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Workshop's origin story

August 23, 2023

What was life for you both like before Workshop and what prompted you to hit reset?

Anna: Ben and I were about 10 years into our careers, and we were both on a leadership trajectory.  We had arrived at the picture of success for thirty-somethings: successful careers, young family, our first home, financial stability. 

Ben: Yes, but it wasn’t easy. We wanted to be thriving, but we were working hard to pull it all off: work, life, family. We were pushing our limits, and we weren’t sure it was worth it. We started asking big questions. How might we design our work and life with more intention, in a way that's more aligned with our values? 

Can you elaborate on the “fork in the road” moment for both of you and what guided your decision? 

Anna: I think there are inflection points in life. This was certainly one for us. We realized we needed to re-evaluate and hit reset. We were ready to get intentional about our work, our family and our lives.

Ben:  Anna and I have always lived with a lot of intention. We have taken many leaps and risks over the years (both individually and together), but we’ve done these with intent. We talked through this decision for more than a year, and we made a plan for what we’d need to do to hit reset. Ultimately, we decided we needed a geographic change to facilitate the kind of personal and professional growth we were eager for, and South Africa was the obvious place for us. 

Overlooking Camps Bay in Cape Town, South Africa

Why did you choose South Africa as the place to reset?

Ben: South Africa is a special place for both of us, and it’s a central part of our story. I grew up in Cape Town and eventually moved to the US at 18 for college on an athletic scholarship. I had never left South Africa at that point, so moving to the United States was a huge leap for me. Moving back to South Africa felt like an opportunity for a real reset opportunity for us, and a chance for me to reconnect with this place and my family. 

Anna:  I have my own connection to South Africa. I lived and worked in South Africa when I was in my early 20s. It was a really formative time for me, and it was in the very early days of our relationship. I loved the idea of returning with Ben and our  family, in an exploratory mindset. 

Ben, Anna, and their two young daughters in Cape Town

Was there ever a moment while you two were selling the house or leaving the jobs that you almost decided not to take the leap? 

Ben: We took a long time to decide. But once we decided, we were all in. I think this is a quality in us that emerges in our work at Workshop. We are intentional and thoughtful, but once we decide, we move fast and build momentum. 

Anna: I think that’s true. And definitely, there were moments when we really felt the gravity of the decision to start over. Everyone thought we were crazy to move around the world with two small children (we had two at the time, a toddler and a new baby). I have to say, it was emotional to let go of so much – our jobs, our friends, our home and almost everything we owned. But once we let it go, it felt freeing. We moved to Cape Town with six boxes, four suitcases, two kids (and our dog!).

Ben: We didn’t even have jobs when we went.  We had six months of savings, and we gave ourselves that runway to figure it out. 

Anna and Ben's two young daughters leaving the U.S. for South Africa

What was the “ah-ha” moment for founding Workshop? 

Anna: It wasn’t really an “ah-ha” moment, more like a slow realization. Ben was working for a major foundation in South Africa, finally getting to do really meaningful work on social and health issues. I took a break from work for a while and then started freelancing. We were really open and in exploratory mode.

Ben: Over time, we realized that if we wanted to do the kind of work that we were dreaming about – on our own terms, which meant time for our family, for travel, for our lives – that we'd need to work for ourselves.

Anna: We picked up our first project, while still in South Africa, and it was our first real experience working together. It didn’t take long for us to realize that our strengths were super compatible. Working together was a special kind of alchemy, and we loved how integrated our work and life could be. 

View from the Adlards' home in Cape Town

How did you come up with the name “Workshop?” Was there something that inspired that?

Anna: We thought of Workshop first as a place, before we knew what type of work we’d do. We imagined a really collaborative studio space, with lots of light, materials, tinkering, teammates. I think “workshop” was a shorthand for the kind of super-collaborative, innovative, creative, team-based work we enjoy. 

Ben: In undergrad, I majored in art—sculpture—and have really good memories of being in the art studio in college. I loved the idea of replicating some of that vibe and energy with our new company. 

So after founding Workshop, you both moved back to the states? What prompted the return?

Anna: Once we distilled what our vision for Workshop would be, we knew that it was time to come back to the U.S.    

Ben: On one level, it was hard to move back. I loved getting to spend time with my extended family and experiencing South Africa with our own family. But, once Anna and I started building a company, we both knew that the U.S. would be the right place to grow a company.

Anna: It was a full circle moment for us. After a few years in South Africa, we ended up right back where we started, in Durham, North Carolina. As a community, Durham has so many resources for entrepreneurs and offered us the support system, both personally and professionally, to grow Workshop.

The Adlards return to Durham, North Carolina and start Workshop

How has your background in human-centered design work influenced Workshop’s approach?

Anna: We just believe in the efficacy of this design approach. It unlocks much better solutions, especially, if you’re trying to drive change. (You’ll get nowhere fast trying to force change.) We have to get people engaged and bring them along on the journey. People are treasure troves of experience, ideas and workarounds. When you pay attention and center their experience, there is SO MUCH learning that emerges from a human-centered approach. 

Ben: Completely agree. We believe if you design with the people you’re trying to solve for – get in there, learn from them, find out what they need, co-develop solutions with them – it leads to better results. Human-centered design is also a methodology that respects people, which aligns directly with Workshop’s values. 

Why does Workshop use agile methodology for climate-action work?

Ben: Agile developed out of software, and I was introduced to this way of working in the early days of my career as a product management. Workshop has adapted agile methodology for climate action work, because this approach is designed for innovation. It creates structure and momentum when you’re in uncharted territory. It enables teams to move quickly, learn as we go and adapt to change as we move forward.

What inspired the shift from mission-based work to climate-driven work?

Ben: When we started Workshop, we said yes to nearly everything. Which, if you’re a new entrepreneur, I would definitely advise you to do when you’re starting out. 

Anna: Absolutely. We were taking on all sorts of projects and learning from it all. We learned a lot in year one about what we liked to do and where we provided real value to our clients. From the get-go, we knew purpose-driven work would be the focus for Workshop.

Ben: In that first year of saying “yes” to everything – we got the opportunity to work on a really interesting sustainability project. We quickly found it to be (one) such important and urgent work (two) a really interesting intersection of business and mission to unlock change and (three) a space where we can provide deep expertise on the “people part” of climate action work.

Can you talk about the core values that guide Workshop and how they came to be?

Anna: What I love about Workshop’s core values – like the rest of our journey – is that they emerged naturally over time. In that first year of Workshop, the values developed in an iterative way, as we learned what we valued, what we honored and what made us tick. 

Ben: When we finally wrote the values down, it was years later, and they came from a place of experience. It was easy to write them out, because it was just an articulation of what has been true to us for many years. To this day, we still have our values written down on a little slip of paper in our office. As we continue to grow, it’s become a reminder to stay grounded in our values. 

The early days of creating workshop spaces for clients

Perfect segue – What are your future plans for Workshop, and how do you envision its growth? 

Anna: We are at the start of a new chapter for Workshop. We feel so clear on our purpose and strength: we activate teams for climate action. We’re building out our services and our team to accelerate the urgent transformation that’s needed for a thriving future. 

Ben: For so many years, it’s been Anna and me. It’s been really energizing to build out a team of purpose-driven people who bring new energy and experience to this work. We have a vision for Workshop that is much bigger than the work itself. In terms of what’s next, I’m excited to return to a product role at Workshop over the next year. We’re planning to develop an open source community to share models and resources for climate activation at scale.


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