True Confessions: How the Social Venture Institute Helps Business Help the World
Artisan chocolate-maker John and Kira’s has learned plenty about the pursuit of a triple-bottom line and approaching its business every day in a sustainable way, building a booming company from humble beginnings.
Instrumental to the company’s initial success was the Social Venture Institute
, so much that one of cofounder's John Doyle's quotes is featured on the invitation to this year’s SVI:
“If you want to run a good business, not just a profitable business, but a business that does good for the world, you need to attend SVI.”
These strong words are a testament to the power of positive mindshare in a field that necessitates it. Dozens of local businesses working toward a triple bottom line will come together on Oct. 19-20 at the Hub Cira Centre for this year’s SVI, convened by the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia
, in an effort to foster a more socially responsible business climate throughout Greater Philadelphia. The annual forum provides an opportunity for companies to share their knowledge and experiences working for the people, planet, and profit.
Now in its 10th year, the SVI draws attendees at various stages of growth, from socially conscious start-ups to well-established leaders in sustainable development. The diverse group comes together for a highly focused, two-day forum to generate practical solutions by sharing stories and challenges.
At the core of the SVI are its “True Confessions” sessions, keynote presentations that focus on struggles and challenges the speakers have encountered in their commitment to corporate social responsibility.
Leanne Krueger-Braneky, executive director of the Sustainable Business Network, says True Confessions differ from traditional keynote addresses in three important ways: “they’re definitely more honest, more vulnerable and more truthful.” The SBN finds the frankness of True Confessions makes the sessions “ultimately more helpful and useful” for attendees.
Keynote speaker Mandy Cabot appreciates the True Confessions format. She believes their focus makes the SVI less about “talking heads,” and more about “real life.” As CEO and president of the footwear company, Dansko
, Cabot has overcome countless challenges in corporate social responsibility. Her experiences as an innovator and leader provide an invaluable cache of knowledge for entrepreneurs hoping to follow in her path.
Cabot cofounded Dansko with her husband and partner, Peter Kjellerup, in 1990, before the concept or language for a triple bottom line existed. However, Cabot says that she and Kjellerup are “hardwired” to be environmentally and socially conscious, and they instilled those values into their business from the start.
Not cobblers by trade, Cabot and Kjellerup originally owned a horse farm. As with many successful businesses, Dansko arose from a demand they unintentionally created. After purchasing unique close-heeled clogs from a shop in Kjellerup’s native Denmark, the couple returned to the U.S. and found the clogs very comfortable and perfectly suited for horse farming. They shared their discovery with others in the community, and brought some more of the Danish shoes back for friends and family after their next visit. Many overseas treks and clog shipments later, Cabot and Kjellerup decided to try producing the shoes on their own. Dansko (which literally means “Danish shoe”) was born.
Twenty years later, Dansko generates annual sales of $140 million, with shoes sold online and in more than 2,500 retail outlets internationally. Eight Dansko shoe collections carry the American Podiatric Medical Association’s Seal of Acceptance, the group’s certification of products that promote quality foot health. Dansko is a founding member of B Corporation, a group of like-minded for-profit businesses; and a 2010 recipient of the SBN’s Triple Bottom Line Award.
Always keenly interested in “environmental stewardship,” Cabot and Kjellerup utilized Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Dansko’s corporate headquarters in West Grove, Pa. The LEED Gold-Certified building features a “Living Wall,” which acts like a natural air filter to enhance indoor air quality; a vegetative roof; a rain collection system; a parking lot with naturally draining pervious pavement; 1,040 solar panels; recycled and recyclable flooring; low VOC paint; lighting with occupancy sensors; energy-efficient windows; and eco-resin panels for partitioning.
Dansko’s enormous financial and environmental success is only eclipsed by its social efforts. In 2012, the company made the radical transition from private ownership to a 100% employee-owned company, or Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP).
Cabot says Dansko employees are “over the moon” about the ESOP. “This secures not only a significant retirement plan for them, but it also ensures our commitment to stay independent and keep the family of Dansko intact,” she says. Dansko’s strong employee engagement and family culture made the transition to ownership a natural one.
Although the financial implications of an ESOP are substantial, they cannot make employees “magically engage,” Cabot says. She quotes Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive,” to summarize her thoughts on creating a motivated workforce and positively engaged employee culture.
“Four things are really essential. You must give your employees autonomy, discretionary latitude at all levels; mastery, the opportunity to grow, learn and develop; purpose, the desire to leave the world a better place than we found it; and community, a strong sense of family and ownership,” Cabot says. These business practices have propelled Dansko to excel in all three pillars of the triple bottom line.
While True Confessions allow attendees to benefit from other companies’ gained wisdom, the SVI’s case study session provides a learning opportunity through real-time decision-making. A panel of experts will advise a company that has come to a crossroads in its growth, John and Kira’s.
John and Kira’s is a socially innovative, mail-order chocolate company, which uses sustainable ingredients from small family producers and urban gardens. At the inaugural SVI in 2002, John & Kira's was a case study as a fledgling triple bottom line business. Ten years later, the company has come full circle, about to embark upon a new stage of growth. This presents a unique opportunity for a follow-up study.
“Obviously we’d like to benefit from our participation in this panel, and learn all we can from the experts,” says Julie Yannalfo, director of business development at John and Kira’s. “But we also think it’s a universal topic that other attendees will learn from as well.”
Cabot agrees that networking groups and forums are integral to achieving true success in sustainability: “Whether they work for Dansko or other businesses, we want everyone to look at the greater meaning of sustainability: people, planet, profit, purpose.”
NICOLE WOODS is a social media consultant and freelance writer living in Delaware County.