We use our cell phones for everything these days: watching movies, buying groceries, transferring money, and even for making a phone call on occasion!
Now, thanks to Empower Work Founder and Executive Director Jaime-Alexis Fowler, you can use your phone to get free, expert guidance on a challenging work situation via text or web chat.
“Our vision is that anyone in the United States who is a working professional has an accessible advocate when they need help grappling with a work challenge,” Fowler says.
Here at Idealist Careers, we’re all about accessible career support. That’s why we offer the largest online collection of high-quality, inspiring, and useful social-impact content, and why we make all of it free.
But two things about Empower Work caught our attention: the ability to interact with a career expert in real time and the organization’s status as a nonprofit that serves workers in all industries and sectors. We spoke with Fowler about Empower Work’s beginnings, why she chose to establish it as a nonprofit, and more.
The answers below have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did Empower Work get started?
In 2017, I was helping to coach someone in my network through a tough work situation, and I had reached the end of my knowledge. I wanted to refer them to someone else, but the people who came to mind were expensive executive or career coaches, which wasn’t going to work for this person. I kept thinking there had to be a place to refer people in these situations, so I started digging around.
I soon realized that wasn’t the case. There are some resources that are provided by companies, mostly well-resourced ones. But there are 90 million workers in the U.S. who don’t have access to employer-provided services, such as an Employment Assistance Program (EAP) or internal coaching. And there are a number of folks who wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to their employer even if they did provide those resources.
So, then my questions became, "Why aren’t there more resources, and how do we change that?" I started with a broad survey that went all over the country—across demographics, industries, age levels—to understand what people were experiencing, what resources they were accessing when they ran into work challenges, and what could be better. From that initial research, I started to see some trends, and that’s where the idea of something that’s free, immediate, anonymous, and very accessible came from.
Q: What trends did you find in your research that informed the creation of Empower Work?
Running into something challenging at work was almost universal. 95% of the people who filled out the survey had experienced something challenging at work. That wasn’t surprising to me; what surprised me was the severity of the situation, and what happened next.
Over 80% of that 95% expressed that the situation was extraordinarily challenging. And then of those 95%, almost half left their jobs as a result. When I dug into the stories of the half that left, I noticed two trends: Many people ended up in more positive situations. But there was a negative trend for those who were the first in their family to join an industry, first in their family to go to college, women, people of color, or LGBT individuals. Many people in these groups who left their job after a challenging work situation left without the next job lined up, left for a lower-paying job, or left the industry altogether.
I wondered what could have changed that. Looking into the survey data, about 40% of respondents that faced something challenging didn’t have someone to talk to about what they had experienced. So, there was a correlation: if you were in one of those groups, you were more likely not to have somebody to talk to about what you were experiencing and you were more likely to face something more negative as a result of that challenging situation. That was an aha moment. So now, I wanted to know how we could make sure that everybody has somebody to talk to who is knowledgeable, experienced, trusted, and available in that moment.
Q: Why did you choose to establish Empower Work as a nonprofit?
There were a couple of different paths that I looked into, and we have a few different earned revenue models that we want to test as we build and grow. But at the end of the day, structuring it as a nonprofit means that any revenue goes back to the mission. We’re not interested in making a profit; we are interested in serving people who don’t have access to these types of resources.
[Editor’s note: Thinking of starting your own nonprofit organization? Check out the Idealist Careers social entrepreneurship topic for tips and advice!]
Q: Like many nonprofits, Empower Work has volunteers. What is your volunteer program like?
The volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, but they are all working professionals who care about our mission. We look for people who care about positive work experiences, have a passion and an interest in empathy and inquiry, and are interested in leveling up their skills in some way.
We provide a pretty robust three-session video training that covers a range of different skills you need to serve the people reaching out to us. We also hear from volunteers that they use the new skills and tools from their training in their own workplaces.
After the training, volunteers go through a series of practice conversations before going live on the line. It can be from your couch, your office—anywhere with a secure internet connection. We ask people to volunteer for a minimum of two hours a week for six months after completing their training.
[Editor’s note: Want to volunteer for Empower Work? It’s one of the many ways you could volunteer in your pajamas—yes, we’re serious!]
Q: Since you run a career-focused nonprofit, we can’t end without asking for your advice! What would you say to someone reading this interview who is dealing with a tough work situation?
The big takeaway is you’re not alone. It is something we all experience. The challenge of going through something tough at work is that it can feel very isolating and personal. That’s why it’s important to find someone who can help you grapple with the situation, whether that’s someone at Empower Work or someone in your network.
Find someone who is informed and thoughtful, and who isn’t going to tell you what to do but rather is going to help you to create a safe space to have that conversation. Our model is focused on reaching the best outcome for the individual. We would never tell someone they should go in a specific direction because that direction may work for one person but it may not work for the next.
Our goal is not to solve everyone's problem; instead, we partner with them so they can figure out the next step that works for them.
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As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.