Image Credit: Photo by Paula Owen
Put on armor because it can be painful. When building a purpose-driven business, it can take time. Overnight success is a bit of a myth. It involves building trust, which takes time. It involves setting up processes to ensure your vision is baked into your operations, and you might move slower at first. But your impact will compound, and the purpose you realize will make it all worth it.
Tara Milburn is the Founder and CEO of Ethical Swag, a Certified B Corporation that helps brands source sustainable swag for employee and client gifting. Tara’s unique journey has led her to develop a nuanced understanding of success, one in which business has always been about people, planet, profit, and impact.
Can you tell us your “Origin Story”? Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in Montreal during the 70’s and 80’s with parents who immigrated from the UK and Ireland. My mother was a nurse who stayed home following the adoption of my brother and I. My father was in the Second World War as a radio officer and developed a love of and had an aptitude for electronics. He worked at Marconi in Montreal in the early 60’s, where he would “tinker” with electronics in his spare time.
During that time, he made a pocket calculator, using a cigarette box as the outer case, for his own use to do his calculations. Pocket calculators were not a thing back then - slide rules and big desktop plug-in calculators were all anyone had. That pocket calculator was his first venture into entrepreneurship. He left Marconi and started his first business.
So I grew up in an entrepreneurial family, with all of its highs and lows. Wins, yes. Bankruptcy, yes. I saw it all.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I have been largely misunderstood since I started my business. When I first decided to give up the golden handcuffs and leave my corporate job, I had friends and colleagues ask if I needed a job because they could help. They found it hard to believe that I started a promotional products company!
But I was out to make a different kind of business and demonstrate it can be done in a mature industry with no/low barriers to entry. It didn’t matter what I was selling, it mattered how I addressed the market. I actually thought if I could do it with something as ubiquitous as branded pens, it would prove that it can be done in any industry!
I was socializing one night with our accountant, and he had just attended a function where Barack Obama was the keynote speaker. He was explaining how Barack spoke of the impact of working at the community level and how business can drive change with simple decisions like where they bank. When you bank locally, the head of that bank lives and works in your community, that bank's success then leads to support of kids’ sports teams, community events, local sponsorships, the list continues.
My accountant also said that Barack had spoken about something called a Benefit Corporation. I was shocked that this was something he had never heard of before! Granted, we were his only client that was a Certified B Corporation, but he had no idea what that meant. I explained that we had changed our articles of incorporation to reflect our goal of stakeholder governance versus the singular objective of maximizing shareholder value. I explained how we had been audited for our community, governance, workers, environment, and customer practices. I so often find that when I have the opportunity to have this conversation with people, especially people in my closer business networks and communities, it invites a really beautiful exploration of different ways of doing business that suddenly start to feel obvious, even if they were totally unimaginable just five minutes prior.
We often learn the most from our mistakes. Can you share one that you made that turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?
I had an instinct that there was a gap in the market for sustainable promotional products. I came up with the name “Ethical Swag”, incorporated and made assumptions about who my market was - and was I ever wrong! With no experience in the industry, I had a lot of learning to do!
Such is the beauty of entrepreneurship–the market teaches you powerful lessons. My gut was right, but my assumptions were wrong - another interesting business lesson. Once I conducted primary and secondary research, it was like someone spotlighted the opportunities for me. We were off! My mistake was making assumptions. My opportunity was to delve deeper into customer research; the difference that’s made can’t be overstated.
As a successful leader, it’s clear that you uphold strong core values. I’m curious what are the most important principles you firmly stand by and refuse to compromise on. Can you share a few of them and explain why they hold such significance for you in your work and life?
My most important principle is to treat people with respect. That does not mean you always agree; it also means sometimes you must make tough decisions regarding your team. But respect is fundamental in all interactions.
Over my 30+ career, I have been in business with individuals who did not align with my expectations of how to treat people. I remember one such occasion when I was witnessing a peer in a leadership position treat a subordinate so badly that I had to speak up, even though it had nothing to do with me. Their justification for the interaction was that their employee was not doing their job effectively. I pointed out that it was two different issues. If their output was less than expected, they should either provide feedback and support for improvement or let them go. It was not an excuse to be disrespectful.
Everyone at Ethical Swag knows that treating people with respect is the number one priority. A very proud moment was when a client blasted one of our employees because of a mistake. Their response was “We apologize for the mistake, but we will not tolerate disrespectful behavior to any of our staff.” That employee knew that they were empowered to say that to a client, even if it could lead to lost revenue.
What inspired you to start a purpose-driven business rather than a traditional for-profit enterprise? Can you share a personal story or experience that led you to prioritize social impact in your business?
I love business! Unfortunately, I have witnessed and experienced too many things over my 30-year career that are, in my opinion, wrong. We seem to have lost our way and somehow accepted this new normal.
Business has created many of the challenges we face, and I believe business has an important role to play in fixing it. Things have to change, and we need to change the system, not the people. I embarked on a journey to redefine what success looks like in our business. The conventional wisdom is that there’s a tradeoff between social performance and economic performance. We have a chance to undo that perception by broadening the definition of success in for-profit business.
When we started our family over 25 years ago, I would meet so many people who were choosing family over work because their work environment required a commitment that left their young families wanting. I feel we should all have access to meaningful work in a way that works for our families but not at the expense of profitable business.
A recent phenomenon that I have also witnessed in my career is “growth at all costs.” We had longer-term views in the past, but now everything is fast with a small time horizon. Optimization has prioritized external stakeholders who are not committed to anything but their return. It’s impacted our ability to operate in a sustained way.
So I am doing what I love–business!--but I’ve been able to do it in a purposeful way to demonstrate that we can be profitable without having negative impacts on society and the environment.
Can you help articulate a few of the benefits of leading a purpose-driven business rather than a standard “plain vanilla” business?
The benefits are hard to overstate. I’ll name two of the most powerful: employee attraction and retention, and market demand.
The new generation of workers is looking for responsible organizations. Candidates are questioning some of the decisions that have been made, rightfully so, and are looking for leadership to go in a different direction.
Institutional investors and responsible organizations are looking for companies that are not creating social and environmental risks. They are looking to improve their outcomes and need like-minded companies in their supply chain to make these changes.
So rather than defining it as “purpose-driven,” I like to say we are market-driven, aligning with the demands of top talent to work with like-minded employers and partners
How has your company's mission or purpose affected its overall success? Can you explain the methods or metrics you use to evaluate the impact of this purpose-driven strategy on your organization?
Our mission and purpose are at the core of every decision we make. We have realized success with little to no marketing! We would be considered a large promotional products distributor in our industry (<$2.5M in sales annually), and that growth has come almost exclusively from organic traffic to our website. We currently have no salespeople and no marketing department! Our corporate structure is based on values-driven decision-making, building trust with employees and customers, and digging into our supply chain so you can trust us.
We are a certified B Corporation, which means we have been audited to a global standard for sustainability. Our mission is a key point of market differentiation in a crowded, mature market. Our key metric is the impact on our people. We’ve let that lead the way at every step.
Can you share a pivotal moment when you realized that leading your purpose-driven company was actually making a significant impact? Can you share a specific example or story that deeply resonated with you personally?
I remember having a team meeting, and we were talking about the order sizes coming through. There is a fair amount of work involved in customizing every product. If you order 100 or 1000, the amount of time to process that order is the same, but our profitability is quite different between those two size orders.
The team indicated that there seemed to be a lot of smaller orders coming through, so they were very busy, but our revenues were not reflective of activity. I said that maybe we needed to implement a minimum order threshold, and one of the employees immediately shot back with NO! We are in the business of making sustainable products accessible, so that is not aligned with our mission.
This was a pivotal moment for me because I realized that the team really embodied why we do what we do. They have worked to streamline our processes to address the issue rather than limit access to our products and services. This example showed me that our team will make decisions based on our mission instead of which path has the least resistance.
Have you ever faced a situation where your commitment to your purpose and creating a positive social impact clashed with the profitability in your business? Have you ever been challenged by anyone on your team or have to make a tough decision that had a significant impact on finances? If so, how did you address and reconcile this conflict?
Yes, conflicts happen all the time. I think we have weathered many of these challenges because we have such a clear vision of what success looks like, and we have spent a lot of time ensuring that all of our staff understands what that means.
We have had to “fire clients” and say no to business. While this can impact short-term profitability, we have a long-term view.
One example was a recent partnership with a global marketing organization. They emailed their key account manager with “an exciting opportunity.” They needed a few thousand items quickly to give away. Our manager explained that an opportunity like this would result in thousands of items ending up in the hands of individuals who would promptly throw them away. Giving away thousands of cheap products did not align with our mission, so we turned down the opportunity. The best part of that story is that the organization respected our position and did not go elsewhere. They appreciated our approach and supported the decision, so while they may have missed a marketing opportunity, they saved that budget to allocate to other initiatives.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs who wish to start a purpose-driven business? What are your "5 Things You Need To Know I Order To Create A Highly Successful Purpose-Driven Business.” If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Define what success looks like before you start! Be very clear and specific about your vision, mission, and purpose. Avoid jargon and make it memorable and easy to understand.
I spent months defining what “Ethical” means for us. It can mean 10 different things to 10 different people, so I had to be very clear on our definition and be able to communicate it effectively to our market.
We are in the business of making other people's lives better; our employees, our suppliers, our clients.. While that is simple, boiling down our purpose was painful and time-consuming. But when you are clear on your why, decision-making is very easy. I like to say that profit is a byproduct of success and not its definition.
- Bake it in! Don’t start a purpose-driven business as a marketing strategy or because it is trendy. You will be sniffed out before long, and that never ends well. Make purpose a core function of your business from the very beginning. It is a lot easier to build it that way than to try to change it later. See our blog on chocolate chip muffins.
- Don’t follow traditional business wisdom without some healthy questioning. So much of our business culture prioritizes shareholder value vs. stakeholder value. I was told I was WRONG when I started my business because I was not approaching it in the traditional way. Thankfully I had enough experience and ego to ignore a lot of that advice! It has taken a lot of time to find like-minded business leaders for my network, and they certainly were not the traditional advisers when you're starting a business.
- Choose your business partners with caution! Make sure if you are in a partnership, you share the same vision. This was a hard lesson for me to learn. I had several false starts in my entrepreneurial journey because I kept joining forces with the wrong partners. In the end, I decided to do it alone. I am not recommending that–it can be lonely and hard building a business–but I do suggest you choose your partner(s) with caution.
- Put on armor because it can be painful. When building a purpose-driven business, it can take time. Overnight success is a bit of a myth. It involves building trust, which takes time. It involves setting up processes to ensure your vision is baked into your operations, and you might move slower at first. But your impact will compound, and the purpose you realize will make it all worth it.
I'm interested in how you instill a strong sense of connection with your team. How do you nurture a culture where everyone feels connected to your mission? Could you share an example or story that showcases how your purpose has positively influenced or motivated people on your team to contribute?
I come from a place of trust in all interactions with our team. We have a constraint, not a permission-based culture. What that means is our team is empowered to make decisions within the parameters set. A permission-based culture means you can't do anything until you are told you can. This leaves everyone waiting for a leader to give direction. A constraint-based culture means you can do anything unless we say otherwise - so we work on clarifying the “no.” I feel a constraint-based approach leaves room for creativity to solve problems and empowers the team to adjust based on the particular situation. I believe it’s important that we develop a system in the company that allows those who are hired to make decisions based on our core values.
In that spirit, I asked my team this question! Their thoughts are below.
For our team, our connection has been a key to success. We always reach out to each other if there are any questions or concerns. When we faced a challenge in procedures last year, we tackled it together. Sharing our mission in our staff meetings really kept everyone motivated and helped us all understand our values better. The level of patience and support from this team is amazing, and I think it’s helped our productivity and confidence.
– Team Member
I feel the weekly team meetings help instill a sense of connection, and I know I enjoy seeing everyone and checking in. I think our dynamic makes everyone feel comfortable to raise their hand when they have a question or an idea. Everyone is valued as a part of the team.
– Team Member
I shared with some local friends that we are all being given a day to volunteer - I was looking for everyone to give me an idea I might not have thought of - and my friends thought that was so cool and generous as a company.
I'm proud to work at Ethical Swag because we are a B Corp. We get to walk the walk and have a positive impact–in our communities and on the bigger picture.– Team Member
Imagine we’re sitting down together two years from now, looking back at your company’s last 24 months. What specific accomplishments would have to happen for you to be happy with your progress?
If you had asked this question two years ago, I think the answer would not reflect reality whatsoever! The last three years have made it incredibly difficult to feel stable in decision-making because there are so many external factors that are impacting all of our lives.
We have been investing significantly in technology, and in two years, all of our systems will be working in harmony! It is a significant investment in time and resources. What that means in a couple of years is better customer service, better procurement, and a better environment for our team.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would like to inspire more entrepreneurs to realize the power we have to impact change in the world. I want mainstream business mentorship and training to go beyond the normal “grow fast and exit” advice. For-profit businesses can and should create social and environmental impact. We should make our definition of success work for us as a whole–for our planet, our people, and for the mission-driven person we get to be when we show up to work.