Beautiful Business

What has beauty to do with enterprise? You may ask. Or, you may be thinking about the cosmetic and fashion industry. Let’s begin there. Recently I watched a documentary film on Netflix “The True Cost” (2015). This movie shows many aspects of the fast fashion companies from the West and their productions in the developing countries which is having a devastating environmental and social impact. One of the stories in the film is about Shima, a garment factory worker in Dakha, who earns $10 per month. Shima, along with her colleagues, faces severe economic, mental and physical exploitation from the factory owners and work conditions. This movie made me rethink the use of fashion and its products for our family. Yes, this story is not only true for just this industry, whether real estate industry or pharmaceutical industry or any other industry, the industrialist mindset that is still prevalent today, sees nature and people as resources there to exploit. That is exactly how Jack Ma of Alibaba thinks even in 2019, when he said “To be able to work 996 is a huge bliss” (That is twelve hours a day, six days a week).

Look what we have done to ourselves today with over-commodification, mass markets and globalisation. We have polluted our land, seas, rivers, lakes, air and even our food, dominated by commercial interests, careless of toxic byproducts in the name of development and progress. We have also reduced people to ‘workers’, ‘human resources’ and ‘consumers’, seen as interchangeable cogs, often treated as machines and now often replaced by machines. Look at the junk food industry, valuable resources and efforts are spent to produce something which is neither good for our bodies nor for the environment, but still considered as good business. We have no respect for nature or people. We were told a lie that enterprises can only exist, if the bottom line is to make more and more profit.

This economic mindset is the byproduct of the Darwinian like ‘struggle for survival’ ethic, where survival, greed and domination are the only goals.

This economic mindset is the byproduct of the Darwinian like ‘struggle for survival’ ethic, where survival, greed and domination are the only goals. Famed author Ayn Rand once proclaimed that selfishness is a virtue. This mindset creates a sense of fear, anxiety and scarcity in the ecosystem giving very little room for human dignity, creativity and community. Thus creating distressed economies and ecosystems which don’t thrive anymore. Then people fall into a trap of thinking survival as the bottomline and hence, neglecting the holistic approaches that point our civilisation towards a greater vision.

What world do we want to create for ourselves and for our children? Are we not at another Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., moment today? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the day before he was shot to death, gave a stirring address. He stated, “Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” Today it is re-humanisation or non-existence. The recent cyclone Idai of March 2019 is a sobering reminder of the environmental injustice.

Enterprises, not just governments, mostly shape our world and our planet. They can make our world a better place for the next generation or leave a more miserable one. Evidence suggests that re-humanised enterprises can reduce poverty in the long-run than aid could do. As today AI and ML technologies are driving every industry on the planet, tech companies are busy selling their products and services to enterprises who still have the old industrialist mindset. This is a concern because AI can significantly empower exploitation. A much bigger concern is, we don’t know where to change. It also seems like ‘Ethics boards’ aren’t working. How can we address this dilemma?

Ideally enterprises are there to create value that benefits customers — communities.

Probably, we should re-assess business and work? Ask the right questions and question the status quo. What kind of enterprises we need? Ideally enterprises are there to create value that benefits customers — communities. If enterprises truly create value to the community so that all benefit, business and communities thrive. That is a common good approach. But if the enterprise’s goal is to benefit only themselves, they exploit. They become an end to themselves; their goal is to serve only their bottomline, not the common good. We are told a lie that common good is the role of the ‘Social Enterprise’. There is no such distinction. Either we care for human and environmental flourishing or exploit it. This old exploitive survival mindset has failed us and our planet. We need a paradigm shift.

“What we take, what me make and what we waste are in fact all questions of ethics.”

Gränsfors Forest Axes

New mindset

Alan Moore in his book ‘Design: Why beauty is the key to everything’ gives an example to the question “How to design and create a beautiful business?” In his conversation with Gabriel Brandy, a chief executive of Gransfors Bruk, a Swedish company that makes axes, Brandy talks about his company philosophy ‘The Total’. He said. “What we take, what me make and what we waste, are in fact, all questions of ethics.” An ultimate responsibility for ‘The Total’. This Philosophy in making a high quality sustainable product is a way to pay respect to the axe, and its user and to nature, which provides raw material. Isn’t this beautiful? This has to be the new bottomline — Profit (material capital), Stewardship (creative capital) and Community (social or relational capital).

This re-humanising or empathic enterprise, I call ‘Beautiful Enterprise’. Beauty is notoriously hard to define, but it is often spoken of together with the true and the good. Unfortunately, if you search for beauty on Google you will see people in their photoshopped images suggesting that beauty lies in certain colour, fashion or features of their physical appearance. This skin-deep ‘beauty’ is not what I am talking about. C.S.Lewis in his book The weight of glory, says “The books or the music in which we thought beauty was located, will betray us if we trust them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing, for they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” This Beauty that we all long deep inside us is transcendent, but it manifests where there is Truth and Goodness. We can build beautiful businesses, products, relationships, experiences etc, when we build it with truthfulness and goodness just like Gransfors Bruk.

New ethos for new enterprise.

This vision for re-humanisation does not work with an old set of values. We need to change our ethos. We need to rethink these truths, Human Dignity, Human Creativity and Human Community. These truths provide the right environment for economic freedom, environmental care and human well-being. 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “We recognise of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…” These are not just fine sounding ideas. These truths are firmly grounded in a worldview, which I will retain for another discussion. Many young people want to build ‘beautiful enterprises’ but the need for coherent moral value system is lacking in our post-truth world. Survival mindset cannot adopt these truths, because it demands sacrifice for the common good which looks like weakness.

Beautiful enterprises in the age of AI

Where do we begin? I observe at least three core shifts in the light of those truths and explore how AI technologies can help us in this journey. There may be more, but for the brevity of time let us explore just three.

Machine to Human

Our industrialist mindset often values repetitive, machine-like performance as critical to bottom-line success. That is why we began valuing people by what they produce. Thankfully automation has begun taking away from us such repetitive, mundane work, and freeing us to be creative beings, not machines. This is a good progress, but are we really freed to be creative? Our education system which is a product of industrial revolution has not prepared us for such a shift. People who build these AI based applications have also come from the same system which cannot understand what it means to be human. It is frustrating to hear questions like “Can AI make art?” Instead, we should be asking, how can technology help us to be truly human again? AI may not be of help if we continue to exploit with our old survival ethic. Enterprises need to shift from seeing people as ‘workers’ or ‘human resource’ to human beings who have unique gifts, callings and responsibilities to co-create value towards common good.

May be, AI can help people identify and develop their unique combinations of gifts, in context to our environment to create value? This can help people be purpose-driven rather than doing meaningless, mundane work ignoring their full potential. This can help Shima in Dakha transition from doing repetitive tasks like stitching buttons ‘996’ to creating her own local, high quality homemade breakfast services because she is actually gifted in culinary arts and interpersonal abilities. If not, soon she will be told, “We don’t need you anymore. New machines can do your job much efficiently than you”.

Survival to Beauty

Our survival mindset often reduces us to our animals instincts to compete and survive. It’s a ‘What’s in it for me’ mindset that reduces everything to a commodity. That is why they call us ‘consumers’ today. This mindset settles for mediocrity. We get frustrated in our pursuit to feed our soulless bodies because our hungers are not just physical. Our soul is still starving within. Makoto Fujimura, a contemporary artist in his book ‘Culture Care’ says “Beauty feeds our soul.” Beauty leads us from survival, drudgery and scarcity mindset to expansive, generous and abundance mindset. It nurtures a sense of wonder, imagination, creativity, craftsmanship, stewardship, freedom, love and peace from mediocracy to excellence. Garment worker Shima, was stripped away from that freedom and creativity she has potential with and was reduced to work like a machine. Beauty is both a goal and a catalyst. It can help Shima produce beautiful work and also become a whole person.

Beauty is both a goal and a catalyst.

‘Frog Design’ has a credo “Love what you make”. That is the journey to beauty. Enterprises that value enduring beauty is concerned about excellence, craftsmanship, stewardship and community because their end customer needs to feed her soul too. So they produce products of great value for the user and the environment just like Gransfors Bruk. Alan Moore says “The act of creating beauty is a way of bringing good into the world.” May be that is why Fyodor Dostoevsky a Russian novelist threw out an enigmatic remark: “Beauty will save the world”.

Isolation to Community

Unfortunately, today most of us see our work as drudgery. Why? This may be because we have lost sight of the community. Our hyper-individualistic mindset doesn’t care how our work is being received by the end recipient. When we are living in a mode of survival and scarcity, we easily fall into viewing work only as means to meet our needs but not the end recipient’s need. That way, we have isolated ourselves from the community.

Industrial mindset also forces us to work so narrow focused in segments of a production process, discipline, or market in the name of hyper-specialisation that we become blind to context, meaning and responsibility.

Community matters because others have to value your work enough to pay for it. One harvests wheat and the other makes it into flour and the other into bread for the community to be nourished. A study by O.C Tanner institute and Forbes Insights, shows that “great work (award-winning work) is produced when people focus on doing something others love.” IDEO is one amazing design company. There, ‘Make others successful’ is the mother lode of all its values — genuinely wanting success for others and going out of your way to help them get there is a paradigm shift from survival mindset. It is a beautiful thing when your work or business make your customers and community successful. It’s like ‘loving your neighbour like yourself’.

Community matters because others have to value your work enough to pay for it.

We have spoken enough about making our world a better place, but today we can no longer say that. It is no longer a choice between better or worse; it’s re-humanisation or non-existence. If you have your own enterprise or if you work in an enterprise, aspire to work with the ‘responsibility of The Total’ like the Gransfors Bruk.

Be optimistic, be resilient, be truthful and be good. Don’t surrender to hopelessness to escape this doomed planet for Mars with the help of Elon Musk and the likes.

Mark Raja

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