Mark Cuban speaks to an audience at social innovation summit

Insights into Brand Purpose at the Social Innovation Summit

— Seema Bhende, SVP of Brand Purpose and Reputation 

The Sacred and Brave Charge of Purpose

Last week in Los Angeles, I was reunited with my tribe at the Social Innovation Summit. I have watched Landmark Ventures grow and scale this conference across the last decade, and every year they manage to outdo themselves, bringing together an eclectic and powerful mix of brave leaders — from emerging organizations as well as from established brands — who are all connected on the belief that purpose creates long-term value.

Across the two-day summit, big brands like Nike, Starbucks, and Tesla shared the stage with nonprofit founders, all echoing the same sentiment — humanity is in massive transition, and people are waking up like never before. Here are three key themes that resonated personally with me.

Diversity and inclusion: brand purpose in action

First, diversity and inclusion are paramount. Speakers from across the summit shed light on the myth that meritocracy exists in our world. Brands like Amgen Foundation and Prudential talked about how it is time to democratize opportunity and how companies can no longer view four-year college degrees as a core job requirement, especially when there are 7.6 million open jobs right now in the U.S. economy. Lyft shared how their business model is grounded in the fact that “the good thing, the right thing, the business thing, can be the same thing.” For example, their riders can now opt into putting their gender pronouns on their user profiles.

Fundamentally, equality is good for business. A McKinsey study shows that companies in the top quartile for diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry median. WE’s new research, conducted in partnership with Quartz Insights, highlighted the attitude that “inequality has entered the conversation like never before because its definition has taken on new meaning and resonance. No longer is inequality limited to gender, race, or even identity. Rather, it speaks to a broad sociological phenomenon of have and have not, of powerful and powerless.” If companies want to meet the expectations of their consumers, employees, and stakeholders, they’ll need to take a more proactive stance in adopting inclusive practices.

Brave leadership on display

Second, the summit highlighted that brave leadership creates the spark to ignite a movement. As our research highlights, “purpose begins with a leader who is personally committed to an organization’s purpose.” Nearly half of our research respondents (46%) prioritize personal commitment and conviction in a leader despite adversity. And let me tell you, so many speakers shared deep and very personal stories of how they overcame adversity to bring renewed meaning to their life and the lives of others.

Take Khalida Brohi, the Founder of Sughar Foundation, who’s fighting to end honor killings and child marriage in Pakistan. And there was the very inspiring Valarie Kaur, civil rights activist and founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, who reminded us “that there are no monsters in the world, just human beings who are wounded.” She shared the powerful story of forgiving the man who conducted a hate crime and murdered her Sikh uncle in order to forgive hate and unleash love. The New York Times bestselling author Shaka Senghor, who was incarcerated for 19 years, shared his brave story of “Writing My Wrongs.” He discussed why people should not be judged in perpetuity for their worst deeds and the importance of atonement and forgiveness. All three of these leaders display an immense personal commitment, authenticity, and bravery on the issues they stand for, which has been essential to their organizations’ success.

Brands standing up to stand out

Finally, brands, now more than ever, are feeling responsibility to tackle tough issues. Seventy-three percent of the executives we surveyed believe purpose leadership will become as important as financial performance.

In hearing from brands like Wells Fargo on their affordable housing commitment and Microsoft on how their technology is making the world more accessible, the summit confirmed that long-term purpose strategy is essential to business strategy, and it is considered table stakes in today’s corporate landscape. I was able to ask celebrity entrepreneur Mark Cuban a question: “What issue do you think is a top issue companies needs to address in a bigger way in the year to come?” His response was: “Providing a living wage to employees.” This echoes a key sentiment shared by Chieh Huang from Boxed, who provides college tuition to his employees and their children to increase their chances of personal economic mobility.

As our research highlights, there often needs to be a person at an organization who takes a “sacred charge” and puts purpose in the center. That drive of purpose and change can be the CEO or an employee — or as John Kelly from Starbucks shared, the community. He talked about how the global community demanded action in the wake of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson’s arrests at a Philadelphia Starbucks in 2018, and the set of inclusion policy and training actions Starbucks has taken since then.

To close the summit, we heard from the very inspiring Mikaila Ulmer, the 14-year-old CEO of Me & The Bees Lemonade, who founded her company at the age of four! She explained what the next generation of brave leaders looks like and cares about. First, they are natives of tech. Second, they expect purpose and their purchasing power to be interconnected. Third, they use their voices loudly and proudly on social media to champion what they believe in. Seventy-four percent of our research respondents say that customers won’t stay with brands that don’t share their values. Future Gen Z customers like Mikaila will be more discerning about the brands they choose. If they don’t see themselves in a brand story or feel alienated by thoughtless actions, they may walk. After hearing Mikaila, I know I personally would be proud to walk by her side.


Curious about how you could counsel your brand on bold purpose? Read WE’s latest research, “Leading with Purpose in an Age Defined by It.”