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Returns to the Office Raise Mental Health Challenges – The New York Times

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Supervisors are called on to help people navigate personal challenges, whether or not they have the training to do so.
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It’s exceptionally difficult to get someone to crack a smile, let alone laugh, in a corporate event hosted on Zoom, but the comedian Dani Klein Modisett finds ways. One game she likes to play during her laughter workshops involves asking participants to each name five items in a category — for example, things in their refrigerator — as fast as they can, after which everyone else chants: “Those are five things!” Eventually people loosen up. They start giggling. (Maybe you had to be there.)
But in recent months she has noticed attendees logging in to the sessions more tense than ever. Some arrive looking for levity, but also processing tragedy.
“I’m glad I showed up,” one participant said. “But my brother-in-law just died.”
People are going into performance reviews, brainstorming sessions and the office with all kinds of grief, swinging between the banal and the crushing. Small problems feel large. Large problems feel colossal. And with mental health care hard to obtain and afford, workers are trying to fill the gaps.
“There’s this sense of ‘I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this,’” said Ms. Klein Modisett, whose organization, Laughter on Call, has run over 350 events since its founding three years ago. “We want to hold out the possibility we can laugh, but it’s all becoming too much.”
Even the most scripted Hollywood event went sideways, its typical polish replaced with raw emotion: a slap from one of the film industry’s biggest stars.
“We’re all feeling our way around being together when we don’t know what each other’s state of well-being is,” said Chantalle Couba, 46, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant in North Carolina. “You go to a three-day off-site — or to the Oscars — and you find out people are different. People are threadbare. They’re very anxious.”
For the past two years, people have struggled to do their work — whether in hospitals or restaurants, in shops or schools — while knotted up with the fear and uncertainty of the Covid-19 crisis.
For the subset of Americans who had the luxury of working from home, their professional lives mirrored their personal ones: upended. They answered emails from their couches, spoke to teammates on Zoom and refashioned daily schedules to accommodate this new remote-work era.
Now, some have gotten the message that their employers are trying to restore an old status quo. Dozens of companies are calling workers back to the office: Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, Chevron, The Washington Post. And some worry that their teams aren’t prepared for the emotional transition awaiting a work force already on edge.
“Gone are the days of put your head down,” said Desiree Coleman-Fry, a diversity, equity and inclusion executive.
In a McKinsey study of more than 2,900 people last year, one-third of those who had just returned to the office said going back had negatively affected their mental health. The will-they-won’t-they saga of office reopenings hasn’t helped, making it tough to prepare for a new routine.
For some workers, there’s the difficulty of giving up habits they formed at home; for others, there’s the prospect of facing slights, insensitive comments and cliques. And many, knowing that they’ve changed in the last two years, don’t feel ready to get reacquainted with their teams.
“So much of our humanity has been exposed,” Ms. Klein Modisett said. “There’s kind of no turning back. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
But the workaday duties drag on, sometimes in jarring contrast to the magnitude of world events. For Kelly McComas, 25, a designer in Brooklyn, the dissonance between following crises in the news and fulfilling her professional obligations is clearest at the start of her meetings. On a recent video call with a team in Poland, she said, the opening moments of the conversation made clear that nobody knew how to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We kick off a meeting and ask how everything’s going, and they’re like, ‘Well, there’s a war,’” Ms. McComas recalled. “And we’re like, ‘Yeah, there’s a war.’ And then we go into the design meeting.”
Supervisors are finding that they are called on to help people navigate personal challenges, whether or not they have the training to do so. Kim Theobald, head of human resources at RCM&D, an insurance brokerage, started facilitating a weekly call for managers, giving them space to raise questions about how to support workers.
“I’ve had a lot more employees reach out to me due to their anxiety, often saying they can’t pinpoint the reason for it,” Ms. Theobald said. “I’ve had phone calls from managers saying, ‘This is what I did, and I hope I handled it correctly.’”
Some companies are trying to directly address mental health challenges that their staff may be facing. Arrivia, a travel business, said use of its “employee assistance” program, which provides no-cost therapy, had increased tenfold since the start of the pandemic. The company has also surveyed workers about their needs around returning to the office and has written up a plan that puts a priority on flexibility, allowing many people to work from home if they prefer.
Real, a mental health app that offers programming on topics including relationships and body positivity, plans to pilot a four-day workweek, running next week through June, to give employees more time to rest and focus on their families. The idea came from Real’s founder, Ariela Safira, who recognized after the December holidays that she was experiencing a sense of numbness fueled by overwork.
Like Ms. Safira, many mental health professionals are finding this moment just as hard as the clients they serve do. April Koh, founder of Spring Health, a mental health start-up that offers employees access to therapy and other services, recently realized she hadn’t fully dealt with her own pain after being targeted with a racial slur on a street in New York. When her team planned a healing circle to discuss anti-Asian violence, which has increased during the pandemic, Ms. Koh surprised herself as she wrestled publicly with questions about her personal history.
“I hadn’t expected to be so emotional,” she said. “There is kind of a shared mentality, to an extent, among Asian Americans about keeping our head down and staying invisible. It was powerful for me to be so vulnerable.”
She worries that many businesses, which had never before made an effort to address their staff’s mental health, still aren’t being proactive in helping people take care of themselves, especially with insurance plans often offering paltry mental health coverage. The average wait to see a provider was more than 20 days nationally even before the pandemic.
“Some companies take the posture where they say: ‘We’re resilient. We’re all about business. That’s what we’re going to focus on,’” Ms. Koh said. “That’s just not the way to solve problems.”
Apps and even paid time off can do only so much. For many, the angst runs deep, exacerbated by the emotional gap between their work responsibilities and the realities of 2022. Business leaders may talk often about authenticity, yet many of their employees are unsure how to present themselves to colleagues when they’re struggling.
“It feels crazy to be expected to keep your cool and go on with your life,” Ms. McComas said. “I don’t know if I can bring my full self to work anymore because it feels so disingenuous with what’s happening outside work.”
And the vocabulary of the workplace is expanding, as managers try to find the language needed to check in on employees. They’re learning to ask about challenges that go beyond deadlines and deals, conversations that don’t always feel natural in a sterile office environment.
Jennifer Strauel, head of human resources at Arrivia, has heard from employees who experienced sickness, relationship breakdowns and the loss of loved ones.
“We’re getting comfortable using words about feelings instead of just concrete business topics,” Ms. Strauel said.
Audio produced by Adrienne Hurst.


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Rally bags $12M to build the future of e-commerce checkout

E-commerce had a moment during the global pandemic, but not only have things chilled since then, it’s gotten downright competitive as the economy cooled in the past year, according to Jordan Gal, co-founder and CEO of Rally.

“Founders in this space used to speak of optimism, but that has turned into realism, and people are more careful,” Gal told TechCrunch. “The pie seems to have stopped growing, and there’s more ferocious competition for what’s left in that pie.”

Gal went on to explain that merchants are having to make harder decisions, including whether they can afford to invest in software.

That’s why Rally, a composable checkout platform for e-commerce merchants, has broken up its business into two segments: the first to meet merchants where they are with integrations to commerce tools, like Salesforce Commerce Cloud, Magento and BigCommerce; the second to offer merchants a “headless” ecosystem.

The term “headless” refers to the ability to change the front end or back end of a website without affecting the other. Gal said he was not able to provide details just yet, but said Rally is close to announcing a partnership with companies specializing in front end and back end to offer headless-as-a-service.

Gal started Rally with Rok Knez to create checkout tools for merchants outside of the Shopify ecosystem. Both were previously involved with another checkout company, CartHook, and led the company to process nearly $3 billion in transactions for Shopify merchants before selling to Pantastic in 2021, Gal said.

Rally, which is working with 50 e-commerce merchants currently, provides one-click checkout with payment processing and tools for post-purchase offers that turns the purchase into a multi-revenue channel by allowing the merchant to inject offers after the checkout. For example, rather than going right to a “thank you” page, consumers would be offered the option of upgrading to a subscription or purchasing additional similar products in a way that doesn’t interrupt the payment flow.

Implementing the post-purchase offer has helped merchants increase revenue by over 12% on average, Gal said.

Meanwhile, over the past 12 months, Rally has doubled the size of its team and is “doing millions in monthly GMV (gross merchandise volume),” Gal said.

TechCrunch previously profiled the company when it raised $6 million in seed funding. Today, the company announced additional funding of $12 million in Series A funding. It was led by March Capital, which was joined by Felix Capital, Commerce Ventures, Afore Capital, Alumni Ventures and Kraken Ventures. The new investment, which closed in the first quarter of 2023, gives Rally $18 million in total venture-backed capital.

Gal plans to focus the new funding on go-to-market, including entering new markets, like enterprise and international, and expanding integrations beyond Swell, BigCommerce and others, including Salesforce Commerce Cloud, commercetools, Affirm and AfterPay. Rally will also focus on strengthening its fraud protection offering and build out web3 features, starting with allowing merchants to accept cryptocurrencies in their checkout.

“We want to establish a reputation as the best choice when a merchant is looking to either upgrade their checkout or build a new site without having to build their own checkout,” Gal said. “You can’t just build it and leave it alone, so merchants are looking for a partner that they can trust so they can focus on what they’re best at.”

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So you want to launch an AI startup

t seems like it’s the best of times for founders thinking about launching an AI startup, especially with OpenAI releasing ChatGPT to the masses, as it has the potential to really put AI front and center in business and perhaps everything we do technologically. Who wouldn’t want to launch a startup right now with the energy and hype surrounding the industry?

But it also could be the worst of times for founders thinking about launching an AI startup, especially one that can grow and be defensible against incumbents in a fast-changing environment. And that’s a real problem for companies thinking about this area: AI is evolving so rapidly that your idea could be obsolete before it’s even off the ground.

How do you come up with a startup idea that can endure in such a challenging and rapidly evolving landscape? The bottom line is that the same principles that apply to previously successful startups apply here, too. It just may be a bit harder this time because of how quickly everything is moving.

A bunch of successful founders and entrepreneurs spoke last week at the Imagination in Action conference at MIT. Their advice could help founders understand what they need to do to be successful and take advantage of this technological leap.

What’s working?
CB Insights compiled data from 2021 and 2022 to understand where VC investment money has been going when it comes to generative AI startups. Given the recent hype around this area, it’s reasonable to think that the volume of investment will increase, and perhaps the allocation will be different, but this is what we have for now.

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New Zealander without college degree couldn’t talk his way into NASA and Boeing—so he built a $1.8 billion rocket company

This story is part of CNBC Make It’s The Moment series, where highly successful people reveal the critical moment that changed the trajectory of their lives and careers, discussing what drove them to make the leap into the unknown.

In early 2006, Peter Beck took a “rocket pilgrimage” to the U.S.

The native New Zealander always dreamed of sending a rocket into space. He even skipped college because of it, taking an apprenticeship at a tools manufacturer so he could learn to work with his hands, tinkering with model rockets and propellants in his free time.

By the time of his pilgrimage, he’d built a steam-powered rocket bicycle that traveled nearly 90 mph. He hoped his experiments were enough to convince NASA or companies like Boeing to hire him as an intern. Instead, he was escorted off the premises of multiple rocket labs.

“On the face of it, here’s a foreign national turning up to an Air Force base asking a whole bunch of questions about rockets — that doesn’t look good,” Beck, now 45, tells CNBC Make It.

Still, he learned that few companies were actually building what he wanted to build: lightweight, suborbital rockets to transport small satellites. On the flight back to New Zealand, he plotted his future startup, even drawing a logo on a napkin.

Convincing investors to back someone without a college degree in an industry where he couldn’t even land an internship wouldn’t be easy. Failure would push him even further away from his lifelong dream.

Beck launched the company, Rocket Lab, later that same year. In 2009, it became the Southern Hemisphere’s first private company to reach space. Today, it’s a Long Beach, California-based public company with a market cap of $1.8 billion. It has completed more than 35 space launches, including a moon-bound NASA satellite last year.

Here, Beck discusses how he turned his disappointment into opportunity, the biggest challenges he faced, and whether he ever regrets his decision to create Rocket Lab.

CNBC Make It: When you didn’t land an aerospace job in the U.S., you immediately started thinking about launching your own company. Why?

Beck: One of the things I’m always frustrated with is how long everything takes. Ask anybody who works around me: There’s a great urgency in everything. I don’t walk upstairs, I run upstairs. As we’ve grown as a company, it’s always a sprint.

I wish things would get faster. I’m always battling time.

How do you recognize a window of opportunity opening, and when is it worth the risk to jump through it?

Back your intuition and go for it.

I would classify my job as taking an enormous risk and then mitigating that risk to the nth degree. Given that, you have to see windows of opportunity and run into them.

The challenge is that, especially within this industry, you have to poke your head into the corner but not commit too deeply. Otherwise, you’ll get your head cut off. I start by being very analytical: “OK, we’re here. What happened for us to get here? And how do we get out of here?”

Sometimes, you can take big risks. Sometimes, you need to be very safe and methodical about how to back out of situations. Control the things you can control and acknowledge the things you can’t control.

Running a rocket company is kind of like that scene in “Indiana Jones,” where he’s getting chased by that giant ball. You have to flawlessly execute, because the moment that you don’t, the consequences can be terminal for the company pretty quickly.

What do you wish you’d known when you decided to start your own rocket company?

At the end of the day, I probably wouldn’t change anything. There were plenty of errors and failures along the way, but ultimately, those things create the DNA of a company.

Getting your first rocket to orbit is the easiest part. On rocket No. 1, you’ve got all your engineers and technicians poring over one rocket for a large period of time. Now, there’s one rocket that rolls out of that production line every 18 days. That’s just immensely more difficult.

Sometimes, it’s really good to have a bit of a bad day. Not during a flight, obviously, but during testing. Just when you think things are going good, you’re reminded of how hard this business really is. Every time that you take too much of a breath, you’ll be humbled very quickly.

What’s the biggest challenge you faced getting started?

Nothing happens without funding in this business. When I first started Rocket Lab, I ran around Silicon Valley trying to raise $5 million.

At that time, that was an absurd amount of money for a rocket startup. A rocket startup was absurd [in general], it was only SpaceX then. A rocket startup from someone living in New Zealand was even more absurd.

We grew up and tried to raise really small amounts of funding. That really shaped us about being ruthlessly efficient and absolutely laser-focused on execution. The hardest thing [we did] is actually the thing that shaped the company into the most successful form it could be.

When do you feel the most pressure?

The most terrifying thing I’ve ever done is the staff Christmas party. That’s the moment you realize that your decisions are responsible for these people’s livelihoods. As a public company, I take that even more seriously. It’s a tremendous amount of pressure.

On top of that, you have a customer. That can be a national security customer, where lives are depending on you delivering that asset to orbit. It can be a startup, and there can be hundreds of people at a company that you can destroy just by putting the payload into the ocean.

So I absolutely hate launch days. Now that we’ve done 35 launches, I’m not puking in the toilet like I used to. But man, I still really don’t enjoy it, because there’s just so much invested in each launch. So much responsibility.

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