Business with Purpose: 40-Year Thinking


Last week, we rebranded Left and changed the tagline we had trumpeted outwardly for the past 10 years to “Life with purpose. Business with purpose. Travel with purpose.”  While we still live and breathe the original maxim, “We are Left, we do things right,” we believe it is important for us to take those idealistic words and wrap them into messaging that will carry us forward for an even longer duration.

How much longer? I am imagining the world 40 years from now, or two generations. I believe that in order for the world to tackle large-scale, global problems head on, we must be willing to stretch our minds and focus much further out than our usual timeframes. Taking action now will allow everyone to benefit from the world of abundance we find ourselves fumbling towards.

However, prior to going straight to the world of 40 years from now, I need to go backwards by ten, to the start of Left in 2010 and the story that brought us on this great adventure.

At the very beginning, my Co-Founder, Chris Jensen, and I identified a set of core values that helped shape us as a company. Between us, we created a list of 10 values that are now articulated on our website and on the walls of our offices in both Canada and Bangladesh. Now, while most business consultants say 10 values are too many and that any business wanting the proverbial ‘buy in’ from employees should never have more than three or four, we have persisted – somewhat stubbornly – at holding onto all 10 because each value has an important and distinct reason for existing.

Each team member, of course, has one value that resonates with them more profoundly than another. I do, too, although in truth, picking just one makes it feel somewhat like picking a favourite child when I love them all equally – just differently.  Back in 2017, in a speech to our team in Bangladesh, I described the one value that most resonates with me: Make Your Mark (also articulated and expanded on in the subsequent blog post “On Making Your Mark”). This speech and post were made one week after Left became a Certified B Corp:

The journey we are on at Left, together, is one in which we have an enormous challenge in front of us. We believe that we can create products and technologies that can make the world a better place. We believe that we can make our mark on this world, so we must choose to make our mark for the better.

As a company, we have to lead by example.

You may have noticed that on all of my presentations and talks that I gave here this week, that I had this icon on the first and last slide. This is the symbol of B-Corp, and I am very humbled to share with everyone here, that as of last week, Left officially became a certified B-Corp.

What is a B-Corp? B Corps are companies that use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. To become a B-Corp, companies must adhere to rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. This designation was something that we worked on obtaining for over one year, and we will continue to work on to improve upon our score each and every year.

Why? Because it is the right thing to do.

40-Year Thinking

This month is B Corp Month during which those of us who believe in using business as a force for good in the world are rallying around the Vote Every Day campaign to inform others about the collective power of buying from, working for, and working with B Corps – all in service of showcasing the collective action and impact of Certified B Corps around the world.

Coincidentally, March 2020 is also the month in which Left resubmits our certification, providing us with a moment to pause and measure some of the impact we have had (and hope to have in the future).

Becoming a B Corp is an example of what I have been calling “40-Year Thinking”, and it is essential to our strategy to practice Sustainable Commerce. (I will talk more about Sustainable Commerce and what it means to us in subsequent posts, but I want to keep this piece focussed on how Left is building a “business with purpose”, while encouraging others to do the same.)

Last month, I visited the team in Bangladesh yet again (for the 10th time, in fact) and gave another speech about the upcoming year while talking about how we were rebranding with our focus on “Life with purpose. Business with purpose. Travel with purpose.” I began my talk quoting Steve Maraboli, whose words were sent to me by a member of the team earlier that week:

“You were put on this earth to achieve your greatest self, to live out your purpose, and to do it courageously.”

When I talk about our value of Making a Mark, this simple-yet-complex quote encapsulates a lot of that philosophy. We believe that each of us impacts the world around us, often in untold and unforeseen ways. The impact you make may not ever be seen or felt by yourself, but it may be experienced by a child or a grandchild, or it may impact someone on the other side of the world, and you may never be the wiser. The actions you take now to make your mark may not feel like they are having any effect, so we need to remember the impact of many great ideas is only felt in the future, be it 10, 20, or 40 years in the future. As a result, it is important to make your mark for the positive.

Change is Inevitable and Imperceptible

In my talk with the team, I shared the following video featuring my then young family that was filmed on the day before Left was established – way back in June of 2010.

Then, my children were only aged 6 and 4, and here I was setting out on – well truth be told, who knew what at that time – but nevertheless, I persisted. I then showed a photo of my family from today. Both my children, as you can see, are now nearly ten years older and much, much taller.

This was the second time I had shared this video with the team  – “Family is Important” is one of our core values, after all, and being open and genuine is part of who we are. The context for sharing it previously was a talk on change and how it is inevitable:

“Change, while inevitable, is often imperceptible and hard to see when you are living in the moment. And sometimes you are just barely living, you are surviving. In order to see the change, you need to wait a while. Let things percolate. Then come back and look at things several years later.

And this is where we are today. Big ideas take time. They do not happen overnight. The vision we started with – to build something of real and lasting value that impacts our community and make our mark on the world – while still very much true – was created 10 years ago.

I tried to emphasize that world-changing ideas may take a generation, or multiple lifetimes, to be actualized. But those truly great ideas…they are worth it.

The hard part, of course, is envisioning what idea is big enough? What idea is worth waiting a lifetime for? What idea will allow each of us to achieve our greatest self and live out our purpose courageously? And perhaps just as importantly, where would we find such an idea?

Genius is Everywhere

The photo below was shared with me by Rakib Islam, our Bangladesh-based Co-Founder, showing our then 4-person team on the day they moved into our first office in Khulna. This humble beginning was the start of a really big idea.

The year was 2013, and that year I visited Rakib and the team in Bangladesh for the first time. This visit transformed both me personally and Left as a company. In time, I hope we can point back to this visit as something that helped transform the world too.

I will get to that story shortly, but before I do, I think it is important to share another video with you. It was taken on that first visit, and for the last 7 years, I have been describing this scene as a lucky capture of a “moment of genius” … that first spark of an idea.

Let me set the scene for what you are watching:

The power is out for the 3rd time that day. It is 38 degrees celsius, and there is no air conditioning. Alan [sitting down] attempts to do a code check in while Rakib, Sabbir and Rashid look on. Alan’s shoulders slump as he gets a notice that the file download will take more than one hour on the dial up speed we had at the time and through which we had built many leading Internet brands. Rashid looks in to help while Rakib looks at his watch impatiently.

When I have talked about this video in the past, I have used it in the context of the moment of genius that led to the creation of a number of Left’s first products which focussed on connectivity: first Talkify and Gossip, then YO!, then WAVE, then RightMesh, and now TeleMesh. They all solved the same problem, really, slow internet connectivity, which – as illustrated in the video – impacts people’s lives and productivity. But, I was wrong.  Sure, this was a moment of genius, but the real moment of genius was actually happening just beyond the glass wall. That’s where Chris and Ayesha Siddika, the Operations Manager for the Bangladesh offices, were sitting down one-on-one with every member of the team. Talking with them. Learning from them. Hearing stories about their families, their hopes, and their dreams.

And what were people saying? … They wanted to travel.

Why Travel?

Fifteen years ago, I was at a conference focussed on the travel industry, and a young woman, aged 19 or 20, filled with hope and optimism, gave a speech on “Why we love to travel.” She was a recent graduate of a hospitality program, and she had the world to look forward to.

She talked about a lot of things, but the one that has stuck with me the most was a piece of advice she gave. She implored the audience:

When you know someone who has just returned from a trip, ask them for the “best part”, their “highlight”, or their “favourite memory”.

When you ask this question, you will notice people’s eyes look back and to the right signalling they are looking deep into the part of their brain that has a specific memory. This is the hard-to-put-into-words part of travel: the smell of the saltwater; the sound of the waves as they crash ashore; the party music of a late-night disco; a swoosh of red dress from that person who flirted with you late into the evening.

Those memories are dopamine. Travel is a drug that we cannot get enough of. Travel enlivens the senses. And there is no other way than travel to experience the rush.

Food, Family, Friendship, and Fun

The memories that trip the senses typically reside in these four ‘f’s… the smell and taste of wonderful food, the laughter of family and sharing of traditions, the friendships you create, and the fun you have along the way.

As we wrote last year when we were articulating our ‘Why’ for Left Travel:

We believe travel broadens the mind, opens the heart, and gives you stories to tell. We want to create better travel experiences because travel brings people closer together, breaks down barriers, and shows us new possibilities.

That is our why. This is our purpose.

Travel broadens our minds because the people we meet and the things we experience give us new perspectives and open us up to a different way of doing things.

As I wrote above, my first trip to Bangladesh transformed the company and me personally. For me, it changed how I look at the world. I had always thought I had an open mind and was open to seeing a different way of doing things. “Think Different” was another one of our core values from the beginning, after all. But I realized without the transformational on-the-ground and in-the-culture experience, I tended to accept the status quo – as all humanity tends to do. We don’t like change. We like the way things are done because that is all that we know. This changes when you travel.

When you travel, life humbles you.

When we returned to Canada after that first trip, I said to Chris that emerging markets, and Bangladesh specifically, are undervalued, underestimated, and under appreciated. This realization, gained from travelling to Bangladesh, was the genesis of so much we do today. I also said we could change that.

When the world connects, it becomes just a little bit friendlier

The humbling experience of travel never impacted me as deeply as in 2018 when, on yet another trip to Bangladesh, we visited the Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh on the border with Myanmar.

Sometimes when you travel, all experiences are not good experiences. But they still create memories, they create ideas, and if you think hard enough… you can learn from them.

For the past 6 years, we had been working on what we believed would be world-changing technology. Our visit to the refugee camp confirmed this. In the camp, we met people who had fled atrocities when they were small children, and now, here they were, 25 years later, and their circumstances hadn’t changed.

I never felt more fortunate, yet more ashamed for humanity. Yes, travel once again had humbled me, but it also opened my eyes to a really big idea.

So, what is it? What is this really big idea? I believe it is enabling the world to travel.

Travel with Purpose

Think back to what I wrote earlier about how long it takes to bring about change. Big ideas take time. They do not happen overnight.

Throughout my career, I have always tried to apply technology and marketing to solve the problems of today, but what I’ve realized we really need to do is solve the problems of tomorrow. This is “40-year Thinking”.

As Left approaches our 10th anniversary, I have been pondering the root causes of many of the world’s problems. So, while the United Nations has done an admirable job highlighting 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development, I have been thinking deeply about how so many things got so bad in the first place. How did it get to be that Rohingyans have had entire generations knowing nothing but torment? How is the world standing by and doing nothing for the Uyghur in Western China? How did things deteriorate so badly in the United Kingdom and the United States that hatred and intolerance are now, once again, commonplace and cheered?

I believe the root cause of so much evil in the world is misunderstanding and mistrust. This festers over time, and the forces that like to protect the status quo – that oppose change – pick away at all of us, encouraging us to hate and blame. This cycle has to stop. It must stop.

So, while the slow drip, drip, drip of society slipping away keeps me awake at night, I also believe we have the power to change it. But, it is going to take time. And, it is going to take a Herculean effort from everyone: from businesses and consumers in all corners of the globe. This is “business with purpose.”

Big Ideas Take Time

I have been extremely fortunate to travel in my life. I have been to many countries as have many members of the team. We have tasted unique foods and seen amazing sights. But above all else, it has been the conversations and interactions, the new perspectives, the homes we have been invited into, and the open arms that have welcomed us across cultures that have opened our eyes and our hearts.

Oh, the power of that feeling. That feeling we all get when we travel. The feeling that causes us to inadvertently look back and to the right to seek out those memories of the people and the conversations. The feeling that causes those who travel to open their minds to the genius that is everywhere. The feeling one gets when you realize that what is really is important, wherever you happen to call home, is that people have a shared sense of purpose: to make a mark so profound and positive that it improves the world for those who come long after us. At Left, we know what we need to do. We need to bring that feeling to the world. We need to make it easy and more affordable for the world to travel, open their hearts, and grow just a little bit closer, more tolerant, and more understanding.

For several years, Left’s focus has been on international travel, connecting travel sellers with those who want to see the world and experience that which it has to offer. Yes, the economics support it, but it is also the right thing to do if we want to affect change on a global scale. This is “business with purpose.”

When we became a B Corp, we became part of a global movement of companies that believe business can balance the needs of all stakeholders. And, while there are now more than 3,200 of us in 71 countries, this is only the beginning.

This is the long game. Big ideas take time. They do not happen overnight. But together, we can change the world.

John Lyotier