Being the best product and also doing good

Chelsea Conrad on social entrepreneurism

👋What if you could leverage your product for meaningful social impact...without sacrificing profit?

That’s what I chatted with Chelsea Conrad about recently, and I’m excited to share some of our conversation with you. Chelsea is the Creative Director for Causeway, a nonprofit social innovation studio that exists to help people solve Chattanooga’s toughest challenges. She’s been in her role for 5 years, and she’s helped some of my favorite entrepreneurs build stronger businesses and communities.

So, what entrepreneurs typically come to Causeway?

We believe people who have experienced something first-hand often have the best insight on how to create a solution to that problem. But those aren’t necessarily the people who have the business acumen to start something. Our role is to help fill the gap and enable people who have good ideas figure out how to fully develop their solution.

Would you say these founders are “social entrepreneurs”?

Yeah, we use the term “social entrepreneur” a lot. I would define it as anyone who is using business principles to solve a problem—a social problem. And so that isn’t limited to for-profit or non-profit businesses; it’s more of a mindset.

What kind of advice do you give social entrepreneurs who are on the for-profit route? Let’s say they have a product—how do you get them rolling?

People working on social causes come in with a ton of passion, and that is a gift and a curse sometimes. Just like any business, when you’re mission-focused, you have to articulate what sets you apart. I think that is actually harder when you’re so emotionally tied to what you’re doing. It’s easy to get defensive, and it’s easy to get frustrated that people don’t inherently care about it the way you do.

The biggest hurdle is communicating what you’re doing, and why, and making your customer care about that.

This reminds me of a saying, “you are not your customer.” You may start out as your customer but, ultimately, you are not your customer. I can see that being hard when you’re incredibly passionate.

Yes, the first step that we focus on (and that any human-centered design process focuses on) is empathy. It’s hugely important, and it’s one of the reasons we like to work with people who have experienced the problem themselves.

But that also comes with the hurdle of realizing that you still need to be talking to people and asking how they may have experienced the thing that you’ve experienced, but differently.

Your experience may be shared, but it’s not universal.

Yes, exactly.

Who are some inspiration businesses in this for-profit, for-good realm? Would you recommend well-known companies like Warby-Parker?

There are a lot of examples out there. I am most impressed by the companies that would be harder to research and find; I’m impressed by the ones that aren’t aren’t screaming about their impact from the rooftops.

I think Warby Parker and Toms are good examples to compare: Toms sells shoes and gives a pair to someone in need for every pair they sell. Warby Parker sells glasses and gives a pair to someone in need for every pair they sell.

If you go to Tom’s website, they’re much more overt with their mission. With Warby Parker, I think there’s one line at the very bottom about it.

I had to dig to their About page, I think.

Yeah, and I respect that. They don’t lean on, “you should buy Warby Parker because we’re doing good.” It’s, “you should buy Warby Parker because we’re the best option out there.” They’re focused on being the best product and also doing good.

That inspires me to think about the possibilities every business has to do good in some way. It’s difficult, and it’s often expensive. But any entrepreneur, anywhere, can find some opportunity—it’s probably right in front of them—to give back in a way that’s analogous with whatever kind of business they’re doing.

Hmm. As we’re talking, I’m realizing we both assume everyone understands why social impact is important. But say someone hasn’t really thought about that angle before. Why should a business care about more than profit?

That’s a good question. When I was young, I was really idealistic. I didn’t understand why more people weren’t dedicating their life to service and changing something. The older I get, the more I understand, “I’m going to have my family, and I’m going to do good work, and I’m going to support my family, and that is my service to the world.” Because that is hard, and that feels like a battle within itself.

Or, “what could I possibly do?” You know, “what difference does it make?”

Yeah, it can feel fruitless. But if you can get past the overwhelming feeling of, “there’s too much to do, I can’t do anything,” things emerge in front of you—even if it’s just taking really good care of your employees.

Any entrepreneur has the opportunity to at least strive towards making choices to take care of the people involved in their business.That has an immediate impact on people in your community, that are entrusting a big chunk of their lives to you.

At Krit, we talk about how you don’t have to necessarily change the world, you just need to impact your world.

Yes! That’s exactly what I’m trying to articulate.

It’s a really hard distinction, and the first part can get me down. I convince myself I need to change everything, but I’m not in control of everything. I just need to impact what I am in control of.

Exactly. And I think that is how you change the world.

If everyone is taking care of the people and the environment in their immediate realm...I’m imagining a lot of dots that are small, but then wind up covering everything.

Like, you have this circle around Business A, and then you have this circle around Business B, and then you have a circle around Business C. As they all grow and bleed together, that eventually covers the whole world.

To learn more about Causeway, check out their website or Facebook page. Causeway also produces a monthly newsletter with case studies and what they’re reading, if you’d like more inspiration on impact through entrepreneurship.