My life changed in 1999 when I read Mark Hertsgaard’s book, Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future. At the time, I was managing strategic marketing for a tech media provider. While the work was intellectually challenging, something was missing. My time at work (which was significant) was not addressing what I saw as the fundamental challenge for my generation: how to meaningfully address climate change. That is why I made the career shift into renewable energy.
Dan Kalafatas and I founded 3Degrees in 2007 with a simple mission: to connect people with cleaner energy on a massive scale. Whether it is engaging with a homeowner about community solar options or helping Fortune 500 companies implement their renewable energy strategies, our goal is to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Perhaps just as important, though, we sought to establish 3Degrees as a company centered around values based on two fundamental notions. First, we believed then (as we still do now) that many people in this country are willing to direct their money and time to support renewable energy programs. Second, we believed we could hold ourselves to a higher standard in how we built and operated the business, including creating prosperity for all of our stakeholders — our employees, the community and the environment.
Moments that Matter: Impact Investing
As Mark Twain said, "Tough times teach trust." The character-revealing moment for 3Degrees occurred in 2011 when we found ourselves in a challenging financial situation. We were seeking our first outside investor at a time when no one was investing in renewable energy. Solyndra had failed. The fundamentals of the renewable energy industry were being pressured by low energy prices and policy uncertainty.
It was a tremendous relief when we met ARB (the Halloran Family Office investing company). To make the risk/reward proposition of the proposed investment in 3Degrees better for ARB, however, we needed to convert debt to company equity. Dan and I talked through what this restructuring and re-commitment would mean for the company. We agreed that if we moved forward, we wanted to officially make our company a Certified B Corporation to ensure we had the legal protection to balance shareholder and non-shareholder interests when making decisions. Now, all we had to do was convince ARB this was a good move.
While ARB had made it clear that they were interested in us because of our renewable energy industry focus, culture, and values, we were anxious about how they might respond to our plan to become a Certified B Corporation. We had no idea that Harry R. Halloran, Jr., CEO of ARB and founder of Halloran Philanthropies, was also a founding sponsor of B Lab, a nonprofit organization that serves a global movement to redefine success in business by building a community of Certified B Corporations. Harry was thrilled by our plans. We high fived, and ARB moved forward with its investment in 3Degrees.
Walking the Talk
In August 2012, 3Degrees officially became a Certified B Corporation in California. What does this mean in practice? Every year, we publish a B Corp Impact Report which takes stock of the public benefits we create beyond shareholder value. We participate in B Lab’s Impact Assessment, a biannual, independent evaluation of our social impact that helps us to focus on what we can do next and how can we do it better.
We match 100 percent of the firm's electricity usage with renewable energy certificates as well as offset emissions from employees’ transportation. While those actions may be easier for us given the work we do, we also continually seek opportunities where we can live our values. Case in point: 3Degrees provides socially and environmentally-focused 401(k) investment opportunities to eligible employees; supports up to eight hours of paid volunteer time with an environmentally-oriented organization; and gives preference to local, sustainable and fair-trade suppliers.
Why do we do all of this? We do it because we think it is the right thing to do, but also because in the long term, we think it is good business and reinforces our corporate strategy.
When I was asked to write this blog, I, in turn, asked Harry to reflect on what stood out to him when ARB decided to invest in 3Degrees and how we have met his expectations. Harry shared, “In making our investment decision, we saw that you and Dan, as founders of 3Degrees, clearly articulated and modeled the company’s values on a daily basis in big and small ways. So, it is not surprising that 3Degrees is a success on many levels — certainly as an investment, however importantly, also as a model of what is possible when a clear vision, a good business model, and respect for all partners align.”
Today, 3Degrees is one of nearly 1,800 B Lab Certified B Corps in the United States. If our own experience can offer any insight to others, it is that leading by your values just makes good business sense over the long term — in good and challenging times.
The B Corp Life is a new blog series geared towards exploring what it’s like to work at a benefit corporation. Why do b corps matter, and what does the future hold for them? Let us know at PurposePlusProfit@huffingtonpost.com or by tweeting with #TheBCorpLife.