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Live and Learn

October 17, 2008

Five pioneers of socially conscious businesses talk to GOOD about the highs and lows of creating a better kind of company.


JASON SALFI, Comet Skateboards

Salfi is co-founder and president of Comet Skateboards. Comet uses soy-based resin, water-based paints, and sustainably harvested maple in their decks.Your first wave of education has to be in-house. You don't ever want anybody to leave the factory one day, pick up a newspaper and go, "Whoa, I didn't know we were a green company."I've found complete, holistic satisfaction in being able to do my small part while making a living-in knowing that I'm not going to some day need to create a fund to repair all the damage I've done. My daughter can come play in our factory because there's nothing toxic here.You get the best ideas from the people you expect the best ideas from the least.The toughest thing about running a green business is staying in business-and anybody in business will say the same thing.I have friends who run businesses that are enormously successful, but at the end of the day they're not really satisfied with what they're doing. Because we created the imprint for a socially responsible business and it's what we all do here at Comet, I feel like everybody goes home at the end of the day feeling like they've fought the good fight. They don't need to join the Peace Corps to give back to society.One green company is never enough.

 

JESSICA FLANNERY, Kiva

Flannery is a co-founder of Kiva, the world's first online microlending marketplace for the working poor. If you have your priorities focused a lot of wonderful things happen indirectly.It's fun to talk about big concepts like "social responsibility" and "social entrepreneurship" and all those things. But it really comes down to what time you set your alarm clock for the next morning and, when you get up, what you do with your time each day.Make sure you know who you are and who you're not. Find your niche in this space and just be aggressive about doing one thing and doing it really, really well.When you say no to something, you're really saying yes to the better things. Well, ideally you are. We just started and did the best iteration that we could and then we kept improving on that. And we weren't afraid to start when it wasn't absolutely perfect.It's like saying, "Oh, I really want to get married." Okay, but who is the person you want to marry? You have to be specific. It's the same as saying, "I want to be a social entrepreneur." Awesome, great thing to want to be, go for it. Now, what's the specific project in the world that you're going to do?

PRIYA HAJI, World of Good

Haji is co-founder and CEO of World of Good, which works with mainstream retail partners like Whole Foods and eBay to bring ethical shopping experiences to consumers.Start with the one thing you can do now. Build that and then begin building towards that perfect vision or that perfect horizon that you have.People will always exceed your expectations. People are capable of more. The business is capable of more. The team is capable of more. Our retail partners are capable of more. Our producer partners are capable of more. Everyone has more in them. It's just the way it is. People rise to the occasion.A lot of entrepreneurs and a lot of visionaries have an amazing idea and then they get caught up in that first action.As a businessperson you realize that your strength is sometimes the inverse of your greatest weakness.What our customers are actually buying is more than the product, more than the piece of jewelry or the bamboo bowl. They are buying the intangible ethics in that product.Most people, if doing good is an easy choice, they will choose it. So you need to ask yourself, what is not making this an easy choice? What's the barrier?

MIRANDA MAGAGNINI, IceStone

Magagnini is co-CEO of IceStone, a Cradle-to-Cradle certified manufacturer of high-quality countertops made from recycled glass and concrete.All the clichés are true. Running this kind of business, you go through the greatest highs and the greatest lows.If I needed to pay myself two to three times what I'm paying myself right now at the expense of other peoples' salaries, would that be good for my business? I don't think so. We're trying to create a long-term sustainable business here and we think paying people a living wage is really important to that.We're bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. when everybody else is shipping them someplace else.We have the most amazing investors. The best thing we did was we never took the dark angel money. We got the archangels.You get scrutinized a lot by the media and the deep greens. People are always kicking the tires trying to figure out, how green are you? There's a spectrum out there, from light green to dark green. Nobody's perfect, no company's perfect, no product's perfect-you're just trying to do the best you can.You're always going to be raising capital. You always need twice as much as you think.Hope that you have a very strong marriage.

JULIUS WALLS JR., Greyston Bakery

Walls Jr. is president and CEO of Greyston Bakery, a socially responsible business that provides a fair wage, health care, and affordable housing to its employees in Yonkers, New York.If people come to business believing that certain people will not be successful, they won't give them the tools to be successful.We are not the reason why our employees are successful. They are. What we do is try to provide an opportunity for them to be successful. If they succeed, that's on them. If they don't, that's on them.We're going a step further. We want to use business to reverse the harm that's already been done. There are times when I think that might provide us some good press, might help our relationship with consumers, but that's not why we do it. We do it because that's what we're here to do. That's our mission. That's why we were called into existence.If you're stuck and struck with challenges-and you will be-don't immediately default to the social mission as being the cause of the failure. Look beyond that. What didn't you anticipate? Was your marketing plan tight? Was your business plan tight? Did you control your costs in the manner you should have? It's too easy for people to walk away and say, "You know, that business failed because of the social mission." No, it failed because you stunk at running that business.Stay humble.
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