Terms like “capitalism” and “profit” sometimes get a bad rap. Likewise, some view entrepreneurs as society’s villains who only looking out for their narrow interests. But what if the way many of us view the business sector is largely misunderstood? And instead of being a force of exploitation, could business actually make the world a better place?
For John Mackey, a featured speaker at this year’s Future Frontiers and the CEO of Whole Foods, using “conscious business” to improve humanity and create a better, more prosperous future is his primary mission. And by doing so, he’s changing the way we view for-profit organizations.
In 2016, John Mackey addressed the crowd at Future Frontiers, speaking of the role businesses play in our society and specifically how they contributes to human flourishing. “Business is fundamentally heroic because business is creating prosperity,” he said in his talk. “And it’s for-profit business that are lifting humanity out of poverty.”
For most of human history, the majority of our civilization has been poor, while only a select few enjoyed extreme wealth and comfort. Two hundred years ago, as Mackey points out, 85 percent of humanity lived on less than the equivalent of one dollar per day. Yet, in the decades since we’ve seen the rise of for-profit sectors, individuals have enjoyed an increasing amount of financial security, which has allowed them to get out of poverty and prosper.
Along with financial prosperity, he also points out that humanity is now living longer than ever before and this also corresponds with the rise of the for-profit sector. Yet, with all these amazing human achievements made possible through business and entrepreneurship, so many still associate it with selfishness or greed. Perhaps, however, it’s time to reframe the way we view the business sector and its potential.
What Motivates The Business Sector?
Do businesses exist primarily to make money? Mackey asked this of the 2016 audience. And while going into the talk many might have said, “yes,” his response to this question makes spectators rethink the paradigms they’ve been taught to believe. True, as he points out, businesses do need profit to survive, but that doesn’t mean that is their primary purpose.
“What is the purpose of a doctor,” Mackey asked the crowd. “Is it to make money? No, a doctor’s purpose is to heal people. And yet, doctors make a lot of money.” He continues, “All of the professions have to make money, and yet they refer back to some transcendent purpose that goes beyond just making money. Business is no different.”
Southwest Airlines, for example, generates a lot of money for its owners, but it also serves a higher purpose. When Southwest was founded in 1967, it completely changed the way we view air travel by making it accessible to a wider range of people. In fact, for those of us who don’t make enormous amounts of money each year, it’s likely that without Southwest Airlines, many of us would never have experienced commercial flight to begin with. As Mackey points out, prior to 1978, only 15 percent of the population had ever been on an airplane and much of this was due to its high costs.
Before Southwest existed, strict regulations controlled everything related to air travel, from the food that was allowed to be served to the cost each airline was allowed to charge passengers. These regulations stifled innovation, especially for a small up-and-coming airline like Southwest. One of the most oppressive regulations passed was the Wright Amendment, which altered the International Air Transportation Act of 1979.
The Wright Amendment restricted where planes originating from Dallas Love Field could travel. And since Southwest was a Dallas-based company with many of its flights originating from Dallas Love Field, this greatly impacted its ability to serve consumers. In the beginning, Southwest could only operate within Texas. Later, it was allowed to travel to the neighboring states of Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
Miraculously enough, Southwest was able to succeed in spite of these regulatory hurdles because passengers wanted what was being offered. They didn’t need fancy meals or inflight entertainment. All Southwest’s passengers desired was an affordable and reliable flight to their destinations of choice.
After a grueling battle that spanned several decades, a massive public relations campaign, and Southwest’s threats to pull out of Dallas Love Field airport altogether, the Wright Amendment was mostly repealed in 2006. Though many regions were still off limits to Southwest until 2014.
What kept Southwest fighting for its existence for so long was not just profit motive. The company had a higher purpose: making air travel accessible to more people. And even though it had to fight to stay alive, its business model disrupted the industry and is, at least partially, the reason why today 85 percent of the U.S. population has flown on a commercial airplane.
We Need Both Nonprofit and For-Profit Organizations
There is a misconception that for-profit businesses offer fewer social benefits to humanity than nonprofit organizations do mainly because a profit motive exists within the former. This leads many to assume that only nonprofit organizations serve a higher purpose. But profit alone does not equate greed. As Mackey says, greed exists everywhere. It is not a characteristic exclusive to the business sector.
So instead of using the “profit” factor to determine whether or not a business or organization is doing “good” for human kind, we should appreciate that both institutions rely on voluntary association for their survive. And this ability to choose where we spend our dollars— be it a donation or a purchased good — is a vital component of human flourishing. Southwest survived because people were willing to spend their money on the airline, even with its travel restrictions. Likewise, nonprofit organizations stay afloat because individuals willfully donate their money.
Good ideas do not need to be forced on individuals. Instead, voluntary association allows people to give their money to organizations they support, be it in the non-profit or for-profit worlds. As Mackey says, if you disagree with a business, or a non-profit organization, you don’t have to trade with them, and there is so much power in this choice.
“Business,” Mackey says, “has got to give up the mythology that they’re in it primarily about money. They’ve got to recommit to their higher purpose. The nonprofit sector can help point the way for the business sector here.”
“Nonprofits need to get over themselves. Just because they have a higher purpose does not make them better or ‘holier than thou’ than the for-profit sector.”
To maximize our potential and lead the way for optimal human flourishing, we need both sectors to help us get there.
Don’t miss John Mackey at this year’s Future Frontiers. Register here.