Can A For-Profit Business Be Socially Responsible?

Learning at Rockridge Little School, Oakland CA

When Holly Gold launched her first business, she brought a world of non-profit experience with her. The only change: she wasn’t running a non-profit anymore.

Gold brought something else: a lifelong drive to make the world a better place for all people. While working with homeless teens in the beginning of the AIDS epidemic at San Francisco’s Larkin Street Youth Center and later with adults at Haight Ashbury Free Clinics Drug Treatment Program, Gold found it cathartic to support people whose experiences were different, yet close to her own.

“There were things in my life that drew me to being in those settings,” Gold said. “Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had much in common with the people I served.”

After nearly two decades of contributing to various non-profits, and completion of what she describes as a life-changing leadership development program, Gold is headed in a new direction. Her tax filing status changed, but her values did not.

Her business, Rockridge Little School, embraces socially responsible practices we may associate with a non-profit model, but it is clearly something different. Rockridge Little School has two campuses in Oakland, Calif., and is accountable to the school’s mission rather than outside funders. The campuses are consistently full. Stemming from Gold’s values, they are also really nice places to work.

Gold pays her teachers wages above the norm for the field. Teachers receive five weeks paid time off and health care benefits paid entirely by their employer. And, did I mention the matching 401k program?

“Creating good paying jobs and contributing to the tax base in Oakland is important,” Gold said. “The schools are contributing to the economy. We are providing healthcare and paid time off in a field that doesn’t often do that.”

By comparison, based on reports the average salary of a preschool or daycare teacher in Oakland, CA is roughly 30% below Rockridge Little School wages.

“She is paying a very good salary to her employees even at the expense of her bottom line,” said Nanda Nandkishore, a business broker in Los Gatos, Calif. and president of Acacia Group. Gold does not believe she is compromising her bottom line. She believes ethical choices can actually contribute to higher profits.

Children growing plants at Rockridge Little School, Oakland CA

In tandem with Gold’s passion for social responsibility is her taste for entrepreneurship. Gold relishes spreadsheets, budgets, and taking an idea and making it come alive. Gone are the days of assessment tools, grant proposals, and reliance on state and federal funding sources, which are often changing. A for-profit business model can offer many distinct advantages while still contributing to the greater good.

Which is one reason why Gold wants other entrepreneurs to know that they can do good work and be profitable. “It’s ownership,” Gold said. “I am wholly accountable to my vision.”

Gold honed skills to match her passion for social enterprise while a fellow at LeaderSpring in the 1990s. (Full disclosure: Gold is now on the board.) Based in Oakland, LeaderSpring fosters the social sector by supporting community leaders from diverse backgrounds to “transform the systems” they exist in. While at LeaderSpring, one of Gold’s mentors introduced her to the concept of social enterprise, where ownership, as well as the broader funding streams from a business, provide what Gold saw as a sustainable model for transforming communities.

“LeaderSpring helped me realize that there are many ways to make the world a better place,” Gold said. Several years ago, while participating in a community event designed to improve early childhood services to children and their families, she remembers being asked what she, personally, could do to improve the field of early childhood education.

“I committed to opening at least one new school, and paying a living wage, with paid time off,” Gold said. She vowed to provide a high quality of life for educators in a field where those things rarely exist. Since that time she opened three schools — one for the non-profit she led at the time followed by two more through Rockridge Little School.

With her leadership and administrative skills honed during the program, Gold was ready to bring it all together with her passion for supporting children and strengthening communities. She was ready to launch.

A dozen years in, Rockridge Little School is a thriving community.

“I’ve worked at places that didn’t have insurance,” said Erika Astabie-Urbina, the director at Rockridge Little School’s Taft Avenue campus. “If you were sick, tough luck. There was no flexibility. Being able to work at a preschool where we have a 401k and fantastic health benefits means a lot.”

In a throwback to her non-profit days, Gold is launching Rockridge Gives, an initiative to make an impact on a local organization through financial contributions. Instead of simply soliciting donations from parents and teachers, the school is underwriting the campaign.

As to whether a socially responsible business is sustainable, Gold is a believer. The school is thriving financially, creating great jobs, and providing a unique learning environment for the next generation. Rockridge Little School’s waitlist speaks for itself…and we haven’t even addressed the cutting edge curriculum.