Jim Gibbons, CEO and President of Goodwill Industries, spoke Friday at CEMEX Auditorium as part of BASES Social Impact Week. Gibbons, who is blind, started at Goodwill in 2008 after 10 years as CEO of National Industries for the Blind. The Daily sat down with him to talk about his career, being a social entrepreneur and how to balance business and social impact.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Can you tell us a little about what you talked about in your keynote address?
Jim Gibbons (JG): I [covered] a little bit of the Goodwill story — as a social enterprise and really as, in many people’s view, the first social enterprise — and a little bit about my background and why I’m so passionate about the Goodwill model. And [I covered] this intersection between great business principles as they intersect with how you have extraordinarily high impact. And a little bit about how a young person who wants to do both [business and social impact], what should they do?
TSD: Why were you compelled to pursue a career in social entrepreneurship?
JG: When you look at the Goodwill model, the whole social enterprise, I have never portrayed myself as an “entrepreneur.” Each local Goodwill leader is an extraordinary social entrepreneur within those communities, but where do the problems often lie? They’re within community, and that’s where that entrepreneurial spirit of Goodwill has to lie. So what compelled me into this social impact space was when I left AT&T to go to National Industries for the Blind. I’d always wanted to, somewhere in my career, have some level of influence on the lives of people who are blind, and I thought, Oh, down the road, I’ll join a board of something. And what I saw was an opportunity to go into National Industries for the Blind before I knew the word “social enterprise.” But they used business to create job opportunities for people who were blind, and I thought, Maybe I can move into an organization where I’ll go from a guy that wants to have influence to a direct impact player. So I went to National Industries for the Blind for 10 years. That was an organization that was about at 240 million dollars in sales…that grew to over 600 million dollars while I was there, and grew employment for people who were blind year after year. That’s when I really learned about social enterprise and how that blending of business principles and social impact comes together. And then moving to Goodwill was just an exciting next step for me, a bigger brand, a global organization and an opportunity to serve a wider range of populations, because there’s a lot of need.
TSD: Has being blind affected the way you think about giving back to the community?
JG: I think, for me, the effect of blindness certainly adds perspective to the work that I’ve been a part of. When graduating from undergraduate at Purdue in industrial engineering, I interviewed with a lot of companies and got a lot of rejection letters. And I finally got two job offers, but they were with AT&T and IBM, so it kind of took the big companies to take a shot. And then I learned that seven out of 10 blind people aren’t working today, and for people with intellectual disabilities, which is a big portion of the population we serve at Goodwill, it’s 85 percent. And so I’ve actually been quite fortunate.
But what I really learned is at Goodwill there’s a basic kind of approach that I think I got from my parents. They had high expectations and then surrounded me with the tools and the support to find success, and that’s really what we do at Goodwill. We try to have high expectations for team members and the people we serve, right? Because people are amazing. We just got to help them get the best out of themselves and then surround them with the tools and the support to find their success. So yeah, I think the blindness has played a pretty significant role in why I care about our mission as much as I do.
TSD: What does social impact mean to you, and how has it driven your career path and your life in general?
JG: There’s a social impact with a charity mindset, and there’s a social impact with a social-enterprise mindset, and I think the distinction in my mind is sustainability. And it’s the use of business principles that plays a significant part in allowing an organization to achieve impact. And the other element is how do you make that social impact, however you define it — environmentally or human service-wise — how do you ensure that that’s the priority of the mission of the organization? So it’s not to optimize or maximize profits in a vacuum, but to optimize profits in the context of having as much impact as you can with that enterprise.
TSD: What advice do you have for student entrepreneurs who are caught between wanting to make a difference in the world and wanting to be innovative and financially successful?
JG: Be a builder. So much of our environment today is rewarding transactions, and so therefore the big money is at the transaction level instead of the building level. And people think in terms of building and exit strategies. Your exit strategy is the second page of your business plan, often nowadays. Being a builder means really building a business or a social enterprise in a way that is sustainable. Whether or not your business has a social impact objective or not, if you’re creating jobs, you’re having impact. So that’s one way that a person can recognize their talents and business savvy and interests and recognize that they can actually be a great employer and allow for other people to find success.
But in terms of the people who really want to have that direct social impact, don’t be ashamed to start off in the business world. Make some money, build some skills, build a foundation and bring that learning into the social impact, or social enterprise or social entrepreneurial space. Because the not-for-profit community needs those skills more than ever. I don’t think you have to feel like you should graduate and immediately step into the not-for-profit sector. If the not-for-profit sector wins more by you working two or three or four years for an investment bank or consulting firm where you’re learning lots of perspectives, and then you bring that over, whether that’s in a volunteer capacity, a board capacity or an employment capacity, I think everybody wins.
Contact Sarah Ortlip-Sommers at sortlip ‘at’ stanford.edu.