Be sure to live up to your company’s purpose while being purpose-driven in your own life as well. As hard as it is to manage when juggling the many hats that come with leading a company, make sure to prioritize taking care of yourself, not just your mission; positive impact should extend to yourself, and if it doesn’t, eventually your business will suffer for it. Seeing things through this lens has been helpful on my own (continuing) journey towards taking better care of myself.
In today’s competitive business landscape, the race for profits often takes center stage. However, there are some leaders who also prioritize a mission-driven purpose. They use their business to make a positive social impact and recognize that success isn’t only about making money. In this interview series, we are talking with some of these distinct leaders and I had the pleasure of interviewing Cooper Wechkin.
Cooper is the Founder & CEO of RyeStrategy, a hybrid software and service solution built for procurement organizations and small-medium sized businesses in need of comprehensive and affordable carbon accounting services. On track to be a consultant with McKinsey & Company, Cooper founded RyeStrategy while completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Washington, where he graduated summa cum laude. Following a successful funding round, Cooper now runs RyeStrategy full-time from his hometown of Seattle, Washington.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us your “Origin Story”? Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, with my parents divorced at the age of four. As a result, my mom raised me as a single mother for much of my childhood — I saw her run a number of businesses, from renting out our basement as an early host on Airbnb to her own private health practice and knew from an early age that I wanted to run my own business someday. I was fortunate enough to get started right away, with an organic fruit stand in elementary school, an online book business in middle school, and ultimately, the creation of RyeStrategy while in college. I had always been motivated by the notion of having both a positive impact and a successful career, but for a number of years, saw the two pursuits as separate, rather than complimentary.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
In late 2022 and early 2023, we had the fantastic opportunity to support and manage the carbon accounting process for the 2022–2023 College Football Playoff Championship held in Los Angeles, through the Green Sports Alliance. Our scope ranged from analyzing SoFi Stadium’s utility usage and waste impact during the event, to estimating emissions from 70,000+ attendees traveling to the game. While our focus is typically on supporting small and medium-sized organizations with their carbon accounting needs, this was too cool an opportunity to pass up! Ultimately, we supported the calculation of more than 35,000 metric tons of CO2e, and in partnership with the Green Sports Alliance, garnered media attention, as well as recognition from organizations such as the PAC12.
We often learn the most from our mistakes. Can you share one that you made that turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?
When I first started RyeStrategy, I was 20 years old, and had limited working experience, at least in the traditional sense. Naturally, as I planned out our first org. chart, I looked to plug the gaps where I felt the least qualified and experienced, settling on a sales position as one of our key first roles. Ultimately, we filled this position on two separate occasions, and both times, it didn’t work out. In the moment, these team adjustments felt like failures; in that I had failed to make the right choices; I had failed to create the right experience and structure for the hires; and I had failed to manage our resources and time effectively. Yet, in the days after the second adjustment, I began to realize that while there may or may not have been some truth to the failures that I held in my mind (making the wrong choices; the wrong experience; the wrong use of time and budget) there were more importantly, valuable lessons and takeaways to be had as well — in the time that we had this role filled, I was able to gain valuable sales experience working alongside our two initial hires (who I still keep in touch with to this day!), eventually driving the majority of our sales funnel. In taking a step back and reflecting with our mentors and advisors, I was also able to determine that despite my initial aversion to sales, our true gap lay in marketing and pipeline generation. In not dwelling on my past decisions, but rather seeing them as a learning opportunity, we doubled down on our true areas for improvement, and have since seen multiples of growth.
As a successful leader, it’s clear that you uphold strong core values. I’m curious what are the most important principles you firmly stand by and refuse to compromise on. Can you share a few of them and explain why they hold such significance for you in your work and life?
One of my core principles is to always look for a “win-win”. Growing up in a divorced household, I learned the long-term value of a good compromise, or even better, a win-win solution, at a young age and have held this value as a guiding principle ever since. In running a business, I find myself in situations of compromise or conflict on a near daily basis, whether it be internal team dialogues for how to tackle the challenges in front of us or conversations with other organizations operating in the sustainability space. By looking for win-wins, rather than the solution that is of maximum benefit to myself or the business in the short run, we’ve turned potential competitive situations into some of our closest partnerships and confidants, creating even more value than could have existed, should we have chosen to compete instead of collaborate. This principle of “win-win” has been in our company’s DNA from the very start; RyeStrategy exists to help organizations have both a positive impact on their bottom lines, and on our shared planet. Another important value, both to myself and our organization, is staying focused on the task at hand. RyeStrategy was founded to support small and medium-sized businesses, that have traditionally been underserved when it comes to adequate sustainability solutions. While our work has expanded to include the support of companies who request sustainability data from SMBs as well, we executed this expansion in a way that complements our task at hand: being the best partner possible for SMBs who are otherwise left with limited resources and ability to have a positive impact on our climate.
What inspired you to start a purpose-driven business rather than a traditional for-profit enterprise? Can you share a personal story or experience that led you to prioritize social impact in your business?
While studying abroad in the Netherlands, I observed an unexpected attitude among business leaders. I watched business after business make decisions based on profit and positive social impact rather than strictly focusing on the bottom line, something I had rarely seen modeled in the U.S. I felt inspired by the idea of finding a way to make impact profitable in the U.S., giving companies of all sizes, industries, and beliefs a reason to take action on important social and environmental issues. My passion was further cemented by my work experience in Indonesia, consulting with small, family-owned businesses to improve operations and secure funding from the Indonesian bank system. I was able to see first-hand the positive impact I could have on these small businesses that were lacking additional resources and found it rewarding and exciting to help them realize the benefits of new opportunities from the work I got to do. While we’ve had opportunities to expand our core carbon accounting services into larger organizations, we’ve made intentional the decision to focus our efforts on supporting small and medium-sized businesses and the business environment surrounding them.
Can you help articulate a few of the benefits of leading a purpose-driven business rather than a standard “plain vanilla” business?
The benefits of leading a purpose-driven business are immense. From a personal perspective, I get to wake up every day knowing that my time will be spent working towards a better tomorrow, and a movement that I believe in — the intersection of impact and profit. While there are definitely tough days, it is this excitement that gets me out of bed every morning, no matter what. Due to the nature of the solutions we provide (essentially, hands-on impact services for SMBs), we often build strong relationships with our clients and partners that extend beyond the projects we’re contracted for. Every day, we get to work with and support people who are doing mission-driven work within their own organizations; every call and conversation is not only invigorating but also a reminder that we’re all a part of this broader movement together. As a business owner, running a purpose-driven organization has also created a team culture that I find hard to imagine otherwise — we’ve attracted a group of individuals who are not only ambitious and hardworking but also genuine and goodhearted. This combination makes our work and time spent together all the more exciting and rewarding!
How has your company’s mission or purpose affected its overall success? Can you explain the methods or metrics you use to evaluate the impact of this purpose-driven strategy on your organization?
On a quarterly basis, in addition to tracking revenue, client growth, and pipeline (amongst other traditional metrics), we also measure the emissions we’ve helped to calculate and address, along with a number of other sustainability metrics reported by our clients. Most strikingly, we’ve seen our focus on helping others to decarbonize have a direct impact on our success — whether it be to their customers, suppliers, or other partners, for every one of our current clients on average, we receive multiples of leads at other organizations they’d like to see take action as well!
Can you share a pivotal moment when you realized that leading your purpose-driven company was actually making a significant impact? Can you share a specific example or story that deeply resonated with you personally?
We have been very lucky to receive a steady flow of referrals from our customers and industry partners. Our customers are able to see the business benefits and environmental impact of a decarbonization engagement with RyeStrategy and often have connections in their network that they believe could benefit from carbon accounting, and ultimately, decarbonizing their operations as well. One of the most striking examples we’ve gotten to be a part of thus far came from a partner who was initially reluctant to begin exploring their emissions. As a small business, they were worried about the time it would take, and ultimately, whether they could have any impact, let alone a significant impact, given their size. After being introduced to RyeStrategy, we took them through their first carbon footprint, and just over a year later, had witnessed an amazing journey — as an organization, they had gone from hesitant to energized; actively working to mitigate not only their operational emissions, but those of their partners and suppliers as well — to date, we’ve been fortunate enough to begin exploring similar initiatives with 5 of their key partners! Although our focus as an organization is on businesses who by themselves, are often relatively small emitters, seeing and getting to be a part of this ever-expanding impact journey has been incredibly gratifying, and further proof that our actions as a purpose-driven company are making a significant, far-reaching change.
Have you ever faced a situation where your commitment to your purpose and creating a positive social impact clashed with the profitability of your business? Have you ever been challenged by anyone on your team or had to make a tough decision that had a significant impact on your finances? If so, how did you address and reconcile this conflict?
From the start, I knew that our focus was going to be on small and medium-sized businesses, who otherwise did not have the support necessary to take climate action that was both good for our planet and correspondingly, their bottom lines. In conversations with potential employees, investors, and partners, we’ve received pushback on this notion: why not build something for the largest, and therefore, highest revenue-generating customers? In response: because they don’t need our support. In the carbon accounting industry, such organizations have been the cornerstone of growth and therefore, focus, for decades, and rightfully so: historically, it has been the largest corporations that are required to report their emissions data, or that face the most stakeholder pressure to take action. Yet in a world where it feels like time is running out and these very same organizations have started to realize that the vast majority of their emissions come from their value chains, often supported by countless SMBs, the narrative has begun to change, and the importance of enabling businesses of all sizes to take action is gaining greater recognition. While staying focused on our purpose-driven niche has led some potential stakeholders to choose to bow out, it has allowed us to not only continue pursuing our mission but to also establish ourselves as leaders in a niche that is gaining increasing amounts of recognition as being vital in the fight against climate change.
What are your “Top 5 Things You Need To Know In Order To Create A Highly Successful Purpose-Driven Business.”
1. Trust your gut. If you want to start a purpose-driven business, you have to be willing to trust your gut and believe in yourself 100%. There will absolutely be moments of doubt and uncertainty, but believing in yourself first and foremost, and your gut instinct that you’re doing not only the right thing but something that can grow, is vital towards long-term sustainability and success.
2. Surround yourself with people who will challenge you. At an early stage, we formed RyeStrategy’s Advisory Board, a group that meets with our company leaders on a quarterly basis to review progress and collaborate on tackling our most pressing issues, challenges, and opportunities for growth. As a funded company, we’ve also made the intentional choice to involve investors who are interested not only in writing a check, but also in RyeStrategy’s mission and overall impact — as a result, I get to meet with this group regularly as well, providing another unique set of perspectives and experiences. While such interactions can lead to misalignment or pushback on ideas that I find myself personally attached to or passionate about, having these challenging conversations ultimately leads to a better outcome. I’ve learned to value these tough conversations and am drawn to people who will be honest with me, rather than simply agree with me because of my role.
3. Purpose + profit is achievable. But you have to be creative, and open to trying different things in order to get there. Don’t get attached to one idea as your ticket to success, but also be sure to give your ideas and strategies enough time to determine whether or not they can be effective — success lies in finding the middle ground between these two notions and learning from each iteration.
4. Be confident. It’s cliché, but faking it til you make it is half the battle towards creating a successful, purpose-driven business; the other half is all of the hard work, experience, and skill-building that you put into justifying and backing up said confidence!
5. Be sure to live up to your company’s purpose while being purpose-driven in your own life as well. As hard as it is to manage when juggling the many hats that come with leading a company, make sure to prioritize taking care of yourself, not just your mission; positive impact should extend to yourself, and if it doesn’t, eventually your business will suffer for it. Seeing things through this lens has been helpful on my own (continuing) journey towards taking better care of myself.
I’m interested in how you instill a strong sense of connection with your team. How do you nurture a culture where everyone feels connected to your mission? Could you share an example or story that showcases how your purpose has positively influenced or motivated people on your team to contribute?
As a company that incorporated right as COVID hit the United States, RyeStrategy has operated as a remotely distributed organization from the very beginning. This has come with both its pros and cons; we have access to an amazing and broad talent pool by not being geographically constrained, and are able to provide our employees with a more flexible lifestyle than the typical 9–5, however, it can be difficult to foster a connected culture at times, when the majority of our collaboration takes place over Zoom and Slack. Being a mission-driven company provides a solution in itself; while we don’t all get to see each other as often, we are all drawn together by the same purpose: having a positive impact through the lens of business and profit. In screening for this interest early in our interview process, we’ve been able to cultivate a highly aligned and mission-driven team. Going even further, however, I believe that everyone has their own version within our broader company mission that drives them — whether its having an impact and the excitement of getting to do so specifically at an early-stage startup; or working at a company that values not only supporting other organizations with their sustainability initiatives, but also cares about its own impact internally. By understanding and supporting each of these individual missions, I’ve found that we can all not only understand each other better but are also more motivated to contribute and collaborate towards accomplishing our broader goals together.
Imagine we’re sitting down together two years from now, looking back at your company’s last 24 months. What specific accomplishments would have to happen for you to be happy with your progress?
Over the next 24 months, RyeStrategy has a goal of supporting hundreds more organizations in calculating their carbon footprints and helping these organizations reduce their collective carbon emissions by hundreds of thousands of metric tons.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I want to encourage people to look for the “win-wins”, especially when it comes to business and impact. This mentality has huge potential for all of us! We live in a world and in societies that now more than ever, feel divided when it comes to what we believe in. While it certainly isn’t perfect, profit is for better or worse, what makes much of our world go round and is a connector between individuals, organizations, and countries. If we continue to put our collective voices and support behind businesses doing the right thing, then it is only natural that true change and positive impact will follow.
How can our readers further follow your work or your company online?
You can follow me on LinkedIn, Cooper Wechkin, and check out RyeStrategy at www.ryestrategy.com.
This was great. Thanks for taking time for us to learn more about you and your business. We wish you continued success!
About the Interviewer: Chad Silverstein is a successful entrepreneur with more than two decades of experience as a successful founder and CEO. He started his first company, Choice Recovery, Inc. a third-party collection agency, out of his apartment while going to The Ohio State University. He grew the business nationwide and represented more than 10,000 clients before he sold the company on his 25th anniversary. Chad’s second venture [re]start, a career development platform that helps people find new jobs, launched in 2013 as a division inside his agency. [re]start was a catalyst to Chad’s team becoming an industry outlier after connecting thousands of people sent to collections with new career opportunities so they could afford to pay their bills and get out of debt. His team was nationally recognized for their social impact, while twice being ranked the #1 business to work for in Central Ohio. Chad sold [re]start in 2023 and is now a writer and thought leader for Authority Magazine’s Entrepreneur and Sports Editorials. He also offers an exclusive executive leadership program inside his online community at Authentic Authority.