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Tech bros and doughnuts: what's on my mind this week

I'm pulling together a few threads from my conversations and reading this week. This won't be the most coherent article you'll read this week, but why let that get in the way of sharing ideas?

Doughnuts for lunch

Frying my eggs for lunch today, I popped on a podcast, stumbling across an interview with 'rebel economist' Kate Raworth (author of Doughnut Economics) on Mary Portas' podcast The Kindness Economy. Her highly influential book calls for an approach to business that meets people's needs and operates within planetary boundaries, in opposition to unbridled economic growth, blind to the impact on people and the planet. As someone who has yet to read it I figured it was time I paid some attention.

Shortly before then I had been following the uproar around the announcement from Jason Freid, CEO of tech platform Basecamp, that there would be "No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account" going on to say, "Today's social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant."

The list of changes reads like a massive step backwards in terms of progressiveness, which is clearly intentional: "We are not a social impact company. Our impact is contained to what we do and how we do it." I recommend you take a look at Lauren Currie's take on why this approach is so damaging here.

No no, tech bro!

I'm in a wonderful Whatsapp group dedicated to women supporting each other to get paid their worth (a feminist union as one of the group's founders calls it). Some of us suspect that the Basecamp announcement is a backlash against internal calls for greater accountability (they announced they are getting rid of committees and 360 feedback as well), coming partially off the back of the Black Lives Matter uprisings last summer.

One of the Whatsapp group members pointed out that "don’t talk about politics” means “maintain the status quo, which I benefit from.”

Another said that the fact that the founders, by recommending that staff use their personal platforms to talk about social and political issues, ignore the huge privilege they have in already having an enormous personal platform that can speak many decibels higher than most people. Particularly marginalised people whose voices are not heard loudly in the first place.

What have Basecamp's announcement and Kate Raworth's work got in common? In both cases the conversation centres around how a company should function, and very different outlooks on what is necessary to be fit for the 21st century.

I own 51% of this company!!

Kate Raworth during the podcast cited work by Marjorie Kelly on the design traits that shape how organisations operate and their impact on the world. The things that she asks organisations about to assess how likely they are to be able to adapt to be fit for a habitable society.

  1. Purpose

  2. Governance

  3. Networks

  4. Ownership

  5. Finance

It was the point around the importance of ownership that reminded me of someone in the Whatsapp group who strongly emphasised her belief that "inclusion at this point has to be about ownership! Who owns the product, company or thing matters. Diversity in ownership trumps diversity in hiring."

So, when I heard Kate Raworth go through the list above I was eager to listen to what she said on the ownership question. There are so many ownership models that have a great bearing on how companies operate. State-owned, family-owned, employee-owned, customer-owned, shareholder-owned.

Now, major cop out here, but on my merry journey of discovery today I found out that Marjorie Kelly has written a whole damn book called Owning Our Future all about how employee ownership is better for the people. I should probably read it before trying to weave any ideas into this article. Allow me to give my view based on not having read it, and I'll update you when I have...(!)

Hands with red painted nails holding half eaten sugary ring doughnut
What I wish I was doing most afternoons (Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash)

My experience working in the world of business sustainability has tended to deal with privately-owned or shareholder-owned companies. There are a LOT of factors (maximising short term shareholder returns being a biggie), holding back companies from really changing in service of a more liveable world. In the tech world specifically, so many of the big players have evolved from start-ups founded by homogenous 'bros' whose values and influence runs not only through the fabric of those companies but also underpins how technology itself functions.

Banging our heads against a brick wall?

Here's the rub. So many of today's companies are still owned and run by wealthy white men, who benefit hugely from the status quo. How far will they ever be prepared to push the way they approach the way they are governed, and their ownership model?

Are we wasting our time trying to persuade blokes in boardrooms to work beyond their self-interest for the good of equality and the natural world? Are our energies better spent building and backing organisations with alternative, more democratic forms of governance and ownership?

There is a ton of companies doing things differently, and better. A good place to look is among the quickly growing list of certified B Corp companies. But how many of them are looking at their ownership model? How many are prepared to embrace debate on the role of organisations in addressing injustice?

(More questions than answers. But I can say whatever I want because this is my blog (and not yours). x )


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