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As Big Business Gets Scrutinized, B Corporation Advocates Say Richmond Can Move Forward by Giving Back

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A simple logo, consisting of the letter B inside a circle, is showing up on things as varied as baby food and soap. The letter stands for a B Corp, a type of business that's certified to balance profit with purpose.

You can bet this strategy raises some eyebrows, as transparency issues take center stage during the General Assembly session. But local advocates say there's more to a B Corp than slick marketing. This quirky mix of rebel financial advisers, bankers, information technology experts and crafters share the common goal of helping their community and environment. All while managing to make a buck. Call it a triple bottom line.

"There are very few things these days that are bipartisan, but B Corp is completely bipartisan supported," says Michael Pirron, the chief executive of Impact Makers.

Pirron made Virginia safe for such entities with the help of Delegate Jennifer McClellan in 2011. The bill unanimously passed the House of Delegates and then moved through the state Senate unopposed.

"From one perspective, it's social justice," Pirron says. "Others see how it offers free market solutions to social problems, rather than government handouts. Everyone gets behind it."

Now local B Corps are moving full steam ahead and tackling Richmond's toughest problems like affordable housing, food access, poverty and unemployment. There are more than a dozen certified ones in the city, but one of the newest and most unique to be certified is Alexis Advisors. Roberta Keller, the founder, offers financial advice to first-time investors and the affluent. Her philosophy, however, is consistent. She wants clients to be intentional about how they invest their dollars and primarily focuses on investing in stringently vetted exchange-traded funds. As one way to give back, she provides pro-bono financial planning for people with less money. It's a wild time for a financial adviser to pursue such a mission.

Roberta Keller, founder of B Corp-certified Alexis Advisors, offers financial advice to first-time investors and the affluent. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Roberta Keller, founder of B Corp-certified Alexis Advisors, offers financial advice to first-time investors and the affluent.

"Sometimes you get a deer in the headlights look when you try explaining B Corp to someone in the financial world," Keller says. "There are good people in the industry, but money is the product, and as such it can become the primary motivator. And many keep a divide between their professional and personal life. Working as a B Corp, my personal values of transparency, authenticity, education and community give-back are very integrated with my professional life."

Not that her decision came easily. Keller spent a decade working in institutional money management, in places like Wall Street and London. Frustrated by an industry that often put sales goals above client well-being, she left feeling disillusioned. Then, she watched friends and family members lose their life savings during the 2009 financial meltdown. That was her trigger to get involved again. "I was very upset to see so many people not getting sound advice about strategies for managing risk and losses," she says. Today, Keller is building partnerships with nonprofits to deliver a free four-week financial literacy program, in effect bringing power back to the people.

It's not uncommon for advocates to undergo major personal journies before entering this world. Leah Fremouw, director of community impact at Virginia Community Capital, says she was originally going to hash out women's issues in Washington's swamp. Sensing an immediate need for shelter in her own backyard, she took an opportunity with Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. After that, she worked with state agencies as a consultant from Virginia Commonwealth University and then dove into startup culture as head of human resources at CarLotz. But she missed working in the community. That's when she heard about Virginia Community Capital, which started in 2006 with three workers and now has three locations with close to 60 employees.

"My reaction was like, 'What, really? A mission-driven bank?" Fremouw recalls. "Now we're no longer alone. Other financial institutions and community banks are becoming benefit corps, and finding out you can put your stakeholders and shareholders on the same level. Being a benefit corporation gives them legal protection to make mission-focused positions."

Fremouw says the bank is also built to serve "untapped markets." It will loan to a business owner who otherwise might've been overlooked, or use grant money to help a neighborhood boost its economic resources. The Jefferson Davis Highway corridor and Brookland Park have been recent beneficiaries. The bank has also revitalized the William Byrd senior living house, and seeks to develop more affordable housing in the city. The bank is working to bring much-needed food access to the East End and across the state. It's about more than lending money, though. There are a lot of boots on the ground, going out to forge relationships with residents, helping business owners get taxes in order and listening to their thoughts on the neighborhood's bigger picture.

"We meet people where they are," Fremouw says. "Historically, financial institutions have been averse to investing in the areas we focus on."

Many millennial business owners are choosing to take the B Corp path from day one. They attend meet-ups at places like Väsen Brewery and ask questions about B Lab, the organization that awards certification leading to the logo and holds B Corps accountable to those standards. It's a trend solidifying Richmond's reputation as an up-and-coming city, advocates say.

"These are businesses that want to be a force for good, take chances on their community and see a tangible impact," says Anika Horn, B keeper for Central Virginia at Impact Makers, where she functions as community liaison. "To me, it doesn't get any more Richmond than that." S

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