Social responsibility must be a team effort

You’re a founder of a new enterprise and one of your top priorities is social and environmental responsibility. Your management team, however, can’t think of anything but the balance sheet.  By year’s end, your bottom line is healthy, but you don’t feel your new enterprise has contributed much to society.

It’s a common dilemma that comes down to a core disconnect that many founders don’t think to look for when pulling together their C-suites. But compatibility surrounding worldview, ethical issues, and dedication to social responsibility can be as important to the success of a business as professional qualifications.

Gustavo Mamão, SF ’11, founder of the Brazilian startup Flourish, which guides entrepreneurs in the creation of mission-driven organizations, has always focused on businesses that demonstrate how a company dedicated to a better world can also be profitable. But it’s an ethic, he says, that the whole management team must get behind. “The extent to which a business embraces sustainability and environmental goals is something that should be decided among founders and investors in the earliest days of the enterprise.”

Balance business and social priorities

Mamão adds that if the founders do embrace social responsibility, they also should agree on a very specific set of criteria. “A business shouldn’t be just transactional or just socially conscious—it must be a smart marriage of both. A socially conscious business must put business first or the enterprise will fail and society will lose a company that was doing some good in the world.”

Jag Gill, SF ’13, founder and CEO of the global apparel startup Sundar, agrees with Mamão. “We check every decision we make to be sure it strikes the right balance—is it socially responsible while still being viable from a business standpoint?” Her company even posts a code of conduct for vendors specifying that suppliers must agree not to use child labor, for example, and to pay fair wages. And she chose the members of her team accordingly—all share her commitment to standards guiding the human side of enterprise.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have maintained a strong, supportive relationship throughout their company’s supersonic growth in part because of a shared ethic of social responsibility. From the company’s inception, the partners set in place Google’s internal workplace slogan “Don’t be evil.” When the company was restructured under Alphabet in 2015, Page and Brin updated the motto to “Do the right thing.” Both phrases reflect a priority that the founders share and that they have infused company-wide—if you’re not dedicated to doing the right thing, you don’t have a place at Google.

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