Capitalism for the Greater Good: How Millennials Are Changing the Narrative

Denise Bedell

Millennials are putting their consumer weight, entrepreneurial skills, and investment dollars behind companies and projects that have a positive social impact. Using the free market economy to improve society has become an intrinsic part of millennials’ worldview and expectation.

A group of 4 smiling millenials around a desk.

“It is the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.”

—Adam Smith, father of modern free market economic theory, Scottish political economist and author of The Wealth of Nations

Some of the greatest economic minds of the modern world have well understood the connection between the free market and prosperity for all. As Martin Whittaker, CEO of JUST Capital, noted in an interview at the World Economic Forum annual meetings in Davos last year, “At its best, capitalism creates opportunity for everyone, inspiring healthy competition and improving our society.”

For the millennial generation, using the free market economy to improve our society has become an intrinsic part of their worldview and expectation. They use their collective consumer power, entrepreneurial skills, and investment dollars to have a direct social impact, and the idea of building, consuming, and investing with an eye to the greater good is key to the psychological makeup of this generation.

And in increasing numbers they are coming to believe that business in general can be a force for good. In the Deloitte Millennial Survey 2017, 76 percent of millennial respondents said they regard business as having positive social values. That figure has been consistently rising since Deloitte’s 2014 survey.

Beyond just holding positive values, however, millennials are actively engaged in living socially conscious lives —both personally and professionally. They want, and indeed expect, companies that they support and work for to have a social impact.

In a survey of 1300 U.S. millennials conducted by media outlet Elite Daily in 2015, 75 percent of respondents reported that it was important for companies to give back to society, rather than focusing solely on profit. And 90 percent of MBAs from business schools in Europe and North America prefer working for organizations committed to social responsibility, according to a study from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

This generation is willing to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to having a social impact — by paying more for a product from a company that is having an impact, or working for less in order to be part of a socially responsible company.

For the millennial generation, using the free market economy to improve our society has become an intrinsic part of their worldview and expectation.

According to research from Cone Communications, 9 in 10 millennial consumers would consider switching brands to one demonstrating a social impact.

Ivory Ella, a fast-fashion e-tailer that donates 10 percent of profits to Save the Elephants and other charitable organizations, has found that the company’s social mission is important to its target customer base. “Millennials want to wear clothes from companies that are focused on the greater good,” says CEO and co-founder John Allen (himself a member of Gen-Y). “It makes them feel happy and vibrant.”

The Town Kitchen is a prime example not only of millennial entrepreneurs focused on the greater good, but also of how investment dollars are flowing to start-ups with a focus on social impact. The Town Kitchen delivers chef-designed lunches to companies and individuals in the Oakland and San Francisco Bay area. Companies can order via an app, and the firm works with local chefs and artisans — and low-income urban youth — to plan, prepare, build, box and deliver the lunches. One of the key goals of the company is to provide well-paying, stable jobs to local young people.

Explains millennial entrepreneur Sabrina Mutukisna, co-founder and CEO of The Town Kitchen: “So much dignity comes from having a great job. We are helping to create upward economic mobility for them by providing good food and a good job.” (Mutukisna cites starting wages of $15 to $20 an hour; minimum wage in California is $10.50 an hour)

To raise early-stage capital, the team at The Town Kitchen launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in 2014. “It got great traction,” notes Mutukisna. The group raised 103% of its $40,000 goal. The Town Kitchen also participated in Tumml, a start-up accelerator whose mission is “to empower entrepreneurs to solve urban problems.”

“We used about $65,000 of capital to get to $1 million in revenue,” Mutukisna notes, “with the idea of leveraging food tech to create a scalable, high-growth company around urban youth and foster youth, while keeping the costs down for bricks and mortar.”

Mutukisna says that capitalism, and access to capital, are critical for urban development. “My view on capitalism is that it can be used for good. So many problems in urban cities require the investment of capital into those cities to help young people to thrive — and for them to ultimately stay in and invest in those cities, too.”

So why is this generation so focused on change? Gabriel Bosché, president and millennial strategist at global business consultancy The Millennial Solution, puts it down to this generation’s drive to constantly improve on things: “Pew researchers have found time and time again that this generation truly does believe that the best days for us and for our country are ahead, and we want to be a part of making a global difference. We want to have our fingerprints on it, and we want to do it together.”

Justin Dent, a millennial and executive director of nonprofit GenFKD, summed it up with his take on millennials and their connection to capitalism and entrepreneurship: “We see a problem that is affecting a set of people, and we go out and solve it. By that definition, capitalism can simply mean that there is a place for everyone — where enterprise can thrive and everyone can benefit from it.”