Bring on The Activist Entrepreneurs

Swansea Tidal Lagoon

2016 will go down in history as the year that everyone who is even the smallest bit conscious woke up to the fact that we have all been living in our own little bubbles of mindset, values, belief and worldviews.  I could have been at risk of being in the bubble again at Meaning Conference this week.  After all, this was a collection of concerned individuals who are all interested in meaningful life and work – otherwise they wouldn’t be there! But this year I felt a sense of urgency which replaced the curious inquiry of prior conferences. I felt a sense that there won’t be too many more wake up calls and that it’s time – for all of us – to take action.  So I was encouraged to see the group that I think we need the most – Activist Entrepreneurs – really well represented this year. Say what?

If I had finished my book (I still haven’t), you would know what I meant! Simply put these are entrepreneurs who are focused on solving the grand challenges of humanity and the planet through business. Activist Entrepreneurs are a new breed of entrepreneur that combines the best of  20th century activism with the social and environmental concerns, and collaborative attitudes of the 21st century. That have none of the worst dogma, aggression and judgemental “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitudes or the permanent focus on what they don’t want. They do have a strategic and purposeful focus on what they do want. They create thriving, profitable businesses or social enterprises that tackle anything  framed in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Here are four of the best activist entrepreneurs on stage at Meaning.

BYBI – Bee very afraid – this man’s enthusiasm is buzzing

Enter probably the most entertaining of the day Oliver Maxwell of Bybi – makers of ultra local urban honey. A ‘honeyed’ speaker and entrepreneur, Oliver has created a multi-faceted bee business from inspiration that hit after cycling past a bee colony in the outskirts of Copenhagen. He describes the moment as ‘being dragged through a portal into another world where different ideas were possible’. Cue first glass of water hitting the floor as his left arm flailed with enthusiasm. A man after my own heart; as enthusiastic and as clumsy as a Great Dane (he’s not Danish by the way, he just lives there).

Bybi Urban Honey

Bybi Urban Honey

You can tell Oliver is enthralled by bees. His description of the moment when bees first discovered pollination – something which changed the future of the planet and on which we still depend today – was nothing short of erotic.

“Picture that beautiful flower opening up willingly to the sniffy, licky, tickly,, furry, buzzy, honeybee. A honeybee has 72 scent receptors, each hair seeking a finely attuned sensory experience. There’s an explosion of productivity as each honey bee carries away pollen to populate the planet. It’s the model we’re all searching for in business.”

Quite! And there goes the second glass of water. By this time there’s a puddle forming at the bottom of the podium.

Anyway, sensory pollinators apart – Oliver’s Bybi persuades companies and housing associations, factories and shops to pay to have his bee colonies on their roofs. The bee colonies are cared for by refugees that have come to Denmark seeking a better life. Refugees like Aref – a former beekeeper from Syria who now trains other refugees and so the project scales out across the city.

As they expanded throughout Copenhagen a funny thing happened. They noticed that the honey harvested across the city had distinct tastes which change from season to season depending on which flowers were grown in the neighbourhood. So each honey is personalised with the neighbourhood badge, but also with the individual’s story who cares for the bees. It’s a fantastic model which provides meaningful work to people without hope, brings communities together in a team effort and supports the endangered honeybee – without which we’ll all be in big trouble. Home run Oliver and Bybi!

There’s better, best and downright Good

The amazing Juliet Davenport of Good Energy is one of my heroines. If you haven’t switched, please have a look at what Good Energy offers. Back in the 80s Juliet and I were what she describes as ‘high carbon kids’. In other words we had the Chelsea tractor, were flying all over the world in business class, and had very little concern or interest in sustainability. Bizarrely the 1987 hurricane (think Michael Fish moment) changed both our lives. I left Weber Shandwick to set up my own purpose-led brand agency. (I didn’t use that phrase then but my clients were TImberland, Patagonia, a newish business called Virgin….).  Juliet started studying magic. No, not the Harry Pottery kind, but energy. Energy is, in Juliet’s words, the magic that binds us together whether we can see it or not. Her mission is simple.

“I want future generations to live on a habitable planet. Climate change is about the future habitability of the planet. If we don’t get it right, many parts of the planet will become inhabitable. There will be mass migrations which we are starting to see now, that we are poorly prepared for.”

The transition to clean energy is also an issue of security. As Julia pointed out, if you study energy systems, and look at the pipelines that cross Europe to our door, they look not unlike the arrows converging on Britain at the start of Dad’s Army (for those of you who’ve seen that old programme). This might give you a shock. Energy is at the top of the risks to national security and our risk factor was, and still is, high.

Good Energy is Juliet’s answer to climate change and our national security risk. As many years of knocking on government doors bore little fruit, Juliet did what all good entrepreneurs do and set up her own solution – by going direct to the public. People got it. Bypassing governments that wouldn’t listen and traditional energy monopolies, Good Energy was set up to provide people with 100% renewable energy from day one. Within less than 3 years, it made its first share offering to customers, raising funds that allowed it to start investing in wholly owned wind farms where local people owned the farms. Her policy is to listen to the concerns of local people wherever Good Energy works, and to ensure that the locality benefits from Good Energy’s presence. It’s a collaboration.

In 2004 HomeGen provided a further innovation, allowing independent generators to be paid for all the energy they produced, even if they use it themselves. It created the blueprint for the government’s Feed In Tariff which was launched 8 years later.

Swansea Tidal Lagoon

Swansea Tidal Lagoon

Good Energy are currently innovating again with investment in tidal lagoons to further diversify their portfolio (currently wind, solar, bio). They first invested in the pilot project in Swansea Bay in 2014, aiming to buy 10% of the supply. Earlier this year, the project finally got planning permission and is now under way. The company’s localisation strategy has seen it partner with the Scottish government to pilot local schemes for small villages to choose renewable energy without recabling, and experiment with local currencies like the Bristol pound. It’s a shining example of disruptive business, and I am floored at what this human dynamo has achieved.

Morning Star: A new business philosophy that is legendary

If you want to talk about entrepreneurial and business model innovation, you can’t really hold that conversation without mentioning Paul Green Jnr and Morning Star. Neither a ‘teal’ nor holacracy business model, Morning Star is nonthelesss one of the most showcased leaders in the emerging model of self-organised management.

Morning Star nestles in the San Joaquin valley in California, a place where tomatoes, cantaloupe melons and grapes are grown. As a young man Paul Green Jnr needed a job. He took what he described as a ‘grunt’ job in a tomato processing factory where he learned his trade. The San Joaquin valley is nothing like the gleaming star-spangled startup paradise of Silicon Valley, Paul is keen to point out. It’s a place of blue collar workers, where quality of life counts, and which has given birth to a work philosophy that is legendary in business schools and amongst management theorists.

Paul Green Jnr

Paul Green Jnr

When you listen to Paul speak, you can tell there’s high intelligence at work. Deep social compassion and real human understanding. An organisation for Paul is a piece of social technology, something devised for a specific purpose – and that purpose should be about improving people’s lives – not lining the pockets of the few.

“Our society has operated under a mistaken notion that an organisation is something a founder builds. He/she creates an organisation and employs people as part of the technology in order to fulfil the entrepreneur’s purpose where individuals have to subordinate their desires.”

At the heart of Morning Star is a philosophy which is all about creating an environment where people who join the organisation can see that they can fulfil whatever it is they want to do, or are trained to do. Key pillars of the philosophy include:-

  1. CLOU – or Colleague Letter of Understanding. Each employee crafts their role by mutual agreement with his/her colleagues and writes it into a CLOU. There is a set of peer inter-dependencies identified within the organisation which may look like a peer pressure system, but succeeds in creating relationships between employees where people are cared for, have a sense of purpose, and are able to fulfil the human need for meaning.  These human needs for meaning are best expressed as unity with others and service to others. This really resonates with me as I work a lot with The Map of Meaning – a system which clearly outlines how to ensure all the aspects of our human need for meaning are met in the workplace and in life.
  2. Stepping Stones – these are undertakings that help each person make progress towards a goal. They are a way of conceptualising and evaluating performance in pursuit of perfection.
  3. Total Responsibility – which is about providing employees with complete or absolute ability to act independently and make decisions without authorisation. It is an organisational principle that activates both freedom and accountability.

Paul’s analogy for what he is trying to bring out in people was simple.

Imagine you are a Father going home at the end of the day to your children. You have a wife who has chosen not to work and takes care of the children and your home. One day you arrive home to find that the house hasn’t been cleaned, there’s no food in the fridge, the children haven’t been fed and are hungry. Do you say “Sorry kids, it’s not my job” or do you do what has to be done? Simples.

Morning Star – a functioning, inspirational model of the way we all might hope to work.

Don’t call them ‘ethical’ whatever you do

With a slight tired frustration, Hillary Jones showcased her own activist tendencies with her opening phrase in response to Paul Mason’s introduction: “I don’t want people to call Lush an ethical brand; just normal.  What we do is, and should be, normal.”  She’s right, of course.  Ethical should be the new normal.

Lush Cosmetics

Hillary Jones Lush

It’s hard to believe that Lush has been on our high streets in the UK for 20 years.  The Lush team were originally suppliers to the very first cosmetic activist Anita Roddick. That team parted company with the giant when it became clear that growth meant production would be taken in house.

It took the team some time to regroup, but they reformed into Lush Cosmetics in 1996 and have been making hand-made cosmetics from fresh ingredients, almost always organic, ever since.  The company has never advertised, but has a devoted following; not just for its products but for its strong policies that carry on the flag of The Body Shop.  No animal testing and 100% vegetarian, committed to ethical buying and to fair trade (although certification in cosmetics production remains a challenge), highly transparent in its auditing, has sustainability strategically embedded in business, and is actively involved in researching and promoting alternatives to animal testing.

Lush seems to have carried the old Body Shop banner faithfully into new territory and a younger generation.  It remains rebellious and forthright, its heart is definitely as much activist as entrepreneur. Supporting the communities where it sources ingredients is every bit as important as its political activism against the European Chemical Agency’s REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) legislation which is where I first became aware of Lush.

What shone through in Hillary’s talk is that an equally deep love of humans as well as animals and nature, threads itself through Lush.

“You have to believe in the good of the human species. Our greatest characteristics are to be rebellious, humble, exhibit true servant leadership, create an inspiring vision, be willing to listen but also stubborn in defence of the values we hold dear”

These are just four organisation that are continually reaching forward to create a better world, a better way of working, and address some of the key challenges we face.  It’s not easy to be an Activist Entrepreneur.  It takes vision, values, courage, resilience, entrepreneurial flair, deep compassion for people and planet. But these are organisations that are delivering profitable and successful businesses that are not at the expensive of the planet or the happiness of their people.

If you are an Activist Entrepreneur and would like support building your change-making enterprise, I’ld love to help. If you would like to explore how activating purpose could re-engage your stakeholders, increase your connection to people and planet, I would love to help. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the world’s best purpose-led leaders like Patagonia, Timberland and Virgin, and many ambitious, meaningful startups in recent years.  I specialise in creating aligned brands that offer soulful customer and employee experiences and communications strategies for brands that are  here to make the world a better, sustainable planet.

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