The death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police in the midst of a deadly pandemic and widespread unemployment has galvanized millions of people to risk infection to protest systemic racism. So many, in fact, that this could well be a pivotal moment in America’s troubled racial history. For business leaders and their companies, it means an unprecedented reckoning on social justice.
Among those business leaders, America’s entrepreneurs are uniquely positioned to show companies how to help establish new norms of social justice. Here’s why:
Entrepreneurs are self-directed, setting the values and standards that they live and work by. Most people are highly constrained in how strongly they can support causes and principles opposed by powerful forces in society. They work for someone else or depend upon someone else for their livelihood and their direction. Entrepreneurs are the only part of the working population that can genuinely set their own standards of behavior.
Entrepreneurs are powerful force in changing social norms. Entrepreneurs change social norms in two ways. First, the products and services they deliver set the standards for new ways their customers can behave. As innovators, they set new standards for what we wear, eat, see, and think. Meanwhile, big corporations tend to copy the trends initiated by entrepreneurs and deliver them on a large scale.
Entrepreneurs wield enormous social power. Neither they nor the general public are aware of just how much power and influence entrepreneurs have. But consider: entrepreneurs comprise about 13% of the workforce and employ about half of the workers in the country. They set the most basic standards of how we work together and behave toward one another, and they can change those rules instantly, without having to fight a corporate bureaucracy. Theoretically, CEOs of big companies could do the same, but in reality they are constrained by shareholders. And they can see their good intentions undermined by people in their far-flung operations.
If you’re an entrepreneur, here’s how you can and must help raise the standards for social justice:
Make social justice part of your service or product. Putting a #BlackLivesMatter or similar notice on your website, product, signage, and packaging helps. Locating your notice so that it is associated with your brand and logo is an even stronger message. It is no longer a message of “support” but rather a message of values that you associate with who you are and how and why you deliver your product.
Make social justice a visible part of work, the workplace, and of the way work gets done. This can be hard for any entrepreneur who has not personally felt injustice, as we all almost always think of ourselves as being fair-minded. Further, because entrepreneurs are by their very natures self-directed in the pursuit of their own well-being, they can be insensitive to issues of fairness and fail to prioritize being equitable. Most entrepreneurs pay too little attention to the racial make-up of their team, or how to equitably tie performance to pay (a very subtly difficult challenge). And most entrepreneurs aspire to create workplaces where they like everyone they work with, creating a natural bias towards homophily—the desire to be with people that look and think like yourself. A socially just workplace is hard to create, which is why so many entrepreneurs and corporate managers just give it lip-service.
Take personal responsibility for the changes and for ensuring the changes stick. Establishing a socially just workplace is not something that can just be switched on. Change cannot be delegated to a human resources department. Unless you make clear you genuinely care about the change, it won’t happen. Associating social justice with your company and your brand is a first step—putting people on notice that it’s no longer business-as-usual. But to transform your workplace and how work actually gets done, you have to be the chief agent of change.
Start by asking a different set of questions around how socially just your workplace is. People naturally respond positively when asked a question. Asking connotes a request for help. Asking a different set of questions forces people to change their routines to help you find the answers. Ask questions like, “How socially just is our workplace?” “How did we get so complacent about social justice?” “What will it take for us to change?” The questions, the honesty with which people answer, the seriousness with which you listen to the answers, ask follow up questions, and take action will send a strong message that you want genuine, meaningful change.
Recognize and reward people who change themselves and help the workplace become more equitable. Culture is created, in part, by the sum total of recognition and reward in an organization. As founder and boss, you are best positioned to confer the most important recognition and rewards that shape culture. By explicitly calling out acts and individuals that you feel are acting in socially just ways or are changing their behavior to be more socially just, you create role models that others will emulate.
Make it easier for people to be socially just at work and make it harder for them to be unjust. People gravitate to the easiest path to getting their work done. Making certain actions easier to perform sends a powerful message about your priorities. For example, make it easy for someone to get trained on a new task or to ask to be mentored. This will eventually result in more diverse people improving themselves and making themselves eligible for a raise or promotion. Make it harder for people to not want to improve themselves by making them have to justify why they haven’t signed up for additional training.
For most entrepreneurs, starting a business is not about money. It is about how they want to live. And if you are one of those who wants to live in a more socially just world, you have a greater opportunity than most people to help make it happen