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Small Business

A Push for 'Ethical Innovation'


Glenn Llopis says that instead of focusing solely on profit, business leaders should insist their companies and employees have a positive social impact

Last month, an eclectic group of entrepreneurs, academics, and nonprofit executives gathered at Chapman University's Argyros School of Business and Economics to explore the intersection of innovation and humanity. Entrepreneur and former agricultural business executive Glenn Llopis, 43, of Irvine, Calif., organized the first summit as an outgrowth of a think tank he founded last year, the Center for Innovation and Humanity. Llopis, the author of Earning Serendipity, told Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein that he believes companies should promote social change through ethical innovation. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow. Where do innovation and humanity come together for entrepreneurs and small business owners? Every small business owner has a dream and feels they can create the impossible. I'm hoping to help them integrate a social priority or identity into everything they do. Isn't it a tall order to ask small business owners to incorporate social goals, especially right now when so many of them are struggling just to keep their companies afloat and avoid layoffs? Some people might say it's not fair for an entrepreneur worrying about paying the bills and turning on the lights. But if we don't understand the social impact that we have as entrepreneurs, I truly don't believe our economy will ever recover. I think recovery will require expanding and empowering the voice of people, but we as innovators get so sucked into worrying about the bottom line that we forget why we got into business in the first place. The real message is that companies have set goals for social change and gained ROI from it. So the sustainability model actually works. What practical ways can entrepreneurs live out that commitment? One thing I do in my consulting work is show business owners how to build an employee-branded workplace culture. We all have budget issues. Sales are down, and the market has put a big weight on us. But small business owners can create self-sustaining communities inside their businesses by helping their employees establish personal brands. It gives your people a unique identity within your firm so that their peers know what they are really good at and how it can help them and help the company. That gets your employees excited and propels innovation. They're not just fulfilling a job description, they're contributing socially to your organization. Retention is higher because people feel purposeful, and if they do leave, you'll be increasing your employees' market value and relevance in the workforce. Isn't that what small business owners should be all about? Traditional thinking might counter that small business owners should be all about maximizing profit, because that's the way they contribute to their employees' and their families' well-being. I think that tradition has contributed to our country losing momentum, because people don't trust other people's individual motives. We have to find a new normal; the old ways don't work anymore because people feel there are many unearthed, hidden agendas in business and government and every institution. We've reached a point where we have to share things, not hide them. We can re-propel the entrepreneurial spirit once again if we can persuade business leaders to adopt a new way of thinking. Your business background is in the California agriculture industry. How did that shape this new way of thinking about innovation and entrepreneurship? My Cuban-American parents taught us the value of being relevant and exposed us to this concept of humanity at a very young age. I got a degree in international relations and worked for large companies such as Gallo Winery and Sunkist Growers. I was promoted rapidly, but I saw a common thread in my corporate career: Everything was always about the bottom line—money, money, money. The people who got rewarded were the ones who sold the most cases of product, not the ones who were the best mentors, managers, coaches, or leaders. I could have continued my corporate career and become a prominent executive, but my heart wouldn't let me do it. Something inside of me said, "What I'm doing to help these companies make money doesn't fit with my DNA. They don't understand acculturation and listening to the outside perspectives that drive business." You later founded a specialty agriculture company and a tech startup before you wrote your book. What are you doing now? I speak about my book, especially to Hispanic leadership organizations, and I consult about innovation with small and large companies and lecture at Chapman University's business school. One of the sessions at your summit was about making a mark versus leaving a legacy. What's the difference, in your mind? Anyone can make a mark in the business world. An entrepreneur needs to step back and say, "Look, I can have a prospering business right now, but what good is it if it's not affecting society or changing lives?" If you're not interested in leaving a larger legacy than wealth or social status, you're in business for the wrong reasons. In the end, connecting your product or service to a social cause is what gives your company authenticity.

Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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