Transforming Capitalism: A Conversation on 'Woodstock Roundtable'

It was a hazy time, but I remember in college being interviewed by one of our fraternity pledges in a get-to-know-the-brothers exercise. I was asked something to the effect of what my goal was. I answered something to the effect of, Rule Wall Street.

I suppose I can blame that misguided ambition in part on coming of age during the Reaganomics 80s and admiring Alex P. Keaton, Michael J. Fox's yuppie, capitalist-loving character on the TV sitcom Family Ties.

Oh to be young, naive, and completely unenlightened.

While I did work in the corporate sector for many years after graduating college, my consciousness eventually (thankfully) evolved. Once I broke the consumerist trance, I started applying my corporate-honed skills to work that (I deem) has a positive impact on the world.

Initially I worked within progressive nonprofit and activist circles. But I've realized over the last number of years that the traditional models of social impact are limited.

Capitalism and corporations have probably a bigger influence in our lives than nonprofits do. So why not change these systems that have failed us?

Woodstock Roundtable  host  Doug Grunther

Woodstock Roundtable host Doug Grunther

That's the focus of this engaging conversation I had in October (2014) with Doug Grunther, veteran host of the renowned talk show Woodstock Roundtable on Radio Woodstock 100.1 WDST, broadcast throughout the Hudson Valley.

We talked about:

  • various movements that are happening nationally and in the Hudson Valley — B Corp, triple bottom line and Localism
  • the social venture/enterprise movement and the blurring lines between nonprofit and business, with nonprofits adopting business practices and businesses incorporating social impact into their mission
  • the psycho-spiritual dimension of people feeling a lack of connection driving the change
  • how it's important to address the issues we face on several levels: systemic, organizational, grassroots, and internal (psycho-spiritual)
  • modern day Medicis (of sort) like Peter and Jennifer Buffett and their investment in the farm-to-table movement

You can listen to the 20-minute segment in this player. Below that is a slightly edited transcript. (Or hear the entire two-hour show with all the guests here.)

Interview Transcript

Doug Grunther:  Let's start with corporate America. I rail against corporations all the time, because I think in many ways what was a really great invention, capitalism, is eating its young. I think the jump-the-shark moment was when the Supreme Court decided that corporations are individuals. It gets crazy.

Now, you've done a lot of nonprofit work, you've done a lot of spiritual work, but you've also done a lot of corporate work. You've worked for some major corporations. We want to project them as being evil, but it's got to be more complicated than that.

Scott Tillitt:  I think it is. Corporations are reflections of the people that run them. And people are evil and not. There's this movement afoot — I'm sure your listeners are aware of it — to use the capitalistic system, corporations and businesses, for good. The whole triple bottom line movement, which considers social and environmental impact, in addition to profit. It's the people, planet, profit idea.

I've realized over the last several years that the traditional models of having social impact are limited. Capitalism and the corporate model, or the business model, have probably a bigger influence in our lives than nonprofits do. So why not change that system that has failed?

So my work over the past five or so years has been transitioning to that. Fourteen years ago I worked in a traditional corporate environment. I'd been on a spiritual path and through that had a social consciousness that I didn't have before and decided that I couldn't do what I was doing.

Then I started to work within the nonprofit world, social impact through that lens, I guess. I've realized that over the last five-plus years that there's this other approach. So much of my work is in transitioning and trying to work within the corporate system, or within the business world.

Doug:  For cynics like myself — I'm not cynical, I'm a realist, I would say, and I'm rooting for things to work out — I think it's a real open question. I don't have an answer or even a strong opinion one way or the other. But I think it's an interesting question. The way the universe works, systems rise and fall, and capitalism may be no different than feudalism. It may just rise and fall and something will replace it.

Or are you correct? Can capitalism find its way back again so that it doesn't eat its young? Can you give me an example of where you might start, even if it's small, where you see some level of higher consciousness coming out of a corporate situation?

Scott:  First of all, let me say, I don't know if this stuff can work within a corporate system, and it can be reined in. But it is the dominant system right now, so that's why I'm working within it. If it turns out that it's replaced by something else, well, great. I honestly don't care. I'm agnostic about that. I'm trying to work within the area that I see the most influence, and it is the capitalistic system.

As I said, corporations and businesses are run by people. People are both evil and benign, and altruistic, and whatever. Within this predominant system, the capitalistic system, you've got people who have strong values, who want to have a positive impact in the world.

I think there are more and more people in general who share those values. You've got more and more people going in to work for themselves, for example. We can talk about that. That's a big trend, largely because of corporate layoffs, and perhaps largely because of people realizing that they want something better for themselves. They don't want to work for the man. They want to work for themselves.

Those people have values and they're bringing it more and more to their work. And because there are movements that are growing in stature and influence, people see that they can bring their values into their work and into their business. The triple bottom line movement has been growing for 20-some years.

Doug:  Could you define that for us?

Scott:  It's people, planet, profit. It's incorporating and considering social and environmental impact and placing that above profit or in some cases, maybe, equally with profit.

You know, the whole corporate personhood thing. The corporate charter as it is traditionally puts profit above everything. And we're talking about corporations as opposed to a sole proprietorship, your local mom and pop. In the corporate charter, it is written “profit above everything else.” Traditionally, if you consider social and environmental impact — let’s say, paying your workers a fair wage, or investing in equipment that reduces your environmental impact — if a shareholder considers that a negative impact on profit, you can be sued.

Now there's an affiliated movement afoot to change the corporate charter so you can incorporate some of that. You can write it into the corporate charter that you have to also consider people and planet. New York was one of the first states to pass this legislation called Benefit Corporation, and that's what that is. There's an affiliated movement involved in that called B Corp. B Corp is a certification much like Fair Trade certification.

B Corp is a certification that is granted by a nonprofit called B Lab. The B in B Corp stands for benefit. That's a certification. B Lab is also working on policy. State by state, they're working on changing corporate charters and adding this additional corporate designation.

There's S Corps and C Corps, which most people are familiar with, if they're familiar at all with corporate charters. This new corporate designation is called Benefit Corporation. That is what this entails. You've got these two approaches.

That's one lens of looking at this stuff, but that doesn't so much impact local mom and pops, because their legal entity may not be a corporation. They might be an LLC. They might just be a sole proprietorship or something.

Doug:  I can't help but try to think philosophically. I'm so fascinated by the Italian Renaissance. I've spent time finding good sources to get into what… how did that happen? It wasn't an accident. What were the forces at work that shifted humanity from the darkness of the Middle Ages to the light of the Renaissance?

It's fascinating to look at the rediscovery of ancient wisdom primarily from the Greeks. Artists coming up with new ways, of expansive ways of looking at things. But it also took a fairly liberal pope who wanted some of these texts uncovered and didn't ban them. It also required the Medicis, who were a cutthroat political family who controlled Florence and were murderers, but were also the ones backing Leonardo and Michelangelo.

It's not the Wild West where the good guys wore white and the bad guys wore black. There's a lot of gray here. One of the examples that I'm sure you're familiar with, which I think is a real paradigm shifter, is what Peter Buffett and his wife — Warren Buffett's son and daughter-in-law — their foundation buying up the largest tract of farmland in the Rondout Valley here in our area.

They're going to turn it into an educational farm hub. It’s, like, 12,000 acres, and they are investing $13 million. The farm-to-table movement is one of the reasons we love living here. There are some signs.

Scott:  It's funny. As you started talking about the Medicis, I immediately thought about Peter and Jennifer Buffett. I co-founded this organization, a nonprofit called Re>Think Local. You're familiar with it, I know at least a little. You had Ajax Greene on the show.

Ajax and I co-founded it along with several others. I'm now the board chair and Ajax is the vice chair. Our major benefactor is Local Economies Project, which is largely funded by Peter and Jennifer Buffett's foundation.

Local Economies Project is the organization that is running the farm hub that NoVo Foundation purchased, which is Peter and Jennifer's foundation. They're doing tons of great work in the area. We need more people like that.

There's a discussion within the philanthropic community about this sort of thing. Government services are being funded less and less. Nonprofits are having to take on more and more of those kind of things. This is a great example.

It's also an example of how nonprofits — just as I said I've been shifting my focus a little bit. Within the nonprofit world, you're seeing more and more nonprofits collaborating with businesses, or at least adopting business practices. This is called the social venture movement. You've got straight-up businesses incorporating social impact into their mission or into maybe their products, or whatever. And then you've got nonprofits incorporating business practices.

The lines between them are blurring. Re>Think Local is a good example of that, because we're a nonprofit but we're a collaborative of independent businesses, and also farmers and other like-minded nonprofits and individuals, as well, that are using business to have some social impact.

Doug:  The other theme that I like to focus on is the fact that if we take a wider view of history, paradigm shifts, renaissances, revolutions, they don't happen from the top down. Certainly the Medicis were a big part of the Renaissance and we need to have wealthy entrepreneurs and folks backing things.

The fact is, you can't truly have a renaissance until it comes from the ground up. Every revolution is created by small conversations that proliferate. It could be two people talking at the water cooler at work. It could be four people having coffee at a café. It could be a self-published book or pamphlet.

We feel a lot of that going on in Mid-Hudson Valley, don't we? It feels like we're living in an area which could be a beacon for the next Renaissance. Is that just highfalutin thinking or can you give us some practical examples of that, Scott?

Scott:  Yeah. God, I hope not. I hope it's not just highfalutin thinking, because again, that's where I've focused a lot of my work in recent years, especially since I moved to the Hudson Valley. I moved from the city eight years ago to Beacon. I think, again, Re>Think Local is a good example of that. It is sort of a grassroots movement, because we're a collaborative of these smaller, locally owned independent businesses, and individuals and farmers and whatnot.

We're all approaching it through our own ways. Re>Think Local is about making the community stronger, but it's looking at it through an economic lens, as well. You can think of us as a chamber of commerce, but a very progressive chamber of commerce.

Whereas a traditional chamber of commerce mostly looks at things through an economic lens, we’re looking at it as equally through a community lens. It's the merging and the intersection of those two things. The economic lens being the business, and making locally owned independent businesses stronger — but only insofar as they contribute to the community and that makes the community more vibrant.

The economic piece is to make the local economy more resilient so you're less reliant upon global economic trends — which when you have the crash that we had in 2008, for example, if you have a strong local economy, you're going to be more resilient to those crashes.

If you have a strong economy, then oftentimes as long as you're considering the community impact of what's operating within that economy, then that community is more vibrant as well.

Doug:  Resilience, to me, is the key phrase there. The paradigm shift that I think there are signs of — and again, it's an open question whether capitalism can adjust to it, because the American culture for good and for bad still has a Wild West attitude. It's more is better. If it's there and we can take it, we will. It's survival of the fittest. It's a zero-sum game.

That's what the stock market is. In order for me to win, someone else has to lose. That model is breaking down. I think the economic crash of 2008 is leading to that. It seems to me the only solution is for us to become more communal again. It's been a while.

I grew up in the go-go years of the '50s and '60s when living in the suburbs, where the whole idea was to get your own house, two cars in the garage, and everybody lived in separate homes. I don't even think it's economically feasible anymore. The good news there is it's going to force us, kicking and screaming, to become more communal and support each other in ways that I think have been lost with this individual competitive system.

Scott:  I agree. There's also a psycho-spiritual element to this. People are feeling a lack of something, a lack of connection. This is actually the whole reason — you started to touch upon this workshop that I do with my partner, "Visioning and Yoga for Creators."

In all of my work, I'm attacking this stuff from various levels. There's a whole grassroots level and there's an internal level. That's what the “Visioning and Yoga” is about. That's what brought me to doing this work, was having this internal, spiritual awakening that led to a social awakening many years ago.

Doug:  Tell us a little bit more specifically about that. Is it a workshop that you and your partner are going to be doing?

Scott:  Yeah. It's called “Visioning and Yoga for Creators,” and we're considering creators of all stripes: artists and entrepreneurs, even, who are creators, nonprofit leaders, anyone willing to stand in the fires of change to make change for themselves. Change starts within.

A lot of what we've been talking about is an external thing, the triple bottom line movement, Re>Think Local, et cetera, but really change starts within. So we're trying to do these workshops, “Visioning and Yoga,” we combine strategic visioning exercises — which come from a business world, or nonprofits, a kind of high-level strategic thinking — we combine that with mindfulness practices — yoga, meditation, et cetera. And there's a community building aspect woven into, as well, through group sharing, and partner sharing, et cetera.