Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert: “Our biggest impact has been modeling a different way of doing business”

In the fall of 2022, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard announced a bold new experiment in for-profit business: the voting stock of his company would immediately transfer to the Patagonia Purpose Trust, with the remaining non-voting stock diverted to the Holdfast Collective, a 501c4 nonprofit, to ensure that all money not reinvested back into the company is dedicated to addressing the climate and ecological crisis. “Earth,” he proclaimed in a now-viral open letter, “is now our only shareholder.”

On September 18, 2023, as leaders from across sectors descended upon New York City for Climate Week, Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert joined NationSwell for an in-person fireside chat to unpack how the company is maintaining its commitment to being a purpose-driven business. Moderated by best-selling writer, podcaster, and NationSwell Council member Baratunde Thurston, the conversation explored how for-profit companies can pave the way forward on catalyzing bold climate action and what leaders can do to ensure that their personal and corporate values are in sync. 

Here are several highlights from the discussion:

Climate work is a lifelong commitment, and protecting the planet is our shared responsibility.

According to Gellert, too many CEOs would respond to climate conversations five years ago with the common refrain: “That’s not my problem.” Today, he says the tone of those conversations has shifted encouragingly, and those same leaders are now more likely to acknowledge their place in finding shared solutions — even when they aren’t sure of the best way forward. 

The future of climate will necessarily depend on more people — those in positions of power in particular — acknowledging their role in moving the ball down the field and making sure that climate work is “a 52-week thing,” and not just something to focus on one week out of the year.

Business sector leaders have an obligation to be the catalysts of change — but they can’t do it alone.

Since Patagonia shifted its ownership structure, Gellert shared that there have been many conversations with other companies interested in investing in purpose in a similar way — and that it feels like the guardrails have meaningfully shifted in terms of what’s possible in rethinking a business’s relationship to its employees, its community, and the planet.

“I believe the biggest impact Patagnoia has had has been modeling a different way of business,” he said.

And while catalyzing businesses to drive change will be of critical importance to the larger climate movement, the business sector won’t succeed on its own.

“I’d like to create a world where everybody understands it absolutely is our shared problem… and we’re all leaning in the same direction, from the business sector, with the government, with NGOs, with citizens, to clean up the mess we’ve created,” Gellert said.

For purpose-driven businesses to succeed, purpose and profits cannot be treated as distinct aims.

The days of businesses setting up a corporate social responsibility department and making impact work solely that group’s jurisdiction are over. In order for businesses to fully realize their role in creating a more sustainable, equitable future, Gellert said, they must necessarily make it their responsibility to create a culture where every person in every area feels incentivized to show up and do the work.

“I don’t think you can separate purpose and profits, period,” he said. “Under pressure, every single business gravitates toward profits. So the two have to be entirely connected, or you have to call it what it is.”

Acknowledging that it had created an “incomplete culture” was instrumental in helping Patagonia to hone its approach to social issues.

In the weeks after George Floyd’s murder, Patagonia, like many other companies, took a hard look at its internal culture and where it fell short of its values. What Gellert and other leaders leaned into during that moment was a commitment to “transformational change even where there’s no end in sight” — and on improving systems and processes in ways that relied more on common sense than external optics and politics.  

“Listen, show up, and do the work,” Gellert said. “And I think slowly and steadily, that’s given us the momentum to do the work internally and externally.”

Consumerism and “business-as-usual” have created many of the problems we currently face, and need to be interrogated. 

According to Gellert, we’ve outgrown the Milton Friedman-backed idea of shareholder primacy — it’s precisely business as usual that has created the environmental crisis we currently find ourselves mired in. 

Universities and business schools have a vital role to play in helping to build thinking, morals, practices, and systems that address how consumerism contributes to natural resource depletion, pollution, and other deleterious climate impacts. Businesses, meanwhile, must interrogate how circular business models can help shrink their environmental impact and deliver value to a new set of stakeholders — including customers, employees, and the planet.

Sometimes the best way into climate awareness isn’t doom forecasting or even direct action — it’s connection.

In response to an audience question about the best way to help children connect with the complicated and dire implications of the climate crisis, moderator Baratunde Thurston said that sometimes, the best way into climate awareness, “…isn’t always direct work and action, (but) climate connection — to highlight our relationship to nature in a beautiful, local way.” 

“Kids are naturally curious, they play with bugs, they splash in the water… we don’t need forecasts of doom and gloom, we can achieve the same purpose through a celebration or an exploration of that connection,” he said. “When we become more interconnected, saving the planet becomes the most selfish thing we can do — it becomes about saving ourselves. And if we can plant that seed early with kids without being heavy-handed with it, then that could do something amazing.”

Announcing the Launch of “Fearless Philanthropy”

On behalf of the NationSwell team, and all the hands that touched this work in ways big and small, I’m delighted to announce the launch of “Fearless Philanthropy: Driving Impact Through Innovation” —  an action-oriented report made possible by support from our friends at Wells Fargo Foundation.

The report makes eight clear recommendations for how heads of philanthropic organizations can take action to advance their work by adopting these expert-tested approaches. To surface these insights, NationSwell interviewed philanthropic leaders at Wells Fargo, American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, Amgen, Entrepreneurship Funders Network, Essex Community County Foundation, George Kaiser Family Foundation,, Lyft, and Salesforce. 

“Philanthropy’s role is to be the risk capital for impact — to lead the way for public policy and corporate action, and show what is possible,” Jenny Flores, Head of Small Business Growth Philanthropy at Wells Fargo Foundation, said to us. “For companies in particular, it’s not enough to have corporate responsibility initiatives siloed away in one department.  Societal impact needs to be an integral part of the core business strategy that every employee can take part in because it ultimately helps us to serve customers and communities better.”

We were so thrilled to work with Wells Fargo Foundation to bring this report together. Jenny and her team have been pushing the envelope on impact-driven innovation through corporate philanthropy. With so many converging global crises in the world today, now is the moment for philanthropy to be bold, and it was inspiring to speak to leaders that are stepping up and shifting towards more effective collaboration, greater business alignment, and deeper community engagement.

Download the report here.

Amy Lee is Managing Director of the NationSwell Studio

Introducing Collaboratives, NationSwell’s New Cross-Sector Initiative to Tackle the World’s Biggest Problems

A series of overlapping crises hit — COVID-19, racial injustice, climate change, economic disruption — exposing the fragility and deficiencies in our current systems. For everyone, 2020 was a deeply challenging and jarring year. Leaders had a lot on their plate. They struggled to make sense of the cascading series of crises, and grapple with the implications for their organizations and stakeholders.

To problem-solvers, it has also represented a “portal moment” — a time of profound opportunity to re-imagine and re-build a more equitable, inclusive and high-functioning nation and planet.

To harness this moment of possibility, leaders from the C-Suite to the grassroots needed a place where they could come together to process, explore, engage and act with a diverse group of fellow leaders. They needed time and space — in a highly curated and supported environment — to process the moment, surface paradigm-shifting insights and solutions, and to explore how they might collaborate to drive progress.

In 2020, we launched #BuildItBackBetter, an initiative designed to empower cross-sector leaders and organizations to be their best when the world needed them most, offering them a highly curated space to explore and amplify the paradigm-changing solutions needed to foster a more equitable, inclusive and high-functioning nation and planet.

In 2021, we aim to go even deeper on these issues, and also tackle new issue areas with the same comprehensive, cross-sector approach. That’s why NationSwell is proud to announce the launch of Collaboratives, a new initiative to build cross-sector coalitions of leaders and experts to advance specific priorities, and enable ongoing collaboration, learning and cooperation that breaks down silos and puts equity at the heart of solution-building.

Collaboratives will bring together leaders from the tree tops and the grass roots to ensure each topic can be tackled from diverse and informed sets of perspectives. We’ll cover a range of topics including Building Public Trust in A.I., Adding Age to the Equity Equation, Centering Unheard Voices in the Climate Movement, Future of Work, and more. Each Collaborative will involve public events, working groups, and a unique multimedia content series —  all working towards tangible progress on the issues of focus, such as cross-sector statements of commitment, aligned recommendations for leaders and public officials, and shared industry standards. 

We are proud to work and partner with AARP, AARP Foundation, Autodesk Foundation, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, and Workday to make NationSwell Collaboratives a reality, to amplify our impact, to further our shared goals, and most importantly, to make good on our promise to the people of our nation and our world that we would build a better, stronger, and more resilient society than the one we had before COVID-19. 

To learn more about Collaboratives, please reach out and follow us on social media.

An Interview With Shelly Bell, Founder and CEO of ‘Black Girl Ventures’

The Kauffman Foundation works together with organizations that share their vision and passion for education, entrepreneurship and the Kansas City community. NationSwell spoke with Kauffman grantee Shelly Bell, founder and CEO of Black Girl Ventures, a company that “funds and scales tech-enabled, revenue-generating businesses (under $1M) founded by people who identify as Black/Brown and woman” to talk about the solutions she’s pioneering and the opportunities Kauffman has been able to help unlock for her along the way.

NationSwell: Tell me about Black Girl Ventures.

Black Girl Ventures’ Founder + CEO Shelly Bell: I started Black Girl Ventures because I wanted to help Black and Brown founders. Black and Brown women start businesses at six times the national average, yet we receive less than 1 percent of venture capital funds. 

I wanted to get capital to the entrepreneurs who wanted it and needed it. As an ecosystem builder, I wanted to show that I could do something, that the community could do something. That instead of the community just being consumers, they could donate, become economic catalysts for these women.

“Ecosystem builder” is a term Kauffman coined, in which you understand that everything plays a part. if we think about entrepreneurship that way, a financial institution plays a part, the government plays a part — all of these pieces create the right environment for growth. And so as an ecosystem builder, I view myself as moving towards actions and effort. I create the right environments for Black and Brown women entrepreneurship to thrive — I pull in governments, pull in corporations, I make an on-ramp that has destinations and exits.

This started as a brunch, where people would come and pay at the door. While you ate, you’d listen to Black women entrepreneurs make their pitches for their business. If you liked their idea and wanted to fund it, you’d put a marble in a coffee mug, and the founder would receive dollars in proportion to the number of marbles they received.

So this all started in 2016 as a local brunch, and suddenly, we were doing them in Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Detroit, Baltimore, Philly — even SXSW, one year.

My first hypothesis was: Can I get a bunch of people together to give to Black and Brown women founders? And then I thought, “Can I activate women on the ground to be active in this?” Because if we can activate women on the ground, if we can activate people in their own communities, then we can see an immense impact and trajectory in the shift of Black and Brown women’s business

Over the course of four years, we’ve mobilized $1.4 million and directly funded 104 women to date.

NS: What are some the unique ways the Kauffman Foundation has helped support you and your efforts? 

SB: I don’t know that i understood what it meant to build a relationship with a foundation. I didn’t know that I was supposed to ask for money. I was so green at one point as an ecosystem builder: I had no idea about metrics and how to communicate them for what makes sense to a large funder.

[Senior Program Officer for Kauffman Foundation] Andy Stoll never skipped my emails. He always answered every email I sent him. That level of relationship building was integral to me: That a prestigious foundation would answer my emails and respond to my questions that way, it really created a unique relationship between me and the organization.

NS: What are some of the challenges Black women founders face?

SL: On the investor side, the bottom line is bias. People find people in power who look like them, talk like them and act like them. On the part of the founders, historically, black people have only been able to be in business uninterrupted sixty years. That means the right to own a home, the right to a bank account, to build wealth and equity, to use that equity to start a business — because it’s only been that amount of time, there hasn’t been enough time to built wealth generationally, and because of that, there’s no rich uncle to give us the funds and the space for experimentation — and that experimentation counts.

Kauffman was the rich uncle willing to take chance on us. Because of the funding that we got from them, we were able to show that we could handle six figure donations. And that was so important for our journey because it wasn’t that we couldn’t handle six or seven figure funders — we could — but until someone actually gives you that funding, the funders believe that you can’t handle six or seven figure funders. 

Kauffman’s grant was a signal. It was more than funding. I was going to make the impact that I was going to make with that money anyway. But it’s so key to an organization with under-represented founders to get that level of funding from someone as prestigious as Kauffman because it’s a signal to the rest of the funding community that you’re rocking to them. 

We needed that signal because we had the impact, we had the numbers on the board, we just didn’t have that signal. And that signal from Kauffman created more opportunities to come our way. And I think that this is so key to this experience. It unlocked more funding, and it allowed me to be able to pilot my hypothesis to inspire + activate women on the ground, expand vision further. It gave me space and room to do that. 

And it’s worth noting that Kauffman’s funding has not caused a burden on us at all.

So I’m calling on all the wealthy uncles out there who are giving their nephews $20k and $50k to give that to black and brown women founders with no returns. How about that? 

All we need is for you to fund us, and get out of the way.

Produced in partnership with the Kauffman Foundation. To learn more about their grantmaking, visit their website

The Power of Corporations Doing Good

Dalila Wilson-Scott’s parents met during the Vietnam War; her dad was in the Air Force and her mom was a local Vietnamese woman who didn’t have much more than an elementary education. “When I think of the broader work of inclusion and opportunity, that’s my parents’ own story,” says Wilson-Scott. “A focus on economic opportunity and diverse perspectives is just something I grew up with.”

Today, Wilson-Scott brings the passion for equality and diversity from her upbringing to her roles as the senior vice president of community investment for Comcast NBCUniversal and the president of the Comcast Foundation.

In the third installment of our series 10 Leaders on Business for Good, NationSwell founder and CEO Greg Behrman chats with Wilson-Scott about her social-impact work and the changing nature of corporate civic engagement.

Is there a moment in your career where your background allowed you to understand the merits of equity and inclusion in a way that others couldn’t?

I wouldn’t say there was one defining moment, but I remember being in a meeting once and a woman said, “I’ve never met anyone who grew up poor.” I was like, “Well, I guess technically if you looked at income data, you could argue I fit into that demographic.” I mean, how do you know if you grew up with somebody who was poor or not? Her perception was that no one in that meeting could have grown up poor; otherwise, how would we have ended up in the same place? It helps to realize that people have a tendency to form those kinds of assumptions.

What are some things that set Comcast NBCUniversal apart in the way they address corporate citizenship and social impact?

As a recent example, I’d say how we came together so quickly after some pretty astronomical hurricanes in a short amount of time. During Harvey and Irma, we really showed up, from opening our Wi-Fi network so that emergency workers and everyone else — whether they were a Comcast customer or not — could be as connected as possible. We leveraged our presence through our TV stations around the country to help drive donations to the American Red Cross. We even launched new technology on our X1 platform, where people could say into their voice remotes “Hurricane Harvey” or “Irma” and make an immediate donation toward relief and recovery.

What do you think are the ingredients to success for corporate social responsibility programs?

Authenticity is so important. Wherever a company chooses to focus its efforts, it’s got to feel true to its brand. Imagine if we at Comcast — a technology and media company — were to suddenly say, “Oh, now we’re going to tackle health issues.” That’s probably not a space where we can have as much impact as companies that are thinking about global health every day. Sure, we could maybe have an effect from a delivery standpoint — for example, how technology can make delivery of resources better — but that would come off as inauthentic and probably not sustainable. And those two things are key.

How are CSR efforts different than they’ve been in the past?

It was more common in the past for social-enterprises to be criticized as not being the best for business, and I think that’s definitely changed. At minimum, companies need to have a purpose and define it in a way that every customer and employee can get behind. Before, it was enough to say, “We’re going to make the best product in the world, and we’re going to make a lot of money from it.” That’s not acceptable anymore to message it in that way. The standards are higher, and more companies are aspiring to deliver their product or service in a way that is purpose-driven but still profitable and focused on delivering results for both communities and company stakeholders.

What drives you? What’s your North Star?

For sure, my children. But I’ve also been fortunate to find my voice and use it to challenge assumptions and the status quo. If I’m going to do that and take that kind of risk, I want it to be for the greater good. There are so many people I’ve met — and I’ve been one of those people in the past — who don’t have the ability to have their voice represented at so many different tables. While I’m not at every single table, I know that I’m more fortunate than a lot of people. The amount of inequity in society frustrates me, especially how it’s just an assumed state for most people. All of us should be able to find our ability to impact that, and I’ve been fortunate to make that my life’s work.

Dalila Wilson-Scott is a NationSwell Council member.

It’s About Taking Action, Not Just Cutting a Check

When Kate James joined Pearson in 2014 as its chief of corporate affairs and global marketing, the international education publisher was going through some changes. One such move included a shift from what James calls “arm’s-length philanthropy,” whereby a corporation simply cuts a check to an outside nonprofit, to taking a more active role in developing change-driven solutions.

In the second installment of our series “10 Leaders on Business for Good,” NationSwell founder and CEO Greg Behrman talked with James about how Pearson is altering the landscape of public-private partnerships for the better and what other companies can learn from those efforts.

You’ve worked at both philanthropic foundations and big corporations. What can a socially focused company do to enact change that might be harder for a nonprofit to do?

The journey that Pearson has been on, and continues to be on, is figuring out how to move from most of our social-impact work being done by a foundation at arm’s length to really embracing the opportunity for social innovation. To more bluntly answer your question: the private-sector dollar is super-important, especially given the scale of the challenges that the world is facing. Also, a large company can more easily convene other powerful players behind a cause while harnessing its campaign capabilities. Corporations can put their brand into play and leverage their commercial influence to reach more people in need. Pearson isn’t just coming at a problem with a check; instead we’re saying, ‘Hey, we can bring a lot more to it with our R&D capabilities.’

As the chief communications executive, Kate James helps lead Pearson’s social-impact initiatives.

What projects is Pearson working on currently that you’re particularly excited about?

Right now we’re focused on three big initiatives. One that we are certainly most proud of is Project Literacy, which is no big surprise for an education company. When we conducted our initial research into the issue, we were struck by the fact that there are 757 million people around the world that lack basic literacy skills. And so Pearson seized the opportunity to create a coalition that’s working to close the literacy gap. We’ve attracted more than 100 diverse partners, from Microsoft to USAID, who all realize education is a fundamental part of any solution, from reducing child mortality rates to enabling someone suffering from AIDS to wholly understand their disease.

Pearson has also launched an internal incubator for employees to develop their entrepreneurial skills. They’re given the time to really think about ideas that can reach communities that otherwise Pearson’s products and services wouldn’t be reaching. For example, we’ve seen proposals for really smart ways to utilize the power of virtual reality and another that examines the refugee challenges in Germany and how to meet them.

And then there’s our work in Jordan with Save the Children on a program called Every Child Learning. Our partnership plays to our R&D strengths; we’re piloting a digital learning solution to deliver education to Syrian refugees and host community children in Jordan, with an eye toward adapting and scaling these in other emergency situations. Because these kids are often moving from place to place, we believe a mobile education platform is part of the solution.

How has Pearson’s focus on researching and developing solutions for social good changed the working environment for employees?

By constantly innovating and trying new things, we’re working to align our social-impact work with our own business goals and objectives. When you get that alignment, it’s amazing how much more resolve employees have and how much more engaged they are. When you’re focused on the double bottom line, then the work is sustainable and that means companies will be much more involved in philanthropic efforts and for a longer period of time. That’s what we have at Pearson that was missing before: a deeper level of connection between a foundation’s work and a corporation’s commercial strategy.

What’s the best career advice you’ve been given?

I started my career at GlaxoSmithKline, and the head of corporate affairs then was a wonderful lady. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but she made a lot of effort to talk to the young women graduates who were coming into GSK, and she became a phenomenal role model. She showed us how you could navigate a career path right to the very top. What really stuck with me is the importance of and the responsibility to really spend time with young women often. Some of our sparkiest young employees are women and, from the get-go, they can see that there are no limits to what they can accomplish. As the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other. I think that’s a pretty important mantra for all women in senior positions to take pretty seriously.

This State May Have Discovered the Secret to Saving Tax Dollars While Doing Good

In Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick has launched a $27 million initiative that he hopes will keep at-risk youth out of jail, reduce crime, and promote safer communities. That may sound like a tall order — after all, it’s more difficult than ever to get funding for social services these days — but the government isn’t fronting the cost, and neither are the taxpayers. Instead, the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Initiative will be funded by organizations like Third Sector Capital Partners, New Profit Inc., Living Cities, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and Goldman Sachs, among other private and nonprofit investors, through the largest social impact bond ever created in the U.S.

Social impact bonds are a new type of philanthropy that involves a partnership among the government, nonprofit organizations and private-sector investors. Here’s how  they work: a government identifies a social problem in the community and contracts with private investors who raise money to fund a solution and (hopefully) achieve a pre-determined goal. Participating nonprofits manage the project — in the case of the Massachusetts’s initiative, Third Sector Capital Partners, a nonprofit advisory firm, will serve as the project intermediary, while Roca, a local charity that aids high-risk young men, will provide the services — while a third party conducts a rigorous independent evaluation at the conclusion to determine if it achieved the desired outcome. Only then will the government (and taxpayers) pay the investors back. Therefore, Social impact bonds (otherwise known as Pay for Success initiatives) is a minimal risk to taxpayers, while allowing nonprofits to use their already-established resources to make a significant societal change.

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In Massachusetts, the new Pay for Success initiative will allow Roca to provide job training, counseling and other services to 929 at-risk young men between the ages of 17 and 23, all of whom are currently in the juvenile justice or probation system. Roca has a specific model that it uses to keep its participants out of jail and employed. Its four-year program consists of two years of intensive support from a youth worker, followed by two years of follow-up, and has a proven track record. Out of 115 young men participating in the final two years of the program, 89 percent had no new arrests, 69 percent retained employment for three months and 95 percent had no new legal violations, according to Fast Company. The social impact bond’s success will be determined by Roca’s ability to reduce the number of days participants spend in jail by 40 percent, and improve these young mens’ employment options. If Roca’s services are proven to produce these positive outcomes — in turn saving Massachusetts millions — the government will begin making “success payments” to the investors. “By working with our partners at Roca, the Pay for Success initiative will allow us to marry smart financial solutions with programs proven successful in helping high-risk youth become employed, stay employed, and break the cycle of violence,” Patrick said in a press release.

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Massachusetts recently received an $11.7 million grant — the first of its kind — from the Department of Labor to help fund this Pay for Success initiative.  The additional funding will help with success payments and enable the state to extend the project, should it be successful, to an additional 391 young men, thereby serving a total of up to 1,320 young men over nine years. On a larger scale, these social impact bonds are an innovative way for governments to try to fix some of the largest social issues facing the nation, without risking taxpayer backlash. Colorado, New York, Ohio, South Carolina and other states are pursuing Pay for Success initiatives. The only question is: which state will be next?

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