B Corp conference looks around for ideas to inspire emotion-driven businesses

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Attendees queue for lunch at the B Corp Leadership Development Pacific Northwest Conference at the Redd in Southeast Portland June 13.

B Corporations need love too. At the Redd, 831 S.E. Salmon St. on June 13, there was a conference on the theme "Building the B Ecosystem." It was put on by B Local PDX, an association of certified B Corps. in Greater Portland. They help companies get certified and network with other B Corps.

B Corp owners and workers care about more than just making money. The three elements of their "triple bottom line" are profit, people and planet. Every business decision must be made with these three in mind.

Because they care about more than money, managing B Corps can more complicated than making a widget. Just surviving is also more complicated: Traditional investors shy away because they want to maximize profit, and there is not a great support structure for companies with B Corp values. Portland, however, is better than many places for B Corps, according to Cara Meyer, one of the speakers.

"There's a lot of companies here that are really open to this idea of taking care of your employees, and thinking a little bit differently about how you could run a business to be more successful, instead of just sticking with the way you've always done things," Meyer told the Business Tribune.

Her talk was called Rewilding at Work and it was about how people should take risks, be unconventional and avoid working in "the bland middle." (See sidebar)

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - (l-r) Kelsey Moody, commercial sales manager at the Joinery, Danya Rose-Merkle, an innovation strategist at Werk and Manny Barragan, a client and treasury representative from Beneficial Bank standing in front of the Mapping the B Ecosystem art project.


The conference's aim was "to generate ideas towards creating holistic partnerships that connect us as local, socially responsible businesses supporting our communities to build a more sustainable and just world."

Some of the titles of talks show the direction leadership is taking: "Building resilience in leadership, lessons from punk rock business strategies," by Jenelle Isaacson of Living Room Realty; "Understanding how emotional intelligence can affect organizational culture," by Angela Anderson of Canvas Host; and a workshop called "White supremacy culture in the workplace — identifying characteristics and antidotes," which had several facilitators.

It was the type of event that the Redd, itself a B Corp, was born to hold. One half of the Redd is a distribution hub for ethically produced food, so the fare included local jams to slather on local bread, unwrapped energy bars, and a hummus and salad buffet devoid of all known toxins, allergens and nutritional microaggressions.

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Names were added with magnets so the tool can be reused at another event.

Wheel of fortune

An interactive art project was set up so that people could map the connections between their company and others.

A large wooden circle had names of all the companies at the conference around the outside. People filled in a form naming three B Corps they had worked well with and five they would like to. Assistants then strung colored yarn between the names, orange for the latter and turquoise for the former. Over the hours, as hundreds of threads were added, patterns began to develop which were easier to see than in list form. Although it was the kind of thing that could have been done with any visualization tool such as Excel, the fact that it was so analog and interactive caused people to gather around to look and then chat.

Danya Rose-Merkle was working the wooden wheel, called "Mapping the B Ecosystem."

"It's an interactive networking art piece to help showcase the interconnectedness and the value of B Corp partnerships," she explained. "It's a way to kind of start thinking strategically about partnerships. And it can be a networking tool as you move throughout the day.

"What we're actually noticing is that when you see an ecosystem and partnerships visually, as opposed to kind of just talking about it on paper, you can really start to see where there are certain hubs. If you look to where the wheel is weighted with partnerships, but maybe there's an opportunity space over in the corner. 'Wow, it looks like we need to kind of partner more in marketing communications.'"

Rose-Merkle is an innovation strategist at Werk, which she describes as "an aspiring B Corp and an innovation strategy firm. We work with organizations building capacity and design thinking and systems-centered design."

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Conference attendees check out the Mapping the B Ecosystem art project and analog visualization tool. Firms were asked to link to other B Corps they had worked with, using blue yarn, and to ones they would like to work with, in orange.

L.A. in the house

Local furniture maker, The Joinery, made the wooden structure, in partnership with another B Corp, Fully, which makes ergonomic furniture, and the Rebuilding Center.

Watching the art project in action was banker Manny Barragan, a client and treasury representative from Beneficial Bank, one of the conference sponsors. Barragan was up from the Los Angeles office to "piggyback on PDX" and get ideas on how to pull off a similar conference in L.A. "There are four to five million people in the L.A. but there are only about 80 B Corps," he told the Business Tribune.

He says big commutes probably make it hard for B Corps to network or gain critical mass. "Now four miles in L.A. will take you 40 minutes. And (L.A. and Portland) have different economies and different perspectives on the market itself. A lot of L.A. companies at the moment do not see the value of the sustainability purpose. They understand the concept, but they don't see the exact value of the B Corp certification just yet."

Beneficial Bank is governed by a nonprofit foundation, the Beneficial state foundation, and the for-profit side of the bank is a B Corp., rated highly with a score of 176 out of 200 and with a couple of hundred employees. The net profits go to the nonprofit foundation and get dispersed to mission-aligned organizations. The bank doesn't invest in things like prisons or fossil fuel industries.

Table top games

Kelsey Moody, commercial sales manager at The Joinery, was standing, watching people interact with her handiwork. The Joinery has worked with several wineries that have been B Corp certified, building tables for their tasting rooms and their event spaces, as well as with Hopworks Urban Brewery and New Seasons grocery.

"The whole concept of the ecosystem is that we're recognizing that not only B Corps exist in this world of the social impact business model. It's other businesses, other nonprofits, government organizations and universities," says Moody. "It's pretty common for the B Corp businesses to ask, 'Who's the B Corp that does insurance? Who can I use for my catering? The design that I work that I need done?' Companies that are being held accountable to the values and standards that you're being held accountable to."

Yes, they would sell a bunch of table tops to a megacorporation, she says, but they would take the time to educate them on The Joinery's values.

"We can say, 'Hey it looks like you might want what we're doing. And also, we're environmentally conscious, we're aware of our impact, we contribute to our community and we treat our employees well. And you're, you're supporting us. And so, your money is going to a business that's doing these things.' I don't feel bad about taking money from folks that might not be completely aligned, because then we kind of get to raise them up a little."

That goal is clear to Moody and The Joinery.

"It's to all of our interests to make sure that the suppliers and other partners are also working towards the same goal, the triple bottom line."

COURTESY: DUSTIN ALTON STRUPP/THE COURIER JOURNAL - Organizational psychologist Cara Meyer leading an activity for a Womens Empowering Leadership Workshop in Cherokee Park, Louisville, Kentucky.

Feel valued?

Cara Meyer's talk, Rewilding at Work, was about restoring a wilderness area.

In this case, the wilderness is human individuality, not a brownfield site. We have to remove toxins from the workplace and replenish it with uniqueness and creativity.

She focused on Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, known as the best restaurant in the world, and how its staff are encouraged to be creative. There, every cook can make suggestions and when a plate breaks, staff fall over themselves to clean up, because they all feel invested. Meyer was suggesting that this kind of dedication can be cultivated by creating a safe space where all staff can make suggestions, even challenge the status quo, without reprisals. The Harvard Business Review calls this "constructive nonconformity."

As an exercise, she had the room of about 50 people split into groups of five and exchange bold, creative ideas that would improve their work life. Someone from a dance company said maybe they could dance their feelings at meetings. Another person said they should have a talent show and potlucks.

Other ideas included:

  • Creating something together with your hands.

  • Celebrating failures.

  • Breathing exercises at the beginning of meetings.

  • Supporting organizations that take controversial stands.

  • Desk bingo, where everyone changes desks at ranCOURTESY: DUSTIN ALTON STRUPP/THE COURIER JOURNAL - Organizational psychologist Cara Meyer leading an activity for a Womens Empowering Leadership Workshop in Cherokee Park, Louisville, Kentucky. Meyer moved her consultancy back to Portland to work with more non profits and B Corps. dom every six months.

  • Factory production line uniforms should be customized and styled.

  • Walking meetings with no notes.

  • Let other people host meetings.

  • Have a code word to use politely when someone is messing up.

    Meyer said she liked that more than one person had mentioned celebrating failure. Her ultimate frisbee team does that already. When they try a big move and can't pull it off, "We shout 'risk,' which shows who took a risk. It's good as long as its celebrated and we can laugh at ourselves. A lot of that starts with leaders, they have to make a safe space." She says good leaders encourage individuation, which is the basis of relationships, according to the William Swann's theory of self-verification (people's desire to be known and understood by others).

    She also praised the work of Harvard Business School organizational psychology professor Francesca Gino. At the University of North Carolina, she was asked to tone down her Italian style for public speaking, effectively embracing the "bland middle." So, Gino ran an experiment where some office workers were allowed to decorate their cubicles in their own style, however outlandish, while a control group was not. She emailed messages like, "Embrace your uniqueness and express it to others," and "Question processes and procedures and voice your concerns."

    After four weeks, she measured their productivity, creativity, and curiosity, and all three had increased for the expressive people.

    Meyer's consultancy, Workplace Wisdom, consulted with a small healthcare company in Kentucky around employee engagement. Their annual survey was being ignored by doctors and nurses. She had them switch to the Gallup Q12 survey and helped them rewrite the questions and make a report from the answers. The firm had a leader who was very metrics driven and the employees didn't feel safe to push the limit or ask questions.

    "It comes down to do people find meaning at work? And feel like they're being valued? That work is always incremental, and based on relationship building."

    PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Jam today: Attendees grab a snack at the B Corp Leadership Development Pacific Northwest Conference at the Redd in Southeast Portland June 13. Food came from vendors in the west part of the Redd, which is a food distribution hub as well as a venue.


    Becoming a B Corp is time consuming. There is a lot of measuring performance and reporting it, which puts off smaller companies who don't have the resources. Adam Croan was there as the Portland-based member of Brave New Workshop. This is an improv comedy troupe from Minneapolis that has a staff of 100. It runs a theater but also trains people in phone sales, making them more spontaneous and engaging. One of their clients is Major League Soccer. MLS trains salespeople then farms them out to the different teams who need a boost in season ticket sales.

    He is hoping to see BNW through its B Corp certification.

    "We do mindset work," he told the Business Tribune. "Make people laugh and that lightens things." Change management is tough. "Someone calls a meeting and says your job's drastically going to change.'"

    He talked about a bank failing to implement a major customer relationship management software platform.

    "Fifty percent of those aged over 45 were not using the CRM cloudware. We had to come in and get them in the mindset where they're not concerned about their crappy commute and their deadlines and turn fancy words into actions."

    On another project, for young people, it could be that they don't feel comfortable speaking in a meeting with federal staff, or the don't know how to refer to people of color so they say nothing.

    Having worked in sports and outdoors brands, Croan says, "I've been in enough cultures that are toxic, and ones I am proud about, but I'm now more interested in people than product."

    Joseph Gallivan
    Reporter, The Business Tribune
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