As more people around the globe – who in the business world are owners and leaders, customers, workers, suppliers, investors – demand and seek a more inclusive economy amid growing wealth and income inequalities, they also are amplifying the importance of justice. The meaning of justice can vary for each of us, but at its core it represents fairness and equal opportunity — two concepts that are in short supply right now for many people, especially those from traditionally underserved or excluded racial groups.
But around the world, populations are growing more diverse and some majority races may not be so within a number of years. In the United States, the white population continues to decline and is projected to no longer be the majority group in 2045 or earlier. For businesses, being able to serve and partner with diverse populations will bring new market opportunities. But these businesses also operate within larger systems that often are built to maintain the status quo.
These shifts are bringing issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion – JEDI – to the fore as key drivers toward an economy that works for all people. In an increasingly connected global economy, businesses looking for long-term impact and success also are looking to connect with and for increasingly diverse customer and worker populations. This group includes Certified B Corporations and other companies that are broadening their focus beyond profit to incorporate benefit for people and the planet.
In recent years, the organization that oversees B Corp Certification around the globe has seen a need to broaden its diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Dr. Ellonda L. Williams, Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at B Lab Global, recently spoke with me about the organization’s updated structure and prioritization of JEDI as a strategy rather than a component of human resources.
“JEDI is not just a U.S.-centric problem or a problem that happens in Canada,” she says. “It looks different around the world, and the problems can be labeled as different, which means the solutions are different. But we can share how we’re moving the needle in a more positive way and other global partners can pick up that information and utilize it.”
Williams says businesses around the world have an opportunity to partner with local organizations to advance place-based JEDI work that also helps create a global economy that benefits all people. “We also try to help everyone understand that we’re interdependent. What we do affects you, and what you do affects us, so how can we create buy-in to do the work as a collective?” she says. “Sometimes it’s worth doing something that doesn’t directly benefit you because the long-term goal is going to create a more equitable movement as a whole.”
In the Q&A that follows, Williams shares more about the role of JEDI in driving systems change and how strategies and tactics can vary around the world.
Chris Marquis: Since you joined B Lab, how has JEDI work evolved within the organization?
Ellonda Williams: I’ve been here four years now. The time goes so fast. I love answering this question because it makes me look back and find a little pride. We’re not where we want to be all the time, but we’ve done some work. The first thing that kind of sticks out is that I started as a director of EDI. So JEDI wasn’t even in the conversation at the time. It was equity, diversity, and inclusion when I came on board as part of our people and culture team, which essentially is the human resources department.
A lot of my work during the first two years focused internally on programming, practices, and trainings with basic education around diversity and inclusion. About five years ago, EDI started getting more attention from businesses. At that time it started with a focus on education that business is not necessarily taking hold of equity and diversity issues aside from hiring practices. So at B Lab we started in HR and focused internally on the organization.
We had lots of conversations around the question of whether HR was the right place for our team. One lovely thing about B Lab and B Corps is the entire network is forward-thinking and entrepreneurial — asking how do we continue to improve? Sometimes HR and JEDI can be in conflict even when trying to accomplish similar goals. There are different avenues for how they get there. In addition, our movement and our mission are that of JEDI – an inclusive, equitable economic system. With two-thirds of our mission already rooted in JEDI, is it right to funnel all of that work into human resources? So we brought that team to be part of operations and become more involved in budgeting and finance – not just policy, not just hiring. And we started to talk more about how we develop our leadership circles and integrate with our tech platforms.
About a year ago I started having more conversations around thinking about the future of the movement and how we’re continuing to grow. This is a global nonprofit organization, but we certify organizations and businesses all across the world. What about them? What about the work that they’re embedding into their organizations in other countries, in other regions?
Two years ago, we saw the big shift, with the George Floyd murder colliding with the beginning of the pandemic. That’s when we started incorporating justice as part of our conversation, saying that justice is really about the system, and our role in this movement is to re-create or re-envision an economic system that was never really created for everyone. Therefore the outcomes of that system are not equitable.
How can we do our work in an equitable and diverse way if we’re not, at a minimum, considering the systems? We have the ability to adapt and change systems and policy, and where systems can be taken into consideration, we should be doing so. When we started talking about JEDI, we started thinking about the systems in a different way.
Then, B Lab Global got a new lead executive this spring. After research on a number of cultural aspects, B Lab Global proposed a title to replace the use of chief executive officer, eradicating the mention of the word “chief,” in order to show respect to the Indigenous and First Nations people. Eleanor Allen, our new lead, eagerly aligned with this proposition and accepted the title of Lead Executive. Eleanor Allen, was also excited to have conversations with me on whether Operations is where JEDI should sit and if it truly reflected our mission and vision, leading to the JEDI team transitioning to our Strategy Department.
Now the JEDI team sits on the strategy team of the organization and are working alongside the other teams that navigate our strategic vision. This will make way for more conversations directly with our board, more integrations with the boards of our global partners, creating infrastructure for our global and country partners and holding everyone accountable. “B Lab Global leads a global network of B Lab and Sistema B organizations across the world who power the B Corp movement at the local level. We’re in the process of actualizing a global JEDI collective that will invite our global partners to have a cross-cultural dialogue so we can learn from each other, and how different global partners are working with local groups to actualize equitable outcomes.
We’ve also created our three-year JEDI strategic plan for B Lab Global that includes pillars – or focus areas – that are meant to direct our work and strategy in all of our operations. Whenever possible, how do we shift power to those that are not only closest to the work but those who are affected by the outcomes of our decisions? It’s a hard movement in a different way.
Now we have a framework for where we want to go and how it will be incorporated across the network. It’s a roadmap for B Lab Global, but the framework and the questions are something we incorporate into our global conversations. JEDI is not just a U.S.-centric problem or a problem that happens in Canada. It is represented differently around the world, and the problems can be labelled differently, which ultimately means that the solutions are realised differently. But we can share how we’re moving the needle in a more positive way and other global partners can pick up that information and utilise it.
Marquis: I’d love to dive a little bit more into the work with the global partners. The B Lab website says that discrimination, oppression, and justice of all kinds are both global and hyperlocal issues. As you mentioned, the issues may vary across countries or even with the U.S. So how does the framework help in your work with global partners?
Williams: It’s a huge challenge, and a lot of times there’s an opportunity for education on both sides. When I say both sides, I mean from B Lab Global’s perspective and from our global partner’s perspectives. I’ve had conversations with our partners in the UK and in Europe around racism and discrimination. There sometimes is this perception that it’s different somewhere else, therefore that conversation is not relevant there. What’s really important for us to do is try to help everyone understand that the language might be different, but we can try to better understand what’s happening locally and look at data that’s localized.
We’re also continuing to strategically expand our B Lab Global board with folks who are not necessarily from the U.S., with a diversity of perspectives and lived experiences so that we are making decisions that more equitably reflect the need of our global partners. If you think about inclusion, it can be a question of “Do I see myself in this outcome? If I can see my colleagues and I can see my country and my region represented in this work, then I’m going to be more invested. I’m going to feel as though this is something that actually is going to benefit me and people like me. I’m going to carve out time, resources, and allocate what’s necessary because the outcome is going to benefit us all”.
So we’ve had a lot of conversations to build trust with our global partners to help them understand we are doing this for the benefit of all, and we appreciate being called out whenever they say, “ This isn’t helpful for us. It isn’t actually pushing the needle in our region and we cannot relate. So how can we make space and allocate resources for things that offer minimal impact for us?” But we also try to help everyone understand that we’re interdependent. What we do affects you, and what you do affects us, so how can we create buy-in to do the work as a collective? Sometimes it’s worth doing something that doesn’t directly benefit you because the long-term goal is going to create a more equitable movement as a whole. That is really important.
We don’t want to dictate how our partners do their work. Instead, we want to support the inherent power of our partners and encourage them to use that momentum to find out what’s going on in their network; and that’s not something that all of our local partners have the bandwidth or resources for. We’re working over on our philanthropic efforts to acquire funding where possible to drive our JEDI journey and support our global partners so they can develop an understanding of where those pain points are so that they can actually speak to them and work towards solutions It’s important to work together, but we want to build that accountability with our global partners and help them with resources so they can localize this work. Because, again, sweeping solutions are difficult. It’s a bit easier to say, “Here’s a frame. Here are some ideas. Maybe you can work with one of the other global partners that are similar to you that have the same kind of issues or challenges that you’re facing.” There is no shortage of challenges and problems to address, and we don’t have to do all of them at the same time. We can pick and choose and do different things together.
Marquis: In my research, one issue I’ve been focusing on a bit lately is issues of historical injustice. In the U.S., that involves the legacy of slavery. Around the world it’s Colonialism. Climate justice is a manifestation of this, where people who will be most affected by climate change are not the ones who are responsible for carbon emissions. How can companies, organizations, or even policy help address those issues?
Williams: To me, policy speaks to the justice-related aspects and the system. How can we fix smaller issues along the way when we don’t have the capacity to change the larger, global systems. Changing these huge systems that were created generations ago takes time. Collective action actually is, a lot of time, a number of groups, people, entities, organizations advocating for one particular cause, but it can be difficult because those actions are realized differently.
For example,when we think about climate justice, there are a lot of different aspects. That might include sustainability or renewable energy or even just clean drinking water. So that’s a wide range. But it’s important to understand the most prominent local issue in your region, country, city or state, and consider how to advocate and support organizations at those levels. Everyone doesn’t have the opportunity to think globally, but it’s important to remember we’re interconnected. When I have conversations around collective action or climate justice, I like to remind people it’s not just about renewable energy or going “net zero”. It’s also about people who can’t feed their infants because they don’t have clean drinking water. It’s about the displacement of generations of families who are impoverished, or food deserts and the decline of healthy choices of nourishment. It’s important to elevate those different aspects and remind people that it’s all climate justice.
When you can create a policy that prohibits an organization or a business from coming into a particular neighborhood because there’s already a growing number of organizations contributing to poor air quality, by all means fight and advocate for that. But if you don’t have the capacityto change that system, how can you work with a policy that’s internal to your organization so that you’re doing no further harm? It’s really about what you can mitigate within your organization, your region, your city to reduce harm. There’s no shortage of ways to do that, it just depends on your reach.
Marquis: B Lab Global is currently revising its certification standards. What changes are being considered around JEDI and anti-racist initiatives in those metrics?
Williams: One of the first things that I did in terms of JEDI work at B Lab was to look at the B Impact Assessment and identify areas to improve the language and questions, using my background and experience as well as my perspective as a Black woman. I’m excited that four years later we’re turning the corner on that.
One of the major issues that have often been raised is the flexibility in where an organisation acquired their minimum points for certification from. That’s one of the biggest changes: to ensure we’re measuring what matters. With accountability as one of our pillars, we need to hold B Corps accountable for showing up where we say it’s the most important space for them to be showing up. When we think about work and equity and inclusion, and how B Corps are not only treating the employees of the organization, but also their communities, what is their accountability? In the past, you could make the 80 points required for certification in any number of ways.So while it’s extremely difficult for a company to certify if they score poorly in one of the five areas of the B Impact Assessment, they’ve not been required to demonstrate performance on some of the topical requirements we’re now exploring, such as JEDI. This may not have beens driving the message of what was really important. Making the shift to require minimal points within and across topic areas, is one of my favorite things. Soon, it will not only matter how many points you get across all topics; there is a minimum requirementin each topic.
I’m working closely with our standards and our insights team on how they’re embedding our JEDI Pillarspillars. As we speak I’m working to review the newest version of ourstandards, and we’re again working to create language to help our organizations understand that things are not one size fits all. So when we say JEDI, we understand that in one region gender identity can really be an issue. But in another country it’s worker rights. So we’re encouraging B Corps to think differently about how equity and diversity can show up and help them understand there are different ways to address it and still be better for the world. It’s a better call for accountability to actually mitigate harm and improve the atmosphere for our workers and for our communities.
Not all organizations might think that this is the way to go. But this is a stance that B Lab is making because expectations have changed in the world and among workers in the last few years. Mental health and a flexible work environment are becoming expectations for people in the workforce. If organizations are not supporting those things, how can we really say that they’re better for the world?
Some organizations may think that the B Corp community is no longer for them, and that is OK with us, because we believe in what we’re doing and the direction the movement is going. I strongly believe there is so much potential in the businesses that are watching, the ones who are not yet certified. There are more organizations that are not B Corps than those that are so I like to focus on what could be if we make space for them in our community.. If our goal is to continue to diversify and grow, then we have to meet the movement and elevate the standards and raise the bar – and we are doing just that. So I’m really excited for the direction of the movement.