Can love be the guiding force of your business?

Jul 31, 2017

When we think of passion, compassion, and even love, we may associate these words with romantic or familial relationships. Rarely do we link these terms to business.

When is the last time that you heard someone say any of the following:

  • I am in love with my company.
  • I am passionate about sharing my goods and services with the world.
  • I demonstrate compassion when interfacing with my clients.

Yes, those sentences may have some difficulty rolling off of your tongue or springing from your lips. Somehow, they just don’t seem to belong in a discussion about business or business practices.

But shouldn’t they?

We tend to be guided by higher principals when we are motivated or driven by love; I know I am. This is why I make a point of telling people how much I love my clients; I also tell my team how much I love them. Yes, it’s corny, but they know me well enough to also know that it’s true.

Years before I even thought about starting my own company, I served as a teaching assistant for a Business Communication course at the William E. Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester. In the cutthroat world that was top-ranked business school culture in the 1990s, I had to navigate an ecosystem that was incredibly foreign and uncomfortable at times. I saw students who refused to help each other; I listened in on class discussions that revolved around case studies where toxic waste had been illegal dumped into poor communities by Fortune 500 companies.

Because the proper clean-up would affect the companies’ bottom line and hurt stock prices, many students argued that the companies had done the right thing—I listened in horror as MBA candidates justified this and put price tags on human lives, lives that they deemed less significant and valuable than their own. Everything seemed to revolve around greed and self-indulgence.

I am sure these students all evolved into wonderful captains of industry, but it left me with a very sour taste in my mouth. After I finished my year-long obligation, I said that I would never go into business. Ever!

Fast forward almost 13 years, and I found myself filling out the paperwork for an LLC. From day one, I said that my company would be driven by purpose and not profit. I admit that there was an element of naïveté. For a while, I would render services for free or discount them so deeply that there was no profit margin.

Like others who are deeply passionate about the work that we create, I had some difficulty understanding that art and commerce could co-exist. It did not have to be an either/or dichotomy. [Some] of my writing was art and it had tangible value; therefore, there was nothing wrong with being compensated for it.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit as I think about the future of entrepreneurship in America. As with any business endeavor, many of us want to be profitable, but we also want compassion to be a cornerstone of what we do. Practically anybody can make money, but how you make your money and what you compromise to do it are equally as important.

My daddy used to say, “All money isn’t good money.” In my youthful jubilance, I challenged that assertion as I thought about what I could do with all of that not-so-good money. My father, who was stern and stoic, would simply listen to my retort and remind me that I still had a lot of living to do. He was right. I had a sophomoric view of money and financial matters because, to be honest, I was comfortable. We tend not to think about things until they become deeply personal or relevant.

The first time I witnessed the dark side of business practices—where everything had a price tag with little, to no regard, for the human consequences—I initially froze. Until you see it up close, it’s just theory or a case study in a book. For me, it was not worth it and I walked away from what would have been, at the time, my most lucrative contract.

The reality is that most of us who are either freelancing or small business owners have not taken business ethics courses; we do not have MBAs; instead, we are building our planes as we fly them. Because of this, we have to be careful because unethical business practices can be subtle. For entrepreneurs, this tends to happen when we come across a practice, a business opportunity, or a potential partnership whose purpose or mission is incongruent with ours.

Ideally, all of our financial interfaces would be mission aligned, but sometimes, they can be mission adrift and that’s when you really have to think about whether the bottom line is really worth it.

Tyra Seldon

Tyra Seldon is a former English Professor turned writer, editor and small business owner. Her writing addresses the intersections of race, gender, culture and education.