Every morning when I arrive to work in Santiago de Chile, we greet each other with a friendly kiss on the cheek. Men and women alike, whether I’ve met them before or will never see them again, blow right past any cognizance of my Americanized personal space bubble and plant a big one right on my cheek. Occasionally, there’s a “¿Cómo estás?” exchanged involved, sometimes there’s a hug or back rub too, but regardless, there’s always the kiss. The kiss happens when I leave work, too, at which point the norm is to say goodbye to everyone in the office in the same manner as I greeted him or her in the morning.
Now, I can’t help but giggle to myself when I compare this to my past work environment in Seattle. Despite working in an incredibly welcoming, interesting and socially aware environment, it was more common to receive a head nod, a grunt, or maybe a “good morning” depending on the time of day or the amount of coffee already consumed. A formal handshake was the norm for any meeting. But a KISS? No way. My male colleagues and I never even hugged each other.
The irony grows as I reminisce about how I was expected to greet colleagues in Thailand just a couple months ago – a silent head nod and respectful bow with hands together right below the chin was accompanied by “Sawatdee,” the traditional Thai greeting. There was never any physical touch, better yet a kiss!
I find these subtle but significant cultural differneces fascinating and important – especially the implications they have for international business operations and for NGOs implementing programs abroad.
Santiago feels a lot like Europe. The large developed streets give way to small, quaint barrios (neighborhoods) where couples stroll hand in hand, coffee shops and bookstores provide afternoon relaxation and families play in the parks on every corner.
It only takes a 15-minute metro ride to see the other side of this city, the side that shows the devastating inequality and harsh reality.
Suddenly, the nice coffee shops and bars have disappeared, the streets are dirty and the sun bounces off the pavement hitting you with a heat-punch in the face. There aren’t many trees shading the sidewalks anymore and stray dogs are pacing looking for something to eat. Kids take turns manning the family business selling odds and ends, while grandparents sit on old chairs outside of tiny, run down homes.
- Despite being categorized as a high-income country by the OECD, Chile scores a 52.1 (in 2009, latest data) on the GINI coefficient for income inequality (where 0 means income is equally distributed across the population and 1 signifies that one person holds the wealth of the entire country). That makes Chile’s income distribution more disparate than in Uganda, Sudan, The Dominican Republic and many other countries.
Chile’s income disparity is similar to nations all over the world. We live in a remarkable time where incredible amounts of wealth and extreme poverty co-exist – both within and between countries.
The need for change is more pressing than ever. Despite the obvious challenges in a desperately unequal world – in which where you are born and who your parents are has nearly everything to do with your given opportunities in life – we also face global challenges as a species with a deteriorating environment and powerful political turbulence.
Nations that were left behind during the industrial age are now undergoing their own period of development, and developed countries are competing for continuing economic growth – both contributing to complete and utter disrespect for the environment and for long-term stability. Our current economic system is aligned with the wrong incentives – both for our people and for our planet.
One attempt to address this systematic problem is through the creation of a new economy through the social business movement. Shifting towards an economy where businesses use natural market forces to solve social and environmental problems is the mission behind B Corps, Sistema B and their counterparts all over the world. The challenges facing the movement are enormous, but the potential for impact is beyond measurable.
When I explained to friends, family, and colleagues back home what I was going to do here in Santiago, many people looked at me inquisitively and asked, “What does it mean to be a social business?”
At its core, a social business exists to create value (or benefit, hence the “B” in B Corporation) for the community or the environment, in addition to its investors. The social business considers the generation of profit as a means to achieve its social goals, not as the entire purpose of its existence.
Check out this video from B Labs – a U.S. based non-profit that provides certification to businesses as a seal of it’s commitment to social, economic and/or environmental change:
You can also watch the Spanish version HERE.
- Take Lumni for example. Lumni’s purpose is to provide access to funding so that more young people can afford to go to college. They help organize loans from private investors allowing talented young students – who otherwise would have no financing options – to pay their way through school. After they graduate, they back the loan through a small percent of their salary each month. Investors are repaid in both monetary and social benefit.
In addition to goals beyond making profits, social businesses incorporate sound practices in the areas of governance and transparency, treatment and compensation of employees, suppliers and distributors and attention to environmental issues related to their business.
The movement towards social, and hence more sustainable business is young, but it’s powerful. The ultimate goal of the movement is simple – to cease to exist because ALL businesses operate as such. We, as consumers, have the power to make that happen!
Here are some ways you can get involved!
- Be a cautious consumer! Sites like Vine.com help you identify socially-conscious brands (hint, on the “speciality shops” drop down menu search for B Corporation certified companies
- Seek employment with B Corporations and other companies focused on positive impact
- Hold yourself to high standards of social and environmental practices in your personal life – be kind, don’t waste and recycle!
Enjoying time in the Chilean countryside with my generous host
Growth. Uncertain. Introspective. Heavy. Disconnected. Grateful. Proud.
Week three in Santiago had me feeling more involved with the Sistema B team. Unfortunately I resorted back to speaking some English, but I felt content with the “Spanglish” we were using for the most effective communication. The impact measurement project was still a bit hard to define, but I felt I was contributing to the daily operations of the organization. The cultural differences were challenging and I felt uncertain of my role, but I continued to keep learning and stay proactive.
I spent a lot of time alone this week. I hiked a couple of times up to the San Cristobal hill, which has an incredible view of the city. I also spent time working on my other projects and talking with my family. I felt like I’d grown a lot in my first three weeks and continued to do so each day.
Unsatisfied. Rejuvenated. Stretched. Inspired. Immersed. Pensive. Eager.
My second week in Santiago is full of more learning, more Spanish and more integration into the team. I’m given a project to create a flow chart (Carta Gatt in Spanish) for the actions needed to execute a grant in Colombia. I also participate in workshops for local companies helping them to understand what it means to be an “Empresa B” and helping them to be committed members of the movement.
The weekend brings an adventure with one of my colleagues. We take a local bus to a friend’s house in the countryside after work. I spend Friday night relaxing with Chileans, listening to music, drinking beer and enjoying the view of the stars. The countryside shows a bit of the reality of life for the more average Chilean, and I feel honored to experience their way of life. Even though I still free a bit restrained in my expression, I nearly forget that we only speak in Spanish. It feels good.