Who makes change happen--the activist or the entrepreneur?

Recently, this topic came up in a thought-provoking conversation. I like to illustrate the point with an example I heard from my friends at the US Humane Society: the stories of Henry Bergh and Henry Ford.

Henry Bergh worked as an American diplomat in the early 1860s. After witnessing the inhumane treatment of carriage and farm horses in Russia, he returned to the States and founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Today the ASPCA is still a vibrant and growing organization that advocates for humane treatment of animals.

And yet despite Bergh's impressive legacy, an argument can be made that his efforts to create a better quality of life for horses were dwarfed by the work of someone who had a reputation as a cold-hearted (not to mention, anti-Semitic) industrialist: Henry Ford.

Though Ford was not known for his devotion to animal rights, his success in commercializing the car and internal combustible engine relieved millions of horses of their title as beasts of burden.

The term and the work associated with "horsepower" was transferred to the combustion engine, which was placed in automobiles and tractors, and took on the role of conveying people and freight.

Activists like Bergh channel their passion toward social issues and advocate for change. At the same time, and often not in coordination, innovators like Ford work to develop lasting innovations that shift the marketplace.

They too can profoundly change our behavior--often (though not always) in a positive direction.

On the bleeding edge of entrepreneurship

Take Honest Tea, which I co-founded back in 1998.

Over the years there had been several activist campaigns to persuade large food and beverage companies to carry Fair Trade products.

As the first bottled tea company to launch Fair Trade products, Honest Tea faced several challenges associated with being on the bleeding edge.

We worked with small, grassroots suppliers who didn't have the tightest quality control (we learned that moldy tea doesn't sell). We still occasionally struggle to find a market-rational balance between investing in our supplier communities and offering our consumers tasty drinks at an affordable price.

But when we could demonstrate that consumers were willing to use their purchasing power to buy Fair Trade Certified bottled tea, The Coca-Cola Company invested--and now our drinks are carried in more than 100,000 outlets around the country.

We are at a similar moment at Beyond Meat, the plant-based protein company where I am Executive Chairman.

Many carnivores that I know avoid veggie burgers not because of an aversion to the principles of vegetarianism, but because they don't taste good. Stephen Colbert recently joked that they taste like "bar coasters soaked in MSG."

We know that if we can create and commercialize a plant-based burger that sizzles, chews and tastes like its bovine-based counterpart, we will have a powerful impact, not to mention a powerful business.

And when we do, we will owe a debt of gratitude to the activists who have worked for years to convince American consumers to switch to a cruelty-free vegetarian diet. They laid the groundwork for such a transformation and made our success possible.

That's one of the reasons we're proud to have the US Humane Society as one of our shareholders. If we win, they win both as activists and as shareholders.

There's opportunity in those protests

So the next time you notice a group of activists who care strongly about an issue and are willing to march, rally, lobby, vote or boycott for a cause, pay attention.

They may be highlighting a market opportunity.

Which brings us to an interesting question: whose aspirations were more noble--Henry Bergh's efforts to protect horses or Henry Ford's drive to create an automobile empire?

From the horse's point of view, does it matter?