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A Quaker perspective on conscious business

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People in churches, universities, government, and social agencies do not love business institutions. Businesses must be loved if they are to serve us better.
—Robert K. Greanleaf, Servant Leadership

Dear Friends Everywhere,

Quaker enterprise, conscious innovation, and civil initiative are the focus of this blog. I want to consider a Quaker perspective on conscious business, and develop a Quaker business ethic for entrepreneurship and social change.

It’s no secret that I’m a Quaker. I discovered the Society of Friends in high school through a Quaker teacher, and I was fascinated by the experimental focus of Quaker faith and practice, guided by what Friends call the Inward Light.

I cautiously began attending a Friends Meeting in San Francisco around 1999. My interest in conscious business began around the same time, sparked by working for Ben & Jerry’s. It was a lot of fun, and in my short time there I went from scooper, to supervisor, to managing my own shop.

Before that, I had a fairly negative view of business, but at Ben & Jerry’s I began to appreciate how business can serve society by making life more abundant, through rich relationships and opportunities for creative interchange. The scoop shops where I worked were subject to all the same struggles and pressures that face any business, and much of our day-to-day activity was menial. But the company’s social mission provided many of us—employees and management alike—both inspiration and opportunity to serve our community in concrete ways, at work and beyond.

After my daughter was born, we moved back to Virginia in 2001. There I found a job at Whole Foods Market, another idealistic company that sets high standards for its products and customer service, and champions high ideals for team member happiness, vendor relationships, and community support. I worked with Whole Foods Market for nearly six years, and my experience there was both rewarding and instructive. Since then, I’ve continued to follow the writings of co-founder and CEO John Mackey with interest.

My time at Whole Foods spanned a meteoric rise in the stock price which accompanied significant company growth, and these factors no doubt attracted many mercurial and misguided individuals into positions of leadership. I came into contact with more than a few small-minded administrators whose uninspired influence was a stain on the business. But I also worked with dozens of earnest and dedicated team members and leaders, for whom Mackey’s visionary core values offered a meaningful stake in serving our customers and community with distinction.

Whole Foods Market encouraged me to sense the vision and purpose in my work, and to take stock of my own core values. Over time, this inspired me to go back to college—and eventually, to leave the company to pursue a new vocation.

So I have been self-employed since 2007. Like the majority of small businesses, I’m more interested in supporting my family than world domination. I love my work and I strive to bring the vision of conscious business to my community through steady creative work, but I still have much to learn.

Friends in business

The word “Quaker” once conveyed a reputation for truth that Quakers earned in the domain of business; non-Quakers have even exploited that reputation by using the “Quaker” moniker for a gaggle of goods and services. According to Robert Greanleaf, that reputation stems from “a new business ethic” advanced by 17th century Friends, enacted through truthfulness, dependability, and fixed prices. I have a hunch that Quaker heritage and Quaker practice may offer valuable guidance for conscious business, and building institutions for life-affirming service.

Contemporary Friends have a lot to say about equality, peace, simple living, activism, and spiritual formation. But by and large, Quakers no longer love business as a vocation. Oh, I know Quaker entrepreneurs, and Friends who work in commercial enterprises; but as a faithful community, we rarely treat these callings with the same spiritual import that we might impute to teaching or social work. Our religious education covers the heroic influence of Friends who championed religious liberty, repudiated slavery, and crusaded for universal suffrage; but the failures and triumphs of Quakers in business are mostly overlooked.


I would like investigate this blind spot, as way opens: As an entrepreneur and a dad, it’s easy for my writing ambitions to outrun my available time. I am searching for Quaker writings on the topic, both historic and current; I have found some, and I shall post my reading list separately. I’m also looking at contemporary writings about conscious business from a Quaker perspective.

Are you a Friend running your own business or working in a for-profit venture? I’d love to talk with you and learn how Quaker testimonies and practices influence your work. My email address is “john” followed by “@cyclexo.com”. Thank you!

In peace and friendship,
John Stephens