Attorney, author and Harvard lecturer Kyle Westaway noticed something unexpected happening to him during law school. “I grew a heart,” he admits. He long assumed that law school would harden him, giving him the callouses required to face the legal profession. Instead, Kyle reveals, “For some reason, my eyes opened up to social justice in general, and a couple of issues in specific — extreme poverty and sex trafficking in Southeast Asia.” He became determined to find a way to become part of a solution. During a summer internship in New York, Kyle met and became fast friends with some people launching an anti-sex-trafficking organization. He decided to join them, and all held high hopes that they would soon effect change.

Listen Up

“What we eventually learned from our time on the ground listening was that this issue’s more complex than a group of 20-somethings in New York could understand.” So, in recognition of their youthful inexperience, they focused first on more dialogue, and concentrated listening with the singular intent to hear the voices of the at-risk populations.

“There were many distinct issues within this macro issue,” Kyle explains, “one was that women who had left the commercial sex trade often found themselves drifting back into it, due primarily to a lack of economic resources. We learned that they don’t really want charity any more than you or I do. They want a decent job, to raise a family and ensure that the next generation has a better life. So we said, ‘What if we give them jobs,’ and we launched a clothing brand that was designed to work with survivors in Bangkok.”

Call It Out

Their venture Biographe created an opportunity for employment and empowerment, allowing survivors of the sex trade to move toward economic independence. While the company eventually lost traction — “To put it bluntly,” Kyle confesses, “it failed”— the experience introduced him to the growing field of social entrepreneurship. “I got into it out of a desire to solve a very specific problem, and the ‘solve’ for that problem was business. None of us had ever heard the term ‘social entrepreneurship’ before. Once we got further in … we realized there’s this whole field out there of people who are thinking about these topics. That opened my eyes to the whole sector.”

Truth Be Told

With failure in his back pocket, Kyle searched for resources to help him better understand the field. “What I saw were some books written by people who run organizations and used primarily as fundraising tools. So they’re telling a story that’s probably based in reality at some level, but not in any way objective,” he says. These stories offered touching tributes and inspirational messages, but weren’t giving him insight into the fundamentals. Each new account left him with more questions, and he longed for answers. So, in absence of an outside source, Kyle decided to write one himself, resulting in the book “Profit & Purpose.”

“I’d seen failure in the sector … The hope was to write something that would be about how companies or organizations that manage to be successful do that. What does that look like? What’s the behind-the-scenes story of it? That was the intent of the book. Born out of our failure, and a quest to understand if social enterprise actually works, or if it’s just a bunch of hype.”

He had his primary outlet for research right in front of him. As managing partner of Westaway, an innovative law firm focused on the counsel of social entrepreneurs, Kyle steers an entire practice specializing in emerging legal structures and advising clients throughout the lifecycle of their organizations. He knew there were common threads woven into the mantle of these business owners, and he began to identify the strongest fibers.

Talk It Out

“I did this book the wrong way,” Kyle quips. He knows authors that start with a definitive outline, thesis and agenda, modeling efficiency as they write. “I did the exact opposite,” he says. “I did all the interviews and tried to lay out the data … then realized that basically all of these themes and characteristics are required throughout the life of a company, but some are more prominent at certain phases.”

In his book, Kyle outlines seven key core tools of social enterprise marketplace leaders.

Purpose and Profit Infographic for Social Entrepreneurs

Within these elements, a message to serve first continually appears, from the design stage through sales and marketing.

Now Hear This

“Listen — Build — Iterate. Good design starts with listening, not doing,” Kyle has discovered. “Start from a posture of listening, asking the question, ‘What do the users want?’ After listening, take some of those user insights in mind as you build.”

Achieving an effective user experience comes in part from connecting with the customers in an authentic way that matches your overall mission. It’s “experience over advertising,” Kyle advises. “Creating experiences that people get excited about is much more valuable than pushing out more ads. It’s about delighting the customer in every stage along the way. To have someone so wowed by their experience with you that they are talking to others in normal conversation about why they like this particular thing … that’s the most valuable form of marketing, period.”

Kyle calls this being a “magnet over a megaphone.” Instead of just shouting your message louder than everyone else, generate a strong customer base by engaging people in meaningful experiences that draw them into the story and mission of your business.

A huge part of sharing experience is “honesty over perfection,” Kyle endorses. “When you’re communicating messages around social and environmental impact, it’s very tempting to speak in broad strokes.” But Kyle notes that some people really want to know more, to “dig deeper and understand what the actual issue is … the struggle to do what you’re doing. People, especially millennials, don’t always expect perfection, but don’t want to feel like they’re being lied to. So, if there’s an ability to connect deeper into the story, showing those faults that say we are human, I think that’s very appealing.”

Conceptually, according to Kyle, crafting the messaging strategy follows an inverted pyramid pattern. “Envision a triangle,” he explains. “At the top, communicate the message in one sentence — very high-level, very non-granular — it’s aspirational in a lot of ways. Then, at each level, draw more people into the story and be authentic in both the good and the bad as you draw people down through the journey. Give them the ability to engage deeper, and understand the challenges as well as the successes. On a more practical level, communicate this in your impact report on an annual basis … those impact reports tend to be just about the wins, and I think talking about the losses is important as well.”

The Big Tell

Now, Kyle feels regular amazement at the growth in the sector. “This topic of blending profit and purpose and social enterprise is becoming a part of a grand conversation. It’s crazy to me,” he effuses. “I used to be at cocktail parties eight years ago talking about this stuff, and people didn’t know what I was talking about. Now I see a trend towards this model operating in for-profit companies. When I started my firm, 70% of our clients were in nonprofit structure, and now I would say that 70% are in a for-profit structure. So, the movement away from the idea that this should be a nonprofit to thinking more openly about how business plays a great role in helping to solve challenges has been a welcomed move from my perspective.”

Which, in turn, gives ample space for listening to the new voices entering this conversation, and hearing more creative strategies to pull new people into this movement. By prioritizing the customer and placing empathetic focus on the user experience, businesses ultimately give the customer a sense of partnership — an acknowledgment of a shared mission for which all serve as advocates. Your story becomes a magnet. Then, it becomes their story too.


© All photos courtesy of Kyle Westaway.
This interview is a copyright of Rank & File, Inc.