SHIFT TALKS: Interview with Jeff Cherry, Executive Director of Conscious Venture Lab and CEO of SHIFT Ventures

7/21/17

Jeff Cherry

SHIFT Baltimore is the world's only mission-driven, localized, invite-only entrepreneurial membership community. Our mission is to create a new standard for business, one where money and mission are not mutually exclusive. We use the most rigorous, holistic approach to personal and professional performance: honoring the whole-self of business, body, balance, and being. We are creating meaningful, sustainable change aligned with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Our members are relentlessly committed to inspiring, influencing, innovating, and impacting Baltimore. And we're spreading across the word!

We are thrilled to introduce SHIFT Talks: a series of unique stories from local entrepreneurs, each detailing how they've experienced shifts within their personal life, their company’s journey, their industry, and most importantly, our city. Their stories. Their SHIFT Talks.

Jeff Cherry is the Founder and Executive Director of Conscious Venture Lab, Managing Partner of the Conscious Venture Fund, and CEO of SHIFT Ventures. Jeff’s mission is to help companies develop more conscious, purpose-driven business models, and to help investors build societal and financial value.

Jeff is an expert in the emerging field of Conscious Capitalism and an evangelist for the transformation of capitalism. He works with private investors and early-stage businesses with a goal of formulating businesses that operate at the intersection of profit and purpose.


Q. You are involved in several businesses at the moment. Overall, what is it that you do?

A. I like to answer that question by first explaining why I do what I do: I feel it is my purpose in life to plant seeds of prosperity in places where they have not been planted before.

I engage with early stage companies, training them to operate from a mindset we call Conscious Capitalism©. The foundational premise is the winning companies of the future will not be myopically focused on money. The winners will be companies built with a focus on societal purpose. The accelerator I operate, Conscious Venture Lab, is raising a venture capital fund to invest in those types of business. We invest in and train early-stage entrepreneurs to build Conscious Capitalism into their organizational DNA.

Q. What are some of the significant moments in your life that led you down your current path?

A. I think there were a few personal moments that impacted my trajectory in business. Two real personal and significant moments for me was when my grandparents passed away. Both of our companies, the Porter Group and the investment management fund, are named after my maternal grandparents. Our family lived with them for a long time, and they had a tremendous impression on my life. They grew up in a time where it was really difficult to be an African-American in this country. The way they were able to navigate that tumultuous period of history had a profound impact on me growing up.

From a business standpoint, meeting Raj Sisodia, the author of the book “Conscious Capitalism,” changed the way I started to think about the world. I am an architect by training, and started an architectural firm in 1986 that I ran for 20 years. During that time, my partners and I migrated the business from a traditional architectural practice into a broader based management consulting company. The company evolved after all of the changes we witnessed in the technology space.

Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” He was talking about the destruction of the House of Commons after the Battle of Britain, but my partners and I used his words to think about how we were practicing architecture early on. We could use the physical environment to help inspire and enable behavior for our corporate clients. Eventually, we understood it was not only the physical environment that “shaped” our behaviors, but the technological and cultural environment played a part too. We took those three characteristics and redefined our definition of the “environment.” We were attempting to work with corporate clients to integrate the physical, the technological, and the cultural elements to help them inspire behavior in their organization.

Our new approach got us thinking more about strategy, and we saw patterns begin to emerge. We didn’t know what to call it then, but there were companies asking a different series of questions in terms of performance. Instead of the normal expectation of raising revenue and lowering costs, companies were asking questions about relationships: like, how do we get our employees to really give a damn about this place? How do we get suppliers to feel like partners and not like servants? How do we get our customers to understand we are in a relationship and not just a transaction? And, how do we get communities to welcome us and not put up barriers to entry?

The companies asking these types of questions were generally more successful than the companies that were myopically focused on shareholders. It was this arc of events that led me down the path to Conscious Capitalism.

When I met Raj Sisodia he was doing some work with my partner, Rick Frazier, and we became good friends. Based on their work together, Rick and I ended up doing some minor consulting with Raj on a book he wrote prior to “Conscious Capitalism,” “Firms of Endearment.” Raj and his co-author, David Wolfe, showed me a new narrative starting to evolve around the way business ought to be practiced and how business could be a force for good in society.

Q. You’ve had a myriad of interesting and diverse experiences throughout your career. What tops the list as one of the most exciting things you’ve done thus far?

A. In 2006, we sold the consulting company and started a hedge fund. It was really exciting because I didn’t know anything about the business. We took about two years to learn all we could and build a research process. But by far, the most exciting thing I’ve done was to start the Conscious Venture Lab.

Thinking about this whole idea: the narrative of business and how we could turn business into a force for good in society. The hedge fund was one of the ways we thought about doing that, but once I decided this transformation of capitalism was going to be my purpose in life, to change the way we think about capitalism, it all changed. When you figure out how to implement Conscious Capitalism in a grassroots way, with businesses in the earliest stages and helping them grow in that way, it has been by far one of the most exciting things I have ever done.

Q. Your mission-driven work has undoubtedly made a lot of positive impact. How do you foresee yourself continuing to shift the purpose of business today and in the future?

A. That is the reason for our business’ existence: to try and shift the purpose of business. We create shifts by identifying early stage companies and helping them understand how to operate with this approach on a day-to-day basis.

What we find, particularly among millennials, is they get the purpose of business thing. I speak at business schools all the time and always ask, “What is the purpose of business?” Someone will raise their hand and say, “To make money, right?” and we say, “Well, that’s actually not right-- that is an outcome. The purpose of business is to create value for society.” Lots of millennials get that, and they want to work with companies moving the narrative forward, they want to buy from companies that are moving forward, and they want to live in communities where people think that way.

However, if you’re building a business, even if you already agree with this narrative, traditionally you aren’t trained on what it means on a day-to-day basis to operate that way. No matter what industry you’re in, if you’re building a business, there are still some things every business must do: you’ve got to hire people, you’ve got to fire people, you’ve got to figure out how to pay them, you’ve got to set up all these processes to run a business, etc. I think what we’re really good at is showing entrepreneurs how to set those processes up, so they align with this notion of change and shifting the purpose of business.

It’s not just “business as usual,” or the old command-and-control structure that will allow you to do that. There are real, hardcore-business operations and day-to-day aspect you have to be really good at if you want to make the business sing. For instance, when we tell the story of when you take really good care of your employees, your customers, your suppliers, and your communities, you do not have to worry about making money. We hear people say all the time, “Oh yeah, I operate my business that way already.” We say, “Great. Show me all your stakeholder listening systems. How do you get feedback from employees, suppliers, customers, and your community? What are the tools you use to do that?” We typically get a few blank stares. You may intend to do that, but if you are not actually listening to stakeholders, you’re not running a stakeholder focused business. And this is just ONE example of the myriad of skills and processes you need to be great at if you want to operate from this perspective. If you do not have a well-tuned stakeholder listening systems and the ways to understand what is going on in your stakeholder map, you’re probably not operating from a stakeholder mindset.

There is a new class of company beginning to self identify as impact driven businesses. Not only what they do, but how they do it. We are really good at communicating the thesis and the theory of this, of building business as a force for good in society. We are also really good at the day-to-day and showing companies how to make it a reality.

Q: Taking into consideration much of your work is rooted into positively impacting others, what is your greatest hope for the world, Baltimore, and African-American entrepreneurs?

A: I think my greatest hope for the world is we get Conscious Capitalism right; that we collectively come to understand the purpose of business is really to serve society. Gallup has been doing a poll for 20 some years where they look at levels of employee engagement around the world, and consistently they report 70% of employees are either disengaged or actively disengaged. Disengaged means they just don’t care, actively disengaged means they are [subconsciously or consciously] trying to sabotage the company.

Part of what Joe and SHIFT is aiming for – and it is part of what we’re aiming for, too – is to imagine the type of society we can live in if we could flip those numbers. If only 30% of people were disengaged or actively disengaged. Or, if 70% of us really got up in the morning, excited about going to work and were passionate about the things we’re doing for each other and for society. People shouldn’t have to wait for the weekend to do philanthropy or our give-back, but we should actually feel our day-to-day job really mattered, and was impacting society. That is my hope for the world, to make that happen.

I think if we’re able to achieve this in places like Baltimore, it is going to have a profound impact on our communities. Imagine what types of schools we could create, what types of communities we could live in, what types of parks we could have, and what type of engagement we could have with each other, if we were building businesses aimed at generating community all over Baltimore.

I think for cities like Baltimore it is imperative. I give a speech called, “How Conscious Capitalism Can Save Our Cities,” where I discuss what would happen if we could get away from the debate about minimum wage, the debate around health care costs, and all the other issues, if we could create more businesses that think like this.

It is profoundly important for cities like Baltimore and for African-American entrepreneurs. It’s a tough world out there, it’s hard to raise money, and we’re always talking about pattern recognition. The guys at Y Combinator say they get fooled everyday by someone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg. I think what we are trying to do is plant the seeds of prosperity in places where they have not been planted before. That speaks directly to the way we think and the hope we can bring to African-American and minority entrepreneurs.

Steve Case has a program called “Rise of the Rest,” where he travels to places not traditionally known as hotbeds of innovation and seeks out people working in the innovative ecosystem there to hold them up and support the. For me, foundational to the notion of the “Rise of the Rest” is the idea talent, intelligence, and the ability to innovate is equally distributed across our society. Opportunity, on the other hand, is not. What we are looking to do for Baltimore and minority entrepreneurs is to bring together capital, mentors, and corporate partners already doing great work and spread opportunity to places like West Baltimore, and others, where it is so desperately needed. 

Connect with Jeff on LinkedIn

Sponsored by:

SHIFT is the only business collective brave and bold enough to shift the work world to transform the real world. We help you solve your organization's most pressing issues, achieve your ambitious goals, and capitalize on your greatest opportunities, to grow regardless.

Edwin Warfield, CEO of citybizlist, conducts the CEO Interviews.

If you're interested in reaching CEOs, please contact edwin.warfield@citybizlist.com

Connect on LinkedIn

It's on us. Share your news here.

Submit your stories and articles to citybizlist today.