B Corps Can Create New Version of Capitalism Informed By Empathy

May 12, 2020

How Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) and Love Can Build an Honest, People-Centered Economy

This article is a personal perspective from an employee at B Lab, the nonprofit behind Certified B Corporations. In this series, we invite individual B Lab employees to share their experiences, inspiration, hopes, and challenges as they work toward a more inclusive and regenerative world. This edition of B Lab Voices is from B Lab’s Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Ellonda L. Green, Ed.D.

Capitalism is an economic system in which the government plays a secondary role, and an ever-shrinking group of people reap the benefit from economic and business decisions. I’ve heard the refrain that capitalism should work for everyone. It most definitely should, but the system wasn’t set up to work for everyone. Capitalism hasn’t worked, and certainly not for everyone. Those of us who work in Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) have been saying this for a long time. But some of the world has continued to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the inequities that exist around the globe. “It was isolated. It was those people. It was that neighborhood. It was their fault. We all had the same opportunities — right?”

Until now. Until a virus started purloining the lives of both the poor and the wealthy. Teachers and doctors. Renters and homeowners. Prisoners and prime ministers. Any color. Any age. And not even U.S. exceptionalism could save us. Brothers, sisters, children, parents and partners have all been, and continue to be, infected — and many have died.

Over the past six months, B Lab and references to the B Corp community redefining capitalism have been elevated to new heights. Today we are in the middle of a global pandemic, businesses have come to a screeching halt overnight, and the Dow Jones had its biggest point drop ever. It’s a known fact that disasters disproportionately affect the poor, those with physical or mental disabilities, unhoused individuals, Black folx, trans folx, Indigenous peoples, womxn, those who are system-impacted, and every intersection of ostracized people in between. And if this isn’t a disaster, then what is? Evidence is showing us that COVID-19 will be no different … but this time, there are B Corps.

Like all businesses, the B Corp community around the globe has been hit hard — but there’s a silver lining. For the first time this century, perhaps ever, we have the unprecedented opportunity to push the reset button, redesign, and rebuild a new version of capitalism. But this time, the scales will have shifted so that more of us will be equipped with something we didn’t share before: empathy. I think that’s what’s been missing. It was always someone else’s problem. When things don’t hit close enough to home, it’s easy to change the channel, to overlook and walk away. It takes effort and purpose to go looking in on someone else’s world, and so many of us before the pandemic only paid attention to what was affecting our own. We were lacking empathy and the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference — that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.

The Role of Love in Business, During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic

B Corps are in the position to change the world, to really remake capitalism so it works for all. Each challenge is an opportunity to meet our mission here at B Lab: to redefine success in business. Globally, we are working to continue the conversation to address the biggest factors that have impacted people, and one thing that remains stable, consistent and highly revered is love. How can we put love at the center of all we do?

After reading stories with headlines surrounding COVID-19 that described the pandemic as being the perfect storm for Black Americans, Latinx folx being twice as likely as White folx to lose their job during a pandemic, trans health care disparities, or the latest capitalistic art of charging passengers to upgrade to a social-distancing seat — as if someone with less disposable income doesn’t deserve the safety of space — I turn to the stories of love.

COVID-19 has also highlighted so many stories of kindness, empathy and love— not just from within the B Corp community but from humanity. We are looking for ways to use this momentum to put people first. Everything boils down to the people. If we can learn to put people first, we will crack the (shoddy) foundation on which capitalism was built.

Vulnerable populations are more likely to work at essential businesses, and therefore are not able to work from home and are exposed disproportionately to the risks of COVID-19. (Photo from Rawpixel)
Vulnerable populations are more likely to work at essential businesses, and therefore are not able to work from home and are exposed disproportionately to the risks of COVID-19. (Photo from Rawpixel)

Empathy and Love Require Us to See EVERYONE as Essential

JEDI experts, sociologists, educators and policymakers around the world have been stressing the importance of putting people first. All people, equally. And now things are so unequal, we are past wanting equality and demanding equity. And now the world is silent. The ozone layer is healing itself, the dolphins have returned and the canals are crystal clear. Microscopic parasites have invaded lungs, masks, gloves and homes everywhere. And this time “hits different.” Nobody is getting out unaffected and nobody quite knows what to do now that the apocalypse has actually befallen us. ’Cuz y’all, even the birds are confused. (Is it just me, or are the birds awake, like, 24/7 now?)

Commercials and news segments tell of groups honoring and thanking the “essential workers,” who are not just the doctors and the nurses. The parameters of this White-supremacist-based term have shifted right before my eyes. Because, in some of our communities, “essential” has always included folx who are stocking the shelves at our grocery stores. Truck and delivery drivers. Workers at Asian-owned corner stores and at bodegas. Now, “essential workers” include many more faces than the term once generally indicated—because everyone needs all of these people now. Let’s be honest here: White folx need them. Black and Brown communities always included these folx because these folx, well, they were us.

But these positions are among the lowest-paid in the U.S. Vulnerable populations are also likely to work more in essential businesses, and therefore are not able to work from home and are exposed disproportionately to the risks of COVID-19. For example, in the U.S., Hispanic workers account for 17% of total employment but constitute 53% of agricultural workers; Black or African Americans make up 12% of all employed workers, but account for 30% of licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses. And while I sit reflecting on my own experience with COVID-19, I’ve realized that so far, all of the White people I personally know who have gotten the virus lived, while every Black person I know who contracted it died. I’m not a statistician, but flag on the play, man. That just cannot be right. But it is the current reality.

Leading with Love, Doing Our Best: B Lab’s Support of Staff During This Time

At B Lab, we’ve had the privilege of transitioning to working from home, so we’ve been focusing on supporting our teams remotely. We started with putting our own masks on first while we devised a plan for course correction, authorizing the team to take one wellness day per week during the first two weeks of the pandemic. We also encouraged folx to begin restricting their meeting time to no more than four hours per day.

B Lab’s People and Culture team and the broader People and Operations team largely hold and respond to the employees’ needs in the wake of this pandemic. And while this may be one of the most challenging gigs I’ve held to date, I couldn’t be more proud of my team. We’d love to serve as an inspiration for other B Corps to support their staff. Below are a few things we’ve implemented and shifted internally, because we are nothing if not for our people, whom we have decided to put first—always, and especially now. We strive to make decisions that always put equity at the forefront and we use this lens to create culture change across the organization:

  • Decreased priorities in order to focus on wellness, mental health, and manager support of staff.
  • Reallocated funds to our in-house therapy program to better support staff through the first 90 days of the crisis.
  • Made updates to engagement surveys and performance management questions to meet the times but continue to measure what matters.
  • Attended divisional meetings and sessions for sensing so we can be proactive, give support or answer questions.
  • Organized and made space available to host and promote optional staff-arranged virtual gatherings (yoga, games, cooking classes, happy hours, etc.).
  • Streamlined employee communications — biweekly manager updates, COVID-19-dedicated Slack channel, and direct emails to staff about updated health benefits and laws to support staff during this time.
  • Made personal communications to candidates with roles under recruitment.
  • Honored commitments to individuals already offered positions.
  • Continued our journey on blind recruiting.
  • Onboarded our first fully remote team member.

At B Lab, we love a good check-in question, and I came across these for one of our latest team meetings by Brooke Anderson, a Bay Area-based organizer and photojournalist. She emphasized the need to check in on yourself, too, while sheltering in place. Begin asking yourself these questions each day as a reminder to stay grounded during a time when it’s easy to spiral:

  • What am I grateful for today?
  • Who am I checking in on or connecting with today?
  • What expectations of “normal” am I letting go of today?
  • How am I getting out today?
  • How am I moving my body today?
  • What beauty am I cultivating, creating or inviting today?

Join the conversation and share your thoughts, ideas and what your organization is doing to create a people-centered workplace by visiting us on the B Hive.

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