Praxis is a creative engine for redemptive entrepreneurship, supporting founders, funders, and innovators motivated by their faith to renew culture and love their neighbors. The Praxis community of practice operates through high-touch programs, robust content, and a global portfolio of redemptive business & nonprofit ventures.
Praxis is a partner of the Wheaton Center for Faith & Innovation and we are grateful for their willingness to share their article with us today. Please enjoy these thoughts from Jon Hart.
Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with several audiences at a liberal arts college. I began my talks by posing a question: “What is going on in the world?” The first answer (from students) came quickly and definitively: “chaos.”
Later that day, I offered the same question to a group of professors, and sure enough, the first answer: “chaos.”
If that was the sentiment on a beautiful, serene campus where the primary work is to teach and to learn, we shouldn’t be surprised how true it feels everywhere — in our work, in our communities, in the news we absorb everyday, and (especially) in the wilds of social media. We’re experiencing a growing collective helplessness that the problems we face in our world are increasingly complex and we don’t know where to turn for solutions.
In the face of this sense of powerlessness amidst chaos, I believe that now more than ever, each of us needs a robust vision for how our work can be a vehicle for redemptive possibility: to bring a little more beauty and justice into places of brokenness and harm, and to bless others in the process.
In fact, in the six years since starting Praxis Academy — our work with next-generation founders, builders, and creatives — I’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of college students and recent graduates asking important questions about their vocational choices: How can I have the most impact? How can I make use of the gifts God has given me? How can I learn what it is “really like” to express my faith through my work in my chosen field? Are some fields or professions more redemptive than others? Should I start my own venture or join one? Can I work redemptively and entrepreneurially if I’m not a founder, or (especially) if I’m trying to move up in a large organization?
Over time, I’ve come to see that these questions aren’t just for graduates searching for their first job out of college. In fact, many within the Praxis community and beyond are asking these questions at various points of their working lives. Each career path is as unique as the individual, so there is no standard formula here. Rather, I’ve identified three moves that nearly anyone can pursue throughout one’s career: developing a holistic vision for work across the Redemptive Frame, taking action within your agency, and increasing your agency by seriously considering starting or joining a startup.
Move 1. Develop a Holistic Vision for Work Across the Redemptive Frame
The faith and work movement has done the crucial work of reminding our generation in the Church that God indeed cares about our vocation, and that however important, pastoral or missions work is not a “higher calling” than other types of work. What I’ve observed, though, is a tendency to replace this “sacred/secular divide” with other ones. We invent new hierarchies, where (for example) non-profit endeavors are seen to hold more inherent value than business careers, or where elite, “stable” institutions are seen to be intrinsically superior to emerging ones.
This is a mistake. In fact, there is significant redemptive potential in every sector and type of organization. Regardless of legal status, what makes an organization exploitative, ethical, or redemptive rests in how it operates and what it produces in the world. At Praxis, after working closely with more than 200 entrepreneurs doing pioneering work across dozens of sectors and legal structures, we’ve come to define these terms using the Redemptive Frame.
On the Redemptive Frame, the Y-axis is Strategic Vision, which deals with what is produced through our work — products, services, brands, spaces — and the impact these have on the world. The X-axis is Operating Model, or how those things are brought into the world: team culture, supply chain, partnerships, capital structure. The Z-axis is Leadership Intent, where the focus is on who the leaders are becoming as they work, what motivates them, and how they spend their working days.
This paradigm was critically missing in my own journey of connecting my faith to my daily work.
As an undergraduate business student serving on the leadership team of a Christian business club, I devoted significant time to understanding how business and faith worked together. Week in and week out for four years, I heard inspiring stories from prominent business leaders, read multiple books, and had countless conversations with thoughtful peers on how to integrate faith and work. What sank in was pretty straightforward: work hard, have high integrity, pray for your co-workers, practice servant leadership, and give money away (particularly to missions and the church). So that’s what I set out to do when I took a job at a large corporation after graduation.
Many years later, I had a flashback to a particularly impressionable moment from that job.
Early in my career, I worked on the product buying team at a large retailer. We were tasked with selecting the product assortment, negotiating prices and promotions with vendors, and managing sales. In one particularly important encounter, I employed all the negotiation techniques that pass for “best practices” to get what I wanted: a lower price we could use to beat our competition in a prominent advertisement. Knowing that I had the leverage in the situation, I threatened to pull the vendor from the advertisement and replace them with one of their competitors if they couldn’t get our unit cost to the number I was demanding. Eventually, the vendor caved, and I won. We had a spike in unit sales, clearly beat our competition in the ad, saw additional foot traffic to our stores, and I was celebrated by my peers and bosses in the Monday morning ad review.
And yet my winning probably had a cost, to which I was oblivious at the time.
At the time of my flashback, I was around a number of people who were fighting human trafficking. I learned that a majority of victims of modern day slavery — an estimated 16 million people— are exploited through work in the private sector, and it’s people at the bottom of these supply chains who are most likely to pay the cost of our unquenchable consumerism. Suddenly I was able to see the contrast between the efforts many social entrepreneurs were making to combat modern-day slavery and the possibility that my work for a Fortune 100 company had advanced it in some way. While I had “won” that price negotiation, in a moment of honest self-reflection, I had to acknowledge that the costs of that winning likely had been borne on the backs of the people at the bottom of the supply chain.
This was a sobering revelation, especially given my long pursuit of faith and work integration. I realized that most of what I had learned was about my personal conduct in the workplace, but had little to say about what my work was producing in the world. Was this product actually good for the people we were trying to sell it to? Were we honest in the ways we presented what the product could (and couldn’t!) do for customers? Was the product good for God’s creation, or would it just end up in a junk drawer, donation bin, or an overflowing garage?
Moreover, I was ill-equipped to think well about how our products were made or how our services were delivered. Were we paying attention to the supply chain and asking hard questions about exploitation—or were we turning a blind eye so that our business model could thrive? How did we treat our suppliers and partners? And were we actively creating a workforce culture that truly cared for its people, or one that ran people into the ground, treating them as little more than organizational resources?
The Redemptive Frame provides a more holistic way of looking at our work, and I’ve found it to be very helpful to considering our vocational impact beyond simply how we personally conduct ourselves in the workplace. Looking back, these were the questions I wished I had asked early on in my own career.
So, the first move toward redemptive action is to develop a holistic vision for your work across the Redemptive Frame.
Move 2: Take Action Within Your Agency
If your experience is anything like mine, as you begin to see differently, with a vision that spans the Redemptive Frame, you’ll want to act differently to pursue that vision.
But where to start? Most of us, especially earlier in our careers, don’t feel much power to change things. We feel limited agency, which we could define as our ability to make choices that affect outcomes in a meaningful way.
Additionally, when we start with problems that are too complex or remote, we tend to distance ourselves from our ability to make change happen. We choose apathy over action. Yet emerging and seasoned entrepreneurs can frequently overcome this temptation when they focus on what they can do today within the agency they actually have.
Whatever level of agency you have today, we recommend starting on the inside of the Redemptive Frame and working your way out, using this “ABC” pattern:
- Attack the Exploitative
- Baseline the Ethical
- Chase the Redemptive Edge
Attack the Exploitative
Return with me to the example of my negotiation. If I had started with a holistic vision for my work that sought to understand the consequences and effects of what we were making and how it was made, I would have been in a better position to pose pointed questions to the vendor about their supply chain. If I had found their factories were exploiting workers through poor labor conditions and unfair wages, I could have attacked the exploitation by addressing it directly with the vendor and and being prepared to pull the advertisement if necessary. Instead, I used the advertisement as a negotiation lever to get a lower cost for my company, which actually put the vendor in a position of potentially having to further exploitation in their supply chain. Ouch.
Now, would that one negotiation radically transform the vendor’s supply chain from an engine of exploitative extraction to one of restorative justice that blesses its employees? No. Change like that, of course, takes a long time and the collective will of many people. Moreover, the redemptive edge is often difficult to see when it’s so clouded by the complex exploitation buried in so many of our norms and practices. But the individual actions we take day in and day out matter, and this is why we must train our eyes to see exploitative practices — across the Strategic Vision and Operating Model — and do our best within our agency to attack it.
Notice that “attacking the exploitative” happens first at the personal level, then at the broader level. First, beginning within the sphere of my strongest agency, I needed to see how my decisions and actions directly exploited others, and I needed to stop doing those things. (In my case, that would have meant negotiating in good faith rather than manipulating the incentives to maximum advantage.) Only then could I have worked to help identify and root out exploitative practices in the system around me.
Baseline the Ethical
It’s not enough merely to attack or avoid the exploitative. The next move is to “baseline the ethical”: to ensure that our work clears the bar of integrity, honesty, excellence, and attention to best practices. This move also begins with our personal conduct. Working with demonstrable excellence is the minimum we must do in light of Colossians 3:23a (“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord”). What’s more, excellence not only enhances your witness as a believer in Christ; in practical terms, it is the only way to earn the right to influence the way your organization operates.
For example, if I had learned of potentially exploitative practices in a vendor’s supply chain, I could have shared this with teammates and begun a productive conversation within my small corner of the company about how to address it. This conversation would have to include and address a number of stakeholders: the wide variety of vendors we did business with, experts in international labor norms, and executives within the company who had more agency to make new policy. Over time, we could have started to shift the narrative in our advertisements for this product line from being just about the lowest prices to being about a new commitment to supply chain transparency. If we as a company were able to successfully pull this off, no doubt our competitors would take notice and this ethical practice would eventually become more of a norm, or baseline, for our industry.
Anyone who has worked at a large organization of any kind knows this kind of change is never easy. It would likely take years of hard work across dozens or hundreds of people internally and externally to pull something like this off.
Chase the Redemptive Edge
In fact, the pursuit doesn’t stop there, because there are places where even the ethical isn’t sufficient, and where we believe the gospel calls us and points us “beyond the ethical” to the redemptive edge.
Here’s what I mean. At Praxis, we define redemptive as following the pattern of “creative restoration through sacrifice.” Let’s take each term in turn.
To be human is to be creative. As bearers of God’s image, we have the capacity and calling to bring new things into the world. In doing so, we should aim at restoring things that are broken, distorted, or harmful. In a fallen world, this work of restoration will necessarily involve bearing some kind of cost or sacrifice. To intentionally take the low seat, to consider the needs of others just as we consider our own, to (in the language of business) leave something on the table — this is the work of sacrifice, and no meaningful restoration takes place without it.
Here’s a practical form of following the “creative restoration through sacrifice” pattern no matter where you are in the organization—you can treat everyone around you with patience, care, honor, and blessing. You can assume the best of others, even when the organizational culture protects those who engage in gossip and unhealthy competition. When you do this in countercultural ways, you are being creative; you are contributing to restoration; and you will sometimes be sacrificing advantage, power or comfort, especially in the short term.
This is a high and difficult calling and we should not treat it otherwise. Even in the best of circumstances, our efforts to pursue the redemptive edge will be partial, limited, and provisional. Even so, the call to creative restoration through sacrifice is worth heeding in whatever stage of career we find ourselves.
Move 3: Build Agency by Starting or Joining a Startup
So you’ve sought to take action right where you are: you’ve sought to attack or avoid exploitative patterns, you’ve made a habit of acting with excellence and ethics, and you’ve even moved beyond the ethical to pursue restoration, even when it comes with a risk and cost.
Over the years, how do you pursue more opportunity and agency inside and (especially) beyond your current role and organization?
I’ve come to categorize job opportunities by type of organization and roles within those organizations through this 2×2:
It might be surprising to see that a mid-level executive at an established organization has less agency than an entry-level employee at a startup. But this is generally true. Even the most nimble large organizations struggle to pivot as quickly as even the most risk-averse startups. So one great way to increase your agency to act redemptively is to start something — or go work for someone who has.
That last clause is important. While we at Praxis have a deep love for founders, and are certainly in favor of more people starting new things, we’ve noticed two things. First, many successful entrepreneurs are made, not born. Yes, of course, some serial entrepreneurs have been starting businesses since an early age and could not imagine life outside of the founder’s seat. Yet for many others, the path to becoming a successful founder is often the byproduct of a faithful pursuit of vocational assignments, which later coalesces into a desire to start something new.
Second, there are many ways to be entrepreneurial, including joining an early-stage startup as an employee. And for those with eyes to see them, joining a startup has numerous benefits. Being a first employee of a startup — even if it’s in a highly administrative role where all you’re doing is managing the founder’s calendar and booking travel — gives you unprecedented access to the daily challenges and successes of starting something new. Whether it be learning how to manage cash flows, deciding what type of capital is needed to operate the venture, figuring out how to access that capital, finding product/market fit, deciding when and who to hire (and fire!), founders have a great deal of responsibility in the earliest days. As such, they are likely to lean heavily on the gifts and abilities of the team they employ, which gives early employees a great deal of agency and influence.
Consider, for example, former Praxis Emerging Founder Brannon Veal, who — with a resume that includes roles at NASA and a highly respected company in the Fortune 100 — joined a startup called ICON as an engineer. Instead of being one of hundreds or thousands of engineers employed at a large corporation, he’s now one of a handful of engineers working on cutting-edge 3D home printing technology within a company seeking to make affordable, dignified housing available to everyone throughout the world. An ambitious goal, but one they have started to make progress on: in partnership with New Story, they recently unveiled the world’s first 3D printed home community. Brannon expedited his path to a high-agency role by joining a startup where his work connects directly to creating redemptive possibilities in service of a mission he cares deeply about.
A Vision for Coherence + Redemptive Action
So should everyone join a startup instead of working for a corporation or established organization? Is it only possible to realize true redemptive possibilities by founding or joining a startup? Is there a new “hierarchy of callings” where founders and employees at startups are the most redemptive?
The short answer is “no,” we cannot replace one unbiblical hierarchy with another. There are different opportunities, tradeoffs, and challenges for redemptive impact whether you are a solo practitioner, a startup team member, or an employee in a large institution.
Our particular advocacy here is that you strongly consider spending time in a smaller organization at any point in your career. Not because it’s cooler, or because you think it’s a faster track to wealth, or to not “working for the man”—but because it generally affords you the opportunity to develop greater vocational coherence and practice redemptive action in a shorter timespan.
Here’s the kicker: all of us — whether working at a startup or established organization, in an entry level or executive role — will be hindered by a lack of vocational coherence. That is why the first move (and continues to be the first move for our whole career!) is to develop a more robust, holistic vision for our vocation across the Redemptive Frame. This helps us see ourselves as part of a larger whole — both in the organization we work for and that organization’s impact on the world. As we see our role in the world as deeper and larger, then we can more easily identify and attack exploitation through our work, move towards baselining the ethical, and always chase the redemptive.
In his book Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, David Whyte opens by examining a famous quote (attributed to Robert Blake) about having a firm persuasion in our work, and adds his take:
To have a firm persuasion in our work — to feel that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at the exact same time — is one of the great triumphs of human existence.
—David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea
Since I don’t know Whyte personally and dare not ascribe my faith convictions to him, I may interpret this passage differently than he intends it. Regardless, this important arrangement of words demonstrates the convictions we ought to hold about work and the world. Developing a firm persuasion is a journey I encourage each of our next-generation Academy members to take — and one that I invite you to as well.
The harsh reality of injustice in our world means that this entire conversation is a privileged one. Most people on the planet don’t have the agency to imagine, let alone make, the choices that we are considering here. But for those of us who do, may we make the best of our position by moving always in the direction of redemptive action: making things that matter, stewarding whatever agency we have, and taking wise risks to increase our agency, so that we can bring about more redemptive possibilities on behalf of others.
Note: the advice shared here — in particular the Redemptive Frame and “ABC” we use as the core of this piece and much of our work at Praxis — is the result of countless hours of work synthesizing observations of some of the best practitioners we know. That work was done by a handful of people on the Praxis team, and the credit of these ideas is due to them.