Pamela Wilhelms, an environmental engineer and business consultant, was rounding the corner on the 44th floor of a skyscraper along the San Francisco Bay, when she stopped dead in her tracks.
"I turn to the left and see pictures of the company's landholdings and factories—in the same Central American country I'd seen the night before," says the San Diego native and Denver Seminary graduate. The previous night, she had attended a fundraiser for a nonprofit that digs wells in Central America. There she learned about a village whose water source had been destroyed by an American company upstream—one that looked awfully familiar.
"I didn't realize how complicit I was. By day I was helping leaders and executives go after their economic bottom line, and by night I was on the board of not-for-profits trying to clean up the mess," says Wilhelms.
"We're never going to create a sustainable planet as long as we have a false dichotomy that says nonprofits do good and for-profits make money."
Eight years later, the dichotomy is fading for Wilhelms and others who believe business can make more than profit. Call it the "for-benefit company," a niche but growing field where Wilhelms is applying her organizational consulting experience, service in the White House, and seminary training to get companies pursuing more than the traditional financial bottom line.
The companies that Wilhelms has worked with—including Nike, Unilever, and Seventh Generation—seek a triple bottom line: economic, social, and environmental, so that their products benefit all three cultural arenas.
At first, she says, "People would just laugh at me and say, 'Nobody's ever going to measure a triple bottom line.'" But the laughter is fading, as some states are beginning to recognize the for-benefit company (or "B Corp") as a distinct business classification with legal protection to make long-term investments for a variety of stakeholders.
For Wilhelms, pursuing a triple bottom line is rooted in faith. "There is a deep theology to a lot of this thinking," she says. But she notes that sustainability is a common-good goal shared by people of many faiths, and no faith at all. "We have to look systemically, and we have to bring together economists and ecologists and corporate leaders and government leaders and artists and everybody from the whole system," she says.
Convening is one of Wilhelms's gifts and is the foundation of her new initiative, the Soul of the Next Economy. And Silicon Valley is the best base from which to do it.
"Silicon Valley is a place of amazing innovation and creativity," Wilhelms says. "It's also become the venture capital of the world." When choosing where to live in 2005 (between Washington, D.C., New England, and Silicon Valley), she learned that of the top 100 economic entities in the world (including governments), for the first time more than half were corporations. (Since then, that number has only grown—in 2011, 63.4 percent of the top 175 were corporations). And a growing number of those are based in the Bay Area. "I felt like my call was to be here in Silicon Valley," Wilhelms says. "It's such an important place because it leads [and influences] so much."
In other words, if not Silicon Valley, then where? Chances are you have a smartphone lying within a few feet of you right now. Was the coltan for that smartphone mined from a conflict area in the Congo? Were the workers who put it together among those who threatened mass suicide in the Chinese Foxconn factory last year? Many of these questions are answered in Silicon Valley, and they touch all of us—from the upstream of society all the way down to its most vulnerable members.