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Making an Impact: The Power of Flexibility

Making an Impact: The Power of Flexibility
Doug Kiley

Perhaps you saw AJ Brustein ’98 and Yong Kim ’96 in Brewster Magazine’s Fall 2016 issue. A tale of innovation and serendipity, their story is one the Brewster community can both take pride in and learn from. In an episode of his “Diverse Thinkers” podcast, Head of School Craig Gemmell sat down with these two Bobcats to hear about their professional and personal progress and to share their wisdom. 

First brought together by the Coca-Cola Corporation to find a creative way to address the company’s billion dollar-a-year staffing problem, AJ and Yong soon realized they could develop a solution that would benefit the business and individual workers. Their start-up, Wonolo, emerged from this initial collaboration, and in 2018, the company’s fifth year, it earned $43 million in venture capital investment. Titans such as Sequoia Capital and Bain Capital Ventures were among the investors. Venture capitalist Jess Lee of Sequoia Capital praised Wonolo in saying, “Some of the greatest and most important companies are going to come from ideas that really disrupt how people live and work.” Their disruption was to recognize the importance of flexibility. Life is unpredictable, of course, and in business this means that there is inevitable unpredictability in labor demands and worker availability. AJ and Yong realized that the solution to unpredictability on the supply side was flexibility. 

Our current low unemployment rate does not adequately reflect the 30 million people wrestling with underemployment, those who struggle to patch together 40 hours a week. The magic of Wonolo, which stands for WOrk NOw LOcally, is its use of technology to source the best workers for business needs of all sorts: administrative tasks, general labor, food production, event staffing, you name it. The opportunity not only to solve a major problem for many businesses (not just Coca-Cola) but also to have a significant positive impact on people facing underemployment, were tremendous motivating factors as the partners entered into this visionary entrepreneurial endeavor. 

Wonolo’s mission is to “democratize work” by making it available and flexible to all, but this noble mission is understated in AJ and Yong’s open and casual office headquarters. Wonolo is proof you don’t need to be serious to get serious results. While the executive and entrepreneurial gravity of this company is undeniable, the atmosphere at Wonolo is light with a side of denim. This company has connected thousands of people in dozens of cities in the U.S. and abroad with the work opportunities they seek. Companies including Uniqlo, Aramark, Warby Parker, and Unum are deeply appreciative for the personnel Wonolo has brought to them.

In the discussion with Craig, AJ and Yong share telling anecdotes about their time at Brewster and the seeds of their creative and entrepreneurial capacity planted on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. The word “grit” is used often these days. If you are looking for a guiding definition, listen to Yong’s story, and you will know its true meaning. His path toward becoming an industry disrupter began when he pushed his parents to leave his home country of South Korea to attend Brewster. The challenges of being on his own and having to make it in an entirely new environment developed a resilience that has propelled him through his professional career. At Brewster, Yong had the time and the experiences to think about who he wanted to be as an adult. And while he developed his sense of independence, he also learned how to collaborate effectively with others.

For AJ, Chief Operating Officer of Wonolo and someone who has also relished competition, Brewster was a place where he learned he could compete at school. But to do so, he needed to be more flexible; he had to figure out how to work with different people from diverse backgrounds and be willing to approach his work in new ways. AJ credits his teachers with helping him do just that, and surely, recognizing the importance of being flexible and keeping himself open to new opportunities and ideas have been a critical part of his current success.

Listen to this Diverse Thinkers podcast to hear AJ and Yong’s advice to our current ninth graders and enjoy their remarkable story of meeting each other for the first time at the Hard Rock Café—years after their respective Brewster graduation. It’ll make you say, “Hey! This should be a movie!” 

Doug Kiley began his decades-long career at Brewster in Instructional Support, later teaching history and becoming that department’s chair in 2001. He now brings his deep knowledge of the school and its community to his role as a gift officer in Advancement. Doug’s sons are Sam '16 and Spencer '20.

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Article from Brewster Magazine’s Fall 2016 issue

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