B Corp Women CEOs Build on Collective Power
It’s the morning after the Oscars and I did it again. Despite all plans to the contrary, I got sucked into staying up till the end to hear the Best Picture announcement: Green Book. I would have much preferred Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman for Best Picture and Director. For the first time in Oscar history, there was no host because the guy who was supposed to do it had made homophobic remarks. Instead the opening was made by three women comedians: Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler. As they were about to announce Outstanding Supporting Actress, Poehler noted that all actresses meet that description “because women naturally support each other.”
This has been my experience since, well, forever. I never identified with the archetype of woman as cat fighter. Who promoted that myth? I’ve been in women’s circles of every type for decades. My hometown circle of eight women has met once a month for 23 years and we’re going strong. Our Women Leading Sustainability circle of professional pals is in its 19th year. I am part of a women’s writers group, a women’s chant group, a women’s chorus. (By the way, I also have a perfectly excellent male husband and some great male sons.) But I love the company of women when it comes to support, camaraderie and getting things done. Whenever I have a good entrepreneurial idea, I inevitably pick up the phone, call one of my best girlfriends and say, “Hey you wanna do this with me?” It’s much more fun that way.
And so I was delighted to be on the receiving end of a call from one of those best girlfriends, Stephanie Ryan, in the spring of 2017. Stephanie is one of the earliest employees at B Lab, the nonprofit that supports the Certified B Corporation movement. B Corps are businesses that have committed to go beyond the traditional financial bottom line to incorporate environmental and social goals. They can’t just raise a “green” hand and say, “Oh yeah, I’m in for that.” They have to pass a rigorous, third-party B Impact Assessment that measures their commitment. If you’re in a room full of B Corp workers, you know you’re with a group of peers who are dedicated to sustainability, not just talking about it.
During that call Stephanie said: “One of my strategic priorities this year is to help the B Corp CEOs convene conversations that matter to them. I know you’re working closely with the Eileen Fisher.” (EILEEN FISHER, the company that bears Eileen’s name is a B Corp.) “Do you think she’d come to the B Corp Champions Retreat workshop in Toronto to anchor one of those CEO conversations? Would she like to do something in apparel sustainability, for example?”
“Excellent!” I said. “She’s not into traveling that much, but she’s just built a beautiful space for convening that she calls the ‘Learning Lab.’ It’s in Irvington, New York, just up the Hudson from the city with a beautiful view of the river. I’m almost positive she’d like to have other CEOs there. I’ll check.”
I explained the idea in conversation with Eileen the next week. Though there are lots of apparel B Corps, most of them are small by comparison to EILEEN FISHER, with the exception of Patagonia (Athleta was not yet certified at the time). We discussed whether it would be significantly impactful to convene just the apparel CEOs.
“What do you think if we got the women together?” I asked Eileen. “As far as I know the B Corp CEO women have never been together in the same room.”
“I love that!” said Eileen. After all, EILEEN FISHER is a women-led, women-owned company with a women clientele placing increasing focus on women’s voice, empowerment and personal transformation. “That’s perfect.”
Through the World Café method of gathering, the women rotated through small-group conversations to keep ideas fresh.
We began to focus our planning on bringing together the B Corp women CEOs. Stephanie combed B Lab’s database to identify them— not an easy task as the software did not have a gender category. Plus, there were non-binary and women identifying leaders to track. Stephanie finally came up with about 300 names out of the close to 2,000 B Corps in U.S. and Canada at the time. Those numbers were a revelation in themselves: Only 15 percent female CEOs in the enlightened B Corp community? Seemed like it should be more like 50 percent.
You may recall that the #MeToo movement hit the media in a big way the following fall. By the time we were ready to send our invitation in December 2017, the #TimesUp wave was cresting. We pressed send on a Tuesday at noon. To our awe and delight we were full with a waitlist 24 hours later. Surfing that wave!
In our inquiry that followed, we invited the women to consider, “What can we do together that none of us can do alone?” To paraphrase Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, we did not want our gathering just to be a moment, we wanted to launch a movement.
Electric, Energizing Intention
On a sunny day in April 2018, nearly 70 B Corp women CEOs gathered at Eileen’s beautiful space. Her B Corp’s “circular by design” team had received over 1 million garments in response to its “we want our clothes back” campaign, and had been doing all kinds of imaginative things to reuse the fabrics in an effort to “waste no more.”
One such project, just back from an award-winning showing in Milan, was a series of felting design pieces: pillows, wall hangings, rugs in reds and oranges and yellows. These were placed around the room creating beauty, warmth and intimacy. Soft music playing, soft lighting, the atmosphere was classic EILEEN FISHER — warm, inviting, generous, energizing.
The room was electric with B Corp entrepreneurial women together, an open agenda and the intention to do something yet to be discovered but unprecedented and powerful. Eileen welcomed us all with her inimitable warm, gracious and generous way. Unlike the stereotypical CEO of a multimillion-dollar enterprise, Eileen is humble by nature, accessible, nonthreatening.
Because our intention was not to download data but to build community, we used Juanita Brown’s World Café method of gathering. Juanita had worked for Cesar Chavez in the United Farm Workers movement and was fond of saying, “The best ideas came around the kitchen table with strong coffee and sweet cake.”
With the World Café, Juanita and her partner David Isaacs sought to replicate this intimate, generative feel in large group gatherings at corporations and beyond. World Café has now been practiced by tens of thousands of people in every continent and every sector over the past 26 years since its inception. It involves having people sit in groups of four at small tables throughout the room. The groups respond to a question posed up front and have a dialogue for about 15–20 minutes. Then one person stays at the table as “host” while the other three “break” and head to different tables, cross-pollinating ideas and keeping the conversation fresh.
Nancy Margulies created an illustrated map of the group’s discussion.
After a few rounds of this, we stop to “harvest” what’s emerging in the room. Imagine Oprah Winfrey cruising with microphone to gather people’s input. We begin to coalesce around ideas that have meaning for the whole group. All of this is being captured simultaneously by Nancy Margulies, one of the early founders of World Café, a miraculous graphic artist, who drew images in multi-color on a 12-foot sheet of butcher block paper in the back of the room. I say miraculous because I find it to be so — how she can transform complex concepts into beautiful images on the spot! The images tell the story of our day in a way that women can take home and communicate with ease.
The question we posed for the World Café was, as you might imagine, “What can we do together that none of us can do alone?”
Fast forward to later in the day. The women had generated ideas for collective work, created working groups with leaders, and the beginning of an inspiring agenda for moving forward. The groups included: Shifting Capital to Women, Equity Diversity and Inclusion, CEO Peer to Peer Network and Growing Your B Corporation. Later we added a Political Advocacy group focusing on policies to support the Earth and all her people.
All of this heady work was enhanced by Antoinette Klatzky of the Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute who lead us in her delightful approach to embodiment and mindfulness, supporting us in bringing all of our wisdom and intelligence to the endeavor. It’s Eileen’s belief that for women to access our full voice and power, we best include our bodies and souls in the mix. In my experience this is so true and it makes for a stronger, closer and more energized collective.
From Moment to Movement
What the group didn’t yet know but was delighted to find out was Eileen’s offer to invite us back the following spring. Thus the moment was transformed into the potential for a movement. We women recognized that we could roll up our sleeves and work together on the topics we were passionate about, make progress and come back the following year with stretch goals and metrics that had “teeth.” For example, only 15 percent of B Corps are headed by women CEOs? How about moving that from “15 to 50 by 2030”? You get what I mean.
We are just two months out from our second annual gathering in May. Amazingly, for a virtual community like this with volunteer leaders and members from all over the continent, there is still momentum. We are crafting a “Womanifesto” to guide our actions, a bold statement that we will all stand behind and plan to go public with in May. In its draft form it begins with the phrase: “We envision a world where women of all identities are equally represented in positions of power and influence, creating a generative, inclusive and just global economy …”
The gathering included conversation and collaboration.
A virtual movement like this needs people to help provide energy to power it until it can reach take-off velocity. Rose Penelope Yee, CEO of one of the founding B Corps, Green Retirement; Kim Coupounas, B Lab’s Global Ambassador, and I along with working group leaders have been providing some of that fuel. Facilitated by Rose and myself, the group has been meeting online via Zoom once a month, maintaining our web of connections.
Each of five working groups has a B Corp woman CEO who has stepped up to lead: Political Advocacy with Diana Marie Lee of Sweet Livity, Equity Diversity and Inclusion with Anna Colibri of Colibri Digital Marketing, Shifting Capital with Anne Chambers of Buy Certifiably, CEO Peer to Peer with Kristy Wallace of Ellevate and Grow Your B with Rose.
We are also exploring an apparel collaborative, thanks to Eileen’s relationships with newly minted B Corp Athleta, led by CEO Nancy Green, and founding B Corp Patagonia, led by Rose Marcario.
We will gather as a large group on May 15. And the day before, each of the working groups will meet to refine goals and set stretch targets. For example, will Political Advocacy get behind the Green New Deal or Gender Pay Equity, or other initiative that give “teeth” to our Womanifesto and if so, with what strategy? In the Shifting Capital group—did you know that only 2 percent of investment capital goes to women entrepreneurs and only 0.2 percent to women of color? If money is power, how do we claim it with those numbers? Will its goal be to shift from 2 percent to 50 percent? What is visionary versus what’s realistic? And what will the strategy be to get there?
Or, to focus and amplify our impact, will there be one overarching big idea that we will all stand for and get behind on? We want to take a strong, inspiring stand that will realize what we, as B Corps, strive for: a shared and durable prosperity for all that takes care of the Earth and future generations. This is a visionary business women’s voice.
Move over chamber of commerce, here comes a badass wave of women CEOs, Momma Bears, ready to create a world where their children — and all children — thrive. We are the business partners reaching out to support and energize those 100 women wearing white in the halls of Congress. We will be heard. We will be seen. We will act!
As Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler said: Women support each other. Together we envision and create a better world.