Musings about Work, Equality, Social Justice and Capitalism: Human Capitalism

This is a Guest blog post from Jeff Cherry, Founder and Managing Partner of The Conscious Venture Fund and Founding Partner of The Laudato Si Startup Challenge. He is a tech CEO and mentor, investor, philanthropist, and community builder.

 

What comes next?

I recently listened to a thought-provoking episode of the TED Radio Hour on NPR entitled What We Value. Its premise was that this economic and societal crisis in which we find ourselves is accelerating the move towards a new set of values when it comes to the practice of capitalism. Those of us in the social impact and Conscious Capitalism space are heartened to see this discussion gaining momentum, but the question remains: How will capitalism change now that the unhealthy state of business and our major societal institutions have been laid bare?

There are many indications that this shift was in the offing far before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Although late to the game, the statement released by the Business Roundtable in August 2019 signaled a transformative move away from the outdated notion of shareholder primacy and towards a more human and effective form of business. It certainly garnered the attention of the press. And others in the business mainstream who had been either unaware or hostile to the market forces driving this change, are now finding it hard to ignore discussions of stakeholder management and whether business should have a broader role in society.

These ever-expanding discussions about the purpose of business in society are now taking place in the context of what does a return to “normal” look like in the economy. And a growing sentiment that the normal we were experiencing — where greed, inequity, declining living standards, crony capitalism, rent-seeking, regulatory capture, share buy-backs, corporate welfare and environmental depletion were the norm — isn’t in fact normal. Nor a state of being for which we should collectively yearn. As you might imagine, I agree.

The challenge we face now then, is how do we actually execute on this new idea? Many people talk about business for good and changing the purpose of the firm. But in the real world of competitive advantage, pricing models, customer needs, shareholder demands, supplier, employee and community relationships, knowing what to do is hard. We speak to entrepreneurs all the time who are philosophically aligned with a new narrative about business. They can cite anecdotes about others who have been successful, and they lack a cognitive frame that they can use to build an organization that embodies this day-in and day-out.

I’ve written at length about why I believe a focus on stakeholders in business and capitalism needs to replace the old story. In this article, the first of a two-part series, I’ll describe a framework to begin the journey to business as an institute of societal well-being: Or Human Capitalism.

Photo by Koushik Chowdavarapu on Unsplash

The New Narrative of Business in Society: Human Capitalism
What does a new story about the practice of business and capitalism look like in practical terms?

In order to fully bring this new narrative to life, I believe we need to re-define the purpose of business as a societal institution. Then, we need to translate that definition into tools that real entrepreneurs and executives can use every day to guide how they formulate strategy, individual decision making and implementation.

When a new cohort of the Conscious Venture Lab convenes, I ask a question to frame the work we’ll be doing over the ensuing 16-weeks: “What kind of world could we create if investors, executives and entrepreneurs cared as much about people as they care about profit?” It isn’t a question I expect any of the teams to answer outright. It’s a rhetorical challenge to think about how these ideas impact their businesses and the broader society.

Over the last few months, I’ve reframed that question: What kind of world could we create if we decided our first duty in business was to simply care for each other? This is the essence of Human Capitalism.

This version of the question doesn’t pit people against profit, which I believe is a false construct. Instead, it captures the meaning we’re all experiencing in this moment: can we be a complete society if the overarching purpose of business is only to increase profits and not primarily to improve the human condition? Both of these questions are variations of the age-old investigation of “What is a business for?” Academics, economists, politicians, social scientists and businesspeople have been asking this question for decades, if not longer.

Liesel Pritzker Simmons, co-founder of the impact investing firm Bluehaven Initiative, has said, “A crisis gives us an excuse to have conviction earlier.” What we are experiencing in this moment has emphasized how interconnected we are as a society and as a world. It has emphasized the importance of health as a public imperative. The importance of economic, community and personal resiliency as interdependent societal imperatives to which individuals and all societal institutions, even businesses, need to contribute. This crisis is bringing along those who may not have reached a level of conviction to move to a more human form of capitalism had things stayed … normal.

In this new reality it’s clear that the question about what type of world we want to create can no longer remain abstract or rhetorical. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the truth, that a focus on our interdependent well-being is necessary for society’s survival. Succeed together or fail together the choice is ours, but we can no longer hide behind a narrative that separates individual financial self-interest from our mutual survival.

In the post-COVID world, the new narrative of business in society is a narrative about authentic caring, societal resilience and collective well-being.

Practical Ways to Integrate Human Capitalism
Herb Kelleher, the legendary founder of Southwest Airlines, once said, “The business of business is people — yesterday, today and forever….” But what does it actually mean to structure your business around people? What can you do tomorrow to transform the structure of your business, respond to this new reality and become the type of leader that society needs?


Caring is Job 1:
Above all there is one thing leaders must do first in order to be successful in this new world: They must actually care! To be clear, leaders who embrace the idea of caring for stakeholders as a core value and primary motivation for running a business will be well-positioned to succeed in this new world. They’ll be more able to execute on the ideas described later in this article and more likely to attract talent, customers and investors in a post-COVID world of business as a vital instrument of society.

At first this seems obvious and perhaps, some would say, no different than the status quo. But the nuance of authentically treating employees, suppliers, customers and communities as individuals deserving of your care for their own sake, as opposed to primarily as fodder for creating returns is critically important. Not only to how your company will be perceived, but authentic caring — or the lack thereof — will have a tremendous impact on your competitive performance. People understand instinctively if you are treating them fairly simply as a form of manipulation for other ends. And, unless you’ve created a true culture of caring in your organization, you’ll be tempted to abandon that care when it comes into conflict with your “real goals.” The best leaders however will understand this simple truth: how we think about creating financial value is now, more than ever, clearly tied to the way we create societal value. Authentically caring is a key component of this new narrative.

What wins in the marketplace is that you are responsible for taking care of everyone who encounters your organization” Tom Gardner: CEO and Co-Founder, The Motley Fool

With that as our foundation, there are two things that every leader can do to build caring into the operational DNA of their business:

First, adopt a specific set of guiding principals about what it means to care for each other in service of societal well-being. And second,

Institute a practical business operating system that provides a framework for living into those guiding principals.

Here in Part-1, I’ll discuss a set of guiding principles we’ve created at the Conscious Venture Lab to help entrepreneurs execute upon these cultures of caring.


Guiding Principles: The Five Promises of Collective Well-Being
In order to seed this new culture of caring into the DNA of your operations, it is crucially important that you articulate and codify a set of guiding principles that the entire company can use to organize your thought processes and create operating norms, policies, procedures and metrics that will keep your culture on track in good times and in challenging times…like during a pandemic.

Companies that will lead us into a more effective model of capitalism and a future of broadly-shared prosperity have structured their business to deliver on what I call The Five Promises of Collective Well-Being, through which we vow to use business to make the world:

  • More just,
  • More joyous,
  • More equitable,
  • More sustainable and
  • More prosperous for all.

Let’s examine each principle:

Business as a path to a More Just society:
Leaders who are best at this will work to create social justice by structuring their organizations to level the playing field and authentically create access to opportunity for all those in their ecosystem who want to contribute.

Conscious Venture Lab and SHIFT Ventures portfolio companies Hungry Harvest and R3 Score have built this promise into their business models, which drives impact and returns.

Hungry Harvest creates a more just world by providing fresh food to communities that wouldn’t otherwise have access to it and dignified work opportunities to people in need. As a result, they create scores of “Harvest Heroes” who loyally buy wholesome food from the company that otherwise would have gone to waste. In the process they have increase sales by more than 34,000% over the last 4 years.

R3Score creates a more just world by providing a dignified return to civil society for millions of formerly incarcerated Americans and allowing banks a way to engage with people they would otherwise ignore. Thereby expanding the banks’ customer base, putting financial assets to work that would otherwise lay fallow and giving the 1-in-3 Americans with a criminal record the opportunity to build a new life.

Business as a path to a More Joyous life:
Leaders who bring more joy into the world will do so by focusing on a combination of the quality of the human interactions in their operations, eliminating misery as a core aspect of their business and/or creating products that bring authentic joy to more lives.

One of my personal favorite companies, Union Square Hospitality Group, uses a culture of caring and enlightened hospitality to bring joy to employees, customers and suppliers alike.

Startup Aqus Water, that was a part of the Vatican Laudato Si Challenge in 2017, has created a product that puts “three years of clean water in the palm of (the) hand(s)” of people in places where lack of clean water has been causing extreme hardship for centuries. With more than 780 MM people in the world lacking access to clean water, bringing joy will undoubtedly bring prosperity to many.

Business as a path to More Equitable communities:
When leaders focus on creating a mutual exchange of value between all stakeholders, they move their organizations away from the negative consequences of shareholder primacy and create more equitable communities for everyone. Paradoxically, an equitable approach to business, or removing the shareholder blinders, often creates new paths to greater value for shareholders.

Greyston Bakery in Yonkers New York is a pioneer of open hiring. They create a more equitable world by focusing not on the tyranny of weeding people out in the hiring process but by providing the dignity of work to anyone who wants it.

Here in Baltimore, Jacob Hsu and his company Catalyte have created an entirely new way of identifying undervalued individuals who have the aptitude to become exceptional engineers. Creating new paths to equity and unleashing massive financial potential for communities, his clients and the company.

Business as a path to a More Sustainable world:
The winning leaders of the new narrative think and plan for the long-term. They understand that sustainability in every sense is the key to enduring organizational health. They establish a circle of growth for the planet, the people who serve or are served by the organization and the organization itself.

Billion-dollar clothing company Patagonia has rejected the world of “fast fashion” by creating high quality, long-lasting products and offering a repair and reuse program to discourage customers from buying things they don’t need.

Orsted, a $9BB energy company based in Denmark was named the Most Sustainable Company in the World by Corporate Knights in 2020. The company has transformed itself from a fossil fuel company to a total green energy juggernaut, significantly outperforming its peers, the European stock indices and returning over 42% ROI over the last 12 months.

Business as a path to a More Prosperous existence for us all:
The best leaders view value creation with a polarity, or both/and mindset. They actively look to create real wealth for employees, customers, communities, suppliers and shareholders. They work to manage the polarity of creating value for all stakeholders by asking themselves questions like: “How do we simultaneously achieve the upside of paying our employees as much as possible, and, the upside of creating great returns for shareholders?” This is in contrast to shareholder value leaders who see all stakeholder relationships as tradeoffs that need to be solved for the benefit of shareholders.

Starbucks has fed more than 10 million people through its FoodShare program, redoubled its commitment to eliminate gender pay equity gaps, and committed to becoming “… resource positive — storing more carbon than we emit, eliminating waste and providing more clean fresh water than we use …” — all while rewarding shareholders handsomely — even during the coronavirus pandemic.


Why Human CAPITALISM?
In Part-2 of this series I will discuss how the tenets of Conscious Capitalism and stakeholder management will allow organizations to clear the clutter and build these principles into everyday operations.

For now, a note before we end to my main audience: The Skeptics:

I spend the majority of every waking hour thinking about how to support entrepreneurs who have previously been neglected and who are creating world changing companies despite the immense hurdles they face. I also spend a majority of that time thinking about how to invest on behalf of my limited partners in a way that will create exceptional returns. I am a capitalist who believes capitalism can and should be practiced in a way that unleashes its power to elevate all humanity. That we can create a more humane form of commerce and human cooperation. What I am suggesting is that capitalism, like any man-made system, must evolve as society evolves. To paraphrase my friend and mentor Ed Freeman, professor at the Darden School at The University of Virginia, the alternative to capitalism as we know it today is not socialism, but a better, more human form of capitalism.

For those who would push back on these ideas as leaving shareholders behind and giving away profits I would simply ask you to suspend disbelief for a bit. Take a few minutes to think not about what you might lose, but about what you might gain. What kind of world could we create if we decided our first duty in business was to care for each other? Look around…I think that time has come.

 

Jeff Cherry, is CEO and Managing Partner of SHIFT Ventures, and Founder & Executive Director of Conscious Venture Lab, an award-winning and internationally recognized early stage accelerator. He is also Founder and Managing Partner of The Conscious Venture Fund and Founding Partner of The Laudato Si Startup Challenge. Jeff is a pioneer in conscious capitalism and double bottom-line investing. He can be reached at jcherry@consciousventurelab.com.