How We Built This: What We Learned from Designing the UpStart Culture Deck

By Taylor Epstein, Jenny Kibrit Smith
and Jaime Rapaport Barry

[This is the first in a two-part series – stay tuned for Part 2 in late summer 2019.]

Dream with purpose.

That aspiration is part of UpStart’s team philosophy, and it was our guiding principle as we created the UpStart Culture Deck. When UpStart underwent a four-organization merger in 2017, that was a significant organizational shift. Our team was growing quickly, with new people spread throughout five hubs across the country. This shift presented us with an opportunity to definitively articulate our organizational culture.

We’ve all heard that Peter Drucker line: culture eats strategy for breakfast. We knew that our success was built on developing a culture that actually supported our new, ambitious strategy. We wanted to make sure we were deliberately creating this culture, instead of hoping it would happen on its own. This was our first go at creating a culture-development process. The process is iterative and we’re still learning – but as an organization dedicated to the “business” of change-oriented organizations, we wanted to share some insights and tools we’ve garnered along the way.

Why culture matters

When you’re a growing organization and hiring quickly, it may seem less important or too time-consuming to delve deep into seemingly aspirational issues like culture. But in order to scale a new venture successfully, or to make a deeper impact within a larger institution, explicitly articulating your aspirational culture is key.

Culture is also a lot easier to create than to fix. It’s more effective to clarify your aspirational culture early on and work towards it than it is to get rid of what you don’t want later on. And whether you pay attention to it or not, culture is constantly in formation.

Through the process, we discovered that even the smallest details of culture need attention, from how we celebrated birthdays to how we managed our calendars and planned meetings across four time zones and five hubs. We were hoping that the cultures from the four origin organizations would coalesce, but quickly realized that we had to actively define and articulate our culture, and then work towards it together.

The basics

First, what even is culture? It’s the behaviors, systems and practices that make us who we are.

And what’s a culture deck? It’s a guide to the values, team philosophy and culture codes that inform who we are and what we do. Think of it as the playbook for your team’s culture … and your organization is made up of individuals in matching t-shirts. If you don’t have the playbook, your team will be fumbling around, unsure how to succeed, and the organization as a whole will flounder.

Culture rests on three things: values, team philosophy and culture code.

Values: an organization’s shared beliefs. While your mission and vision describe where you’re going, values guide how you’re getting there (source). By getting clear on your values, you begin to lay the foundation for your entire organization’s culture.

Ours are: empathy, optimism, collaboration and risktaking.

Team Philosophy: who we are, who we strive to be, and what we value as a team, said in just a few words. It’s the kind of thing you want team members to be able to memorize and draw from in a pinch. Ours is:

Dream with purpose
Build the ‘what might be’
Grow the good

Culture Code: these are aspirational … it’s how we activate our values and team philosophy. This is where the hard work comes in – clarifying each code will help you figure out how to implement them. More on this below.

How we built the UpStart Culture Deck

The framework that we used is relevant to any organization looking to articulate an intentional culture: Diagnose, Develop, Codify and Activate. You can do this too! Here’s how it looked at UpStart:

We started with a multi-part survey to diagnose where we were hitting the mark, and where we were falling short. Whatever stage you’re in, you want to diagnose where you are in the moment to better figure out where you want to go. Tina Rosenblum, a founding partner of Oak & Willow Group and expert on organizational development, has a two-question survey that gets to the heart of the matter: how easy do I find it to get work done? How much fun do I have coming to work every day? You can hear more of her perspective on organizational culture on our podcast, BrandLaunch.

During the development stage, we designed a process to take the survey data from raw responses to draft our “culture codes,” which we debuted at our annual team retreat. Through an interactive feedback activity, we solicited input and integrated those ideas to make the codes more reflective of our team’s aspirations. Here they are for inspiration:

We codified the culture codes in a deck that we can share with our internal team and prospective employees. Seeing the code in action helps give a real picture of how we enact and live out the codes. Here are a few examples:

The next step was activating our three Culture Crews, small groups owned and supported by people not on our senior leadership team. These groups meet regularly and are empowered to breathe life into specific aspects of the culture codes, like exploring standards and accountability around diversity, equity and inclusion.

There’s a lot more to say about these crews and the impact they’re having, and the never-ending process of culture creation, so stay tuned for Part 2: Activating Culture.


It doesn’t happen overnight: we’ve been refining, testing and learning from this process over a one-year period, starting from the culture survey launch before our team retreat in 2018. And this process isn’t just for new organizations, or ones that have recently merged. We’ve seen how deeply examining and articulating culture can change larger organizations for the better.

Dive into the full Culture Deck at the top, and leave a note in the comments – we’d love to hear what you think and keep learning (as per Culture Code 6!).

UpStart partners with the Jewish community’s boldest leaders to expand the picture of how Jews find meaning and how we come together. Taylor Epstein is the Senior Director, Design Strategy; Jenny Kibrit Smith is the Senior Director, People & Systems; and Jaime Rapaport Barry is the Senior Director, Brand Strategy at UpStart.