While economic upheaval has caused many businesses to fail, Ode has interviewed several entrepreneurs who have found ways to thrive and remain focused on positive social change. We interviewed them about their companies, how they view the current economic situation, how they define success, and how they came to combine their business skills with their passion for change.
To read more about how social entrepreneurs are going mainstream, click here.
Ode Editors | March 2009 issue
Tell us a little bit about you and your company.
After graduating college in 2003 and spending that summer totally immersed in Chinese at Middlebury, I took off for the Eastern Hemisphere. I worked on an orchard about 175km north of Cairns, Australia. I was a deckhand on an 18m sailboat on the Great Barrier Reef, scrubbing bathrooms and teaching tourists how to snorkel. I studied Chinese. I translated, interpreted, fundraised and managed capacity building projects in the world of China microfinance. And I did the startup lieutenant thing at an online education project in Beijing.
I came back to the States at the end of 2007 to work on The Carrot Project, which, of course, has no obvious connection to anything in my academic or professional past.
It’s a brand comparison tool that we hope will help people consume more responsibly. If Consumer Reports is a super-efficient, everything-savvy business-mom, The Carrot Project is her smiling, long haired, geeky, idealist cousin. We compare brands not on product quality but rather on the social and environmental responsibility (crunchiness) of the businesses behind the products.
We think consumers have a whole lot of untapped world-changing potential. If they demand sustainable, humane and transparent business practices, companies will provide them. So we’re trying to help them do that. We’re gathering information on the companies, distilling it, clarifying it, organizing it and making it easy for people to decide whether it sends a better message to buy Crest toothpaste or Colgate.
How do you feel about the current economic situation? Does it represent a challenge or an opportunity for you and your business?
From a purely practical standpoint, the current economic situation intensifies our focus on keeping our costs really really low. Survival is a top priority. The way we’ve survived so far has been to keep our money needs minimal, and we figure we’d be smart to stay on that path as long as possible. It’s not the fastest road to tens of millions of users, big revenue and the new capitalism we’re hoping to help create. But we hear the times calling for patience and hustle, so we’re listening.
More ideologically, I’m hoping to see some of Umair Haque’s predictions come true. I want these shocks to the world economy to show people that capitalism as practiced is due for a serious tuneup. If people can see that the system isn’t operating smoothly, hopefully that’ll get them excited to participate in trying to adjust it, one purposefully purchased tube of toothpaste at a time.
What types of metrics do you use to demonstrate your success both financially and in terms of social change?
That’s a serious question and a question I’ve dealt with much more in relation to the microfinance work I did in China than in relation to The Carrot Project. I think The Carrot Project will ultimately measure its success by measuring the relative success of the businesses compared on the site. If a business demonstrates crunchiness, gets recognized by the experts, moves to the top of our rankings AND increases market share, then we’ll feel as if we’ve succeeded.
Financially, we are not a non-profit. We want to build a business. We want to earn more than we spend. We’re looking to identify and promote businesses that are doing great things for the world. And we want to be one of those businesses, proving to fancy board rooms and future social entrepreneurs alike that the most successful businesses going forward will be those that create long term value without exploiting anyone or anything.
Have you always been a businessperson or did your idea stem from a passion to create change – or both?
I still wouldn’t call myself a businessperson. I’ll accept that description once we turn a profit. For now, I’m still a dreamer. A totally obsessed dreamer that has tried to surround himself with enough rational minds to turn passion for change into a business.
Continue on to read an interview with Kjerstin Erickson, founder of FORGE