Meet Kate Mortenson

By Mckenzie Schwark
Features Writer
Kate Mortenson Headshot

Tell me a bit about yourself.

I am a journalist by training. Out of college I went into the United States Peace Corps for two and a half years. I think of those two things as formative experiences in my toolkit of life, especially in terms of the communications ability and global mindset that I have. I live in Minneapolis. I’ve lived all over the world. I’ve worked in news, and migrated my career to social impact and entrepreneurship. I ran the NCAA 2019 Men’s Final Four in Minneapolis, which is a $750 million event for the NCAA. When that concluded I felt like I wanted to go back to my journalism roots and use the power of human stories to shape a better culture, which is why I started iPondr.

I’m curious about your experience as a journalist and in the Peace Corps. How do those experiences inform the social impact entrepreneurship work that you do today?

The journalist piece is excellent for getting answers, sourcing information, oral and written skills. Some people are afraid to speak to a crowd, but I love it and I have it down. Before I went to college I was a theater kid too, so those are great skills for being a woman entrepreneur. The Peace Corps established my global mindset. Travel is unlike any other experience for preparing one for all kinds of interactions. My time there was very entrepreneurial. My primary role was to be an English teacher, but the secondary role was to figure out how to make a contribution to a community. Our group was the first to go into this country, so we had the task of turning around and training the next group to come on. We were figuring it out and took a year’s worth of learning and taught it to the next group. So, there were a lot of opportunities to be entrepreneurial.

I was also a theater kid. I think there’s a natural theater kid to journalist pipeline.

I agree! It’s a desire to interact with the public, and to be a trusted person conveying a story or information.

It’s also a way of seeing storytelling as a means for making impactful change. Which, naturally, leads us to talking about iPondr.

When we wound down the Men’s Final Four in 2019, we had built an organization and I was CEO. Then we had to unbuild that organization. So, having the experience of building and unbuilding an organization: filing the taxes, making sure the team all had a good place to land. We had a million dollars left over. It gave me the confidence to start a business. I knew what steps needed to be checked off to get things going. I understood the fundamental pieces. A lot of entrepreneurs don’t, but I had done it before.

I had glimpsed the impact that being able to turn dials and pull the lever as the CEO can have on community and society. My desire was nothing less than to shape a better culture. This was late 2019 and I realized we had a culture problem. I didn’t like the looks of that trajectory, and that was just before COVID, George Floyd’s killing, the great resignation, political turmoil, all of these things we needed solutions for. All of that happened like a snowball, and at the same time we had begun building a solution. Our solution is a fully digital, fully tech-enabled program for learning better culture. We had a free media site that includes content on, for example, dimensions of health. We have a program vertical called Sports in Society, which looks at things like why are women athletes paid a tenth of what male athletes are paid? Or, what happens when COVID shuts down football in a small town that is all about football? We tell those stories through audio, video, narrative, and photography with an expert team of journalists and freelancers from all over the country. And then we put together these insights into American society, with the intention of lifting up that lived experience.

We have a wonderful and unique approach. The revenue generator is a B2B offering to help workplaces with their culture. In the great resignation, people are leaving their jobs because the culture is poor. People leave their jobs 10 more often because of culture rather than pay. We can help the workplace with our amazing stories, curriculum, and tech tools for engagement. In less time than it takes to do a Wordle, we can broaden your aperture on the world and develop empathy.

You got things going in 2019. 2020 threw everyone quite the curveball. I’m wondering how the last couple of years impacted or changed your mission.

In 2019 we expected to build a media site. People were exhausted by what they were seeing from the media, and we wanted to create a digital site that was public purpose media. We were looking at different models for monetization. Pretty quickly we realized the world had gone wacky, and people didn’t have time to ponder or discover. We were all glued to the 24-hour news cycle as things unfolded in 2020. So, we had built a beautiful site where you could listen, watch, read. What changed was that our team and our sense of purpose became more urgent. We want iPondr to be a brand that is synonymous with empathy.

Can you talk to me about the challenges you’ve faced in terms of raising capital, especially as a female founder whose business is social-justice oriented?

Our business right now is a pro business and pro social product solving a problem. The problem is that in the workplace we have difficulty understanding differences to leverage our unique experiences for a better business result. If we had the empathy skill and the adequate ongoing learning to keep us curious and open, imagine what positive impact that could have on businesses. So, our focus is creating a product that solves a problem and creates an opportunity for our economy to grow. As women and people of color make up more of the workforce, this is a challenge that needs solving. The social purpose is awesome, but I don’t expect our client to buy that. They’re buying a business solution. When we go to investors or customers we’re saying, “Here’s the problem, here’s our solution.”

The unfortunate truth is less than 2% of all venture capital goes to women, and less than 1% to people of color. So, if I think it’s hard, it’s even harder for a Black founder, or Latina founder. Now we have funds that focus investing in women-led businesses, but for me the jury’s out on that. Does it really get more capital to women-led businesses, or does it just take everyone else off the hook? Suddenly we’re all competing against each other, when we should be moving around what is a big ocean of opportunity. It’s complex. It’s humbling. I’m sharp and I’ve built a solution. But the number one job for the startup leader is to never get tired. You can’t get tired of having the conversations and finding the solutions.

What advice do you have for other founders or CEOs who are interested in developing a more empathetic workplace, but aren’t sure where to start?

The first thing to do is to commit that you are going to work at shaping a better workplace culture. You have to understand that the women, people of color, and people with different physical abilities or mental health issues need different things to be able to make their best contribution to the workplace. That’s a scary statement to make! But it’s number one. Doesn’t mean you’re great at it on day one, but you have to make the commitment. Then some heat and light starts to gather, especially around a younger workforce. Even at an accounting firm, young people want to be part of the accounting firm that cares about something.

Most employees, especially those of color, would say what their employers are currently doing to address those issues isn’t effective. So, we have to stop doing what doesn’t work and commit to learning what does. The things that are effective take a small dose of learning with a high frequency. Our learning is based on 10 minutes a week. You can do anything for 10 minutes a week. People with good intentions have been making efforts that are ineffective. Put together the intention with an effective effort, that’s what we need.

And what do you think we need to make big, overall effective change to our culture?

We need women in political offices and women to start businesses. We need to bring our lived experiences into the workplace, and that can help to make us part of the future and create a better one.