Noella Ingabire, the 22-year-old mentee of Dulbecco, has called the Rwandan capital, Kigali, home since the age of five. Through SHE-CAN, Ingabire won a scholarship to study economics at Wellesley College in Massachusetts: when we speak, she is on a year abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul, one of the top three universities in South Korea.
I ask Ingabire if there has ever been an uncomfortable sense of white saviorism to the project. “I don’t think those thoughts come to me,” she says. “The thought itself is that they’re trying to help us become leaders, and eventually we go back home and we use what we learned to change the country. We have this network of women and we ourselves are leaders—we’re going to help build the next generation.”
Ingabire is currently working on the details of two plans she wants to pursue upon returning home in 2022. Inequality is at the forefront of her mind. “In Rwanda and in Burundi, people in the city tend to live quite well, but the further you go from the capital city, the poorer people are,” she explains. She is hoping to launch a food company that operates on the principle of gleaning, gathering, distributing and monetising harvest waste for farmers. The second goal is to start an agency that offers support for people who want to start businesses.
Through her work with both SHE-CAN and Torani, Dulbecco belongs to a community of like-minded conscious capitalists. She is alive to the challenge of putting stepping stones in the path of systematically disenfranchised people. “There’s so much more that we can do and there are companies out there trying to figure these things out,” she says, before asking if I know of Joseph Kenner, who practices Open Hiring at Greyston Bakery. I tell her I do not. She hooks us up.
Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, New York, has been a B Corp since 2008 with an impressive score of 137.8. It was founded in 1982 by a JewishBuddhist monk named Bernie Glassman and Kenner became CEO in April 2020 after three years as VP. Kenner explains that Glassman was motivated to alleviate the poverty he saw in a community ravaged by homelessness, unemployment, AIDs, and criminal justice involvement. “His question was, ‘How do we uplift this community?’ And his solution was, ‘Let’s start with employment.’”
Open Hiring is a reinterpretation of this outlook. No résumé, no interview, no background check. People put their name on a list and are trained up on the job once their time comes—which,
on average, takes around six months. Kenner cites an Open Hiring pilot by The Body Shop in 2019 where they found that employee turnover fell from 43 per cent the previous year to 16 per cent and productivity increased— “Because they were giving jobs to people who really want it to work”.
The open hiring list circulates by word of mouth, so it’s not unusual to find members of the same family on the bakery floor. “Community wellness” is a key corollary too: a social worker sits in the bakery where the brownies are made; they are here to help with issues such as affordable housing and childcare.
Kenner is passionate about giving a chance to people who have been through the criminal justice system. “We’ve seen folks who come back to a world where, even though they’ve served their time, it’s like a life sentence because they can’t get a job,” he says. Crucially, though, he is careful to frame that social impact in the language of business. He believes in capitalism and he believes in growth.
“This is not some Kumbaya, all-social-services scheme that we’re cooking up. “It is a business model within [the] whole stakeholder capitalism concept. But it’s couched in a system and a philosophy that does say, everybody has something to contribute if you can just invest in them... capitalism as a system is not wrong—the practitioners are what we need to change.”
The English economist Kate Raworth would, however, disagree. During an appearance on How To Survive The Future podcast in November 2020, she argued: “The only option is to pull out our pencil and start again, we can’t fix the old model.”
She first sketched out that new model back in 2011: donut economics, so called because the inner ring concerns human rights (food, water, healthcare, a political voice, gender equality, income) and the outer concerns the systems of the planet. With this, the goal is to create an ecosystem governed by dynamic tension between all of these factors—“leave no one in the hole and don’t overshoot the ring of the planet”. In April 2020, a few months prior to her appearance on the podcast and at the height of the pandemic, Amsterdam signed up to the donut as its recovery model for the city. Interest followed from Brussels, Cambridge, Costa Rica and Cornwall, with endorsements coming from diverse luminaries such as David Attenborough and Pope Francis.
The celebrated writer, Anand Giridharadas, whose latest book is Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing The World, is another critic of conscious capitalism. He told Business Insider in Feb 2019: “I think you and I would agree it would be weird if your approach to segregation in the 1940s in Alabama was to say: ‘Well, let’s create some points of light. Let’s create some white-owned restaurants that don’t mind having Black people, and we’ll celebrate that, and we’ll give them a certification, and we’ll put them on magazines and on change-the-world lists. Let’s celebrate the good.’”
Chris Turner is in agreement that things need to be changed at a systemic level. He has helped to create the Better Business Act, which B Labs are lobbying to make into UK law. “We elevate people and the planet to sit alongside profit delivering a triple bottom line—you could call it stakeholder governance—but that becomes the legal default for every business in the UK,” he says.
American B Labs, meanwhile, have a policy team who’ve created an equivalent legal form that is currently optional in 39 states. The long-term goal is to make it mandatory.
“If business is harnessed to address these big challenges, then that is certainly going to be the quickest way to tackle them,” Turner continues. “And it may not be possible to tackle these big challenges in time without business performing that role. So with that in mind, the question for us is going to be, ‘Can we do that quickly enough?’ If we can, then I think—not to be too hyperbolic about it—we save the world.”
It will take a village to save the world. Business is good at problemsolving, in some respects because stone-cold pragmatism trumps more abstract concerns. Yet abstract concerns are becoming more real by the day, forced onto the mainstream agenda by forest fires, creature extinction and violence on the streets. (Both Kenner and Dulbecco mention the murder of George Floyd during our conversations.)
One slippery issue is language. Capitalism, as I understand it,
cannot eradicate social inequality because by definition it’s individual profiteering which leads to power and money in the hands of the elite, who then protect their interests to the detriment of the 99 per cent. Yet the practitioners of conscious capitalism strain this definition almost
to the point of doublethink.
Kenner listens with interest as I talk about doughnut economics and says it sounds like stakeholder governance. Dulbecco talks about Torani as “a safe place to challenge the status quo”. When I say that the vibe doesn’t sound a million miles away from a socialist commune, she says that she thinks so too. “Although it would scare a lot of people to say that,” she notes. “In America you can’t just say those things... what might be different is that we have the discipline of business applied to it.”
Another thing they do at Torani is to go on ‘learning journeys’, where team members devote six months to answering a question and then harness the best ideas to use in the organization going forward. In summer 2020, Dulbecco herself embarked on one focused on justice, equality, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) at work. She found that for companies to have a sustained impact, they need to develop their own language and framework—rather than adopt something from a consultant. In other words: people need to be spoken to in their language.
It’s true. Much as I would love for language to be an umbrella across the world, everyone is figuring out the best way to address their own audience. Partisan politics is such that certain words are loaded differently, with “socialism” still carrying the baggage of the red scare
in American culture.
I believe there will come a day when the only truly impactful option is systemic overhaul. But the majority of people have to be ready and, until they are, the work of conscious capitalists is priming their communities to expect a more holistic relationship between business and the wider world. To quote Martin Luther King Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”