By Genevieve Georget and Lizzie Vance of Round Table Companies
Every day for months, I had been taking the subway to the World Trade Center. I would meet up with a friend who worked on the 100th floor, we would get coffee together at a cafe in the lobby, and then I would walk across the street to my office where I’d been working as an investment banker. This was how my mornings unfolded. On this day, however, the sun was shining through my bedroom window when I rolled over and opened my eyes. I looked over at the clock next to my bed and it read 10 a.m. Immediately, a degree of disbelief washed over me. I leapt out of bed and frantically got ready. On this day, I accidentally slept in, and half an hour after I woke up, nearly 3,000 people had died.
Up until this moment, I think I had advice to offer anyone looking to pursue life with a vengeance. I had graduated that spring and was working in the banking industry. I was driven and disciplined and right where I wanted to be. Or so I thought. But life—and advice—tends to change when towers come crashing down and you are spared the finality of being among those who lost their lives. When I tell people the story of that morning, I am faced with an often-recurring question: “Did my friend—whom I was supposed to meet for coffee—die that day?” The answer is no. My friend lived. So many of us lived. But we were also changed. And it was through that change that the question shifted from “Did we die?” to “How do we live?” This tragedy was either going to take my life from me or thrust life back into me. I was blessed enough to be handed the latter and knew I’d better live wisely.
I’m five years old. My parents, sister, and I are headed to a cheese factory in Wisconsin in our “Brady Bunch” station wagon on a rainy day. We stop at a red light. Looking out my window, I see a billboard; there, larger than life, is a Native American chief with a tear running down his cheek. It is an advertisement to stop littering our planet, but the tears in that chief’s eyes reverberate through rain-spotted glass, and the drops of water running down the window turn into the tears of the world.
I knew it at that moment, though maybe not exactly how. I was going to help people smile, be happy, and love each other, bring love, harmony, and healing to the human condition. And so, in adulthood, exploring the deeper dimensions of human potential became my life’s work—first as a trained psychotherapist and later as a certified coach and facilitator of dialogue.
You might think I was lucky to discover my purpose at such a young age. We all yearn for that “certain something” that brings meaning and significance to our lives, so to discover it earlier than most people must be of tremendous benefit, right?
Alejandro Velez & Nikhil Arora, founders of Back to the Roots, had the opportunity to deliver the 2018 commencement address at their alma mater, UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and highlighted Conscious Capitalism in their advice to graduating students. A video of their talk and the text of their speech are available below.
Thank you Dean Lyons! And good morning, Berkeley! Good morning Haas! It’s an honor to be here with all of you and your families on such a special day.
And Dean Lyons – it’s great to be here with you today as you wrap up an incredible tenure at Haas.
We remember so clearly still when we were sitting right there and we heard Dean Lyons repeat our commencement speaker’s lesson to “zig when others zag”.
We particularly remember this because during the last few weeks of college, while most of our friends were getting ready to go into banking or consulting, we were dumpster diving at 6am for old coffee grounds.
And we’ll never forget, at our main campus graduation, the Chancellor actually shared with the thousands of graduates in attendance what we were just starting to work on.
He advised “don’t follow the herd — like Alejandro & Nikhil — who are growing mushrooms on coffee grounds” … but to his surprise — the entire Greek Theater started busting up laughing. He tried to save himself (and us) by saying “no no, I’m serious here”. Just More laughs.
Who woulda thought two guys growing mushrooms in college was too Berkeley for… Berkeley.
Well, Dean Lyons — after 9 years since graduation, we can both say with a big smile & our fair share of entrepreneurial scars to prove it, we certainly have zigged.
It all started for us right here at Haas. We still remember it like it was yesterday — when we first heard this idea that you could potentially grow mushrooms on entirely recycled coffee waste in Professor Alan Ross’s UGBA 107 Business Ethics class. And although Nikhil & I actually didn’t know each other at the time, we happened to be the only two crazy kids who thought that fact was kinda cool and separately reached out to him for more information.
That one sentence we heard in class literally became the start of this whole adventure of building Back to the Roots — a company on a mission to help every family & classroom in America experience the magic of growing food & knowing where it comes from.
And by the way, I later learned that this whole thing almost never happened…. my boy Alex here was the last guy to walk in to class that day and was just seconds away from getting the door shut on him by Professor Ross…
And it was right there, after knowing each other for just a couple months, sitting in a 1992 Toyota Camry in front of Haas on Piedmont street, that we “shook” on it and went all in, together.
That very same day, I called the investment bank I was about to join and in one phone call I gave up my “dream” job that I had worked so hard for – a six figure i-banking job on Wall Street. And I gave up my lease in Manhattan’s lower east side and instead I decided to go all in with Nikhil, who had just given up his consulting offer and moved onto his older brother’s couch.
Overnight we went from full time students & soon-to-be banker & consultant, to full-time waste collectors and urban mushroom farmers.
And as we now step back onto this same stage that we graduated from, we’re not going to stand up here and give you life advice, cuz honestly, we’re still figuring all that out ourselves.
And we’re also not here to tell you how to sell a business for millions of dollars – we’re still deep in it – just last week, we closed our Series B financing and are still head down every day, carpooling to the office together at 6:45am.
But through this journey, from a bucket of mushrooms to building a national brand that’s now touching millions of lives, what we have learned & experienced first-hand is how the conventional rules of business that have defined capitalism for hundreds of years are being rewritten as we speak. The business world you all are graduating into is beginning to feel a lot different than that which our textbooks taught us as business gospel. A new form of capitalism is emerging.
And it’s emerging because the traditional rules of business, rules that we all have read about a thousand times in textbooks and case studies, are being broken as we speak.
Broken because the status quo is no longer enough in business. It may have got us here, but it ain’t gonna get us there. It’s just not enough.
Today, we want to talk about 5 of those rules that are being broken.
Ok, so Rule #1 of conventional, old-school business:
“To be successful in business you have to be an expert in your field.”
We’re the generation that now has all the world’s knowledge in our pocket. We’re a generation that can teach ourselves anything, at anytime….we taught ourselves how to grow mushrooms on YouTube! It’s not about what you know — but knowing what you don’t know and finding the answers.
And it’s not just information expertise either, it applies to relationships too — you don’t need a big rolodex anymore to be successful in business. For instance, the first article about Back to the Roots was by The Daily Cal; after that came out, we googled every writer that we could find who had ever written about sustainability and emailed them a link to that article, saying we’d love to share our story.
Fast forward 6 months from founding, and the BBC aired a 5 minute spot globally on the company!! Since then, we’ve had the tremendous honor of sharing the Back to the Roots story with President Obama during a 90 minute meeting with him, on Jim Cramer’s Mad Money, and even the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
…And, Alex, don’t forget about that time you were in Bachelorette…
But all of this happened without a press agency and without years of contacts. We just had the internet.
And you don’t need to be an expert or have deep industry relationships to get into & succeed in retail either. Our biggest partner to-date, The Home Depot — that’s selling millions of dollars of our Indoor Gardening Kits in thousands of stores nationwide — started off with a cold-email to a buyer,who we only had the first & last name for we guessed 10 different variations ; first name.last name, initial.last name. — one went through, and that was the start.
So the new Rule #1, you don’t need to be an expert to be successful – all the world’s experts are now in your pocket.
2) The 2nd conventional, old-school business rule that you’ve probably heard is that “You need a lot of money to start something new and be successful in business”. Not. True.
The big Silicon Valley funds aren’t the only ones you have to go to now for capital — through Kickstarter & Indiegogo, angel list, CircleUp, & ICOs, we’ve seen the decentralization of fundraising — and the ability to unlock capital no matter where you live.
When we were looking to launch our 2nd product, the Water Garden, we needed $100,000 for equipment., We were looking to create the first ever home aquaponics system, a mini ecosystem that uses fish poop as the fertilizer to grow plants. We decided to put the project up on Kickstarter for 30 days with this $100,000 goal – and our community came through. They ended up pouring $248,873 into it, and then an additional $250k of pre-orders on our website — so we had raised half-million dollars from our own community with just 1 prototype & a 2 minute video. Fast forward, and that community momentum then helped us raise our first outside capital — a $500,000 investment from a local Oakland non-profit called Fund Goods Jobs. Since then, we’ve raised $20M of venture capital from investment funds & larger corporations including Campbell’s and Scotts Miracle Gro.
The new rule #2 — You don’t need a lot of money to be successful in business – capital’s been decentralized.
Rule #3 of conventional, old-school business:
“Keep a secret and keep people out of your business”
There’s a lot of talk about the power of privacy & secrecy in business — “the Coca Cola formula”. But the game’s changed. Transparency is the new norm. And you’re seeing it in a bunch of new ways.
As we built on our vision of connecting families to food by expanding from ready to grow indoor gardening kits to simple ingredient & organic breakfast cereals, we asked ourselves how do we bring that same radical transparency & connection to food you get when you grow your own — to packaged, ready-to-eat products?
In doing this, we decided to really push the boundaries, and actually tell our consumers on every single box of cereal not just exactly what farm our ingredients came from, but also the exact recipe of how we make it.
Right around the time we were launching our cereals at Whole Foods Market, the General Mills board of directors invited us to meet. We’ll never forget though when in that meeting their CMO advised us to take our cereal recipe off the box and said “with my 30 years of business experience, I never would have thought it’s a good idea to share your IP with the world like that”.
Just a few months after that meeting, our cereals displaced Kellogg’s to launch into the NYC public school system, the largest district in the country, helping feed 1.1 million kids every day and becoming the 1st organic cereal in history ever offered in US public schools.
And those cereal cups – they still have the recipe on them!
The best part about the power of transparency? Old-school businesses can’t hide behind multi-million dollar, flashy marketing campaigns. That clever Super Bowl ad isn’t enough anymore — if a product has 1 star on Amazon, we’re not buying it.
The new rule #3 — power in business comes not from secrecy but radical transparency.
The 4th conventional business rule we’ve all heard is about that zero-sum game; that for me to win, you have to lose. Not true.
For small businesses to win, big businesses don’t have to lose — we all can work together to accelerate impact. For example, Campbell’s & Scotts Miracle Gro, both multi-billion dollar multinationals, have invested millions of dollars into Back to the Roots. They’re helping us scale revenue and reduce costs by leveraging their sales, marketing and supply chain expertise. We’re helping them rethink innovation, and push for a faster speed-to-shelf strategy.
And suppliers & buyers don’t have to always extract value from each other either to win. When we were getting started, we sourced our coffee grounds from Peet’s Coffee, adding so much value to them by taking care of their heavy & messy waste, that we eventually replaced Waste Management in their cafes, and in return got paid to source our biggest raw material.
We provided them a more efficient waste service, and in turn, we were able to make a profit on our own Cost of Goods, allowing us to bootstrap the company for years.
THE NEW RULE #4: It’s not I win, you lose. It’s Win-Win-Win.
And Rule # 5 — the last, but probably most impactful conventional business rule we’ve all heard is that a business should Maximize Shareholder value at ALL costs ——– Not. True.
The conventional rule was that a business’ sole reason for existence is to maximize shareholder value, and that the few lucky ones that “make it” should then create a separate CSR team that picks a non-profit to just write a check to once a year.
But today, we’ve seen there are so many ways to create profitable, triple-bottom-line business models that also integrate the community, the team, and the environment into its everyday stakeholders — like Patagonia with their supply chain, Method with their sustainable packaging, and TOMS Shoes with their One for One model.
In fact, we were so inspired by the TOMS model, that we created a similar Grow One, Give One campaign — for every photo someone shares with any of our indoor gardening kits, we donate one to a classroom of their choice.
By integrating that program into every unit we sell, our own community has now helped tens of thousands of kids across the country grow their own food. And the more people share, the more brand awareness grows. It’s an incredible, beautiful cycle.
And by the way it’s ok to take inspiration from others; in fact, Blake, the founder of TOMS, so appreciated seeing his idea transfer into organic gardening and food that we became his very first angel investment after TOMS.
The New Rule Number 5? The best way to maximize your own value? Give value. Because the more you give, the more you get.
And while we’ve stumbled through all these lessons, one mushroom kit and box of cereal at a time, we hope they help open your eyes to the massive transformation of business that’s happening right now, right under our feet.
New rules are being written as we speak, creating space for a new form of capitalism, conscious capitalism — capitalism that aims not just to make money, but to elevate humanity through business. And Back to the Roots is just one example of it—it’s happening all around us.
Two massive multi-nationals, Danone & Unilever, have announced their goals to become Benefit Corporations or B Corps – directly embedding the business impact on multiple stakeholders, beyond just investor returns, into their metrics for success.
And Larry Fink, the CEO of the world’s largest investment firm, BlackRock, with $6.3 trillion dollars of assets under management, just wrote a letter to CEOs demanding that all companies, both public and private, serve a greater social purpose.
So how cool is it that in the hundreds of years since 1776 when Adam Smith wrote “Wealth of Nations” and kickstarted modern capitalism, that you get to graduate from the BEST UNIVERSITY and the BEST BUSINESS SCHOOL IN THE WORLD, AT THIS TIME – a time when all the conventional rules of business are being ripped up to create space for a new form of capitalism.
A form of capitalism that doesn’t separate Doing Good & Doing well.
How awesome. And what responsibility too — because we also carry with us all, as Golden Bears, the legacy of this incredible university and the social activists who have graced these halls and the streets of Berkeley for decades, the movements that were incubated right here — free-speech, anti-war, gay rights, women’s rights, farmworker rights.
So as you get ready to enter the business world, realize that the old rules have been ripped up, and the world is looking to You to help write the new ones. New Rules for a more inclusive, more sustainable, more transparent, and more conscious capitalism.
And you don’t have to do something crazy like growing mushrooms on coffee grounds to help build this new form of capitalism, but you do have the responsibility to carry this flag forward into wherever you go after graduation.
Be the one who makes that big bank judge themselves not just by returns generated, but by carbon sequestered. Be the one who inspires that big consulting company to push their clients to adopt better business practices.
Haas graduates — the next chapter of capitalism is in our generations’ hands, it’s ours to write, so let’s make it a good story that future graduates will be proud of us for.
Congratulations, Go Bears, and Go make history, Haas.
By Geoff Campbell and Aleksandra Corwin of Round Table Companies
A border wall. Abortion. Entitlement reform. Russian interference in the most recent presidential election. Gun control.
Pick a topic and it’s likely that Americans are deeply divided on the issue—polarized and separated by their interpretation of the facts, or even holding alternate sets of facts. Politics have become so toxic it sometimes seems as though Americans are living in two separate countries.
But there’s at least one place where people are setting aside their differences and uniting in harmony behind a common banner—Conscious Capitalism.
The Conscious Capitalism movement is a big tent that unites both ardent conservatives and committed liberals. It’s a place where people who voted for President Donald Trump can work with people who loved President Barack Obama.
It’s not so much that they ignore their differences as much as that they understand their common cause and respect those who are on the same journey.
By Geoff Campbell and Aleksandra Corwin of Round Table Companies
Conscious Capitalism Inc. cofounder and chairman emeritus Raj Sisodia had just given a presentation at the Lead with Love Leadership Summit in Aspen, Colorado, when a woman approached him.
“You and Larry Fink need to meet,” she said before setting the meeting in motion.
Then just days before the meeting, Fink, cofounder and CEO of the BlackRock investment firm, sent a letter to the chief executives of the largest public companies, telling them they should focus on value creation for all stakeholders—that they needed to have a larger purpose than making profits—and that they must engage with the community and make a positive contribution to society.
And he included a warning: if a business doesn’t act in a way that promotes societal good, “it will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders.”
“As you read the letter, you see he was using our language,” said Sisodia,the FW Olin Distinguished Professor of Global Business and Whole Foods Market Research Scholar in Conscious Capitalism at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He said he couldn’t help but be impressed by Fink and by the BlackRock firm.
First, despite Fink’s clout, Sisodia said that during the course of his 35-minute meeting, it was clear that Fink is a grounded, Conscious Leader, and “just a regular guy.” Second, Fink has been living Conscious Capitalism principles within his firm.
“He’s creating a different kind of financial firm,” Sisodia said. “It has a culture that is people-centered, and he speaks of emotional connection. People stay there instead of moving on to other jobs, which is the norm in this kind of high-pressure environment.”
Sisodia said he was able to talk to Fink about the Conscious Capitalism movement and even invited him to an upcoming CCI meeting. While Fink said he’s already committed at that time, he wants to send other top executives.
BlackRock’s influence in the financial community is hard to overstate.
By Geoff Campbell and Aleksandra Corwin of Round Table Companies
The Exxon supervisor called, and he was heated.
“I was responsible for filling secretarial positions in the building, and when I picked up my phone, he started yelling at me,” Cindy Wigglesworth recalled. “Some little moment of grace inside me said, ‘Insert a pause here.’”
Her stomach wrenched with anxiety, Wigglesworth asked the supervisor if she could put him on hold to get rid of another call—a fiction designed to allow her a pause for a few deep breaths.
“I set a higher intention—I was going to shut up, listen, and be hyper present. I wasn’t going to defend,” Wigglesworth recalled. “And that little moment of grace, that inner wisdom—I wasn’t expecting it.”
When she returned to the line 20 seconds later, she dove into active listening by taking notes and repeating back what he said. By the time the call was over, he had completely calmed down and felt Cindy was an ally to solving his problem.
Wigglesworth said it was “a seed moment,” a foreshadowing of a deeper insight she’d later develop after her 20 years with Exxon, as part of something she called spiritual intelligence, or SQ.
To journey without being changed is to be a nomad.
To change without journeys is to be a chameleon.
To journey and to be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.
“People often ask me, ‘What’s the key to Conscious Capitalism?’” says Timothy Henry. “I always tell them there are three important factors—leadership and leadership and leadership.”
Every year, hundreds of business leaders are inspired by the ideas of Conscious Capitalism but don’t know how to bring it to life in their own organizations. On the journey to doing better business, what moves us from inspiration to a specific aspiration that sticks?
By Geoff Campbell and Aleksandra Corwin of Round Table Companies
“Chief executive officers represent a single point of failure,” says Brian Robertson, a self-described “recovering CEO.”
“Gary Hamel famously said that if you ‘give someone monarchlike authority… sooner or later there will be a royal screwup,’” he shares.
Robertson is founder of HolacracyOne, whose Holacracy framework decentralizes leadership to bring more consciousness to business. “The most effective way to achieve conscious leadership is to get everyone in the whole system thinking like a CEO.”
At first blush, Holacracy often freaks people out because it lends itself to two common misconceptions. First, many assume it means no structure, and second, they assume that all decisions are made by consensus.
“People either worry it requires everyone to lead everything, or that no one leads anything, but the key is to get everyone taking full leadership of the particular area that is their purview,” Robertson said. “It doesn’t mean everyone manages everything,” he said. “That doesn’t scale and it doesn’t work.”
Robertson once heard a Starbucks executive note that the person responsible for cleaning the floors should be able to choose his or her mop—which is exactly what Holacracy promotes.
A Note from the Editor: We hear a lot of talk about a winning stakeholder model, while we are also aware that in practice, executing this tenet of Conscious Capitalism requires intention and action. After you’ve read the article, let us know your recent insights into exploring your own stakeholder map.
Do you want your piece of the pie or do you want to grow the pie?
All businesspeople should know themselves well enough to answer this fundamental question about what is more important to them. Growing the pie is a familiar concept to anyone who has studied economics and capitalism. Through stakeholder mapping, Conscious Capitalism, Inc. and its partners, like the Stagen Leadership Academy, are teaching business owners around the world how to expand the pie—because a larger pie simply feeds more people.
Many experienced CEOs who run huge organizations still don’t “get” the idea. What is a stakeholder exactly? Most people are familiar with shareholders, those who own stock in a company. But stakeholders are a wider array of anyone vested in the long-term success of a business. “Growing the pie” only happens when businesses value all stakeholders, not just shareholders.
PAR Technology Corp. needed a disruption in 2009. They were facing challenging times as new competitors entered the market, and all while the company was going through a leadership transition.
Karen Sammon had worked for years at the company her father founded, when she made the painful realization that what was best for the company at the time was that she leave PAR to gain outside experience. Current leadership encouraged her transition, which, while well-intentioned, in some ways made it more painful.
It was a difficult decision; she didn’t want to leave.
“Eventually I understood that leaving was the right thing for me, too,” she said.
Understanding didn’t make the reality any easier to accept. Sammon, currently chief of staff and strategy for PAR Technology Corp. and incoming Conscious Capitalism Inc. (CCI) board member, described this period as a time of searching and seeking.
“I admit I was a bit entitled,” Sammon said softly. “I thought I had the answers.”
She found a coach and set out to own what was hers and to embrace what she couldn’t control. It was the inflection point that sent her on the road toward Conscious Leadership and Conscious Capitalism. But Sammon’s Conscious Capitalism journey has been anything but linear.