04/20/2021

Building purpose into the bottom line

Interview with WorkIt Health and Atomic Object on their Certified B Corp status

The tech ecosystem is becoming an increasingly important engine for growth and talent throughout the state of Michigan. Many startups are successfully building their customer bases locally and securing venture funding. It is no surprise that some are taking advantage of a certification process that provides companies with a framework for considering the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment. Certified B Corporations are companies that legally incorporate all of these considerations into their bottom line with the goal of not only being a force for innovation, but a force for good as they achieve success.

In our state, there are two tech companies, both with primary offices in Ann Arbor, that have achieved this status — WorkIt Health and Atomic Object. Lisa McLaughlin, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of WorkIt Health and Mike Marsiglia and Shawn Crowley, Co-CEOs of Atomic Object took some time to share more about why they pursued this designation and how it has contributed to their success.

Why did you decide to become a Certified B Corp?

WorkIt Health: We believed the certification process itself would provide us a framework for being a good company. The content and the tools themselves were the primary driver and hugely helpful. Their assessment made it very clear where we needed to build more depth and served as an employee guide. I wanted to bring the pace of the startup and VC-backed life together with impact and B Corp is the perfect vehicle to do this. 

Atomic Object: We thought becoming a B Corp would capture what we care deeply about and solidify those elements as permanent parts of our culture and company. When we received certification in 2017, it validated our long-standing, cohesive strategy of treating people well and thinking about more than our bottom line. Atomic has a goal of reaching 100 years. The B Corp community recognizes and measures a broader, multi-stakeholder definition of “doing good,” and that’s our future.

How/has it benefited the company and contributed to company culture?

WorkIt Health: We have seen that being Certified B is definitely an attraction to younger talent. Gen Z is more impact-aligned than any other age group and there were many mentions by candidates during employment interviews of being mission-driven. It also influenced our decision to be fully virtual as a company because we understand both the economic and environmental impact/benefits to operating this way. When COVID hit, we were really well prepared because we were already a fully remote organization. As we grow, it helps us share our story of why we do this work and how we hope to serve others. 

Atomic Object: Since we joined the B Corp community, we’ve drawn inspiration from like-minded companies. Our B Corp affiliation gives us the chance to absorb good ideas and innovations from leaders like Patagonia’s Vincent Stanley, whom we partnered with Local First to bring to Ann Arbor a couple years ago. It’s also a trusted signal we can use as a short-hand for what we’re all about when we’re looking to attract values-aligned people to join us.

What was the process like (easy, difficult, resource intensive, educational, etc)?

WorkIt Health: We were very small when we started the process, maybe 12 employees. We didn’t know what we didn’t know about things like equitable HR practices and setting up an environmentally friendly workplace. We wanted to work from an exemplar and their process helps you self-reflect on what you are building as a company. In many ways, they were an interim HR, compliance etc. for us – showing us our gaps. It took about six months, but only because we were balancing other priorities. Several of Venture For America Fellows worked on this for us.

Atomic Object: Our Vice President Mary O’Neill completed a rigorous online assessment of more than 200 questions. Some questions took 10 minutes to answer, while others took more than four hours. It was a comprehensive look at how our company is structured; how ownership and governance are defined; the benefits and compensation we provide to our employees; who our clients are and whom they serve directly; what we’re doing to minimize our environmental impact; and so on. The final step in the certification process is changing your legal founding document to recognize that the company operates with multiple stakeholders in mind—a triple, or multiple bottom line (social, environmental and financial) idea. In 2017, we completed that change to our governance documents.

How does it influence decisions you make as you grow?

WorkIt Health: Even though we are unique in working on the opioid crisis, people see us as a corporation first, being VC-backed and tech-driven, so that’s always a barrier to new ways of funding the business and working on targeted impact goals. Being a B Corp helped us connect with influential organizations like the Schwabb Foundation where we are now part of a global cohort of social entrepreneurs. This helps inform how we continue to measure social impact and change as we move forward. 

How/has it benefited the community?

Atomic Object: When we received B Corp Certification, we started to learn about other, similar networks of businesses who were investing in more than the bottom line. We joined the Tugboat Institute’s Evergreen Movement, the Small Giants community, and here in Ann Arbor, we became part of the University of Michigan’s wonderful Positive Organizations Consortium. Each of these communities has enriched our perspective on running Atomic, and we’ve been happy to cross-pollinate these resources in our physical and business communities. 

Why should others consider it?

WorkIt Health: This starts you on the journey to thinking like a conscious company. We’re in a consumer-driven, digital environment now. The sooner we get accustomed to being beholden to ALL stakeholders, especially the most vulnerable, the more we can innovate.

Atomic Object: It is the only program that measures a company’s entire social and environmental performance. Just as a farmer might consider USDA Organic certification for their produce, B Corp certification lets companies validate claims about the way they run their business.  The framework can also help companies like ours consider ways to improve our service offering and impact over time. A smart aspect of the certification process is that companies need to continuously re-apply over the years, and they are prompted to improve their score over time. 

Any future-looking thoughts on formally instilling such values/metrics into company bottom-line within tech entrepreneurship?

WorkIt Health: There tends to be a VC bias that if you have the impact focus, you aren’t focusing enough on growth. But these things absolutely live in harmony.

Atomic Object: We have so many thoughts about this that we’ve turned it into a blog called Great Not Big. Written by our Founder and Chairman, Carl Erickson, and other Atomic Object leaders, the blog transparently shares the victories and pitfalls of building a professional services company that prizes culture over speed. Posts of interest include a definition of our company’s purpose, adding a socially responsible fund our 401(k) options, and a six-part series on how we built our own employee ownership program.

If you are interested in learning more about becoming a Certified B Corp, click here to visit B Lab’s website and access the free company impact assessment tool.