Collaboration over competition

The backstory of Hearken

CEO and co-founder of Hearken Jennifer Brandel and Senior Engagement Manager and founder of Switchboard Mara Zepeda spent the early parts of their careers as public radio reporters (at WBEZ and WHYY). Their deep appreciation for the power of listening, narrative, human connection, and curiosity led them to question the processes by which institutions made decisions, channeled power, and determined the outcomes of everyone’s lives.

In 2012, a mutual friend introduced them to one another, and a deep friendship and working relationship immediately took root. In 2014, Zepeda started Switchboard: a company that provides a platform and philosophy to help teams and institutions engage their communities. The following year, Brandel started Hearken: a company that provides a platform and philosophy that helps teams and institutions better listen to their communities.

Their approach to work was collaboration over competition. They wanted to enrich the communities and stakeholders they served. Their companies prized long-term sustainable prosperity over exponential growth at all costs.

In 2016 they began co-authoring articles explaining their frustration with the “move fast and break things” status-quo playbook that startups were expected to follow. They were alarmed by the collateral damage of venture capital: a widening of the wealth gap, disruption to local communities, and massive wasted potential. Their inaugural post, Sex & Startups, garnered global attention and attracted thousands more entrepreneurs who also felt trapped in a game that very few people ever won. A year later, joined by Astrid Scholz and Aniyia Williams, they articulated the types of companies they wanted to build instead and named them “zebras.”

Jennifer Brandel and
Mara Zepeda

Unlike unicorns, zebras are real, mutualistic, and they survive in collaboration—not competition. They are black and white—for-profit and for-purpose. 2017 brought the first ever convening of zebra founders and investors at DazzleCon (a herd of zebras is called a “dazzle”). Zebras Unite was born and is now a co-operative, non-profit, and fund for entrepreneurs of this different stripe – as portrayed recently by The New York Times. Zebras Unite represents the capital, community, and culture Brandel and Zepeda wish they had when they were starting out.

2019 merger

In addition to starting the zebra movement together, Brandel and Zepeda saw opportunities for their own companies to work together in closer collaboration. In 2019 they began a formal partnership, working together to add a consulting line of services to Hearken modeled after what Switchboard had done the year prior under the leadership of Chelsea Haring.

Haring had come from a high-growth startup and saw first-hand the powerful combination of software and services to ensure customer success. Under Haring’s leadership, the companies expanded their range of services and began co-delivering this new, more comprehensive suite of offerings. The merger represented a true ZEBRA (ZEpeda + BRAndel). 

Hearken generates power and possibilities

All of Brandel’s and Zepeda’s experiences have been bound by a common thread: people need each other. But people don’t just need other people to make themselves as individuals feel better—networked communities function better. The Hearken Engagement Management System (EMS) and Switchboard Platform are two technologies that enable communities to function better. And our consulting helps to prepare teams, organizations and companies to put community at the center of their work and workflows.

Through this listening-based approach, Brandel and Zepeda have partnered with communities they are part of, and have also created and grown additional organizations and resources beyond Hearken and Switchboard. Today, the two now-merged companies help partners build adaptable, innovative, and relevant products and services that grow power and possibilities and provide resilience and adaptability in the face of change.