Values vs Capitalism

A neon sign reading “Elect More Women” from the 2019 Emily’s List gala

A neon sign reading “Elect More Women” from the 2019 Emily’s List gala

I was at an event yesterday where a group of female entrepreneurs discussed, among other things, how to maintain radical, feminist values and goals (transparency, equality, liberation) in your business within a capitalist society. Because the truth of the matter is, the two things are inherently antithetical. Capitalism is built on patriarchal, white supremacist theory: there are winners and losers, haves and have nots. Some people are more equal than others. And as a result, our (American) society and our businesses are judged only by their ability to exponentially grow, to build power and money, to obliterate the competition. This doesn’t just happen within the for-profit world. In the nonprofit world, philanthropy is steeped in the same guiding principles - the power is in the hands of those who have the most wealth and it is up to everyone else to beg for their kindness. And, again, since we’re talking about patriarchy and white supremacy, the ones whose begging is most kindly listened to are the ones lead by people already connected to wealth (so probably white, cis, straight - if not male, married to one).

So how do you run a radical company when all of the incentives are there to not? It is easy to ignore your values when the vendors are cheaper and easier to find, the dollars bigger, and the conversations simpler if you don’t pay attention to the underlying impact of what you are doing. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. A couple of tips for how to run a values-driven organization that you feel good about:

  1. Budget for it early and often. Supply orders will be more higher with shipping costs. Smaller vendors will be more expensive. Returns may not be as great. Don’t pretend otherwise - build realistic costs in from the get-go so you aren’t surprised by it down the line.

  2. Use Black-owned banks. An easy way to feel good about where your money is going is by investing in Black-owned banks, who reinvest in their community members by offering home mortgages, second-chance credit cards to people who have been turned down by other banks, and investing in small businesses. By moving your money you are building an infrastructure that decreases the power of national conglomerates and builds wealth in Black communities. I recently moved my personal money into OneUnited. Great customer service!

  3. Talk about it. You cannot do this alone; you need buy-in from every level. Be vocal about what your values are and why and how you intend to uphold them. Tell your Board/investors/funders/whoever sees it why you have budgeted the way you have. Tell your team that you want and expect them to also account for values in their work - who they want to partner with, where they shop, how they think about the organization. Make it a regular part of conversation with every person connected to your company. Put your values and goals on your website. Normalizing values-driven work is key to disrupting the status quo.

  4. Share resources. Find a local vendor you love? Tell everyone about it. A rising tide raises all ships (I suppose today is Aphorisms Day). Speaking of putting things on your website - put a list of vendors on there too. Tell people why you love them. Link to their websites. Build their power while building your own.

  5. Allow for imperfection. Listen, no matter how much we try to disrupt it, we still, for the foreseeable future, live in a capitalist society. Some things are impossible to avoid when building a business. We all need computers and phones. We all use Google. We will all, at some point, not be the stalwart, enlightened leaders we want to be and we have to admit it when it happens. But there is inherent value in being upfront about our limitations. Being deliberate about how and why vision is sacrificed is in itself a social good.

We can easily get lost when we pretend that claiming values is having values. Intentionality is not action. Standing by your principles is often difficult, but unfortunately there’s no easy way to break the system.

PS: On the way home from that event I happened to listen to the second-to-latest episode of ZigZag, which also talks about all of these things. It’s a real joy, highly recommend.