5 Lessons I Learned While Building a Conscious Company

Jeff Sinelli November 27, 2018

Fifteen years ago, I opened the very first Which Wich Superior Sandwiches in my hometown of Dallas. I was in my mid-thirties, excited about the future, ready to shake up the sandwich industry, and just a little bit terrified about what would come next. Much of my focus in the early days of the Which Wich brand centered on keeping the lights on and building a successful foundation that has since grown to a global company with nearly 500 locations. It wasn’t until a few years down the road that I was confronted with the fact that I had built a good brand, but the brand wasn’t doing enough good in the world.

I’m happy to say, upon looking back, that we’ve been able to do a tremendous amount of good in the world since adjusting our mission and enhancing our focus on philanthropy. Through our Project PB&J program, which turns five next year, we’ve been able to donate nearly 1 million peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to organizations in local communities including the Salvation Army, Boys and Girls Club, and Big Brothers Big Sisters, as well as hundreds of local charities, churches, and those working to help feed those in need. Our franchisees have been a tremendous force of good in their local communities as well, giving their time and their money to a variety of local causes across the country.

However, I required a little bit of a wakeup call from a fellow entrepreneur and business builder to help refocus my commitment to the idea of conscious capitalism. As a way to pay it forward, I offer these five lessons for other entrepreneurs on how to make sure you’re building a good business that’s also in the business of doing good.

1. Talk is cheap—walk the walk.

One of the most jarring moments in my early professional life—and one that forced me to reevaluate my entire approach to the idea of conscious capitalism—happened, not ironically, while attending the Conscious Capitalism conference in San Francisco in April of 2013. I met an icon in the industry and a legend among those who believe in the idea of conscious capitalism, Kip Tindell, CEO of the Container Store.

At the time, I had a business card that trumpeted a grand plan to “make the world a better place.” After looking at it, Kip simply asked, “How are you doing that?” I was struck mute. I had no answer. It was an extremely embarrassing interaction, but it was so valuable to have that moment of forced introspection. As a younger entrepreneur, I thought it was enough to donate some money here and there and put positive vibes out into the universe. But it was in that moment—which inspired the creation of our Project PB&J program once I returned home to Dallas—that I learned an important lesson. Talk is cheap. Actions are what’s important, specifically genuine actions. Similar to the way all entrepreneurs put their blood, sweat, and tears into their businesses, you need to take that same approach to truly making the world a better place.

2. Lead by example.

This falls in line with the idea of walking the walk, but your walk can’t start and stop only for the times when it benefits you or your business—or when it can be captured on social media. The philosophy of conscious capitalism needs to be something that you wake up with every day and a prism for how you approach your life as a businesswoman or man.

I’m raising two smart, beautiful daughters with my wife, Courtney, and since we were blessed to bring each of them into the world, we feel a strong responsibility to show them how to live a life focused on improving the world around them. Find ways to “show, not tell” on a daily basis. As a business leader, it’s important to delegate responsibility and create a strong team in order to win. As a leader of your philanthropic vision for the company, it’s even more important to be the culture that you want to create with your team. Be front and center. Invest in being a strong example, and those within your company will follow your lead.

3. A strong business means stronger philanthropic impact.

Don’t forget that a stronger, healthier business is the foundation from which you’ll be able to make an even bigger impact on the communities you serve and the world as a whole. The idea of conscious capitalism only works if you’re building a business that allows those within it to succeed and thrive. It makes sense that the more successful your business becomes, the stronger your growth and the further you are able to expand, the more lives you’ll be able to touch and improve.

Don’t be scared to make money. You can’t donate money or give as much of your time without turning a profit. At the same time, the power of positivity that you can generate for your business by showing the commitment to giving back can help further the success of your entire team.

4. Be proud of your passion.

I have never been someone who is afraid of the spotlight, shies away from attention, or gets embarrassed easily. I feel you should be proud of doing good. There is a difference between grandstanding for selfish reasons and putting yourself out there to show the power that entrepreneurs and businesses can have to generate a positive impact. If I’m not wearing the yellow and black of Which Wich, you can find me in the purple of Project PB&J. I like to create big events and big moments to share a fun way to help those in need. I believe in the idea that these moments build off each other and inspire others to approach their lives in a way where they are actively looking around for how they can make the world better. You can be humble but also proud, loud, and passionate about the causes you believe in. Don’t stifle that pride. Put it out there to the world.

5. Foster creative conscious capitalism.

You may have guessed that I’m a fan of alliteration. That helped inspire the name Which Wich Superior Sandwiches. Before that was Genghis Grill. In that spirit, I’m suggesting another alliterative tip: creative conscious capitalism.

There’s no reason not to have fun with the idea of helping others or to use your philanthropic efforts as a way to spark a stronger culture of creativity inside your business. Giving back doesn’t need to be boring. Giving back should be fun, and philanthropic activities should be born from passionate ideation. With Project PB&J, we created a program that’s based on a sandwich that is synonymous with both comfort and a fun, childlike spirit. We also use the platform to help enact positive change in fun ways like breaking a Guinness World Record and holding our “spreading parties,” where we crank the music and come together as a team to make those PB&J sandwiches. We’ve used the branding for a line of handbags and apparel, and are constantly bouncing ideas off each other in the office to make PB&J and our community efforts stand out. We really love producing this as a corporate event.

The bottom line

Building a conscious business is a journey. I didn’t have all the answers when we first started—and I still don’t—but we learn more with every step we take. By being open to new ideas about how to make a positive impact, that positive impact grows alongside our business. And what more can any conscious leader hope for?

Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
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