Company Culture that Comes from the Top: Introducing Our 2021 Startup Culture Award Winner!

startup culture awards winner

How Branch Insurance’s mission-driven concept and commitment to a people-first environment sets them apart

Ohio Department of Director Lydia Mihalik presents the 2021 Startup Culture Award to Joe Emison, Co-Founder and CTO of Branch Insurance

Ohio Department of Director Lydia Mihalik presents the 2021 Startup Culture Award to Joe Emison, Co-Founder and CTO of Branch Insurance

The Ohio startup scene has blown us away once again.Each year, we’re amazed at the way Ohio companies build great company culture, bringing teams together and persevering through the rapidly changing way we work. This year’s Startup Culture Awards drew more nominations and votes than ever before. We received nearly 150 nominations and nearly 5,000 votes determined our regional finalists and ultimate winner: Columbus startup Branch Insurance.

Branch is the rapidly growing new insurance player in the Columbus scene. The company was founded in 2017 and launched publicly in 2019 by Steve Lekas and Joe Emison, veterans of the industry who wanted to see it evolve in a way that was more beneficial to the customer and harkened back to what insurance was meant to be: beneficial for its customers. And for the company’s founders, culture has been top of mind since the very beginning.

“We’ve both seen bad or mediocre company culture,” Emison said. “Sometimes, companies are building fast and trying to grow, and they just don’t think about culture. It ends up being a reflection of the people who are there and their unintentional acts and personalities. For us, it was really important to intentionally set the culture from the beginning as a place we wanted to work for the rest of our lives. The easiest way to summarize the culture is that we treat people like people. We respect their humanity and we don’t try to mine people for everything they’re worth.”

That commitment to culture-building is felt throughout the company. Known as “Branchers,” team members are encouraged to work the way that best fits their lifestyle and work habits and reflect the diversity of their communities. The company hosts virtual and in-person events for team-building, offers unlimited PTO and will even pay employees $1,000 to take a week off and travel after they’ve worked with the company for a year. Software engineer Justin Luthy said the team is focused not only on their day-to-day work, but the bigger picture and larger goals of Branch. And for him, the attitude and work ethic comes from the top. He said working with Lekas and Emison shows where the culture begins.

“I think that’s trickled down throughout the rest of the company,” he said. “We don’t really have a ton of managers; we’re still small, so we kind of just allow everybody to be pretty autonomous. But at the same time, we’re all very helpful. If you need help, everybody’s willing to jump in if you ask for it. The collaboration is a lot of fun. Everybody’s super engaged with not only what they’re working on, but what’s going on in the business and our strategic long-term goals. Everybody knows their top priority today for themselves personally, but also for the organization as a whole.”

For Branch, those long-term goals include changing the way insurance functions. They aim to make insurance more beneficial and less of a hassle, and hope to take the industry back to its original purpose: pooling resources to lessen risk.

“Branch Insurance is a technological insurance company that is on a mission to make insurance less expensive so more people can be insured,” Lekas said. “We believe that insurance helps people take risks that they otherwise would be unable to bear. Home insurance works the same way, but it’s become incredibly inefficient. Insurance has been so hard to acquire, and Branch has solved that problem by making it incredibly easy to instantly buy home and auto insurance in a couple of clicks.”

The company isn’t just working to achieve their goals through a strictly business focus. They also have a philanthropic arm called SafetyNest, which aims to provide broader access to insurance by excluding fewer people. A percentage of Branch customers’ payments go toward funding SafetyNest, which allows people in need to apply for assistance through the program, giving back to the community in a concrete way that is often an afterthought.

“SafetyNest is designed to combat the financial exclusion problem that has left millions of US consumers without insurance, which keeps people below the poverty line,” Lekas said. “Without insurance, people get fines they can’t pay, and multiple tickets means you lose your license. You can even end up in jail, which means you lose your job. And this can all come from simply not having insurance. So we’re on a mission to make insurance less expensive by taking the waste out of it and making it efficient, and then we’re doing real social good by helping the excluded be included.”

Branchers are encouraged to work collaboratively and support one another. Branches praise the company’s commitment to its people, flexible work style and attention to detail. Sana Khan has only been with the company for a few weeks, and said she was immediately impressed by the way Branchers are treated by the company and interact with one another.

“So far, I think the reason that I really like working here is definitely the culture,” she said. “Everyone is so nice, and everyone’s been extremely helpful. A lot of times in the beginning of a new job, everyone says, ‘Oh, it’s such a nice place to work. You’ll love it.’ Then it didn’t go away. At a lot of places, that feeling goes away and people kind of back off. But it’s been consistent here. Having each other’s back is important here, and I think it definitely shows. If I have a question, I have that flexibility to be able to ask anyone in the company and not feel hesitation.”

Like other companies, Branch had to find a way to maintain their company culture amid COVID-19. Pre-pandemic, some employees worked remote and some worked in the office. But that became a much more necessary way of life over the last two years, and Lekas said the company focused on allowing people to do their work “in a way that would be their most productive self, whether that be fully remote, something of a hybrid, or in the office.” With a new downtown Columbus office and flexible working options, the team says its culture is better than ever.

“COVID changed the way we saw each other, but our established culture and way of working with each other meant that it didn’t change how people saw or worked with Branch,” Emison said. “Now, as we’re returning to the office, we’re giving people complete flexibility as to whether they want to or not. We’re finding this new, inherently flexible way that people can meet with each other. Our culture sits on top of all this and drives and dictates how people talk to each other and how we accomplish our mission.”

The great culture and important mission of Branch showcases the way great Ohio companies are innovating while taking care of their people. Thanks to all of our voters, nominees and companies around Ohio for making the fourth annual Startup Culture Awards our biggest yet. All across the state, companies are doing groundbreaking work with innovative teams and amazing company cultures, and we’re proud to showcase just a few. Thanks for sharing your stories with us, and we’ll see you next year for another showcase of great company culture in Ohio!

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