Ask Russell Simmons
Q How do you balance the demands of running a business with your desire to give back? Can commerce and charity coexist?
G. Kofi Annan
Hillside, New Jersey
You're already giving back because you run a business that creates jobs. As an entrepreneur, the most important service you provide to the world is helping your company grow so that you can hire more employees and give them an opportunity to earn a living. To me, giving back isn't about charity. It's about empowerment. It's better to hand someone a fishing pole than a fish. That's the difference between helping someone lead a healthy lifestyle and just helping him survive, and it's one reason I've started so many companies.
If you want to do more to give back, it's not as hard as you might think to incorporate that mission into the way you run your company. The easiest way to do that is with cause marketing. It's an idea that has become more common lately, and I try to do it with all of my businesses. You help customers affect change by buying your products. Pick causes that have a connection with what you do, causes that you and your customers care about.
In December, I created the Diamond Empowerment Fund, which helps schools in Africa, as a complement to Simmons Jewelry. We sell a conflict-free diamond bracelet and donate half of the profits to the fund. My reason for doing it was personal--it's part of why I'm in the diamond business--but the initiative is bringing in new customers and getting us press. My partners who have been selling diamonds their whole lives can't believe how great our branded business is doing.
Some people will say that it's wrong to use charitable contributions to promote your business, but I'd rather see a picture of an African school on an ad than one of a rich person.
And you don't have to give away profits to make a difference. In 2003, I started Run Athletics and advertised a shoe, the Phat Classic, as a way to promote racial equality and reparations (the tag line was, "Isn't it time for a change?"). We sold hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of sneakers--a lot of them to white kids--because everybody responded to the idea of buying from someone other than Phil Knight.
Russell Simmons is the founder of Def Jam Recordings and author of Do You! a new book about his blueprint for success.