G&W Portfolio Founder Feature: Emily Harburg, Ph.D., Co-Founder & CEO, PairUp

Who is Emily Harburg?

Dr. Emily Harburg is passionate about building technology that helps people feel more connected, supported, and motivated. She is the CEO and co-founder of PairUp, a B2B SaaS platform that helps connect and support staff across organizations. PairUp matches employees using a research-backed pairing algorithm and then helps staff get the ongoing support, learning, and connection that they need to thrive and grow at work.

Emily’s background spans industry, startups, and academia. She has worked at Walt Disney Imagineering where she designed technology for the Disney theme parks, at Facebook (Meta) where she worked as a UX researcher, and at EF Education First where she led the Emerging Tech and Innovation team designing tech to support millions of students around the world. In 2015, Emily co-founded Brave Initiatives, an organization dedicated to helping women build tech skills and confidence in coding for social impact. She also co-founded Youth Lead the Change, a global youth leadership program for high school students, in partnership with Harvard University.

Emily’s academic research lies at the intersection of technology and social behavior, and the role that technology can play in building self-efficacy and confidence. Her research has been published and shared in global conferences, academic journals, case studies, and news publications — including the Harvard Business Review, TEDx, Computer Human Interaction (CHI), CNN, and more.

Emily graduated with a B.A. in Social Anthropology and Psychology from Harvard College, and with a Ph.D. in Technology and Social Behavior from Northwestern University. In her free time she enjoys hiking, skiing, photography, playing volleyball, and gathering for Thoughtlucks.

What inspired you to start your company?

Throughout my career I’ve worked within several large companies and experienced first-hand the challenges that come from inefficient knowledge sharing and not knowing who to turn to for help. I had the opportunity to build and research ways to solve this challenge while earning my PhD in Technology & Social Behavior, where I studied tools for workplace collaboration and connection. While researching this topic, I co-founded Brave Initiatives – a nonprofit focused on helping women get jobs in tech – and quickly found that access to resources was often challenging and inequitable. When the COVID pandemic occurred, the workplace was fundamentally disrupted for so many people and companies. It was time to use my training and experiences to create a new solution to help employees get better access to support. I linked up with my incredible co-founder, Andy, and together we recruited a powerful team of colleagues to help bring us to where we are today.

How will PairUp change the world?

We are transforming the way organizations leverage their collective intelligence to drive growth and success. We envision a world where everyone can easily access, contribute to, and benefit from the wealth of knowledge that exists within their communities. In addition, we are working to build a future where AI can help to serve as a catalyst for increased human connection and collaboration.

What is the hardest part of being a founder? And what’s the most rewarding?

At the end of the day, everything falls on you. There is no backstop. As a self-identified people pleaser, this can be hard. Navigating the unknown comes to mind, too. That being said, these challenges are also deeply rewarding. Creating unique solutions to complex problems is unbelievably exciting. And it’s also hard.

Why do you do what you do?

I feel this sense that I’m doing what I was meant to be doing by founding PairUp, and that I was prepared for this moment. Life is short and I want to make sure I’m living a life that is as extraordinary as possible (as Leslie Feinzaig has taught us), and using what I’ve got to try to make our world a better and more equitable place. Getting to work on PairUp with my teammates feels like I’m doing that and it makes me want to give my all to make it as successful as possible.

Tell us one (or more) fun facts about your team.

One fun team tradition has been that we visit the hometowns of team members for our company offsites. This has been a great way to better understand each other and to get a glimpse into the communities that have contributed to the formation of our individual identities. For example, our last offsite was in Sebastopol, CA and involved getting to experience the epic french toast made by the dad of Taylor, our head of Customer Success!

What is the most important life, career or startup lesson you’ve learned, and who (or what) taught it to you?

Go for a job, even if you are not fully qualified for it. I once applied for a job at Disney, only to find out applicants were required to have graduate degrees to apply (which I didn’t have at the time). Long story short, I was hired for that job. Just go for it! The worst thing they can do is say no. My big brother, Ben, has been a big source of inspiration around this and always encourages me to keep reaching higher.

What is one thing you wish you’d known at the start of your startup journey?

You’re never alone. There were times in the early days of the startup journey when I was hesitant to reach out to others for help at the fear of seeming like I didn’t know what I was doing. I learned that asking for help saves resources and makes the journey a lot more fun. (It feels meta to write this given what we do at PairUp, but you build what you need.)

Where do you go for inspiration?

Oh, so many different places! Lately it’s been a combination of spending time in community, nature, exercise, faith, and music – I recently started to learn how to DJ and that has brought a huge source of joy and inspiration, as well.

Anything else you want people to know?

We’re always looking for partners at PairUp, so please reach out if you’re interested in connecting to learn more. In addition, if you are a founder or you aspire to be one, please know that the journey is hard and it’s worth every moment. Here if you want to talk!

Learn more and connect:

G&W Team

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