Peace Talks Radio Host Suzanne Kryder talks with Jeff Marcous, CEO of Dharma Merchant Services.
Suzanne Kryder: Jeff Marcous, for those of us who aren’t in your business, what does Dharma Merchant Services do?
Jeff Marcous: Yeah, thanks Suzanne. Dharma Merchant Services, we kind of run under the radar of a lot of people, but in essence, we enable companies to accept credit cards. One of the most common ones would be PayPal for those who are web-based merchants, but we also deploy equipment and process for retail bricks and mortar stores. We’re a payment processor.
Kryder: Jeff, what is a B corporation and why did you want to get into one?
Marcous: The history of our industry, the merchant services or merchant processing industry kind of has a tarnished reputation for deceptive business practices and the like. I was inspired by companies like Newman’s Own and Ben & Jerry’s and companies that were giving back in some respect. That was the genesis behind it.
When we came across B corporations, we were thrilled because we didn’t realize that there was a movement to enact social change and that business does have a responsibility to the greater benefit which is the “B” in B-Corps, benefit of the community.
B-Corps has been a great movement. It’s international now. For real change to happen, I don’t think that individuals will ever get to enough critical mass to make that happen and we certainly can’t rely on government to do the right thing and represent social change, but business is ubiquitous because business touches most everybody. If business gets onboard to enact these kinds of changes, then it will happen. That’s a B-Corps in a nutshell.
There is another movement called “benefit corporations” and I mention that Suzanne because it sounds so similar, but many states have enacted legislation which actually recognizes a different business legal type. You’ve got S-Corps and you have C-Corporations, but a benefit corporation allows a company to not just exist for shareholder value, not just to create shareholder value, but to create stakeholder value to benefit good in the public scheme somewhere.
We also are a benefit corporation in addition to being a B-Corps if that makes sense.
Kryder: How is being a B-Corps an example of corporation peacemaking?
Marcous: Aside from the fact that my company donates upwards 50% of our after tax profits to the community at the end of every year, we identify non-profit organizations in a few different categories. Many of the recipients of our donations are, in some way, fostering social equality or peace. We usually choose recipients from different categories; education, health, animal welfare, etc. and that is the direct way that we foster peace.
When you’re a company that’s called “Dharma,” dharma being a Sanskrit word that doesn’t have any one word interpretation or definition, but it refers to one path and our path is to serve others without question, even to the point where if a company contacts us and perhaps we’re not the best fit for them, they can get services that are more cost effective elsewhere, we would just guide them into that direction. Whatever is in the best interest of our stakeholders is what we do. Because of that, when we have someone else’s best interest in mind, we’re actually practicing dharma as laid down by the teachings; Buddhist scripts and such.
Everything we do, even in the way that we hold space for others, we’re present for each other and having the best interest of others in mind. Even at that level, on a one to one basis, every call that comes in, the way that we interact with clients and suppliers and vendors and people just inquiring, we feel that’s a reflection of our Buddha nature creating peace and doing it with compassion. That’s our motto “commerce with compassion.”
Kryder: If you’re giving away money to non-profits or charities, doesn’t that make your services higher priced than other merchant services?
Marcous: That’s a great question. In fact others may assume that that’s the case and occasionally we have to address that when someone contacts us, but no, we actually, as a company, have to look at how much is enough. There are a lot of publicly traded companies in our space and even privately owned companies that are creating incredible wealth. That’s not the case in our company.
We just made a strategic decision that we would raise the lowest paid worker a salary here in San Francisco to $70,000 a year and so the ratio of our lowest paid salary to mine, I’m the CEO, is less than four to one. In our country, the average CEO to worker ratio is like 350 times. Our intention is that we’re not only fair with our pricing, we’re not only fair to our staff and fair to myself as a CEO, but I’m willing to do that without sacrificing any kind of increase in cost or quality of services. That’s just not the nature of who I am and what the company represents.
We are one of the only companies that I know of that has full disclosure of pricing and policies on our website. It’s unheard of in our industry. I know that we’re making a lot less money than our competitors are and we’re absolutely okay with that.
Kryder: What do you think a business owner could do if he doesn’t want to become a B-Corps? What could he or she do to build peace in their organization?
Marcous: B-Corps are the best start. Even if a company can’t get through the assessment, which is a lot of them, there are so many ideas that the company can get from at least going through the assessment that would help foster greater peaceful relations with their own staff and with the people who buy goods and services from them. It’s really important that all business start to take a look.
It reminds me of when the green market, the green business sector started coming into business. Everyone had to shout from the rooftops; “We’re green! We’re green!” At some point, maybe it won’t be in my lifetime, all businesses will be green because that is the right thing to do and consumers have the most influence on how businesses act. At some point, my belief is that most all businesses will jump on board and be a part of this.
By the way, it doesn’t take all businesses. It doesn’t even take 50% of businesses. I was just looking at some research online that said that for change to take effect, it really only takes about a 10% threshold for massive change to take place, for people to adopt a whole new world view. It really only takes about 10% of people to do that and that is the point at which change can happen. If people are thinking oh, it will never happen because we will never be the majority, that’s not the case. Change can take place with a much smaller percentage.
Peace Talks Radio Host Suzanne Kryder talks with Moira Birss, Colombia
Project Advocacy Officer, Peace Brigades International.
Kryder: Moira Birss, tell us about the peace community in Colombia.
Birss: Colombia is a country that has, for the past nearly 60 years has been mired in an internal armed conflict. That’s meant that within the country, there has been guerilla warfare and insurgency fighters as well as paramilitary style groups often allied with armed forces, particularly in the past and a situation in which those who do work to support human rights, to advocate for peace and support victims, often throughout the country’s history have been stigmatized, defamed, threatened and at times, even killed.
It’s also a situation in which massive numbers of people have been displaced, forcibly displaced from their homes. Colombia actually has, after Syria, the second highest number of internally displaced people in the world. That’s a little known fact.
That has meant that a lot of small scale farmers from rural areas who made their living through subsistence farming have been pushed off their land over the last several decades due to the armed conflict in Colombia.
One of the regions hardest hit by the conflict has been what’s known as the Uraba region which is in the northwest of the country near the border with Panama and in that area lived a number of small communities and rural farmers who, after having been displaced more than once, several times, said we’ve had enough. We want to stay on our land. We want to continue to protect our livelihoods and we don’t want to be pawns in this conflict, the conflict in rural areas have been a situation in which civilians are caught in the middle.
One day guerilla fighters might come to your farm and hold a gun to your head and say “Feed us and shelter us for a couple of days.” So many farmers have felt that they have no choice but to do that. Then a few days later, the military might come along or paramilitaries and say, “You collaborated with the guerilla’s, you’re a guerilla sympathizer, we’ve going to threaten or kill you.” Members of the community in this area said we’ve had enough of that.
So in 1997, they declared their neutrality. They said we know that international law recognizes the neutrality of civilians, what’s known as the Principle of Distinction and we want to call upon that, that’s actually international law, to protect ourselves. They built fences around their community areas and declared themselves a peaceful community and since then have been fighting to remain on their land and resist displacement and also to build a model of farming that can support them and be just and sustainable.
Kryder: Moira, there are three principle players; the peace community in Columbia, large corporations and also Peace Brigades International where you work. Tell us about your position at Peace Brigades.
Birss: Sure. I’m the Colombia Project Advocacy Officer based in Washington, D.C. My job is to share with policymakers in Washington as well as the NGO community and public supporters about what’s happening on the ground in Colombia for human rights defenders like the peace community of San José de Apartadó members, as well as the overall human rights situation in Colombia and to make suggestions and policy proposals and the like to help shape U.S. policy to better support protection for human rights defenders and the human rights situation in general.
Kryder: Tell us about the Lush Corporation, what they do and how they got involved in Colombia.
Birss: Sure. The Lush Corporation got involved in Columbia through one of PBI’s offices based in London, a support office that developed a relationship with Lush which is a company that seeks to support fair trade projects and environmental protection and other social justice initiatives through their companies’ operations.
Lush was interested in supporting the peace community having heard from PBI about its work to create food sovereignty, economic sovereignty and autonomy and protect its community members in the conflict in Colombia.
So Lush developed a relationship actually directly with the peace community to export cocoa, chocolate essentially or cocoa beans that could be processed and used in producing a massage bar, the oil from the cacao to produce a massage bar that they sell in their stores.
Kryder: Moira, what is Lush doing that is extraordinary or brave for a corporation that feels important?
Birss: One of the things that Lush is doing that is really different than many other companies is creating long term relationships with communities like the San José de Apartadó peace community that provide long term support for the community itself by a direct relationship in purchasing their cacao beans.
In the peace community, this is one of their main sources of income and so besides the food crops that they grow that they eat themselves, they do need to make some money in order to send their kids to school and buy clothes and things like that.
So having a direct relationship with Lush in which they are every year purchasing a certain amount of cacao beans at a fair trade price, Lush is helping support the peace communities’ livelihoods as their long term project of resistance, of staying on their land, of resisting displacement and supporting local peace-building initiatives. That’s something that many corporations are only seeking short term profits and not thinking about the long term and about sustainability and about supporting communities.
Kryder: How do you think this work with the peace community is relevant to our listeners? Why should they care what’s happening?
Birss: Well, I think, as I said earlier about why this work is important to me, I believe that what happens to one of us in one part of the world affects us all. We’re all human beings and I believe that we should all care about what happens to all of us.
Also it is because peace building and specifically the peace building work of the peace community is a model for other parts of the world. It served as a model for other communities in Colombia, but also communities around the world.
This idea of standing up for what’s right, of defending one’s life and livelihood and the courage to do that in the face of really real physical danger is a source also of inspiration for those of us here in the U.S. We might not have the same kinds of violence that we confront and certainly not an internal conflict of course, but there are also struggles and issues that we face in our own country that need to be changed.
One thing that has been a major focus recently has been police brutality in this country and racialized violence and in situations like that, there is a lot to be learned from the courage and the courage and the perseverance of the peace community and other Colombian human rights activists.
Peace Talks Radio Host Suzanne Kryder talks with Robin Seydel, Membership Coordinator,
La Montanita Food Co-Op, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Kryder: Robin Seydel, what is a cooperative?
Seydel: Well there are many definitions of a cooperative depending on what kind of coop you are. La Montanita is a consumer owned coop so we are owned by a community of shoppers and consumers that own the business. An international definition is that a coop is an association of autonomous and independent individuals coming together for mutual aid and mutual benefit.
Kryder: What kind of mutual aid?
Seydel: It depends on what kind of coop it is. If it’s a consumer coop, as in our case, we purchase in bulk and then we sell those foods and those products to the community that owns us. If it’s a producer coop, maybe a bunch of farmers are coming together to market their products together to have a better economy of scale than the marketplace. If it’s a child care coop, a group of families might come together to help each other take care of their children.
Coops really come together to meet the needs of a community of people. Depending on what that need is and what that community wants, that’s what the coop does and it benefits all the owners of that coop.
Kryder: You must have decided to be a coop not another regular corporation. What’s the difference between a coop and other companies?
Seydel: There is really a huge difference between the coop economic model and the corporate “business as usual” model. We all know how the corporate “business as usual” model works. If you have extra money after you put a roof over your food on the table, shoes on the baby, you go to the stock market and you buy shares of stock in that publicly traded corporation. For every share of stock that you can afford to buy with that extra money, you buy another vote in that organization so people with more money or more resources suddenly become more equal.
In a coop, we have a different model and that is that we say one person, one vote, that’s it. It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, you cannot buy more votes in a coop organization. So we really think of coops as true economic democracies because of that one person, one vote structure.
Kryder: Are cooperatives non-profits?
Seydel: No, we are not 501C3s. We make profits and then we return the profits that we make to the community of owners and that is something that a non-profit organization cannot do. They can reinvest their money in the organization, but they cannot distribute that patronage to the community of owners to enrich that community of owners.
Kryder: If you distribute the money, what is it based on?
Seydel: It’s based on patronage; how much you use the goods and services of the cooperative organization that you own. The more you come to La Montanita and buy your food there, the bigger your patronage return is.
That’s another key difference between the coop structure and the corporate structure. In the corporate structure, they want unlimited returns. They don’t care where they dump their toxic waste, they don’t care who dies in a sweatshop fire in Bangladesh, they’re out to get as much profit as they possibly can for their owners, unlimited based on the investment that extra money.
At coops, it’s based on patronage; how much you use the goods and services of that organization and it is limited based on your patronage. That’s another key difference between the coop structure and the corporate structure.
Kryder: Robin Seydel, how is being a cooperative an example of corporate peacemaking?
Seydel: When I think of all that’s going on in the world and when communities are not in peace, I think that it is directly related to a lack of access to resources and the unequal distribution of wealth and the suffering that that causes in communities, that lack of access to resources.
Because coops are more egalitarian, because everybody gets an opportunity to be an owner and have access to those resources, I really think, if we are going to create a more peaceful world and a more just world, the coop economic model is key in that creation.
Kryder: What kind of peacemaking do I do if I shop at the coop rather than a big chain grocery store?
Seydel: Well, you’re supporting your friends and neighbors in the community. We know from many economists that there is a multiplier effect; when you take a dollar and you spend that dollar on a local product in a locally owned store, that dollar multiplies many times before it leaks out of the community.
If you take that same dollar to a big box store, a big corporation chain, immediately $0.73 leaves the community and only $0.27 stays in the community.
I don’t know about you, but I would rather see all of us in this room today get to use my dollar that I’m spending on tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes, green chilies, whatever it is that we all get, to use that dollar before it leaves our community. Just creating that community wealth, that sharing of resources is key in peacemaking when you shop at a coop or when you help a community form a coop.
Kryder: Robin Seydel, what are reasons people give for not shopping at the coop?
Seydel: Mostly I think they think that we’re some weird hippie organization or they think it’s a really tight little club of some kind and they’re not joiners. Really anybody can shop at La Montanita Coop and at most food coops.
You get a variety of benefits if you are an owner and I think people also don’t understand that we pay the true cost of production for many of our products and so our price is a little higher than the big corporate chains that hundreds or thousands of stores that have a huge economy of scale to purchase with.
We also are making sure that all our staff gets paid a fair and good wage, that we pay 80% of their health care and their dental care, moms and dads get maternity leave. We give all our staff $0.50 on every dollar that they put into their 401K, we match that by $0.50. So we’re trying to create a work with dignity environment and all of that, doing it right and doing it in a sustainable way, means we probably have a higher overhead than some of the big corporate chains visa vi our size proportionate to our size.
I think that people don’t understand the importance of the coop model and what that means in our communities in terms of building community wealth and how that egalitarian model that it is so important to democracy
Peace Talks Radio Host Suzanne Kryder talks with Dan Abramson,
Originator, Yoga-Joes (Only in hour-long version of program).
Abramson: Yoga-Joes are the classic green soldiers, but they’re doing yoga instead of fighting.
I’d say I took my inspiration directly from the classic toy. Specifically when I had the idea, I went and bought myself every set possible of little army man toys and then I basically noticed that they were in very similar gestures to actual yoga poses.
So I embarked on a yearlong quest to figure out how to make this, categorizing in the positions of each of these army guys; limbs and heads, [etc.]. That was basically my inspiration from the beginning.
Kryder: Dan Abramson, is this more like a gag; we grew up with green army men. Is it a gag or does it have a deeper meaning?
Abramson: I think it’s definitely a gag. I think that was my intention from the beginning, to make people laugh. I thought it was funny and so did my friend Paul. He’s a standup comedian in San Francisco.
We were joking around at a coffee shop trying to figure out ways to get people to do more yoga, make yoga more mainstream and we were thinking; what can we do to make this more serious? We were thinking; should we make dolls do yoga? No. Should we make action figures do yoga? Then it just hit us like a ton of bricks; army men doing yoga because they’re practically already doing it and they actually are on these platforms that kind of look like yoga mats.
So it definitely started as something funny and I want that to carry through; it is like art and it is funny. I think that’s what people like about it; it’s a funny piece.
Kryder: And people see them and some people want to buy them. Who wants to buy them?
Abramson: I get a nice mix of people which makes it a good product. The interesting mix is that I get obviously yoga enthusiasts and then I also get a strong military presence, both active duty and retired. Then you also see moms who want to have a non-violent toy as well as just design, hipster, artsy people that see irony in it. So it’s a nice mix. It’s a nice little hodgepodge.
Kryder: Dan, why do military people want Yoga Joes?
Abramson: That’s what was so interesting about the project; I knew that military yoga was a thing, that people were treating post-traumatic stress with yoga, but I never knew it was this big. I’ve received messages and an outcry of support from people in the active duty and retired world and also people just trying to rectify life after service. Families trying to do something together [that’s non-violent]. I think military people like it because yoga has an interesting way of helping you let go if there is something that’s bugging you or if you’re thinking about work or you’re thinking about a notice on your phone, because you’re trying to keep up with this active position and sail on with the rhythm of the class. You can’t really focus on the thing that you dwell on, so when someone has a stressful moment or some trauma like a lot of our soldiers do, this is a way of letting go.
Kryder: Dan Abramson, I’m sure you had lots of goals in creating Yoga Joes. What was the peacemaking goal behind creating Yoga Joes?
Abramson: I think the peacemaking goal was just to get more people to do yoga. I started doing it a couple of years ago and found enormous benefits, initially physical benefits for my back. This was when I was about 26 years old that I was having back pain. But then I started to see a lot of other benefits like focus. In our modern world of constant communication, constant stimuli – I was working at an ad agency at the time and it was an email every second, a tweet every second, somebody tapping you on the shoulder every second. I found it very difficult to focus. Taking an hour or an hour and a half to do yoga practice helped me find a little bit of silence in my brain. It was a way of finding peace internally.
Kryder: I’m curious about the military people who buy Yoga Joes. Do you see a combination in them of strength and flexibility?
Abramson: I hope so. I hope Yoga Joes celebrate the redeeming qualities in a soldier, the focus and the discipline. I think that’s why they flock to the practice so well; they’re used to physical training. Another thing that was so fascinating about the response I received from the military was that it wasn’t just veterans that served in a former military operation, these are people in the field right now. They say, “When we do physical training, we incorporate yoga.” One captain from Afghanistan messaged me and said that after their patrols, they like to come back and do yoga because they like to play peace after they play war.
Kryder: Have you ever had any negative reactions to Yoga Joes from older veterans or other active military people?
Abramson: No, it’s generally been positive. From what I’ve seen on the internet, it’s been 99% positive. Of course every once in a while, the polarizing conservative movement on the very edge of it can say that this is the “wussification” of America. Children should not be coddled with non-violent toys. That’s not something that I was really trying to address at all. People like to take a symbol, something that has an icon look to it and then draw their own conclusions. There were very few people [who have had negative reactions].