New Hashtags Give an Old Guy New Hope

May 16, 2014

Latest Thinking, Social Enterprise

I have hope lately. Hope about bringing values and business today. Hope that the endless debate about free markets vs. regulation will come to an end someday. Those of you who know me personally, or follow me online, will know that I am not often an optimist. This feeling of hope is new for me.

I’ve been around for a while, working in the software industry for more than fifteen years as a sales and marketing executive in a public software company. I’ve had my nose to grindstone for over ten years meeting quarterly numbers and selling large software deals to large corporations. I have been relatively successful at running a segment of our business. Before that, I had completed my PhD and taught Religious Studies at institutions of higher education like Stanford. I have always been interested in bringing the two sides of myself together: the business side and the more values-based side of who I am. This meeting of work and values, or work and heart, is not so easy in the business world in which many of us have lived and worked, unless we are lucky with the type of company we work in or the type of role we have.

What has given me hope recently is a still relatively fledgling but energetic movement, if one can call it that, that focuses on combining business entrepreneurship with a social and / or an environment purpose. The new “movement” is described by a set of new terms and concepts and definitions (“impact investing” “social capital,” “social enterprise,” “BCorporation”) and is recognized by a number of new hashtags such as #impinv, #BCorp, #BtheChange, #socent, #socap, among others. All of these terms describe a set of emerging business and investing practices that have something in common: they are committed in principle to both the principles of “for profit” enterprises and a focus on some social and or environmental impact. That is to say, both the investors and the founders of such companies see the purpose of the business, not only to achieve profit, but to have some real world positive impact, beyond just the products they produce. For example, in a recent book published by the Rockefeller Foundation (The Power of Impact Investing), a number of such companies are described including Liberty United, a company that makes unusual jewelry that displays a serial number of the reclaimed gun from which the pieces are made. The business takes the profits from the jewelry and reclaims more rifles and guns. The wearers of the jewelry show their commitment to the cause. Those who work in companies like this one, which combines a social purpose and the quest for profit are “social entrepreneurs,” their businesses are “social businesses,” and their investors are “impact investing.” Some of these organizations codify their social commitments legally in a new legal entity recognized by some states called a “BCorporation.”

For a new comer, this new lexicon of terms and hashtags gives me hope because the emerging practices are committed to showing that one does not have to leave one’s heart or soul on the side while one works in a business. The emerging movement says,  and is demonstrating, that one can pursue the practices of a profitable business and have positive transformative impacts on peoples’ lives, not only here but in developing countries and on the environment.

I’m at the other end of my career, about to pull back from my full time work in the profit world. I’m not among the 1% but I have done well and better than many.  I never found that alignment in my career with the profit goals and the deepest commitments of myself and soul. Those were compartmentalized between my home and work life, as they have been for many others I know and have read about.

I, for one, will be doing what I can, as I step down from full time work, to throwing my energy into supporting these young entrepreneurs who are trying to create a new type of economy that ends the dichotomy between business and values, that takes the power of markets and harnesses it to work for human good.

The combining of profit and values is not completely new, really, nor is impact investing either. There have been earlier models that went under the descriptions of socially responsible businesses and socially responsible investing. the Rockefeller book is good about describing the differences. There have been forerunners like Ben and Jerry’s who earlier showed the model on how to combine values and profitable business. There have been large companies like Salesforce where the CEO is committed to “compassionate capitalism.” Still, the terminology and energy represented by the new terms and hashtags referenced above are new and represent an emerging institutionalization of practices that make this feel more than a one-off or occasional success. Yesterday, BCorp announced that there are now a thousand businesses that have adopted the new legal structure of the BCorporation. All of this gives me hope. I’m in!


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