If we don't want the next generation to be completely cynical about business, it's time to show our kids that profits and concern for others are not mutually exclusive
How in the world do you help kids think about business as a vehicle for economic well-being and as a means of fulfilling their most idealistic hopes for the world? That was the question weighing me down one morning last summer.
It was 95 degrees in the California desert. And it was only 8:30 a.m. It was the fifth day of summer camp. Teenagers with vastly different backgrounds and points of view had been working on business plans all week. Their work was going well. They were excited. I knew some of them had been up late the night before. (Lights-out is just a signal to socialize in the dark!) But the session ahead wasn't going to be an easy one.
They were scheduled to act out vignettes exploring the relationship between profit and principle. They would struggle with the competing claims that arise in the quest for profit and social responsibility. We had challenged them to "do no harm" as they wrote their business plans.
Kids are more radical than adults are, and many experience a deeper level of outrage on issues related to the environment and social justice. But many of the kids we work with -- inner-city skeptics and private-school cynics alike -- are too hip, too cool, to cozy up to the notion of business being socially responsible. It's not that they don't like the idea -- they've just seen and heard too much to the contrary.
For kids whose parents are laid off, whose communities have been exploited and then abandoned, and whose backyards have been poisoned, business is Gordon Gekko, the villain of Wall Street, the movie. It's Exxon and oil spills. Business is the force that puts liquor stores but not grocery stores in their neighborhoods. Business is authority and power.
Business, our kids know, clear-cuts mountain forests. Business traps dolphins in the pursuit of profit. Business fights for its right to sell guns while lobbying Congress for tougher crime bills aimed at young people. The idea that business will be the lead activist in a quest for a sustainable planet seems pretty far-fetched to many of them.
So how, I wondered, waiting for them to arrive, could we tap their buried idealism? What would allow teenagers to suspend disbelief for just a moment, just long enough to consider their own power to reinvent business, to be not in conflict with the community but in partnership with it? How could we inspire a vision of business that's more than a legal alternative to the hustle of the street? Something other than just another con to be manipulated for their own piece of the pie? And then I remembered my grandparents.
Hazel and Lacey had run a small commercial dairy. I don't remember either of them saying a word about doing good. There was no foundation set up to give away money. No one ever talked about social responsibility. No one would have awarded them any honors for their lofty social values. They had no language for social responsibility, no formal organizations to recognize their actions, no consciousness that they had a management style. They probably could not have described the difference between a matriarchal workplace and an egalitarian workplace if their bottom line had depended on it. (The dairy was some combination of the two.)
But from the time I was old enough to hang out in the milk room and catch a ride on a milk truck, I was aware of the young men and women they hired and helped through college. (Women drove milk trucks for my grandparents in the early 1960s.) I remember schedules rearranged so that one or another of those hired hands could get to classes on time. I knew about the milk given to families with children who were never able to pay their bills. I was often in the next room when someone came by my grandmother's office to ask for something for the town. I remember late-night deliveries to a hospital that had run out of milk, and merchants who needed more cream and called just as my family was gathering for dinner on Christmas Eve. We might grump about it, but there was never a question; my grandfather, my father, or, later, my brother would go out into the cold of a Maine winter's night, load up the truck, and make the delivery.
For a long time my grandparents' dairy was the only show in town, a monopoly. And it was through their business that my grandparents made money. A new Oldsmobile every other year was my grandfather's sole indulgence. Hazel went to the beauty parlor every few weeks and spoiled her grandchildren.
And somehow, the notion of doing good, not as an act of charity or as something you did after you had figured out your yearly profit, but as an ever-present responsibility of life, was one of the earliest messages I got. I was never lectured to, and I had little exposure to articles or books about "how to do good business" (unless you count Farm Journal, which arrived every month). But I was shown.
The integration of the pursuit of profit with a concern for others was acted out daily right in front of me. My grandparents understood they had responsibilities to their employees, to their customers, to their community, and to each other. It was not a theory -- it was a series of demonstrations.
And then I knew the challenge of what we were trying to do that morning. The case studies the kids were about to act out wouldn't be enough. Talk was empty air. Things to read wouldn't do the trick. Young people need models. And they need real-life opportunities to struggle with the dual aims of making money and making a difference.
Doing something for others has long been called charity or social work or community service. Making money is called business. And the two have been neatly compartmentalized. Even today some companies identify themselves as "socially responsible" by pointing to the percentage of profits they give to the community, not to the decisions made to attain those profits.
For generations, kids have been counseled to pursue profit or philanthropy. Often, of course, girls were encouraged to do good as social workers or teachers, while boys were expected to make money. Though that happens a little less often now, rarely are either boys or girls told to aim for both at the same time, and even less often have they been shown how it's done.
As our kids settled around the room I entertained the fantasy of importing Hazel and Lacey as "models in residence" at camp. But this generation needs its own models. "Do as I say, not as I do" is an old saw that doesn't work with kids these days. "Walk your talk," they'll answer. And that we must.
We, as adults in business, are inextricably linked to the next generation. Reinventing business is not just about reducing trade deficits, capturing world markets, or attaining total quality management. Reinventing business is about providing positive, tangible, daring models that support the idealism of young people while giving them the skills and the knowledge to attain economic well-being. They need more Laceys and Hazels.* * *
Joline Godfrey is a partner in An Income of Her Own, an entrepreneurial-education company for young women, and the author of Our Wildest Dreams (HarperCollins, 1992). Hazel and Lacey still live on the farm in Maine. The dairy was sold some years ago.