A Slice on Kate Mortenson, Founder and CEO of iPondr
What do you get when a passionate journalist falls in love with civic and public responsibility? You get a ground-breaking, narrative-shifting company that looks at making a huge difference in the workplace, via inclusion and empathy. iPondr, Kate Mortenson’s brainchild, is that company. Mortenson has had quite an eclectic and interesting journey so far. On her way to a career in journalism, she took a side trip to the Comoros Islands, as a member of the United States Peace Corps. Here she organized her own teaching and other projects, her first brush with entrepreneurship. Moving around the globe with her family gave Mortenson plenty of opportunities to work on grassroots and community projects.
Eventually, Mortenson settled down in Minnesota and continued growing her career in media and community impact. Most notably, Mortenson organized Minneapolis’ bid for the 2019 Men’s NCAA tournament and led the Local Organizing Committee at the time of the event, finishing with over a million-dollar operating surplus. This experience catalyzed her next venture, iPondr.
This path would return her to her first love, media, and the role it plays in shaping culture. She wanted to make a difference; thus, her vision of creating something that would shift the narrative and subvert the paradigm took shape. iPondr primarily aims at lifting unheard voices and explores topics that are generally ignored or swept under the carpet. Their very first story, “Mayday COVID”, won them awards. A brilliant start indeed! Shortly after, Mortenson and team had an opportunity to tackle the George Floyd case. “Our coverage came out about a month later because we don’t do breaking news as much as we do ‘what does this look like as a lived experience that somebody else is having’. And in this case, we really looked at the community that was experiencing trauma. So, we came together to fill a need.” This was their second story. The team at iPondr wants to do way more than mere lip service to bring about change, and they prove it with every story they pick up.
For Mortenson, being a woman presenting her social entrepreneurial project used to draw blank stares from people. This spurred her on to change their perspectives, in hopes of getting them on the same page as iPondr. For her, challenges are a way of life. She looks at them more like rocket fuel than an obstacle, instead of stumbling or feeling blocked, she takes off with even more energy, proving to people who say to her, “It can’t be done!” completely wrong.
iPondr is the amalgamation of Mortenson’s and her team’s experience with media, business, and technology. It focuses on unique, human-centered story-telling via its multimodal (audio, video, images and more) digital platform which makes it unique and very different from reading a regular newspaper. In a smooth, natural progression, iPondr evolved into iPondr@Work, their SAS licensed, B2B solution. This came about because of the demand for a better, more understanding and empathetic work environment. A lesson for all entrepreneurs that can be picked up from here is flexibility; taking up opportunities when they arise and being agile enough to adapt the product to the new demand. In Mortenson’s words, “We brought our product to the workplace as a curricular staff-licensed tech product. What’s happened is that our pipeline is exploding with interest. Amazing! So, the moral of the story is, have your passion, know what it is that you’re after, while also recognizing that sometimes you can get there faster by turning left or right.”
“Start! Storyboard the idea, take some steps towards making it a reality, speak it out loud to make it less scary,” is Mortenson’s advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. She wants new entrepreneurs to understand that, like every other entrepreneur, they too are probably doing something like this for the first time. Her formula for success? Fearlessness + humility + passion.
Another lesson in flexibility is the way hiring at iPondr shifted because of COVID. Mortenson had initially desired to create a hub of talent in one place. It all changed when the pandemic hit. They quickly discovered that it was easier to get a highly talented and diverse team when geography was not material. The iPondr team is spread across North America, which has proved to be beneficial, allowing them to tell stories from the communities they were each a part of.
One of the challenges Mortenson and iPondr faced was that a lot of people don’t have the bandwidth (time or mental space) to ponder or introspect over things. So, they broke things down into small, bite-sized, easily digestible pieces. Every week, they touch upon a new issue or topic and all it takes is 10 minutes a week to learn something more about topical issues like disability advocacy, the Asian American Pacific Islander bias, and more.
Mortenson wants to see a day where sites like Glassdoor put an iPondr icon next to the organizations featured on their sites. That would be one measure of success for her. Another measure would be to pull in as many people into thinking deeper about these issues as possible. Whether people do it through iPondr@Work or the iPondr website, the more people who explore the more success it means. Innovation, with empathy, is another lesson that can be learned here. Instead of a simple ‘like’ button, to encourage engagement, they have a series of options like: ‘Hey! I live it’; or ‘I get it’; and more. This allows for a deeper sharing on part of the users, as well as building connections and community.
Mortenson’s venture is one-of-its-kind in the stories they pick up, their use of the digital platform and in the way they act as catalysts to shift the narrative. This is reflected in their customer base. They have customers from rural and urban areas, across all states. They eventually hope to have people from across the world as part of this endeavor. This is what Mortenson expects to work as an asset when it comes to fundraising. In this, they have been really fortunate so far. Barring the initial hesitancy they faced, when pitching their idea, everything else worked out just fine for them. Awesome beginner’s luck on their first pitch netted them a seven-figure investment. This helped them start their office and things just took off from there. Not bad at all, right?
When asked what keeps her motivated, Mortenson had this to say, “I am motivated by a long-burning passion for equity for women and for people of color. My energy comes from my belief that we can be better, and that we can do better. So, every day I get up and I see that that’s true.”
Kate Mortenson received her B.S. in Broadcast Journalism from Boston University. She then joined the Peace Corps before settling in Minneapolis, where she worked at Hubbard Broadcasting. Mortenson has been very active in her community, leading the local organization of the 2019 Men’s NCAA tournament, consulting on community initiatives and sitting on the board for Minnesota Public Radio. She is currently the Founder and CEO of iPondr and iPondr@Work. Connect with Mortenson on LinkedIn.