Business as a force for good

Business as a force for good

Having experienced Impact’s infamous Learnfest up in the Lake District – I can safely say that Impact know a thing or two about pulling together great people and creating a special vibe. 

Innovate For Good was a one-day affair in the heart of the City of London, and quite different from the more spacious atmosphere of Learnfest, yet provided a unique atmosphere. Impact, in collaboration with the University of San Francisco and Just Business, concocted a day packed full with world-class speakers sharing inspiration on how we can (and must) innovate for good, by either offering our business expertise in partnership with social entrepreneurs, or embedding a strong social innovation dynamic within the strategic intent and day-to-day culture  of our organisations. This brings multitude business benefits: attracting and retaining top talent; cultivating a culture of entrepreneurialism and purpose; unlocking brilliance by encouraging out-of-the-box creativity, collaboration and innovation; widening perspectives and embracing difference by working across boundaries; opening up to new markets and value-propositions; creating organisational agility in an increasingly turbulent world. 

It is simply good business sense: doing business while doing good. It’s not rocket science, but it does require us to think differently, and this is where inspiration from the innovators and practitioners making it happen can really help us.

By around 9am, in M Restaurant (a vibrant venue off Threadneedle Street, EC1) a diverse group of around 150 leaders and entrepreneurs from all walks of life gathered for light refreshments, fresh fruit, pastries and coffee. Before the presentations had begun I had already shared stories with a whole host of fascinating folk from a real range of organisations, all intently exploring how to do good business.  This in itself gave me heart and hope. The event was kicked-off by the two Dave’s:  David Batstone, Founder of Just Business, and David Williams, Founder of Impact. What lay ahead of us was a fascinating day of inspiring stories transforming capitalism from the inside out, a revolution in the heart of the City of London no less.

The Californian David Batstone shared his thought-provoking story of how one day he was a mainstream venture capitalist, then, upon finding out that his local restaurant was caught up in human trafficking and inhumane business practices, he got digging. What he unravelled changed his life-purpose. Nothing would be the same for him. Today he is a venture capitalist with purpose – and this makes all the different for him as a human-being, and makes all the difference for the organisations he helps set-up and operationalise. He is totally committed to innovating business as a force for good, and he is happier and healthier for it.

Impact's Founder and CEO David Williams then shared a heart-opening story of his early childhood poverty and loss, a pivotal teenage experience that changed his life, and the birthing of a life-passion to provide experiences that truly transform people. At the young age of 23, Dave set up Impact, which remains independent to this day, having grown to become a multi-award winning, global creative change agency with over 400 global client partnerships, passionately focused on transforming the impact of leadership action in all the organisations it works with. For those of us who have engaged with Impact, we can viscerally sense its passion, responsibility and purpose.

These two powerful stories from the two Dave’s set the tone for the day, and what followed was rich story after rich story, provoking deep admiration and inspiration in myself and others I spoke with.

Early on in the day, we engaged in discussion with Jostein Solheim CEO of Ben & Jerry’s who is now moving to become Head of Unilever’s Food & Beverage Division in North America, to help this influential global corporation get to grips with what ‘business as a force for good’ really means on the ground in a complex fast-evolving marketplace.

During his many years as CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, Jostein Solheim’s key lessons for enabling business as a force for good are:

  • Purpose-led: purposeful business attracts and retains top talent, this is vital for vibrant successful businesses
  • Think emotional: enable connected alignment at all levels across the business and stakeholder ecosystem, so that we engage not just head, but heart and soul
  • Celebrate failure: unlock potential in the organisation by encouraging people to think outside the-box, take risks, be entrepreneurial and learn through failing-fast
  • Outrageous transparency: ensure radical transparency in everything you do, inside and out, within the business, and across all external relations. People will respect this, and challenges become humble learnings, rather than things to try and coverup
  • It’s your day-to-day actions that matter: not your espoused beliefs or ‘passive’ values
  • Lead with courage: it’s a bottom-up revolution we are engaging in here, each day, every step, how we show-up every day is the revolution!

Each inspiring talk was followed by space for questions and discussion, and the diverse perspectives of the participants opened-up rich dialogue over lunch. Some tough questions naturally arose, as we got in to the heart of the matter. For instance, Jostein was asked about whether ice-cream as a product is inherently unsustainable (due to dairy farming practices) and what is being done to shape-shift its sustainability, not just in terms of organic, but more holistic regenerative farming approaches. Having a company of Unilever’s purchasing presence and supply-chain reach tackle these inherent issues both in terms of vegan alternatives and regenerative farming methods appropriate for uptake in diverse parts of the world is heartening to hear. And this most certainly needs to be addressed in a timely way, if we are to have any hope of adhering to what the majority of the world’s most respected scientists are now calling for.

To then hear how disintermediation and digitisation can have positive effects on the challenging cultural conditions of developing communities was also very heartening. Rossi Mitova from Bulgaria is CEO of the fast-growing Farm Hopping business which connects consumers of organic food over the internet with the farmers producing the food. And in a quite different market, William Kim, CEO of fashion-wear All Saints shared his insights on the future of business in a digitised world, and how quality relationships, empathy and purpose will become key differentiators, as well as how we use the build environment in more multi-purpose agile ways.

Damian Bradfield cofounder of WeTransfer showed us the long term business value of having core values and ethics, even in the cut-throat hi-tech digital sector. He noted, ‘we don’t have a CSR department, the whole company is the CSR department.’ And the loyalty and trust garnered amongst their growing customer base is proof of this good business sense playing out in one of the most volatile and aggressive of today’s markets.  What an inspiration it was to hear of a digital company lead the charge on purposeful, sustainable business, adamant not to water-down their human-values even in the face of so many dominant tech players becoming overly inured in short-term profit maximisation while eroding what they stand for.

More inspiring stories followed. Toos Heemskerk, cofounder of Dignita, spoke about the purpose of their restaurants: offering employment, education and training to vulnerable exploited people who have been caught up in human trafficking and the sex trade in Amsterdam. Adele Blakebrough inspired with stories of Social Business Trust who support high growth potential social enterprises to scale-up their impact. Kate Simpson explained how Wasafari, a consultancy once incubated by Impact, tackle impossibly complex problems in Africa and around the world; from front line conflict to climate change. Sam Conniff Allende shared his research for best-selling book 'Be More Pirate', ensuring we left empowered to take a brave first step.

David Batstone noted, ‘it’s a very unusual day at a very unusual venue – a fascinating day of innovation.’ It was this, and more. It was a gathering of diverse intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs catalysing the ripe-tide of change essential for our organisations and wider socio-economic systems to not just survive but thrive in the volatile climes ahead. 

Something is being born in this critical time of breakdown/breakthrough. Events like Innovate for Good are crucial to this metamorphosis.  I take my hat off in deep admiration and support for David Williams and David Batstone and to all the people on stage and behind the scenes who made this a special day. And this is just the start of something.  The real work is just beginning, as we transform ourselves, our organisations, and wider socio-economic systems to innovate for good. In the steps we take, we create the future we know in our hearts is not only possible but being born through us, with each courageous step we take.

Giles Hutchins is a thought-leader and practitioner at the nexus of transformational change, leadership action and sustainable enterprise. He is author of several books and papers, keynote speaker and trusted advisor on life-affirming business.