Talks over Tea | Leadership changes at B Lab Europe

We had a chance to sit down with Juliette Caulkins, B Lab Europe’s new Executive Director as the leadership baton is passed from Katie Hill, who held the position for the past four years after her time as B Lab UK’s Executive Director.

It’s an exciting time for the B Corp Movement which is growing exponentially across the world, and in Europe the momentum, energy as well as the urgency are impossible to ignore. Beyond the over 900 B Corps present in 25 countries across the region, the European network has been busy forging new partnerships, advocating for policy changes at national and pan-European levels, and fostering collaborations emerging across industries.

We found a moment of calmness to hear Katie’s reflections on the B Corp Movement and get to know Juliette a bit better after a month of onboarding which has involved getting to know (and boat with!) the team at B Lab Europe’s headquarters in Amsterdam, taking the stage at the B for Good Leaders Summit, and participating in global meetings from the UK and local events hosted by our local teams in France.

Big smiles despite the poor Zoom quality of this screenshot

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Let’s start with a simple, yet big question: Are you optimistic about the future?

Juliette: Absolutely. I’m an optimist for sure. An impatient optimist, to quote Bill and Melinda Gates. If I think about COP26, and the fact that business was at the table — it shows they were taking responsibility and accountability. In my career up until now, we’ve moved from just being small CSR, green philanthropy departments down the hall, to a CSO really being part of the business. So that makes me an optimist. But an impatient one, because we’ve got a lot to do. The clocks are ticking. With business and society working and sharing the same platform, a whole lot more can be done by our courageous businesses. So let’s get going.

Building on that point about being optimistic, Katie, what are some things that you’ve seen change over those years? And what are some of the things that have remained the same?

Katie: One of the big things that have changed is our work has moved from being a kind of niche interest to being a part of everybody’s agenda. People are thinking and talking about it. The questions around “Why do I need to think about how to operate in a different way and how to be sustainable?” have been largely dealt with.

But the question that remains the same is “How do I change?’’ And it’s particularly true for the larger businesses who’ve got very established existing mechanisms. And so that’s the real challenge for us at B Lab to continue to help people think about the HOW. The other “how” that’s still quite tricky is how to work really well in partnerships. We all know and want to work together to find solutions. But it’s still really difficult to do. But it’s very exciting that the B Corp Movement is now well placed right in the middle of the discussions, because we can offer up a community that are living examples of how businesses can be operating for the benefit of all.

One of the things you mentioned there is the role of larger companies and how that’s changed over the years. The backbone of the B Corp movement has been smaller, purpose-driven companies — which still make up roughly 75% of our community. But an increasing number of large companies are becoming interested in and joining our community. Juliette, with your experience working with large multinationals — what do they bring to the table and how does the B Corp movement need to adapt to both retain its credibility while making space for large organizations that give the movement scale?

Juliette: It’s really, really exciting that big corporations want to come and work with the B Corp certification and B Lab — it’s important to acknowledge that. I have always worked either within a multinational or with a certification which was all about bringing (at that time) a focus to the supply chains of the large corporations. We have a tremendous opportunity to enable them and support them on this pillar of business and social purpose working together. There is a great space for large multinationals to learn from small companies and vice versa. These pioneering B Corps are accelerators — they are the ones who keep us on top of things and give us a good kick when necessary. Last but not least, it’s all about scaling. We need large multinationals as a scaling element. And as we scale, we continue to look to our standards and make sure that they stay tough and are able to move on with us.

Other sectors help bring that scale as well — like governments. Katie, throughout your time at B Lab, you’ve been very focused on advocating for policy changes. What is the role of business in shaping legislation and how have you seen that accelerate over the past 7 years at B Lab?

Katie: It’s interesting to think about “what is the role of business in shaping legislation on itself?” actually. It’s about what regulators need to do to build the framework for business to operate really freely for stakeholder governance. At the moment, they have got a little bit of a compromised situation: It is not absolutely clear in every legislation, in every jurisdiction, whether businesses are at liberty to do that, or whether actually, they are more or less implicitly obligated to put the shareholders’ interest first.

So we have to really make it clear for business that actually, they are able — and we would say they must — operate in that way. We want to go from the fact that they are being given permission to think about all these other interests to actually saying you must operate in the interest of all stakeholders.

We realize that’s a big ask for businesses. It’s a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas. You know, there’s a little bit of this that could be seen as a problem. But actually — I know this is where the analogy runs out, because there’s no benefit for the turkey — there is a benefit for a company to think about running its business in the interest of everybody, because we see all these wonderful correlations between well-run businesses, ones that are growing it sustainably, and ones that are really taking care of all the interests of those who contribute to the business.

There’s work to be done, and it’s going on globally. But the European Union seems to be particularly aggressively pushing this forward which is exciting for us.

And how has B Lab Europe been involved in advocating for policy changes across the region?

Katie: We’ve built a coalition called the Interdependence Coalition, which is about 100 organizations, some of which are B Corps, some of them aren’t, who are really interested in actually making sure that the EU is really progressive and pushes forward on the obligations of directors to think about their duties in this context of broader stakeholder governance. And we feel that there is real momentum behind it. But there are also equal and opposite forces at play that want to make sure that nothing is too restrictive for businesses. We’ve got work to do for probably the next 18 months to keep pushing on this, but it’s exciting. And we’re really learning a lot from the other global partners in the US and in Latin America, Australia, and the UK.

Juliette: This is a really interesting area for B Lab and B Corps to be in. Stakeholder governance and the real performance of a whole enterprise is something that makes B Lab very special. My background has been in product certifications, working hard on the supply chain with smallholder farmers. But this is about bringing it to the board level, having directors take notice and be part of the discussions around “What is this going to mean for me to have business and social purpose working together? Can I really embed purpose into the organization and still run this business in a profitable way?” We’re hoping to show them they can.

One of the things that really sets the B Corp movement apart is this legal requirement and the focus on transitioning towards stakeholder governance. Why have you felt that’s so fundamental to changing the economic system?

Katie: This was the genius of Bart, Jay, and Andrew back in 2006: they saw that there were two things: You needed performance requirements to compare apples with apples and assess how well a business is focused on creating meaningful positive impact. But if you don’t have a legal obligation to run the business for the interest of different stakeholders and to create more impact, it becomes optional. For the directors, if it suits them they do it. But if it doesn’t, there’s no obligation. So when the company’s ownership changes, there’s no necessary continuation.

The story of B Lab’s starting point was because Jay, Bart, and Andrew set up AND1, a very successful company that had built in all these different contingent factors around their stakeholders. And when they sold the company, within a few months, you couldn’t find any trace of these values and practices. And that’s what got them to say “We need something that lodges this in the core of the company.” So stakeholder governance is the hallmark of what actually makes the movement really sing and stand out and become a real proof of concept.

Bart, Jay and Andrew, co-founders on B Lab, at a Champions Retreat

Since we’re talking about stakeholder governance and the Interdependence Coalition — one tangent I’d like to touch on is a series called Coffee in Good Company. But Juliette, I hear you are more of a tea person. So for you, is tea your beverage of choice, or is it something more?

Juliette: Oh, it’s both! During my time working with smallholder supply chains, we were working with coffee in the Yunnan province, and all my client meetings would start with a tea ritual. And I thought, wow, you know, I had grown up on good ol’ English tea with milk. Now all of a sudden I was having these beautiful pure teas and I just fell in love with the whole ritual of having three very small cups of tea before any business was spoken about.

Then I went to a Chinese market and the story went from there and I became quite involved in getting my tea sommelier papers — still working on that! — but I did become a Chinese tea master along the way. But with that is also a piece on the product supply chain side. There are tremendous issues in the tea world as there are in coffee. But coffee has been able to promote itself throughout the last 20 years and I would love to see that happen in tea. There are severe problems around soil degradation, climate deforestation; many of the things some of our B Corps are working on. So for me, tea is definitely a daily beverage of choice, but I’m also on a mission to support the tea world and have people know the beauty of tea just like they learned the beauty of a special coffee being from Colombia.

Katie: I’m already getting fully on board with this! I’ve gone to more tea houses in the last few months than I’ve been in my life before and I’m really appreciating all the different flavors so I might just have to take one coffee out and move to tea.

Well, speaking of taking one coffee out, I mean, there’s this rumor going on that you don’t sleep much, Katie. So maybe taking a coffee out of your routine might help with that. But one thing that we might all benefit from your sleeping routines is hearing about, what podcasts or news sources or inspiration you turn to when you’re feeling restless.

Katie: Well, I think it’s something about people of my age that we don’t sleep well. Don’t you find now that there is so much choice of things to listen to? I don’t watch the news or read much news during the day — but if you just have an earpiece on you can learn a lot. I’d recommend the Rachman Review to dig into particular international current political situations. But sometimes you want some light, fun relief. And there are two ladies, Jane Garvey and Fi Glover, who have the most ridiculous conversations, you cannot help but join their humor! Michael Lewis, who’s written quite a lot of books like The Fifth Risk and The Big Short, has a podcast called Against the Rules which is again suitably anarchistic.

Juliette: I am a bit more on the news side. I’m definitely a Christiane Amanpour fan. She does a good overview of things and the news, and there’s Fareed Zakaria who I like very much. I also do a lot of reading books to let the brain go, usually some kind of historical fiction based in time.

Thank you — I’m sure everyone will appreciate your recommendations! Juliette, like the B Corp movement, you have American roots but have expanded globally with triple citizenship including the UK and the Netherlands. How has the diversity in your upbringing and work experience shaped how you approach being a part of a global community?

Juliette: I was brought up with a very global mindset, coming from a family that had different cultures, and we lived in a lot of different places, going to school in different places. It became a very normal thing at home to discuss different cultures and politics and news. So I went out into the world wanting to surround myself with that, and if you come into contact with people who are different and you realize that there are differences — I won’t even say you need to accept them, you just do. I’ve always had roles that have been global, working with teams who have been global and I’m fascinated by the differences that we need to understand to be able to work together. If we also look at our world now, which is remote and interdependent, it’s so important to be able to think outside the box and take in these local cultures and understand them.

Katie: I might maybe just ask you a little bit about the team because the team has been the core of everything about the B Lab movement. It’s the thing I love more than anything about being in the movement — being with amazing, talented people. I think there were four of us when I moved over from B Lab UK to Europe, and now the team is approaching 20. So I’d be interested to hear from you what you think are the key ingredients for fostering a happy team?

Juliette: Well, I think it’s always about really being visible and approachable and really being there. I pride myself on having a bit more of a coaching style. Especially at organizations like B Lab, which reminds me a bit of some of the other work I’ve done in the public sector, where we started with a very small team and it grew to the hundreds. What you really need is that trust in the team. And I think what B Lab has is an excellent team of experts, a lot of young people who really want to grow. So focus on the results, not necessarily the activities, but where they’re going. Empower them, enable them to take those next steps. So I like to say the key ingredients are: lead the people, manage the tasks and facilitate the decisions.

Katie: I wish I had such a rational approach!

Katie, you were talking about the growth in the team. But there’s also the incredible growth of the movement, which has grown to over 5,000 B Corps across 83 countries — including 25 in Europe. What are some of the biggest opportunities you’ve seen emerging with this movement?

Katie: For B Corps, there’s so much more with every new company that joins, there’s another whole mass of new potential connections. Iit really is like a multiplier effect.

For B Lab, one of our challenges — and also the fun things — is how you keep up with and build a supportive system around that, moving at the pace that we’re needing to move at, but also really anchored in the core systemic change we’re trying to create. And sometimes those things pull a bit in a different direction: you’re trying to manage the wonderful growth and energy and inspiration and ‘fly the kite’ globally, and yet also wanting to make sure that we don’t lose our way as a movement and what we stand for. I think that tension is part of what keeps us sharp and on our toes, and is probably one of the key ingredients that make it so enjoyable.

There’s a lot of depth and detail to the movement but then there’s also this big picture, and everybody at B Lab and at B Corps is working on many, many levels to hold all these pieces of the puzzle together, which is lovely.

As the baton is passed, I know you two have had a crazy month of onboarding and I think your days have been pretty atypical. You’re now sitting together in London after spending some time both in Amsterdam and in Rome, digging into the complexities of this organization and the movement. But Juliette, if possible, how would you describe a typical daily routine for you?

Juliette: So I’m not sure I’ve had a typical day, have I, Katie? But you know, like everybody, I try to mix some good personal time with work. I like to walk in the park, I’m quite keen on yoga, so I definitely try to keep that up. I think in general, let’s say it within a typical week, I might be working with the global team on some global leadership topics, then our B Lab local country partners across the region, and at our pan-European office leading a team of experts. You could sort of see B Lab Europe as the very, very important sticky jam in the middle of the sandwich. We have a big movement globally. and we have a growing movement here across our European network, and we’re making sure that we’re really nice sticky jam holding it all together.

I love that analogy. As we wrap up our conversation, Katie, what is one lesson from B lab and the B Corp movement that you hope to take with you in your next endeavors?

Katie: Actually, I’m probably going to work that out in July! I definitely feel I’ve changed as a person, even at this late stage in life. Sometimes you don’t realize you have actually gone through a rather invisible metamorphosis. But if I think of how I now see things, perhaps it’s a bit more about trusting intuition but also just realizing just what is possible to do with the right people who are surrounding you and feeding each other. I think that’s the thing I’m going to take away most: the art of the possible in the best of company.

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A warm welcome to the team, Juliette, and thank you for everything, Katie!

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