Businesses today are finding that it’s better to pull along their customers than to push themselves upon them. It’s a strategy that works best for those that are operating with a purpose.
So said “Leading with a Purpose,” a panel presentation of forward-thinking business leaders that addressed how companies are operating and evolving to meet the needs of their stakeholders — employees, customers, supply chains, advisers and the community — as COVID-19 continues to affect traditional business standards.
The virtual presentation was part of the Fifth Annual Middlesex County Business Summit.
The panel included Cordell Carter, executive director, Aspen Institute, who served as moderator, plus the following thought leaders:
- Lou Cooperhouse, CEO & president, BlueNalu;
- Monique Carswell, director, Center for Racial Equity, Walmart Foundation;
- Gene Gurevich, director of policy and business development, Mobileye;
- Natalie Madeira Cofield, assistant administrator, Office of Women’s Business Ownership, U.S. Small Business Administration;
- Sandy Castor, director, Office of Business Engagement, Middlesex County.
Here’s a breakdown of a few of the themes presented:
Satisfy your customers’ purpose
“Today’s consumers have purpose,” Cooperhouse, the former head of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, said. “They want sustainable products and a commitment from the companies they do business with that they are on board with that and are caring.”
Cooperhouse’s company, BlueNalu, has a purpose to address the seafood industry’s supply chain. He said seafood has never been in greater demand, and this supply chain is challenged with many environmental issues such as plastics and mercury in the products and the treatment of our water’s resources.
“We’re working to bring healthy and humane methods in this food security,” he said.
Cooperhouse said businesspeople are driven by knowing that they are making a difference and providing a benefit.
“Technology certainly helps, but technology doesn’t do it all by itself,” he said. “For example, creating new ways to produce food, especially protein-based food, is going through incredible times right now, much like computers did when they hit the scene in the 1970s.”
BlueNalu’s mission is to be the global leader in cell-cultured seafood, providing consumers with great tasting, healthy, safe and trusted products that support the sustainability and diversity of our ocean.
“This is a non-regulated business,” he said. “There are no materials that exist to help make this happen. We’re innovating it as we go along. We want to be the global leader in this new category of an industry.”
Castor said residents need to be a part of what’s next in whatever the new normal looks like.
“It’s important for our county’s resources to be inclusive, because Middlesex is very diverse: 48% of our citizens do not list English as their first language,” she said.
Use programs in place to help your underserved businesses
Cofield said the Small Business Administration’s Community Navigator Program’s purpose is to give underserved businesses in New Jersey and across the country a simpler way to discover how the SBA can assist.
“We learned during summer that 41% of businesses are not coming back because of the pandemic,” she said. “This recovery is critical. Small business is the backbone of local economies. Local government is your partner.”
Cooperhouse, a former president of the New Jersey Business Incubation Network, said there are business incubators throughout New Jersey that do an excellent job at mentoring early businesses and helping them to connect with venture capital groups.
Cofield said that being an entrepreneurial businessperson earlier in her career gave her insight so that, today, she can better empathize with what young companies are going through.
“It wasn’t too long ago that small companies were not able to get the funding that the much larger companies could,” she said. “As a small business owner, you really are starting with nothing. Being able to connect with others can help you to get the answer to that one question you have that will really move your business forward.”
If you knew then what you know now
The panel was asked to look back a dozen years and offer something they know now that would have helped them then.
“Many will tell you that balance in life is critical, but reaching balance, such as work/life balance, is really not attainable — and that’s OK,” Castor said. “Don’t beat yourself up about it. Different priorities arrive in different ways and at different times, and you have to juggle that. Lean into things that are purposeful to you.”
Her advice is for young business leaders to find a sponsor, an adviser and a mentor.
“The sponsor will unequivocally advocate for you publicly and will have the platform to do so,” she said. “The mentor will help to lead you through the variety of life and work challenges you face. The adviser will give it to you straight, good or bad.”
Cooperhouse said it’s important to “recognize your own strengths and weaknesses, and surround yourself with great people, and treat those people with respect.
“You want people who are not afraid to speak up with thoughts about what they think can make your business better,” he said. “Treat failure as a way to learn, not as a defeat. Life is about pivots.”
Gurevich urged people to work on things that they are passionate about.
“This will help you get through the tough times that require you to work a whole lot of crazy hours,” he said. “If it’s your passion, it won’t seem like a job.”
Cofield said you will become more powerful by being comfortable inside your own skin.
“Aim higher, do not go about things aimlessly,” she said. “Find clarity in what you want and need.”
Carswell said: “You are what you consume. Be curious and mindful. Be open to learning from others. Be yourself. Show up as you are — your whole self.”