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  • Writer's pictureHolly Corbett

How One Tech Company Is Proving Why Taking Care Of Your Employees Is Profitable


Sonya Passi (left) with Chani Nicholas (right), the builders of the CHANI brand.
Sonya Passi (left) with Chani Nicholas (right), the builders of the CHANI brand. PHOTO CREDIT: CHANI

What if it were possible for a business to grow by 50% year over year, all while paying their employees a living wage starting at $80,000, implementing seven weeks of company-wide shutdowns as well as a four-day work week, providing employees with stipends for vacation, personal growth, tech and wealth building—and donating 5% of revenue to a non-profit?


These policies may sound unrealistic if you’re trying to run a business that actually makes money, but CHANI, an astrology-focused tech and media company, is showing how taking care of your employees while simultaneously giving funds to a social impact organization can also grow your bottom line.


Since the CHANI app first launched in 2020, the company has grown by more than 50% each year in terms of the number of subscribers and revenue; it now has more than one million downloads; and their employees have increased from three to 35 people in less than three years. In addition, CHANI donates 5% of their revenue to their sister organization FreeFrom, a non-profit that helps financially empower survivors of gender-based violence.


CHANI is eponymously named after the astrologer Chani Nicholas, the face of the brand that she founded with her social activist wife, a former investment banker, Sonya Passi. Passi says making money is of course important to them, but getting rich is not at the heart of why they built the foundation of their business on doing good.


“The quality of work that [an organization] can do in the world when the people who work with you are taken care of—and when you are generating abundance for more than yourself—is so much greater than when you're driven only by the bottom line,” says Passi, who serves as the CEO of both CHANI and FreeFrom. “If we didn't have the numbers to back it up, I think a lot of people would roll their eyes and say, ‘Well that's cute,’ but every single month since the app launched our numbers have grown. I'm the one who writes the check each month to give 5% of CHANI’s revenue to FreeFrom. I think living in a capitalist world, we are so indoctrinated with a scarcity mindset, and I refuse to invest in a scarcity mindset. I believe that abundance begets abundance, and my experience running these two organizations is showing this to be true.


Passi, who has been doing gender-based violence activism since she was 16, started her first non-profit to provide legal services to survivors while she was in law school at the University of California, Berkeley, before working as an investment banker in New York City, where she met Chani Nicholas in 2014. Passi launched FreeFrom in 2016 to create workplaces that work for survivors, while simultaneously building the CHANI business together with Nicholas. She modeled CHANI’s benefits structure after what she had already done at FreeFrom, which focused on creating cultures that allow survivors to thrive.


“The number one obstacle for the safety of survivors is financial insecurity,” says Passi. “We know safety is not achievable on a minimum wage. Also, 99% of survivors experience economic abuse, which looks like anything from having debt in your name that you don’t know about, to not having access to your own bank accounts. Finally, there is the gender and racial wage gap that means you’re already underpaid. The approach that I take to all of our work is that physical safety demands financial security.”


In addition to paying employees a living wage of no less than $80,000 (“A wage you can actually afford to live on in an expensive city,” says Passi), CHANI’s benefits includeunlimited menstrual leave, gender-based violence paid leave, four months paid parental leave, stipends for vacation, personal growth and wealth building, among others.

These benefits don’t follow the status quo, where policies such as minimum wage and national paid leave continue to be up for debate, but rather are designed to account for the space, time and money that Passi says healing trauma requires.


“If you can create a workplace where survivors can thrive, everyone can thrive,” says Passi. “What I know is for every employer that is actively trying to extract from their employees, there are two more that are just doing it because everyone else is. It's almost like they don't know their own power. Leaders have power not just within our own workplaces, but we have power to change culture.”


Creating a workplace structure where employees can thrive at work and home is not only the right thing to do; it also makes good business sense, given that the ongoing labor shortage may be here to stay, there has been a pandemic-fueled shift in employees’ placing greater value on their lives outside of work, and the fact that purpose-driven companies are more likely to attract and retain talent.


Milcah Halili, director of engineering at CHANI, who has been at the company for more than two years, says he was drawn to the company’s business-for-good ethos. “I looked at the job description and I loved the benefits that they offered. The company seemed to be human-centered first,” says Halili. “What really appealed to me at the time was I noticed CHANI gives 5% of the app’s proceeds to survivors through FreeFrom. That really spoke to me as a survivor myself. And so, despite not knowing that much about astrology at the time, that was enough for me to feel confident that this was the kind of company that I wanted to work for.”


In addition to a company’s purpose becoming increasingly important to employees, offering mental health benefits is also moving up on employees’ priority lists. Research finds there is a rise in mental health challenges ranging from anxiety to depression, and it could be costing the economy more than $47 billion annually in lost productivity.

CHANI is offering an alternative model for working: one that allows for employees financial empowerment while also giving more time and space to care for oneself. A side benefit for the company may be that employees may be better able to focus on work during their work day, leading to increased engagement and productivity.


“We're very clear with our teams that this is still a workplace,” says Halili. “This is not where we do the healing, but we encourage each other to heal on our own time so that we can show up for work.”


Policies are important for making workplaces more fair and ethical, but policies ultimately don’t make up workplace culture–people do. In a landscape full of buzzwords such as “wellbeing washing” making the news (which highlights the practice of companies promoting their wellness policies more to increase their employee brand than to truly prioritize employee wellbeing), authentically building cultures where people can better focus on work while also offering the space to tend to oneself are workplaces where people want to stay. This is key, given that the average cost of replacing an employee is one-and-a-half to two times their annual salary.


“I don't have a turnover problem,” says Passi. “I'm not wasting time, money and resources—both legal and HR—because I'm constantly losing people because they're exhausted or because they don't want to work in a toxic environment.”

Passi says paying people a living wage also benefits the bottom line. “We can do work that we're passionate about and we can love our jobs, but at the end of the day, the reason that my employees come to work is because they need to make a living,” says Passi. “And it costs the same amount of money, if not less, to pay people well and have them build expertise and longevity on your team as it does to short-change people a living wage and end up spending the same amount of money on HR, legal bills, rehiring and loss of productivity.”


The Great Resignation may be slowing, but the culture has changed and many people are no longer willing to burn themselves out to benefit the people at the top. In turn, workplace policies have been shifting, with more companies experimenting with a four-day work week. Research finds four-day work weeks may not only boost employee wellbeing, but also may actually increase worker productivity and even, slightly, profits. Yet the reality is that the benefits of other policies don’t always play out, such as the research that shows employees at companies with unlimited vacation policies actually take less vacation than those with a set amount of vacation days. If the workplace culture values work above all, employees won’t take it.


“One of the things that is challenging about cultivating this kind of culture is even though we offer these benefits, it doesn't mean that someone feels confident or empowered to take them,” says Halili. “A lot of the work that we do with our teammates—especially newer ones—is to guide them about unlearning that habit that they need to be constantly on or need to be constantly producing.”


Halili described a situation where his team was feeling a lot of pressure over a looming deadline, and pushed back against stopping work for two weeks during the company-wide summer break. So he talked over with his team about why they didn’t want to take off the two weeks, reminding them that they were performing better after taking off a week for the company’s spring break. “We're energized and more grounded right now because we've had that rest,” Halili recalls telling them. “After the break, we're able to communicate better and we're able to solve problems more creatively, because we're not coming from a place of lack or scarcity.”


The research supports that rest is productive as opposed to being always on, which can lead to a greater risk of burnout. All of this points to the fact that for businesses to thrive, people and society also need to thrive. The post-pandemic world is illuminating that we may need a new definition of what it means to ‘thrive’ exactly.


“I think it comes down to what your definition of success or wealth is,” says Passi. “For Chani and I, there is no individual wealth without the collective wealth and success. So I feel like I'm winning every single day because everyone [on our team] is experiencing abundance as well. Even if we had had a dip in sales, even if we had had a slow year, I would still feel like we were winning. I would still feel the abundance, because that's what I care about and what I value.”


*Article originally published in Forbes





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