South by Southwest and why companies should be agents of social good

The mission of is to empower people to be a force of change. Ben Rattray, the site’s founder and CEO, believes that it’s not just individuals who should be in the game of enacting change, but companies as well. While businesses clearly have a financial incentive for their stakeholders, there’s a lot to be gained by being a proponent of social change–especially those in the technology industry. In a presentation to a riveted audience at SXSW, Rattray posited that in embracing this role, tech companies can surely leave a lasting legacy. But they can also create a better economy, too.

“The best way to address social change is through business,” Rattray stated. That might sound a bit odd, but Rattray believes it soon won’t be strange at all for businesses to set a renewed focus on social change. And tech companies should be at the forefront of this movement. Social media has provided a space that has allowed the public to have a louder, more meaningful voice. And sites like have proven the undeniable impact of empowered consumers.

These empowered consumers are one of the main reasons Rattray insisted that it’s vital for companies to focus on social impacts. In the past, consumers had a limited impact. Today, that’s not the case; business is infinitely more transparent, which means that most business decisions (even those that in the past may have flown under the radar) will be scrutinized by the public. And companies are being held accountable by consumers. Whereas in the past a financial institution could enact new fees and not feel public heat for a while, if at all, those types of unpopular decisions quickly become national news. “The soapbox is now a network,” said Rattray.

In the same way consumers are empowered by social media, online petitions and the like, so are employees. This powerful group is another factor Rattray believes will result in companies becoming agents of social change. Just because someone works for a company doesn’t mean they don’t care whether or not their employer is doing right outside of turning a profit. The generation that embodies this the most, Rattray said, is millenials, a group that increasingly wants to work for companies that stand for something. An example of empowered employees having a great impact is when Jamba Juice responded to an employee-born petition for the company to stop wasting so many styrofoam cups. The petition eventually gained such popularity that the company made the switch to recyclable cups.

Digital channels such like social media have changed business in many ways, but as Rattray noted, it’s put companies on the spot in some ways. Its now a given that there is a two-way discussion between consumers (and employees, too) and companies. And digital and social channels have kickstarted that change. Rattray doesn’t hope that businesses forget about their profits, and we all know that will never be the case. But it’s important that companies understand that they can be immensely powerful, and aside from making money for their stakeholders, they can provide increased value by being a vessel for social good. Consumers gravitate to brands they trust. While providing a great product is a big part of the game, it’s not the whole. Making a difference in the world goes a long way towards building that assurance and building crucial long-lasting relationships.

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