Lisa Bernier of BARK: “Don’t be afraid to approach industry experts”

People are generally happy to help you if you ask. Don’t be afraid to approach industry experts. I’ve found most people are happy to grab a quick coffee and share what knowledge they have with if you’re coming from a genuine place. As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, […]

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People are generally happy to help you if you ask. Don’t be afraid to approach industry experts. I’ve found most people are happy to grab a quick coffee and share what knowledge they have with if you’re coming from a genuine place.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Bernier.

Lisa Bernier is the Director of BARK’s Social Impact arm, BARKGood. She is better known as the resident office puppy wrangler and is the human of two hounds (and the occasional foster dog).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My background is in content and communications, and I originally came to BARK for a content role. But, startups being startups, I ended up trying my hand at a bunch of different skillsets and found my niche in our social impact work. I’ve always volunteered and worked for non-profits, and BARK’s culture enables employees to give back, especially through action. For example, we’ve always encouraged employees to foster dogs, and give them tools and information to enable them to do so. Being able to explore what social responsibility means to BARK is a fascinating role for me. It’s a unique mix of storytelling and community engagement that always has unique aspects — it’s definitely never boring.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

As you may have seen in the news, BARK in the process of going public via SPAC. This is an extremely exciting time for us and it’s something I never thought I’d be a part of. For a long time BARK operated as a scrappy startup, and that will forever be a part of our DNA, but as we evolve and serve more customers in more and new ways we have to focus more as well. As part of this evolution, we’re looking at CSR through a slightly different lens. When it comes to CSR we’re no longer in the “experiment with everything to see what sticks” phase. We know where we want to make a difference, and now the challenge is navigating specifically how we will make an impact. That’s a fun challenge.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

If you foster a 12-week-old hound puppy and regularly bring her into the office as I did, don’t adopt the nightmare when no one else wants her because she’s, well, a nightmare. Other than the obvious lesson of not annoying your coworkers by bringing in a howling, food-seeking maniac, fostering this pup also taught me the value of work/life balance. At the time, I had a lot going on at work, and adding chaos to that, no matter how well-intended, was detrimental to everyone. The nightmare hound is still with me though — we’ve reached a compromise where she never comes into the office (pre-pandemic) and she’s only bad 20% of the time. Ok, maybe 30%.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

We understand dogs and dog people, so we try to educate our followers on how to best communicate with these four-legged weirdos that are woven into the daily fabric of our lives. Like many other companies in the pet industry, we do a good amount of work with animal welfare organizations such as rescues. However, where we differ is, we want to keep dogs in homes and out of shelters, which means supporting those that have (or are building) strong community ties and behavioral modification programs. Pets are family and having to decide between giving them up or putting food on the table is a painful choice we want to prevent people from facing, whenever possible. The pandemic has brought this problem into the spotlight a little more. It’s great that tons of animals are being adopted right now, but it’s better if we can prevent surrenders with just a few simple resources.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

At BARK we consider ourselves the co-parent to your dog that you didn’t know you needed. We want to be there for our customers in every aspect of a dog’s life, and we understand how the different stages of a dog’s life impacts both the dog and their human. This includes when a pet passes. For customers, we have a Pup Loss Companion program led by my co-worker Shelby Mason. Among other resources, it offers a support channel for those who are grieving the loss of their pet. For employees, if an employee’s dog passes away, we quietly make a donation to cover the adoption fee of a dog in a shelter or rescue in their dog’s name. It’s a way to pay it forward while also honoring their dog’s memory.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Investing in community resources is the most impactful step stakeholders can take to foster healthy relationships with dogs. Honestly, the more we can help support programs like pet pantries, free or low-cost veterinary care, and dog behavior education the better. In particular, I would love to see more resources put toward educating children about how to interact with dogs safely and happily. Many majority of dog bites happen with family dogs, and a disproportionate amount of those happen to children. It’s something that’s completely preventable with the right tools and information. Plus, several studies have shown having kids interact positively and responsibly with pets at an early age is often beneficial to their mental, social and physical development.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I don’t define leadership. Instead, I put stock in a list of traits that I admire in people I believe are good leaders. Humility is one trait that I’ve noticed in all excellent leaders I’ve encountered. No job is too small for these individuals, and they’re never afraid to admit when they’re wrong. The other trait I look for and value in leaders is empathy. Empathetic leaders know how to listen to people (and dogs in some cases) from a place of non-judgement. BARK’s VP of Customer Experience Ops, Hernan Giraldo, exemplifies this quality. He’s always ready and willing to lend a hand with whatever is needed, whether it’s pulling information for a quarterly report or running a quick errand to grab supplies for an event. He’s also probably one of the nicest people alive.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Google is your personal electronic intern. The internet is a repository of all the collective knowledge of humanity that’s accessible within seconds. If Google doesn’t have the answer, there’s probably a YouTube tutorial about it somewhere.
  2. People are generally happy to help you if you ask. Don’t be afraid to approach industry experts. I’ve found most people are happy to grab a quick coffee and share what knowledge they have with if you’re coming from a genuine place.
  3. Leading by example often does more than telling people what to do — this applies to both humans and dogs.
  4. You’ll never fail a test if you approach it not to pass but to learn. This is very much a start-up attitude. For example, we trialed a CSR model a few years ago where we ran a “for good” hackathon. Every employee who participated was given a certain amount of company funding to launch a product or program for good. There were tons of great ideas, but by the end of the year most of the funds were untouched and no product or program was launched. Some might view this as a failure, but it wasn’t. We learned that you can’t have side projects for good if you want to make true impact. You have to invest the effort of a full-time job in order to bring that project forward from idea to reality.
  5. Dogs are opportunists. If they can get away with taking your lunch, they will absolutely do it because if you walk away from your food, dog rules say it’s fair game.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d love if fostering could become the new #adoptdontshop. If just 2% of the population fostered one pet a year, we could completely eliminate unnecessary euthanasia in the U.S. Fostering is putting the saying “it takes a village” into action. Austin, TX is a great example of a city where a strong fostering program made a huge impact in the community.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Be more dog, i.e. live life like dogs do. Dogs are so present and have an incredible ability to adapt — they don’t judge, and they have a ridiculous capacity for tolerating what they see as bizarre behavior (basically almost everything humans do). By being present and empathetic, we can make life a little easier for everyone around us.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Because I’m an absolute dog nerd, 강형욱 (English name Hunter Kang). He’s a famous trainer in South Korea. Granted, my Korean is god-awful (pretty much non-existent) but I’d love to shadow him during training sessions. His technique and demeanor are amazing, and he’s almost single-handedly become the face of non-aversive, play-based training in Korea.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow me on Instagram at @therottenhounds (it’s my dog’s handle — I don’t have a personal one). I occasionally write things on Medium too @pilrimkim. Ok, I wrote one thing so far but I’ll do more eventually. For dog memes and general hilarity check out @BarkBox on Instagram and Twitter.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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