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Money Talks: The college friends launching a company in a pandemic

After job loss and upheaval due to Covid-19, Ken Chester Jr. and Linglong Wei started WorkJustly to try and combat discrimination in the hiring process.

Nicole Dieker is a personal finance expert who's been writing about money for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Bankrate, Lifehacker, Morning Brew, and Dwell. She answers reader questions for Vox's On the Money column.

Welcome to Money Talks, a series in which we interview people about their relationship with money, their relationship with each other, and how those relationships inform one another.

Ken Chester Jr. and Linglong Wei have known each other since college. They’re entrepreneurs and consultants who both spent time in Silicon Valley before relocating to New York City. After Ken lost his consulting gig during the coronavirus-related economic downturn, he and Linglong decided to create WorkJustly, which they describe as the first job platform to mandate “blind hiring,” a method of avoiding pre-interview racial and ethnic discrimination by prohibiting names on resumes. The motivation behind WorkJustly is, in part, personal — Wei, who is Chinese, has experienced name-based discrimination during the hiring process that Chester, who is white, has not.

As of this writing, Ken and Linglong have recruited eight different employers to post jobs on WorkJustly, including Race Forward and Prior to losing his job, Ken earned around $4,000 a month as a contractor. Linglong is earning around $6,000 a month as a consultant while simultaneously working to build out WorkJustly. Their challenge is to get WorkJustly to the point where it starts earning money — before their earnings, unemployment benefits, and savings run out.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Ken: I’ve been a serial entrepreneur since leaving school, and I’ve always had some connection to either an international or social impact angle. I guess you could say I’m a social impact entrepreneur.

I met Linglong when I was the international student orientation leader at college — she was in my group. Michigan State, where we went to school, had the largest enrollment of Chinese students in the country for a couple of years, and at one point Lansing was one of the top 10 midsized cities for refugee resettlement. That’s what first got me into international and social impact work.

Linglong: [After] Michigan State, I started a company and became a consultant, and then I went to Cornell to get my MBA and computer science degree. I graduated in 2018 and began working as a product manager for startups. I’m also an actress, so I’m doing both things right now.

Ken: Before Covid-19, I was working for a private equity firm. They cut their budget big time after Covid-19 — it wasn’t immediate, but a couple months in it was time to really cut back. First my salary was cut, and then I thought, “Oh, the writing’s on the wall.”

That was in late May, early June, right when the George Floyd protests started, and I started thinking about the company I might create. There are all of these things going on economically with Covid-19, with racial injustice — Black and brown folks have had skyrocketing cases of Covid-19 compared to folks that look like me, and that’s because people are working jobs where they can’t work from home.

I was able to pull in unemployment benefits from the CARES Act. But jobs are a big deal — people have lost their livelihoods, people are worried. That’s why blind hiring is WorkJustly’s marquee policy. You’re not necessarily going to see someone’s gender, race, immigration status on a resume.

Linglong: When I was in school, I gave my resume to my classmates for feedback. They said “Don’t use Linglong Wei. Change it to Laura Wei. Make it sound Asian American.” If employers see “Linglong Wei,” they know I’m not from this country, and there’s a high chance I won’t get an interview.

When I used “Linglong Wei” on my resume, I didn’t get a lot of interviews. Once I switched to “Laura Wei,” I got many more chances — but I also faced a lot of gender discrimination. When Ken brought up this idea [for WorkJustly], I said, “Let’s do it. Let’s do something to help people.”

I built the site because I have a computer science background. Ken, his English is better than mine, so he’s more focused on marketing.

Ken: We collaborate on strategy, but Linglong built the site. We’re both co-founders now, but we’re working on formalizing — this is very new. We just built this in August.

Linglong: It went really fast.

Ken: We talked about it for a while, but once we decided to do it, you built it really fast. It also meant there weren’t a lot of upfront costs.

Linglong: Usually you hire people to build a website, but in this case, I could do it myself.

Ken: Right now we’re testing outreach strategies. I got a few companies on board through word of mouth, since I’m part of the startup ecosystem. We’re kind of in the A/B testing phase right now, so we’re figuring out which approaches work best. I’m really hoping we can get one of the bigger companies on board, because they can dump, like, a hundred [job openings] on there. They can really help us scale up.

We want to get employers used to this, and we want them to see this can work. I can’t promise a job candidate that their resume won’t be free from hiring bias, because the employer might also be reading resumes from [other job sites], but I do hope to promote a culture where an employer might see the value in posting through us. Maybe once they start hiring people they found through WorkJustly, maybe they’ll see the value in blind hiring.

We want to promote incremental change. We want to say this makes a positive difference.

We’re also trying to highlight employers with certain policies related to protections at work, including Covid-19 safety protections that people might not have thought about before this year. We’re also highlighting companies that hedge against layoffs — instead of laying off one person, for example, two people will take a reduction in hours but neither of them will get laid off.

Linglong: For some applicants, finding a company that offers the right policies — like work-from-home policies — are what they care about the most right now.

Ken: My gut tells me that [the policy section of WorkJustly] could be bigger. We’re introducing applicants to companies that offer benefits and policies that aren’t really talked about, like a four-day workweek. I don’t have the data yet — we’re too new — but that could be a bigger issue.

We’re trying to push this company forward and push people to change. Sometimes recruiters have already posted [job listings] in five other places and they don’t want to deal with the name-blind thing, so I’m hoping to target people who are aligned with the vision. They can be our early adopters. “Oh, sure, we’ll do blind hiring, that’s great! We’re all for making more diverse companies.” We really need to gear up the amount of employers listing with us before we start pushing out to job seekers.

Linglong: We’ve been testing whether or not to hide what school job applicants come from, too. I did a lot of research into that and a lot of surveys. People usually grade you based on schools, especially Ivy League schools — they’re really intense about that. Job seekers also think, “I worked so hard to go to that school, and I want to show it.” People who come from really tough schools like Harvard, they want to connect with the CEO of the company. So we might make what school you came from optional.

Ken: There are inequalities throughout the whole education process — if people didn’t get a good education in elementary school, middle school, high school, there are gaps that cut people off from higher ed or certain levels of higher ed. That’s something I hope society can address. But when we did testing and outreach, we learned that people who feel like they worked hard for something don’t want it removed during the blind hiring process.

Linglong: We talk about these kinds of ideas every day. Sometimes we disagree with each other, and the best way to resolve that is through surveys and testing. Use the evidence to prove it. Sometimes I worry that I’m biased about an idea, which is also why we do the surveys.

Ken: I wanted to do age-blind resumes, too. This is from personal experience — I don’t think I’m terribly old, but in the startup world, I’m older than 25. People are all, “You should have IPO’d by now.” But we looked at the data, what does the data say, and we decided not to push the envelope too far.

Linglong: A lot of people like to show their ages because it shows that they have a rich experience. That’s why I use the data. I don’t like it, you don’t like it, but the data shows that people like it, so that’s why including your age on your resume is optional.

Ken: In terms of making money [from the site], we have different tiered plans. A company can pay extra to have their job appear at the top of the feed, or to have their job expire later than other jobs. That’s how the competitor sites do it.

I’m still looking for work, something I can do while we build this — and by the terms of unemployment, I should be looking for work anyway — but [the pandemic] has afforded me time to work on this. In some sense I like the time I’ve had, but I do worry about the financial implications of this. When unemployment runs out, what kind of side gig can I take to keep pushing this forward?

There’s going to have to be a financial reckoning at some point. Either WorkJustly scales up quickly, or I grab some other gig. I think I can stretch things through the end of the year, but it might get tight. If all else fails and I totally run out of money, I have family back home. My mom wants me to come back all the time, and I could remotely do stuff back home if I needed to.

Linglong: I can use savings to pay for things, and if I run out of money, I can get a part-time job. I believe we only live once, life is short, so I should do something I want to do.

Ken: It would be a little ironic if the founders of WorkJustly used their site to find part-time jobs, but this is something we believe in and something that I think needs to happen. We’re at a point in history where if people don’t do something, I’m really worried about our future. If there’s some minor risk for me, if I fail, so be it.

Linglong: Sometimes you get less of a chance because of your name, your race, and your gender. So if you’re asking me whether I would post my resume on WorkJustly, I’d say, “Of course. That would help me get more opportunity.” That’s the reason I wanted to start this company.

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