Running a business is hard enough. We see it in the spectacular rate of failure for start-ups. So why would anyone want to put parameters or guides around a business to dictate that it not only have its financial mission, but an overarching social mission?
For Amanda Bybee of Namaste Solar in Colorado, USA and Daniel Almagor of Small Giants (Australia), it’s because there’s no difference between business success and the importance of the social mission. They’re one in the same and not capable of existing without the other.
What makes these leaders tick? What’s it like to make the social mission part of the bottom line? Check out part one of our two-part interview with the leaders of these two great companies to see what goes through the mind of the business leader bent on making a difference.
*Small Giants (Australia) and the Small Giants Community are independent entities that both grew out of the book Small Giants: Companies that choose to be Great Instead of Big. While we reference ourselves as Small Giants from time to time, for this interview we note Daniel’s company as Small Giants (Australia). – The Staff of the Small Giants Community
Small Giants Community: First, let’s get a brief look at who you are. Share with us an overview of your company. Size, history, products, mission, etc.
Amanda Bybee, Namaste Solar: Namasté Solar (NS) was founded in 2004 and is a leading solar photovoltaic contractor and consultant in Colorado with 2,000 PV systems installed throughout the state – more than any other company. We provide PV design, engineering, installation, maintenance, and consulting services to residential, commercial, builder, non-profit, and government customers throughout the U.S. Our mission is to propagate the responsible use of solar energy, pioneer conscientious business practices, and create holistic wealth for ourselves and our community.
Daniel Almagor, Small Giants (Australia): Small Giants was founded in 2007 to create, support, nurture and empower businesses that are shifting us to a more socially equitable and environmentally sustainable world. Our businesses are very diverse but revolve around a particular type of person/customer, defined broadly by the marketing term LOHAS – Lifestyles of health and sustainability. Our family of businesses include an organic tampon company, eco property development, restaurants that recruit and train street kids, a magazine that is dedicated to profiling extraordinary changemakers and a co-working innovation space. The core team is only seven people but each of the businesses run their own operations, with the core Small Giants team acting as a support.
Small Giants Community: Every company sets out specific values about their policies and how they conduct their business. You specifically address social/environmental impact as part of your core business philosophy. What were the influences and reasons behind choosing the direction you did?
Amanda Bybee, Namaste Solar: Our founders conceived the idea for Namaste Solar with a desire to instill the values of “Frank, Open, and Honest” (F.O.H.) Communication, employee ownership, shared risk/reward, “business karma,” and “doing the right thing” in our company culture. The founders believed – and we all agree – that it is better to run our business by appealing to the best in people, which in turn attracts and retains amazing people, thereby leading to greater holistic success. The business model has drawn people who are passionate about this business model AND about solar energy, believing that it is an important part of the answer to global climate change, energy security, and economic prosperity. We have something to prove – we want to be successful by any metric AND do business with deep integrity – and that continues to motivate us today.
Daniel Almagor, Small Giants (Australia): The main reason we are so committed to these values is that we aim to align our personal values and passion with our business activity. It seemed weird to us to support (volunteer time and give money) to social and environmental causes, and have our investments in businesses that weren’t pursuing the same agenda. Once we realized that we could invest in businesses that had, at their core, a social or environmental purpose, and still made an appropriate return (another topic well worth pursuing – what is enough?), we were sold on the idea of filtering all our investments according to those values. Also, we believe that we have a responsibility, articulated brilliantly by British polar explorer Robert Swan in the following quote “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will fix it”
Small Giants Community: How does your perspective on social/environmental impact impede or assist building your business?
Amanda Bybee, Namaste Solar: Our core business, installing solar electric systems, is inherently beneficial to the environment. Doing business the way we do – with respect for employees, customers, vendors, partners, the environment, and the community – has a social benefit. Both of these aspects of our business have appealed to our employee-owners, who are, without a doubt, the key to our success. We also believe in business karma, and that doing the right thing – even when it costs us money in the short-term – will lead to long-term success. Of course, there are other aspects of this model that could appear to impede business operations: at times, decision making can be hampered by trying to weigh the interests of all of the above stakeholders. We struggle to balance our decisions in so many ways at once, and that can be an emotional and time-consuming process. In the end, we still believe that the time it takes to make decisions in this manner is time well-spent, as it increases involvement and provides people an opportunity to participate meaningfully. But it can take longer than we might like sometimes!
Daniel Almagor, Small Giants (Australia): The main restriction is the filter we place on the businesses we will look at investing in. Then again, all businesses have filters, and ours generally filters out the sharks who are in it to take advantage of people, whether they are customers or partners. Generally speaking, companies who have a social or environmental purpose are not in it just for the money and most likely not in it to screw anyone. I guess that is a big advantage of our filter – we only play with people we like. The main disadvantage is that since they are not in it for the money alone, the returns are not the only focus and therefore are usually lower that what one might be able to get in a similar company without the values.
Small Giants Community: What kind of immediate impact do your policies have on your employees and community? Long term?
Amanda Bybee, Namaste Solar: Being an employee-owned cooperative, policies start in committees, and are approved democratically by all of the co-owners. It is standard operating procedure that we vote on any policy that will have a company-wide or community-wide impact. For example, we vote on any and all changes to the employee handbook, which includes health insurance benefits, paid time off guidelines, other HR policies, etc. Just recently, we have held discussions regarding our corporate giving program – how much to give, what to do in years without significant profit, and how to prioritize “the community” among other stakeholders. People feel very strongly about this program and champion the community as a stakeholder on a regular basis. We try to think long-term in all that we do, and operate with solid principles so that we’re not tempted by the lure of short-term gain. This is sometimes easier said than done, but because this is an acknowledged value for our company, people are bought in, and the “right” decision usually prevails.
Daniel Almagor, Small Giants (Australia): The immediate impact is evident by the type of people we attract, including staff and business partners. I also think it is a more fun, passionate and meaningful place to work. The community is incredibly supportive of us and longer term, our impact becomes even more significant as our businesses change the lives of the people and environment around them in a positive way.
For the employees of the restaurants, our impact is nothing short of life changing, as is their impact on us. These kids are taken off the streets, trained up in a profession and re-enter society with a new perspective. They are given love and respect and turn that into an incredible drive to succeed in whatever path they choose.
Check back in as we conclude our interview with Amanda and Daniel at the end of this week. To be continued…