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Big Corporations Taking Small Steps: Worth Applauding?

In our fourth Founding Mothers blog post we talk to Joanne Sonenshine, the Founder + CEO of Connective Impact, an advisory firm aiding organizations in addressing social, environmental and economic development challenges using partnership strategies. Joanne is a development economist, as well as mother of two boys and the author of two books.

Hi Joanne, can you begin by introducing yourself and your company?

Joanne: I am a business owner, author, wife, and mom of two active boys but not always in that order. I founded Connective Impact in 2014 to address a gap I saw in sustainability work. Specifically there was a need to build more comprehensive and targeted partnership strategies for mission-driven organizations keen to advance social and environmental impact. Connective Impact fills that gap.

2. You had been working with NGO’s and other institutions before you started Connective Impact. Was being a founder always a goal for you?

Joanne: My dad was an entrepreneur and a business owner. Still is even in his retirement. My father-in-law is as well. Both of them used to hint to me that being an entrepreneur could be in my future, but I never took it seriously because I couldn’t imagine what it would mean or look like. The creation of Connective Impact was almost by default. I resigned from my position as a Program Director at a large NGO and knew there was a need for someone to accelerate solutions to some of the problems I had faced in my role. it was one of those classic scenarios that if a solution didn’t exist, I was going to create it myself. That’s how the business came to fruition.

“It was one of those classic scenarios that if the solution doesn’t exist, I was going to try to create it myself. That’s how the business came to fruition.” – Joanne Sonenshine

Let’s talk about your two books, ChangeSeekers: Finding Your Path to Impact and Purposeful Profits: Inside Successful Businesses Making a Positive Global Impact. The first one is very personal and the second is a business book. What audience did you have in mind, and what motivated you to become an author?

Joanne signing the #WeTheChange pledge at the annual BCorp Retreat

Joanne: With ChangeSeekers, I had been asked many times why I started Connective Impact and how my professional journey led me from being an investment banker in London to owning a partnership strategy consultancy. Then a neighbor (who is also author) suggested, “Why don’t you write about your story? Then, if someone wants to learn more they can read your book!” ChangeSeekers allowed me to share my personal and professional stories, along with those of other leaders I respect and admire for challenging the status quo and making a concerted shift towards positive impact.

Purposeful Profits is more of a business book. It stems from the evolution of CSR and philanthropy, and shares insight into this space where companies are now, which is more about purpose and collaboration inside the four walls of business. The book highlights how far we have come and includes examples of companies that are seriously considering how to intersect purpose and profits. I wanted to share with a wider audience the business stories I was hearing that inspired me, and the people inside those businesses trying to do the right thing. I also wanted to show how looking at purpose and profit together need not feel so overwhelming. Even some of the littlest things, the littlest efforts, can make a huge difference.

“I wanted to show how looking at purpose and profit together need not feel so overwhelming. Even some of the littlest things, the littlest efforts, can make a huge difference.” – Joanne Sonenshine

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I found the second book quite challenging in places as you use Monsanto and McDonald’s as examples of companies making positive impact. From my perspective and experience there’s just no way for me to view them as the good guys. What made you include them?

Joanne listening to a coffee farmer in Nicaragua discuss the challenges of climate change impacting his coffee growing. She traveled there with coffee companies in 2015.

Joanne: You are not the only one. I would say 9 people out of 10 feel the way you do. That’s partly why I included them, because these are companies that do not get good press, and for good reason. I totally get it.

I wanted to include those stories because I know people inside of these companies who are doing their damnedest to do the right thing and turn the ship around. It’s not easy. Sometimes it can take decades, but I wanted to share the stories of these individuals. They are NOT evil. These are people who care and are smart and are sustainability advocates. I know them very well as individuals, as mothers, as fathers, as supporters of some of the most amazing projects that I’ve seen. The point here is, let’s try to think about it from their perspectives, and give them the resources and the suggestions and the capital and the press that they need to do the right thing.

I think people, whoever they work for, are inherently good, but doesn’t it come down to leadership for that to make a difference?

Joanne: Yes absolutely, and I would go a step further and say it’s the shareholders. It’s not the leadership. It’s the way that our economic system is built around institutional investment. Until we have customers and consumers and investors and individuals who are making decisions for the greater good of our planet, we are going to continue to have challenges with companies like Monsanto. There are some great developments as of late leading us in the right direction.

Do you think B-Lab should advocate for change in the political arena?

Joanne: No! I actually agree with B-Lab not taking a stand. I think there’s a way for businesses to be advocates of an issue through their business practices, less so through their political engagement. Let’s take Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, for example. They’ve become very vocal politically. I would rather see a company put resources into doing the right thing within its business decisions and communicating with its customers about what it means to do the right thing. Sometimes it may mean investment in business practices versus it becoming a Capitol Hill type thing. Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s are doing both.

That makes sense for large companies, but my counterpoint would be that the majority of B Corp community is small businesses.

Joanne: I think the future is in the small business world, and social enterprises that are starting out as purposeful profit leaders can make a huge difference, there’s no question. I’m optimistic about what’s happening in big businesses as well. Many are actually partnering with small social enterprises to learn from them and help them scale. You’ll see a lot of companies, particularly in the food, agriculture, and consumer products spaces partnering with or purchasing small social enterprises. The small companies are holding onto their identity as social impact leaders, but they’re able to scale for massive distribution. Conversely, the bigger corporations are learning so much from the small companies about how to build purpose into investments and working with a broader set of complications that they haven’t been able to address very well. That to me is really exciting.

A lot of your work is focused on international development, do you think that changes your perspective on US based companies?

Joanne: I’ve seen the severe challenges that many developing countries are facing firsthand, and where a lot of US companies are sourcing products or employing labor. Sometimes, and this might sound bad, but I don’t mean it to, sometimes the challenges that companies articulate here in the US just pale in comparison to what the challenges look like in like Africa or Southeast Asia. It just changes your perspective about need completely.

How does your business play into in the way you raise your kids?

Joanne: In my first book I share pretty raw and honest insights about my experience raising kids, and how excruciatingly hard it is to be a mom starting a business, frequently traveling internationally and trying to balance growing my career at the same time. To me, being a mom is the hardest thing in the world. I always say, “I could talk to Fortune 500 CEOs all day long, but trying to help my kids with some of the complexities that they’re facing at school is incredibly difficult.” When I am traveling for work which I do often, I’ll show my kids where I’m going on the map. I show them pictures of what I see and try to teach them about what’s going on in the world so that they understand the challenges of the planet that they’re being raised on. That, to me, is incredibly important. I want my kids to be empathetic. I want them to make decisions that take into account others outside of themselves.

“I could talk to Fortune 500 CEOs all day long, but trying to help my kids with some of the complexities that they’re facing at school is incredibly difficult.”
Joanne Sonenshine

What’s on the horizon for Connective Impact?

Joanne: Connective Impact is growing! We have brought on two new employees in the last few weeks (you can read their bios here) and are continuing to focus on helping mission-driven companies advance their socially and environmentally conscious impact work through effective partnership and collaboration strategies. We are committed to honing our services and being there for our clients and the international development community by providing information and guidance on co-funding and pre-competitive collaboration ideas as well.

Cover art illustration by Sharisse Steber.

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As RoundPeg’s partner and creative director, Polina has over 20 years experience turning complex concepts into compelling visual communications. She also knows how to speak Russian and make delicious sauerkraut! Polina enjoys knitting despite her fear of pointy objects and loves nothing better than curling up with a good book and a cup of tea. See more posts by Polina..

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