Welcome! This site contains work samples, client information and business philosophy of Megan E. Riley, owner of M R et cetera, LLC. See www.wncmretc.com for more information about Megan's communication services for social entrepreneurs. If you're looking for M R Gardens, Megan's edible landscaping, garden coaching and plant nursery business, see www.mrgardens.net.

On a mission

... to learn about mission-driven businesses

Megan Riley, Owner of M R et cetera, summarizes her research into social entrepreneurship—business for the common good.

When I heard the words "as you climb the corporate ladder" from my professor's lips this past summer, I had to smile. I looked around the classroom at the MBA students thinking, how in the world did I end up here?
Graphic by Johann Dréo
If you would have told me 10 years ago that I'd be sitting in an MBA class one day, I never would have believed you. In 2002, as a graduate student of an environmental education program, I was becoming aware of corporations' impacts on the planet and human health. I was starting to become a conscious consumer—buying products that positively impact ecosystems and avoiding businesses with unethical practices. I wouldn't have expected to ever be learning how to work for corporations. Yet that's what I was doing this past summer.
Like many good things in life, I did not seek this. Business—an emerging form of it—found me.

 

In the last few years, I've been surrounded by business owners who are trying to align profit with public good. Many of the WNC AgOptions recipients I worked with are improving the land, producing healthy food, and improving animal welfare, all the while trying to build successful businesses. Also, whether I am in North Carolina, Ohio, New York or the UK, I find myself in brainstorming sessions with friends, family and other colleagues who want to make a living by using their talents and passions for the common good.
     In part inspired by them, I'm adding mission-driven businesses to the clientele of M R et cetera, which has primarily served non-profit organizations in the past. I'm realizing that if society is to make significant and holistic changes, our entire economy needs to center around sustainability and health. Philanthropy, while an important piece of the picture, will only get us so far. Our visions of sustainability—where we are stewards of the Earth so that future generations have resources to sustain them—won't be complete unless everyone is earning an income in ways that betters communities and ecosystems.
But I have a few questions. Is it possible to live a healthy, balanced life while also running a business? Is it possible to live values of compassion and collaboration while operating in the competitive, aggressive business environment? Are traditional business models suited to address sustainability, so that our lifestyles encourage life rather than destroy it?


Back to school

Graphic by Ramblersen
This summer, I took advantage of an educational opportunity to see if I could find answers to my questions. An AmeriCorps allotment that I earned volunteering for the program in 2004 would expire this year if I didn't use it to pay for university-level classes. I had a difficult time narrowing down exactly which classes I wanted to take, so when I finally signed up, I found myself enrolled in four different universities.
Among my 12 classes this year—"Introduction to Entrepreneurship" with University of North Carolina at Asheville as well as "Business Sustainability in a Global Economy" through the MBA program at Appalachian State University. Both classes scrunched a semester's worth of material into five-week summer sessions—so we covered a lot in a short period of time.

        So, did I find answers to my questions, particularly: Is it possible to reach sustainability with traditional business models? Models that rely on ceaseless growth to appease stockholders. Models that prey on human weaknesses in the name of profit. Models that sacrifice human and ecological health for corporate "success." (A lot of books elaborate on these points, including:  Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future by Bill McKibben and The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability by James Gustave Speth.)
I'm still seeking the answer to my question, but from my initial assessment, the answer is both yes and no.
Sure, many aspects of business models need to change and are changing, and universities such as Bambridge Graduate Institute and the Dominican University of California as well as groups such as the Social Venture Network, Net Impact and Business Alliance for Local Living Economies are delving into this challenge. These adjustments aren't simple, as they affect everything from corporate culture to public trading laws.
Nevertheless, the very nature of businesses makes them suitable to be leaders in sustainability. Innovation is at the heart of business. To survive, a company must always be moving and pivoting. They are designed to tackle issues or perish.  

The potential of business

A corporation can make sweeping impact in a short amount of time. It is a machine built to be quick and efficient. I learned how Unilever, maker of Lipton, impacted thousands of farmers in just a few years when the company implemented practices that improved sustainability of tea farms and the safety of farmers.
Corporate leaders are realizing that sustainability is now linked to profitability, and most companies at least have sustainability on their radar, and some are making major changes to reach these goals.
            Some company owners even understand that to reach authentic sustainability, they can't simply switch some light bulbs and install some solar panels. Every aspect of the business—production, management, communications and marketing—needs to center around a mission that betters human and ecological health and justice. Sustainability affects every stage of the business, from start-up to maturity. Unfortunately, my class only studied a couple examples of such models, but there are some inspiring cases, such as Veja, a French company that improved the health of the Amazon rainforest and Brazilian farmers' working conditions through the production of sneakers.
            Several books such as Companies on a Mission: Entrepreneurial Strategies for Growing Sustainably, Responsibly and Profitably by Michael V. Russo and books in the Social Venture Network series, start the conversation about this new business model. I especially appreciate True to Yourself, Leading a Values-Based Business by Mark Albion, who shows that simply having a mission for the common good is not enough. A successful values-based business has a leader that operates in a way that is often quite counter to typical business culture.
Albion describes qualities such as patience, sensitivity and compassion that are key to values-based business leadership. He contrasts a win-or-lose business mentality that developed post War World II, versus an emerging mentality where leaders work cooperatively with a team to turn values into value. That team could include their "competitors."
      "You should allow no separation in policy or practice between how you act and how your business operates," he says. He even touches on the problem of getting caught up in the adrenaline of growth, size and speed. A values-based business often grows slowly but surely. He gives me a glimmer of hope that it's possible to live a healthy, balanced life and run a business. 

Change on the horizon

This social entrepreneurial philosophy, which started emerging in the 1980s, is merely a side thought in most business schools. Both my business class professors remarked on the limited educational resources for domestic social entrepreneurs. The subject is quickly changing, making it hard for educators to keep up with the new information.
Photo by Felix Burton
Don't get me wrong, I highly doubt if any business school student is learning he should exploit environmental and human health for profit. In fact, the guest speakers in my Entrepreneurship class spoke words that really get at the heart of good, ethical business. Troy Tolle, Co-Founder of DigitalChalk in Asheville, talked about the importance of trust, teamwork, tenacity and touch (referring to personal care with customers). Scott Hickman, CEO of Hickman in Asheville, explained how success is linked to bettering employee relationships with management and creating transparency through reporting. If we can't look ourselves in the mirror in the morning, if something just doesn't feel right, then we shouldn't do it, Hickman said.
That said, a standard example of a successful model in business textbooks is still McDonald's. Can we really call that business a success, when diet related diseases are the major causes of death in the United States, no matter how much profit it makes?
     I envision a world when social entrepreneurship is core to business school curriculum, so that a separate term for it is not needed. It's just the way that business is done. I envision more resources to help these entrepreneurs in our region, such as Advantage Green of the AdvantageWest Economic Development Group. Albion says that doing business is like trying to ride a bike while putting it together. Social entrepreneurs have an extra challenge because researchers are just now studying and reporting successful models. The best advisors are our gut feelings.
    As for my future in business, I continue to slowly build my own mission-driven business as well as use my communication talents to assist businesses with similar values as mine. I don't anticipate climbing the corporate ladder, as was suggested in class, anytime soon. But I do enjoy supporting corporations that authentically address sustainability and health, as well as watching fellow MBA classmates' attitudes change the more they learned about these issues.

If you'd like to share with Megan your favorite resources about mission-driven businesses, she would love to hear from you at info(at)wncmretc(dot)com or 828.333.4151. You can also contact her there to learn more about M R et cetera communication services.