When Danae Sterental moved from Venezuela to Palo Alto at age 13, she had no idea that she would one day become a startup founder. In fact, she was mostly preoccupied by the newfound freedom that being in the US entailed, and proudly biked to school alone every morning. Only when she looks back can Danae connect all of the seemingly random dots, whether big or small, that have brought her to where she is today.
Danae founded HereWe in 2018; the company works with founders and leadership teams to build intentional company cultures, whether that means defining missions and values or coaching leaders to become more thoughtful. She says, “the idea behind HereWe is that a lot of times, people don’t think about the culture they’re creating in their organization, thinking it will emerge “organically,” when in fact, it often emerges accidentally instead.” Ultimately, Danae believes that a good workplace is an aligned, explicit one. While there is no strict “good” or “bad” way to run a group, the culture of a company needs to align clearly with its vision and strategy. Her goal is to create better companies, not only for the sake of productivity, but also because a work environment is critical to health and happiness.
She has always been fascinated by people, ideas, and the way larger systems and institutions can affect entire cultures. Growing up in Venezuela, she saw firsthand how a single person could affect the lives of millions when Hugo Chavez took power and revolutionized the political system. When her family moved to the US, largely because of the political and economic instability in Venezuela, she noticed all the ways US culture differed from the one she had grown up in, even when it came to little things like seatbelt usage (“no one wore seatbelts in Venezuela!” she recalls).
It was difficult, though, to translate her underlying fascination with systems and people to a tangible career path. In college, she did not know what to study, eventually deciding on media studies and Spanish literature because their interdisciplinary nature gave her the opportunity to take classes from a wide array of fields. Whether sociology or anthropology, Danae’s college classes strengthened her thinking and writing skills and honed her creativity. Looking back, Danae is glad she chose an open-ended path of study, especially because it held the door open for a wide range of opportunities and career choices.
Both during and after college, Danae spent time working at Google, where she mainly focused on marketing. Though she loved the opportunity and the creativity it offered, Danae was often more fascinated about by the internal dynamics of the company than her actual work. Working with both good teams and bad ones, Danae could not shake away her childhood fascination with the factors that distinguished a successful group from an unsuccessful one. Ultimately, Danae recognized that though Google was a prestigious, safe choice, it was not exactly where she really wanted to be. She loved organizational design more than marketing, and she wanted to do something that could, one day, improve company cultures. The next question was: how could she help leaders and gain their trust?
The answer: business school. Reflecting on her choice, she said, “As a woman, where the playing field isn’t even and you have to do things to help yourself become successful, an MBA felt like something that would give me options throughout my life to do the things I want to do.” At the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Danae met incredible people and learned many things, and emerged with more self-confidence, as well as a sense of self accountability. She knew she was equipped with the skills and toolset to start a company, so she thought to herself, “go out and build!”
The wide range of enticing career options she faced at GSB –– venture capital, private equity, and so on –– had forced her to ask herself, “what’s my actual mission?” She had decided that it was to foster positive work environments, so she moved back to Palo Alto, moved back in with her parents (whom she calls her roommates and angel investors), and created HereWe.
The company’s current success does not mean that Danae did not face a wide range of challenges along the way, the biggest of which she identified as her mentality. When she started HereWe, Danae decided that she would give herself a year. She said, “I had this idea that by June of 2019 I would have like something built that would tell me keep going, and that was very stressful because even though I had a very clear mission –– to help leaders and startups with their cultures –– that can take so many shapes.”
Part of the process has been to experiment with different ideas for the needs of different companies. At the end of 2018, Danae realized that the idea that she had to have created something by a certain time in order to be successful was paralyzing and limiting her. When she shifted her mindset from accomplishing to learning, her work became easier and more fun. Danae has learned to mark her progress by the knowledge she has gained, which includes how to review a contract and how to incorporate her business by herself. She reflects, “I’ve learned that regardless of what happens, this was still worth it.”
Danae’s Thoughts on Culture
When describing her work, Danae says that she focuses on the “floor” of a company. As an avid dancer (“dancing is my oxygen,” she says emphatically, “when I’m dancing, I’m happier and a better person”), Danae points out that whereas she isn’t able to complete a double turn on concrete, she can do one easily on wood floors. The culture of the company is like a dance floor –– though she often hears things such as, “the people aren’t good enough” or “the strategy is wrong,” what’s actually getting in the way is the company culture.
Even more broadly, Danae finds that dancing is a metaphor for leading and following the workplace. Danae explains, “When you think about following it sounds very passive in the culture here. Everybody wants to be the leader. But in dancing, being a follower is important. As a follow, you have to really be over your own weight, really aware of your own body, connect in the right way so that you can receive the lead.” No matter how good of a leader someone is, if the follow does not understand the larger movement, or is not connected with his or her body, there will be no synergy on the dance floor. Likewise, leaders will push their employees, but employees will, for one reason or another, be unable to move.
To Danae, dancing is also about being present. Growing up, she was surrounded by people dancing –– every birthday party was a salsa party, and she learned to live in the moment as she salsa-ed across the dance floor, whether in her grandpa’s arms or her aunt’s. She said, “All you have to do is be present, spontaneous, and you end up creating something with somebody else.”
Dancing is also what Danae calls “the great equalizer,” where your background, appearance, and opinions don’t matter when it comes to your ability on the dancefloor. Other than dance, Danae’s wellness routine consists of Pilates and skincare (especially sunscreen!). She loves how Seknd allows her to evaluate products in the skincare space before deciding on what ultimately works best.
At the end of the day, Danae believes that everyone needs to find their personal compasses instead of following the one provided by their family, community, or society. She’s decided to live a “messy” life, which means on that is playful, spontaneous, and creative. She acknowledges that things will break down, but is confident that she will clean it up and keep playing: “I don’t need a very like manicured and check-all-the-boxes life.”
She also wants to live in alignment, in the same way she tries to align companies in her work. Everyone’s definition of success changes over time, and Danae believes that it is important to continuously evaluate whether one’s life matches up with that definition. She said, “I think if I am helping founders develop better cultures, I feel really happy. If I’m meeting and helping people, I feel really happy. If I’m making strangers smile, I’m happy. I think it’s important to remember what brings you joy.”