Business on purpose: An interview with JoAnn Flett
IN AUGUST 2021, JOANN FLETT became the executive director of SPU’s Center for Faithful Business, a leading think tank that calls business leaders to integrate their faith with their work.
Flett is an organizational consultant and adviser who has served on the boards of numerous nonprofit organizations. She was a 2019-20 Fulbright teaching scholar in Trinidad and Tobago.
Q. What brought you to this career at the intersection of faith and business?
A. I have long been interested in the idea that business has a lot of power and influence in the world. I initially left Trinidad and Tobago to study at a Bible college because I wanted to be a missionary, but I also did not want to be a supported missionary — not that there’s anything wrong with being a supported missionary.
I just felt I would have a better means of communicating the Gospel if I could go to a country and live and work alongside folks who could get to know me and build relationships with me. When we go to work, we develop friendships with co-workers and with so many people we encounter through the medium of business. We can care for them, walk alongside them, get to know them as they’re getting to know us and our Christian identity. That’s always been appealing … looking at business as an opportunity to get to know people and love them into the kingdom.
“So many people see business as the problem. This is an invitation for businesses to be part of the solution in how they innovate; how they care for customers; how they care for employees; and how they care for their communities.” —JoAnn Flett
I worked in an office here in the Pacific Northwest while I was going to seminary. People would stop by my desk to talk about everything from a car accident to a marriage going wrong. I was their safe place, and I would think of that song called You’re the Only Jesus, with the lyrics: “You’re the only Jesus some will ever see … / You’re the only words of life some will ever read, / So let them see in you the One in whom is all they’ll ever need …”
Q. Tell us about your Fulbright appointment. What does a Fulbright teaching scholar do?
A. The Fulbright Program frequently gives awards to faculty to go overseas and do research. There are also a few awards for you to teach, so you’re introducing new courses into a curriculum and working directly with students.
I had been teaching social entrepreneurship for about eight to 10 years and discovered they hadn’t introduced an upper-division social entrepreneurship course at the University of the West Indies. I thought it would be great if I could help structure that curriculum offering, so I wrote a Fulbright application and was fortunate to be granted a one-term Fulbright to work at the graduate school there — the Arthur Lok Jack Global School of Business.
Q. Describe what social entrepreneurship is.
A. Social entrepreneurship sits along a spectrum of everything from nonprofits to for-profits, but the basic element is that these businesses create value for society. They use entrepreneurship and innovation, not just for profitability, but to serve people and the planet as well.
The father of social entrepreneurship on the academic side is Gregory Dees. He was at Duke University and located social entrepreneurship within the nonprofit sector.
Q. Why do businesses that do good have to be nonprofits? Why can’t you make a good living and do good with your work?
A. This is what the whole B-Corp movement* is doing, right? Using business as a force for good. You needn’t look at it as a trade-off where you’re going to create as much money as you can here, and then you’re going to create the nonprofit that gives away money.
Michael Porter, a Harvard strategist, had this beautiful graphic that showed three sectors producing revenue: the nonprofit sector, the government sector, and the corporate sector.
On the graph, it shows the nonprofit sector is producing roughly $2.1 trillion. The government sector is about $3.1 trillion; and corporations are $20.1 trillion. (These were 2013 figures.)
The takeaway is that the biggest revenue-generating engine in the world — and the only wealth-producing engine in the world — is business. For-profit businesses.
So many people see business as the problem. This is an invitation for businesses to be part of the solution in how they innovate; how they care for customers; how they care for employees; and how they care for their communities.
Q. How does this align with the goals of the Center for Faithful Business? What are you doing to help make that more of a reality?
A. I’m delighted to be at SPU to lead the Center. This work has been going since the early 2000s through many directors who have come before me, and it is my work to continue to steward the excellent resources that have been created in the past decade or so.
We have resources around the Faith & Co. film series that churches can use to drive conversation around business and society. The Center is also creating products for students to think about who they can be in the world of business. We are inviting students into another way of doing business.
We have the Pollard Scholars Fellowship where we bring academics from other institutions to SPU for two weeks, and we help equip these leaders to serve society and nurture human flourishing.
We are listening. We are convening. And we are collaborating with a number of different organizations and institutions to awaken businesses to a prophetic imagination and to increase moral courage. That’s the current work and mandate of the Center.
Q. Tell us about the Faith & Co. film series.
A. We have four seasons of these freely available films: Business on Purpose; Business Serving Employees; Business Serving Customers; and Business Serving the World. Some have said it’s like a 10-minute visual devotional. And the films have been conversation starters in faith communities and in classrooms.
There are so many folks in business who attend churches, and they need to know the work they are doing — the 40 hours or the 50 hours a week — significantly contributes to building the kingdom. At the Center for Faithful Business, we have created conversation tools to help that conversation between a pastor and the congregant who’s working to figure out what it means to show up at work and bring your faith and bring your whole self and do so in a way that’s contributing to building relationships with your co-workers, your employees, your suppliers, and your community.
Young people want purpose in work. They want meaningful work, and they want purposeful work. They also want organizations that are aligned with those two elements. Think how amazing it would be if organizations were looking out for and attracting young people who would bring their full selves to work, with all their creativity, in every field in which they entered.
*Certified B Corporations demonstrate that a business is transparent about its operations, its environmental and social impact, and meets a high standard of verified accountability and performance.
JoAnn Flett has worked with numerous institutions and nonprofits including Oxford University’s Values-Based Leadership for International Development, The Accord Network, the Ormond Center at Duke University, and the Coalition for Christian Social Innovation. She served as board chair of Capital for Good – Geneva Global, and Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia. Flett earned a bachelor’s degree from Prairie College, and an MBA and PhD from Eastern University.
Illustration by Scott Anderson