by The Contemporary
SAN ANTONIO, TX—Social entrepreneur Daniel Lubetzky has dedicated his ventures to both mitigating social challenges and capitalizing on commercial opportunities. Lubetzky describes KIND, the healthy snack company that he founded, as a “not-only-for-profit” company, because it seeks to remedy health problems while investing in peace through economic ties.
Lubetzky began his entrepreneurial journey by observing his father, a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Mexico. New opportunities and anti-Semitism caused the family and its jewelry business to move to San Antonio when he was a teenager. Lubetzky later attended Trinity University and Stanford Law School.
After deciding against a career in consulting, he founded food and fashion ventures designed to build economic cooperation between diverse communities in the Middle East. Lubetzky also started a non-profit to support moderate Israelis and Palestinians seeking to end the conflict. He says that each of his first ventures contributed to the success of KIND, a company well-placed to take advantage of the growing $5 billion market for snack bars and related products.
The Contemporary’s Editor-in-Chief, Benjamin Collinger, spoke with Mr. Lubetzky about incentivizing social entrepreneurship, how to maintain a company culture that constantly challenges assumptions, and a variety of other topics.
This morning you spoke very movingly about your father, a Jew who survived the Holocaust and emigrated to Mexico, which is where you were raised. I also come from a Jewish family and recognize how the Jewish faith, culture, and texts shape the way I view the world. Beyond the ethic of kindness that your mother and father instilled in you, how does Judaism impact your life and the way you do business?
For me, Judaism was about the golden rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. Tikkun Olam, which is to heal the world, is a very important precept. Tzedakah, which is more than just charity, is connected with wisdom. It is the act of helping others. Modesty and introspection are also critical, which are about self-questioning and critical thinking. These are important precepts of traditional Judaism, and sometimes they are lost when people think that they have all the answers.
The story I remember to this day is about a Rabbi whose congregation became very skeptical because on Saturdays, which is supposed to be the day of rest, the Rabbi would just disappear, and they wondered if he was not observing Shabbat. So there were some spies that followed him and they noticed that he was walking away from the town. And they said, ‘Yes, we knew it. He’s actually violating Shabbat.’ But when they found him, he was helping the poor and cutting wood for an old lady, and just doing good deeds. It was a story of what is truly pious, which is helping others.
Tikkun Olam has been a very important tradition in my synagogue, and is in many ways related to social enterprise. In your 2015 book, Do the KIND Thing, you describe the responsibility that many corporations have to improve society. What does the business community get wrong about their role in philanthropy?
I think what we, as society, get wrong is the assumption that big companies are inherently bad and small companies are inherently good. I think it’s much more complicated. There are very worthwhile role models that are big companies, and there are some small ones that are not so full of integrity, and vice versa. There’s great and bad examples everywhere.
In terms of when big business gets it wrong, it is when they try to be something that they’re not. ‘Oh, we’re facing pressure to be socially responsible, so let’s put a sticker on this and try to make it look like we’re more progressive than we are.’
It doesn’t resonate because it’s not authentic or real, and people can sniff that out. You just need to really think about what your mission is, and how you tie social impact work to what you truly care about. Where does the business come from, and what do the leaders really want to do with market forces to improve the world? Sometimes humility actually works better than trying to overstate your case.
How can the United States do a better job of incentivizing social entrepreneurs?
I think this is best left to the marketplace. Education and teaching values to everyone is very important. The only problem is that you need to prevent the abuse of people who claim to be doing it when they are not.
For sure, you can think about tax incentives. But the problem with tax incentives is that they get misused and manipulated. I think in this case, the market will take care of it. As people learn that authentic acts of kindness and thinking more broadly about your stakeholders are a strong business strategy, they will be rewarded.
You stress the importance of thinking with “And”: shattering the false dichotomy of profit or social good. Given that company cultures often become less dynamic as they grow, how has KIND maintained thinking with “And” while continuing to question its assumptions?
It’s a great question. First, my personality is to always be the devil’s advocate. I drive some of my team members nuts because I’m taking positions that no one else is taking. I challenge very frequently, and that’s just my personality. I don’t think I will lose that, but at our company, there is a danger that as we grow, we lose some of that.
When we bring in new team members, I always meet the new cohorts and really encourage them to think with a fresh perspective; if they notice anything not working, they should feel ownership to help fix it. Everyone at KIND is a stockholder, and I encourage them to exercise that sense of ownership from day one.
Our culture often considers achieving financial success and working toward social goals as mutually exclusive propositions. How would you encourage businesses and young social entrepreneurs to think about creating ventures that are both financially sustainable and socially valuable?
When people’s time references are short, they start thinking about the short term. The way our country works, a lot of companies are just thinking quarter to quarter. And then you’re not able to think strategically for the long term, which is where you might find ways to think with “And.” Oftentimes, the things that are more efficient in the short term may not be the best in the long term.
If you’re trying to improve performance in a company, the easiest way to do it is to just cut costs. But at some point everything you’re doing each quarter is just cutting costs and if you don’t invest in R&D, you don’t invest in innovation, you don’t invest in your brand, eventually you implode. It’s like what happened to Kraft Heinz. Cutting costs is important, but you need to balance it with a long term investment in your brand and products.
This morning, you described the plans KIND has to invest in the mediterranean to continue building economic ties between Israelis and Palestinians. How do you evaluate the way we talk about the conflict from a political and business perspective, and what should we be doing to kindly understand each side?
I started at a time when people thought things couldn’t get worse. Things started getting really exciting and promising in 1993 with the Oslo accords, and then there were steps back and forward. The last 10 years has been a continuous two steps back movement. It is very sobering and concerning.
The same theories I have about empowering moderate voices and strengthening leaders who are going to think about the holistic future of their people, about ensuring security and peace in a very sustainable way, about economic development, I still hold today. But it is much harder to implement them in an environment where many political leaders have poisoned the well beyond anything I have seen. It is very hard to build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis.
There is a good opportunity to do so in the broader world because a lot of Arab states see Iran as their greatest threat, so they could create deep alliances with Israel, but I don’t think that’s going to come unless we find a way to truly advance the inner process between Israelis and Palestinians. To achieve true alliances between Israel and Arab nations, you need to also find a way to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s kind of naive to think that you can do it without that.
I’ll close with one final question. Are there any thinkers, authors, books, or people that you go to for guidance about these issues and problems that arise in your business? Where do you go to catalyze your thinking in a different direction, or for inspiration when you’re looking for a new idea or for motivation to continue?
I have a ton of mentors and love surrounding myself with people who are smarter than me. I tend to have a lot of friends who are much older than me, and many have had experience in the philanthropic and business world. I read a lot and take showers and try to think very creatively. I’m always talking to myself and thinking about these issues as well as having rich conversations with people I consider smarter than me.
Benjamin Collinger is a senior from Trinity University studying history and international affairs. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Contemporary.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee or interviewer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.