John Mackey was a self-described hippie. Living in Austin, Texas, in the 1970s, Mackey looked the part. He sported a shaggy, curly mop of a hairdo and adorned his face with a horseshoe mustache. After dropping out of college, Mackey decided he wanted to take on corporate America, specifically targeting the tycoons controlling the food industry. To do so, he launched a nonprofit, health food co-op, called SaferWay (a not-so-subtle jab at Kroger’s Safeway grocery chain). But over time, Mackey grew convinced his tiny co-op could not make a dent in how Americans eat. So Mackey began to think beyond the walls of his co-op. To change the industry, he’d need to launch a full-on grocery store.
Craig Weller, Renee Lawson Hardy, and John Mackey | Photo source: CNBC
In 1980, Mackey decided to approach his top rivals to gauge their interest in collaborating. He met with Craig Weller and Mark Skiles, owners of SaferWay’s competitor, Clarksville Natural Grocers. “I pitched them, ‘Look, we’re going to open this first natural foods supermarket, one of the first natural foods supermarkets anywhere in the world, why don’t you do it with us?’” Mackey saw his competitors as his potential allies. Mackey saw an opportunity for them not just to operate autonomously together but to actually cofound a bigger and better endeavor entirely. So they did. They merged their stores under one roof and chose a new name—Whole Foods Market. The natural foods movement was born. Over the next 37 years, Whole Foods Market expanded to 460 stores across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. A few months ago, Amazon bought Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, marking the beginning of a new chapter. Love Whole Foods or hate it, in just a few decades, the healthy food movement graduated from tiny cooperatives catering primarily to young, hippie enclaves in Austin to the most innovative force in the food industry in the West. John Mackey’s healthy food vision is today officially mainstream thanks to his belief in collaboration. John Mackey understood the power of thinking beyond. His philosophy is different from simply thinking big. Building great companies intrigued this industry pioneer but building something beyond his organizational boundaries intrigued him far more. Jesus reminds us in clear language to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” To seek first as leaders of faith-based organizations is not easy. Because of how deeply entrenched we are in cultural values of winning, competition, and ownership, we regularly lose sight of how radical our organizations would be if we were truly to seek first the Kingdom of God. For many of us, we may tip our proverbial hats to working together with our rival nonprofits, but do very little in practice. But if it is possible for a hippie-turned-mogul to link arms with his direct competitors; perhaps faith-based organizations can as well?
I’ve heard a line of logic perpetuated from the biggest of stages, from pastors and leaders I respect a great deal. It proceeds something like this:
Imagine how much faster we could solve world problems if we all gave just a bit more to charity.
There is a lot to like about this sentiment. I’m a nonprofit fundraiser, after all. I’m all for people giving more to charity, particularly my charity! Still, I believe this logic does more harm than good.
In 1913 in a small farming town in Iowa, Fred H. Wells invested $250 on a horse, wagon and cans. And he began making ice cream. Iowans loved it. Delicious ice cream never stays a secret long and soon Iowa’s secret leaked beyond its borders. Fred Wells began selling a lot of ice cream. Today, his company—Blue Bunny—is the largest family-owned ice cream company in the world, selling over one billion dollars of it annually.
Fred Wells, founder of Blue Bunny Ice Cream (source: Blue Bunny)
I probably enjoy Blue Bunny ice cream more than I should. I’m fairly sure Brett McCracken was thinking about Peanut Butter Panic when he wrote, “Food…is something we can delight in, something through which we can taste the goodness of God.”
Recently, I was enjoying a bowl of Blue Bunny with family when we began discussing the company. The Wells are friends with my father-in-law and he’s had the opportunity of visiting their headquarters in Le Mars many times. He shared about how the company operates, treats its employees, and gives charitably from its profits. Blue Bunny is an exemplary model of business done well.
Upon learning that, I looked down at my empty bowl and quickly scooped seconds.
Eating Blue Bunny isn’t just a culinary joy. It’s effects stretch far beyond my bowl. Buying Blue Bunny sustains the careers of over 2,500 workers. Their wages put food on their families’ tables and clothes in their closets. The company and its employees pay hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes, which paves Iowan roads, sustains public schools, and employs the local police force.
There’s more to Blue Bunny ice cream than cream and sugar. When I trade four dollars for a half-gallon, that money doesn’t just evaporate. It fuels the grocery store, dairy farmers, truckers, and others along the Blue Bunny chain.
When we perpetuate the logic that “increased charitable giving will accelerate poverty reduction,” we inadvertently suggest that other types of spending don’t have a role to play in reducing poverty. In a sense, we create a monetary “sacred/secular” divide. Each use of our dollars—spending, giving, investing and saving—serves valuable purposes in our economy.
Giving to the homeless shelter alleviates poverty, but so does purchasing an iPhone. Healthy societies are built on families andinstitutions—churches, charities, businesses, and schools. It’s our job to sustain and fuel the best institutions through our giving, spending and investing.
Yes, give generously to charity. Openhandedness should be a countercultural marker and enduring posture of Christians. Giving is good for our souls and good for our communities. But each use of money can contribute to the alleviation of poverty. Spend and invest well. Buy from the goodguys and steer clear of the weasels. And above all, scoop a second serving of Blue Bunny.
We all love a good entrepreneur story. These stories are threads in the fabric of Americana. From the barbershop owner to the bold inventor like Henry Ford, we love these stories. At their genesis, at least. But do we love when these businesses become big? What about when they start interacting with other businesses in the global marketplace? Do we believe free markets are good news for the poor?
My experience tells me we do not. Indifference is normative, as if commerce exists almost as a nonfactor for the poor. Scorn is the most-vocal response to free market capitalism. I conjure distasteful images when considering concepts like multinational corporations, Big Business, factories, and globalization. Among the images I summon are sweatshops, the 1%, boycotts, child labor and executive caricatures like Mr. Burns.
To combat these images, we create pithy “alternatives” to appease our concerns, frontloading the questionable concepts with nicer adjectives. Small business. Social enterprise. Local business. These clarifiers are good, but when it comes to alleviating poverty, they are tinsel and ornaments. The free market is our tree. When we add clarifiers, the danger can be that we miss the impact of plain ol’ business. Vibrant commerce–in even its most ordinary varieties–is the engine that lifts the poor out of extreme poverty.
By overwhelming margins, free market capitalism has enabled more people to escape poverty than any system in the history of the world. Yale University and The Brookings Institution released a staggering study to join the chorus of research validating this claim: In 1981, 52% of the world’s population was unable to provide for their basic needs like housing and food, living below the “extreme poverty line.” By the end of 2011, just 30 years later, that percentage plummeted to 15%.
Yale and Brookings state the chief reasons for the unprecedented drop are “the rise of globalization, the spread of capitalism and the improving quality of economic governance.” This is the “potent combination” behind the plunging poverty levels. It doesn’t mean the 85% of us above this line are living large—attending college, taking vacations and the like—but it does mean we won’t die from inexcusable and preventable causes like starvation and diarrhea. It makes me wonder: How can we respond to this with indifference or scorn? Why aren’t we shouting this from the rooftops?
Entrepreneurship is not a white lamb, however. Let’s not forget the despots who enslave little girls and trade them across borders like they are bags of grain. These unfathomably evil traffickers are, well, entrepreneurs. As are the drug runners. And we don’t have to look far to know economic prosperity doesn’t alone prosper. And it is in this human brokenness–certainly not unique to any economic system–where immense opportunity lies for the Church, people like Rick who actively war against these evils.
Like all of us, I love to share a good entrepreneur story and I’ve shared many this year, some here and a few at Christianity Today’s exciting This is Our Cityproject. I’ve shared these stories—from pigs to bike helmets—because they are worthy of it, stories replete with bold risks, profound justice and stirring impact.
Entrepreneur in Zimbabwe (source: Luke Boney films)
My grandpa loved people well and it showed in the way he ran his business. Ethan Rietema and Steve Van Diest upend the mattress industry by providing a restful buying experience. Reyna overcame blindness to start a business that now provides for her family. Brian saves lives by selling solar lamps to hundreds of thousands of families around the world. Steve Hill and Jim Howey breathe dignity into what appears to be an ordinary warehouse. These leaders—on construction sites, shop floors and in strip malls—take the mission of God forward. They are not our extras. They are not supporting actors relegated to check-writing and church volunteerism. They are members of Christ’s body, tasked with very important jobs to do. These remarks are adapted from a talk I gave in Washington, D.C. at Entrepreneurship in the Developing World, an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute: Video| Polished Transcript. The event was a response to Bono’s recent “humbling” observations about the role of entrepreneurship and capitalism in helping the poverty-stricken communities of the developing world.
My attention span isn’t what it used to be. While reading a terrific book last night, I noticed my itchiness for the end of the chapter. It felt forever away. The chapter ran thirteen pages. In 2012, apparently, thirteen pages is my new eternity.
Maybe you can relate: The moment you wish a 90-second YouTube video would get to the point. The moment you yearn for a red light so you can catch up on email. The moment you need to check a new text message during dinner with friends. This growing impatience dangerously impedes our ability to stick with things that matter.
I’m sure some teenage whippersnapper will suggest I’m simply recreating the tendency of our grandparents to overstate the distance they walked to school. They didn’t walk uphill both ways, always in blizzard conditions.
But our attention spans are slipping. According to a new book, our physical brains have adapted to our shared shiny rock syndrome. In The Shallows, author Nicholas Carr argues we have lost the ability to last. We skim and scan, but rarely sustain. While debate remains whether our brains have physiologically changed in the digital age, my experience certainly affirms Carr’s thesis. Maybe it’s my world-in-my-hand smartphone. Or, maybe I subconsciously yearn for the days when my dad’s car phone was a connectedness marvel. No matter the reason, I’m itchier than I was five years ago.
I wonder how our multitasking influences how we view change within people. Even Desmond, my two year old, rapidly switches between apps on my iPhone (…and no, parental purists, I’m not too proud to admit he borrows it at restaurants). I mean, goodness, he gets unruly halfway through Goodnight Moon.
Does the age of shallows stunt our patience? On a recent trip to India, I walked through a “slum among slums.” Conditions were abysmal, and I craved a “fix and flip” solution to the wrenching problems. I questioned whether I had the endurance to invest in the sort of change that demands time. I questioned whether my millennial sensibilities would allow for the sort of steady and faithful life-on-life investment needed for true growth.
We need to recalibrate to a longer view. Bangladesh cut infant mortality by two thirds and more than doubled female literacy over the past twenty years. The “rise of globalization and the spread of capitalism” halved extreme poverty worldwide over the same time. The Church spreads at unprecedented rates south of the equator. It’s not instant, but it is remarkable.
We need a personal recalibration too. Good change is rarely immediate. Friendships demand TLC. Marital harmony is more like a slow cooker than a microwave. A virtuous life is not “acquired spontaneously” but rather a “product of long-term training, developed through practice.” Desmond didn’t master the barnyard animal puzzle overnight. These good things demand the long view, but the Information Age clouds us from seeing it.
Change takes time. In a broadband world, Indian slums prompt frustration with the measured pace of change. But in the case of a wayward sibling or a forlorn slum, slow can be good. The knight on his white horse creates a scene, but he doesn’t change anything. Hitting the jackpot makes waves, not change. Healthy change is incremental and it emerges through faithfulness. In our sound byte society, we need the discipline to wait for it.
The battle rages on. Across the globe, forces for good assault a great evil–human traffickers. Ruthless, shifty and complex, our formidable opponent lurks in red-light districts and shantytowns.
“More children, women and men are held in slavery right now than over the course of the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade…generating profits in excess of 32 billion dollars a year [GDP of Costa Rica] for those who, by force and deception, sell human lives into slavery and sexual bondage. Nearly 2 million children [population of Houston] are exploited in the commercial sex industry.” – International Justice Mission (IJM)
Leaders rally coalitions to combat villains who perpetrate these crimes on innocent children. Pioneers like IJM and Not For Sale convene activists and churches to fight this injustice. Together, they bring freedom to the darkest corners of our world. I pray these organizations grow. I pray justice is served. I rejoice with each girl whose chains of bondage break. And, I mourn to think of the many who are not yet free.
These pioneers are not without allies, however. On the front lines, a quiet hero is emerging. Inconspicuous, yet powerful, their chief ally wages war often without even knowing it.
Our hero? A good job.
Perpetrators rarely kidnap girls off street corners. More often, they lure girls into slavery with job offers. This explains why the poorest neighborhoods in the poorest countries are at greatest risk. Traffickers swarm in slums, offering parents a shot at prosperity. Give me your girl and I’ll get her a call center job across the border. They bait desperate families with financial opportunity.
Poor families are the bull’s eye for traffickers. Fewer poor families means fewer girls sold into slavery. How many parents in your neighborhood have gifted their daughters away to job placement agencies? Traffickers ignore our towns because our families aren’t starving.
Last month, I visited HOPE’s work in southern Asia. We work in a city known as a regional hub for the trafficking industry. I met with dollar-a-day families in slums throughout the city, watching our local staff breathe life into the oppressed. James, our country director, hates that his city is a target.
“We train the 6,000 families we serve how to spot a trafficker. And we help them start and grow businesses so the trafficker’s bait is irrelevant,” Jon told me.
HOPE International clients
Motivated by his faith to bless an at-risk place, my friend, Rick, recently opened the doors of a “trafficking-fighting agency” (pictured below) in another trafficking hotspot, Vietnam. This agency, a manufacturing facility, employs over 100 Vietnamese people. Linh, a beautiful young woman who was trapped in prostitution, now manufactures medical devices. She left a career of slavery for a life of freedom. The job changed her course forever.
Rick’s “Trafficking-Fighting Agency”
The CEO of a medical devices business, Rick doesn’t sign petitions and he doesn’t raid brothels. Instead, he creates opportunities for dozens of people to engage in dignifying work. His business provides an upstream, economic solution to an economic problem by putting traffickers out of business.
“I think our Vietnam operation will surprise us and become more than we’ve dreamt. We reflect Christ’s purposes in this place: To be God’s instruments to reclaim, to reconcile, and to redeem. To make all things new. That’s why we are here.” – Rick
In the war against trafficking, we need to deploy more than activists. We need to deploy an even greater force against our imposing foe. We need to unleash our secret heroes—the job creators. We need to affirm the big businesses, mom-and-pop shops, and social enterprises that create good jobs. We need to unlock the creativity of the human spirit to build new job machines, enterprises that strike the engine of the trafficking industry. We put the very fear of God in the heart of evil when freedom-fighters like IJM join arms with freedom-fighting job creators like Rick and HOPE International.