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Good Spirits: Purpose-Driven Design - AE Works




Good Spirits are quarterly interviews with business leaders. During Good Spirits, we bring you a distilled look at business owners who are working to make a better future by giving back to their community through their work or philanthropy. These leaders inspire and empower us to make a positive difference in our own backyards.


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Transcript


Carolyn Keller:

Hi! This is Carolyn and this is our third episode of Good Spirits. These are quarterly interviews with business owners and leaders working to make a positive difference in our region. I'm delighted to introduce our next guest, AE Works. Today we have Carly and JoAnn with us. I'm going to let them introduce themselves a little bit. But just to start us off - Carly, JoAnn, whichever one of you wants to go first, tell us a little bit more about AE Works.



About AE Works: Making Building Projects a Better Value


Carly Khanna:

Thanks, Carolyn for having us! I'm Carly Khanna. I'm the Chief Brand Officer of AE Works. AE Works is a building design and consulting company. We're headquartered in Pittsburgh, and we've received awards for growth, social impact, and design. We're excited to be chatting with you today.


At AE Works, we combine a wide range of building design and consulting services. We’re focused on unlocking the full potential of the built environment, the spaces around us to deliver better value for our clients. Our services include architecture, interior design, building systems engineering, planning and project services. We can help our clients with traditional AE services and also provide non design consulting services to support planning, helping our clients understand what they need, or acting in a project advisory role. We are focused on making building projects a better value. And that means better use of our client’s time and money towards their projects. We've been in business now for 15 years. And in addition to our headquarters here in Pittsburgh, we have offices in State College and Washington, DC.


Carolyn Keller:

Fantastic! Thank you, Carly. JoAnn, tell us a little bit about what you do at AE Works.


JoAnn Rizzo:

Sure. I'm JoAnn Rizzo and I have a number of different titles - I go by Eco Chair, Executive Operations, Learning Management System Administrator as well. We wear many different hats. While I'm more on the C-Suite side of things, as well as sort of support for everyone in AE Works. To go off of what Carly was saying, yes, we are focused on the importance of the built environment. But why do we build environments, it's so we can live and work in them. And that's where my passion is and where my perspective goes.



What is a B Corp? Building Impact at AE Works


Carolyn Keller:

That's great. There's something that I think is really unique about AE Works in this space. And that's partly your business structure. And I know you incorporated as a B-Corp very early on in your existence, and wanted to ask why that decision was made. Can you tell us first what a B-Corp is, why you decided to go that direction, and just a little bit more about how that's allowed you to grow?


JoAnn Rizzo:

Our President, CEO and Founder of the company, Mike Cherock, is a visionary and an entrepreneur and always forward thinking. He's a lifelong learner, he is just interested in everything that's out there. Back in 2013, he came upon this and he said, “Hmm, we're already doing these things. Should we sort of put it out there that we actually are doing these things?” And he said “Carly, Joanne, look into this. Is it worth our time? Is it worth our money in terms of investment of time, and money?”


And Carly and I took about three to six months to really dig into it. We wanted to make the right decision for the company and how we spend our resources. When we started looking into it [becoming B-Corp Certified], we were a bit overwhelmed with the information being asked for, but it was all worthwhile. It was stuff we were already doing; we were just not documenting it. We had no framework in place. And we thought, in the short term, it's a big lift, but once we have these in place, it will hold us accountable, and we can actually have a baseline and see where we're excelling and where we might need some work.


We decided to jump in and do it. It's an online assessment called the B Impact Assessment. There are main assessment sections - they [B-Lab] look at governance workers, community, environment, and customers or clients. All the questions are based on those and it asks for a lot of documentation. We had to go back and look at our data. It was a bit overwhelming, but I think having Carly and myself do it together was great, because once we were confident, we hit submit. And we did and we were fine. We were, you know, we weren't the highest, we weren't the lowest. As long as you get 80 points out of, like 250, you are considered a B Corp. And we've grown from there.


We are working on our next recertification. It's every three years. Every year I think it should be easier, but it can still be a bit overwhelming. But we do it and we learn a lot. And it's just great to be in, in the company of fellow B Corp companies. Because it’s similar to the business model that we already were using, which is a Triple Bottom Line business model - the three P's. I've heard it referred to: People, Planet, Profit. Because we don't necessarily sell a product, we sell our building designs, our professional services, we tweaked it a little bit, and we call it: Social, Eco, Technical, to better fit with us and what we do.


We were doing these things anyway. Why not verify it and then be able to put it out there? It's a differentiator and has led to some really great PR, great relationships, and great talent. We have people who maybe didn't know what a B Corp was but understood the spirit of it and wanted to be associated with it. And that's been amazing. I love meeting with our new hires and giving them this information. Yeah, I have a fun job!


Carly Khanna:

And just to add to what JoAnn said, we also did it [became B-Corp certified] because it gets harder every year.You're measured against these other companies. And that's why it gets harder to get that score.It means something. It's not just a stamp, or hey, you know, you did this test once you're done. It means something, and that's why it really represents our values.


AE Works’ Mission at Work


Carolyn Keller:

You mentioned the triple bottom line model that you already had in place, before you ended up going in for B Corp certification. For anyone who's not familiar, there are benefit companies, which is a legal entity status, and then there is the B Corp certification through B Labs. That certification verifies all of the things that you're doing as a company, whether that's environmentally, socially, or through your governance. AE Works already had that people, planet, profit mentality or people, planet, purpose mentality. I'm sure there's a profit component that comes with having a company that is within the AE space and having a business with a revenue generating model. But can you talk a little bit more about that purpose that propels at AE Works?


Carly Khanna:

To summarize in a few words, we talked about buildings, buildings are all about people, right? And just to build on what JoAnn said, that really drives the purpose of our business. We say our vision is to create a world where everyone is relevant. Our team is passionate about supporting the important work of our clients, creating the spaces, and the buildings to help them achieve their goals. On our team and internally, creating a world where everyone is relevant means creating environments and a culture where each individual’s voice matters and the best ideas win out. Going back to our work - we're working with our clients to incorporate sustainable design into historic landmarks like here in Pittsburgh, we've worked with the historic Soldiers and Sailors Museum, we're working to enhance healing environments, designing workplaces of the future, and meeting the needs of 24/7 mission critical facilities. We're proud to serve a diverse range of clients, and to help them you know, meet their goals, and make the world a better place.


JoAnn Rizzo:


It's also sharing that information and being a resource. We've been asked to be on panel discussions, and Carly is part of and helped establish the B Local Mid Atlantic region group. And, you know, I put it out there that if you're an organization that's interested in becoming a B-Corp, I would love to talk to you and let you know what we are and how we can help you there by spreading the word and getting more of a community in place.


That's something that I love to do, and I'm very passionate about. We've been known now, in the Pittsburgh and DC area as a resource for B Corp questions or the idea of the people planet profit, triple bottom line. I think that's also a big thing - becoming experts and a resource to other companies and creating a ripple effect, right? We're a small firm, but you know, we're getting out there and we're sharing. And that's a big thing, sharing. Sharing our experiences and what worked for us might not work for another firm, but we can, at least give them a heads up. That's also something that we're really big on.


Making an impact


Carolyn Keller:

You talked earlier about B-Corp being a differentiator in the field. Even if a company doesn't partner with you, or work with you, just being that resource allows you to have conversations that you might not otherwise and that not only elevates your company, but also the community interested in doing this work too.


You've talked about community in a number of different ways. There's the community of colleagues that you have, that are learning and being resources for each other. But then you also have the community of people that live within the built environment. Whether they're going to a museum or into an office building, you are creating that space where diverse voices can be heard, and people have the ability to be comfortable in those spaces. As you think about your community, what kind of challenges do you want to tackle when you do your work?


JoAnn Rizzo:

There's only so much you can do as a company. Our clients also have constraints and there are decisions that need to be made. You have that fiscal responsibility, but you also have a moral responsibility. How is this going to impact the workers or the community?


And I think it's just being purposeful, being mindful, and being okay with your decisions. And knowing that, yeah, I'd like to build this green building, that's 100% carbon free and net zero. But it just might not be feasible.. But you can, you know, make other decisions. That maybe you're not 100% but you're starting off at like 25% carbon emission reduction. It's just being mindful and being thoughtful, but it doesn't have to be this grandiose thing, right? Because I think we all want to be that super-duper sustainable company with this building with everything new and zero emissions. And if you can, that's awesome. But if you can't, you do what you can with what you have at the time. .


Carolyn Keller:

Oftentimes, when I work with social enterprises they have things that they want to do or accomplish and it's important to remember, you can start small with that impact. It's always going to be a part of your purpose and can continue to evolve as your company grows, too.


Carly Khanna:

Yeah, I think it comes back to helping our clients fulfill their mission. Because so much of the people that we get to work with are focused on things like healthcare advances, making more energy efficient infrastructure, cancer care, and so much.


One example in particular that comes to mind: We were excited to be a part of a project that planned the electrical infrastructure to power the first Hadron therapy facility in the United States. This project is expected to enhance cancer cure rates. It's pretty awesome that we get to be a part of that and use our craft to make an impact in the lives of many when that facility is built.


We're also working with our clients in federal health, state private health care, to modernize delivery of health care to make spaces that are built for patients. We’re also working with clients there who are focused on spearheading important discoveries that save lives. Every time that we can really apply our technical craft to enable someone else's mission is also a win and part of our purpose.


Carolyn Keller:

Absolutely. I'm sure that that has a lot of fulfillment and purpose within your company. Not only for the work itself, but the people working on those projects and the people who served by those spaces. Can you talk a little bit about what you want your work to mean to others, whether that's internal within your company, or external to the people who are going to be utilizing the spaces you're designing?


JoAnn Rizzo:

The B-Corp tagline is that business can be a force for good. We're all involved in business in one way or another, either working, or where we spend our money. So, business and money - it's not a bad thing, right. It's all in how you use it. You can use business and it can be good and we all have a part in it. I think that is the number one thing for me. But also realize that everything is connected and dependent on each other.


It's about the right environment…It's the interconnections of everything, which is so basic, but actually, using it and being cognizant of it, I think is another thing altogether. I think that the way we handle business and even employees and AE Works itself as a company internally is very purposeful and mindful. It's business as a force for good and the interconnectedness of everything is central.



Driving Purpose for Employees


Carolyn Keller:

You talked earlier about having new employees, onboarding them, and incorporating them into this type of culture. How do you drive purpose for your employees, as you move them through this process and get them used to the team of AE Works?


JoAnn Rizzo:

When we onboard new staff, we have something called the O card. And every new staff member meets with every discipline, like support services, engineering, and interior design. For instance, I'm not an architect or engineer, but I have met with an architect and engineer, and I get a rundown of what their main responsibilities are and projects that they're working on. They meet with me. I'm in support services I can answer their questions and put myself out there as a resource. If there are any questions about AE Works, if I don't know the answer, I will find the answer or the person that you need to talk to. And that in and of itself, I think is, is this something a lot of companies don't do.


We're very transparent. In order for you to know us and for us to know you, we have to know each other. We have to build some sort of relationship. We give them three months to do this [O Card], because it's pretty expansive. Then they also meet with our firm leadership team, and they talk about the whole process. We have that going on initially when someone comes into the company. We also do something called AE Works Cares, which is a work anniversary donation that we do on every year of their anniversary. We make a donation in their name to any organization of their choice, which is one of the best things I get to do every month. I love to do it! And at five years, you get your bobblehead. We have a pretty impressive bobblehead collection for only being a 15 year old firm. It's really trying to make this a place where you want to be and where you will feel like you're a part of something. So those are some things we do to get going and start that relationship.


Carly Khanna:

Just to add, as we all know one another's roles and the purpose of everyone's work, we understand how we can work better together, collaborate, and really help deliver on that value, making building projects a better value. That makes us the most effective team is what we believe.


JoAnn Rizzo:

Also, we have a lot of services in house. Most firms they’re architecture, they're engineering, they sub out all the different other disciplines and we are pretty full-service. When you come to AE Works, you are getting the whole package. When you're a client you're like, “Okay, I have to learn this firm and that firm and how this one works…” At AE Works, you deal with us. A lot of time goes into relationship building with our clients.


There's a lot of thought that goes into it. We don't jump into things. When we first started for a couple of years we would take any job we could get. And now, we're like, wait a minute, does this jive with our values? Is this something that we can feel good about? And are we a good fit with this client? Sometimes, no, maybe we're not and we're cognizant of that. In the long run that saves us. A lot of purposeful decisions are being made on many different levels.



B Corp Assessment Specifics


Carolyn Keller:

You talked a little bit earlier about the B-Corp certification - the process and how it can be overwhelming. I'm sure that there are a number of different things that you track and measure both on an organizational level as well as an impact level. What tells you that you're reaching the goals that you want and making an impact, whether that's for your organization, or for the purpose that you want to serve?


Carly Khanna:

There's quite a few questions in that assessment, but one thing that they do look at, as JoAnn mentioned, customers, your impact model, and how your work contributes to making an impact. We'll get asked: What types of clients are we working with? Are we working with social impact / nonprofit clients? Are we doing energy modeling? So again, it gets very specific into your organization's service or product and how that does make an impact, which is exciting.


There's a lot of metrics to check on that part, as well. The same goes with the environment. They're looking at, how do you operate as a business? For example, having a virtual work or remote first environment is something that will get you points on the assessment. As well as how efficient you are and trying to save miles with meeting travel.. They’re looking at very detailed information. As long as you know that going in and set your goals with what you can really track then you can be successful. And there are other areas such as community. They're looking to see who you use for your vendors? Who are you working with? Are you working with small businesses, women owned businesses, diverse businesses? How are you making an impact in your community? Workers - again, all the details for health insurance, paid time off, and benefits that you give your employees. It's quite extensive. And you know, JoAnn, as we're gearing up for the re-certifications, I'm sure you have other details to add.


JoAnn Rizzo:

Yeah, so it is very in-depth and it does ask for a lot of documentation. What happens through the assessment is that you go in and we fill it in online, but then you're assigned a caseworker or an analyst. And that’s where there's a back and forth.


I'll tell you about our last re-certification. We scored up in the 90s, but there's a lot of back and forth. I feel like it [B-Corp certification) is geared towards larger companies in some ways and companies that have an actual product. There's this ambiguity where they don't capture some of the great stuff that we do. That includes the stuff that we do on behalf of B-Corp, like Carly being part of the B Local Mid Atlantic, and when we talk about B-Corps, and are an advocate for them. I feel like in some way that should be reflected in the assessment. There are still things that I think they're working on. I know every three years, they're revamping it a little more. There's room for negotiation and room to see what will work. You just have to dig in, get the data that you can, and have the conversations. But yeah, it's, it's great when it's done.


Carolyn Keller:

Like you said, B-Corp is usually geared toward companies that are larger, but even if you are a smaller company, you can still have room for having these kinds of metrics in your company in some way. It doesn’t have to be as extensive as the assessments that you might be required to do through B-Corp certification. To that point I would ask you, what do you learn from keeping that data and understanding what that looks like for AE Works?


JoAnn Rizzo:

It's really interesting because we score high in the workers category - it is pretty amazing how well we score, but it shouldn’t surprise me because without our team we’re nothing. You have to have a great environment for people to be productive, want to be there, and to do great work. So that’s something (the data) that reiterates it for me and lets me even share with new staff when I do my onboarding. So that’s great because it reminds you. Sometimes you are so into your daily work that you forget about all the good things.


We know that traditionally we score low in the environment section because of the offices that we have. They are leased spaces. We have no information that we can get baseline data on because it’s just not possible.


It’s interesting to see where we were and where we do really well. One category where it is always hard to gather data is for our clients. We do so much in the healthcare realm, which is so impactful and I can’t get that data. It doesn’t show and it breaks my heart every time that we do the re-certification because I want to talk to everyone who has walked into our buildings and learn how we impacted them. As opposed to, for example, I sell pens and know who bought the pen and can ask them about their experience. So that’s something I personally struggle with every time we redo our [B-Corp] assessment.


Carolyn Keller:

And that’s one of the hardest things about impact in general. Usually when I work with different clients, we go through a couple of questions related to their impact. It’s always 1) How much did you do? 2) How well did you do it? And 3) Is anyone better off. And inevitably that last question, “Is anyone better off?” - it’s the most important question, but it’s also the hardest question to gather information about. Because you have all these different layers of what you’re talking about - maybe the impact is three people removed or the effect of the project is felt five years from now for a particular person. It really is one of the hardest things to try and gather information about.


We are getting close to the end of our time together today so I want to ask you both one final question about what advice you might have for entrepreneurs or businesses that are interested in doing good and putting some of these practices in place?


JoAnn Rizzo:

I’ll just say a few things that would be very helpful. Data and tracking are so important. Even though you might hate doing it, it comes in handy. You really need metrics and tracking. There are tons of resources online so don’t reinvent the wheel. Reach out to B-Corp, reach out to other companies that have the same mission and vision. Because not only will you have those resources, but you’ll reach a community of like-minded people who are so happy to share their knowledge with you and to be a resource. Also, look for thought leaders - not necessarily triple bottom line leaders, but people like Simon Sinek and his philosophy of “Start With Why” and “Leaders Eat Last”, Peter Senge, Robert Fritz, Otto Sharmer…those are really great resources. Also, reach out to me. I’d be more than happy to talk to you about any of these efforts and what we’ve really done. But I guess the most important thing is just stay true to yourself. It doesn’t have to be big, huge things that you're doing. It’s the small day-to-day things that add up.


Carly Khanna:

I think you’ve covered most of it, JoAnn, but I will say that when you connect purpose to what you do I think it gets to be a lot more fun and meaningful. We also do some social projects. Recently, our team was a part of Canstruction which is a creative design build competition with cans and you build sculptures out of them. We built one out of 2,700 cans. All those cans go to a local food bank, and it was an opportunity to be part of the local architecture and engineering industry and just be a part of something. Creating those opportunities and sharing your purpose just makes it all more meaningful.


Carolyn Keller:

It has been such a joy having both of you with me today. If anyone wants to learn more about AE Works or get in touch with either of you, what is the best way?


Carly Khanna:

Our website is https://aeworks.com/ and our contact information is on there. Or check us out on LinkedIn or Instagram as well.


Carolyn Keller:

Thank you both again! I’m excited to see all the work you are doing and what comes next for AE Works.



Learn more about AE Works (@aeworksltd):



Curio412 is a consultancy for businesses and nonprofits who want to improve their bottom line, build relationships, and scale meaningful impact. We believe in creating lasting impact. Which is why we share knowledge and tell stories to keep nonprofits, business, social enterprises, and charitable organizations informed about current trends, ideas, and impact.

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