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Embrace capitalism, says Whole Foods CEO

Brian O'Connell

Whole Foods Market isn’t a traditional company, but that doesn’t mean CEOs can’t learn from its success.

Whole Foods, the self-proclaimed global leader in natural and organic food sales, has grown from one lone store in Austin, Texas, back in 1980 to over 300 stores spread out across North America.

Its “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet” mantra may seem self-indulgent to some people (who probably don’t like Belgian endives, anyway), but to Whole Foods Market co-founder and CEO John Mackey, it’s a three-legged stool for success in a wheezing economy.

What’s more, Whole Foods’ full embrace of capitalism is a concept that Mackey wants budding entrepreneurs to fully absorb, and now he’s on a campaign to get that message across.

Startup owners – and future owners – would do well to pull up a chair and hear Mackey out.

His message? Capitalism is getting a bad rap in the media and in the culture, no thanks in large part to greedy Wall Street bankers who lost trillions in toxic investments and smugly strode to Washington to use U.S. taxpayers as automated teller machines.

“I’m going to argue that business and capitalism have bad brands,” Mackey said at a speech at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “In the 20th century there was this huge battle between capitalism and socialism. I would argue that capitalism won that battle.”

Even so, it’s Mackey’s belief that there is a “war on business” – and businesses are getting shelled. He told the University of Virginia audience that capitalists made a big mistake in the past few decades by allowing their enemies to label them as greedy and self-interested. It’s a label that has stuck, he says.

It’s also a label he says should be stripped off and fed to the bonfire, particularly in light of all the positive contributions capitalism has made to society.

“There are people alive in this room today, some of you are young enough, that you will see the end of poverty,” Mackey said. “We will wipe it out in the 21st century.”

Mackey’s weapon against the war on business has a catchy name – Conscious Capitalism.

He defines it as a business model entrepreneurs should emulate – one that aligns business with a purpose, and is administered by owners and managers who are passionate about the world being a better place. But it’s not all about holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” Mackey says that conscious capitalism must bring stakeholders together, including investors, suppliers, employees, communities and customers. Each group must share the burden and help each other group out.

When that happens, profits “fall into place,” Mackey says, and society benefits by extension. “Everybody can win in business except for the competitors who don’t improve or create more value. They get voted out of the marketplace by customers,” says Mackey.

For business owners, the message from Mackey is a simple one: “Liberate the Entrepreneurial Spirit for Good.” Mackey told his Virginia audience that his role is to make the world a better place by improving our diets.

Whatever your role, Mackey says, don’t fear making a buck or two out of it; Instead, embrace your capitalist side.

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