Last March, Morgan DeBaun prepared for the worst. Her company Blavity, a media platform that covers stories for and about Black Millennials, braced for a drop in advertising and overall cash flow. The 31-year-old founder and CEO sent her 70 full-time employees home, took a 30 percent pay cut, and started selling the furniture in her now-empty Los Angeles office. DeBaun says she wanted to keep as many people on payroll as possible, but furloughs, layoffs, and salary cuts followed.
And then the challenges compounded. When the murder of George Floyd sparked protests, DeBaun asked her leaner team to shift into overdrive, reporting on how the news was affecting the Black community. "We were kind of going into hibernation with Covid," she says, "then George Floyd got murdered. And so at the exact time that we were ramping down, it was our responsibility to ramp up." Blavity.com saw an increase in traffic, says DeBaun, but advertising came to a full stop. "Companies were worried about their brands being positioned next to riots and protests," she says.
After a tough year of tough decisions, DeBaun says Blavity has come out on the other side in a stronger position. And, just as important, the experience has shaken up how she wants to operate the company, which she founded in 2014 and has since raised more than $12 million in funding.
While Blavity declined to reveal revenue figures, it noted that the third quarter of 2020 was its best quarter ever for revenue--and more than 15,000 people attended its virtual weeklong AfroTech conference in November, up from 10,000 in-person attendees in 2019. By December, DeBaun had paid back all the wages that had been cut in the early stages of the pandemic to the full-time employees who stayed. Advertising revenue has returned to pre-pandemic levels.
DeBaun says asking her team to do more work during an emotionally trying period was an especially difficult decision, and it wasn't without fallout. Five of her employees got burned out and left Black media entirely. "It's a huge burden to be a Black journalist," she says, "Constantly covering Black death is exhausting." She says she tried to offset the pressure by holding regular town halls, holding daily meditation sessions, awarding employees cash for self-care expenses, and offering extra vacation days as protests and the pandemic continued.
As she thinks about what employees will need post-pandemic and what makes the most sense for the business, DeBaun says she doesn't plan to bring her full team back to L.A. In fact, she's ditching Blavity's office for good.
Keeping the office remote makes jobs more accessible to people with families, those who need to take care of their parents, and employees who need to work around their children's schedules, she says. She fears a hybrid team could create cliques of in-office workers versus out-of-office workers. "The overhead of an office is significant, so you either go all in or you don't," says DeBaun.
There's a practical aspect to the calculation too. Many of DeBaun's employees, of which more than half are women, moved away to places such as Cleveland, New York, and Costa Rica during the pandemic, and DeBaun says she'd likely lose talent if she required them to return to L.A. Plus, she has hired 40 more people, including executives with management experience to help grow the platform, who are spread out across the U.S. To keep the team connected, she plans to hold more company retreats and smaller gatherings in different places around the country, and she'll also be traveling frequently by herself to meet people in person.
Of course, many businesses have made similar moves--including tech companies like Twitter and Facebook. But Blavity is a media company founded on the concept of community. The term Blavity stands for "Black gravity," which DeBaun says describes the feeling of comfort in gathering with other Black people. Arguably, Blavity has a lot more to potentially lose in ditching the office--the team's communal gathering place--particularly because Blavity hasn't always created the most cohesive space for its employees. But DeBaun says most of her team is happy with her decision, and she's planning to announce additional resources for those who might want to have a co-working space. "I'm never going to please all the people all the time," she says.
As a young and first-time CEO, that's a truth she's learned the hard way. Several years ago, DeBaun realized her employees were leaving her less-than-flattering reviews on the employer-review website Glassdoor. She went to her co-founders and to her board to discuss her blind spots and held a companywide listening session. Her employees expressed frustration with her leadership style and said she didn't trust them to make independent decisions. "I had some people say, 'Hey, you're holding on too much--like we are in danger, and we're not in danger anymore,' " DeBaun says.
DeBaun says she began to spend more of her time setting the company's vision and communicating her goals--leaving the way to get there up to her team. "I thought I had to project this perfect image of always knowing the right answer," she says. "Over time I've realized, you know, there's actually a lot of power in getting advice, seeking counsel from other people, and then making a decision."
For DeBaun and her team, the majority of which is Black, the challenge and stress of last summer wasn't anything new. "I've always been Black and they've always been Black, so adversity and challenges and death are a part of our lives," she says. DeBaun launched Blavity in part out of frustration with how mainstream media was covering (or failing to cover) the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Last summer was more challenging because of the pandemic, but DeBaun says it made her realize the importance of having everyone on the same page in terms of the company's mission and decision-making principles.
"There is a sense of community now with the group of people at the company who've been here for over a year," DeBaun says. "We all went through a pretty traumatic experience and did our jobs. We did our work and made an impact within our community."