For the better part of a year, I've been interviewing business leaders and asking them questions about storytelling and the future of business in America. So far, these interviews have included more than 250 leaders from diverse organizations - profit and not for profit, small business owners and CEO's of large enterprises. I've shared some of those interviews (including one with marketing legend Simon Sinek) here in this column.
Each of the leaders I've interviewed has a different perspective on where the story of business - and the business of story - is going next. But one theme that has run throughout these interviews is the idea of Millennials and the purpose-driven business. Millennials are looking beyond innovation and profit, seeking to make a difference in their communities and to make an impact on issues they care about.
This month, I interviewed Christopher R. Upperman, Assistant Administrator for Public Engagement with the U.S. Small Business Administration. As Upperman told me, that's a long government name for the guy whose job it is to manage relationships and strategize about how the SBA engages with its key constituencies: small business owners and entrepreneurs, chambers of commerce, trade associations, corporate and private sector entities including their foundations, and businesses of all sizes.
In this role he also serves as the agency's key strategic advocate for Millennials, raising awareness around entrepreneurship among the nation's Millennial population. As a highly accomplished millennial himself - he's an Obama Administration appointee to the SBA and a former White House staffer and Congressional aide - he's perfectly suited for the role.
Millennials and the Rise of the B Corps
The SBA enjoys a bird's eye view of what it takes to start, build and grow a business in America. They have resources and insight into who is building those businesses, and how.
One trend that Upperman has observed in his post at the SBA is the rise of "B Corps" among Millennial entrepreneurs. B Corps are for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.
With fewer than 2,000 B Corps certified since B Lab's formation in 2006, B Corps are not yet statistically significant in the entrepreneurial space, but they are rising in popularity. Last year's IPO of Etsy - the online handcrafts bazaar - brought attention to the growing number of companies that are investing in receiving B Corp certification. B Corps are as diverse as Patagonia, Warby Parker and Ben and Jerry's; one thing they all have in common is a commitment to sustainable business practices.
Regarding the rising popularity of B-Corps, Upperman asked, "what other kind of business can you start that has some kind of benefit to the general society?"
From Participation Trophies to the Triple Bottom Line
But it's not just about B Corps. According to Upperman, "Data shows the millennial generation is categorically different than previous generations. We're digital natives, more highly educated than Gen X and Baby Boomers. We have access to more resources, and we were educated differently."
Upperman noted that many Millennials were placed in classroom environments where collaboration and participation were heavily rewarded. According to Upperman, "We received 'participation medals', accolades for effort."
Of course, those very participation medals have often been wielded as an indictment against the Millennial generation, but as Upperman said, "we're now seeing that it's a strength, because it has impacted the way we connect with people and our communities. We see our actions as interconnected and having a direct impact on society."
Upperman continued, "As individuals, Millennials recognize that there should be a purpose behind what you do. There's a social impact to the choices we make. We aren't just looking at the profit or money involved. We're also asking how does it affect the planet, society, and the bottom line? Millennials are looking for that 'triple bottom line.' For us, it's not just about profit, but about people, and the planet too."
The Sharing Economy and Social Media
Upperman ties the Millennial drive toward entrepreneurship with a social conscience to the rise of social media and the sharing economy.
Not to formally endorse any one particular company, we can use the rise and success of specific companies over the past decade as evidence of Millennials leveraging social media and technology to the benefit of society at large. Upperman adds, "Facebook was started to connect college students with other students across campus, then it expanded to other campuses, then expanded beyond that to where we are now in 2016 - allowing people and businesses to connect with one another in ways they couldn't before. Another example of disruption, Uber and Lyft aren't just about giving taxicab commissions a run for their money, they're about giving people a choice, hassle-free negotiation and an alternative to cash. And they're also about the greater good of getting people off the road and preventing single-driver trips."
Upperman continued, "Airbnb is another example. The purpose is not just to offer competition to hotels, but also to give an authentic feel of a local city. Whether it's internationally or domestically, you get to experience what it's really like to live in a particular city of your choosing. It's a contrast to the hotel experience where the accommodations are basically the same. With Airbnb, you could stay in a house, a hut or a hammock - you're seeing more robust and dynamic experiences, and being afforded opportunities to engage with local communities across the world in ways we haven't seen before. The social benefit is in breaking down those barriers that exist between people. By experiencing communities and cultures outside that generic hotel experience, we realize that we're not so different."
This socially-centric approach has far reaching implications - not just for the types of businesses that Millennials themselves start, but for any business, anywhere in the world, that hopes to do business with them.
According to Upperman, citing the U.S. Census Bureau, "Millennials are the largest age group cohort in history, and we are moving into that prime age where we're key consumers. We're becoming first time homebuyers, possibly purchasing new cars and becoming more influential economically. This means that businesses and government are going to have to make some major adjustments. We care about a lot of issues, from our diet and what we consume, to our financial future: we don't want to eat food from a company where they're putting chickens in tight quarters, we want grass fed-beef, we want Fair Trade and organic vegetables...additionally, we want the government to look closely at easing our exorbitant student loan debt. Most of all, businesses should recognize we're voting our conscience with our pocketbooks."
Millennials as a generation are motivated by more than profit when it comes to the opportunities they seek to pursue. They're seeking purpose, both in their personal lives and the types of businesses they're starting. This is a crucial understanding both in regards to Millennials and entrepreneurship, and the companies that seek to earn their business. The federal government is not off the hook here either, "I encourage Millennials to require more from our government, especially from agencies such as the SBA who offer so many resources for entrepreneurs and business owners. We want to ensure we're also being responsive and meeting the needs of the younger generation."
As Upperman said, Millennials' focus on purpose and the triple bottom line "isn't just going to change business models, it's going to change the world."