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Small Business, Big Lessons is a podcast from Buffer that goes behind the scenes with inspirational small businesses to explore how they are questioning the best ways to build a business and uncover the big lessons we can learn from their journeys (so far). Check out episode seven here.

Today, businesses are not just known for the products and services they offer, but consumers also take into account a company’s values and morals. According to a recent study done by Ipsos, people believe brands have a responsibility to address social and political concerns. And now is an especially opportune time for these entities to speak up, says business consultant Holly Howard. She credits social media for both normalizing discourse around current events and making it easier for company’s to vocalize their thoughts on these topics.

“20 years ago, you could take a stand as a business, but it wasn’t going to spread as much as it can when a business is online … I think a lot of things contributed to the fact that people feel more comfortable [speaking up] nowadays … Using those times as a source of inspiration and motivation to create something new in the world is really important.”

In season 2 episode 7 of our podcast Small Business, Big Lessons, we spoke to several entrepreneurs and learned why, for them, taking a stand is embedded within their business’s overall purpose.

In the spring of 2020, Azikiwee Anderson, or Z, was dealing with the pandemic like most Americans were. At the time, Covid-19 had not yet become a household name, and there was a ton of uncertainty in the air. But then, in May of that year, something else occurred that disrupted Z’s world: George Floyd was murdered in police custody. Floyd’s death caused an uproar and pushed the issue of racial discrimination and the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront of American society.

A Black man himself, Z was profoundly impacted by this incident and it led the private chef to reevaluate his life, purpose, and the way he is perceived by society.

“During the pandemic, I went down a rabbit hole. I tell people, it kind of broke my brain,” Z said. “The whole murder of George Floyd, what it meant to the world, what it meant to me. What it meant because he looked and was seen like me in the world…,” Z said. “How the world sees people like me. Like the person I am … can I be my own authentic self?”

Angry, frustrated, and confused, Z felt like he had no place to just be. It was a time of immense reflection and contemplation and when he finally was able to pull himself out of this rut, it was thanks to an unlikely source – sourdough.

At the time, baking sourdough had been a popular pandemic activity, something that helped people keep busy during lockdown and also provided comfort during an unprecedented time. But for Z, the hobby would become so much more than a relaxing pastime.

“Baking helped me back from that edge,” he said. “The actual act – the zen of getting lost and working with my hands and being really present and enjoying that action – healed a lot of cracks in my heart.”

Z ended up sharing his baking adventures with his followers on his personal Instagram page when dozens of individuals inquired about purchasing loaves from the private chef. And just like that, Rize Up Bakery was born. What first began in Z’s kitchen, has now expanded to a thriving small business in San Francisco.

The entrepreneur makes clear that social justice is baked into Rize Up’s overall purpose. Not only is it how the business got its start, but Z’s mission is to show others, especially Black youth, the power of baking. Z hopes this can help kids see that there are other life paths they can take to be successful.

“If you only think you can be a basketball player, or a rapper or drug dealer, or like some dude who’s flossing, if that’s the only reality that your force fed every single day, it’s no wonder that people have an identity crisis,” Z said.

For Z, Rize Up Bakery has multiple goals: spreading his love for baking to others, brightening up customers’ days, and providing nourishing food to his community. But as he continues to lay down the roots for his small business, he’s adamant about incorporating a greater social justice angle to his work, especially when it comes to working with the younger generation.

“I don’t think the world, especially kids, are taught to be great,” Z said. “They’re taught not to make mistakes, they’re taught to get along, they’re taught to not stand up for themselves or not stand up for someone else …They’re taught all these things, but they’re not really taught like, ‘hey, you know what, you can be great.’”

How these entrepreneurs take a stand through their work

Z isn’t the only entrepreneur who’s passionate about making a difference through his work. The below small business owners are dedicated to pushing back against what they feel are societal wrongs – including wasteful consumption, tech monopolies, and misinformation – by implementing policies and initiatives within their companies that address these issues.

Paynter Jacket is an alternative to the fast fashion industry

Co-founders Becky and Huw created their small business Paynter Jacket with one mission in mind: do things differently and more ethically than most clothing companies. They only sell four limited edition jackets a year and have a made-to-order business model, meaning they order the only what they need – down to the exact meters of fabric and the precise number of buttons – so they don’t produce any waste.

Becky knows that their clothing company may not be able to fix the fast fashion industry on its own, but she hopes Paynter Jacket’s philosophy around ethical production can help remind customers that they don’t need to be constantly buying new clothes, but should buy fewer, higher quality staples. The entrepreneur finds herself nostalgic for the days clothing was actually valued.

“I remember some of the most exciting days actually, as a child growing up, when my cousins would come over, and they’d bring their bags of hand-me-down clothes and we’d rifle through them and decide what we’re going to keep,ultimately giving those garments a longer life. I don’t think that really happens anymore.”

Despite the fact that Paynter Jacket has grown in popularity and could very well expand their operations, they still choose to produce a limited number of jackets each year – staying true to their roots.

SparkToro speaks up against large tech monopolies

Rand Fishkin has co-founded two tech companies – SEO software Moz and his latest company, SparkToro, an audience research tool. As someone with a ton of experience in the tech industry, the entrepreneur has been very vocal about the lack of antitrust enforcement in the U.S as he believes its harmed economic opportunity in the U.S. and allowed for more inequality.

“You have just a few companies that kind of control the gateways to the Internet, control internet commerce, control internet advertising, and that lack of enforcement is also illegal, it is breaking the rule of law in the United States.” In fact, Rand built SparkToro with principles to ensure that it would run differently than most tech companies, as one of their values is egalitarianism – they want to help small businesses catch up to the big tech giants with audience research.

But Rand has also published research on how big companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google are stifling innovation and fair competition. This very research has been cited by the U.S. Congress and even featured on Last Week tonight with John Oliver. Rand is also open on his social media accounts and blog about this issue, and hopes his words and research can have some kind of impact.

“My hope is, if there’s just a few more people contributing in small ways, maybe together, we can make a difference.” In his opinion,“I think that everyone has an obligation to help.”

Buffer combats online misinformation

In recent years, there has been a trend of blatantly false information spreading – including misinformation about elections and vaccines – on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and unfortunately, we’ve noticed our products and tools at Buffer sometimes being used to publish these false messages.

This misinformation can potentially lead to real life consequences and it was important for our entire team at Buffer, including our CEO Joel Gascoigne too. That’s why we’ve adjusted our terms of services and terms of use of our products to more clearly define what is and isn’t allowed. We’ve been cracking down on accounts that don’t follow the rules.  

“Since we’re a small company, we can do that. And we can move pretty fast with those things. And so that’s the direction we’ve been going more recently and it’s feeling like the right thing for us for the stage where the culture, the DNA, the type of company we are.”

As our core values revolve around transparency, authenticity, and helping our customers thrive, we plan to continue to stand up against all kinds of misinformation.

Taking a stand by nurturing community relationships

Sometimes as a business owner, you may want to take a stance in multiple ways, for multiple events, but Holly advises her clients to pick one or two causes they really resonate with, rather than try to do it all.

“I tell people to really take a step back and ask yourself why you’re aligning with certain causes, not from a political perspective, But I just mean from an internal culture perspective,” Holly said.

Another way these small business owners have taken a stand is by reaching out and partnering with other organizations and causes they feel connected back to their greater mission.

Made with Local addresses food insecurity

Made with Local – a B corporation that produces a variety of granola products – has always actively worked with their local community to address social inequities. One of the causes founder Sheena Russel is passionate about is providing food for those in need in their community in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

“We work closely with organizations that are helping to address food insecurity, which has much deeper roots than just not having enough food in your pantry. These are systemic issues that are a significant issue in where we live in the world,” Sheena said.

They’ve partnered with North Grove, a community food center in Nova Scotia that advocates for and provides a healthy and fair food system for its community. Along with that, the small business also helped found the Dartmouth community fridge project, another organization with the goal of feeding the community.

By supporting local community partners, Made with Local is actively advocating for all community members to have access to fresh and nutritious foods.

​​Rize Up partners with a variety of San Francisco orgs

As a child, Z and his family experienced homelessness for some time, and the experience has shaped the way he thinks about giving back to others. The baker is big on donating a portion of the bakery’s sourdough loaves to multiple organizations within San Francisco.

Rize Up partners with Glide – a SF social justice center that works to combat poverty, housing, and homelessness within the city, and One Richmond, a community center that aims to strengthen the bonds between residents. Z has also donated loaves to battered women shelters throughout SF, as well.

This small act of charity is one small way Z feels like he can help his fellow neighbors.

“I might not be able to fix everything on the planet. I might not be able to buy somebody a place to live in. But what I can do is use my hands and use my skills to make beautiful food,” Z said. “Because some days, you just need enough food to get through the day, so you can live another day. And for me, that really matters.”

Buffer’s annual charitable contribution

We’re big on giving back at Buffer, and something we’re proud of is our annual charitable contribution. At the end of every profitable year we have, we take about 20 percent of our profit share and match that and donate to a deserving cause that the entire team gets to vote on.

In recent years, we’ve incorporated more flexibility in how we donate, for example, in 2020 we donated to various organizations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, in addition to matching team donations and continuing to invest in anti-racism education for our team. We also make room to donate to new causes whenever the need arises. That’s why in 2022 we showed our support to Ukraine and donated to Global Giving’s Ukraine crisis relief fund.  +

It was important for Joel that the causes we chose to support aligned with our overall mission at Buffer.

“We’ve started to shift thinking about it, not just as, ‘okay, we’re donating money.’ But can we do something that’s really intertwined with our own mission…,”Joel said. “We started thinking more about underrepresented groups and causes focused on them that are also focused on small businesses in some way.”

Paynter Jacket raises money for Ukraine

When the crisis in Ukraine was first unfolding, Becky and Huw immediately knew they wanted to help in whatever way they could. While they didn’t have a ton of resources as a small business, what they did have was some leftover samples from their previous batches. They decided to put these prints and samples to good use with an online fundraiser. Thanks to user donations, plus a very generous anonymous contribution that matched, Paynter Jacket raised 23,000 pounds and donated that money to the Red Cross’s humanitarian work in Ukraine.

“We felt it was really important to help people in Ukraine, because, how totally and utterly frightening, and we felt like we couldn’t do anything from so far away. So the best thing that we can do is show solidarity by raising money,” Becky said.

While taking a stand is absolutely something you should do as a small business owner, sometimes it’s okay to take a step back and reflect before speaking up about an issue. Holly takes inspiration from activist Loretta Ross and her thoughts on being an ally.

“[Ross’s] whole posture is about approaching activism from this space of first taking a moment to really think about why it is that we’re doing what we’re doing,” Holly said. “And to not approach it from a space of, ‘we have to get out there immediately and do this thing.’  And I think that moment of pause is really important,” Holly said.

It’s crucial to not come off as being performative in your activism, something that customers and followers can usually notice. You want to make sure you truly understand the cause, and back up your words with actions, too.

Once you do find a deserving cause that feels aligned with your brand’s mission, however, take a cue from these entrepreneurs and be vocal in your advocacy and support.

Want more on Taking a Stand? Check out the full episode

The businesses we interviewed in this episode have further insights to share about taking a stand and its value for brands. Check out the full episode here.