Before founding social innovation firm Platypus Advisors, Caroline Barlerin launched neighborhood learning center NeighborNest as Twitter’s Head of Philanthropy and Community Outreach, and built HP’s “Matter to a Million” game-changing partnership with Kiva, which subsequently made over $20m of loans to more than 350,000 people.
As CEO of Platypus Advisors, Caroline partners with companies like Google, okta, Uber, Splunk, Cruise and Sephora to implement social impact initiatives at any stage of growth. CANOPY is thrilled to share Caroline’s insights on how social impact initiatives can be a driver of growth, innovation, and profit as part of our Women’s History Month programming.
“Platypus Advisors is on a mission to accelerate integrated impact. We craft unique collaborations across sectors, creating and scaling solutions that work for all stakeholders.”
Why did you decide to establish Platypus Advisors here in the Bay Area?
Platypus Advisors was born in the midst of the pandemic while my colleagues and I exchanged ideas over Zoom on reimagining what cross-sector solutions would be necessary given the social transformations we were witnessing locally and around the world. We wanted to explore ways to work at the intersection of profit and purpose to make durable change a reality.
Your LinkedIn notes you have multiple roles: global social impact leader, Tech for Good coach, and cross-sector collaborator. Are these intersectional responsibilities under the Platypus umbrella?
Personally, I love to help leaders unlock their purpose. This is a team sport that requires creativity, collaboration, community and courage.
How does Platypus work with companies in different sectors at various stages of development?
The magic of Platypus is that we meet our clients where they are and help them to accelerate their pace of impact in the world.
We’ve worked from pre-IPO to Fortune 50 companies. Early-stage companies engage us as they map their social impact roadmaps, building their business cases and go-to-market strategies. More established companies partner with us when they have new leaders who want to achieve more impact, scale their programs and amplify their work out in the world.
Independent of life stage, we are committed to partnering with our clients to move their thinking and impact forward. As a team of practitioners, we don’t just bring strategy expertise but lived experiences we can leverage to offer practical advice on operationalizing and implementing our work.
Over the last couple of decades, corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become more important to companies across the board. How have you seen the perception of social impact and what companies want to accomplish in this field evolve since you founded Platypus Advisors?
Corporate social responsibility was once seen as a “nice to do,” and then it evolved into a “should do” and then became a “must do,” and then the pendulum swings back. Business leaders are increasingly asking if social impact is just window dressing or if it is real and impactful for the longevity of a company. We have different generations in the workforce, each of which has specific priorities and perspectives, especially regarding purpose. This can’t simply be housed in HR or marketing or product. Companies need to take a multi-stakeholder approach and have this work built in, not just bolted onto any one area of the company.
What does a typical advisory or collaborative arc look like for Platypus: do you develop custom modules for companies based on their needs, or do you have a fully realized curricula to adapt and apply over the course of years of operation?
A typical first assignment might span three to six months, but then the majority of our customers come back and renew for another six months to a year. We’ve had clients for more than two or three years because the majority of our clients see the value that we bring and ask us to help them solve other problems and bring these strategies to life. It’s been flattering to have the opportunity to continue to be a thought partner, because none of this work is done overnight: it takes time, consistency, strategy, testing and prototyping to make social impact initiatives work and be sustainable.
Can you describe some specific use cases for successful social impact initiatives in the marketplace?
Successful social impact initiatives require partnership across the company and in the community, plus long-term commitment and investment to ensure we’re addressing real problems in the world.
When I led social impact at Twitter, I invested my first six weeks into meeting with 65 non-profits based in the blocks around our mid-Market SF HQ. These conversations helped inform the design of our place-based philanthropy strategy and launched a six-month listening tour for us to better understand the needs of low-income and homeless families in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. This work informed the creation of the Twitter NeighborNest, a family-friendly tech learning center that has to date welcomed more than 6,300 visitors and provided over 1,700 hours of programming with free childcare.
Platypus believes that the people closest to the problems should be closest to the solutions. This core tenet drives us to take a collaborative, cross-sector, cooperative design approach to our work.
Can you share a project in which Platypus was involved?
Right now, we are working with an autonomous vehicle company co-designing their social impact strategy in a product-forward, community-driven approach to harness the power of their fleet as they scale.
Today leaders are swimming in an alphabet soup of confusion of where this work should sit and how CSR fits with ESG, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) and philanthropy. CEOs approach us to help map out ways to navigate all of these moving parts in a way that translates to the various key stakeholders.
Another project I’m really excited about is with Ford Foundation which approached Platypus to help engage tech leaders in critical conversations about the importance of investing in public interest tech, also known as civic tech. It feels great to be bridging these conversations and collaborations across various sectors.
Is it fair to say that, for most startups or young companies prioritizing inter-regional growth and expansion, social impact goals are baked into their company ethos from the beginning, rather than considered later?
Very much so–I think social impact has become an integral part of doing business. And yet, the headwinds, the challenges—especially in our current economic times–is to put questions to leadership around the impact that they want to have, and to underscore the significance of social impact mandates if you really want to attract, develop and retain top talent, and create a durable, longstanding, profitable business. Social impact is an engine for growth, innovation and success, but it takes investment over the long term.
Given that you work with companies in different sectors with different goals, what are your KPIs or benchmarks for success?
There’s a difference between the outputs and the outcomes, typically told through data and stories: the amount of money invested, the amount of community-appropriate products given, and what that means for the communities in which a business operates. There’s been a patronizing history of “tech knows best,” where tech has gone into and designed for a community. Now we’re seeing “tech designs with…” as tech companies commit to listening to and understanding communities, with communities reciprocally telling them how they can be of value. To me, having a community-led project is a metric for success, but how you get there, where the community feels like there’s collective ownership over the power of the product, or when communities are directing the power within tech, is where the magic happens. We rarely achieve that, but that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.
Is that why you named the company “Platypus Advisors”?
It was animated by this idea: evolve or die. The platypus has been around for a very, very long time–it’s hard to place where this duckbilled, otter-bodied, beaver-tailed creature belongs. Still, it’s clear that it’s a living evolutionary intersection. No problem has been caused or will be solved solely by one sector, so we need to take an intersectional approach to the work. At Platypus Advisors, we take our work very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves that seriously, and our name speaks to that–like the platypus, we’re a playful creature that can navigate different worlds and effect real intersectional impact.
How will this area evolve in the next five to 10 years?
I’m excited by how much the industry is growing and changing, but I worry that ESG is becoming purely a tick-the-box regulatory exercise. Instead of looking at just the environmental area, which is the easiest to measure, we need to evolve the social and governance sides more and train CEOs and leaders on how to think about the intersectional impacts of both in a way they haven’t been required to before. Again, this involves considering all stakeholders, not just the shareholders and investors, and it’ll take some courage and candor to get us there.
What does sustainability mean to you, both as CEO and founder of Platypus Advisors, and in your day to day?
How you walk the talk as an individual and collective is important. I think of sustainability in terms of green, regarding issues impacting the planet, and blue: concerning people. There’s a critical situation where climate impact meets human rights and climate justice. We’re talking about the rights of some of the most disenfranchised people being the most impacted by our current climate crisis. However, the voices we hear are often not those most impacted by climate change, and actions around mitigating climate change can often affect their socioeconomic ability to thrive.
I’m on the Board of Global Fund for Women and we’re doing a lot of work around the intersection of climate change and women’s rights. I don’t have a good answer to your question, but where planet and people come together is one of the intersections I think about most. Tech has a critical role to play in sustainability. If you consider the amount of water that tech requires to cool data centers, there’s work that tech needs to do to harness the power of innovation to help solve the problems humans are causing in the short-, middle- and long-term. We also need to do this work in conversation with the communities that are impacted the most.
When you founded your company, what was your ideal operational footprint?
I traditionally worked in tech where we’ve had offices on campuses, and also, for the past few years, worked on global teams. At HP, I was operating in 150 different countries, and so it didn’t really matter where you worked, but how you were virtually, agilely optimized for global time differences while still building community. When we were building Platypus, there was no goal around having a brick-and-mortar location: it was more about weighing our budget for office space and attracting and developing talent. Most of our clients are here in Silicon Valley, but I know that I can find amazingly brilliant, hardworking and passionate people all over the world. We have team members in South Africa, Europe, and across the United States, and right now, everyone’s working virtually.
Last year we had a team onsite where we all came together, which was the first time that most of us had met in person, which was exciting. We have ways of touching base and staying connected through different tools, and if we’re ever near each other we try to grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.
When and why did you decide to sign up for a CANOPY membership?
I have a Hybrid membership, which means I can come in ten days a month on a hot desk basis, bringing my laptop to the communal areas. I had been looking for a co-working space that aligned with the values of Platypus, and CANOPY spoke to me in terms of being accessible and having a highly inclusive lens and approach and an incredible aesthetic. I care about a space’s physical beauty and energy, and I felt like CANOPY offers both while countering the playground culture of other shared office spaces.
Do you have any favorite elements or CANOPY amenities?
Before signing up, I test-drove hosting client meetings in CANOPY Jackson Square‘s conference spaces, which worked out great. The phone booths are also great assets–often, I’m on the phone or Zoom all day long, and I’m self-conscious about doing that in open spaces when others are trying to work or socialize. This year, I’m excited to host different client meetings on the terrace here and take advantage of CANOPY’s events and other learning opportunities. CANOPY provides a great space if you want to be independent. Still, it also enables you to feel like you’re part of a community with other hardworking, busy, curious, compassionate people. When you’re building a business remotely, some days, it’s nice to leave my home and come here to work.
What’s one thing, either industry-related or not, that you’ve learned in the last month?
One of the areas I’m excited about is what’s known variously as public-interest tech, ethical tech, or responsible tech. There are different buzzwords for this area, but they all refer to ways in which tech companies consider the ethical use of their product and the implications down the road of what they’re building now. As I mentioned earlier, Ford Foundation, an organization striving to advance human justice and welfare, has engaged Platypus Advisors to bring tech to the table to discuss public interest in tech. I’m excited about that brokering work and where it will go. Platypus Advisors is an interstitial layer that understands community and social value but also speaks tech business value. That’s where this odd creature can live: at the intersection of profit and purpose.
What’s a skill everyone should master?
We should all learn to speak more languages. Imagine if we could all speak to one another in someone’s first language.
What’s a podcast you’d recommend to anyone?
I like the podcast Hidden Brain.
Are there any destinations you always enjoy traveling to?
After so many years without travel, I’m really up for going anywhere. Tokyo and Rome are two places I can think of that are so much older than anywhere you could find in America and offer unique opportunities to study history and honor what you can learn from the past while heeding innovation and what the future holds.
What’s your favorite thing to do in the San Francisco Bay Area?
I enjoy going to the various farmers’ markets and museums, plus going up to wine country and Tahoe and appreciating all NorCal has to offer.