5 Things You Need to Know about Building a People-First Economy

  • September 12, 2019

There’s a seismic shift happening in the economy today. Business is changing for the better. The seemingly age-old, titanic mandates on which companies operate — shareholder primacy, short-termism, and maximizing profits at the expense of people, purpose, and the planet — are starting to go out of style.

Businesses that prioritize the wellbeing of people to create enduring benefits not just for themselves, but their communities and the planet as well, are on the rise. As 181 CEOs of top U.S. companies announced last week of their commitment to “promote an economy that serves all Americans,” even the big fish are getting on board.

A new paradigm of business that celebrates the dignity of all people and builds a healthy relationship with the planet is emerging. Proponents of this new paradigm have long advocated a change in the course of capitalism to place greater value on social, political, and ecological equality.

Recently, Elizabeth Warren introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act, aiming the scrutiny of government at the unchecked and bloated growth of capitalists that have embraced shareholder primacy and their pursuit of increasing profits, even at the expense of humanity and the planet. While the Business Roundtable statement was certainly encouraging, B Lab (the organization behind the B Corporation movement) co-founder Jay Coen Gilbert offered the top ten ideas that business leaders can act on today to more effectively match their actions with their words.

When we take steps to acknowledge our interdependence, do our part to protect our planet’s future and to create an economy where everyone can contribute and thrive — we create a world in which everybody matters, and everybody wins. We call this a People-First Economy, and we need your help to build it.

Before we buckle in for the upcoming People-First Economy Summit, here are five things you need to know about this growing movement made up of progressive business leaders, activists, and leaders across industries.

1. The importance of community

One of the most insidious and pervasive myths of unchecked capitalism is that we’re all on this road alone and our only responsibility is to look after ourselves. The reality is that hyper-individualism, which feeds toxic competition, back-stabbing, and a winner-takes-all mentality, is one of the most harmful obstacles we have to overcome in acknowledging the full value every person brings to the table.

BK authors and People-First Economy speakers, Charles Vogl, author of The Art of Community and Building Brand Communities (forthcoming), and Edgar Villanueva, author of Decolonizing Wealth, emphasize the importance of community from varied perspectives.

Vogl, an organizational consultant and expert on community, emphasizes that community-building is one of the oldest social rituals in the world. The tendency for people to want to be empowered by shared, inclusive spaces is a wholly innate one. Organizations hold the potential to build brand communities around a shared vision, identity, or culture that can mobilize people toward a greater end. They have a responsibility for creating an inclusive community for their employees.

Villanueva, an expert in philanthropy, draws from indigenous practices that place the self as inherently interconnected--with each other and with the planet. He points out that hyper-individualism severs these ties to each other, and we lose sight of the unique contributions each person brings to the community and the ability to empower each other and move more effectively toward this shared vision.

When this emphasis on community is re-centered, and we recognize our limitless potential when we’re working together, in community with one another, we can garner solutions where everyone has a purpose in creating a world that works for all.

2. The difference between equity and equality

Although many people use these words interchangeably, there are significant and important distinctions between the two. And it’s important to get it right.Without this distinction, we stand no chance in closing the gender wage gap, mitigating wealth inequality, dismantling racism, combatting religious discrimination, or any other social stigma that keeps people from manifesting their purpose and potential.

To put it simply: equality is a promise, while equity is a practice.

  • Equality is an aspiration where every person is given a fair chance without judgment or mischaracterization based on their identity, political beliefs, or anything that might be seen as outside the majority.
  • Equity refers to the highly different ways that we each experience life, and while working toward equality, the recognition that there will be no one-size-fits-all solution.

Many diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioners, such as Jennifer Brown, author of How to Be an Inclusive Leader and speaker at the People-First Economy Online Summit, are working to educate organizations on the complementary definitions of equity and equality. As Jennifer points out, organizational inclusion practices rely heavily on the practice of equity and increasing our awareness, acknowledgment, and respect toward difference. This can be uncomfortable, especially when considering that movements toward equality in the past have pushed the narrative that “we’re all the same.” We’re not, and that is okay too.

It’s been shown time and again that higher rates of diversity have direct and undeniable correlations to higher levels of creativity, innovation, and profit. The first step in being able to think about the differences between equity and equality is talking about how we’re all different — from this place, we can identify the multiple strategies we need to implement to move toward greater equality. A great place to start is Hawk Newsome’s People-First Economy Summit talk, “Racism in America,” or co-author of The B Corp Handbook Ryan Honeyman’s latest work that grapples with internalizing and combating white supremacy.

3. Safe workplaces hold our most innovative solutions

If recognizing the distinction between equity and equality is the first step in creating inclusive workplaces and communities, then the next step is validating people’s different experiences such that they feel safe, heard, and valued.

Studies show that when diversity increases in an organization, conflict inevitably arises, too. Although conflict and disagreement are necessary for the creative process, employees at all levels may feel wary, and even excluded, from sharing their ideas if they don’t feel safe in doing so. A workplace that encourages disagreement by inviting a diversity of perspectives to contribute must equally commit to building a culture where people don’t fear punishment, retribution, or judgment.

When organizations are able to simultaneously encourage disagreement in pursuit of garnering creative ideas and imbue psychological safety and accountability into their processes, they become more innovative and more successful.

How do we create safer, more inclusive spaces to encourage collaboration and creativity? Tiffany Jana, author of Overcoming Bias, Erasing Institutional Bias and Subtle Acts of Exclusion, and co-host of the People-First Economy Summit, shows that unearthing our biases is a key part of the process. But in order to confront our biases, we must also be willing to talk about them openly. Mary-Frances Winters, diversity and inclusion expert and author of We Can’t Talk about That at Work!, has shared tools and frameworks to have safe conversations about stigmatizing topics.

4. Sustainability isn’t enough - we need to think regeneratively

You’ve likely seen the frightening headlines—how many more years do we have left on earth? 122-degree temperatures in Arizona, Greenland losing 12.5 million tons of ice, and scientists warning politicians and laypeople that we have to act now before it’s too late. Where do progressive businesses fit in this fight for a healthy planet?

Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, Executive Director of the Social Venture Circle, speaks candidly about the role businesses play in addressing the increasingly devastating effects of climate change. She cautions organizations against an inauthentic and ineffective approach to addressing climate change, namely greenwashing, which is “an attempt to capitalize on the growing demand for products that are environmentally sound and operations that are socially impactful, but conveys a false or misleading impression about a company or its products.”

Despite the conversation about how to build a green and sustainable future, we’ve found ourselves back in the trap of maximizing profits over a healthy planet. A company’s brand or product that’s founded on the illusion of sustainability, yet fails to actually be accountable to the waning resources and mounting ecological disasters, is replicating the old way. We can, and must, do better. Simply upholding the status quo of how businesses have been run in the past is no longer enough. We need to think not just sustainably, but regeneratively and restoratively, so that future generations can continue to evolve, create, and grow serving a planet that has given us so much.

5. It’s the wave of the future

When the leaders of the largest multinational corporations say that the way things have been done is getting in the way of human progress and won’t serve us in the future, alarms should go off for everyone. From startups, small, family owned businesses, to mid-size organizations, adopting the new business paradigm isn’t just a nice idea — it’s imperative for surviving, let alone thriving.

Ben & Jerry, co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and members of the business roundtable, have spoken publicly about the company’s investment in issues like racial justice, LGBTQ+ equality, the global refugee crisis, democracy, and climate change. This once small, independently owned business that has grown into a powerful brand that’s organized around supporting others in solving the world’s most urgent problems sets the example for how businesses ought to be run in the future. Even after the purchase of Ben & Jerry’s by Unilever, a deal that Ben Cohen described as “becoming a pimple on the ass” of this multinational corporation, Unilever has made a distinctive shift toward emphasizing and encouraging organizations to develop purpose-driven brands.

Progressive politicians and leaders across private and public sectors have issued a clear call to action—things need to change, and we need to work together in order to do so. Hidden in the hearts of those leading and working in businesses is the untapped potential to leave the world better than we found it, but we have to commit to future-facing, practical, and instrumental strategies that respect the dignity of all people and the earth’s waning resources. The solutions to these complex global issues are within us all, provided we commit to working together and collaborating toward a just end.

Against this backdrop, the investments organizations are making today in their employees, communities, and a healthy planet can yield returns that make the promise of a People-First Economy a reality. To get ahead of the curve and jumpstart your organization so that we all have a fighting chance, join a growing movement of progressive business leaders and activists who have committed to shaping the new economy where everybody matters, and everyone wins.

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