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Whole Foods CEO: A New Way to Think About Capitalism

John Mackey believes capitalism is in the midst of an identity crisis. Here's how he plans to fix it.
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey in one of his stores on New York's Upper West Side.
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Listening to Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackey talk, you get the sense he read quite a bit of Ayn Rand growing up.

"Business is the greatest creator of value in the world," he said today at SXSW. "Business is fundamentally ethical, because no one has to trade. Business is fundamentally noble, because it elevates humanity. Business is fundamentally heroic, because it ends poverty."

Mackey, a 59-year-old vegan, is becoming something of a demigod among free-market liberatarians. His book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, which was published in January 2013, is a clarion call to reinstall trust in business among the masses.

"Businesses are seen as untrustworthy," he says. In 2012, the approval rating of big businesses in the United States was just 18 percent. "Capitalism wn the battle of the 20th Century, but it failed to caputre the minds of the intellectuals or the hearts of the people."

In Mackey's mind, it's black and white. Capitalism--good. Anything else--bad. He believes all this negative sentiment around "corporations being evil" is ludicrous. After all, he says, capitalism has largely ended world poverty, boosted literacy rates around the world, increased lifespans, and created an era of prosperity unprecedented throughout human history.

"Capitalism has done all these wonderful things, but it's so hated," he says.

Not surprisingly, Mackey's views can (and have) inspired quite a few critics to express their disagreement with him. "I have a lot of people that hate me now," he admits.

But Mackey is resolute. For whatever personal convictions that drives him to do so (not every CEO writes polemics about free-market capitalism in their spare time time) Mackey has elected himself the firebrand leader to inspire the next generation of leaders that must reverse the public perception of business.

His book, Conscious Capitalism, is essentially a 368-page manual for entrepreneurs looking to run their businesses in a way that inspires trust among the people. His arguments rests on four essential tactics:

1) All businesses need a higher purpose. "Money is not what drives most entrepreneurs," he says. "What drives most entrepreneurs is some kind of dream. Business will never be trusted if all it talks about is maximizing profit."

2) Business must create value for everyone that trades with it. "We're so hooked up to the win-lose dynamic," he says. "The most amazing thing about capitalism is that it's not a zero-sum game. It's a win-win-win-win-win. Business must create value for customers that trade with it."

3) We need a new type of leader. "Ultimately, you cannot create a conscious business unless the leadership is conscious with it," he says. "We need more servant leaders who are dedicated to serving the stakeholders." 

4) We have to create company cultures that are humanistic and empowering. "Conscious businesses have trusting cultures," he says. "They tend to be more authentic and caring."

Mackey believes the next generation of millenials will set the tone for how the world views business and capitalism, and he hopes the book will move future leaders to act in a new way.

"We wrote this book for the millennial generation," he says. "I'm a boomer, and I've largely given up on my generation. My generation is ideologically locked. The millennials are amazing. Their consciousness is much higher. The transformation the world needs comes from business--from entrpereneurs."




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