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Even as a business school student, Pete Stavros, now partner and co-head of global private equity at KKR, spent hours delving into employee ownership models. Years later, as a private equity executive, he was ready to take action. “I just started doing it,” he says. “I didn’t know where it was going to lead and how I was going to make it work.”

Stavros began experimenting with employee engagement and ownership models, incorporating broad-based ownership and profit-sharing into dozens of KKR acquisitions. The idea was to prove that giving workers a share of the value that they helped create would also drive impressive returns. 

It worked. In 2021, Stavros launched Ownership Works, a nonprofit partnering with business leaders to redistribute ownership structures within companies to help workers at all levels – especially working-class families – build wealth. “It’s about unleashing this kind of culture and building wealth at the bottom,” says Stavros, who is currently the chairman of the board of directors.

Stavros joined Mary Josephs, ’89, founder and CEO of Verit Advisors and an expert in Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), for a virtual fireside chat co-sponsored by the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation and two Chicago Booth student groups – Booth Impact Investing and Booth Social Impact. 

In a wide-ranging conversation, Stavros shared the benefits and challenges of growing companies through employee ownership. Below are edited excerpts:

Finding inspiration: It was really my dad. He was a construction worker in Arlington Heights, Illinois and did not begrudge being a construction worker. He loved his job. But he felt like he couldn’t get ahead on $15 an hour and couldn’t build wealth. He would explain profit sharing to my sister and me and bring up the need for the union to align better with the company’s incentives.

Understanding employee ownership: Shared ownership is the foundation. But what really moves the needle on culture and engagement has much more to do with how we amplify the voice of the worker in the company. A key tenet of our approach is that employees aren’t being asked to take additional risk. For example, this model cannot be a substitute for paying fair wages. 

Building buy-in: We roll out an ownership plan on day one, but a good number of people don’t understand it, and many don’t believe it. They think, “Am I really going to have more economic opportunity if the company performs well?” Many folks don’t have an interest in corporate finance. At the outset, we do our best to be very clear. It’s a free incremental benefit, and we try very hard to explain what it is. We hold quarterly all-owner meetings, giving the workforce more data while pushing some decision-making to the front-line workforce. The truth is that this is really hard. If you think you are going to roll this out and people are going to just stop quitting, that’s not the case.

The need for leaders: It’s about culture change and investment, but it doesn’t always work. If you don’t have the right leadership, it’s not going to move the culture. We want to help and be a practical resource on how you leverage ownership with a different kind of culture. Over a long period of time, this drives down the propensity to quit. It drives up employee engagement and employee performance. 

Driving impact: With Ownership Works, we want to create $20 billion in wealth for low-income workers. If this is done well, the people at the top also do even better. I think it works across industries, but it’s harder with companies with an enormous number of employees. It’s also a little bit easier when you have some stability in the workforce. 

Best MBA career advice: Try and enjoy the journey a little bit more. Everyone is so driven, and you want to get where you’re going as fast as you can, but I’m approaching 50 and could have enjoyed it a little bit more. I was killing myself developing this model. Everyone gets to where they are going in due time, and there’s probably a way to do it and enjoy it along the way.

(For more virtual events visit

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