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At the Intersection of Work and Purpose

At the Intersection of Work and Purpose

| January 23, 2017

"Never has there been a more exciting time for all of us to explore this great next frontier where boundaries between work and purpose are merging into one, where doing good really is good for business."
                                                       Sir Richard Branson -- CEO, Virgin Group 
                                                       in his book Screw Business As Usual 


Sir Richard Branson has always been a highly quotable CEO, and the quote at the top of this page is among my favorites.  It highlights the transition that we are all experiencing: That "purpose" (i.e., doing good) is now a critical part of business success. 

Customers demand it.  Employees are attracted to it.  And investors increasingly embrace it.

Generational change is a big factor in this phenomenon.  Deloitte’s Millennial Survey 2014 found that Millennials (who started to turn 35 just last year) demand that the companies from whom they buy are contributing to an "improvement in social and environmental responsibility."  51 percent of them said they would pay extra for sustainable products -- a rate more than four times that of baby boomers.  Their 2016 survey echoed these sentiments.

My own experience highlights this generational shift.  More than 25 years ago, while a student at the University of Virginia, I took a class in "entrepreneurship".  This course didn't even begin to cover those skills that entrepreneurs ultimately need to be successful, and never even alluded to a greater purpose to running a business.  In retrospect, it was a purely academic exercise and a lost opportunity.

Contrast that with today's generation of entrepreneurs.  Not only do they have a support network in their colleges, but also in organizations such as Village Capital, the Green Chamber of the South's Greenhouse Accelerator, Georgia Tech's Ideas 2 Serve or Points of Light's Civic Accelerator-- Organizations whose sole purpose is to enhance the entrepreneur's chance of success.  The common denominator among these organizations is Purpose! 

So, here we are, at a place Richard Branson termed the "next great frontier in business... where doing good really is good for business."  Yes.  It's happening. As of today, more than 1100 companies in 35 countries have passed a series of "triple bottom line" tests to become what are known as "Certified B Corporations". Companies such as Patagonia, Seventh Generation and New Belgium Brewing are among the best known BCorps, and each would say that their focus on Purpose has helped them to distinguish themselves in the marketplace. 

Investing with purpose has also grown in understanding and acceptance among mainstream investors -- especially among Millenials and large institutions.  With more than 10% of professionally managed money incorporating social factors, it's clearly past the "fad" stage. The success of organizations like Kiva show that investors are hungry for real and measurable impact, even to the point of lending their money with no expectation of a financial return. 

Recent research by New Amsterdam Partners found that sustainable investing in the equity markets has delivered competitive performance, especially in weaker market environments, when the lowest ranked "sustainability losers" fall on especially hard times. This makes some logical sense since sustainability leaders are among the best managed and most profitable companies.  But a rising tide lifts all boats.  Even the leaky ones.  But, to quote Warren Buffett (and mix some metaphors),  "Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked." 

If society is truly at the intersection of work and purpose, we could do worse things than following the advice of the Branson's and Buffett's of the world, emulating the business practices of Patagonia, or learning from the examples of Village Capital or Points of Light.  We have plenty of examples of success, and more being made every day. 

Note:  This article was posted to in October 2014 and was updated in 2016 with new data.