Most organizations that work with displaced and impoverished women in Africa are non-profits. We chose a different tack: we decided to build a successful business in partnership with these women. Many people have asked us, ‘Why business? Why not non-profit?’ The answer is best presented in three parts: Benefits to our Ugandan Partners, Benefits to Us and other Americans, and Benefits to the World.
(This is not an argument against non-profits. They have a critical place in our world and often do work that for-profit companies simply can’t do.)
Benefits to our Ugandan Partners
We believe that structuring our work as a business is the most beneficial form for the women we work with. Here’s how.
1. Longevity: One of the greatest benefits to our Ugandan partners is that they can work with us for as long as they want. Since non-profit donors are typically most impressed by how many people you’ve helped, non-profits tend to cycle people through programs and ‘graduate’ them, usually with taining to become entrepreneurs. But relatively few people are wired to be successful entrepreneurs. How many do you know? Most people want a gainful, dependable job with opportunities to grow and advance. That’s just what our partnership offers.
2. Self-Reliance. The women we partner with provide for themselves and their families as owners of their own business. We helped them found NUPECA, an independent and self-managed cooperative, which we have since partnered with. Our partners’ sense of self-reliance is reinforced because they know that we’re not a non-profit. That rather than charity cases, they are partners in a successful business venture. To grasp the full impact of this, I often ask the following question: Would you rather your children be beneficiaries of a non-profit or successful business owners?
3. Competition. There is certainly competition in the non-profit world, but it usually falls on the managers and employees of the non-profit, almost never the beneficiaries. In our business, though, our partners stand with us in facing the competition of the marketplace in quality, design, service, etc. If either of us fails to meet competitive standards, our businesses jointly suffer. This competition offers our partners incentive to grow and learn new skills that they will apply in their homes and in all subsequent ventures that they might undertake.
Benefits to Us and other Americans
The benefits of business are not one-sided. Just as it’s beneficial for our Ugandan partners and their communities, it’s beneficial for us and our community, America.
1. Profit. The simplest form of benefit in a business is profit, and we certainly hope to make a fair amount. Ours is a family business, and the prospect of profit allows us to invest single-mindedly in our business, despite worrying economic times. We can be reasonably sure that if we work hard we will make some money, and we’ll be able to pay bills, put money away for future college tuitions, and plan retirements. Just like our Ugandan partners.
2. Ownership. From a business standpoint, ownership means that we’re responsible for the losses and gains, the debts and assets, and the legal obligations of the company. But from a more emotional viewpoint, ownership is commitment, pride, a sense of independence and accomplishment. Just as our Ugandan partners own their own business, so do we. And just as their ownership benefits their families and community, so ours benefits our family and community.
3. Retail. During the last couple years, as the recession battered small businesses everywhere, we had a few store owners tell us that if it weren’t for our products they likely would have gone out of business. They benefitted from our commitment to run a strong, competitive business.
Benefits to the World
The heading may sound bombastic, but I believe that businesses like ours hold immense potential for making the world a better place. Business, after all, is the most powerful force shaping our world. If we use it well, our impact will be enormous.
1. Connection. When you walk down the aisles of your local Walmart do you think about the people who actually assembled all those products, the people your purchase de facto connects you too? I sure don’t. And that’s a problem. Our economic ties to people across the world are some of the most powerful ties we have, but the marketplace has been designed to ignore those connections when we’re shopping. By building a business that makes those connections clear and beneficial in the marketplace, we help to shape consumer expectations and demands about how they want their purchases to influence the people they’re connected to.
3. Money and Talent. Perhaps the greatest challenge in the non-profit world is drawing investment dollars and talented individuals away from the business sector, where there is far, far more money to be made. It’s become common knowledge in recent years that an unholy percentage of Harvard graduates head straight to Wall Street out of college. Why? Despite the desire to do good, our primary drive is to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. By turning profitable business to the work of our common values we can offer top candidates and investors the best of both worlds: the opportunity for profit and the ability to make a positive difference in society.
2. Proof of Concept. Global business over the last 60 years has been a giant Race To The Bottom: lower wages, lower costs, lower standards. It’s been taken as gospel that this is the only way to succeed. Our business acts as a proof-of-concept that with new generations and new markets this is not the case, that a business built on our common values of fairness, compassion, and respect for the earth can and will succeed. Both wizened executives and young entrepreneurs can look to businesses like ours as case studies for building ethical businesses, and hopefully they’ll do it even better than us.