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Socially Responsible Business

Being the Only B

The owner of the only certified B Corporation in Kentucky assesses the pros and cons of the certification.

 

Illustration by Timothy Cook

Being the only one of something—whatever that something is—generally has one of two results. Either it makes you hot stuff or it backfires. In business, you hope for the first. It’s supply and demand at its finest: Less of you increases the desire for you. But move away from theory and into practice, and real life may not always work that way. Sometimes being the only one of something means that fewer people understand you or realize what you truly have to offer. Instead of becoming rare, you become an anomaly—the product people aren’t quite sure what to do with, an outcast.

I am the owner of In Every Language, Kentucky’s only certified B Corporation. Not only are we the only B in Kentucky, which means we’ve been certified as a socially responsible business, we’re the only B in our industry. So if anybody understands what it’s like to be the only one of something in business, it’s me.

Even before certification, In Every Language was a social enterprise. Based in Louisville, Ky., In Every Language provides translating, interpreting, and other language services to clients around the world. That’s the business part of what we do. When it comes to the social part, we do two different things.

First, the community nature of translation is inherent. Translators take what one person says and translate it into another language, so another person can understand. Without translators, information wouldn’t pass correctly between cultures and countries, international misunderstandings would develop, and wars could start. The American Translators Association claims that it takes less time to train a fighter pilot than it takes to train an Arabic interpreter, and the interpreter is more important to national security.

Less frighteningly, community interpreters help patients better understand their course of care and help immigrants obtain access to community services. Both translators and interpreters provide access to information and knowledge that the language barrier blocked before. Being a translator automatically means being a helper. The sheer fact that In Every Language is a translation provider automatically integrates social cause into our business because, regardless of the message translated, social benefit lies in the act of translating itself.

For me, though, this wasn’t enough. Although the translation industry is replete with social benefit, not every translation company is a social enterprise. In Every Language is the industry’s only certified B Corporation for a reason: We do translation differently.

TACKLING TWO GLOBAL PROBLEMS AT ONCE

When I started the company in 2005, I wanted a full-time job that mattered. I was already freelancing as an interpreter at Kentucky Refugee Ministries, working with Louisville’s Francophone African population. Interpreting gave me a life. Any other job I took seemed fruitless, without soul. It was only when I was interpreting that I felt fully alive, as if I were using a gift from God to benefit others. While interpreting, I disappeared and became a catalyst for change. The tremendous help that translating and interpreting affords others is why I opened In Every Language. I realized not only that refugees and immigrants need interpreters, but that there is also an abundance of bilingual, trained professionals who need jobs.

Enter Translation Plus Two, In Every Language’s unique approach to translation and the second part of our social mission. Our company slogan is Translating Words, Transforming Lives, because we’re trying to help solve two global problems at once: the language barrier and world poverty.

In addition to providing translation services, we contract 100 percent of our translators from socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, such as refugees, people from undeveloped or underdeveloped countries, and women from cultures where they are not allowed to work outside the home. We also help these contractors become certified translators and grow their own translation microbusinesses.

I had hoped that fighting poverty and the language barrier would be a bandwagon everyone would want to get on, but not in Kentucky—or at least not at first. Immediately after we opened the company, some people at Kentucky nonprofits turned against In Every Language. The director of one resettlement agency accused me of trying to take advantage of “poor refugees” for personal gain. This hurt. How could offering professional work to someone who needs and deserves it be considered taking advantage?

It didn’t take long to understand what she meant. She didn’t really think I was taking advantage of refugees; she thought I was profiting from them. In Every Language is the first for-profit language service provider to contract members of Kentucky’s refugee population. I am not Kentucky’s first social entrepreneur, but I was definitely the first one she had ever met.

Since then, In Every Language has had to prove itself repeatedly. We turn six in August 2011, and I still find myself explaining social entrepreneurship and why it’s important. Ironically, social entrepreneurship is a fundamental part of Kentucky culture, as our state’s history is agrarian and community-based. But Kentuckians have never called their efforts social enterprises, and even though community farms may be the most elemental type of social enterprise there is, most small farmers don’t think of themselves as businessmen. To them, businessmen are J.R. Ewing—ruthless and in suits—not everyday working people. The people who lead organized social enterprise movements unfortunately have done little to dispel this stereotype. Their marketing and certification efforts have focused on the coasts, with B Lab in particular certifying 108 B Corps in California compared to one each in Iowa, Kansas, Idaho, and Kentucky.

Fortunately, the hostility in Louisville’s nonprofit community has gone away, and Kentucky’s refugee resettlement agencies and other community organizations have come to see In Every Language as a partner. We team up to interpret mayoral debates and work together on making interpreter training more accessible to those considering translating or interpreting as a career.

B Corporation certification helped resolve some of these public relations problems. In particular, the status has helped differentiate us from for-profits that focus solely on their bottom line. Our actions have earned us respect, but being a B has earned us understanding. We describe it to people like this: B Corp is a national movement, but the commonwealth of Kentucky has yet to recognize it as a legal filing status, so we’re filed as an LLC for now. We’re allowed to keep our money, but legally we’re bound to a mission just like nonprofits.

THE CSR DISCONNECT

Even though In Every Language helps the economically disadvantaged, we like to sell to those a bit better off: the Fortune Global 500. After all, for a for-profit business to be sustainable, it has to make money. We earn revenues by selling translation and interpreting. Although many smaller businesses or local nonprofits may need those services, it’s big business that’s able to pay for them. So we market ourselves to the Johnson & Johnsons of the world, who are not located in Kentucky.

You would think that being a social enterprise would give us a competitive edge with this market. Unfortunately, when those responsible for purchasing translation hear “social enterprise,” many think “nonprofit.” When they think “nonprofit,” they think “unprofessional” or “no good.” In the world of professional language services, quality is king. One mistranslated word in factory instructions and workers could chop off their hands. A misinterpreted phrase in a doctor’s appointment could lead to death. Our work is important and we must do it well. Say “refugee,” “impoverished,” or “discriminated population” loud enough and some potential clients question quality. In fact, one even said: “You need to drop this B Corp thing. No one understands what it is and it makes you look like amateurs.”

When we first became a B, I thought the certification would help. The big plan was to sell our services to socially responsible corporations through their CSR departments. But at many businesses, there’s a disconnect between those responsible for CSR and those contracting for translation services. The CSR officers I meet love our model, but most have no idea who at their company is in charge of translation. Even when they do, the actual translation buyer must still be swayed. It takes considerable work to convince buyers that our translators are of the utmost quality. In fact, because of the stigma that arises from their backgrounds, I’d say they’re better than translators at other companies where quality isn’t immediately questioned. Our translators are highly experienced, degreed, and certified. When we come across less qualified translators, we refer them to competitors whose quality standards are less strict. This way, they can gain the experience needed to work with our clients. In the end, our quality procedures must be stricter because of the stigma against our translators’ backgrounds. Still, being the industry’s only B has hurt us.

We have a solution, though: We’re banking on people caring. Maybe Translation Plus Two isn’t the right fit for every customer, but not every customer is the right fit for us. Again, we’re looking for people who care. We’re looking for customers who get excited by the fact that a Somali woman can grow her translation business while still respecting her husband’s wish that she not work outside her home. We’re looking for customers who love that their Bosnian interpreter has a success story, that he first learned how to interpret professionally while working in the camps for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. These are the clients we want to work for. These are the people whose materials we’re proud to translate.

We’re not perfect. No person or company is. But In Every Language has a strong mission and a clear sense of its corporate and social identity. Our staff is determined. We’d rather be the only B than not be a B at all. Because being a B means that you as a customer have proof that our mission is not just self-serving. We want to be held accountable.


Terena Bell is CEO of In Every Language, a certified B Corporation located in Louisville, Ky. Her work with the company has been recognized by two Kentucky governors, and he has both spoken and published internationally on translation industry topics.

 
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COMMENTS

  • Tom Hyland's avatar

    BY Tom Hyland

    ON May 26, 2011 12:13 PM

    If everything now is called a “social enterprise” can someone please define an “unsocial enterprise”?
    When will the madness and ridiculous semantics stop? Not only does this discourse alienate nonprofit sector professionals whom aren’t embarrassed by the fact that they work for a nonprofit (like “social entrepreneurs” are), it also chases away commercial capital whom are absolutely right in running for the doors when they see something identifying itself as a “social business.”

  • BY R. Todd Johnson

    ON May 26, 2011 12:29 PM

    Thanks, Terena, for bringing up some of the hard truths about doing business as a social enterprise, namely:

    1.  Dealing with the binary thinking that drives social purists to believe that if you are for-profit, then you must be bad (and it’s equally false converse, that if you are non-profit, you must be good);

    2. Addressing honestly, the image that social enterprises are amateurs.

    Unfortunately, both stereotypes will take time and repeated examples of businesses like In Every Language who are both fiercely socially-minded (and not willing to be tempted by the opportunity that profit often brings—namely greed) and steadfastly focused on providing the highest quality service or product (or competing in the marketplace to be the very, very best).

    Bravo to you (and others like you) who are working so hard in the trenches to change these stereotypes.

    One quick note of clarification. In your piece, you state:

    <<We describe it to people like this: B Corp is a national movement, but the commonwealth of Kentucky has yet to recognize it as a legal filing status, so we’re filed as an LLC for now. We’re allowed to keep our money, but legally we’re bound to a mission just like nonprofits.>>

    There exists a common misconception around this point and I want to be sure that your readers understand fully what you are saying—namely, most states do not have a corporate form that permits traditional corporate funding (LLC’s do not) and anchoring of social missions.  It is for this reason that there is a movement afoot in at least 15 states to adopt legislation such as California’s Flexible Purpose Corporation legislation and Benefit Corporation legislation that would do the following:

    1.  Permit the anchoring of a social mission that could only be changed by a 2/3rd’s majority vote of the shareholders;

    2.  Require public transparency for social impact of the business; and

    3.  Protect directors as they make the choices around social and financial impact.

    These laws present an opportunity for a great leap forward in corporate forms for social entrepreneurs.  But they are not necessary for certification as a B Corporation, as B Lab (the holder of the mark and the certifier) permits multiple different forms, so long as the mission anchoring and transparency are present (features that can be accomplished in an LLC, an S Corporation, a C Corporation, a cooperative, and other forms as well).

    Keep up the great work!!  We are all incredibly lucky to have someone of your skill and passion devoted to a social enterprise such as In Every Language!

  • BY R. Todd Johnson

    ON May 26, 2011 01:03 PM

    Tom Hyland,

    First, kudos to you for calling out what I have noted repeatedly is poor nomenclature—“social enterprises.”  In some respects, given that every organization is merely an extension of individuals, coming together for a common purpose, the use of the term “social” applies to every organization. Personally, I prefer the term “for-benefit” corporation (as it begs the question that should be asked, “for whose benefit.”)

    But the nomenclature has gained popularity and will be hard to change now.  For clarity’s sake, however, let me take a stab at answering your question (and your criticisms).

    1.  Broadly defined, the term “social enterprise” is meant to distinguish those businesses that are seeking to have a positive impact on the flourishing of the planet and its people, in addition to profit. These can be for profit and nonprofit—again, poorly chosen nomenclature, given that every organization seeks to make some amount of profit from their undertaking, either through donations or sales of products or services, with the real distinction being what they do with their profit.  In this respect, the converse would be the business that is so focused on profitability, that it pursues that maximization of wealth while externalizing costs for the rest of society to bear.

    2.  Nonprofit professionals do some great work and in many areas (disaster relief, health and education) provide goods and services where governments and businesses have failed. In many other areas, however, nonprofits professionals should be embarrassed at their track record. 

    First, the ego satisfaction that comes from donating money to do good, often leads to unintended consequences that are quite damaging. Here, nonprofits are the main perpetrators.  If you want examples, then read my blog post titled “Is Philanthropy Killing Africa?” 

    Second, many nonprofits have become obsessed with purist ideals (something I call the “Tyranny of Good”) by holding views such as “profit is bad” or “we can hire people more cheaply because we are doing good and people are willing to make less to do good.”  In the developing world, at least, the beneficiaries are the ones who are suffering, and most nonprofits are not being held accountable. 

    Third, the nonprofit community represents a large and powerful force in this country (as evidenced in California by the effort of the California Association of Nonprofits to try and derail legislation that would permit “for-benefit” corporations). CAN’s main complaint is simply this: these organizations threaten to take money away from nonprofits.  To me, this points out the great falicy of so much nonprofit effort, where in areas other than the three mentioned above, the real motive often seems to be self-perpetuation, rather than what should be the ultimate goal of every nonprofit—to put themselves out of business because they’ve succeeded.

    3.  I think you may be right that reliance on the term “social” to distinguish companies that are doing good (as opposed to the much celebrated model of Google whose mantra is one rung low on the ladder, “do no evil”) may be chasing away capital.  But there is an estimated $2.7 billion under management today that is considered “socially conscious” money. At lunch yesterday with one of the largest of the bulge bracket banks, I was buttonholed to introduce some of their fund managers to businesses and perhaps to creating a fund of funds to invest in just these types of businesses.  This, I believe, belies your point.

  • BY Maurice Bretzfield

    ON May 26, 2011 01:12 PM

    I’ll take a stab at that: An “unsocial” company is, like most, only responsible to its bottom line and existing law.

    A “social enterprise” not only measures success by its bottom line and earnings per share it measures its success at creating socially responsible outcomes.

    I think it’s pretty simple really. And, as to “chasing away commercial capital” I have to disagree. In the words of Bob Dylan “the times they are a’changin”. The US LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) market already represents an overall $227 billion in purchasing power. Consumers have had it and are demanding that corporations go beyond the bottom line and provide safe, reliable products sourced or manufactured sustainably. Those same consumers focus their purchasing power on companies that they perceive as providing a greater good.

    The capital is there. You just have to know where to go to look for it.

  • BY Anna Clark

    ON June 2, 2011 07:03 AM

    Terena,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I started a sustainability consulting practice in Dallas in 2005 after spending several years as a volunteer activist.  At the time, it occurred to me that companies could benefit from environmentalists’ knowledge about conservation if only they could see how to apply it in a profitable manner.  As a former business consultant for IBM, I knew the expectation my clients would have of a professional services provider. Starting another non-profit wouldn’t do, especially when the most established and reputable ones were not finding their way into these companies.  I started my mission-driven enterprise here in conservative Dallas an experiment.  So far it has been a success.  My company EarthPeople has steadily increased its reputation for quality with a commitment to being green (and so has Dallas!). 

    Since 2005, however, this space has exploded.  Game-changers like Wal-Mart now requires suppliers to provide evidence of their sustainability in order for companies to do business with them. As a result of this and other developments among Fortune 500s, professional services firms are increasingly adding sustainability consulting to their services. And yet, many of these services are overpriced and not designed to meet the needs of smaller enterprises. My firm makes these services affordable to help smaller companies become more sustainable.  To stay competitive myself, I need to continue differentiating EarthPeople as a socially-conscious company with a commitment to quality.

    Here in Texas, where few B Corporations exist, I went through this same quandary. Do I want to be among a handful?  Will I be misunderstood?  I decided to begin the process of B Corp certification anyway for the same reasons you stated: I’d “rather be the only B than not be a B at all. Because being a B means that you as a customer have proof that our mission is not just self-serving. We want to be held accountable.”  As more large companies redefine the competitive landscape by holding smaller enterprises accountable, certifications will gain importance whether we like it or not.  The question isn’t whether to be certified, it’s choosing the right one.  I like B Corp for many reasons: quality, branding, reputation, holistic approach, virtual community, and leadership. 

    There will always be a need for non-profits. Going back to my original intention to combine non-profit commitment with the best in “business” thinking, B Corp seems a credible and concrete way to bridge the gap.

  • Chris Crane's avatar

    BY Chris Crane

    ON February 16, 2013 06:43 AM

    I lead a non-profit enterprise.  Notwithstanding the prevailing capitalist worldview that all roads lead to capitalism, a view which is sustained largely by confirmation bias, no one in our organization sees a need for for-profit corporations! Our organization makes things and we sell things and we lack strong incentives to neglect people or the environment due to our core mission. Nobody here makes a ton of money and we consider that to be a good thing; we don’t think of ourselves as chumps. Looked at objectively, one should question why a goal of non-profits generally should not be to put for-profits out of business. That would likely be their greatest social service. Things would still be made, people would still have jobs, strong incentives for excellence and innovation could still exist, but the free caviar lunch program for the world’s affluent would end.

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