Socially conscious startups can make money and save the world at the same time

There's a rise in B Corps and benefit corporations
Socially conscious startups can make money and save the world at the same time

When asked as a kid, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I intuited there were only two possible answers: Get rich or help people. It was assumed you couldn’t do both. Fast-forward four decades to last fall when my daughter started college. As she weighed her career options in earnest, I heard myself asking her, “How important to you is making money?”

The rise in socially conscious companies – particularly benefit corporations and Certified B Corporations, or B Corps – has me hoping we’ve evolved.

Benefit corporations, legal in Wisconsin since 2018, are essentially for-profit businesses with do-good missions baked into their bylaws. B Corps, which predate the legislation, are different. They undergo a rigorous, third-party certification process – think organic or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, known as LEED – that’s open to all types of businesses. And while certified B Corps require a bigger time investment and annual fee, the return on investment may be worth the altruistic branding alone.

“We shouldn’t have to choose between doing good in the world and earning a living,” says Abigail Barnes, co-founder and CEO of Allergy Amulet, and a 2017 Madison Magazine M List recipient. Barnes literally wrote the handbook on the subject – ”An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Certified B Corporations and Benefit Corporations” – published by The Yale Center for Business and the Environment and Patagonia in 2017. Wisconsin now has 10 certified B Corps, a number Barnes expects to rise with increased awareness.

“We’re now seeing Fortune 500 companies and large investment firms shifting gears and calling for a stakeholder-centric approach,” Barnes says. “This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our nation’s businesses and economy are only as healthy and as strong as the communities, environment, and employees they serve and on which they depend.”

According to a 2015 Nielsen report, a poll of 30,000 global consumers revealed 73% of millennials (and 72% of Gen Zers, like my daughter) will pay more for goods from companies that demonstrate a commitment to environmental sustainability and social responsibility. These are the same benchmarks certified B Corps track. Even an old Gen Xer like me feels less guilty splurging on that certified B Corp Patagonia jacket knowing my dollar is doing double duty. (My daily Yumbutter and Just Coffee taste even better now, too, as both of those companies are certified B Corps.)

“Nonprofits can’t do it alone; the economic engine of a global economy is business,” says Mary Stelletello, founder in 2010 of Vista Global Coaching & Consulting, the first Wisconsin business to earn certified B Corp status. Stelletello co-chairs an awareness network called B Local Wisconsin and says the calling card of “business as a force for good” is also a fantastic talent magnet.

“This generation wants to work for companies that have a purpose and an impact,” says Stelletello. It’s a trend that’s particularly valuable for startups as they work to get companies off the ground. And while certified B Corp status is typically attained after a year of operation, any startup can launch as a benefit corporation – or at least build social impact into the business plan from the start.

And many are. Startup accelerator platform gener8tor, which has branches in Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis, has added to its accelerator portfolio gBETA Social Impact, a seven-week program sponsored by the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact. The Institute also has a Social Impact Initiative collaboration with StartingBlock, where socially minded entrepreneurs have workspace and programming in the Spark Building. Factor in Alnisa Allgood’s Social Good Accelerator and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation’s Force for Positive Change program, and that’s a lot of founders focused on that “triple bottom line” – fiscal, social and environmental – whether they are benefit corporations or not.

My own bottom line is this: If startups can bake in sustainability and transparency and have a positive social impact at the outset – while attracting funders and talent that appreciate those values and ultimately create good jobs while doing good deeds – well, I’ll buy whatever they’re selling.

I bet my daughter will, too.

Maggie Ginsberg is a monthly columnist and a senior contributing writer to Madison Magazine.