Think:Act Magazine "The Circus of Transformation"
The good way to do good business
Social business leaders share their success stories and encourage others to rethink their purpose
by Helene Laube
Illustrations by Laura Salafia
Pro-social entrepreneurs and companies are working to transform their own organizations to make the world a better place. Some, as these examples from the US demonstrate, are even trying to impact the world beyond their own four walls.
Doing good can translate into doing well financially. That was something impact investor Freada Kapor Klein and her husband Mitch Kapor set out to demonstrate when the couple launched Kapor Capital in 2011 to invest in what they call gap-closing startups. "We wanted to prove social impact investing doesn’t mean sacrificing returns – it's actually good for business," says one of Silicon Valley's most iconic investor duos during a video interview from their Healdsburg, California home. Kapor Klein explains that their "investment criteria are pretty clear and pretty rigorous. The company has to be a tech startup, because tech is the only way you get scale. And the core business has to close gaps of access, opportunity or outcome for low-income communities and/or for communities of color."
Their Oakland-based firm won't invest in a company "that's just going to make the founders wealthy," says Kapor Klein, who also co-founded the Alliance Against Sexual Coercion, the first organization in the US to combat sexual harassment, in 1976. Kapor Capital proves that investing 100% in gap-closing impact companies with a diversity lens can still make top financial returns. "As we showed first in our 2019 Impact Report, we were a top-quartile fund compared against all venture funds of a similar size," says Kapor, who was an early developer of the spreadsheet and co-founder of Lotus Software. So far, Kapor Capital has launched nearly 200 companies engaged in achieving social and economic justice while showing remarkable growth, with many valued in the hundreds of millions or billions.
One of their focus areas is the lack of diversity in tech investing, which means that great business ideas and founders outside what is familiar to the venture capitalists are often overlooked, they point out in their book Closing the Equity Gap. They criticize the fact that with traditional VCs, most of the wealth created winds up enriching elites and widening economic inequality.
Names: Freada Kapor Klein & Mitch Kapor
Company: Kapor Capital
Philosophy: Seeking to prove that venture capital can be used for both social and financial gain, Kapor Capital is committed to diversity and investing in tech solutions for a more equitable society.
The couple’s goal is to generate wealth in the most vulnerable communities. But, they concede, change is slow. "There are many points of progress we can point to, but in no way do they add up to a sea change," says Kapor. "The time frame in which things happen is long – decades or generations – but there is a new generation coming up to whom the torch has passed." The Kapors also passed the torch. They stepped aside at Kapor Capital in 2022, naming Ulili Onovakpuri, one of the few Black women in venture capital, and Brian Dixon, one of the youngest Black men to lead a fund, as managing partners. The Kapors are now co-chairs of the nonprofit Kapor Center.
After 12 years at Patagonia, including seven as CEO, change was "existential," says Rose Marcario. Since it was founded 50 years ago, Patagonia has mixed business and politics to a degree rarely seen in the corporate world. The California-based company built a reputation for its commitment to environmental and social responsibility and its support for grassroots environmental activists. But Marcario wanted to have an even bigger, more direct impact. "We have a short life to live and scaling direct climate solutions felt like the best use of my skills," she says.
Marcario resigned from Patagonia in 2020 and became a partner at ReGen Ventures, where she aims to affect broad-based change in a world at the brink of ecological collapse. The Los Angeles-based firm invests in early-stage startups working on regenerative technologies. "The technologies we fund are enabling regenerative agriculture, climate resilience, food security, plant-based food alternatives and new production inputs that come from regenerative resources," Marcario explains. She adds that she felt "uniquely qualified to support this important work."
Name: Rose Marcario
Company: Patagonia/ReGen Ventures
Philosophy: Backing "regenerative technology companies that are restoring the planet from the atom up," ReGen Ventures carries on Marcario's work at Patagonia by championing investment as an act of optimism that can create a better way of living.
Marcario has a singular view on corporations trying to move toward a more humane version of capitalism and to transform beyond their own four walls. During her time at Patagonia, she leaned into political activism, culminating in a lawsuit against then-President Trump over his decision to shrink the size of two national monuments in Utah. "I believe there is more risk in staying silent in the world we live in," Marcario says.
While activism and advocating for issues – especially when they are focused on the environment or justice – can be risky for brands, she says that Patagonia succeeds because above all the company and its people are "authentically and consistently committed to their values and they are brilliant marketers who know how to weave the narrative into a compelling, inspirational story."
Transforming corporations for the greater good has become a buzz phrase – like corporate social responsibility, ESG or impact investing – for companies to show they really do care about their employees and the world around them. While the gestures are often hollow, the momentum toward social responsibility has increased significantly. This is for various reasons, including public awareness for social accountability, consumer and employee demand for ethical and social responsibility as well as recognizing that organizations play a vital role in promoting shared social values.
What's the best way to tackle issues? "Always start with your own product where you can have the most direct positive impact," says Marcario. Take a stand, help educate, fund NGOs and activists to make deeper societal progress, she adds. "Your customers will vote with their dollars. It all makes good business sense." What doesn't work, she cautions, is poor or ambiguous brand messaging, reacting and performative actions.
If you ask Bob Chapman, leadership today is in crisis. "We have a broken model built entirely around money, power and position," says the chairman and CEO of Barry-Wehmiller. The $3.3 billion Missouri-based manufacturing company has 12,000 employees – or team members, as he calls them. "If businesses and their leaders had the courage and the skill to actually care for the people they have the privilege of leading, business could be the most powerful force for good in the world," Chapman says. And this lack of care comes at a price. "Most people, in most workplaces, do the bare minimum to get by, they are disengaged because they don’t feel valued," he adds. This affects people’s personal lives and costs the world trillions in lost productivity. $7.8 trillion in 2021 to be exact.
Name: Bob Chapman
Philosophy: Expanding the meaning of creating value beyond the bottom line, Barry-Wehmiller's people-centric approach looks at business leadership as a chance to build a better world.
Chapman looks at leadership as the stewardship of the lives entrusted to him, and as genuinely caring for the people he's leading. He joined the company in 1969. Starting in 1987, after nearly going bankrupt, he focused on acquiring companies that "were in better markets that would give us a better future – and that we felt we had the insights to improve," he says. Barry-Wehmiller has since acquired more than 120 companies. Every acquisition enables him to transform the culture of the adoptee.
Chapman began to transform the company around a culture he dubbed "Truly Human Leadership" in the early 2000s. Based on this perspective, Barry-Wehmiller is now built on a leadership model that views each employee not as their function in the company, but as a holistic person with needs, desires and ambitions. At the core of his philosophy are empathetic listening skills and the recognition of individual employees and their accomplishments.
In 2012, Chapman gave a TED talk that helped spread his employee-centric management philosophy far beyond Barry-Wehmiller. In 2015 he distilled it into a book and, in 2016, he created a consulting firm that helps enact culture change at organizations ranging from American Airlines to the San Francisco 49ers football team. His goal, says the 78-year-old, is to reach as many people as possible to "heal the brokenness we're all feeling in the world right now."