I attended a small, liberal arts university in east Tennessee. It truly was a magical place, where I got a quality education and built relationships with friends and professors I still have to this day. It was at this place of magic and learning that I was exposed to a wide variety of viewpoints and ideas.
Surrounded by TOMS-wearing hipsters and social justice warriors that tend to flock towards private, liberal arts universities, I encountered a shocking idea. The idea that profit is a dirty word. Of course, most people don’t say this explicitly. It’s much more communicated in the innuendo and attitudes of those I interacted with.
I saw it in the glow and sparkle in girls’ eyes when they talked about working for a “nonprofit.” The idea of working for a nonprofit organization was so appealing, it became the default answer for a large percentage of my friends to the question of what they wanted to do after college.
“Oh, so you want to work for a nonprofit?” I asked one friend. “What kind of nonprofit do you want to work for?”
“Oh, I don’t care,” she said.
This shocked me. This person didn’t care about any particular nonprofit endeavor. She just wanted to work for a nonprofit. She wasn’t passionate about education, feeding kids, or anything, really. It was just the idea of not working for a place that made profit. It’s as if being nonprofit alone, aside from any other ethical consideration, made it a virtuous place to work.
Rather than having a specific cause or idea that motivates these people, they would rather work for any ambiguous enterprise so long as that dirty word “profit” doesn’t appear anywhere.
Even TOMS shoes had to issue apologetic statements and justifications to its consumers for being a dirty, evil “for profit” company, as though it had betrayed its ENO-hammocking consumer base by actually making money while simultaneously doing social good.
But these ideas weren’t just reserved for my fellow classmates. Many of these ideas ultimately came from the professors. For most of the professors outside of the business school, the idea of becoming a business major was very similar to the idea of selling your soul, as though business were something less noble, less academic, and less worthwhile than the social or hard sciences. The disappointing graduates of yesteryear were the ones working for large corporations, while the more virtuous were off pursuing “the life of the mind” (because, evidently, you can’t be a thoughtful, intellectual businessperson).
Of course, it is deeply ironic that the entire endeavor of higher education is funded almost entirely by businessmen. It’s business that has funded “the life of the mind” and not the other way around. At my school in particular, most of the buildings were built by a massively wealthy billionaire who, despite his lack of virtue in pursuing business, had decided to be virtuous in donating his wealth (perhaps his way of paying back his debt to society for years of making, gasp, a profit).
With all of these anti-profit ideas floating around, it’s important to think about what profit is and why it makes people squirm.
The term “for-profit” makes almost any corporate endeavor sound as villainous as the puppy mill from 101 Dalmations, with Cruella Deville as the CEO.
Among the social justice warriors, I learned of the term “MNC”, which stands for multi-national corporation. It was the MNCs (as they were affectionately called), that were responsible for the neo-colonization of Africa, Asia, and more (and here, all this time I thought it was France, Spain, and England that were the major colonial powers–silly me). Wherever an MNC would show up, local officials would inevitably be bribed, as they dumped harsh chemicals into rivers and streams (because, evidently, that’s the only way to make a profit).
MNCs are the exact opposite of small-business, which is the only acceptable form of business organization for many of my social-justice minded friends. Because, somehow, when a small business does such a good job meeting consumer demand that it grows beyond the borders of its town, state, and country, this is a bad thing.
The antidote for evil MNCs was NGOs (non-governmental organizations–pronounced like “B-I-N-G-O and Bingo was his name-o” only without the “B-I” in front of it). Because the only way to fight fire is with fire. So, if you’re going to fight a collection of internationally organized businesses, you need a collection of internationally organized charities. The logic is too irresistible.
So, let’s talk about profit.
What is it that makes this word so dirty?
Let’s think about how a company, any company, makes a profit.
Companies make a profit by creating value. What is value? Simply put: It’s anything people would pay money for. Why do people pay money for these things? Because they decide that the product or service makes their life better, happier, or satisfies a short-term need. That’s why they value it.
A few years ago, there was a bad ice storm in Tennessee. A local businessman who had a large truck offered to help stranded people. He drove to pick them up, and then he took them to where they wanted to go. I watched all of this from the warm confines of my Facebook page, where he was arranging pickups and dropping people off. He did all of this for free, winning him many accolades and massively good PR for his business.
Imagine, for a moment, that the pudgy, long-haired dude with a sweatshirt from your college dorm was out on a Friday night. Rather than going out partying (as he would much rather do), he instead spends his entire night picking drunk people up and making sure they get home safe.
If such a dude was doing such a thing, we would all think he was the coolest, most generous, and nicest person ever. He might even go viral on Facebook for his kind act of generosity towards his fellow man.
Now, take the exact same guy and put a glowing Uber logo in his windshield. He’s still out on a Friday night, foregoing what he would rather be doing, and driving around the bars taking people home safely. He’s doing the exact same thing. But somehow, because he’s making money, that money has tainted it all.
Think about just how absurd that is. Somehow, when serving your fellow man, if that fellow man values your services enough to the point he/she pays you money, it invalidates the virtue of the service. But wait, “he only did it for the money,” you protest. Well, of course he did it for the money! That’s how he eats and pays rent.
When our pudgy Uber driver stops at Starbucks during his nightly runs, he pays a small portion of money to to the barista for preparing him coffee, to the farmer in Costa Rica who grew the coffee beans, to the roaster for roasting his coffee, to the logistics company that went out of their way to bring it all the way from Costa Rica to his drive-thru Starbucks, and to hundreds of other producers and their families that woke up, went to work, and served their fellow man.
Because profit is directly tied to value creation and because value creation is directly tied to serving our fellow mankind, profit itself is virtuous.
Profit is the lifeblood that allows the person to continue in their service. If we didn’t pay our pudgy Uber driver money, he would not be able to pay his bills. He then would only be able to drive every once in a while. And we would not have someone to come pick us up with the press of our iPhone button.
Money itself is simply a way of expressing thanks for the services others are doing on our behalf.
In this defense of profit, I do not mean to say that all profit is virtuous necessarily. A drug dealer makes a handsome profit but does not do so virtuously. There are legitimate examples of corporate greed gone awry and of people who behaved unethically in the pursuit of profit. Of course that’s true. But it’s also true that the vast majority of workers, business leaders, and companies do operate ethically. The do follow the rules. They do legitimate social good. And society, thus, compensates them for it. The exception of the oil executive who ignores safety standards simply proves the rule. And, if it makes a news headline, it is, by definition, an exception.
There is a legitimate place for nonprofit work. I don’t mean to say that all societal ills can be worked out in the marketplace. Charities and nonprofits do have their place. My goal is to put business alongside those other bastions of virtue. Business can and is just as virtuous as nonprofit work, both having their place for thoughtful, ethical, people to find meaningful and fulfilling lives.
Here’s a time-tested formula for making money: Serve more people. If you figure out a way to serve people in new and creative ways and scale this (via the magic of the internet), then you can make even more money and profit. And if you do this very well over a long period of time, you may even find yourself being wealthy. And if you find yourself being wealthy, you may find yourself in a position to build a church in your hometown, a school in Africa, and maybe even fund a nonprofit. Because profit isn’t a dirty word after all.