Lisa Fournier isn’t your average B-Corp business owner. The founder of Norfolk Fair Trade Co., she’s also the author of “The Barnabas Effect,” an entrepreneurial blueprint for communities and entrepreneurs on how to work together to build a stronger and more successful society. It’s not often that we get to interview with business owners turned authors in the B-Corp community and today we got the chance to chat with Lisa on her entrepreneurial roots, the trends she believes will impact benefit corporations, and why her next step forward involves education on stakeholder networks.
1) How did you get started with your business?
I had my first business when I was 19. It was an imprinted sportswear business that we grew throughout the southeastern region. I’ve always love the freedom of running my own business – I’m a problem-solver and a do-er at heart. After that experience, I went into the dot-com era and helped start emerging-growth companies throughout the 2000s. In 2009, I began caregiving for my parents – it was a radical change in my career going from fast-paced companies to the role of caregiver. If you or somebody you know has this experience, they will tell you it is hard to describe and that it is life changing. It was during this time my husband suggested that I go back to school for my doctorate to continue my professional development. I found an online, part-time program and decided to apply for Regent University’s doctorate of strategic leadership program. It was during these studies, I decided that I wanted to better understand social entrepreneurship. I found myself identifying leadership and organizational designs that seemed would be likely in the future. From there, I wrote a manuscript for my final project. As I researched, I found the benefit corporation entity structure and realized it was the blueprint for business that my research was supporting. I decided to do qualitative interviews with other benefit corporations to better understand why they would choose this structure and how to go about leading one. I published the manuscript as a book, but knew I couldn’t just write about it, I decided I had to start and operate one to better understand and formed Norfolk Fair Trade Co.
Norfolk Fair Trade Co., a Virginia benefit corporation*, focuses on “advancing the knowledge of entrepreneurism” (specific public benefit) that benefits the community both economically and socially. It is a learning-by-doing environment for entrepreneurs. The retail space that carries fair trade and eco-friendly products from local makers and global craftspeople, provides the live business environment for aspiring entrepreneurs. In this environment they learn the skills needed to start their own business. Those who participate in the apprenticeship program work alongside other entrepreneurs and the store’s customers, while receiving mentoring support to introduce their own products into the marketplace.
2) How did you fund your business?
Entirely through self funding.
3) Why did you go with a B-Corp instead of a traditional for-profit corporation and what do you love about it?
I strongly believe in the benefit corp movement. I think we’re ready to use a different type of organizational design to solve society’s most pressing problems. There are two trends that I see that can impact the growth of this movement – urbanization (people moving into cities to conserve resources) and the decrease of federal, state, and local funding. Those 2 components converging could drastically impact the way that we live (i.e. more homelessness, poverty, etc.) and I think it will take marketplace principles and innovative thinking to tackle social challenges. Furthermore, this is an entity structure that can leave behind a legacy in the community. It is a different way of looking at leaving a legacy – going from being a philanthropist to a BUSINESS that makes a difference.
I love leading a benefit corporation. I have over 25-years of owning and operating businesses – with and without investment funding. This type of business insists that the leader looks to generating sales and finding a social return on each activity. Also, the business culture is formed by finding common ground between the people involved (stakeholders). The leader has to consider them and make deliberate choices on how to conduct business – there is buy-in because we have to consider long-term planning as one of our stakeholders. With the public reporting aspect, the community is able to engage and the business must be transparent. In my opinion, a business can make a significant impact in our communities and by using marketplace principles to help solve the most pressing challenges. To me, it is a “renewal” of business.
4) What advice would you give today’s entrepreneurs on how and why to run a B-Corp?
Know yourself and be prepared to run a business that aligns with your values – it makes decision-making easier. Be purposeful and make a concerted effort to help make a difference in your community and the world. Understand that making money is a tool and there is nothing wrong with it as well as being cautious of making money for the love of it because money doesn’t bring true happiness. Look for synergy among others that you can do business together with – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as Aristotle said.
5) What do you see for the future of NFTCo and for the Benefit Corporation movement?
The next focus for NFTCo will be educating others on what a stakeholder network is and how it is essential to the success of a business. More specifically, it is a primary tool for affecting change in a community or region.
NFTCo has started doing this a little with another benefit corp in our community. They make prototypes (i.e.: cardboard winerack) and we sell them in our store, get customer feedback and earn revenue for the maker and NFTCo. This helps get the artisan/maker “to market.”. We want to develop more partnership like this as well as a network of businesses to be complementary.
My plan is also to continue writing articles for The Barnabas Effect blog and for other publications that address people’s questions as well as doing presentations. For instance, the other day, I did a presentation and questions kept popping up about the shareholder, their ROI, and who sits on the board and directs the company, etc. I plan on writing an article that opens up conversation around how a benefit corporation operates in a free market society. In addition, I am in process of writing a “fieldbook” based on my lessons learned. You can see some of these articles in the barnabaseffect.com blog.
This is an exciting time in business. I love what I do because I don’t go to “work” – I am having a great day and enjoying those I encounter to talk about their product, the benefit corp, a customer…whatever the day brings.
*NFTCO is a benefit corporation legal entity structure with plans for B Corp certification in the near future.
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