Adrian Grenier: To Succeed, Entrepreneurs Must Have a Social Mission

Adrian Grenier: To Succeed, Entrepreneurs Must Have a Social Mission
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The issue with modern-day entrepreneurship, as it relates to social good, is that founders usually start a company to address a specific social issue or to solve a glaring business problem. But advanced thinking recognizes that these two things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, you are better off solving a business problem from the standpoint of serving some sort of social good.

Last week I sat down with Dell’s executive director of sustainability, David Lear, and actor/filmmaker and newly appointed social good advocate for Dell, Adrian Grenier, at SXSW to talk about sustainability, technology, conspicuous vs. conscious consumption and the "Legacy of Good."

In many ways, we have (unfortunately) been left with a legacy of greed, which no longer serves us. As Lear points out: “Technology is a key enabler to reframing how people think about sustainability and social good.”

Related: Do Good or Make Money? Why It's Not Even a Question.

Generationally, our greatest challenge and opportunity is to leverage technology and innovation to reverse the ill effects of over-consumption and unconscious consumerism. While enterprises and small-to-medium size businesses are often armed with budgets and programs (Dell’s initiative with Grenier, for example) to support the promotion of sustainable and “conscious consumption” business practices, young entrepreneurs have to think differently and creatively. We need to ask ourselves the tough questions early in the process about the purpose to which we have been called.

Hint: Despite popular belief, it’s not really about money, cars, clothes and hoes.

1. Operate "consciously"

Businesses, like humans, predictably fall into two categories: conscious or unconscious. That may seem like a vast over-simplification, so let’s break it down a bit further.

Conscious businesses operate in a way where both internally- and externally-affected parties (employees, customers, shareholders, partners) typically feel seen and heard, their needs are met, problems solved with little resistance, and ultimately they are served in alignment with their personal values and principles.

Additionally, these types of businesses are concerned with “social good” to varying degrees. They understand, particularly at scale, the implications of business activities on people (far beyond the paying customer), communities and the planet.

On the other hand, unconscious businesses posit the affected parties are a means to an end, which, by default, serves only the needs of the company itself. The upside of this paradigm is often rapid profitability, inflated stock price, clout and ego-driven initiatives.

The downside? Where do I even start?

E-waste. Poor, physical working environments. A psychological disposition of apathy among employees. Confused and frustrated customers.

“If corporations can’t look into the eyes of customers and understand the community they are operating in because they are sitting in a boardroom -- they won’t be able to address the people," Grenier says. "They should be responding more appropriately to the value of human lives.”

With little self-awareness, and even less thoughtfulness around the potential, long-term negative effects of their behavior, this modus operandi has been responsible for nearly every scandal, market crash and war since the dawn of time.

Related: Warby Parker Co-Founder On the Next Generation of Social Entrepreneurship

2. Create multi-faceted value

“Social entrepreneurship is not just about becoming rich. You do it to create value for a community," Grenier says. "When you balance your books you’re taking into account the cost of doing business, but not at the sacrifice of the cost to society.”

I would take this a step further and argue that being a “social entrepreneur” should be inherent in modern-day entrepreneurship itself. I compare this concept to being called a “female entrepreneur.”

Female is my gender, not my choice. Entrepreneurship is a choice. Likewise, as sentient, rational beings, we have a predisposition towards connectedness and serving a purpose. Thus, it should be assumed that as an entrepreneur -- which is synonymous with innovation -- we would never choose to advance society in a way that didn’t take into account those on the receiving end of our innovation.

If that is the case, then, ah-hem, this isn’t entrepreneurship. Not really. There’s another name for it -- narcissism.

3. Start small but think big

“I think there is a lot more awareness around environmental and social needs today than there was even 10 years ago,” Grenier says. “Most entrepreneurs I meet don’t just want to be working for a living. They want to be manifesting ideas that change the world. More and more people are starting to reflect their values in what they create, while consumers demand more from the businesses they support.”

As such, entrepreneurs face a unique opportunity to gain insights from larger corporations who are putting money where their "mouths" are and advocate for social causes. We should be asking ourselves, as we build our businesses: “Are the choices we’re making good for our customers, the communities of which they are a part, and ultimately the place we all live?” We don't have to create huge, expensive initiatives to have social impact.

A great quote by writer/author Annie Dillard sums it up nicely: "How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives."

Gone are the days where we can separate the idea of “social good” from being an entrepreneur. It should be woven into the fabric of how we conduct ourselves, and by extension how we conduct business.

Now that is a Legacy of Good in the making.

Related: Social Enterprises Can Raise Serious Funding, If the Product Is Great