THE $70,000 CEO AND HOW INEQUITY WILL AFFECT THE WORKPLACE

Dan Price, co-founder and CEO of Gravity Payments, is known as many things.  

Disruptor. Bootstrapper. Game changer. These are descriptors of Price found on the website of his Seattle-based credit card processing and financial services company.  

Others describe his style as generous and fresh, even radical.  

But the 34-year-old entrepreneur—who will speak about disruption in the workplace at the i4cp 2019 Next Practices Now Conference —is probably best known as “the $70,000 CEO.”  

Price earned the nickname in 2015, when he decided to slash his own million-dollar salary to $70,000 a year.  

That move alone was enough to earn him the superlatives used on the Gravity Payments website. But Price, who was a 19-year-old college sophomore when he co-founded the company with his brother Lucas, didn’t stop there.  

In addition to setting a new, very un-CEO like salary for himself, he announced that $70,000 would also be the new minimum annual salary for all of Gravity’s 130-plus employees.  

Seemingly overnight, Price became a talking point in a national conversation focused on minimum wage. He saw his public profile, and that of Gravity Payments, instantly skyrocket (the company reportedly received somewhere around 4,500 unsolicited resumes in the first week following Price’s announcement). 

But, in the three years since, he’s maintained that these bold steps weren’t taken to attract publicity or new talent.  

Price is an outspoken advocate for the average working person. Of course, he saw raising his own employees’ wages as a way to help them gain better financial footing. But he also hoped it would send a message about what he sees as an increasingly lopsided and troublesome distribution of wealth throughout the U.S. economy.  

“If we keep going down the path of growing inequality—in terms of money, influence, privilege, and safety—our entire system is going to break,” says Price. “It’s not sustainable. An economy can’t function if just a few people are holding all the resources.” 

At i4cp 2019, Price plans to delve into how this deepening inequity will affect the workplace in the coming years, and what business leaders must do to make work about much more than just a paycheck for their people.  

Purpose and profit

Money still matters, of course. To workers and the companies that pay their salaries. But organizations would be wise to concentrate more closely on what else employees want to get out of their work in the years ahead, says Price.  

“We have an innate draw to doing things that really matter. As organizations, right now we’re focused on something that doesn’t really matter—how many zeroes are in the bank account.”  

“Yes, that matters to some degree,” Price acknowledges. “But that’s not the only or most important thing. We need to have a genuine, compelling purpose for doing our work, because that’s going to give us a better financial result.” 

“A lot of fair-pay advocates make the case that, if you pay people more, they’ll have more money to spend in the economy,” he says. “But we’ve reached the point where the need goes beyond that. Business leaders need to take charge to right the wrongs they’ve made in our society over the past several decades. If not, we’re not looking at another recession or depression. We’re looking at the breakdown of our very society.” 

As a first step, companies must take stances on social issues, and create an environment in which employees believe they are working to help address the issues that matter most to them, and that there is purpose in their work.  

“In the coming decades, that’s going to matter much more. And, if we as organizations aren’t focused on these types of issues in a way where we’re placing humanity over profits or ROI,” says Price, “then I think people will be increasingly less comfortable aligning with our organizations.” 

Recent i4cp research suggests that Price is on to something.  

For example, 62% of 502 respondents to a pulse survey on the topic of organizations taking public stances on social and political issues said they would not work for an organization if they disagreed with the company’s stated beliefs. An even larger number (65%) indicated that they wouldn’t buy goods from a company if they disagreed with their stated beliefs.  

Looking ahead, Price sees the workplace—and society at large—changing in ways that we can’t anticipate. For an organization to excel in this uncertain environment, it must maintain a mindset of continuous learning.  

“Invest in learning more about what you really care about—things besides money or power or other extrinsic rewards,” he says. “And don’t compromise on your dedication to the things that you care about most.”