We sat down with our co-founder Beth Gerstein to discuss what being a social enterprise means to Brilliant Earth.
For all those who don’t know, what is a social enterprise?
Beth Gerstein: A social enterprise is a mission-based business that is focused not only on a for-profit objective but also on the greater good.
So the goal is for companies to be the solution and not the problem?
Beth Gerstein: Correct!
Do you believe that is how people think of corporations these days? That they’re causing the problems and not solving them?
Beth Gerstein: Certainly there are businesses out there that perpetuate social and environmental problems, and there is a general conception that businesses cause these issues. But I think that as an enterprise we have an imperative to make the world a better place and understand the greater impact we have on communities & society. There are companies out there that are only focused on the bottom line, and there are definitely negative consequences that can come of that.
Why did you choose to be a for-profit social enterprise rather than a non-profit?
Beth Gerstein: I think that it is easier to attain your objectives and make an impact as a for-profit. Part of what we’re trying to do is offer a beautiful product that doesn’t come at a social or environmental expense. In addition to that we are trying to create a more sustainable industry so that we can actually improve the lives of artisanal miners. I think that as a non-profit it is more difficult to achieve those goals in the same way.
Consumers have great power, and to be able to really mobilize consumers to vote with their wallets and make aware choices is a very powerful thing. It creates change in a way that is very different from a non-profit. In the diamond industry specifically, the only thing that is going to create change is if the industry understands that customers truly care about the origin of their diamonds. I hear this again and again when I go to meetings with key players in the diamond industry – that things won’t change if there’s a perception that customers don’t care, because why should it? It is easier and cheaper not to trace your diamonds—it creates a level of complexity that many don’t want to deal with. The only thing that matters is the customer, and I think that is why a for-profit is so effective.
Do you think that if Brilliant Earth had become a non-profit it wouldn’t have been taken as seriously by the diamond industry?
Beth Gerstein: Absolutely. That is a great way of looking at it. We pose a greater challenge as a for-profit. I have a business background, and we are very business focused, so we make sure that we have an effective business at every level. It helps us become more efficient. When you have a business focus and you are concentrating on social enterprise, that is when it becomes more powerful.
How does Brilliant Earth differ from other companies that make charitable contributions?
Beth Gerstein: I think in a number of different ways. For us, our mission is quite clear and is closely tied to our product. We want to transform the jewelry industry by increasing customer awareness and showing the true demand for fine jewelry with ethical and transparent origins.
We focus on the product and ensuring that our customers can truly feel good about the jewelry they wear. But our mission is inherent in everything we do, from the product to the packaging to our non-profit initiatives. Our non-profit initiatives are quite different because they are focused on the same objective. We are very thoughtful about the specific initiatives we contribute to because we want them to address the issues that are so important to us.
Are there any specific benefits to being a social enterprise?
Beth Gerstein: Our brand message is tied closely to our mission, and it helps creates authenticity. There is also a business benefit. For us it isn’t just something that we do, it is truly a part of who we are. And I think that customers can see that. We applaud when corporations have a philanthropic arm. But it is a little different when that is where we started.
Do you think that this is catching on? Do you think that social enterprises are becoming more prevalent?
Beth Gerstein: I think that more corporations understand that they need to look out for all of their constituents—their employees, the environment, and society. I feel as though it is more inherent in corporations today; it is table stakes. But, it is actually challenging to survive only on a mission. You have to be more than that. Our mission is an important component, but we are also concerned with product design, making sure that our products are of the highest quality, and that we provide excellent customer service.
There are other companies that are similar that we really admire, like Toms. They have a great social mission but they also have a lot of other benefits.
What are your thoughts on shared value and how it applies to Brilliant Earth?
Beth Gerstein: If we can effectively sell products made with fair trade practices, then we can enable communities to thrive. I think that there is a very direct link between what we are trying to promote and the programs that will actually improve the lives of those mining and manufacturing the diamonds. For example, by buying and selling Namibian or Botswana diamonds we are actually enabling the industry and putting customer attention on those countries, which creates value.
When we first started talking to our suppliers, it was rare to trace the sources and practices behind the gems. Now suppliers see that there is profit to be made if they track their sources, so they are doing so. So Brilliant Earth has gotten many suppliers to change their business practices. That is a change that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
Any final thoughts to leave us with?
Beth Gerstein: It is important for a social enterprise to set realistic goals and then push them. It’s impossible to change everything overnight, so you need to start realistically, such as achieving transparency for your constituents and moving forward. For example, if when we started we claimed we were only going to sell fair trade diamonds, we wouldn’t have had a product to sell—it wouldn’t be achievable. But that is something that we are moving toward in the future.