Nuggets From Jay Coen Gilbert's Call
Posted by Preeta Bansal on May 12, 2019
Recently named to an illustrious list of the "10 people transforming how we think about capitalism," Jay Coen Gilbert aims for nothing less than a capitalist reformation. "Be the change" is the ethic that inspires the nonprofit he co-founded, B Lab. Wanting to counteract what he saw as the toxic effects of shareholder primacy, he began asking questions like, “How can businesses be agents of social good?” In 2006, Coen Gilbert and two friends started B Lab -- after a successful run as a for-profit entrepreneur who ran a successful athletic apparel company, AND 1. Jay's nonprofit B Lab scrutinizes and then certifies qualifying corporations based on such criteria as positive community impact and financial transparency. B Lab has certified more than 2800 companies as “B corps” which are monitored by B Lab for their impact on the environment, communities, and worker satisfaction. With B Lab, Coen Gilbert aims to transform business one corporation at a time.
Here are some of the nuggets that stood out from the call ...
- "The thing that was probably most formative for me was not what my parents did but how they did it." Jay's mother led one of the only women-led executive search firms, and paved the way for women in business. His father was an architect who organized his profession to oppose nuclear weapons in the 1980s (Architects for Social Responsibility), having always regretted sitting out the civil rights movement in the 1960s. "And so both my parents in their general entrepreneurial-ness and the agency they gave me, but also in how they chose to use that – either to create a more inclusive economy where there were women in leadership, or where there were folks using their positions of power, privilege, access, and so on to rally business leaders to a higher purpose than just making money – both of those things were quite formative for me in terms of who I am and what I’ve chosen to do in my vocational life."
- "I want to acknowledge that not everything we learn is an explicit lesson, like a lot of it shows up through osmosis and lived experience. And my lived experience – whether faith-driven or not – was that we are connected and out of that connection is, I would call it the pleasure of responsibility and the opportunity to exercise responsibility and that showed up in both of my parents’ examples for me, and I think those are the types of things that are showing up now with the B Corp movement."
- "While I think lots of us have things that are sitting inside of us that are lying more or less dormant or underdeveloped, for a long time it’s usually some -- or often some -- kind of painful event that causes us to focus our attention and reflect on the existence of that pain and then naturally trying to seek how to relieve that suffering." For him, those painful events all happened in a 3-week period in September 2001, during which the 9/11 attacks happened, his father died a few days later from unrelated causes, and a co-worker died in a tragic car accident on the way to work shortly thereafter. Those events catalyzed a much more aggressive effort to embody compassionate business practices, first in the context of AND 1 (his for-profit venture), and later in the context of a broader movement for benefit corporations.
- Jay talks about a spectrum for business as a force for social good:
--Legal: On one side of the spectrum is legality (businesses can do anything so long as it is lawful).
--Ethical: As you move from left to right on the spectrum, the next stop is "ethical" -- "So often our laws trail our ethical norms. And so one step further down this path might be companies that are led with an ethical center. And the most common universal ethic – others might say might say, 'Do no harm' – like 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you' and sort of a kind of Hippocratic oath of business. Do no harm. And that’s a beautiful next step, and not as easy as it sounds, right? That’s actually, if you’re mindful of all the impacts of every decision you made, just doing no harm would actually be quite heroic."
--Beneficial: "But beyond doing no harm, moving again from left to right, is this notion of being beneficial and one of the phrases we use in the B Corp Declaration of Interdependence, which is this sort of founding document of the B Corp movement, is that as B corporations we strive to do no harm and to benefit all, and just doing no harm is not about seeking positive impact and the notion of benefiting all is that on top of doing no harm, I’m reducing my negative impact, I’m also seeking also to use every aspect of my business as a service opportunity and it should be to the well-being of others – whether it’s the workers at my company or in my supply chain, or the people who buy our products, or the communities in which we operate, or the natural world on which all life depends. And sort of these ever-widening circles of connectivity. That’s a beneficial business."
--Transformational: "as B Lab has started to grapple with companies that are seeking to become part of the B Corp community that might be engaged in controversial industries, of which you can imagine many – is whether or not just being beneficial, a beneficial actor or a good actor in a bad industry, is enough – and whether there actually might be an extension of that line from legal to ethical to beneficial, is there something else on the far side of that which is transformational? And what would it mean to be an agent of transformation in an industry that has inherently controversial features like for-profit higher education or bottled water, right?"
- "I think that what we talk about is the need for a capitalist reformation, which is probably a deeper cut than just we need to be slightly more conscious in how we practice it."
- "One of the limitations of the view that all we need is more heroic leadership …it supports a false narrative that we have total autonomy as individuals and that those individuals don’t exist within a system and structures that can either support or constrain our most heroic instincts, right, or desires.
- There are about 2800 or 2900 certified B corporations around the world, in about 65 countries and about 150 industries. And they range from small sole proprietorships to large, publicly-traded multinationals.
- "There are so many examples of how being a worker at a B Corp has created a more fulfilling life for the folks that work there. As we like to say, if you work at a B Corp you’re able to bring your whole self to work every day. You don’t have to compartmentalize the profit-seeking self with the purpose-driven self, right? You are now living a life that’s more integrated and whole. And that shows up."
- "Marianne Williamson says all actions are either love or a call for love, or something like that. And I think that B Corps are showing up in a way that they’re trying to manifest love in the marketplace and not only to express that in the way they treat the people that they work with, or their suppliers or their customers, etc., the communities that they’re in, but then also that’s itself a call for love, right?, because you are putting it out there and even without the expectation of what often happens is you end up having that return 10-fold to you ...."
- "Another way to think about the B Corp movement is we are transforming the economy from a transactional economy to a relational economy, and if you’re in relation that means you care about the impact of your decisions on the other and you’re looking for decisions, you’re looking to take actions that are mutually beneficial. The opportunity is how do you optimize the value for each of the people that are engaged in the business, not how do you value maximize the value for one of the people? So, as you said, the big transformation is from this 20th century model of shareholder capitalism to a 21st century model of stakeholder capitalism. And B Corps actually do that not just in their practices, but as we said before, the structures have to support that. So B Corps actually make a legal change which is the benefit corporation thing you were referring to before. They make a legal change to their DNA so they are now hard-wired and required to consider the impact of the decisions on all of their different stakeholders. They’re not just beholden to make decisions to maximize returns for their shareholders."
- "As I enter into this new phase [of my journey and the journey of B Labs], something has to die and something has to be born. Something has to be let go of and how can I show up with maximum vulnerability with how I’m feeling about all those changes, whatever sense of loss or excitement or anxiety or whatever all those feelings are that I’m feeling."
- "If we can be willing to be vulnerable about where we are, where our limitations are, where our blind spots are, whether or not we’re doing enough to meet the challenges of the moment, the existential crises of climate and of inequality and many other things, is what we’re doing sufficient, or do we need to challenge ourselves to rethink some fundamental precepts, and I think that requires some real vulnerability after a dozen years of articulating and promoting and being lauded for whatever we’ve done, while still being humble enough and vulnerable enough to recognize the limitations of what we’re doing so we can hopefully collectively discern a better path forward than what we’ve got now."
- What does ethical consumption look like?
--"The most ethical consumption is the least consumption. And so the first thing that we can do is not to buy smarter, but to buy less. And so I think that’s been an important first place to start, is really assessing our need as opposed to our want, and to distinguishing between and really trying to understand what it means to have enough versus to seek more. Everything in our culture promotes new and more and bigger and the most ethical consumption will probably prioritize the opposites of all of those. So that’s one starting point."
--"I think talking about consumers is reductive. I think citizenship is a more powerful place to ask people to stand, a more powerful role that we’d like people to embody, than consumer. A consumer is still taking something in a transaction, and making a judgment about their individual value exchange. A citizen is already putting herself in the context of a community and I think that the core shift in cultural narrative that the B Corp movement represents is a shift from the transactional to the relational, a shift from independence to interdependence, a shift from how do we serve the business community to how does the business community serve society. And citizenship – I don’t have a better word for it, but citizenship puts us into that communal context which I think is the center of the mind shift that we need to make to create an economy that actually has people at the center and works for everyone."
--"we vote everyday with not just what we purchase, but we also vote with where we invest, where we put our money. We also vote with where we go to work every day and when I think of what drives business behavior, because at B Lab we think at that – like it or not, business is playing a primary driving role in creating the society that we live in – and so the most important decision you can make is where you choose to go to work every day. Because you are creating much more value or impact in the world through your choice of where you bring your full power and presence every day than through where you make any one individual purchase. And again, I hate to sound like I’m devaluing those consumption decisions because 77% of the economy is consumer economy, so there’s LOTS of power there, so I hesitate to say this so strongly. But I do believe that everyone of us goes to work, or most of us go to work every day in some organization, and in that organization we can have – we have power in how that organization operates. We may not be able to change what business it’s in, but we can change how that company does business, and how it treats employees, how engaged with its community, what kind of environmental stewardship it exhibits. And every one of us – whether we’re at the loading dock or in the corner office, can help drive that shift in that company and that is a much more powerful lever to pull than which product you pull off the shelf."
- "My ability to be my full self has grown exponentially in working at B Lab on behalf of the B Corp community because the level of full integration is so much deeper and it’s so much more rewarding. It’s more fun, and it’s more fulfilling to do that every day, and I think that’s the attractive power of this capitalist reformation. It’s to put purpose at the center and profit becomes the fuel to achieve a higher purpose at greater scale. It is now the means not the end we seek. The end we seek is a society that recognizes and respects the inherent dignity of every person and sees our diversity as an asset and creates opportunity for everybody to live into their full potentials as human beings, which is not only to take care of themselves and their family, but also to contribute back to their community and the common good. And that’s what B Corps create the context, the incentive structures that align with I think our deepest intrinsic human need – which is I think to feel connected to a higher purpose and connected to other people."