Taking the Plunge
As soon as my sweepstake win plays out (currently sitting on Belgium and France) I’ll be leaving Stripe Partners. The fact that they’ve let me ‘stay to collect’ though seems so indicative of the rich culture here that it’s worth putting down a few thoughts about my time at company I’ve felt genuinely proud to be a part of for a year.
After studying social anthropology at Cambridge, I spent my first year after graduation variously running a drinks business, acting as a talent agent, or involved in politics – all fairly unsatisfying. There were always a few fabled people on the course though who had actually started working in anthropology and having enjoyed my degree I was thrilled to see Stripe Partners advertising for a research internship.
The first thing that impressed me was the interview, I was asked about papers I’d read, ethnography I’d conducted, what I thought anthropology could do for business. Inspiringly credible for a company that Simon (Partner and Founder) was quick to remind me spent plenty of time producing PowerPoint presentations as its outputs.
Stripe Partners essentially offers strategy consulting, but makes their recommendations based on ethnography, going out to meet people, understand how they live, and bringing clients with them so they understand how any new insights have emerged. It’s an approach that feels almost entirely unique in the business world.
Two weeks into my time here I found myself in the midst of one of our ethnographic ‘studios’ in Minneapolis. We go into the field in teams and stay together in large Airbnbs big enough to host discussions and workshops for the client team too. I’ve found it nicer than staying in slightly stale hotels and a casual and unforced way of getting to know the people you’re working with.
Most days during a studio we’ll go out individually and meet carefully recruited people, conducting an extended ethnographic interview and exercises with them in their home. On some projects, like ones I worked on in Austin and Chicago we’ll meet up later to do an activity like bowling, going to a bar or in one case play ‘whirlyball’ to help us situate our findings in the participants real life, speaking to them about their views in a more informal setting. For most of our clients though this is an unconventional method of research, but one that we as anthropologists know is effective.
Beyond the efficacy of the method though, I’ve been taken back by the proximity that Stripe Partners has, through some of its influential clients to technologies shaping the contemporary world. On a latter project, I’ve worked on augmented reality and artificial intelligence for a global tech company. There aren’t many established ways of thinking about these topics in anthropology, but these are technologies that look set to be ubiquitous. For me, that’s one of the most exciting prospects about working here. It’s anthropology but couldn’t be further from analyzing Levi-Strauss.
It’s no surprise then that the office needs to feel as it does, discursive and curious. On most projects, at least the first week will be spent reading around the topic, we’ll speak to experts in London and in the field to help us unpick the problems too, working with unbelievably sharp colleagues to work out the best methods, theories, and ways into a problem. It’s like a think tank where the assertions actually get put into practice – by the biggest companies in the world.
I’m leaving then at what feels like an exciting time to be at the company and an anthropologist, a swelling client list made up of the people shaping the world we live in, working at the leading edge, dealing with topics like AI and virtual reality that require new theory and conceptual thinking. At the outset though, all I’d really wanted was a working environment that felt thoughtful and unpatronizing. Stripe Partners is one of those.
// Alex Rice