Ellonda Williams On Business As A Force For Good
By Julie A. Palm
Dr. Ellonda L. Williams is a JEDI master.
As director of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion for Philadelphia-based B Lab, she works to create a healthy, inclusive and anti-racist culture for the organization’s employees and oversees B Lab’s strategies to embed those principles into its own business practices.
You may not have heard of B Lab, but you might be familiar with B Corps — companies that “balance purpose with profit” and that “are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment.” That language comes from B Lab’s website — it’s the organization that certifies B Corps. Certification means companies are beholden not just to shareholders but to stakeholders — and the communities they touch.
There are more than 4,000 Certified B Corps in 153 industries across 77 countries. B Lab notes that it is seeing “overwhelming interest” in certification. Submissions of B Impact Assessments, an early step in the certification process, were up 30% in 2020 and 36% for 2021 at the end of the third quarter. Some of that growth is coming as part of a global movement, with more companies, especially in Europe, seeking certification, Williams says. B Lab also is certifying more multinational corporations after implementing a new standard for them in 2019.
“I believe that the current civil and social events going on globally, coupled with more consumers and employees demanding businesses do more than make a profit, have driven growth and interest,” Williams says.
Williams, who has been with B Lab since 2019, is the organization’s inaugural JEDI director, a job she says is a “great fit.” “I know for a fact that the decisions that I make every day have a direct correlation to the improved lives of thousands of people around the globe. People who I will never meet — who don’t even know who I am — might experience a moment of affirmation or safety. That makes it worth it. How could it not be?”
Williams experienced microaggressions and systemic oppression during her previous roles in academia. So, she appreciates that at B Lab she helps to address JEDI issues on a societal scale by addressing them on the smaller scale of individual corporations.
“I am a queer, Black woman in my thirties. I’ve been obese, experiencing discrimination. I’ve been diagnosed with disability. I am often the ‘only’ in a space. Being the youngest in a room or the only woman or the only Black woman comes with a set of challenges. The intersections of my identities are not hidden,” she says. Years of verbal abuse, undermining and other transgressions took a toll on her mental and physical health. When she learned that “B Corps strive to put people first … that we all deserve a fighting chance and that capitalism is a lever we can pull to create that change,” she was eager to work for B Lab.
B Corp certification isn’t a one-and-done process. As Williams says, companies must meet a set of requirements that “are complex and difficult and require real action by the company.” B Lab recertifies companies every three years, and there are mechanisms for complaints to “ensure that companies remain responsive to the standards and their stakeholders,” she says.
Williams acknowledges that B Corp certification is inaccessible for some companies — the lengthy, detailed process means organizations must have the staff, time and financial resources to pursue it. “I think most systems are inherently inequitable unless they are actively built to be equitable and continuously changed to ensure equity,” she says. “So, we have to recognize that the B Corp system is not accessible to everyone — it’s missing some people. And we are working on those things, bringing in more equity pricing, and mentor programs and other access points.”
She would like to see more minority- and LGBTQ-owned companies earn certification. “More of us!” she says. “We recognize that this movement tends to lean toward homogeneity. We recognize that, and we are doing something about it. We are re-centering our conversations to start with justice as the first building block — to ask the question, ‘Why?’ and be willing to listen. Believe victims. Believe women. Believe trans history. Believe people of color. We are making systemic changes to our standards and our governance that we believe will continue to drive equity from within.”
Here’s an example: In 2020 in a statement authored by Williams with support from her team, B Lab called on business leaders to commit to anti-racism, and committed itself to justice and anti-racism. In July 2021, B Lab updated its stakeholders on the organization’s own progress.
“The world and the B Corp movement are now in a very different place than when the initial requirements for the certification were developed approximately 14 years ago,” Williams says. “There is growing consensus and urgency to take action on the climate emergency. There is a global health pandemic threatening our own and our loved ones’ health and well-being, and a consequential economic crisis. People are taking to the streets all over the world to demand racial justice and meaningful action to dismantle white supremacy. There has been no greater moment of awareness and recognition of the need to reset our economic system to be more inclusive, equitable and regenerative, and no greater expectation for businesses to play a positive role in these changes.”
Certfied B Corporations to watch
Julie A. Palm (she/her) is chief wordsmith at Palm Ink LLC in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She specializes in writing, editing, publications management and communications consulting for a variety of clients, including trade magazines, business journals, colleges and universities, ad agencies and small businesses. Follow her on Twitter @julieapalm.