Jeff Sinelli never thought he’d end up in the Guinness Book of World Records. And he’s not so sure it’s something he’ll make a habit of pursuing. But he’s there now, along with hundreds of his employees and franchisees from Which Wich, the sandwich brand he founded in 2004, where he serves as CEO and chief vibe officer.
There are a lot of silly records in the book, but this wasn’t one of them. The Which Wich team didn’t hula-hoop, jump rope, or dance their way into the record book. They didn’t arm wrestle, whistle, or sing. Instead, on January 15, at their annual franchise convention, the Which Wich team set a record when they successfully made 26,710 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in an hour—26,710 sandwiches that were then donated to 20 organizations across the company’s hometown of Dallas.
The record was the latest success story connected to Project PB&J, an initiative Which Wich launched last year that works to embed each store into its respective community through donated peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The project has become a de facto rallying cry for Which Wich, a system-wide effort that has its own slogan—“Spread the Love”—and apparel.
And Sinelli thinks it can change the company—and the world—forever.
“We’re not just selling sandwiches anymore. We’re selling an experience; we’re selling a connection to the community. We’re selling an education to our employees to become better people,” Sinelli says. “And within that, I think we’re transforming the sandwich space to be that different sandwich store. It’s not just writing a check and hoping that it goes to charity. It’s very interactive, very complete and comprehensive and thoughtful. And that’s really the difference.”
While Project PB&J might seem like just another do-good campaign from a restaurant company, another carefully tailored charitable effort that elicits fuzzy feelings in marketing materials, it’s not that. And Sinelli isn’t kidding when he talks about changing the world with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Because Project PB&J was born out of a swelling movement, conscious capitalism, that aims to revolutionize the way our world does business, one company at a time.
The true value creators
To understand conscious capitalism, one must understand that it is both an idea and an organization, a set of guiding principles and a structured group of business professionals who meet a few times a year. There is conscious capitalism and there is Conscious Capitalism.
The principles behind conscious capitalism aren’t exactly new; the idea that companies can be the catalyst for positive change has been around for decades, if not longer. But Conscious Capitalism, which harnesses those principles and makes them the centerpiece of annual events and public education, has only been around for a few years, and has gathered steam in the wake of the recession as consumers—especially Millennials—look to give their business to more responsible enterprises. Conscious Capitalism was founded in 2005 to help company executives improve their businesses by looking at them not simply as profit generators, but as forces for global good.
The proprietor of Conscious Capitalism, the godfather of the movement, is John Mackey, cofounder and co-CEO of supermarket chain Whole Foods. Mackey and Babson College professor Raj Sisodia coauthored the 2013 book Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, which spells out Conscious Capitalism’s mission and serves as a bible of sorts to its members.
“Free enterprise capitalism has been the most powerful creative system of social cooperation and human progress ever conceived, but its perception and its role in society have been distorted,” Mackey said in an interview with Forbes in January 2013. “Operating under the conscious capitalism model will show that businesses are the true value creators that can push all of humanity upward for continuous improvement.”
Four pillars make up Conscious Capitalism’s foundation: having a higher purpose, or running the business for more than just profit; stakeholder orientation, or creating a system that benefits everyone from your employees to your suppliers; conscious leadership, or having a chief executive who supports his or her team members and helps create value for the stakeholders; and conscious culture, or embedding your values, principles, and practices into your employee base.
Doug Levy, CEO of Dallas-based strategic and creative agency MEplusYOU and chairman of the Conscious Capitalism board, says the organization helps executives figure out their higher purpose and teaches them how they can implant that higher purpose at the heart of their business.
“The organization is really designed to take leaders who have a curiosity about conscious capitalism, or a natural inclination toward its principles, and help them, support them, give them resources—predominantly peer-learning opportunities—that can enable them to solve problems they’re facing in their industry, and create an even more successful business,” he says.
Levy is quick to point out one of the primary distinctions of conscious capitalism: It is not philanthropy. Being a conscious capitalist does not mean cutting more checks to charity or volunteering more hours at the local food bank. While those things are still good to do, he says, they are a more simplistic way of being a responsible business, one that stems more from the company’s public relations department than its C-suite.
“Very often, philanthropy is something you do with excess resources,” Levy says. “So in a year when you don’t have excess resources of time or money, philanthropy is really one of those things that gets cut. What we’re talking about with conscious capitalism is really distinct from that.”
It’s distinct in that conscious capitalism isn’t just about programs, events, or photo ops. Instead, it’s a livelihood for a company, a culture. Plus, it starts from the top and trickles down to the rest of the company. That’s why the primary members of Conscious Capitalism are company CEOs and presidents, and that’s why one of the organization’s two annual events is its CEO Summit. The other annual event is an open conference for executive teams, held every year in the spring (Conscious Capitalism 2015 is April 7–9 in Chicago). The organization also has chapters in individual cities around the world, through which members can connect with peers and host educational events.
Several well-known retail brands are Conscious Capitalism corporate members, including Whole Foods and The Container Store, while Southwest Airlines, TOMS Shoes, and Patagonia are among the active participants. So far, though, the limited-service restaurant industry hasn’t been hugely represented, despite what Levy sees as a major opportunity for real change.
Using Chipotle and Chick-fil-A as models, Levy says the limited-service restaurant space is perfectly built for a conscious capitalism mindset because of the relationship it has with consumers. In Chipotle’s case, the company established its mission—“Food with Integrity”—and then proceeded to base every decision on that mission, whether it was related to the menuboard, kitchen, suppliers, customers, or employees. And Chick-fil-A has defied conventional wisdom by closing on Sundays, a move that has bred deep loyalty among employees.
“What I’ve found about the way in which conscious capitalism best shows up is it shows up in a way that is authentic,” Levy says. “Most marketing executives would say marketing should start with the customer and getting to know the customer and what’s important to them. But I would say with conscious capitalism, the opposite is true. You shouldn’t start with the customer. You should look internally and say, what do we care about? What’s important to us? What would the world lose if we disappear?”
A place of higher purpose
Sinelli’s introduction to the conscious capitalism movement was serendipitous, the product, he says, of people simply “falling into [his] lap.” The journey he’s experienced with the movement, the one that has led to Project PB&J and Guinness World Records and changing the world, began with the 2013 CEO Summit in Austin, Texas, where he found himself sitting between two titans of business: Mackey and Tony Hsieh, CEO of online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos.com.
“So here I am, rubbing elbows with two icons, one in the retail grocery industry and one in the Internet business, and I start having conversations with them,” Sinelli says. “Instantly, I felt like I had a connection there, and I belonged in this group called Conscious Capitalism. Then I started to look at our values, and I’m like, yeah, we are trying to make the world a better place.”
The idea for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches came to Sinelli later, in a chance encounter at the summit with The Container Store CEO Kip Tindell, who asked him point-blank how Which Wich was making the world a better place. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were the first thing that came to Sinelli’s mind, and just like that, Project PB&J was born. Back home in Dallas, Sinelli made the first of what are now hundreds of thousands of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and later he refined the project with some help from Levy and his team at MEplusYOU.
Today, Project PB&J is a multifaceted initiative. There are spreading parties, where franchisees, employees, and others in the community come together to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that are then donated to needy organizations. PB&Js are sold at the Which Wich counter, and for every one purchased by a customer, one is donated to a local organization and another banked in a system for future use during a time of global need, like a natural disaster. People can also donate online through contributions or purchasing Project PB&J apparel.
At its root, though, the project—and the conscious capitalism principles that inspired it—isn’t just about the sandwiches, Sinelli says; it’s about the people who come together to make it happen, and the people who are served.
“When we start humanizing business and looking at it from a place of higher purpose, and team members start to engage individually and collectively, I think we get to a higher place of meaning that changes the dynamic of a company,” he says. “For me, I want everybody to win in business. I even want our landlords and property owners to win. Because if they win, we win.”
To that end, Which Wich also established its Great 8 Vision, a model inspired by Conscious Capitalism through which the company aims to always protect the interests of eight core stakeholders: customers, communities, employees, landlords, suppliers, franchisees, the environment, and charitable causes. Whereas the company’s first 10 years—Which Wich celebrated its 10th anniversary last year—were spent in growth mode, Sinelli says, the next 10 will be spent investing in the people who make Which Wich tick.
That’s especially true of Which Wich’s employees. As part of the conscious capitalism model, the company is putting its team members first, building a foundation that engages employees so that they, in turn, can invest in customers and the community. It’s a model that makes good business sense, Sinelli says.
“We’re creating a more engaged workforce. And by that engagement, they’re not going to leave, they’re going to stay, and we’re going to have less turnover,” he says. “These are the attributes that you have when you have a company that starts functioning on a higher level: You have less turnover, you have higher sales, you have smiles on people’s faces, you have owner satisfaction.”
Levy says that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches might seem like a simple thing, but that the message behind Project PB&J and the work that Sinelli is doing at Which Wich go much deeper at the employee level.
“In doing that, he’s reminding his employees that a lot of people can make a sandwich, few can make a great sandwich, but even fewer can make a sandwich that has love,” Levy says. “So what they do is put love into their sandwiches—not just the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that they donate, but what they do every day.”
Mixing money with meaning
Kat Cole recalls her initial submersion into Conscious Capitalism—delivering the keynote speech at the organization’s 2013 CEO Summit—with a laugh, describing a sort of fish-out-of-water experience.
“The guy who introduced me said, ‘We’re an inclusive community, but I’m not sure why she’s here, so I’m interested to hear what she has to say,’” Cole says. “He was truly open, but also very candid about, ‘We’re trying to do good for the world, and here you are, [representing] Hooters and Cinnabon.’”
Cole’s rise from Hooters waitress to president of Cinnabon (and, after this story was written, to group president of FOCUS Brands) is well documented, as are her many successes within each company. But while some might simply see a talented executive who quickly rose the ranks at one company built around attractive women and another built around indulgent treats, the truth is that Cole has done just as much within each company as many others who are committing to the Conscious Capitalism pillars. So really, for her, speaking at the Conscious Capitalism Summit wasn’t a fish out of water at all.
“If the only people who are invited into the discussion … are those who are doing it so overtly and extremely—TOMS Shoes, Whole Foods, etc.—then we’re never going to change the world,” she says. “What you need are bridge people like me who run a business that, per the terms of the free market, are businesses in and of themselves because there’s a demand for the product. People want it. They’re going to indulge, they’re going to treat themselves.”
Therein lies one of Conscious Capitalism’s primary hurdles. While members are conscious, they are still capitalists; profit still determines the success of their companies. But Levy says it’s how you view that status as a for-profit entity that helps members overcome the hurdle. He quotes Panera Bread CEO Ron Shaich when he says that without profit, companies can’t accomplish anything in the world.
“We absolutely need profit, it’s an essential part of why we’re here, but it’s not the totality of why we’re here,” he says. “The profit enables something bigger. Begin to ask yourself the question, Why are we here? Why are we here that’s bigger than making money?”
Those are the questions Cole started asking herself a few years ago, in the thick of the recession. She arrived at Conscious Capitalism in a sort of roundabout way, having first discovered the idea of connected capitalism—a set of principles laid forth by former Coca-Cola CEO Neville Isdell that similarly espouse corporations to move beyond simple corporate social responsibility in their efforts to improve society—when she was in business school in 2009. As she started to explore the concept, she came across creative capitalism, which is the movement founded by Bill Gates that encourages companies to be more philanthropic and serve the poor. Then, in turn, she discovered Conscious Capitalism.
As a way to bring all of those ideas together, in 2010 Cole cofounded with Amanda Hite of BTC Revolutions the Changers of Commerce, an organization that celebrates companies devoted to the set of principles at the core of each movement. To her, it’s not what the company is peddling that determines its status as a Changer; it’s how the company is going about making that change.
“Cinnabon is an indulgence company,” she says. “What are you going to do, start standing on a pillar of health? No way. That would be so inauthentic. So we have to say, what can we do authentically? What we can do authentically is do what we do for profit, but not for profit.”
That manifests itself in the company’s practice of giving away free cinnamon rolls to health-care workers, first responders, and military members at different times of the year as a way of showing the company’s support. But, just like at Which Wich, it goes deeper than that. Cinnabon also encourages its employees and supplier partners to participate in educational opportunities like the Women’s Foodservice Forum. In addition, the company works with its franchisees to give them the tools necessary to serve their individual customer and employee bases. When a franchisee in Michigan wrote a $10,000 check to pay for one of his employee’s health-care bills, Cole got involved and honored the franchisee by being more flexible with some franchise requirements.
She paraphrases Share Our Strength founder Billy Shore when she says that in order to make the greatest impact, companies must “focus on things that are small enough to change but big enough to matter.” That idea, she says, makes the quick-service restaurant industry the perfect place to practice the conscious capitalism principles.
“[Quick service] is so nimble, so it really meets this criteria of small enough to change, and that’s one of the reasons I think it’s so perfect to ignite or emphasize or accelerate the movement,” she says. “It’s got the nimbleness of the small business, but the bigness in its aggregate. It’s kind of Main Street meets Wall Street. It is the perfect place to illustrate mixing money and meaning.”
Support what you help create
Greg Dollarhyde is fairly new to Conscious Capitalism. The Veggie Grill CEO joined the organization in 2013 and has been around the industry long enough to know that plenty of corporate social responsibility and philanthropic movements have come and gone over the years.
But Dollarhyde is optimistic about conscious capitalism, or at least the principles at its core. And, like Cole, he thinks the limited-service restaurant industry is a great place to instill those principles.
“Because this industry is so people-intense, it should be a fertile ground for the thinking surrounding higher purpose and conscious leadership and having cultures that have values and principles that are supportive,” he says. “It’s hard. Ask McDonald’s how hard it is to have conscious capitalism throughout its system. It’s going to be hard to get in there.”
Fortunately for Dollarhyde, Veggie Grill isn’t nearly the scale of McDonald’s yet—it has 28 units open—so embedding these principles in the company isn’t quite so hard. And, unlike McDonald’s, Veggie Grill has a fairly easy way of demonstrating its good to the world: The fast-casual concept is designed around vegetarian eating, which is both nutritious for customers and better for the environment, requiring a smaller footprint on the earth than protein production.
Of course, as with all the others, Veggie Grill’s conscious capitalism practices extend through several facets of the company. For example, whenever it runs fundraisers in its stores, the company gives away 50 percent of proceeds. In addition, Veggie Grill restaurants are built using sustainable materials like natural insulation, recycled glass, and bamboo. And through its “vg+me” philosophy, the company invests in its employees through open and honest communication and what Dollarhyde calls “joyful leadership.”
“It’s not something we go out and beat our chest about, it’s not something that we go and have it in our PR releases per se,” he says. “We don’t do it in marketing materials that are guest-facing. So it makes it more of a mission than a PR positioning.”
That mission, at its foundation, is about engaging company team members so that they help create Veggie Grill’s conscious capitalism practices, Dollarhyde says. People support what they help create, he says, which is why other CEOs must develop their own strategies and plant them in the DNA of their business.
Levy points to how different the practices at Which Wich, Cinnabon, and Veggie Grill are in saying how every company must find its own path in conscious capitalism. But he adds that there is one common thread that runs through those and other companies joining the movement: The success they find as conscious capitalists is indisputable.
“It leads to more engaged employees, happier customers, better supplier relationships, healthier community relationships, and stronger profit,” he says. “With all of those things and our sort of natural competitive environment, the companies that practice it have an advantage. Eventually, all companies will be conscious capitalists.”