We Are Rosie disrupts the way corporate America works

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Successful startup empowers marginalized workers, fosters work-life balance.

As 2017 was drawing to a close, Stephanie Nadi Olson started to notice a few trends in the way we were living our lives.

Chief among them was how we increasingly shared services we hadn’t before, often with people we didn’t know. We were sharing rides to the airport. Sharing grocery shopping duties. Even sharing our homes.

Spotting trends had been a habit of Olson’s since childhood when she first noticed her family life was different from that of her well-to-do friends at school.

As she surveyed the economic terrain of our personal lives that year, Olson, now 37, reasoned that it wouldn’t be long before sharing talent would become a thing in corporate America.

Call it a lightbulb moment or something else, but in less than a year, Olson took that single observation and launched a successful tech startup that connects employers with employees and provides continuing education and a sense of belonging to 12,000 independent marketing and advertising professionals.

In honor of her second born, Margot Rose, Olson called her company We Are Rosie as an ever-present reminder of why she was doing this work.

“If We Are Rosie succeeded in our mission, both my daughters would have an opportunity to work in a way that was in harmony with a vibrant life,” she said.

The venture is a marriage of everything Olson had learned during her marketing and advertising career and her desire to be of service to people who were made to feel “other.”

The daughter of a Palestinian immigrant, Olson knew what that was like because she had seen it happen in her own family.

Her father, Ramadan Nadi, immigrated to Lebanon with a third-grade education before moving in 1971 to Atlanta in search of the American dream. He found work as a tailor, a skill he learned while living in a Palestinian refugee camp.

“I saw my dad marginalized because of the way he speaks English or his lack of formal education, but he’s brilliant,” said Olson.

She witnessed the same discrimination during her decades-long career in marketing. People from under-represented groups were often overlooked for promotions or denied the same opportunities as their white counterparts.

It left a chip on her shoulder, one she’d carried since childhood.

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A master chameleon

At her home last February, Olson talked about her journey from a little girl in Doraville to a successful businesswoman living in a Scandinavian-inspired cottage in Serenbe, where homes go for more than a million dollars. Today, Olson leads a life like the classmates who made her feel like she didn’t belong.

Despite her obvious success, “I have never felt I fit anywhere,” she said. “I’ve never been Muslim enough or Arabic enough, or white or Christian enough. I’ve never really fit squarely anywhere.”

And yet, because she is “white presenting,” Olson said she was allowed to seamlessly traverse two worlds in a way her father never could.

“It’s made me a master chameleon in a way, but has also given me a ton of perspective through my interactions with all sorts of people who assume I am white,” she said.

That ability was not only a gift to her but to all the “others” for whom she had compassion.

“I started We Are Rosie to create a home for all those who have been made to feel that they don’t belong in corporate America and to show the world, if you allow people to work in a way that fits with their lives outside of work, they will give their best effort, and their work will be more creative, innovative and the people will be happier,” Olson said.

In the course of four years, Olson and her team would turn a $10,000 initial investment into a company valued at $110 million with operations across the U.S. and in Canada and the U.K. Last year the platform tripled its revenue and now works with more than 25 Fortune 500 brands and all six major advertising holding companies.

In December, she sold a portion of the company to a private equity firm and gave $10,000 to each of the 40 employees on her team so they could chase their dreams the same way she had.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Financial success isn’t enough

We Are Rosie might not have happened had Olson not grown up keenly aware of the haves and the have nots, something she discerned in kindergarten when a teacher advised her parents to enroll her and her two siblings in a better school.

They lived in Doraville, but her father used her uncle’s address to get Olson and her siblings into the Dunwoody schools. Fearing her parents would get in trouble if anyone found out, Olson felt pressured “to fit in in a neighborhood and school where I didn’t belong” and “was so much fancier” than where she lived.

“I started studying it,” Olson recalled. “I wouldn’t play with the kids. I’d have talks with the parents. Where did they work and what did they do to afford million-dollar homes with nannies and lake houses and adventurous vacations?”

Although neither of her parents were college graduates, they expected the Nadi children to earn advanced degrees. They just had to navigate the road there on their own.

“They instilled this self-sufficiency in us, that we were in charge of our destinies at a young age,” Olson said.

That meant making sure she and her siblings each took the SAT, applied for scholarships and then college.

After graduating from Dunwoody High, while having participated in a dual enrollment program at Georgia Perimeter College, Olson headed to Georgia Tech. She worked three and four jobs to pay her way. Upon graduation with highest honors and a degree in management, she took a job at Microsoft.

“I was the first person they hired right out of college to work in their advertising division as part of a new college hire program they were launching to diversify their workforce,” Olson recalled.

When she quit a year and a half later, her father thought she’d lost her mind. But Olson wanted a promotion and Microsoft wasn’t ready to give her one. She thought competitor AOL might offer greater opportunity for growth and in 2008 accepted a sales position there.

“The harder I worked, the more money I made,” she said. “That was appealing to me.”

In addition to receiving awards for her work, Olson learned about startups, new fledgling tech companies AOL was acquiring almost weekly.

“There was something about the energy, the camaraderie, the fast pace, the self-determination that really lit me up about startup culture,” she said.

In 2011, Olson married Erik Olson, an electrical engineer from Peachtree City and a fellow Tech alum whom she met while working at Rocky Mountain Pizza on 10th Street.

That same year, she left AOL to work for a startup called Flurry, a mobile ad technology platform that was eventually acquired by Yahoo. Her career was taking off. She was making more money than she’d dreamed possible. But the arrival of her daughters, Ingrid in 2013 and Margot Rose in 2015, made Olson take a step back and think about all the sacrifices her parents and ancestors had made for her to have the life she now lived.

“This fire started burning inside,” she said. “I needed to do more with all the privileges I’d been given.”

Credit: Ann D'Adamo

Credit: Ann D'Adamo

Finding her life’s purpose

Olson realized it wasn’t enough to spend the rest of her life working for other people. She wanted more control over her destiny and the ability to make an even bigger impact on the world around her.

In 2017, she quit her job, marking the first time since age 14 that Olson was unemployed. She was 33 and had been the family’s main breadwinner. People thought she was having a mental health crisis.

She wasn’t, but she had no idea what she’d do next.

At her parents’ home alone one day, she sat down with a cup of ginger turmeric tea and made lists of all the times she’d felt the most alive, all the times work didn’t feel like work, all the things that gave her energy.

She thought about her work on the board of the Atlanta Birth Center, a nonprofit that provides prenatal and postpartum care and support to women. She thought about the Atlanta Refugee Supper Club she started to connect recently resettled families with American host families. She thought about her work with mothers who, like her, had struggled with postpartum depression.

“That work lit me up,” Olson recalled.

Could supporting people who were marginalized, overlooked and underestimated be her life’s purpose?

She started connecting with others who’d also left their jobs and, through “a series of dates,” got to know them and why they, too, had opted out of corporate America.

That’s when Olson had her lightbulb moment. The corporate lifestyle — working 60-hour weeks, taking frequent business trips, being tethered to an office year-round even when the kids were out of school — was creating a groundswell of people who felt marginalized by how work happened in corporate America.

“There were all these people who wanted or needed to work in a different way but couldn’t find a way to do so,” she said.

Olson decided she could fix that. The question was, how?

We Are Rosie is born

With her husband’s blessing, Olson took six months to work on a solution.

Although her skill set was primarily sales and marketing, Olson was convinced that, with her connections to some of the biggest corporate brands in the country, she could bring projects to the people she’d met so they could continue working but on their own terms.

In 2018, after convincing her former nanny to join the endeavor, Olson launched We Are Rosie, leveraging proprietary technology and algorithms to match people to flexible, project-based marketing work with Fortune 500 brands, consultancies and ad agencies.

Once “Rosies,” as its freelancers are called, are matched with a project, they are paid weekly and offered full benefits and access to all the other contractors in the community with whom they could collaborate on projects.

Projects range from 20 hours per week for a few months to 40 hours per week for two years. And, while it’s not a requirement for Rosies to be women, the majority are.

Nikki Coleman, who was promoted in February to We Are Rosie’s chief operating officer, is among them. The Canton resident came to the platform the year it was launched after working seven years in marketing for a medical firm.

“I didn’t feel challenged or fulfilled in the work that I was doing,” Coleman said. “Being a new mother, I was questioning how I was spending my time and how I was showing up.”

An executive coach challenged her to seek an employer that aligned with her values. She wanted a more flexible work environment and the space to be creative and share ideas.

“I found We Are Rosie and sent Stephanie a message,” she said.

Months later, they met, and Coleman joined We Are Rosie overseeing operations, human resources and legal.

It was a life-changing career decision, said Coleman.

“It’s allowed me to be more present for my family,” she said. “I’m less stressed. I get to make a difference in the future of work while working with an incredible, remote team.”

Two years ago, a colleague suggested Adam Levine, 58, check out the platform. He had left his corporate job to start his own company, The Lucy Collective, a New York City ad agency. But just as he was getting his footing, the COVID-19 epidemic hit. Advertising budgets shrank and jobs grew scarce.

“Business dried up,” he said.

Six months after entering the Rosie database, Levine heard back.

“Not only did they connect me with an agency, but they were also advocates for me, spearheading the interview process,” Levine said.

Levine got the client and is now in discussions for another role with one of the top five brands in the country.

“They’re not playing around,” Levine said. “By placing people who are out of a job because of ageism, racism or sexism or simply don’t want to work with companies that aren’t friendly to them, Stephanie is creating a more equitable and more diverse workforce.”

As We Are Rosie has grown and Olson has surrounded herself with a good team, she, too, is reaping the benefits of her dream.

“I am, for the first time in four years, getting back to my own balance,” she said. “I am so happy to have been able to pour my heart and soul into this mission. I can spend more time with my family, care for my own mind, body and spirit, and continue running the business I love.”

Still, as Olson constantly reminds her fellow Rosies, balance can be seasonal.

For now, she’s just happy to be in a good season.