Where Are They Now? How Kindness Built KindWorks
If a little kindness goes a long way, imagine pairing it with the power of AI.
That’s what KindWorks, a platform that encourages and enables kindness through behavioral nudges and AI, founded by Daniel Lozano, MBA ‘16, set out to find when it launched in 2021. And since then, the team has accomplished a lot including onboarding a number of large enterprise customers, continuing to develop its in-house AI agent Beni, and recently closing an oversubscribed pre-seed round of over $1.5 million.
The story of KindWorks, however, goes back much further – to 2014 at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. The University’s involvement doesn’t stop there either, as it has been a part of many of the company’s milestones along the way, including playing a role in its first demos, customers, advisors, and investors.
In 2014, Nicole Yelsey, MBA ‘12, had just left her role at Anheuser-Busch InBev and was in the process of launching her first startup when she was looking to hire someone for product development. Yelsey was introduced to Lozano at the Polsky Center, and after an initial meeting, she hired him to design the product road map for her startup. The two worked together well and while that company ultimately didn’t make it, they remained in touch as they progressed throughout their careers.
For Lozano, he went on to work for Cisco on its AI Network Analytics team. It was in this role that the concept for KindWorks first presented itself.
“It was 2019, and I was working for the most important AI product for Cisco. I had just received the “Rock Star” award from senior leadership, and I loved my team – I should have been on top of the world,” said Lozano. “Yet despite these accomplishments, I was about to lose my job.”
Facing immigration challenges that would prevent him from staying in the U.S., Lozano was unable to continue at Cisco. He was at a crossroads without a clear path ahead in his career and without a place to live.
Lozano had his belongings in a storage unit in Silicon Valley and went to clear out his things before moving home. It was here that a special moment sparked the idea for KindWorks.
“I found a nice bottle of wine in my possessions and decided to gift it to the security guard,” said Lozano. “His face immediately showed deep and honest appreciation. He told me that in three years working there he had never experienced that sort of kindness.”
“In that moment, despite the sadness and frustration I was experiencing, I felt the most powerful force in my body that I’ve ever experienced. My perception of reality, my situation, and myself completely changed. This simple act of kindness inspired me – I was energized and motivated to persevere.”
Lozano began to research kindness and discovered hundreds of academic papers concluding that kindness is one of the most powerful tools humans have to boost well-being. Inspired by this moment and backed by research, he was excited to share the benefits of kindness to help others.
During this time, he was studying at the University of Oxford and was president of the AI Society. After seeing so many different use cases for AI that focused on financial gain, he started to think back to the moment at the storage facility.
“I envisioned the power AI could have to support and help humans,” said Lozano. “I was motivated to take my learnings about kindness and find a way for the power of technology to serve this purpose.”
This is when he sat down and wrote out the idea of KindWorks.AI – a company that would use technology to inspire people to practice kindness, boost their well-being, and bring their best selves to the world while living a more meaningful life.
While working on the idea, Lozano received a job offer to work for Amazon, and KindWorks took a back seat at this time. But when the pandemic hit, he started to reconsider his career.
“I saw how people were struggling,” said Lozano. “People were burning out, quitting, taking unpaid leaves, or just staying and languishing. I decided that I could not continue doing business as usual. I knew I had a secret that could change the lives of many – kindness.”
In January of 2021, Lozano quit his job to build KindWorks. With nothing more than his initial plan on paper and the name, he started sharing his concept with his network.
“I received a call from Daniel where he shared his plan for KindWorks, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” said Yelsey.
The two, along with Tim Seabrook, a classmate from Oxford, started to build the system, and in less than two months they had a working prototype – a conversational AI agent called Beni which connected to WhatsApp and encouraged intentional acts of kindness.
With the prototype, Lozano reached out to his network once again and connected with a number of advisors and professors from Booth to further improve Beni. Booth’s Professor Greg Bunch was so impressed that he invited the team to run its first public demo in his class, providing even more feedback for improvements.
In early 2021, the team was accepted into two accelerators – the Polsky Center’s Alumni New Venture Challenge and an accelerator at Oxford. These programs allowed the team to continue refining Beni and receive funding from friends, family and strategic partners – several of which were connections from Booth. And in September of 2021, they landed their first customer – also through a Booth connection.
“That was the moment that made each of us say now or never – and we chose now,” said Yelsey.
Over time, the company has seen a lot of success and the team continues to grow, with 11 employees around the globe. They recently brought on Booth Alum Michael Kurt, MBA ’16, to join their leadership team as CFO, bringing his experience scaling dating app Hinge as its first finance hire.
In its current state, Beni provides hundreds of exercises across eight categories to practice kindness, and its prompts include kindness to others and to self. Beni also will match people with specific colleagues to remind them to check in with team members or to send a note for encouragement or feedback. Some prompts might be done immediately and only take a moment, such as share a funny gif with a friend, and others may take a bit longer, such as schedule a feedback session with your mentor.
“If you go to the gym, you might do yoga one day, run the next, and lift weights the following day, we built Beni the same way,” said Yelsey. “Kindness is a muscle and we want to help everyone build it.”
More than just doing nice for the sake of it, there is science behind the kindness in KindWorks. The company cites hundreds of scientific papers, some from the University of Chicago, calling for the importance of intentional acts of kindness. And with a behavioral scientist on the team, they continue to research and redefine the impact of kindness.
The results are showing.
“In our first 18 months, we have seen significant changes in purpose, impact, and connectedness for our users and a boost in talent retention, performance and culture at companies we’re working with,” said Lozano. “Our product has led to a 63% increase in people feeling ‘very much impactful’ at work and the first offices we deployed in have ranked among the top 10 in best workplaces.”
Moving forward, KindWorks is looking to expand. With several large customers, the team is focused on bringing the importance of kindness to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. Further down the line, they plan to expand beyond businesses and work with individuals.
“Kindness is the next wave of well-being,” said Yelsey. “Fitness and mindfulness have changed things; kindness is next.”
// Where Are They Now? is a column featuring past program participants, investment recipients, and others who have worked closely with the Polsky Center.
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