Guest article by Adam Saah
Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Vale Jokisch, the Executive Director of People and Operations at B Labs. Having spent the last decade working to grow B Lab’s influence both at home and abroad, Jokisch has gained the experience and knowledge necessary to begin making incremental change on a big scale… but more on that later. Our conversation consisted of her journey at B Lab, the ins and outs of ethical business practices, and what it all means to her.
After graduating from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, Jokisch reached out (having already interned for B Lab) and found herself as part of the ranks. “My first position at B Labs consisted of conducting on site reviews for B Corporations who had already been certified,” says Jokisch. For those who are unfamiliar with B Lab practices, each year 10% of registered B Corporations are randomly selected to undergo a “Site Review.” These reviews vary depending on the structure and certification of the B Corp; some may consist simply of video calls while others go as far as to inspect facilities. The purpose of these reviews is to ensure a deeper level of verification which helps B Labs to guarantee the credibility of their certification by further ensuring the validity of a Certified B Corps’ assessment answers. In short, Jokisch was the professor pacing slowly around the room to ensure nobody cheats on their exam.
But her duties did not solely consist of these reviews. At that time B Lab was a mere five years old and relationships with companies, which are now almost unanimous with B Corps, had yet to be forged. Companies like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s who were already equitably and ethically oriented had yet to B Certify (or even knew what it was), so naturally, Jokisch’s work pivoted slightly to include the development and nurturing of those relationships. The mutual endorsement between companies like Patagonia and B Lab helped pave the way for a new wave of curious and conscious business owners to take the plunge into the world of B Corps, but Jokisch’s drive had been established long before her arrival at B Lab. In the early 2000s, Jokisch served as the Deputy Director at Empowerment Group, a nonprofit which accelerates economic growth by cultivating local entrepreneurship in distressed urban communities in my hometown of Philadelphia. In their own words, “our bottom line is to create positive, lasting change for our clients, their families and their communities.”
…Sound familiar? Jokisch’s long standing commitment to ideals which reach far beyond B Certification is indicative of the culture around this moment in that B Certification exists to empower others, not to serve as an accolade for ethical businesses (although, it also does that).
Another facet of what Jokisch does involves passing benefit corporation legislation, without which, B Corps could and would not exist. Entrepreneurs in states which have not passed this legislation must function under corporate law which dictates that directors must put profit above all else. In other words, benefit corporations and the ability to consider stakeholders in addition to profit would not exist without the legislation which deregulates the purpose of a corporation. This is the underpinning of all B Certification; that business owners must be given the opportunity to conduct business as they best see fit.
If you’re still not convinced, try this: The legislation brought forward by B Lab has been adopted by 38 states, 13 of which passed it unanimously, while the legislation itself enjoys an almost 90% approval rating. Democrats and Republicans alike see the need for forward thinking in the business world, as do the majority of the business owners as well as consumers. This sentiment is evidenced by studies like The Sustainability Imperative which reports that global consumers would pay a premium for goods which are sold with a commitment to sustainability. Sales of those sustainable products have, on average, grown more than 4% globally, while sales for goods without the same commitment average less than 1%.
In other words, it literally pays to become a B Corp.
Full disclosure, I am in the process of B certifying a company at the present moment. For context, the company I am certifying is a consulting firm structured as a sole-proprietorship which has no employees, facilities, and only hires independent contractors. Very early while filling out the B Impact Assessment (the first tangible step on the path to certification) I, along with the team, realized that without employees to treat better or facilities to make green there was no path to reaching the threshold necessary for B Certification… Needless to say, after all the touting of B Certification and its ability to compare apples to oranges, I had a few questions for Jokisch.
The answer, I’ve come to find, lies in weighting. Jokisch explained, “In the case of a sole proprietorship there are often few employees, if any, and no formal office spaces. In those cases we tend to give more weight to their impact on customers or community.”
A good analogy is the application process for medical school; I can’t imagine the admission staff at Johns Hopkins University cares as much about your grade for English literature as they might your advanced biology class. And here is another lesson I took away from this conversation with Jokisch: it matters just as much where you’re going as where you are now. The process of B Certification is not as heavy handed an endeavour as I had imagined, it is equally forgiving. Some industry certifications require stringent and rigid benchmarks which must be met without fail, but in the case of B Certification some wiggle room is required as businesses are as unique as the person behind them. That uniqueness has played a pivotal role throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the number of B Corporations who successfully retained their B Certification during COVID was the highest it's ever been at 96%. By investing in employees and community, businesses can literally build resilience into their DNA and the figure above proves that.
I did not want to leave the conversation with Jokisch without securing some secret weapons for my back pocket. I asked if she could speak to any of the most common pitfalls companies encounter so that I might avoid them in my own trials.
As far as small to medium sized businesses go, the ability to codify their practices is what most often leads to their undoing. Because small businesses owners and their partners are usually tightly knit and likely already share similar ideals, writing down a code of ethics or employee handbooks often is thrown by the wayside and labeled unnecessary. In reality, those documents are necessary for transparent practices, a better internal structure, improved communication, and integral to the ability to scale efficiently and effectively. For large businesses, often the hardest part of B Certification rests in their ability (or inability) to educate their shareholders so that the prevailing ethical and moral thinking is embedded into the DNA of their company. Luckily, corporations like Patagonia have paved the way and raised the bar, making it easier for businesses to engage and educate their shareholders much like a younger sibling benefits from their older sibling's trials and tribulations.
Hearing directly from one of the architects of this massive ecosystem was indispensable, both for knowledge and inspiration, and for that I am grateful. I came away from my conversation with Jokisch with a slight perspective change; without those who care more than they should nothing worthwhile would ever happen. It is clear that Jokisch cares more than she should, and for that we should all be grateful. Let us take a moment to think of someone in our lives who goes above and beyond without the promise or even expectation of recognition. In the words of Harry Truman, “it is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
Guest article by Adam Saah