Interviews

Startups Are the Best Method for Tackling Some of the Problems in Our Society, Says Ilona Mooney—Founder and CEO of Work Ahead 

Written by Kim Oguilve Read time 4 min

It is widely known that workers in emerging markets are not always working in good conditions. Work Ahead is helping companies to make supply chains more sustainable and transparent.

Startups Are the Best Method for Tackling Some of the Problems in Our Society, Says Ilona Mooney—Founder and CEO of Work Ahead 

Global initiatives such as Fashion Revolution have brought forward the conditions textile workers work under. Furthermore, they want to educate clothing buyers to always ask their favourite clothing brands “who made my clothes”. Moreover, they host different events and campaigns through the year to bring awareness on how our clothes are being sourced.

Ilona Mooney is the Founder and CEO of Work Ahead — a technology company making supply chains more transparent and empowering workers through technology.

The Interview

Q:Tell us about about Work Ahead.

“There are about 3 million people in the world that work in international supply chains. Companies still today manually send people to check what the working conditions of the workers are.”

Work Ahead is a technology company that helps brands verify working conditions in the supply chain. They are addressing a global issue that for long has been noticed, but where we lack means to ensure that human rights are respected.

Q: Which of the industries you’re planning to work with have the most worrisome cases of not respecting human rights that you have seen?

“The International Labor Organization estimates that 1/3 of workers in developing markets live in poverty.”

Work Ahead currently works with companies in the fashion/textile sector but also agriculture. Ilona grew up in Finland, with a Finnish idea that when you work, you are able able to cover your basic living costs and provide for your family. In many developing countries that’s not the case: despite working, many still live in poverty.

Q: When do you come up with the idea of Work Ahead?

“Many of the experiences I have had in my life have influenced me to perceive this as a problem in itself, to help fix it and to build a business out of it.”

Ilona spent one year in Brazil when she was 16 years old. It was eye-opening for her to see the gap between rich and poor in Rio de Janeiro. This was one of the situations that exposed her to the inequalities and different living conditions people all over the world have. She also had the chance to work in some African countries and to travel extensively in emerging markets, making it for her a natural step to work on areas where she can have a positive impact in society.

Q: Why do you think being a startup founder was your path?

“I was always fascinated with startups just because they are probably the best method for tackling some of the problems we have in our society and trying new methods fast.”

Ilona’s background is Master of Science in Engineering from Information Networks program that combines engineering with business and human-centered design. Her work has taken her to work both in private and public sectors, which for a while was her path to follow. After a while she realized that it’s difficult for large organizations to be innovative, making her reflect on her future and become an entrepreneur.

Q: Back in 2014 you led Slush Impact Track.Do you consider that Slush helped you shift the way you think?

“Creating an impact doesn’t mean that you’re not making any money and that is often the misconception.”

Ilona started and led Impact, a track at Slush that focused on entrepreneurs who want to create a positive impact in the society with a scalable business. Through Slush, Ilona agrees that it was an excellent way for her to learn about starting something from scratch. Slush Impact was first organized in 2014, and grew to 14 different side events in 2015 besides a number of speakers that showcased different speakers tackling global challenges.

Q: What are some of the obstacles you have tackled during your entrepreneurial path?

“Obstacles are part of the journey of being an entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur you just have to question everything and find a way of trying new things very fast.”

Ilona told us, that regardless of the obstacles she has encountered, the most important thing is that you need to think about learning something new with every obstacle and seeing it as a stepping stone to the bigger obstacles. Ilona mentioned that because we are raised in a certain way and gotten used that certain things should only work one way, that shouldn’t stop us from questioning things and thinking outside of the box.

Q: Do you consider that it will be possible to live in a world where businesses can still make profits while having a positive impact? Where would you start?

What is important is that we engage directly with the workers in emerging markets. We’ve discovered many cases where people have never been asked before so just us talking with them, is something that makes them feel like they matter.

Ilona mentioned, that when you start you think about what does it really mean to have an impact, the line becomes blurred. For example, Facebook is a platform that has created an impact on one side bringing people together but also enabling fake news and hurtful ideologies to spread, which is something we didn’t see at the beginning. So, the question of what does it mean to have an impact is yet to be defined and perhaps works so far on a case by case basis.

Quantifying impact also becomes complicated, if we think of emerging markets, because according to her many of these people might not even have their jobs if there weren’t factories. For impact investors, she agrees that is also a topic that can be confusing because normally in companies you just look at the bottom line, which is either you make money or not, but when aiming for an impact, as a startup you have to look into the change you are having in society. For example, for Work Ahead it is about focusing on the metrics that are relevant for their own business and engaging directly with workers in emerging markets and empowering them.

Make sure to read Ilona’s article on Nordic-wide initiatives that can help you get inspired to have an impact on society.


About Work Ahead

Work Ahead makes supply chain social audits scalable with technology. Their work advances human rights and decent working conditions among 3 billion people who work in international supply chains.