These past few months have taught me so much as a small business owner.
One thing I was particularly interested to see was the number of businesses that had to reckon with the dissonance between their well-polished external brands and their racist, toxic internal cultures and leadership: The Ace Hotel group, The Wing co-working space, ManRepeller media, Reformation and Everlane clothing and more.
These businesses all shared a few features: they rose quickly to positions of market leadership, fueled by a growth-first mindset and venture capital. They also all had deeply admired brands that were well loved by the media and consumers alike. Finally they all claimed to stand for something refreshingly different than the past e.g. The Wing created a safe inclusive place for all women, Everlane brought radical transparency to the clothing industry, and so on.
These businesses spent millions of dollars building an external facade of what they represented. They worked with great branding agencies and copywriters to present themselves as something new in their category; many people (myself included) were seduced and believed that the facade matched the interiors. Their convenient branding helped propel sales.
However, words are cheaper than actions. Doing the right thing, especially when no-one is looking, is often hard, inconvenient and more expensive than doing the “typical” thing.
In the case of the above businesses, and many others, it seems that the intent to do the right thing only went as far as their marketing and external presentation to the world. Internally, with under-investment in a matching culture, they defaulted to “typical” business rules. This fostered the misogyny and racism that underlie this outdated system.
The lesson for me is the extreme value of building a company’s internal culture.
Culture is the shared set of values and ways of working that mean we do things a certain way, even out of sight. Without this, dominant culture and convenience will win out — including all the inherent biases and discrimination that comes with it.
Culture may not be too visible to those outside of a company, but without an intentionally strong one, I don’t think a company is built to last.