How Clara Lending's Carissa Spencer Cultivates a Kind Company Culture
"It's not hard to be kind; to remember that behind our titles, we're all just human beings."
This has come to be Carissa Spencer's professional mantra of sorts. The office manager at Clara Lending says we're hardwired for kindness—and that it goes hand in hand with effective office management. "I'm really lucky everyone on my 70-person team values being kind to the people they work with. There's just no question about it," she adds.
Spencer found her way to the San Francisco-based FinTech startup in October 2015 after a decade-long career as a freelance production coordinator in the independent film industry. She found that the self-starting, go-go-go nature startup life isn't all that different from the film business.
"As a freelancer, it was nonstop hustling," shares Spencer. "You had to keep your name in the game and show people you were hungry for the work. There really was no shutting it off, which was simultaneously a blessing and a curse. But it was essentially just managing people, places and things, which always made me feel in my element."
When she hit the 10-year mark, Spencer found herself at a crossroad; she could either keep working until she burned out or she could try something new. The idea of putting roots down in a more stable career path made her choose the latter. So she ditched the freelance life and began searching for fulltime positions that would let her flex her managerial muscles. A friend who suggested office management and once Spencer started looking, she found a number of leads in the startup-drenched Bay Area. Within a few months, she was interviewing at Clara Lending, which was in its infancy at that point.
"I just kept worrying that my film experience wouldn't be enough to get me in the door," says Spencer. "I knew how to communicate with people and felt I had the raw materials to be a good manager, but I was looking for a company where I could also grow and learn on the job."
It was ultimately Jeff Foster, Clara Lending's CEO, who quelled her fears. "He just said, 'We're going to offer you this job because we believe in you and we think you've got this, if you'll let us help you.' The fact that he had this faith in me made me almost break into tears!"
Spencer trusted her gut, and accepted the offer then and there. She hasn't looked back. She also discovered almost immediately that her former life in film production prepared her mightily for office management. "I always worked on independent projects where there was a real sense of community and a we're-all-in-the-trenches-together way of being," she says. "I always had to be scrappy and find ways to make things work, even with limited resources. This definitely translates to startup life."
Spencer has since evolved into a role that's half mother hen, half community organizer. As much as she hates being referred to as the "office mom," she admits that the nickname is fitting, even referring to the Clara Lending team as her “70 kids.”
"My day-to-day is really about caring for my team and making sure they have everything they need to feel supported so they can be as productive and successful as they can be."
This materializes in a number of ways, from stocking the office bar to ordering supplies. Daily she manages budgets, facilitates health and wellness initiatives, and coordinates catered lunches. Spencer is Clara Lending's jack of all trades, swiftly changing hats to accommodate whatever her team might need. This may sound self-sacrificing, but Spencer experiences it more as life giving. She feels like the role satisfies her natural desire to nurture and coordinate. And by leading with respect and gratitude, she gets these things back in return; a sort of self-sustaining kindness loop that makes her feel both valued and supported.
Spencer is also a firm believer in the power employee interaction has to boost team morale, which is why she encourages everyone to take advantage of Clara Lending's open floor plan.
"You don't have to stay at your desk," she says. "We want people to get up, walk around and hang out in other areas. I love seeing an engineer sitting on the couch and working next to someone from marketing, sprinkling meaningful conversation into their workday. These kinds of interactions are what build real connections."
One of Spencer's pet projects are the quarterly small-group dinners she organizes. She gathers up groups of six or seven people from different departments—people who may not get the chance to come together on an ordinary workday—then sends them out to dinner at a local restaurant.
"This really brings people together and fosters a sense of connectedness," she says. "Sometimes in startup life, it's work-work-work. It's easy to forget that we're also all human beings. When we can have shared experiences like this, it really reinforces the idea that you are seen and appreciated, and that, in a lot of ways, we aren't unlike a family."
Photography by Jenn Emerling