Can Entrepreneurs Change the World?
If you have ever felt you had to choose between your creative passion and a more lucrative but less inspiring career, David Howitt says you can have both. The CEO and founder of the Meriwether Group, a business consultancy, and author of Heed Your Call: Integrating Myth, Science, Spirituality, and Business, says, “We feel like, more than ever, the consumer is voting with their dollars and … aligning with businesses that are authentic, that are born from a founder’s need to birth the business into the world.”
Howitt knows what he's talking about — he experienced it with his own business. In the mid-1990s, Howitt's wife began brewing batches of chai tea in a kettle on their stove and testing her product on friends and family. Founded in 1996, Oregon Chai grew to $40 million in sales by 2004. “More importantly, we had done that while building a really amazing [company] culture and being very committed to organic and fair trade,” Howitt says.
A Big Heart Can Boost Your Bottom Line
Howitt’s belief in the power of a small company with a big heart to succeed grew out of the story of Oregon Chai. In 2001, the tea company received a buyout offer from a much larger competitor. When the offer was rejected, the competitor said it would reverse engineer the chai and market the smaller company out of business. “That large coffee company did exactly what they said they would do,” Howitt recalls. The competitor outspent Oregon Chai in marketing and distributed their product widely. But far from going under, he says, “our business doubled, then doubled the next year, then doubled again.” The founders sold Oregon Chai three years later for seven times what the large coffee company had offered. Howitt believes the competitor educated the market about chai and then consumers chose the authentic brand rather than a product created through R&D in a lab.
Now at the Meriwether Group, “we are in service to who we think is the modern day hero: the entrepreneur,” says Howitt. “We feel that the entrepreneur has the ability to change the world in ways that are more profound than politicians and NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations or nonprofits]."
“In following your passion, following that thing that wakes you up at night … you will actually help to repair the world,” he continues. “[But] it needs to be matched up with incredible business practices. When you drive those two together, that’s the recipe for success.”
The Entrepreneur As Hero
Small businesses with a mission to make the world a better place "are tackling major social, cultural and environmental issues and they’re doing it in meaningful ways,” says Howitt, adding that, at Oregon Chai, “Heather was really adamant about buying only organic … ingredients and only fair trade.” Those practices led to meaningful positive change for some of the company’s suppliers. On one small Indonesian island, residents had been chopping down their limited supply of trees to generate income. A contract with Oregon Chai allowed them to farm organic cloves and sell them at a good price. The people of that island were able to build a school and a sustainable business.
He notes that startups like Stumptown Coffee Roasters are able to enshrine their social principles in their funding agreements because funders recognize the value of social principles at the foundation of companies that are “breaking through and creating disruptive ways of looking at the world.”
Working with farmers to ensure they and their workers are treated fairly is a core value of the coffee company. “One of the deal terms [with Stumptown's investors] was that the company would continue to source green coffee in its traditional way,” he says. “That was written into the agreement.”
Howitt feels that the future belongs to the startups that bring passion, heart, and business smarts to the table. He hopes that young people who dream of being artists will realize those dreams through entrepreneurship. “Our experience is, you can be super successful, create a really profitable, strong business, and have a lot of meaning and artistry and empathy,” he says. “These are not mutually exclusive.”
Photo of David Howitt courtesy of the Meriwether Group.
Laura McCamy is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California. She writes about small business, real estate, and development. An avid urban bike rider, she also loves to cover bicycling, urban planning, and the intersection of bicycles and business. Follow her on Twitter @lmcwords.