What does it mean to do "do good" through businesses in 2021? 5 lessons from Canadian leaders on building socially responsible businesses

During the pandemic Canadian businesses big and small stepped up to support their communities at a time of major economic and social disruption. Consumers had already been pushing companies to pursue progress along with profit. Now, after seeing what businesses can accomplish, expectations are higher than ever.

But what does it actually mean to build socially responsible businesses?

Below are five lessons for business leaders from a recent event called "A New Type of Capitalism" hosted by Canadian Club Toronto, featuring three leaders with unique perspectives on "doing good through business": Jenn Harper, Founder and CEO of Indigenous-owned beauty brand Cheekbone Beauty, Kayla Isabelle, CEO of Startup Canada, and Guy Cormier, President and CEO of Desjardins Group.

  • Social responsibility is a core business decision - not an afterthought.Leaders that take a community-focused approach should be making important decisions through this lens, everything from who they hire to supply chain decisions. Guy Cormier spoke about how healthier communities are good for business, and how investing - economically and socially - in local communities will ultimately lead to better business outcomes. "Now, more than ever, companies that prioritize their communities will be more sustainable, more resilient and more capable of achieving long-term growth," said Cormier.

  • Leaders need an authentic story for why community matters to their brand. Jenn Harper spoke about how having a clear "why" behind the brand's mission is core to connecting with customers, partners and even funders. "Our sole purpose was to provide a platform where Indigenous youth felt represented," said Harper. "The whole concept was about giving back to our community and how I could create something that existed to support my people, Indigenous people." Harper noted when entrepreneurs and brands can articulate and share their personal stories with their communities, it leads to more authentic, genuine and deeper connections.

  • Leaders recognize their biases, and amplify others' voices. Smart leaders start bylistening to their employees, clients and customers, and discussing unconscious bias up-front. Kayla Isabelle pointed out businesses should partner with other organizations that are by and for specific audience groups, such as Startup Canada's partnership with NACCA on Indigenous programming. "We amplify their work, their stories and their support, but we understand that those types of communities need to be led by Indigenous leaders for Indigenous leaders," says Isabelle, adding that is the approach they also use for the other communities they serve.

  • A business can't be socially responsible without being accountable. Leaders need to set clear KPIs around ESG criteria, and report back on their real impact, especially when it comes to issues of sustainability, diversity, equitability, and transparency."I am feeling positive that in the next few years we will have strong measures, KPIs, and transparency regarding our ESG criteria," said Cormier. "The pressure will not only come from our investors, but also from our employees. People want to work for a company that has a purpose."

  • Community-focused businesses are on the rise. Now, we need to help them scale. Kayla spoke about the growing interest to start socially responsible businesses in her network. In 2020, 86% of the Startup Canada community were interested in aligning to a UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), which represents a 20% increase from last year. But, many still have questions about what it takes to start - and importantly scale - these businesses. There is an urgent need for greater investment and mentoring within the Canadian startup community, and large financial institutions play an important role nurturing Canada's small businesses and entrepreneurs.

You can listen to their full conversation via podcast or video.

Desjardins Group