Redefining social business: how working for a software company taught me the difference between theory and practice
June 25, 2019
I’ve always been an activist, with which comes pretty strong ideas about the way things should be. Specifically, I have a tremendous passion for social business and entrepreneurship and wish to pursue it as my lifelong career path.
But, right now, I also happen to be doing a marketing internship for a small, Montreal-based software company called Jonar. At surface level, these two facets of my life couldn’t appear more distinct, and people ask me constantly why the heck I applied for this internship.
In fact, even the people at Jonar themselves couldn’t help but investigate. When my now-HR manager called me to schedule my interview, it was the first question she asked me.
My initial and simple answer? “Well,” I said, “I run an ethical and sustainable fashion blog and so I’m looking to strengthen my marketing skills in order to grow it. Someday I want to run my own company.”
But since then, my reasons for being here at Jonar have evolved past this simple answer quite a bit. And, so too has my perspective on social business.
You see, Jonar isn’t, by the standard definition, what you’d call a social business. Our office isn’t carbon neutral, and we don’t invest thousands of dollars from our product revenues into charities. But from working here, I’ve realized we qualify in other ways. I’ve realized that what we do, who we are, and what we stand for is social — just not by the textbook. And, I’ve realized that in order for social business as a movement to succeed in any widespread way, it’s companies like Jonar that need to take the lead on making it happen.
But before I expand on these arguments, I need to hash out a little theory first.
So what is social business, actually?
Social business legend and founder of microfinance Muhammad Yunus says that it must hit two key points. First, business owners must have founded their firm for the purpose of solving a social problem. Second, the company’s profits are to be reinvested in said social goals to both sustain and increase impact.
I don’t really feel qualified to debate or to disagree with Yunus. However, I would like to put forth a complementary idea: I believe the future of social business lies in regular businesses adopting social business principles. Inherently, this won’t put such practices at the epicentre of all businesses, but that’s okay, as long as they’re still valued and aren’t just greenwashing.
I think this way because I believe social business needs to also have an intrinsically valuable product of quality, and to promote a genuine good for its customers, even when separated from its “socialness.” Only in this case can these social businesses be truly sustainable, and only then can they qualify not as charity. That is, customers need to buy products because they actually want them, not just because they want to make a difference. When we’ve reached this point — when products and businesses promote an honest commitment to quality while harming those around it as little as possible — we will know that social business has succeeded.
So how does Jonar fit in?
With these ideas in mind, we can now begin to explore how I feel like Jonar is truly moving in that direction. Indeed, we are a software company. We make something called ERP, which stands for Enterprise Resource Planning, and is a giant, comprehensive tool which businesses use to organize practically every aspect of their operations.
At face value, this definition obviously doesn’t promote anything ‘social’. But this definition doesn’t tell you anything about our office culture. It doesn’t tell you about our office’s leadership and employee gender ratios. Finally, it doesn’t tell you about why our ERP is different, and how it both directly and indirectly helps so many people.
So, let me tell you about all of those things.
Our office culture is so different than anything I’ve experienced at any previous job. Our motto around here is that “we treat people like people.” That means, if you get sick or someone in your family does, you’re encouraged to get the hell out of the office and go look after yourself/them. There’s also always food in the kitchen, beer on Friday afternoons, and cake on birthdays. There’s a standing offer on Fridays for after-work drinks. More than that, and maybe even most of all, even when I’m really sleepy in the mornings, I feel both happy and comfortable as soon as I walk into the office and greet all of my coworkers.
There’s also our office’s gender ratios. Over half of our leadership is made up of extremely smart, determined, and fierce women. Moreover, our employees are more than 50% female, including the development team, which is almost unheard of for software companies.
Our product, ParagonERP, is also pretty revolutionary. Industry leaders in ERP sell extraordinarily expensive, complicated products that constantly require servicing and thus foster customer dependency, rather than sustainability and empowerment. Truly, this means they suck every last drop of money out of businesses, with no regard for their true success.
But Paragon is different: it’s cloud-based, it’s flexible, and it’s cheap. It’s designed as a self-service system that shouldn’t require you to depend on us for a single thing. And most of all, it’s backed by our amazing team — a team who I can personally vouch is made up of some of the kindest people in the world who will always have your business’s best interests in mind.
So, maybe we don’t reinvest our profits into social causes. Maybe we don’t reduce our usage of paper and single-use plastic in the office as much as we should. But you know what we have got going on? An incredible foundation of truly extraordinary people who care about making an honest living from a quality product that helps others succeed. And when you’ve got all of this, the other stuff isn’t so hard to implement.
We’re not done, though.
My conclusion isn’t in any way that we’re doing enough. All of those things I mentioned throughout the article are incredibly important and we should act on them now. But, my point is just that a social business is a little more nuanced than it might seem on the surface. My experience, made up of both studying and now working in business, has truly shown me that, and it’s given me a better idea of what things look like now, and where they should go next.
Let’s all work, in our varying ways, to support and work within businesses who are committed to getting us to the point where social business is so common that we don’t even have to call it that anymore.