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KAI RYSSDAL: There are any number of things in this world that need fixing. What most of those things have in common is that they’ll need money — more money than charity can provide. Which is where Steve Tripoli up at the Marketplace Entrepreneurship Desk comes in. Over the next few Mondays he’s going be bringing us profiles of some people who are using their businesses to help fix what needs fixing. “Social entrepreneurs” they’re called.
We begin with a Boston woman who’s spent years fine-tuning the balance between her company’s business and social goals.
STEVE TRIPOLI: Susan Labandibar wanted to do it all when she opened her storefront computer business: save the environment, get laptops to poor kids, and build a really “green” desktop computer. After a dozen years she’s doing all those things and more. She has three stores now. In one showroom, throbbing with techno-pop music, she shows off her company’s environmentally-friendly desktop.
SUSAN LABANDIBAR: So this is your business-class Earth PC, and all of the components are RoHS compliant — it means reduction of hazardous substances.
These computers were among the first anywhere to focus on slashing energy use, and they have other green components.
LABANDIBAR: The reason why we pick the NEC monitors is that their manufacturing process is ecological, and they have a disposal program as well.
But green PC’s are only part of Labandibar’s ambitious social agenda. Her “Tech Computers of Boston” gives 3 percent of profits to charity. It has discount programs for local nonprofits, and it subsidizes her 25 employees’ subway fares to keep them out of their cars. She says running a business that makes social goals central to its mission is the most compelling thing she’s ever done. But it takes lots of juggling.
LABANDIBAR: I constantly have to make decisions about this balance between my customers, between my bottom line and my employees. So that’s where you start to run into conflicts with the nonprofit discount and employee salaries. Because we’re in an extremely competitive industry.
That means profits can’t take a back seat. After all, no profits — no social mission.
LABANDIBAR: We have a rule for this business. We have to stay in the black. First you have to learn how to manage the bottom line. Then, once you get good at that, then you can manage the triple bottom line. The triple bottom line would be your financial bottom line; your bottom line as far as your human resources, your employees, are concerned; and your bottom line as far as your societal impact and your community is concerned.
Meeting all those goals is giving Labandibar something else: a wider platform to share her practices with others. She’s been recognized by the Small Business Administration. Boston’s mayor asked her to organize a group called “Business Summit for a Sustainable Boston,” and she’s helping the city create an awards program for green businesses. Labandibar says a big insight about doing business this way is that, well, business still comes first.
LABANDIBAR: I can’t lead with my social mission. The client needs to believe that it’s all about the client, that customer service comes first. To them what’s most important is that I’m there as a local resource for computers.
But that’s where another balancing act comes in. Customers first, OK. But Labandibar wants the world to know there’s more to her business than that, and that businesses can be more than that.
LABANDIBAR: I want people to know about our social mission. It’s important to me to make sure that people understand what we’re trying to do. That I’m not just some lady that runs around with bumper stickers on her car. I want to be in the mainstream. I want to have a greater impact.
TRIPOLI: Are you happy with where you are, 12 years in?
LABANDIBAR: I’m not dissatisfied, but I think I could do more. I used to like to say that I wanted to save the world. But, uh, it looks like that’s a fairly daunting task.
On the road to saving the world this way she’s found some unexpected upsides. One is that giving to her community comes back strongly in new business. That in turn has her employees buying into the social mission more. So the mission enhances her bottom line more than she’d anticipated.
LABANDIBAR: And frankly, it would be a failure if it didn’t. Because if it doesn’t, then it becomes my personal predilection, and it can’t do that. It has to be fully integrated into the activities of the business.
Pulling off that three-way win is nice work if you can get it. Susan Labandibar’s message to other would-be social entrepreneurs is you can.
I’m Steve Tripoli for Marketplace.
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