In this ongoing series at ArtsATL, Executive Editor Laura Relyea has conversations with C-level executives of corporations who make significant contributions to Atlanta’s arts economy.
For the first installation of this series, ArtsATL spoke with Ben Chestnut, the CEO of Atlanta’s own MailChimp, which has made substantial contributions to countless arts organizations including The Decatur Book Festival, Serial, Longform, Living Walls, The California Sunday Magazine, and countless others. This is a portion of their conversation.
ArtsATL: Successful entrepreneurs probably have more in common with artists than they realize. What interests you in the overlap between business and art? How do you actively incorporate creative thinking into your company’s ethos?
Chestnut: We hire a lot of artists at MailChimp. Visual artists, writers, musicians, actors. You’ll find artists on every team throughout the company. Even if they’re not directly practicing their art at work, they bring their creativity and inspirations to work with them. That makes our culture more dynamic, and it ultimately helps us be more innovative as a company.
We also create opportunities for employees to practice and share their art with the rest of the MailChimp community. One example is something we have called Night School, where employees can sign up to teach a class on anything they like. We’ve had people teach calligraphy, sushi making, tap dancing and more. We provide the space and supplies, and let them have fun with it. We also have a literary event called “Get Lit at MailChimp,” where we bring in a writer to do a reading, and then a few employees read their own work. Last time Molly Brodak read from her memoir Bandit, and next time poet Theresa Davis will perform.
In order to move the business forward, we have to innovate. And innovation requires room for creativity. I’m intentional about making space for creativity and experimentation throughout our business. I think a mistake a lot of CEOs make is limiting creativity to the design department. At MailChimp, creativity is one of our core values. I encourage — even expect — people throughout the company to think creatively and test boundaries.
ArtsATL: MailChimp has been an avid supporter of many avenues of art, both in Atlanta and elsewhere. Why is investing in the arts such a priority to you as an executive? To your company overall?
Chestnut: I do it for my employees. Investing in the arts doesn’t help our marketing or our innovation or our product in a direct way. Employees want to feel like they work at a place that’s making a difference. When we support the arts, our employees feel good about what we’re doing for our city. When they’re proud about where they work, they do more creative work, and they tell people how great it is to work here. Culture influences business results more than anything, and investing in the arts directly influences our culture.
Though I’m not an art connoisseur or collector, I know that art is a powerful form of communication (like writing or music) that can influence and even change culture for the better. That goes for the culture of our city and the culture of our company. I want MailChimp’s people to feel inspired to do great work. When someone on the design team feels inspired to experiment and push the boundaries of our brand, that emboldens our whole company to push the boundaries of our product.
ArtsATL: In addition to investing in the arts, MailChimp itself has a pretty robust art collection and creative environment. How do you think environment affects productivity and creative thinking in the workplace?
Chestnut: MailChimp needs to have a global perspective in everything we do because our customers demand it. More than half of MailChimp’s revenue comes from customers outside the United States. The most visible works of art in our office come from our partnership with Living Walls. Executive director Mónica Campana curated street art installations that reflected both our global perspective and our roots here in Atlanta. Half the artists were from outside the United States, and half were from Atlanta. That was intentional.
But beyond that, we didn’t want to finish the space. My cofounder Dan has been instrumental in developing our space, and we wanted to give employees room to help create what our office would become. So when MailChimp began to focus on e-commerce, we worked with Tiny Doors ATL to create installations that help remind us of the different kinds of businesses that we serve. Now you can’t visit MailChimp without walking by some very literal small businesses. The art is closely tied to what MailChimp’s business is all about, however abstract. Hopefully we can reflect that creativity back into the work we do every day.
Of course, we also have plenty of space for artists and designers to display their own work. You’ll see sketches and designs hanging on walls and whiteboards around the office. It motivates the team and creates opportunities for feedback and collaboration.
ArtsATL: What role did the arts play in your childhood and young adulthood?
Chestnut: Honestly, art wasn’t really a “thing” in my house growing up. My parents didn’t collect art, and we didn’t talk much about it at home. I never liked art history class — instead of learning the names and biographies of famous artists, I just wanted to be drawing and making my own kind of art. When I was a kid, I drew all the time. I loved to make flip books out of 3M sticky note pads. Art was less about knowing, and all about doing. Even if I wouldn’t have called it art.
ArtsATL: Any advice for young creatives adventuring into the professional world?
Chestnut: Be true to yourself and continue to explore your art, but also learn a thing or two about business. If you’re venturing into the corporate world, think about how your art moves the business forward. Tie innovation to business goals. If you’re working on a product, think about your customers, and how you can create more beautiful and functional experiences for them.
Editor’s Disclosure: ArtsATL receives financial support from MailChimp annually.