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Making “Selling Out” “In”

The closing session at the Investor’s Circle Spring Conference was initially entitled “The Sell Out.” Just before coming on stage however, one of the panelists surfaced to tell us, in a joking yet serious tone, that it would now be entitled “Maintaining Mission in Act 2.” This abrupt change of plans was surprisingly fitting. Why should selling a company have to mean “selling out?” This is a theme that almost anyone who has ever been passionate about a particular social enterprise has debated. How do we sell, or even scale, our companies without muddling the social mission?

Judy Wicks, founder of White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia, suggests that we may not be able to scale in such a way that the social mission is kept solid. Wicks developed a model that strictly sells the brand of her company. All who operate under the White Dog Cafe brand must be locally-owned, and adhere to an extensive social contract dictating ethical and sustainable business practices. Wicks states that “business is about relationships, and money is simply a tool.” The development of her locally-owned model was, in part, to reduce the risk of losing the authenticity of relationships in her business. A question still remains with Wicks’ model however—what will happen when she is no longer around to oversee the integrity of her brand? Wicks has explored multiple options, but has yet to come to just the right conclusion.

A Wicks-type supervision of business’ ideals is catching on in the operation of many modern businesses. All panelists seemed to agree that decreasing violence in capitalism and balancing it with consideration for the planet’s suffering may be our only option in saving capitalism. Connection, compassion, and care of others are necessary parts of this new, sustainable model.

But where is the balance between increasing such values and still allowing for profitable business? Things are complicated more when business needs to be scaled internationally, and/or quickly, both for social and fiscal reasons. Though no one has yet molded a way to do this while still maintaining perfection of social mission, it is reassuring to see that many organizations are working toward such a model. Perhaps it is not a question of perfection, but rather what is right for each individual company and its leader.

Even Judy of White Dog agrees that her model does not provide the highest financial return for herself (as a licensing of a brand means that she does not receive all of its value up front) although the financial return it brings to individual communities is higher this way. For her personally, it is the most appropriate way to uphold her values. Maybe that is what we’re all looking for—the most appropriate way to uphold value on the levels that meant the most to us. And as the creators and keepers of social mission, we wish pioneering entrepreneurs the best of luck. Let’s work together to keep our standards high.

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One Response

  1. “Connection, compassion, and care of others are necessary parts of this new, sustainable model.” I think this statement summarizes what we really expect in a business. What a consumer really likes to see is that company at least makes an effort to make a conscientious connection to them. I do not really see this as ‘selling out’ but rather expanding in new ways. Businesses are really about connecting to people, finding out what people want and addressing those needs in a practical manner.

    While Wick’s small steps have yet to be seen on a global level it is important that these first baby steps are taken. Movement towards sustainability is much better than stagnation. Each company will have to take it to themselves to take the initiative to become more green. It is easier than it sounds, but I agree it would be completely unique to the company. Ultimately this plan would create a positive shared vision of the future.

    As we teach at the University of Vermont’s Global Institute for Sustainability (http://learn.uvm.edu/igs) creating a positive, shared vision of the future is something folks can tap into, and move forward with crafting solutions in a creative, engaging way.

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