Conscious Capitalism: Who showed up
Introducing the idea of conscious capitalism to Portland is not a hard sell. This is a B Corp-friendly town, where even at work, the yoga mat is the standard issue accessory and non-violent communication is the lingua franca.
What most of the guest speakers focused on was their inspiration, and how they put that into practice by establishing a company culture.
Treehouse teaches coding. Its mission is to "bring affordable technology education to people everywhere in order to help them achieve their dreams and change the world."
As Ryan Carson, founder and CEO of Treehouse explained in his talk, many tech companies agree, but it's easier said than done.
"We are really discovering how to help businesses create talent. Businesses need to not just hire folks, they need to create talent."
Treehouse is based in One North on Freemont Street, between Vancouver and Williams, which is ground zero for gentrification. The company CEO signed the Prosper Portland Diversity Pledge to try to bring minorities into the tech workforce, which is dominated by white males.
He explained that Treehouse is trying to upend the normal way of tech recruiting. Typically, companies spend $20,000 per head to find someone who can code, who then learns the company system, then is lured away after just 10.8 months by a firm that pays more.
"We are asking them to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to create a class of apprentices from the community, within their company. We install a system that is a talent pipeline into their company, and we partner with an organization like the Boys and Girls Club. We say 'There is a job for you at this company.' They (B&GC)
recruit amazing talent. We train that talent and plug them into the company as a class of apprentices, and we run a playbook with the company to make sure it's successful."
(They are already doing it with MailChimp in Atlanta.)
It's not a magic bullet. In a program pilot, 60 people have done it here in Portland. Carson points out they are all Latinx. Five made it to the end, and they will be placed permanently in March.
"They are amazing, loyal, hardworking,
wonderful people who would never have had a job in tech, not because they're not smart enough or driven enough, but because they didn't know they could. And companies didn't open the door to them."
Treehouse's talent are paid apprentices, not interns. They work 40 hours a week at $15 an hour. Their mentor or team leader has to meet with them for 15 minutes each day — usually at the end of the day — to check their progress. Without Treehouse including this in the playbook, it would probably be allowed to slide, which helps no one. The team also needs to have diversity and inclusion training.
His projections say eight out of 20 will convert to full-time jobs at $55,000 salary and be on $90,000 within five years.
"All that money will start to flow back to these amazing people and their families. There is a new path, it is accessible and open. We just have to change our requirements around college degrees and we have to invest."
Carson told the Business Tribune that the plan is recession-proof.
"Even in recessions, there's no lack of tech jobs. There's going to be 1.3 million new jobs in tech in the next 10 years and only 400,000 will be filled by computer scientists. So that's 900,000 jobs that companies don't even know how to fill."
While Carson is shaping business practices by harnessing people's unselfish desire to mentor people with fewer advantages than themselves, Renee Spears put giving to nonprofits at the heart of her business model.
Renee Spears, who cofounded Rose City Mortgage 19 years ago, grew up in a household where they had just enough money to not have to work if they were very frugal and creative.
Years later, Spears found herself in corporate America in a mortgage company. It was the antithesis of her upbringing, but she found a niche as the go-to person to fix failing branches.
It was a quality-of-life decision that started her on a path that would involve changing business models. She quit the job and started Rose City Mortgage after she was asked to work on a Friday after Thanksgiving.
She was surprised her teenage sons really took to a day of ivy-clearing and followed it up with a weekend of tree planting. (Friends of Trees is one of the nonprofits her firm still donates to, along with Cascade AIDS Project and the Humane Society.) Having expected them to complain about lost screen time, she was moved and surprised by the pride they felt.
She implemented a giving-back policy. When a client got a loan, they could pick one of the eight nonprofits that her family supported and a donation would be made in their name. Spears would make a gift box of each year's total that her family members could unwrap on Christmas day to see what an impact the business was having on their dreams. In the early years it was just a few hundred dollars. Last year they donated $400,000.
Trees, homeless people, people with HIV...suddenly she thought of them as stakeholders.
When the mortgage market collapsed 10 years ago she called it "One of the best things that ever happened to me, because it got rid of 80 percent of the mortgage companies who shouldn't have been in business."
And it enabled her to focus on her biggest stakeholders: her employees.
She started a book study group at work that just focused on happiness. "I focused on people living their best lives, and the first thing was health." The change was more than just having healthy snacks in the office. It was also about reducing stress, and that involved rethinking working hours.
"Why should I dictate what hours work best?" she said. "It's up to the employees to work their hours. They need to tell me." So now they can take unlimited paid time off if they get their work done and are happy.
Working downtown, homeless people frustrated Spears so much that she flew a sign by the freeway for a day to see what it was like. She made OK money and handed it over to an old lady begging outside Whole Foods. "She said she only did it before her social security checks arrive. And when I touched her arm to say goodbye she burst into tears and said 'I can't remember the last time someone touched me'." That put her in touch with homeless people's humanity and Rose City Mortgage began doing more work for homeless charities.
Moving testimony like that won over the audience, but it also made clear that leaders can make company policies based on other things than profits, without threatening those profits.
Kristen Sagan is the financial manager at Chinook Book. She was there because sustainability and conscious diets have been a way of life for a long while.
"It fills my cups to be around people who think consciously and it's inspiring to hear their stories and get ideas," said Sagan.
Chinook Book's mission is to connect the conscious consumer with local sustainable businesses. The Portland-born company has 25 staff in Portland, Seattle, the Bay Area, Minneapolis and Denver.
Founder Nik Blosser, now of the state of Oregon, left last year and the CEO is now Gregg Keene.
Saga told the Business Tribune that a change of CEO might mean a shift, since there is a change in leadership styles. "Potentially it's more opportunity for the employees to carry on the culture of the company. Some of it may have walked out the door when the old CEO left, but the company is going to be bringing people on who have the same values."
Portland-based Julie van Amerongen works full time with Conscious Capitalism International and runs the two big conferences a year.
"I don't think there's the awareness here that there probably will be in a few years." The chapters are responsible for awareness. "The chapter will have a community of inquiry and support. We support businesses with the tools they need." Most chapters have workshops and practical applications.
The big chapters in the U.S. are Dallas, Phoenix, Chicago. Internationally, Sydney, Australia is huge.
One speaker who captivated the crowd was Heidi Lovig who founded Heidi Ho Organics. Her flagship product is vegan cheese called Cheeze. She became an entrepreneur and a capitalist when her dad invested $5,000 into the company because New Seasons had shown an interest. Her speech was heavy on passionate anecdotes, but it had some impressive numbers, too.
Lovig got fired from the Beverly Hills Starbucks for salvaging the unsold food from the trash and passing it out on skid row. "It was my ah-ha moment: working for someone else wasn't going to work out."
Mostly she talked about showing up and making good decisions for more than just herself. When she discovered conscious capitalism, she found a home for her ideas. She could make a business where her employees can thrive. "What's cool about building a team is their dreams get to come alive in the company. I have a happy life if I have a happy team."
Lovig said she was lucky to be inspired to build a conscious company from scratch.
"Being a smaller company, starting those traditions early, and getting out there, really helped."
She talked about her gratitude, which is a New Age buzzword that has gone mainstream.
The company is a moneymaker. The Cheeze business has gone from a farmers market to over 15,000 stores nationwide. First year sales were $23,000. Last year, they were $2 million.
"I employ 16 people, and I get to show up for that. I am blessed ands honored to show up for that," said Lorigo
Wendy Collie, the New Seasons CEO during its certification as a B Corp, resigned in February. Instead of a CEO, it now has two co-presidents: Kristi McFarland, chief people officer, and Forrest Hoffmaster, chief financial officer.
They were both at the conference.
McFarland told the Business Tribune that "New Seasons has always run a socially responsible business. It's part of our founding, part of who we are. To be here with other businesses and learn from each other is really important. You have to keep evolving."
She said the speakers had inspired her to "look at the needs of all the stakeholders." However, the day was much more about getting inspiration than concrete strategy ideas.
Hoffmaster said conscious capitalism is not just the product of good times. "I think it works better in a recession," he told the Business Tribune. "All good growth comes from transition, whether it's personal or organizational. That's a deeper level than how we see traditional business. (Conscious capitalism) is especially powerful now with all the uncertainty and stress we have in the world."
McFarland added, "Giving back to community isn't just something that happens in good times. We give 20 percent of our after-tax profits to the community, and it's just an important way of operating."
How do New Seasons' investors see conscious capitalism?
"It's an integrative philosophy and our investors so far have been very supportive," says Hoffmaster.
And when a leader leaves, is there a threat that the consciousness leaves with them?
"We're a certified B Corp and that means the principles are embedded in our make-up. And the standards continue to evolve so you can't rest on your laurels," says McFarland.
Hoffmaster says "For us, this side of the culture and the values we live on, it's not about one person. We're into a team-based philosophy."
He says there are a lot of Millennials in the organization. His two daughters are Millennials.
"We talk about having a job, having a career and having a purpose. Wanting to have integrated work-life, with more meaning. People are less tolerant of sacrificing themselves for less than that."
Can bagging groceries be a purpose?
"I think it's in the eye of the beholder. We have no idea why that cashier chooses to have that role. But working for a mission-based company that is accepting of whatever lifestyle they choose to live, there's a safety, acceptance and belonging regardless of the position. Who am I to judge whether that is bringing them great value or not?"
McFarland adds, "It's in the personal connections. Our customers,
if you watch our stores, there are people who go to one line to see their favorite cashier because that person makes their day. That's a calling, when you can make that
human connection to somebody
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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