Over time, businesses have defined success by one factor: profitability. While that hasn’t changed completely, in more recent years the role of business has evolved as leaders have been focused on creating a greater positive impact.
Purposeful Profits provides first-hand accounts from those working inside successful companies, large and small, local and global, as to how this evolution has taken shape, what it means for the future of business profitability, and why being a business that is purpose-driven is as important as any other measure of success. Joanne Sonenshine shares these stories to showcase how decision making with empathy and purpose can transform a corporation from one solely seeking to make money, into one that is successful both for its profits, but also for its impact.
In August 2019, The Economist profiled the social action of French company, Danone, famous for its yogurt, but becoming better known for another reason: its social impact. While other brands, including Ben and Jerry’s, Seventh Generation (both now owned by Unilever), REI, and Patagonia, have been touted for their social activism, environmental responsibility, and engagement on critical issues shaping our planet for many years, when Danone announced its intent to become the first independently owned global conglomerate to seek B Corp Certification, the news made waves.
To think that a multi-billion dollar company, with a presence in 130 countries, could position its impact akin to the other brands currently in the B Corp portfolio was almost preposterous. With its yogurt lines, but also Evian and Volvic waters, and Silk-branded plant-based milks, achieving this standard seems far-reaching. It’s that challenge that is propelling Danone forward, though, and others are following in its wake.
To think that a multi-billion dollar company, with a presence in 130 countries, could position its impact akin to the other brands currently in the B Corp portfolio was almost preposterous.
Emmanuel Faber, Danone’s Chief Executive, has been quoted as saying, “We have one planet and one health. Let’s commit to protect and nourish both.” The company is on target to reach certification by 2030 across all of its branded products.
Shannon Keith made the transition from pharmaceutical saleswoman to social entrepreneur without knowing the term existed. Her business, Sudara, has made it possible to make money while contributing to a powerful cause. Without intending to, Shannon has fulfilled a personal mission to positively affect the world through being a business owner.
Shannon was born in Riverside, California, to teenage parents who were high school sweethearts. Unable to handle the immense responsibility of raising a child, Shannon’s father fell into bad times, joining gangs, battling drug addiction, and engaging in illegal behavior that sent him to prison for most of Shannon’s childhood. Shannon’s parents divorced, her mom remarried, and Shannon grew up in a big, extended, supportive family, led by her mother who valued kindness, hard work, and loved her deeply.
Likely to counteract the shame she felt over her birth father’s behavior, Shannon, an only child, dove relentlessly into her studies. She was motivated to excel. A successful businesswoman by the time she was in her twenties, Shannon traveled to India in 2005 with her husband to dedicate a fresh water well in honor of a family member. The village they visited happened to be a red light brothel district. The trip changed her life completely, sending her on a new, unpredictable life journey.
While visiting in this red light district, Shannon came upon a squalor among the female sex workers she could never have even imagined, even with the worst description. Smells from open sewers, shoeless children running around without guardians when they should have been in school, and women of all ages standing around in variations of dress. The experience in Shannon’s words was “overwhelming.”
Like many might do, Shannon could have shaken her head in disbelief, and walked away, never to return, hoping to forget the images she saw that day.
Whether it was divine intervention or something else inexplicable, Shannon stayed—and dug in. Instead of turning her back to the women in the district, Shannon looked inward and considered what solutions she could bring to these women and children.
Shannon noticed the saris. The beautiful, colorful, magical saris. She wondered if she could bring the fabric back to the U.S. and sell it, perhaps making some money for these women, while also bringing them a bit of self-righteousness and independence.
Shannon returned to California, where she lived at the time, and started a non-profit, because, according to Shannon, that’s what people did before we knew about social entrepreneurism. Back in 2005, if you wanted to make a difference and help people, a nonprofit was the way to go. The nonprofit produced pajamas from the local fabric of the village she visited, and by selling them, Shannon made money she could send back to the village women in exchange for their labor.
When the TOMS shoe company started in 2006, (TOMS is known for starting the one-for-one model: you buy a pair of shoes, and the company gives a pair to a person in need in another part of the world, similar to This Bar Saves Lives mentioned earlier), Shannon realized that if she built a business to help the women in India, there was something longer lasting, more impactful, and mission fulfilling she could create from her nonprofit.
In 2015 Shannon launched Sudara, an apparel company selling loungeware, pajamas, and other clothing items produced exclusively in India, by former female sex slaves. The women workers are paid fair wages, and thus have the ability to provide for their families—and escape the streets.
Now with a certified B Corp, Shannon hopes to extend her brand into other countries outside of India by scaling and growing her business. In India, Sudara partners with nonprofits to connect with the women at risk. Shannon says its the hard work and bravery of these nonprofits that are ensuring maximum impact through the collaboration with Sudara. The sex trafficking problem is severe. However, knowing that Sudara and its partners are impacting 200 women, and their 300 children in a positive way, has been more fulfilling than Shannon could have ever dreamed of. These women have a livelihood, and a future, thanks to Sudara and its partners.
Mission drives the company, not profits, but the company continues to grow and make money even when the mission takes priority.
Shannon has put the mission of Sudara front and center. Mission drives the company, not profits, but the company continues to grow and make money even when the mission takes priority. That said there is no financial safety net. Marketing is expensive and competitive. No matter the size, businesses always grapple with the challenge of making money, remaining profitable when there are so many directions the company is pulled. Shannon believes that profits are still critical, since they keep the lights on, and for Sudara, the women in India in a lifestyle that affords them freedom.