Many young startups focus on attracting talent: budding engineers, hungry sales reps and visionary product pros. But startups that want to become world-class employers also focus on hiring seasoned vets.
Take Dave, for example.
After raising $50 million in Series B funding in September 2019, the banking app planned to use some of that money to hire its first chief people officer. But as a fast-growing startup, Dave didn’t necessarily have the same name recognition as some better-known tech brands.
Meanwhile, Shannon Sullivan, a former consultant with more than seven years of people experience at Hulu, was looking for a new career challenge where she could positively impact a company and its customers. A burgeoning tech startup would offer Sullivan plenty of challenges, but it would also be a calculated risk.
Luckily, Dave had something to offer that dozens of competitors might not: A clear, human-driven purpose.
“Dave’s mission is to advance America’s collective potential by creating financial opportunities,” Sullivan said. Their big attraction to their 7 million users is that they are a banking company without overdraw fees — an inconvenience that affected 25 percent of Americans within the last year. The banking app also offers users $100 advances, credit-building accounts, automated budgeting and even help finding side gigs. By building a people-focused banking app, Dave hopes to help support the long-term financial health of its users.
For Sullivan, Dave’s job opening was more than enticing; the fact that they were hiring their first CPO showed they were serious about executing on their values and building a more human-focused organization.
“Dave’s decision to hire a chief people officer and, to do so on the back of some already significant investments in the team, shows me that Dave is truly putting money and resources behind its intentions to be a world-class employer,” Sullivan said.
Now, it’s her turn to create a clear vision for Dave’s growing team. As CPO, Sullivan said it's her job to define and implement company culture in order to steer the company toward success. In support of the company’s mission statement, Sullivan is working to make the values of company culture apparent in every aspect of the employee experience, including interviews, performance reviews, leadership and more.
Below, Sullivan shared the inside scoop with Built In LA on what inspired her career change and how she will be using her previous experiences to help grow Dave in the right direction.
What’s your role and responsibilities at Dave?
As chief people officer at Dave, I oversee and drive the strategy for our company’s people function. I am responsible for creating a best-in-class employee experience. Working in close partnership with the executive team, the people function supports company growth and helps ensure we build a high-performing and productive team that aligns with our company values. We know we are doing our job when we have the right people in the right roles that are doing work that challenges and engages them. When this happens, we can ensure that we are delivering our mission to our customers.
Shannon, tell us about your prior work experience, including seven years at Hulu. What attracted you to the chief people officer role at Dave?
There were only 300 employees when I joined Hulu over seven years ago, and now, there are almost 3,000 employees. In my time at Hulu, I helped build the compensation and HR business partners teams from scratch and assisted maturing existing teams to ensure we met the demands of the business. And, my final role was leading the entire people function for Hulu, which spanned all of the traditional HR functions and also included D&I, corporate social responsibility, and people analytics.
I’m attracted to values and mission-driven companies and companies that are trying to disrupt their industry. Dave’s mission of advancing America’s collective potential resonates with me now more than ever. This year has brought many challenges such as the pandemic, mental health struggles and social unrest, and it truly feels like work that I’ve been doing for years in the people space is finally getting the attention and focus it deserves.
In my experience, it is common for a company at this stage to say that they prioritize talent. What’s far less common is to actually take the actions that back this up. Dave’s decision to hire a chief people officer and, to do so on the back of some already significant investments in the team, shows me that Dave is truly putting money and resources behind its intentions to be a world-class employer.
Once I met Jason Wilk, Dave’s CEO, I knew I had to join him. It’s rare to find the combination of someone who has a track record of building prior successful companies and a clear vision for what’s to come. He has a vision for the company as a strong long-lasting mission-driven organization and he will do whatever it takes to get there.
You’ve been at Dave for three months. What were your first impressions of Dave’s company culture? How will you influence that culture in your new position?
I was initially attracted to Dave by the company mission and values. On top of that, everyone I met during the interview process was very authentic, transparent and open with me regarding Dave’s strengths and opportunities. I saw a group of smart and ambitious people focused on the mission and doing whatever they can to achieve it. And at the same time, they didn’t have to sacrifice being nice, helpful and decent people.
One of the chief responsibilities of my role is to ensure we don’t leave our culture to chance. This means deliberately defining and stating the culture we want to have through a set of values that show up in every aspect of an employee’s experience. Values should be evident in the employer brand we project, the questions we ask candidates in interviews, how we assess who is ready for a leadership role, and so much more.
We’re farther on this than most companies at our stage and, at the same time, we have work to do. Our rapid growth and the sudden move to remote work has put a strain on culture-building, and I’m looking forward to the work that my team will be doing to ensure we build our culture in a very intentional way.
In your own words, describe Dave’s mission. Why is the company mission important to you on a personal level?
Dave’s mission is to advance America’s collective potential by creating financial opportunities. Just stating this mission makes me proud that I’m part of a company that sees the importance of taking on a mission this critical to the well-being of our society. In my own life, growing up and then throughout my HR leadership career, I’ve been fortunate to build close relationships with people across the wealth spectrum. And, I’ve seen the leg-up and the disadvantages that disparities in wealth can create in a community. Dave’s mission allows us to play a part in closing that wealth gap and ultimately creating stronger communities than we have today.
Dave’s mission is to advance America’s collective potential by creating financial opportunities.”
2020 has been tough. How has Dave maintained a strong company culture in spite of the year’s challenges? Any lessons you’ve learned as a leader?
So much of company culture is shaped around in-person interactions, so one of the most impressive things I noticed was how quickly the Dave team pivoted to remote work and redesigned many of their existing ways of connecting and informing people. One example is pivoting the company-wide all-hands meeting to a virtual format. As a result, people now feel like they have even more information than they did before and that’s key for people to feel connected to the culture.
Managers have also jumped in and over-indexed on trying to have more time with their teams, doing more one-on-ones to make up for all of the lesser planned, but productive, encounters we used to have. Now teams have to orchestrate social interactions more, leaning into doing team events, coffee chats and happy hours remotely. We realized this was going to be our reality for some time and adapted our former ways of connection to this new world.
As the pandemic continues, we’re finding ourselves continually challenged to solve problems on how to create authentic connection. But, from what I’ve seen so far, Dave is certainly up to this challenge.
Personally, this has been the most challenging year of my career and I would guess that most HR professionals would say the same. One of my key responsibilities is to make sure our company is creating a supportive, healthy, safe and productive environment for our employees.
Along with working, employees are also worried about their family’s health, how they will get their job done and educate their children, whether they are safe to leave their homes given the civil unrest in this country, the list goes on. In any given year, a team member could take on one of those things. But with all of this and more hitting at once, teams need leaders who focus on delivering business results, showing compassion, listening deeply, and having a true understanding of how the new reality we are living in impacts everyone.
We understand Dave’s team is growing at a rapid clip. What will hiring look like in the coming year? What do you look for in Dave candidates?
As Dave continues to scale, we will focus on bringing in and developing great people managers. We need proven leaders at all levels who set exciting visions for their team, coach their team members to achieve their greatest potential and work with ease across the company to create alignment and clarity around what work needs to get done. While we’ll be investing in people leaders across the board, there are certain functions where we expect to make big investments, like engineering, product and design.
As I said before, one of the most important roles of the people team is to be a steward of our company values. That starts with ensuring we’re hiring people excited by and demonstrating our company values. In the coming year, interviewees can expect more rigor in our process, especially around screening for company values.
We’re looking for people who have a combination of startup experience and also later-stage experience. We need people who are resourceful and can work within some of the resource constraints of a startup and can see around the corner and implement smart changes that we need to scale.
People management is a huge focus for Dave this year and next. Why is this such a big area of focus for Dave right now? How is Dave building up its current people managers and setting up new people managers for success?
In my experience both at Hulu and in consulting, world-class people managers at all levels make the difference between successful companies and companies that are truly formidable brands and employers of choice, which is what we want to be at Dave.
In my experience, most people have been fortunate enough to work with a great leader who has had a significant impact on their life. I’ve seen great leaders give feedback that no one else would, unlock a blind spot for someone and set off a chain of events that resulted in that person being in a role that they never dreamed possible. Great leadership and the chain of events that come from that have a multiplying effect on a team and a company’s performance.
So, as we go forward, we do not want to leave great leadership to chance. Like culture, this is something that we will be very deliberate about and that starts with ensuring that anyone who gets the honor and responsibility to manage people knows what we require of our people leaders and is set up for success.
A team is at its best when aligned to a common purpose.”
What lessons about team-building from your time at Hulu will you apply to your role at Dave?
A team is at its best when aligned to a common purpose. Having a mission statement is a great start to build from. Each team member has to know how they support the achievement of that mission and commit to each other on how they will work together and cross-functionally to deliver against that mission.
As a company scales, the teams’ ability to be focused not just on their own success, but also on the success of the people outside of their direct teams that they partner with is critical. Without this, silos form, duplicative work streams creep in and trust starts to erode. And, of course, values play a key role here. A common set of company values should serve as the lens through which decisions are made and guide teams around what behaviors are needed for the team to be successful.
Finally, organizations need to prioritize and support the development of emotional intelligence in their talent development roadmaps. This was something that we focused on with great success in my former career.
When you have a clear mission, commitments to ways of working, a strong values set and team members who can effectively understand, use and manage their emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict, you will have a good recipe for a strong team.
What makes it a compelling time for new employees to join Dave?
Dave has been incredibly successful in its short existence. Our product is incredibly relevant and I can’t think of many things more exciting than our mission to create financial opportunity that advances America's collective potential. If you want to be a part of a business that strives to make a difference, this is a great place to be.
Dave has been building up its leadership team with some really strong hires who can guide the company to even bigger growth. We have an amazing combination of established leaders who have done this before as well as the people who have gotten the company to where we are now and know our customers and product extremely well. That combination of the two working together makes for a lot of potential in the future.