Company values for purpose-driven businesses are extremely important. Without them, we risk becoming just an ordinary company, driven by nothing but the goal to maximize shareholder value.
Conscious consumers take company values very seriously and so it’s important that we as purpose-driven entrepreneurs take them seriously too. Our customers want to see that the companies they choose to purchase from not only have inspirational, like-minded values, but they are walking-the-talk too.
If you joined me for episode #24 on values, you are now clearer on how to create and actually use company values inside of your business. Values are useful for internal things like company culture and policies. And, they are useful for external things like branding, messaging, community engagement and more.
Values are easy to follow when they’re clearly “black or white” issues that all people agree on. But what happens when we run across gray areas and it’s not so clear what the best direction is to take? How do we as founders make the right decision when our audience may not agree with our actions because their personal values slightly differ from our own?
I’ve recently run into this scenario behind-the-scenes at Rank & File.
So today, I’m going to talk all about:
What I ended up deciding,
And what my thought process was to get there — all in the hope that it will help you deal with “gray areas” in your business related to values too.
What Happened Behind-the-Scenes at Rank & File that Made Some People Question My Values
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Miki Agrawal — known for creating products in taboo areas that no one wants to talk about, and has therefore been coined the “Queen of Periods, Pee and Poop.”
Miki’s THINX journey was the most interesting for me to learn from and share with the Rank & File community. She grew THINX using unique branding and surprising campaigns that generated a national conversation around periods and led to cultural shifts for how women both view and deal with periods in a more empowered, less shameful way.
Some people really dislike Miki, because they view her campaigns as provocative or even inappropriate. For example, she and her teams often use everyday objects like fruit in artful ways to symbolize female genitalia with the goal of removing body shame. The best way I can describe Miki’s company’s photography is like modern art. It’s visually stunning, a bit odd, and it makes you think. So obviously, some people will really love the artwork and others will view it as culturally offensive.
Using this approach though, Miki was not only able to create an entirely new product in a category that had literally zero innovation in 50 years, but also generated national awareness and shifted consumer behavior. How did she pull this off exactly? What was it about Miki’s personality and her actions that allowed her to do this? I knew that looking at Miki’s approach and hearing her perspective was going to be invaluable to both me as I grow Rank & File, and also to you, the Rank & File community of entrepreneurs also trying to innovate and start businesses that shift the tide and stand up for better ways of doing things.
After all, if we don’t learn from one another, and pick out the nuggets of gold that we can apply to our own businesses, how are we going to improve?
In my research before the interview though, I discovered some “gray areas” in Miki’s life that I wasn’t aware of before. I found out that Miki had been accused of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior by former employees at THINX, which resulted in a settlement and Miki stepping down as CEO. Yikes, I thought. Can I feature Miki knowing this now?
Honestly, the decision to feature Miki on the cover of Rank & File was a difficult one for me. After all, did putting her on the cover mean that Rank & File in some symbolic way stands for everything about Miki? If I put her on the cover, was I endorsing every single behavior? And where these things all in-line with Rank & File’s values?
How I Made the Hard Decision
In the end, I did decide to move forward with the interview and having Miki grace the cover of Issue #14 of Rank & File Magazine. Here’s how I made the decision:
1. First, I revisited Rank & File Magazine’s editorial mission statement — really looking hard at what we exist for and what our role as a media company is.
Rank & File Magazine’s mission is to help entrepreneurs to build purpose-driven companies that are socially-impactful, financially-sustainable and personally fulfilling by sharing authentic, vulnerable business advice shared from experience.
This peer-to-peer sharing is a really important part of our vision. In my interviews, I always try to get past the PR fluff related to product promotion in order to hear the real stories, struggles and tactics that entrepreneurs take to grow their purpose-driven businesses.
When I looked at Miki through this lens, I knew that Miki’s advice around the issue theme of “Soft Skills” (specifically how she views branding, messaging and PR) was invaluable wisdom that we could really learn from.
Our conversation was not about her sex life, nor should it have been. And it was not about her past mistakes unrelated to the issue theme (none of which I knew 100% of the details around anyway, only what the media had chosen to share). Our conversation, like my conversations with all other entrepreneurs, was about her business advice around a specific topic.
I didn’t feel like Miki’s past should disqualify her from the type of conversation we have at Rank & File Magazine:
Next, I looked at Rank & File Magazine’s company values. These are a little bit long for me to go through, but I want to share them with you so that you can really see my thought process behind-the-scenes when making a difficult decision around values:
Rank & File Magazine is not a highlight-reel and we are not a media company like other magazines who put entrepreneurs up on pedestals to “ooh and aah” over like mini-Gods. The entrepreneurs we feature are humans, just like you and me. I was also reminded that peer-to-peer dialogue is really important as we seek creative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.
It’s not my job to be a newsroom, to weigh in on the sides of a legal case. My role is much different, and frankly more important I think. My role is to foster a conversation around what purpose-driven business is and how we can effectively create a social impact through companies for the sake of others.
Are all of Miki’s ethics the same as mine? No. Are all of her branding and messaging decisions what I would personally choose for Rank & File Magazine as a company? Probably not.
But do I look up to her in many ways? Yes. She has undoubtedly inspired me by her fearlessness, her relentless action, and her bold approach. It’s something every entrepreneur needs to be inspired by.
Could I create an even playing field, respect her, listen to her, and learn something from her perspective? Absolutely!
Ultimately, I knew that I wanted to be a fellow founder who loves others, who treats them the way I want to be treated, and who opens up a space for authentic, useful dialogue for the sake of serving others.
I am proud of my decision to feature Miki and I hope that our conversation around the topic of branding, messaging and entrepreneurial mindsets was helpful to you as an entrepreneur.
What I Could Have Done Better
I do have to admit though, that I could have done a few things better when I decided to feature Miki. I could have shared this behind-the-scenes information with you sooner.
In fact, it wasn’t until one of the entrepreneurs I coach and mentor asked me about it, that I was challenged to share this with you today.
I shouldn’t have completely ignored Miki’s public past with sexual harassment allegations, leaving it for you to find online with no explanation from me. I should have been more open and vulnerable from the beginning about why we respect and included Miki’s business wisdom in Rank & File Magazine so that you could continue to trust us as a source of advice and learning.
This is an important thing to keep in mind for all of us as purpose-driven entrepreneurs. As consumers, we hold the companies we support up to high standards, and as we should, we choose to support companies who align with our values in ALL areas. Even if those areas don’t directly relate to the product all of the time.
The gray areas will be hard to deal with. It’s up to us as business leaders to make the best decisions we can to align with our mission and values, and to bring our community into the loop on these issues. Ultimately, not saying anything will leave some of the members of our audience feeling let down and confused. It’s better to be authentic, vulnerable and to engage in a dialogue around our decisions so that our customers know we care deeply about our values and take them seriously.
The Process of Dealing with “Gray Areas” in Your Business Related to Company Values
All of us will run into a “gray area” eventually. Perhaps it will be a decision to work with another company where the leaders have made a mistake in the past, or maybe it will be an opportunity to work with a company whose founder has a few different ethical standards or views than you.
As you come across your own gray areas in business, you’ll need to treat each one individually. The assessment will have many facets. But by using your mission statement and your company values, you’ll be able to be more clear about what your role is and isn’t, putting the decision into context. You’ll also be able to plan out how to communicate with your community, so that you explain the decision with them, ultimately building trust and creating a wonderful opportunity for a dialogue to take place.
I hope that this vulnerable, behind-the-scenes look at this founder issue today has been helpful to you, and will equip you to make better choices when you run into hard “gray areas” in your business.
And, thank you for allowing me, like Miki, to be a work-in-progress, to make mistakes, and to remain qualified for the ongoing conversations around what purpose-driven entrepreneurship means and how we can better serve others through our businesses.
Keep good. Keep giving. And striving to make values-aligned decisions.