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Honoring the Champions of Do-Good-ism

Business icons, including Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, turned out this week to celebrate the Social Venture Network's inaugural Hall of Fame.
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The true believers were out in force Tuesday night. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield toted backpacks full of rubber stamps for marking currency with anti-Citizens United messages: part of their crusade to get money out of politics. Jeffrey Hollender talked about his post-Seventh Generation plans to direct billions of corporate procurement dollars to cooperatives of locally owned businesses--and also to launch an organic, fair-trade condom brand. Almost everyone remarked on the irony of corralling so many triple-bottom-liners in a failed bank.

The event, held in Midtown Manhattan’s majestic Gotham Hall (formerly Greenwich Savings), was a celebration of the Social Venture Network’s inaugural Hall of Fame. If you’re not familiar with the SVN, you should be. Almost 10 years before Hillary Clinton advised us that it takes a village, SVN had created a village of villages: home to entrepreneurs and investors leveraging the power of community to make the world a better place. Investor Josh Mailman and Calvert Fund founder Wayne Silby convened the first conference of more than 70 people at a Colorado ranch in 1987. Since then, SVN has served as base camp for socially responsible icons like the Body Shop’s Anita Roddick; Stonyfield Farms’s Gary Hirshberg; Joe de Vivre’s Chip Conley; Birkenstock’s Margo Fraser; and Ashoka’s Bill Drayton.

This week, SVN inducted those founders and roughly two dozen others into a hall of fame that honors their contributions to preserving the environment, creating caring and democratic workplaces, empowering struggling populations, fighting for social and economic justice and just generally trying to leave the world in better shape than they found it. And they managed all that without sacrificing growth. All the entrepreneurs honored had built organizations of at least $50 million in revenue and/or the equivalent in social or environmental impact.

The mood was buoyant one week after a national election that--from the perspective of most attendees--could not have gone much better. Master of ceremonies Morgan Spurlock (best known for his 2003 documentary Super Size Me) gently lampooned the hippy-dippy, tree-hugging ethos coexisting comfortably with financial success. “It seems like only 10 years ago you were all talking about saving the world, sitting around in a hot tub, eating vegan food, smoking weed--and look at you now!” he joked to the crowd. “For all you people here who voted for the Green Party candidate for President, you get to meet everybody else who voted for the Green Party candidate for President. You’re all here.” (He wasn’t being entirely hyperbolic. How many other events offer vegan alternatives not only for the entrée but also for dessert?)

Onstage, the honorees reaffirmed their commitment to a range of causes, from Conley’s quest to measure the “emotional fist print” of companies on employees and their families to Jeffrey Hollender’s desire to help the poorest communities in the United States leverage “wonderful assets that they can turn into a brighter future.” Many described the influence of SVN on their work and lives. “I remember the first time I came to SVN,” said Eileen Fisher, founder of the namesake fashion brand. “We were sitting in a circle, and they went around and wanted to know what our passions were. I had never sat in a circle before, and no one had ever asked me about my passion. That really inspired me. Now, at Eileen Fisher, we always sit in circles, and we always ask people, 'What’s your passion?'”

Anyone who considered social entrepreneurship a recent phenomenon would have been quickly disabused. In conversations before the ceremony, many attendees described starting companies in the '80s and even in the '70s, during the first blush of the green movement. “I’ve been doing fair trade and organic since before most people used the words fair trade and organic,” said Scott Leonard, co-founder and CEO of Indigenous, which manufactures organic clothes using networks of artisans in the poorest regions of South America.

The event also signaled a passing of the baton to the next generation. During the reception, dozens of more-recent entrepreneurs mingled with and sought advice and support from their predecessors. Many of those younger founders are tackling the big issues in inventive and idiosyncratic ways. So, for example, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez promote sustainability and reconnect people with their food through Back to the Roots, a company that makes sustainable mushroom-growing kits. Mal Warwick is a partner in the One World Futbol Project, which delivers virtually indestructible soccer balls to children in refugee camps and other harsh environments.

But perhaps it's more accurate to say these entrepreneurs are sharing the baton rather than passing it. Judy Wicks and Laury Hammel--both founders of socially conscious companies--accepted their award for creating the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). The two have been champions of sustainable business for more than 30 years, and an exuberant Hammel made clear they had no plans to slow down. “It’s time to take a stand,” he exhorted the cheering audience. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. Even though a lot of us are turning 65, we’re just getting started. Let’s go!”

Last updated: Nov 15, 2012

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor at Large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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