Katelin Holloway, a People pioneer, understands the power of belonging

Flight Templates are templated flights, or sets of questions, written by some of the world’s preeminent business leaders. With Flight Templates, Balloon users get unparalleled access to seasoned perspectives and proven business strategies across all areas of business, including leadership, product, marketing & sales, innovation, employee experience, culture, and more. This feature is part of a series on The Insight that profiles Balloon’s Flight Template authors.

Katelin Holloway finds belonging in belonging.

The pioneer People executive and founding partner at Seven Seven Six, a venture capital firm founded in September 2020 by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, did not always know that her life’s passion lay in turning the so-called “fuzzy” workplace concepts like belonging and culture into tangible, strategic elements of business. When she was first beginning her post-college career, Holloway tried her hand at a number of industries—including education, finance, law enforcement—before a brief stint in advertising, where the absence of a sense of belonging illuminated how important it truly was.

“That was the first time where I was working somewhere where I was like, ‘Oh, this is not for me,’ and I think that knowing what you don't want is just as important as what you do want,” Holloway said. “Back then, ‘culture’ wasn't a common term, but I realized what I was really looking for was a place that supported learning and development and growth.”

After a strategic job hunt (and a stroke of luck and good timing, Holloway notes), Holloway landed at Pixar Animation Studios as a production assistant. During her five years at Pixar, Holloway helped develop several films, including Cars, Wall-E, and Up, worked alongside brilliant creatives, and, perhaps most importantly, was introduced to the idea of intentional culture development, particularly during the Pixar-Disney merger in the mid-2000s.

“That was truly the defining moment in my career where I started to understand how important it was to articulate your culture,” Holloway said. “As we were going into this huge merger, really identifying all the great things we wanted to keep about the way Pixar operated, both from a cultural and a product standpoint, was so critical to maintaining the company’s identity.”

The ability to articulate the finer points of a company’s culture proved to be pivotal as Holloway moved out of the film industry and into tech. There, she helped develop several startups before joining Reddit as its Vice President of People and Culture in 2016, making her one of the first figures in Silicon Valley to be so dedicated to culture development that the word itself appeared in her title.

“It was that pivotal moment from an industry perspective, when HR was no longer viewed as a compliance partner but as a strategic partner,” Holloway said. “I feel so fortunate to be a part of that early group of people who really made that push.”

Nowadays, although the idea of company culture is quite prolific in most industries, not every company is putting sufficient effort into building intentional cultures with a deep sense of belonging for all team members. Holloway explained how that lack of what she calls a “people-first culture” is inhibiting those companies from reaching their full potential or achieving their loftiest goals. Without a strong foundation of belongingness, individual team members will not feel an urgency to produce their best work, and the collective team will remain misaligned on the company’s purpose, values, and mission.

“Think about it like a pyramid, similar to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs,” Holloway analogized. “Belonging, that feeling of connectedness and sense of support in your role, lives right in the middle. That’s the filter you have to pass before you can actually reach the top of the pyramid, which is producing, innovating, creating, and really working in harmony.”

In other words, Holloway is adamant that a sense of belonging is not a product of unbridled creativity and innovation but instead a prerequisite for them. Particularly in a post-pandemic working world, in which a healthy culture includes a refreshed sense of empathy and understanding for each team member’s home lives, Holloway, a mother of two herself, is continuing to champion people-first culture building in her new flight template series, Leading with Belonging.

  • Cultivate Belonging
  • Manage for Inclusion
  • Establish Creative Empowerment

In the three-part series, Holloway guides leaders through how to close the gap between the culture your company claims to have and the culture that actually exists among your team members. It is no easy task, but Holloway believes it is more important now than ever.

“Culture is the number one thing that has made and broken companies [last] year. 2020 stripped away all our niceties at work. It demands a reprioritization around what’s important going forward,” said Holloway. “Belonging is a feeling, which makes it difficult to operationalize, but that’s my mission, or my purpose or my passion or whatever you want to call it. Knowing that my work has helped someone else feel safer, more comfortable, more seen and heard, that’s what I work for. That's where I find my joy.”

Check out Katelin Holloway’s Flight Template Series

Founding partner and Head of People, Seven Seven Six