Entrepreneur Magazine recently published an article by Davis Smith called Before Incorporating a Social Mission, Consider These Five Things. Smith himself is the founder and CEO of Cotopaxi, an outdoor gear company with the slogan “Gear for Good” (they do cool things like offer a “human lifespan guarantee” on their product; lifespan is based on avg lifespan of a person living in an underdeveloped country, according to the WHO).
So, Smith is obvs a white guy do-gooder genuinely trying to make a difference.
On the one hand, he makes some excellent points. For example, #4: A Social Mission Does Not Equate to Freebies. Excellent point. TOMS has come under fire for flooding local markets in Africa with shoe donations and consequently putting local sellers out of business. In the article, Smith points to Warby Parker as an example of how to do it right, noting that instead of (what Smith notably does not call) the TOMS model of giving a pair for every pair purchased, Parker instead “work[s] with nonprofit partners who train entrepreneurs in developing countries to give basic eye exams and sell glasses in their communities.” Hugely important distinction!
But, good points aside, I have some major issues with the article.
No, the social mission can’t be an afterthought (point #2), but I cannot express how strongly I disagree with point #1: “money comes first.”
Before you rush to say I’m overreacting, let me say that I understand what he’s saying. Businesspeople have to remember that they are running a business. It’s not enough to pay your bills. Without profit, you can’t expand. Fair points.
But if you found your business as a response to social injustice, the minute you privilege the almighty dollar over serving the people for whom you started your work, you have lost your way.
Money. Cannot. Come First.
I say this as someone who is in the early stages of startup, as someone who is trying to pull money together and figure out how to pitch to investors. Yes, money is important. I get that. Oh my lord, do I get that. But I am not willing to sacrifice principle for a quick buck.
Smith writes, “Your first objective is to run a profitable and sustainable business. You will have no positive social impact if your business fails.”
First off, running a “profitable and sustainable” business is necessarily separate from from having a “social impact” with the same said business, and to distinguish the two is to betray the capitalist assumptions/priorities latent in his writing. I can have a marginally profitable business that is run ethically and sustainably, that appeals to customers who share my concerns and values about the world at large.
But even if the business fails, I will still have a positive social impact — it just won’t be through that particular business. And my profit margins don’t have to be through the roof to keep this going. The point of Bluestockings is not to get rich. The point is to do business differently. To serve a community I am passionate about, that I am a part of, and that has been wholly underrepresented and marginalized by an industry that I want so desperately to love.
That is the point.