Spirituality in Business Conference

The Sustainable Business Network’s annual Symposium on Spirituality in Business will be held at Babson College at the end of March. Two dynamic and thoughtful business leaders, Glynn Lloyd and Rob Everts, will join me on a panel to discuss how we, as social entrepreneurs, can follow the Gandhian path of Satyagraha by acting in accordance with our core values and by using non-violent resistance as a tool for changing the world. All of us have developed a unique code of conduct and a moral philosophy on which our businesses stand. One difference, however, between my business and those of the other two panelists is that, as an outsourced information technology services provider, we were not founded with a social purpose. Our evolution towards social enterprise has taken over 14 years. And we are still far from the goal. So, the question is:  As an atheist and an accidental entrepreneur, what can I contribute to the dialogue?

As it turns out, I do have some thoughts to share about how my business contributes to the community and how we can become sustainable despite an economic system dependent on unlimited growth. But these ideas have evolved over time. I had no such social purpose in mind when I first started selling used computers to college students almost 15 years ago.

To be sure, I dreamed of being a community leader. Just before I moved back to Boston and started my business, I had spent the last few years in France. I had worked on an organic farm, bicycled and hitchhiked all over the country, lived in an eco-village, and had spent three weeks on an anti-nuclear cross-country protest march. One of my proudest moments was leading a busload of eco-villagers to a protest in the mountains. The goal was to stop the construction of a Euro-tunnel that would bring traffic and pollution to yet another rural mountain community, and deprive the last few remaining Pyreenees bears of their habitat.

Unsurprisingly, when I returned to Boston, I had a counter-culture mindset. I wasn’t about to go back to working for temp agencies in downtown office buildings At a loss for what to do, I read Earning Money without a Job by Jay Conrad Levinson.

Despite the carefree cover drawing of the hippie in a hammock pulling dollars from a money tree, a lot of people like me used this book to create their own 60 to 80-hour a week job. That’s how I started my business.  Like many risk-takers, I loved the rough and tumble.  My days were filled with used computer suppliers who bribed their way into bankrupt companies; cash sales in housing projects all over Boston; being held at gunpoint when I tried to repossess a computer.  It was hard to see myself as a community leader back then!

But my self-image and my vision for the company were about to undergo two major transformations.  Each of these epiphanies derived from my association with a organization  focused on small business as a medium for changing the world:  The Inner City Entrepreneur program (ICE) and the Sustainable Business Network (SBN.) Let me set the stage for the first transformation. After seven years of hard scrabble computer sales and service, we had achieved some measure of success.  Behind the storefront in Andrew Square, we were building new computers for businesses, non-profits, and schools.  And we were programming servers and installing computer networks.  This work put me in contact with the business community.

At a South Boston Chamber of Commerce meeting, I met Andrew Wolk and Dan Monti, both faculty members of Boston University. They were starting a non-profit called Inner City Entrepreneurs. They were recruiting established local businesses to participate in the Streetwise MBA program. The goal was to increase economic activity in blighted areas and to create jobs by growing established local businesses. These professors saw business owners like me as movers and changers in the urban landscape. Dan had done some research to show that, as a group, local business owners were far more community-minded than anyone had given them credit for. To them, I was a potential community leader. This was news to me. Honestly, at that time I was simply preoccupied with business survival — as I had been for the last seven years.

Nine months later, I had received my Streetwise MBA. By that time, I was convinced that I had a real business with real responsibilities. I had employees who depended on me for their livelihood. I had a business that was an asset to our community. And my business was generating real money, that I could give to the causes about which I care deeply, such as preserving our environment, and compassionate action for animals.

Now I was ready for transformation number two. This time, I deliberately searched for a peer group who could help me to deepen my thought leadership skills. My first Sustainable Business Network event was a small meeting held at the Mathworks, in Natick. I have forgotten the name of the speaker. He had tried–and failed–to start a fair trade chocolate business in the Amazon jungle. His goal was to create the entire supply chain, from cocoa bean to finished product. It was a spectacular story full of adventure and reckless optimism. I was hooked.

I soon joined the SBN board. Now I was an active participant in a group that sought to transform the world through business.


Helping Businesses Thrive and Thrive in a New Economy

As President of the Sustainable Business Network, I have been reflecting on our mission in the context of our current recession.  Are local business owners fully aware of the new economic, environmental, and political realities? What does it mean that we are just coming out of 8 years of hypnotism and denial from the Bush administration? During tough times, it is important to cut back on business activities that are not destined to provide value in future years (although they may have in the past) and to start building some resiliency into the business model by developing products and services that are non-polluting, energy-efficient, healthy, and sourced from the local community.

Now is the time to make critical decisions.  Which business models will thrive in the new economy and which legacy operations should be pruned now? Many business decision-makers assume that normalcy will return towards the end of 2009, or, at the latest, early 2010. But there are countervailing forces that will make it difficult, if not impossible for America to return to an economy based on infinite resources, unlimited transport,and blatant disregard for the environment.

For example, there is the issue of peak oil. Robert Hirsch, author of Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management (a.k.a. the Hirsch Report), has said that new technologies and new drilling won’t solve the peak oil problem, and that we should expect $12-15/gallon gasoline followed by rationing. If businesses are not waking up to the possibility that they cannot count on cheap energy prices, many American cities are. At least twenty-five American cities are creating contingency plans based on the possibility that oil prices will remain highly volatile. They recognize that we are heading into a time when both energy costs and pressure to lower CO2 emissions will be high. Public sentiment may turn against businesses heavily dependent on products sourced from halfway around the world.