Navigator Black

Shelby Austin

Shelby Austin is the co-founder and CEO of Arteria AI. The Toronto-based firm works with clients around the world in the financial services sector to improve operational efficiency through digital documentation and data management.

In October she joined other Canadian CEO’s in signing an open letter to all levels of government demanding action to curb the rise of antisemitism and islamophobia in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel.

Chris Hall: What is Arteria’s approach to commenting on significant global issues like the Hamas Israel conflict?

Shelby Austin: I suppose typically Arteria doesn’t comment on any issues as an organization. That said, we’re in a little bit of a different position than others because we are, as individuals, sort of synonymous with our organization.

We will choose to publicly comment as individuals, quite often alongside the company name, so it’s almost a distinction without difference.

For example, I signed the Globe and Mail letter as Shelby Austin, but also as the CEO of Arteria which was a clear public statement around the issues in the Israel-Hamas war.

CH: So how did you arrive at that decision to add your name or your signature to the Globe and Mail letter?

SA: I mean, it was just the right thing to do. We have often had good discussions about what is the right role of management in these sorts of situations. And for me, personally, I believe that many people who work with us need to understand our purpose and our values as individuals.

When something happens in the world that we believe we need to speak out on, we’ll often post something that is meaningful, authentic and that reflects our values.

So, in this case, when someone called me and said, would you put your name to this, I gave it a read and thought, well, what could be a better use of my limited amount of influence? I was happy to do it.

CH: Is that the first time you’ve done something like that? To speak out or add your name to a statement on an international or global issue?

SA: No, no. I often, through my LinkedIn, through my Instagram, through any of my social media accounts, will speak out on issues that matter. Again, I’m not necessarily speaking for a corporate body, but when something touches my soul and I am educated about it and it’s meaningful to me, I’ll absolutely comment on it.

There’s no policy of commenting, by the way, no policy to always say something or never say something. It really is a judgment call, particularly if I’m hearing our teams speak about something. And you know, then we’ll often have a discussion.

One of the most unique aspects of Arteria is that we have a culture that we work on together as a company on a weekly basis. It’s quite a unique organizational construct that allows us to have discussions like this.

And really, it’s not that we get every issue right. I mean of course we’re trying to get it right, but the goal is not necessarily to say the “right thing” all the time. The goal is to have authentic discussions with our teams about what they may be feeling in their hearts or carrying with them. We want to make space for people to feel that they can bring their whole selves to work in a really authentic manner.

CH: Was this issue different from others in terms of how your team responded? Do more people who work with you have a connection to that region, have stronger views about Israeli and Palestinian causes than they do about Russia and Ukraine, for example?

SA: No. For us it wasn’t any different. I happen to be proud and Jewish, and people know that about me.

And so I think to some extent there may have been an expectation that this was different for me.

But the truth is I am pretty attuned to what’s going on in the world and often we’ll try and make space for our team.

Our team is very multicultural. It’s overwhelmingly diverse from all walks of life, and that includes different genders, races, religions, etc. So, we don’t come to this as a homogeneous culture. Really, for us, it’s just about being hyper respectful and making space for people to have authentic conversations, because in truth many will say there’s no place in their job or in the boardroom for these sorts of opinions.

I think that people come to work with what’s going on in the world in their heart. To not make space for that, I think, is a critical misstep. Not doing so can be the cause of real risk items for our business, like attrition, like recruitment fees. I mean it’s a business issue in my point of view, to be both diverse and to put our values first.

CH: What kind of feedback did you get? For example, did you expect you might have some people applauding you for being part of the statement, or did you worry that some people would say, look, I don’t think you should have said anything.

SA: Well, I suppose I’m always open to feedback and I don’t always say the right thing, so there’s always a possibility that people will come out and say that was wrong and I was keenly aware that that might be a challenge.

But you know, if you speak from the heart, if you’re really speaking from your own place with respect and great capacity for understanding, I think that that’s an OK outcome because, really what you’re saying is, these are my views. I hold them strongly enough to speak out, and if you disagree, let’s have a conversation because it’s obviously something I felt strong enough about to say something publicly on a whole bunch of different channels.

And, as a result, I’m happy to have conversations or educational moments on any of these issues, whether it’s the Israel-Hamas war or really any item that’s come up, of which there have been many in recent days. Issues where I felt strongly that it was important to share views or to share empathy most of all which is really what we’re trying to do.

CH: Could I come back to your statement that you don’t have a policy for or against speaking out. As you consider this now, is it time to have a policy or are you thinking of having a policy for Arteria about when it’s appropriate to speak out?

SA: Listen, I have worked for very large corporations where there have been many policies.

I think one of the gifts of being below the Dunbar number, below a certain threshold of folks within an organizational structure, is that it’s mostly about providing people space and ensuring, of course, that you’re fulfilling all your legal obligations and all the other various items.

But apart from that, which is a wide berth, I think it’s good for us that we want people to show up in a way that makes sense to them. For us, the more forums the better. The forum we can create to debate and to generate great conversation or great thinking around culture or the future of the company or what’s going on in the world or what’s going on in their families is all positive.

I mean, sometimes people carry things with them that have nothing to do with a war but have to do with having kids at home or a sick parent or, you know, people have a lot going on. We don’t ask people to check their personal lives at the door and that’s important to us.

CH: One of the things that has come up is providing that safe space for people to have a discussion to express how they feel. Did you need to do anything to make sure that people understood there was a safe space at Arteria to be able to do that?

SA: I think the nice thing about starting little and being in our third year is that you kind of know what you’re getting on the way in the door. We wear our hearts on our sleeves.

I think anyone who’s worked with me in organizations large or small will tell you that. My cofounders and I have worked for many, many, many years together. In one case, close to 15 and another close to 10. I mean, the three of us have worked together for an extraordinary long time. We are all visibly diverse and we all just try and let people have space.

People often laugh, but our entire company comes on a call for an hour once a week to talk through things like: is kindness an imperative in the workplace, or should we ask for advice rather than feedback to generate a better sense of value both from the receiver and the giver of that advice? Or are we feeling heavy with what’s going on in the world? I mean, these are all issues that would be considered taboo within larger constructs.

But in our construct, it’s the most natural thing, and it’s really organic and it’s something that we talk about. Significantly, we also ask: how do we maintain this culture as we grow?

One of the benefits or scary parts of being a venture-backed backed company is that you’re always aiming to grow. And as we see a rapid headcount growth, for us, we worry more about how we maintain this breath of fresh air, this true, honest-selves-first policy as we get bigger. You know, at some stage when we’re 500 people or more, maybe we’ll move to a policy approach, but right now we run more like a pirate ship than the Navy. At some point that perhaps changes.

But right now, it’s one of the things that I certainly believe is the secret of our success.

CH: I’m still trying to get a sense of how you align those values you just spoke about. With stakeholders or the venture capitalists, for example, who might have a different viewpoint on you speaking your mind on issues like this?

SA: Listen, I think that they know us very well before they invest, right, these are very, very well-vetted decisions and I think they know that we are clear on who we are and that, one of the most important things about being Arterians as we call ourselves is, you know, having that sense of personal purpose.

That means we don’t all have to agree, because that doesn’t make sense to me. I’d like to think we all agree on certain things like we shouldn’t be antisemites or Islamophobic. Obviously, I hope that’s table stakes.

But I think that if what we’re saying is, we need to make space to ensure that if I am from Iran and the events of the past year have touched me, that I have a place to say that. I come to work with a lot on my plate and I need to have this space for people to recognize that. I’m not just carrying the stress of the work today, I’m carrying this stress of my world, whatever that is.

If we don’t make space for people to bring that into their workplace, to have a recognition that the burdens they’re carrying are not just the ones of the next meeting with a customer, that’s a clear negative.

And I would say we’re careful to not enforce homogeny for sure, but we need to ensure that we are making space for authenticity.