7 Things We Learned After Meeting the Founders and CEOs of Socially Good Companies
Liz Biscevic and Halley Sutton
This week, mission-driven companies gathered in Downtown Los Angeles for the Heart Series, a two-day conference highlighting companies tackling some of the world’s biggest problems. Throughout the conference, Make Change got to listen to inspiring panels, meet the movers and shakers in the social good space, and learn how we as individuals can help make the world a better place. These are our favorite takeaways:
Live in the moment
On Valentine’s Day— Day One of the Heart Series conference— Justin Wilman of the hit Netflix show “Magic for Humans,” took to the stage to give attendees their ‘six seconds of wonder’ by performing some ‘simple miracles’ in which a slew of audience-selected random numbers were multiplied to reveal the current date and time (yes, the exact minute). But the point wasn’t to show off his mad magic skills or charisma onstage (ignore our obvious star crush over here). It was to remind us all that we’d never be here again—in this place, with these people, experiencing this feeling—and to live in the moment, the only place where transformation can happen.
Doing good is a necessity, not a marketing trend
Brad Haugen, president of ATTN:, started a successful career in advertising but soon found himself looking for outside opportunities for more personal fulfillment. When he offered his marketing services to a friend looking to build schools for underserved children—a mission that eventually became Pencils of Promise—he moved from the “sex sells” model of advertising to “hope sells.” From that point of inspiration, Haugen joined the team at ATTN:, with a goal to make content that was entertaining, accessible and tackled large issues such as gerrymandering and social injustices.
Two years ago, as concern for the future of environmental conservation and humanitarian efforts grew among Gen X and millennials, Haugen and ATTN: started receiving calls from corporations with their own progressive stances looking to partner with ATTN: in order to reach millennial and Gen Z consumers. But Haugen was looking for businesses, and people, who were doing good because it mattered to them to make the world a better place—and whose practices reflected that—not because it was a trendy or easy way to reach a market. “The currency we’re trading in is ‘good’—it’s cool to do good in the world,” Haugen said. But organizations need to be held accountable, from mission to supply chain manufacturing. “Let’s make sure we aren’t [following] a trend, but that doing good is the cost of entry [for organizations],” he said.
People crave opportunity, not charity
Shannon Keith, founder of the nonprofit Sudara, envisioned a company that opened up opportunities for prostitutes and sex slaves in India, allowing them to support themselves without needing to sell their bodies. It hadn’t been done before. TOMS’ one-for-one model—one of the first models of this kind—had just launched and was doing well, but Sudara wanted to do something different that gave back by providing skill training and job creation as a permanent way out of poverty and sex work. She didn’t want to “give away fish,” she wanted to “teach the women how to fish.” “These women aren’t dumb. They aren’t lazy or lacking skills, either. They’re lacking opportunities,” Keith said. And Sudara was born.
Today, the company trains and employs women to sew pajamas and other loungewear sold around the world, giving them a means to support themselves and their families without sacrificing their dignity.
We all play a role in this game
Everyone, even the storytellers, have power to bring about change. While digital media has given us a way to reach each other quickly and share our humanity, our sense of humor, and our shared experiences, we can also go a step further and impact the world. One such storyteller, Participant Media wields that power well. Their films and stories are more than just entertainment—they’re campaigns they believe people need to know about. Holly Gordon, Chief Impact Officer at Participant Media, said each project they take on have the same things in common: they’re timely, have a clear message and a way to scale, they evoke an emotional response from audiences—especially compassion and understanding— and they give individuals a way to take actions that actually add up to change.
Powerful stories told in mediums like film can have what Gordon termed the “dandelion effect”: it may take a season or two to know if the seeds of the message you’ve sowed have germinated, but fast forward and you would see a widely spread pattern of engagement in communities all over the world—much like the way dandelion seeds spread in the wind. Your stories will reach advocates all over the world, who can spread your message farther than you’re able to on your own, Gordon said.
Invest in your personal growth to see organizational growth
As a child often bullied in middle school, Tracy Lawrence still reflected on her struggles long into adulthood. She remembered what it was like having to find places to eat lunch, often eating alone, and remembered feeling ostracized and lonely. Those memories were the catalyst that led to the creation of her company, Chewse—an organization that connects people at work with local restaurants to bring catered, family-style meals to their offices to build camaraderie and decrease loneliness, stress, and anxiety.
But launching a business, even one she was passionate about, comes with its own stress points, and it’s impossible to grow an organization (or grow within an organization) without catering to your own personal growth as well.
“Your weaknesses and dark spots flow into the organization and that’s terrifying,” Lawrence said. To help remedy that, she sets aside a nonnegotiable two hours every week for therapy and self-care to increase her self-awareness. “You have to have some level of stability in your soul and your heart in order to see those blind spots and get and absorb feedback,” she added.
We need to think differently about charity
Sure, fewer people are living on less than a dollar a day—but there’s still over a billion people trying to survive in that sort of poverty. Founder and CEO of Samasource & LXMI, Leila Janah, believes we need to rethink what poverty is both in the U.S. and abroad.
“People shouldn’t live without basic education, basic health care, and three meals a day,” Janah said. Poverty leads to “really shitty life outcomes,” she said, and we need to care about it in a different way. There’s an old way of thinking around poverty: we see a sad story about a person or community and when we want to help, we think about giving. We give money, or we build a school or a well. We think charity is the answer, but it’s not. There’s evidence that the best way to help people aren’t through handouts, it’s through a job.
Today, both Samasource and LXMI offer the jobs, not the handouts. Samasource is a nonprofit outsourcing digital work to unemployed people in impoverished countries. This model of job creation allows capital to cross borders and help those in need by providing opportunities outside what is normally available.
LXMI, which brands itself as “beauty for humanity,” is a skincare line using nilotica, a rare form of shea butter grown at the base of the Nile River, and other rare plants to create organic, luxurious products that do good in the world by employing impoverished women and paying them a living wage. When given work and a salary, these women invest it into their families and community, allowing them to break the cycle of poverty.
Disrupting established industries is possible when you prioritize people
It's not easy to disrupt an established industry,something Dave Johnson, CEO and co-founder of the “clean” pharmaceutical company Genexa knows all too well. Johnson didn’t need a pharmaceutical background, to see the the fault in the practices of pharmaceutical companies that allow medicines to be made of 95 percent synthetic binders and fillers and only 5 percent active ingredients. To make it worse, many of the ingredients on the drug fact panel on over the counter medications are toxic. Johnson wanted to help the industry change for the better. Enter Genexa: a pharmaceutical company creating cleaner, healthier and safer medicine for children and adults.
It’s not easy disrupting an established and wealthy industry, but Johnson said the most important things were finding the right partners, earning consumer trust early, and crafting the right product. But even more important was caring for the consumer. Genexa created a customer service policy that all consumer questions were answered within 10 minutes, and that care and commitment showed the value they place on the individual in a way that sets them apart other pharmaceutical companies.
Tackling some of our biggest issues from humanitarian crises like poverty to changing the way big pharma operates is no small feat, but socially conscious companies like these have put their boots on the ground and their hearts fully in where change is needed most. And their dedication and ideas are inspiring all of us to get involved, do our part, and make the world a better place.