but never have been)?
If I had no fear of failure or losing money, what would I be doing?
And what is your response to this question?
I would start another company that helps celebrate Asian culture (not sure on the product or idea but that is the gist). Additionally, I would start a fund that would invest in women and specifically Asian American founders.
What is the best way for our readers to follow you?
Thank you for being our guest on Philosophy2u! We wish you the best in your future (meaningful) work!
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About the Interviewer
Dr Todd Mei is founder of Philosophy2u. He has over 20 years of research, publishing, consultation, and teaching in the areas of meaningful work, the philosophy of economics, ethics, existentialism, and hermeneutics. He is passionate about creating meaningfulness in work and believes strongly that it just takes the right kinds of leaders to take the bold step. Philosophy2u's aim is to provide these leaders with the necessary intellectual and practical resources.