A conversation at a recent Impact Hub Boulder board meeting had me spinning. We started the meeting by re-visiting our current mission, vision and values. Soon, we began to dissect three main topics: first, what we do as an organization; second, how we do it; third, whom we serve. The conversation then turned to focus exclusively on the third topic, the members of our network and the populations we serve.
In an attempt to define our target audience and customers, we all starting throwing out the usual catchy monikers, including terms like “social entrepreneurs,” “social enterprises,” “impact organizations,” “change-makers” and “triple-bottom-line companies.” In the midst of this lingo brainstorm, one of our board members interjected and said, “Wouldn’t part of our vision be that these buzz words would go away, and that one day, the values to which we all aspire – that is, business and enterprise encompassing care and concern for people, planet, place and profit – would be so ubiquitous … that all businesses would be benefit corporations where they benefit all stakeholders?
The answer was a resounding “YES!” Clearly, everyone on the Board agreed that the values of business leadership themselves are much more important than the monikers that describe them. We all shared a vision for the future that positive social and environmental values will eventually be the new status quo.
Another board member raised a point that Impact Hub may come across in the community as an exclusive club, a place where only people working on “impact” initiatives were welcome. We found ourselves contemplating a fine balance in marketing and execution of our values. On the one hand, we want to be as inclusive as possible. On the other hand, at Impact HUB Boulder we need to maintain focus on our positioning in the market and unapologetically stand for our mission and vision.
In part, we created Impact Hub Boulder because the other, more traditional entrepreneurial sectors already had their place, their ecosystem. We wanted to provide a supportive environment for organizations with the mission to affect social and/or environmental change but who were slipping through the cracks. We also wanted to create an environment where the multitude of change-oriented sectors and communities that might not otherwise “collide” could come together: tech, local food, nonprofit, for-profit and more.
Our discussion got me thinking hard about the relationship of labels to our vision for the future and the idea of inclusivity. As I began to think about this vision, it occurred to me right away that, if in fact we subscribe to a vision where all businesses are values-driven, we absolutely must be inclusive.
I believe that the ONLY way we can achieve our vision is for ALL enterprise(s) – especially the traditional enterprises – to become more values-driven to start moving more assertively toward sustainability. Simultaneously, the entrepreneurial and values-driven movement can continue to innovate and push against the traditional boundaries between business (e.g., profit) and social and environmental good.There is no denying the speed of the social enterprise movement and the impact that social enterprises, B-corps, benefit corporations and L3Cs are currently having. That said, however, there are less than 1500 L3Cs and B-corps combined amid the over 7 million enterprises in the U.S. alone. The creation of yet another nonprofit, social enterprise or L3C is not enough to achieve the inclusive business future that we envision. Shifting the Fortune 1,000 a few degrees in the direction of sustainability would have a much greater impact, because we simply cannot innovate fast enough otherwise.
So, you may ask, what does this have to do with inclusivity? Well, first we must acknowledge that traditional enterprise is, in fact, moving in the right direction. More and more businesses are implementing sustainability practices. For example, a recent survey by Ernst & Young showed that 65% of U.S. CFOS have become involved, at some level, in sustainability efforts. Having spent a fair bit of time in corporate America, I can tell you that if the CFO is involved, you’re making progress!
But a problem still lies in the lingo. While traditional enterprise is moving in the right direction, the fact remains that a significant number – actually, an overwhelming majority – of actors in this larger movement do not, and likely will not, acknowledge themselves as change-makers, Impact entrepreneurs or even Impact intra-preneurs. The language can be both limiting and inaccurate. Likewise, I believe that we can’t label all Impact Hub members as change-makers. And similarly, we can’t suggest that non-Impact Hub members are not change-makers or forces for good. That, my fellow “impact professionals,” would be absurd.
We are ultimately witnessing an awakening of spirit and a growing desire to ensure that values are at the heart of enterprise, regardless of legal structure and status. We share an understanding that we are all connected to each other, to the planet, to the place and the communities in which we live, and we want to have a balanced approach to caring for all of it.
Within traditional enterprise, there’s a movement in its own right. The historical – yet modern – perspective on business of the likes of Milton Friedman suggested that the sole purpose of a corporation is to maximize profits. In doing so, it left stakeholders and shareholders in the best possible position to raise their own standards of living, and also that of others, through the “trickle-down” theory of philanthropy. The honest question now is: how is that working for us?
Still, we need to acknowledge that there is an increasing number of values-based leaders, leading solid companies, who take care of their employees and create products and services that add value to society. Yet they still believe that the best approach is to turn as much profit as possible back to the employees and other shareholders and allow them to direct their own giving and social return. We must do what we can to refrain from convincing ourselves that there are definitive lines between right and wrong approaches.
Our historically bifurcated world, in which capitalism remained separate from social and environmental good, is facing two very strong headwinds. First, the number of “market failures” within this system is growing and worsening. We only have to look at the effects on the environment and increasing income disparities for proof. Second, the workforce of the future – the 99% of the workforce who will not have the luxury of working for a nonprofit, social enterprise, etc. – will no longer be satisfied that their vocation and values must live separate lives. Where the previous generation was forced to use time after work to express their values, through volunteerism, faith communities and the like, more and more of us will want to work for an enterprise through which we can live our values, nine-to-five, Monday to Friday.
In order to attract and retain the best talent, traditional business will have to lead with values.
Here’s where I have landed in all of this, and here’s how it ties back to the Impact HUB community. While labels and monikers are critical components to any movement, especially at the early stages, at some point they become counter-productive. What’s most important is the vision, that values in business will become ubiquitous, the new normal. I believe that the fast track to that vision lies in a) continuing to innovate with new business models and b) encouraging traditional enterprise to accelerate the internal changes that lead to greater sustainability.
To get on that fast track, we need to make sure that our “Clubhouse” is open to as many people as possible. Our Clubhouse must welcome people at any point on their individual or organizational journey of discovering their values and the integration of their values with their vocation.
As for us at the Impact Hub Boulder, we have decided that while a mission statement has its place, we want to focus less on the trendy phrases and monikers, and more on the core principals. We believe that a larger, more diverse set of people will be willing to line up behind a set of shared values than behind a set of trendy labels. A larger, more diverse group will align with our collective conversations, efforts and actions toward making the world a better place. Everyone should agree: the more, the merrier!
Our (Impact Hub) Clubhouse is open!
About the Author: Rich Hoops is a co-founder and board chair of Impact Hub Boulder. After a successful corporate career with Tandyand Dell, Rich became an entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist, with a passion for East Africa. He serves on the boards of several organizations, including Social Venture Partners Boulder County, where he has focused on supporting non-profits that had an earned-income strategy. He also serves on the board of the Center for Education in Social Responsibility (CESR), where he champions changing large organizations from within. Rich is active with the Unreasonable Institute, working with the fellows, especially those from East Africa.