Growing up, all of my mentors were entrepreneurs.
For example, my dad is an entrepreneur—and the current CEO of our family’s business, Bazaar, Inc. My uncle is an entrepreneur. Even our neighbor growing up was an entrepreneur, and one of the largest franchisees of Burger King. These were the people I spent the most time around, looked up to, and wanted to be like when I got older. My grandfather especially, who was the founder of our family’s business, was a World War II hero turned entrepreneur. To me, he was an example of how having guts can get you far in the business world.
Ultimately what drew me into the world of entrepreneurship was the impact it could have for doing purposeful work in the world. See, I was studying rehab psychology in college, and have always had a passion for helping people with disabilities. Even from a young age, I knew that regardless of what kind of work I ended up doing, it needed to involve helping other people.
As I got older though, and started to learn about the ways in which society typically thinks about doing purposeful work, I realized that most work focused on helping people was labeled a “charity.” That’s the way we typically categorize helping those in need. And after having collaborated with many different charity boards in Chicago, and participated in various types of charity work, I realized that when you are running a charity, more than half of your time and energy is spent asking people for money. Donations are how charities survive, and without donations, you can’t do the thing you were designed to do—which is create value for a unique problem.
Entrepreneurs, however, take a different approach.
The idea behind building a startup is similar, in the sense that you’re still spending the majority of your time asking people for money. The difference is just your “donors” are your customers, and instead of them simply giving their money to you out of the goodness of their hearts, they are giving it to you to receive something tangible in return—a product, a service, or a return on their investment.
It’s when you combine a startup with a purposeful mission that you end up with the best of both worlds. A purpose-driven business becomes a sustainable enterprise. For example, I am an investor in a company called Optivolt Labs, which focuses on integrating modular solar power into custom devices. This, to me, is a perfect example of combining “what is good for business” with “what is good for the world.”
Instead of needing to ask for more and more money each year, the business becomes a self-sufficient organism that can continue helping people well into the future. We do this with our family’s business at Bargains in a Box, hiring people with disabilities and partnering with local organizations to help them find employment, but by also ensuring this part of our business remains profitable and healthy. If Bargains in a Box wasn’t turning a profit, suddenly we wouldn’t have the resources to help people in need. But by building it into a sustainable business, we can continue to grow and scale our efforts to actually help more and more people over time.
In purpose-driven entrepreneurship, you actually get to address the core issues you want to be part of solving in the world.
Whereas, in philanthropy, more time is spent planning galas and charity walks than doing the work you ultimately set out to do.
That’s the big separation.
I firmly believe the things we are interested in and exposed to as young children end up being the things we end up pursuing as we become adults. For me, I have been working alongside people with disabilities since I was seven years old when my parents took me to a facility for blind people—and there hasn’t been one year of my life where I haven’t had some sort of connection to that type of work. So it makes sense that as I began to move into our family’s business, my curiosities were rooted in how I could combine the work that meant so much to me into the fabric of the organization.
Here are just a handful of the benefits we’ve seen in not thinking of purpose-driven work as “separate” from the business, and instead as a core component:
- Employee engagement: People will always be more inspired to work for and with companies that have some sort of larger mission than a company tunnel-visioned on turning a profit. For us, we have built a culture that thrives off helping those in need each and every day, because we don’t “donate our time”—and instead, we work alongside each other. Conversely, our disability employment program empowers everyone involved, and has created an environment that feels safe and supportive.
- Heart-based leadership: When purposeful work is ingrained in the business, “work” doesn’t just mean completing your To-Do list. “Work” also means continuing to work on yourself, and do more good in the world. For example, I might have 50 different things flying at me in a day, when suddenly I am meeting our new cashier, getting his or her first job ever, has never been part of a team before, and has severe autism. All of a sudden, my “job” isn’t to just get them trained and move on to the next thing. My job is to help them adjust to this new environment, go through the experience with them, and transform their life for the better. In this scenario, I am both doing what is necessary to keep the business moving forward and profitable, but also directly connected to the type of work I always wanted to do in the first place.
- Inspiration: I am a Millennial, and I know for our generation (and this is true for Generation Z as well), we all want to feel like we are connected to something higher than just ourselves—and certainly more than just “making a buck.” That’s really what our generation of entrepreneurship is really about. And when you are able to connect to a larger purpose, both individually and as a company, the growth potential becomes infinite. All great businesses solve problems in the world, and once you are able to solve one problem in a purposeful way, a second reveals itself. And so on, and so forth. In this sense, purpose-driven entrepreneurship is not only good for attracting talent, or building employee engagement, but it’s good for society as a whole. Like-minded people will always attract like-minded people, and can become valuable assets in helping you fight for a cause or mission.