Profit with a Purpose: Meet 9 Socially Responsible Founders Creating Change Through Business
by Shuang Esther Shan Founder Stories Sep 17, 2020 21 minute read Leave a comment Email Pinterest Facebook Twitter LinkedIn
We are in constant awe of how social entrepreneurs use Shopify to build businesses that don’t just meet consumer needs or fill market gaps but create movements that are driven by the causes they believe in.
Beyond the products and services they sell, founders of socially responsible businesses and social enterprises are building for the future by creating systems that create change. They operate with moral imperatives that let them navigate business decisions while keeping the community, economy, and environment in mind.
We spoke with nine of these founders to learn more about how they’re providing employment opportunities for the previously incarcerated, directly trading with farmers, creating products with a low carbon footprint, and so much more.
What does it mean for a company to be socially responsible?
While traditional companies see corporate social responsibility as an additional project outside their main goal of profit, socially responsible businesses maintain lifelong relationships with nonprofit partners and social enterprises are creating ventures that are cause-driven and powered by social objectives.
Through this new wave of change in commerce, founders like the ones listed below are showing that organizations of all sizes and stages can connect profit with a positive impact.
Sweet Beginnings. The creator of natural honey products, employing previously incarcerated individuals. ChocoSol Traders. A bean-to-bar chocolate maker working directly with Indigenous farmers in Latin America. TAMGA Designs. A sustainable and carbon-neutral fashion line championing transparency. Satya. The creator of a natural solution for eczema, focusing on sustainability and supporting local economies. Backcountry Wok. The producer of nutritious camping meals in compostable packaging. Package Free. The curator of sustainable alternatives to household and single-use products. Alaffia. The creator of skin and hair care products, employing and empowering women in Togo. BLK & Bold. The producer of a coffee and tea brand supporting youth programs. TPMOCS. The producer of a line of baby moccasins made by Indigenous artisans, fostering employment and education opportunities.
1. Sweet Beginnings
Beelove is a line of all-natural honey and honey-infused body care products made by Sweet Beginnings, a social enterprise based in Chicago. Sweet Beginnings extracts its honey from the urban apiaries in the heart of the North Lawndale community and employs individuals returning from incarceration, offering a fresh chance at civilian life.
Founded by Brenda Palms Barber, the organization originally wanted to address North Lawndale’s 40% unemployment rate by providing training for landscaping or small motor repairs, but found its sweet spot with beekeeping.
People have a fear of bees and getting stung. People also have this perception about people who have been incarcerated.
“There’s an interesting parallel between bees and people returning to society from being incarcerated,” says Daphne Williams, the company’s Chief Growth Officer. “People have a fear of bees and getting stung. People also have this perception about people who have been incarcerated. So having a business that married bees and formerly incarcerated people was a way to take the stigma out of both.”
Working closely with the North Lawndale Employment Network, an organization that provides cognitive behavior therapy and training for re-entering the job market, Sweet Beginnings acts as a possible employer to program participants. As Daphne highlights, hiring previously incarcerated individuals “is all about giving people confidence that they can actually go out and start looking for a job on their own” once their work term with Sweet Beginnings ends.
Sweet Beginnings initially started selling Beelove products in the same community it was caring for. Local farmers markets and events proved to be great places to showcase Beelove’s products and have employees reconnect with the public. Demand from the community also led to co-ops and retailers carrying Beelove products. “It’s really about the alignment and the recognition of the work that we’re doing in the community that has afforded us the opportunity to be in these retail spaces,” says Daphne. As bigger business opportunities arrive and production scales, Daphne and her team are focused on finding the right balance between cause and commerce while putting their community first.
2. ChocoSol Traders
The richness and depth of ChocoSol’s chocolate and coffee reflect the social impact that this education-oriented social enterprise is making. But becoming a bean-to-bar chocolate maker and coffee roastery was almost an accident for founder Michael Sacco.
“I was working on solar technology for roasting coffee and cacao with Indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico,” says Michael. “But everyone was more excited about the chocolate and coffee than the renewable energy technology.” The pivot from technology to food allowed Michael to use chocolate and coffee as a vehicle for ecological regeneration, education, and economic impact.
The ChocoSol team works directly with farmers on Indigenous forest gardens in Oaxaca and Chiapas to improve diversity of their natural ecosystems by focusing on “polyculture” farming, where diverse crops are grown together, unlike traditional commercial farms, which only farm one lucrative crop.
I was working on solar technology for roasting coffee and cacao with Indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico, but everyone was more excited about the chocolate and coffee.
“They’re built into a communal land rotation which gives way to three sisters (winter squash, maize, and beans), forest gardens, and semi-wild forests. This cycle takes place over 100 years,” says Michael. This long-term mentality—keeping future generations in mind—is how Michael carries out all areas of business. From operating as a learning community for knowledge sharing and passing on the art of chocolate making, to ensuring packaging materials are biodegradable and sourced sustainably.
Working directly with independent farmers is also Michael’s way of bringing economic opportunities to the Indigenous communities of Oaxaca and Chiapas. “Both fair trade and organic certification are a barrier to entry when you’re dealing not with one big plantation but with 150 independent producers in a region,” says Michael. These smaller farmers lack the language and financial resources to get certified, even though their products are already grown organically. ChocoSol has always paid above the Fair Trade requirements to ensure its farmers and families are paid fairly.
Moving forward, Michael and team are taking up local projects to regenerate farm lands in Canada. Food waste from cacao roasting, which includes the burlap sacks the cacao is shipped in, are used to create a biochar that can be used as an all-natural fertilizer. “We’ll be working with a local farmer near Hamilton, Ontario, to do a series of ecological regenerative planting of polycultures,” says Michael. “We’ll have a tree planted on the north part of the mountain, annual crop planted on the top of the mountain, and a perennial crop of possibly strawberries, mint, fiddleheads, or sweet grass planted on the south side of the mountain.”
3. TAMGA Designs
TAMGA Designs creates sustainable clothing from trees. Life and business partners Eric and Yana Dales are not just creating fashion pieces but a sustainable lifestyle movement and are sharing the lessons they learn to inspire change within the industry.
Eric and Yana worked as humanitarian aid workers in Bangladesh, immersed in communities heavily impacted by the effects of fast fashion. “We were seeing many social and environmental problems. We had to start TAMGA to prove that it could be done better,” says Eric.
The Dales’ initial undertaking was to establish a socially and environmentally responsible supply chain that goes beyond traditional corporate social responsibility measures. Eric and Yana spent a lot of time searching for alternative fabrics with low environmental impact. TAMGA’s pieces are made with Lenzing Modal, created from sustainably managed European forest beech wood, or Tencel made from eucalyptus wood, a renewable resource that doesn’t infringe on land for food crops. Their Tencel fabrics are also processed into fiber through an award-winning closed-loop process, where 99.8% of the water and solvents used are recycled. Each part of their supply chain, from fabric mills to cotton farms, sewing factories to packaging makers, are listed on their website, not only for transparency, but also to share knowledge with others in the industry.
TAMGA Designs also shares its process for being a carbon-neutral company. By extensively tracking its carbon footprint for shipping to various countries through different methods, it then purchases offsets from Gold Standard. “These projects are not only going to bring back carbon absorption capacity into the environment, but they’re also going to create jobs and benefit the communities where those projects are run,” Eric says.
The Dales are staying true to their main reason behind starting TAMGA Designs: knowledge sharing is at the heart of their attempt to motivate other brands to adopt more responsible business practices. Eric stresses that, “It’s important for businesses to understand that investing in sustainability, if done correctly, is a good investment in their business as a whole.”
Satya is a natural skincare company producing products that are plant-based as well as fragrance- and steroid-free. Made with just five organic ingredients, Satya’s line provides relief to soothe and restore dry skin.
Patrice Mousseau started Satya in 2013, soon after her daughter, Esme, was born and experienced a severe case of eczema. After being prescribed steroid creams and learning the dangers of using it on infants, Patrice leveraged her research skills as a journalist to find a natural alternative. “I made my first batch in my Crock-Pot, and it cleared up Esme’s eczema,” Patrice says.
With much of the formula left over, she offered some to friends on Facebook. Friends and friends of friends returned to Patrice and asked for more. “I had to make three more batches in the Crock-Pot right away, because I just could not keep up with people asking for it,” she says.
Patrice never thought she would be launching a business and wondered if she would fit in the typical business world. But through the increase in demand from friends, she continued selling Satya’s balms on the side. She eventually started selling at farmers markets and events, which led to the attention of major retailers. “We ended up in about 70 stores in the lower mainland around Vancouver, just through word of mouth, and then Whole Foods wanted to start carrying our product,” Patrice says. That relationship skyrocketed Satya’s presence and saw Patrice’s homemade recipe distributed in over 400 stores.
As the brand’s retail presence brought in more sales through Satya’s online shop, shipping played a bigger role in the business. “Instead of going to a fulfillment house, we hired stay-at-home moms in different regions,” says Patrice. “We ship them products, then they ship out to their own regions, which drops our shipping costs, employs them, and gets the products faster to customers.”
Satya was Patrice’s way of solving an issue in a more proactive way, and for every decision that followed Patrice has applied the same creativity and determination. When Satya’s stick format had to incorporate plastic in its packaging, Patrice found the Plastic Bank as an offset partner. “We’re paying someone in a developing country to go to their local waterways and pull up plastic and then take that plastic to their local Plastic Bank depot,” says Patrice. “They exchange it for credits that can be used in medical care, educational, or household items.” On Satya’s environmental impact front, Patrice works with the Great Bear Rainforest to offset her carbon emissions.
Instead of going to a fulfillment house, we hired stay-at-home moms in different regions. We ship them products, then they ship out to their own regions, which drops our shipping costs, employs them, and gets the products faster to customers.
Moving forward, Patrice is working on projects that will support other Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs, like herself. She knows firsthand how representation and support are important for communities to grow their economy and is finding ways to extend her impact back to areas like the one she grew up in, in northwestern Ontario’s Sioux Lookout.
5. Backcountry Wok
Backcountry Wok makes nutritious and flavourful dehydrated meals that are packaged with 100% compostable materials—a product born out of a personal need for founder Melanie Ang. “My background is in marine biology, where I did a lot of fieldwork in the backcountry,” says Meanie. “I ate a lot of dehydrated camping meals, which were heavily packaged, and they created a lot of waste.”
Melanie noticed how counterintuitive it was to have meals with negative environmental impact while completing conservation work. She also missed the flavor profiles and nutrition of meals she had at home, so Melanie started experimenting in her kitchen to create the dehydrated camping meals she wanted.
As Melanie started her business journey by cooking, dehydrating, and getting her friends to taste test her meals, she felt a bit unsure about her lack of business experience. “That used to be my insecurity when I first started, but I find that it’s actually an asset,” she says. Leaning into her expertise in sustainability and conversation, Melanie was able to determine the guiding principles for Backcountry Wok and base her business practices and decisions on “a core sustainability component” instead of preconceived notions surrounding how a business should be.
Since launching in 2017, Backcountry Wok has come a long way from Melanie’s home kitchen. Moving from incubators to a shared kitchen and most recently a more spacious facility to keep up with demand, Backcountry Wok has seen substantial growth since the COVID-19 outbreak, as limited travel options led to more people camping, while restrictions on brick-and-mortar stores shifted customers online.
Our online sales this summer went up by a whopping 1,300%.
“Our online sales this summer went up by a whopping 1,300%,” As Backcountry Wok scales, Melanie is incorporating education into its operations by collaborating with local businesses to host workshops on sustainable camping and outdoor practices.
6. Package Free
Lauren Singer’s prominence in environmental activism was catapulted when her 2015 TedxTeen talk went viral. Showcasing how all of the trash she produced in the past three years fit into a 16-ounce Mason jar, Lauren shared her journey of carrying out a zero-waste lifestyle, something she documents on her site, Trash Is for Tossers. Moving beyond change on a personal level, Lauren started to look for environmental issues she could tackle on a macro level by creating businesses.
“I’m a problem solver, and I think the function of business is to solve problems,” says Lauren “More and more the problems of today are starting to center around climate change and the health and safety of our species and our planet.” Lauren zoomed in on the issue of laundry detergent and wondered why it was filled with chemicals that harmed our waterways and came packaged in plastic.
Experimenting with natural ingredients like baking soda, washing soda, and Castile soap, Lauren created The Simply Co., an organic laundry detergent that’s safe for the planet. “It’s my way to bring a product to market that I knew was safe and effective in order to take a stab at democratizing access to cleaner products,” she says.
In the same vein, Lauren wanted to make it easier for consumers to find other alternatives to existing consumer goods that took less of a toll on the environment. As she discovered other businesses creating the products she envisioned, Lauren launched Package Free, a retail and online store that showcased sustainable alternatives to disposable items and household goods. “It’s a way to aggregate all of these really amazing consumer product companies making products that are safe for our homes, our bodies, and the environment,” Lauren says.
Throughout the years and the scaling of both businesses, Lauren has always maintaineda dialogue with readers and customers on Trash Is for Tossers. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Lauren shared the honest and personal news of breaking her zero-waste lifestyle. “COVID brought on a shift in the hierarchy of my values based on this new circumstance that we’re facing,” she says. “I think values can shift based on circumstance. So while zero waste was my number one priority pre-COVID, my number one priority right now is the health and safety of myself and the people I love, including my employees and my family members.”
It’s a way to aggregate all of these really amazing consumer product companies making products that are safe for our homes, our bodies, and the environment.
Along with this transparency, the team at Package Free are working toward adapting to the impacts of COVID-19 by sourcing sustainable sanitizer and toilet paper, as well as creating education pieces on sustainability during the pandemic.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala was born in Togo to a large family comprising a collective of 42 siblings. To support his mother, Olowo-n’djo left school in the sixth grade to work on a farm, a common story within his community.
In West Africa, we have all these resources as well as tradition and knowledge on how to use them but I couldn’t understand how those resources did not lift the poverty that we were living in.
“What I learned growing up in my village in Kaboli is the extreme level of poverty that we live in,” says Olowo-n’djo. “In West Africa, we have all these resources as well as tradition and knowledge on how to use them, but I couldn’t understand how those resources did not lift the poverty that we were living in.” For Olowo-n’djo, this meant a personal mission to find ways for the communities to leverage their resources and create economic opportunities.
Olowo-n’djo then fell in love with Peace Corps volunteer Prairie Rose Hyde, moved to the United States, and completed his education at the University of California, Davis. In 2003, he formulated his idea of lifting Togo out of poverty by launching Alaffia and creating cooperatives to employ and empower women to develop natural resources into skin- and personal-care products, but banks and loan officers were not keen on the idea.
“Prairie Rose’s brother was kind enough to put his house against the $50,000 loan and that’s what we used to start the cooperative with about just 17 women,” says Olowo-n’djo.
Today, Alaffia’s products feature shea butter, coconut oil, African black soap, and other indigenous ingredients, and are sold in major chain, from Whole Foods to Walmart to Target, as well as in Alaffia’s own online shop. Production of Alaffia’s products supports the livelihood of almost 14,000 women.
The Alaffia Foundation, the company’s charity arm, runs projects that focus on maternal care, education, sustainability, and vision care. A project that empower and aid in education is the donation of bicycles, which enables young women to travel to school. “We have over 10,000 bicycles, mostly given to young ladies,” says Olowo-n’djo. “We see 90% retention in schools as opposed to having a 40% dropout rate previously.”
As Alaffia scales even more, Olowo-n’djo says that his biggest challenge is shifting his priorities. “I used to put bicycles in the shipping containers myself, but I realize it’s better if I spend more of my energy working with the Togo government and the American embassy in Togo to facilitate when the containers arrive.” Prarie Rose and Olowo-n’djo both had a hard time letting go of tasks like packing orders and labelling their soaps, but they know it’s a necessary step for Alaffia and its communities to grow.
8. BLK & Bold
Childhood friends Pernell Cezar and Rod Johnson had a lifelong series of conversations about how they could serve their communities. “After decade-long professional careers in corporate America, we both, respectively, felt that there was a void in the business world, and we need to ensure that people in our own backyards were given equal access and resources in exchange for their patronage of this business,” says Rod.
After decade-long professional careers in corporate America, we both, respectively, felt that there was a void in the business world, and we need to ensure that people in our own backyards were given equal access and resources in exchange for their patronage of this business.
The duo founded BLK & Bold as their way of making purpose popular and leveraged the daily ritual of enjoying caffeinated beverages into a way of giving back. BLK & BOLD pledges 5% of the profits from its coffee and tea sales to youth programs.
Being one of the first Black-owned nationally distributed coffee brands carries a lot of weight for Rod and Pernell. “Although it is humbling to serve and be in that position, it also makes us wonder why we are the first,” says Rod. “There hasn’t been much representation as merchants by people who consume the beverage as frequently as other demographics.” This platform and business model allow Rod and Pernell to support programs that enhance workforce development, eradicate food insecurities, and reduce youth homelessness.
“We’re very intentional about selecting that vulnerable demographic because of our own upbringing,” says Rod. “Pernell and I were both raised in Gary, Indiana, in ill-resource households. And we were fortunate to have a support system around us that allowed us to overcome the obstacles that we were initially faced with.”
In addition to supporting vulnerable populations, BLK & Bold is showcasing its supply chain. When Pernell and Rod started their business journey, they were meeting suppliers directly and learning to roast coffee in their own garage. As the supply chain was always a crucial component for BLK & Bold The next area they want to shine a spotlight on is responsible farming and trading by showcasing how their coffee and tea travel from farm to cup.
TPMOCS is a community of Indigenous makers who produce baby moccasins. By providing employment opportunities for Montana’s Blackfeet tribe, TPMOCS aims to alleviate some of the pressures the community faces as a result of having a 69% unemployment rate.
“My mom was very aware of the poverty and the challenges associated with growing up on the reservation and made a decision to move about an hour away so that we could still be close to our family but have access to better education opportunities.” says TPMOCS founder Maria Fisher Running Jones, who grew up in the Blackfeet community and experienced first hand the disadvantages of living on reservations.
From that turning point, Maria went onto law school and is now a practicing corporate lawyer. Even though supporting organizations that run programs for Indigenous communities is something Maria strongly believes and participates in, she wanted to create her own hands-on way of supporting her tribe.
“One thing that the Blackfeet community is proud of and are quite good at is craftsmanship,” says Maria. Combining the arts of moccasin-making and beading, Maria modernized designs and proposed the tribe make baby moccasins, a product that is scalable and has a shorter production time.
Since launching in 2014, TPMOCS have gained exposure from a Facebook showcase and mentions by celebrity Nicole Richie, which led to wholesale inquiries from major retailers. “We’ve struggled with a lot of growth opportunities because something has to give,” says Maria. “Large companies sometimes want 50%, but I still have to pay the artisans, pay for materials, and keep the business going, and it just can’t work.”
Large companies sometimes want 50%, but I still have to pay the artisans, pay for materials, and keep the business going, and it just can’t work.
For Maria, the most important thing is to support the livelihoods of artisans. Her team is working on other projects that will include merchandise that’s even more scalable. In addition to donating back to the community with necessities and setting up scholarship grants, TPMOCS is looking for ways to expand its business model to other tribes, sharing Indigenous culture, and supporting more communities.
Change starts with the need to solve a problem
The founders of these nine businesses might be working in different industries and creating change in separate communities, but they all started because they wanted to solve a problem their own way. These founders might not have even envisioned being carried by large retailers or expanding internationally—they took on challenges step by step and eventually created the movements they are leading today. What are some areas where you envision a change?
Illustration by Luca D’Urbino
About the author
Shuang Esther Shan
Shuang is a storyteller at Shopify, fascinated by how change is created through commerce. When she’s not obsessively researching or glued to hearing the stories of merchants, she’s discovering new places—with a camera in hand.