Stories of Conscious Business: Spotlight on Underground Communications

Photo Credits: Underground Communications

Why and how did you become a ‘Conscious’ business? And tell us about your journey to becoming a certified BCorp?

When I founded Underground Communications almost eight years ago, I did so with a clear intention of working with companies that either did or would embrace the concepts of business for good. I wanted to work with companies that recognised that people were part of a bigger community and not just the commodities of work.

Throughout the years in various roles and through my own personal situation, I had observed the disturbing trend in the traditional capitalist model of rewarding those who gave everything to the company at great expense to their personal life. And, conversely, I witnessed those who placed importance on their family and home, whether male or female, being overlooked despite their skills and dedication to their role.

In 2012 this message of business for good was very difficult to get across as it was seemingly such a new concept. In 2015 I joined a Mastermind Group with several other conscious business owners who wanted to make a difference in the world. This is where I first learned about the B Corp movement and decided that it would be something that I could achieve when we’d grown. But, the more I followed the movement and looked into it, the more I realised that this was something for everyone.

What is your business purpose?

Our mission is to help purpose-led organisations build thriving and inclusive communities by connecting their people, customers, suppliers and their extended networks to their mission and to each other.

Our reason for being is to build community for organisations across all their stakeholder groups so that they are all unified to a social impact goal. So often, companies focus on their ‘target market’ and forget that they are responsible to several groups that are impacted by their business. This means they are missing the opportunity to leverage the energy that a unified social impact goal can bring to every person touched by that company and they’re reducing their potential impact and success.

How do you instill this purpose through the business, internally and externally?

As a small team it’s very easy for us to stay in touch with the values that drive us. Community is our core value and is underpinned by my innate need to bring people together for a common good.

From the very beginning of the interview process I make it very clear that we have a focus on working with organisations that are purpose-led and that our aim is to bring their whole business community together through communication.

During the COVID-19 crisis we have switched to a remote working model, having given up our office. As a consequence, I’ve needed to revisit all our policies and procedures and update them to make sure that we’re still able to work together as a team and deliver on client outcomes. The common thread throughout these new procedures is the importance of community so, rather than shifting focus we have actually doubled down on our purpose.

Externally, through all our channels, our message is very clear. You could say we’re almost like a broken record. We love to focus on and highlight organisations that are doing amazing things for the world and that are innovating, both their business practices and their products and services.

And being a certified B Corp certainly helps to make our purpose much clearer. It really is a clear demonstration that we walk our talk.

Why should businesses be a force for good?

Businesses, whether large or small, are significant members of the wider community. They employ, make money from and impact people and our environment in so many different ways. For a long time, it seems, that impact has been sliding to the negative. For our communities and our planet to thrive as we move forward, we can’t just rely on government to make and implement decisions that will rectify or improve our current situation. And nor should we since we’re all in this together. It will take a collaborative effort between government, enterprise and community to shift our position and improve our working lives as well as how we care for our planet and each other.

Business is in a strong position to lead the charge, working with government to advise and model what can be done. This doesn’t mean that business shouldn’t be profitable and financially sustainable and, in fact that’s desirable in order to support those who rely on it. But what we need are business leaders who are brave enough to show that profit doesn’t need to be at the expense of people and planet and, instead demonstrate that companies are more profitable when they take people and planet into consideration.

BCorps aim to be best for the world, not just best in the world. Tell us how this inspires and shapes your business.

Although we didn’t set out to achieve this, we were listed as a 2019 Best for the World Honoree – Community. More than half of our points (you need to score more than 80 points on the B Impact Assessment to qualify for B Corp certification) were achieved in the Community category, which I suppose is both understandable and pleasing since it’s our core value.

Most of our client projects have a community element to them that helps us to indirectly do something good for the community. But our own direct commitment to community is through our work with our charity partner Whitelion. We have committed 1% of our annual revenue and 5% of our billable hours to them in addition to dedicating some of our volunteer hours (our team members get 16 pro rate hours per year for volunteering) to helping out with their events. We have formalised this through becoming a member of Pledge 1%. To keep us connected to this as a team we have established a social purpose above and beyond our innate purpose-led approach to work, which is to help provide mentorship to vulnerable young people so they can create strong communities of the future. By supporting Whitelion we know that we are making good on that social purpose with every dollar we earn.

As this cause resonates so deeply with me personally, I also sit on the Whitelion NSW Ambassador team to provide support at a corporate and business networking level and help connect the organisation to people who can help them achieve their goals.

What are you working on or most proud of?

There are a few things that fall into the category of ‘most proud of’ over the last eighteen months. Firstly, achieving B Corp certification was one of my greatest achievements as a business owner. To be counted amongst some of the world’s most incredible companies doing such inspiring things to change the world was very humbling. To then be recognised in the top 10% of B Corps globally as a Best for the World Honoree was just the icing on the cake!

We were also extremely proud to win the NSW and National PRIA (Public Relations Institute of Australia) Golden Target Award in 2019 for Small Budget Campaign of the Year for our campaign with NFP Interrelate for their Say No To Bullying Poster Competition. Receiving the award, in addition to a Highly Commended in NSW and Nationally for Thought Leadership for the same campaign, for such an important topic made us doubly proud.

And, moving forward, we are lucky enough to have clients that are innovating in the space of shelf life packaging. We’re planning a consumer education project and campaign that will help to guide consumers around product selection based on packaging and how to dispose of packaging in the least harmful or most circular way.

What has been your inspiration? Is there a business that has been your role model?

Like every good B Corp founder, I am totally in awe of Patagonia. Although we have a different primary focus, they embody the B Corp values in every part of their organisation. You can be inspired by their activism, their staff benefits and well-being program, which is totally family focused, and their commitment to doing business for good including being the first to become a Benefit Corporation, legally binding their business practices and preserving for the future them regardless of the company ownership.

My first inspiration though, when I began my Conscious Capitalism journey back in 2012, was Wholefoods who, before being purchased by Amazon, demonstrated the true spirit of community and innovation in business practices.

What was the journey to BCorp certification like? Any words of advice?

I think the journey to B Corp certification is different for every business. For me, and for most small service-based businesses, we found that we were doing a lot of things that are rewarded in the B Impact Assessment but we didn’t have anything formalised. So, we put a lot of time and effort into our policies to give written formality to those practices.

One thing that was an important part of the process was to have a specific deadline in mind and an action plan to meet it. Without this it’s easy to just get focused on the day-to-day business and forget about the certification. I appointed a team member who had a particular interest in policy (and has since gone on to work in Government) to start the process of creating those important policy documents and I had a monthly reminder in my calendar with a count-down to the deadline, which prompted me to continue to take action towards completing the process.

I would certainly say that getting help is vital, whether that’s from someone within your team or an external consultant. And, by getting your team members involved you get to embed the values even deeper into your organisation as well as improving your practices further by encouraging your team to innovate ways you can do things better.

What would you say to other businesses who want to become a BCorp?

If you’re a business that’s driven by purpose and values, becoming a certified B Corp demonstrates by third party scrutiny that you do what you say. In addition to demonstrating your values clearly to the world, the process highlights things you’re doing well and those that you could do better. And, because you need to recertify in three years’ time with an improved score, you are continuously improving how you do business, which is better for the world and better for you!

What is your future focus as a BCorp? What goals have you set for your business for the coming short term and long term? And how are you planning to get there?

Post COVID-19 we have a different business since moving to the WFH (or work from anywhere, in fact) model so one of our focus points is to increase our team health and well-being programs. As a remote team we recognise that it can be quite isolating, so I want to make sure that the team is supported in work and life. We are also focusing much more deeply on diversity, equity and inclusion, implementing ongoing training and expanding how we hire new team members. Being remote will hopefully help us to broaden our diversity as a team.

In the long term our focus will be on sustainable and manageable growth, meeting our Net Zero 2030 commitment, which isn’t actually as easy when you’re a remote team, and evaluating employee ownership models.

I’ve also just launched a new business called The Grow Good Hub that will work in parallel to Underground Communications. This will allow me to go deeper into purpose and impact by helping organisations navigate the B Corp certification process towards ultimate certification. Our existing services will compliment clients of The Grow Good Hub to help engage teams and their clients from the beginning and after certification. The more B Corps we have, the bigger the movement, the better the impact!

The theme for BCorp month is “Better Together for a Better World”. What do you see as the opportunity for businesses to “build back better” in a post-COVID world? And what collaborations could help achieve it?

I feel that there are many issues and opportunities that have been highlighted by COVID-19. I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the importance of environmental action for the sake of economic recovery. There are many opportunities for innovative organisations in renewables to partner with Government and community groups to solve environmental and economic issues simultaneously. And, from a societal point of view, shifting the model of business sponsorship of charities to aligned impact investing and collaborative projects can give so much more meaning to employees at the same time as solving some of our biggest social needs. And this isn’t just reserved for large corporations, there are many ways that small business can have just as much impact collectively.

What are your hopes for the future of business? And what is your call to action to other businesses?

Having witnessed a shift in dialogue over the last couple of years and, especially a change in business attitude in the first half of 2020, my hope is that we can’t ever go back to the pre-COVID profit-driven way of doing business, and that companies will start to take more responsibility for the communities that support them.

My call to action to other businesses is to start where you are and not to wait to be that ‘perfect’ business that does everything right. There is no such thing. Even Patagonia admits to having made mistakes and needing to always improve. We can all do better and we can all learn new ways from each other. That’s what real business growth is to me.