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Founder of B Corp Connective Impact Sees Value in Companies Moving Toward Purpose-Driven Operations

Joanne Sonenshine is founder and CEO of Connective Impact, a Certified B Corporation that helps organizations address social, environmental and economic development challenges. (Illustration by Sharisse Steber)

We talked with Joanne Sonenshine, the founder and CEO of Connective Impact, a Certified B Corporation advisory firm that helps organizations address social, environmental, and economic development challenges using partnership strategies. Sonenshine is a development economist as well as a mother of two boys and the author of two books.

Hi Joanne. Let’s begin by introducing yourself and your company.

Joanna Sonenshine: I am a business owner, author, wife, and mom of two active boys, but not always in that order. I founded Connective Impact in 2014 to address a gap I saw in sustainability work. Specifically, there was a need to build more comprehensive and targeted partnership strategies for mission-driven organizations keen to advance social and environmental impact. Connective Impact fills that gap.

You had been working with NGOs and other institutions before you started Connective Impact. Was being a founder always a goal for you?

Sonenshine: My dad was an entrepreneur and a business owner. Still is, even in his retirement. My father-in-law is as well. Both of them used to hint to me that being an entrepreneur could be in my future, but I never took it seriously because I couldn’t imagine what it would mean or look like. The creation of Connective Impact was almost by default. I resigned from my position as a program director at a large NGO and knew there was a need for someone to accelerate solutions to some of the problems I had faced in my role. It was one of those classic scenarios that if a solution didn’t exist, I was going to create it myself. That’s how the business came to fruition.

Let’s talk about your two books. The first one is very personal, and the second is a business book. What audience did you have in mind, and what motivated you to become an author?

Sonenshine signs the #WeTheChange pledge at the B Corp Champions Retreat.

Sonenshine: With ChangeSeekers, I had been asked many times why I started Connective Impact and how my professional journey led me from being an investment banker in London to owning a partnership strategy consultancy. Then a neighbor (who is also author) suggested, “Why don’t you write about your story? Then, if someone wants to learn more they can read your book!” ChangeSeekers allowed me to share my personal and professional stories, along with those of other leaders I respect and admire for challenging the status quo and making a concerted shift toward positive impact.

Purposeful Profits is more of a business book. It stems from the evolution of CSR and philanthropy, and shares insight into this space where companies are now, which is more about purpose and collaboration inside the four walls of business. The book highlights how far we have come and includes examples of companies that are seriously considering how to intersect purpose and profits. I wanted to share with a wider audience the business stories I was hearing that inspired me, and the people inside those businesses trying to do the right thing. I also wanted to show how looking at purpose and profit together need not feel so overwhelming. Even some of the littlest things, the littlest efforts, can make a huge difference.

RoundPeg and Connective Impact are part of the community of Certified B Corporations. Learn more about this growing movement of people using business as a force for good, and sign up to receive the B the Change Weekly newsletter for more stories like this one, delivered straight to your inbox once a week.

I found the second book quite challenging in places as you use Monsanto and McDonald’s as examples of companies making positive impact. From my perspective and experience there’s just no way for me to view them as the good guys. What made you include them?

Sonenshine listens to a coffee farmer in Nicaragua discuss the challenges of climate change on his operation. She traveled there with coffee companies in 2015.

Sonenshine: You are not the only one. I would say nine people out of 10 feel the way you do. That’s partly why I included them, because these are companies that do not get good press, and for good reason. I totally get it.

I wanted to include those stories because I know people inside of these companies who are doing their damnedest to do the right thing and turn the ship around. It’s not easy. Sometimes it can take decades, but I wanted to share the stories of these individuals. They are NOT evil. These are people who care and are smart and are sustainability advocates. I know them very well as individuals, as mothers, as fathers, as supporters of some of the most amazing projects that I’ve seen. The point here is, let’s try to think about it from their perspectives, and give them the resources and the suggestions and the capital and the press that they need to do the right thing.

I think people, whoever they work for, are inherently good, but doesn’t it come down to leadership for that to make a difference?

Sonenshine: Absolutely, and I would go a step further and say it’s the shareholders. It’s not the leadership. It’s the way that our economic system is built around institutional investment. Until we have customers and consumers and investors and individuals who are making decisions for the greater good of our planet, we are going to continue to have challenges with companies like Monsanto. There are some great developments as of late leading us in the right direction.

A lot of your work is focused on international development. Do you think that changes your perspective on U.S.-based companies?

Sonenshine: I’ve seen the severe challenges that many developing countries are facing firsthand, and where a lot of U.S. companies are sourcing products or employing labor. Sometimes—and this might sound bad, but I don’t mean it to—sometimes the challenges that companies articulate here in the U.S. just pale in comparison to what the challenges look like in like Africa or Southeast Asia. It just changes your perspective about need completely.

How does your business play into in the way you raise your kids?

Sonenshine: In my first book I share pretty raw and honest insights about my experience raising kids, and how excruciatingly hard it is to be a mom starting a business, frequently traveling internationally, and trying to balance growing my career at the same time. To me, being a mom is the hardest thing in the world. I always say, “I could talk to Fortune 500 CEOs all day long, but trying to help my kids with some of the complexities that they’re facing at school is incredibly difficult.”

When I am traveling for work, which I do often, I’ll show my kids where I’m going on the map. I show them pictures of what I see and try to teach them about what’s going on in the world so that they understand the challenges of the planet that they’re being raised on. That, to me, is incredibly important. I want my kids to be empathetic. I want them to make decisions that take into account others outside of themselves.

What’s on the horizon for Connective Impact?

Sonenshine: Connective Impact is growing! We have brought on two new employees and are continuing to focus on helping mission-driven companies advance their socially and environmentally conscious impact work through effective partnership and collaboration strategies. We are committed to honing our services and being there for our clients and the international development community by providing information and guidance on co-funding and pre-competitive collaboration ideas.

This article was originally published by RoundPeg. B the Change gathers and shares the voices from within the movement of people using business as a force for good and the community of Certified B Corporations. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the nonprofit B Lab.

Big Corporations Taking Small Steps: Worth Applauding? was originally published in B the Change on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Originally posted on B the Change - Medium by Polina Peg.

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