Designing the life they want while redefining business success to include profit, people and planet
Before co-founding Conscious Company magazine – the first print and digital, nationally distributed publication in the US to focus solely on sustainable business – Meghan French Dunbar and Maren Keeley crossed paths when both were working at a food-related not-for-profit in Boulder, Colorado. They shared a desire to drive positive change in the world, and both had MBAs in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School.
The idea for a magazine came to them one night while eating dinner after work. Curious if there was a magazine that showcased business as a force for good, they stayed up late that night researching and realized none existed. Neither could shake the idea, asking themselves, “If not us, then who?” They incorporated in 2014, and launched their first issue in January 2015.
Conscious Company now has seven employees in San Francisco, Colorado, Chicago and Seattle. Below are excerpts from Maren and Meghan’s recent interview with Forté.
We need to redefine the idea of success in business to include the triple bottom line: profit, people and planet.
How is Conscious Company different from other publications with socially conscious bents?
Meghan: Conscious Company is a true business magazine, first and foremost. Other magazines only use one metric for success – financial profitability. We wanted to be the first magazine that looked at success more broadly – including making a positive impact on the environment and society.
How do you divide responsibilities at the magazine?
Meghan: We overlap in terms of executive decision-making. Maren is in charge of operations, finance and back-end responsibilities.
Maren: Meghan started off as editor-in-chief and now is looking to broaden our content and develop partnerships to ensure financial stability.
Some women perceive business as not being for “the greater good.” Others may view social enterprises as not as focused on “the bottom line” as businesses whose primary purpose is to make money. How do you respond to this kind of thinking?
Meghan: Not-for-profits create necessary change in the world, but I believe an earned revenue or for-profit model is mission critical in order to have a sustainable enterprise. We need to redefine the idea of success in business to include the triple bottom line: profit, people and planet.
To the second part of the question about social enterprises, you have to be financially sustainable. We’d love to see more focus on that – people have amazing ideas and forget about the business side of things.
Maren: Businesses can be wealth-generating, and wealth disparity is an issue that desperately needs attention. Social businesses should not sacrifice business acumen. At the core of every social enterprise should be a strong business model.
“Without an MBA, I would not have been mentally prepared to launch a business because I would not have understood what it means to be a leader.”
How have your MBAs helped you in launching the magazine?
Maren: I’m not sure we could or would have launched the magazine without MBAs. We both specifically chose non-traditional MBA programs because we wanted to focus on sustainable business. We got the traditional business education, but we learned through the lens of the social enterprise movement.
Meghan: The biggest value – other than understanding the basics of business – of my MBA program was the leadership track. Every semester focused on leadership, building teams and collaborating, communicating and listening. Without an MBA, I would not have been mentally prepared to launch a business because I would not have understood what it means to be a leader.
Everything at the beginning of launch is a puzzle without a solution. You have to be willing to invest in that kind of challenge.
What have been the biggest challenges of the business?
Meghan: Publishing is a difficult business model. We have two customers wanting different things – readers and advertisers – and we have to weigh both perspectives. We also must broaden from just a magazine to a media company with events, research, education, etc. We are in transition now – going from having one product to multiple products that need equal attention.
Maren: Raising capital always takes longer than expected. It’s a huge hurdle, but our first round of funding is coming to a close. Everything at the beginning of launch is a puzzle without a solution. You have to be willing to invest in that kind of challenge.
What have been the biggest rewards so far?
Meghan: The biggest reward is the ability to curate my own future. I have a vision of building a business that allows me to be my own boss and have flexibility. Being part of the conversation with people who are doing amazing things in the world and thinking about the future – and the impact we could have – is exciting.
Don’t be afraid to design the life you want to live.
Do you have any advice for other women looking to launch a business?
Meghan: Be really flexible and open. Have a vision for the impact you want to have and ask yourself what you are passionate about. Say yes to opportunities when they come and take the fear out of it. Don’t ask “What happens if I fail?” Ask “What happens if I succeed?”
Maren: My dad used to encourage me to explore by saying, “Don’t be afraid to design the life you want to live.” This should be true in every area of our lives. Time is our most precious, non-renewable resource and we should do something we care about, are proud of and that feeds our souls.