Industry Watch

Success as social responsibility

Millennial entrepreneurs say social responsibility is the future of success

By Amee McDonald
Monday, July 25, 2016

Professional success often looks like an Italian suit, European sports cars, prestigious awards and a corner office. But a new wave of leaders are challenging that archetype and rewriting what it means to be successful.

How do millennial entrepreneurs define success?

“I feel for too long enormous success has been intentionally, and I would say quite commonly unintentionally, at the expense of other people, other communities and our ecosystems or biosphere. That doesn’t seem like success to me,” says Timothy Den Herder-Thomas, co-founder and general manager of Cooperative Energy Futures. He questions the mainstream definition of success and offers his own version: “We all do better when we all do better.”

Late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone coined the phrase in his 1999 speech to the Sheet Metal Workers Union.

Bethany Palm, founder of BAM Essentials, an organic personal care social enterprise supporting workforce development for women from disadvantaged backgrounds including female immigrants and refugees, echoed the words of Senator Wellstone (and Den Herder-Thomas). “There’s still a spectrum of how people define success, but I think as a generation, we’re swinging in the direction of minimalistic. Not needing to have the giant house, and the eight bedrooms, and the three cars. Not being drawn to the big salary packages and other perks. Certainly there are folks who are still like that, but for the most part, I think as a generation we’re looking at how we can improve the environment, improve our society. We all do better when we all do better.”

How will social responsibility redefine the meaning of success?

Ten years ago, TOMS revolutionized the social enterprise sector by donating a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes purchased. “TOMS Shoes started ten years ago, which was the breakthrough in mass social enterprise development,” Bethany says. “Even though social enterprise has been around for much longer than that — Goodwill has been around for 110 years or so. Now, there’s hundreds, thousands.” The history of social enterprise and has shaped her business, BAM Essentials, as well.

“I knew if I started any type of business, it had to have a social purpose. I purposely decided to structure it as a social enterprise and give back to low-income populations, young women from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Launching in the fall, BAM Essentials will hire 18- to 24-year-old female immigrants and refugees through a workforce development model. Employees in this program will be paid for both training and working hours. 

“It’s a 20-hour-a-week program, so 10 hours are in training and 10 hours are doing manufacturing, selling, operations and customer service. The training piece is the job readiness stuff, like developing a resume, a cover letter and interviewing skills.”

The theme of social responsibility as a measure of success, or the accountability an organization has to the greater good or a community, carried through interviews with a variety of millennial entrepreneurs ranging in age from 23 to 33, across genders, and of different socioeconomic backgrounds from Minnesota.

Tori Utley, founder of nonprofit More Than An Addict and tech startup Tinua, saw the importance of social responsibility as a factor of success years ago. “In 2014, I was invited out to the first Forbes Under 30 summit. The people that I met at the Forbes Under 30 summit, all under 30, all millennials, there was not one person that I met that didn’t have a focus on the greater good, or some type of social impact. Even if their company or startup had nothing to do with making a difference in the world, they found a way to accomplish that in a different angle that they were putting on their industry, or something else that they were doing in addition to their startup.”

Like the entrepreneurs Tori met at the Forbes Under 30 summit, Thumbs Cookies founder, Robyn Frank, knows her business is more than making cookies. “I think that having a business is so much more than it used to be,” she says. “You have a lot more responsibility to the immediate world around you, your community, and you also have a responsibility to the world at large. One of the coolest things about people our age is that they really care. They want to consume things, and they want to be a part of things that are making a really good impact on the world that’s close and the world at large.”

Social enterprise Faces of Hope Founder Bianca Dawkins wonders if accessibility to resources and mentors has helped change our views of success. “I think the definition of success has evolved drastically because people now have a lot more freedom to create whatever that looks like. I think, back in the day, you had a white male who was the definition of success. It’s changed because people are being more receptive to what a leader looks like, to the definitions of who leaders are, and how we communicate with them. I think there’s more access to success. When we create that accessibility, people are not afraid of that anymore.”

Are millennials all that different from other generations?

Mitch Reaume, CEO of The Voice Community, also agrees that social responsibility is a fundamental component of success, but is skeptical that this is driven by the millennial generation. The Voice Community is an online marketplace for Minnesota that gives back 7% of everything spent in the store to a charity of the customer’s choice.

“On one hand, culture is totally changing. Millennials clearly value experience over some of these other things. Millennials want to be a part of something,” Mitch says. “Then a part of me, at the same time, pushes back on that thing that I believe. My generation, we’re not that special. There are great people that have come before that have wanted those same things and have wanted to be a part of something that matters. On one hand, I don’t know how different we are, but on the other hand, obviously socially, there are some big changes happening.”

What will success look like in the future?

In ten years, Bethany’s hope is that business success is defined by social responsibility. “I’d love to see every product, service and industry have a social enterprise option in it. So, if you’re buying shoes, there’s a way to support a social enterprise by purchasing shoes and personal care products and windows for your house. There’s a social enterprise option in every product, service and industry category.”


Amee McDonald is co-founder & CEO of jabber logic, an ad agency alternative for small businesses & nonprofits.