What’s Your Story

Carrie Freeman Parsons

In addition to her day job as vice chair at Freeman, Carrie Freeman Parsons finds time to serve on the boards of several organizations, including PCMA and Conscious Capitalism Inc., which while not directly related to the meetings industry helps inform her role at Freeman.

According to its website, Conscious Capitalism is an organization that promotes “a belief that a more complex form of capitalism is emerging that holds the potential for enhancing corporate performance while simultaneously continuing to advance the quality of life for billions of people.” It’s a lofty goal, and one that might be confused with corporate social responsibility, but the website makes the distinction between a company that practices Conscious Capitalism and one that performs CSR this way: It comes from “within the company as an expression of an overall perspective on how to conceive and build a business, rather than as a response to external notions of what counts as ‘socially responsible.’ ”

When Freeman Parsons first attended Conscious Capitalism’s Annual CEO Summit three years ago, she felt an immediate affinity between its values and those of Freeman – which she calls “an unconscious conscious business.” She explained: “Just by virtue of the type of culture and leadership that we have and the relationships that we have with our customers, employees, vendors, communities, and our industry, [I felt] that we were somewhat already there. So it didn’t feel foreign to me. But what occurred to me at the time is that if we became more conscious [about the principles], what more could we accomplish?”

While Freeman Parsons admits that her “initial journey was focused on Freeman,” she has set her sights on “not just how Freeman can grow as a conscious business but how we can advance this movement, outside of Freeman and more broadly into business.”

How do you summarize the principles of Conscious Capitalism?

Business – capitalism in particular – is the best vehicle to effect positive change in the world. Generally speaking, in Conscious Capitalism there are four key attributes. And the first is really having a very strong sense of purpose: Why does this company exist? At Southwest Airlines, it would be freedom to fly, and for Johnson & Johnson, it is caring for the world, one person at a time. It’s bigger than vision, bigger than mission.

The second piece of it is to have a strong stakeholder model. What I mean by that is the way business has gone recently is to do everything to improve shareholder value. And that might mean you don’t take as good care of your employees or you squeeze your vendors – it’s [more important that it’s] all about the shareholder. What the conscious capitalist believes is that you need to optimize value for all of your stakeholders – whether it’s your employees, vendors, customers, communities, or your environment – that as a strategy, you can ensure that it’s win-win-win, as opposed to tradeoffs (win and lose).

The third key principle is around servant leadership, [which] requires that leaders recognize their role in ensuring that it’s a purpose-driven business, and that they need to be focused on serving their people and leading their people toward the purpose of the business. The last piece of it would be that most conscious businesses are making decisions for the long term as opposed to short-term gains.

The cool thing about Conscious Capitalism is that it isn’t just a nice way to run a business – it’s a proven business strategy that, in fact, provides higher brand loyalty and return for their stakeholders.

Even though associations aren’t capitalistic enterprises, can’t they also share these kinds of values?

I would agree, [although] I haven’t 100 percent figured out the transition from the capitalist into the association world. There are certainly some principles that can be shared – a strong sense of purpose is incredibly important and relevant to associations. At their core, I think most medical associations have a noble purpose. The question is, do they focus on the purpose or do they focus on strategy – where their focus might be to recruit or educate new [members], or whatever. This goes back to the whole idea of PCMA[’s mission] – is it preparing our members to be the most equipped to develop and execute great meetings? Or is there a higher purpose? Ultimately, what we believe is that the human condition can be improved as a result of getting people together – we so believe in that that we are going to ensure that our members and our suppliers are in the best position to enable that to happen.

What does a company practicing Conscious Capitalism look like?

If you look at The Container Store or Whole Foods, Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom, Trader Joe’s, or Panera Bread – all these companies may or may not label themselves as Conscious Capitalists, but they demonstrate the attributes. And, they are also highly regarded brands that have enjoyed financial success – which goes to prove the idea that it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s a great business strategy. We are trying to get them [to identify themselves in that way]. I attribute Freeman’s success to the fact that we have been for 80 years a company steeped in Midwest values – we are more concerned about our customer’s [success] than our own, we care about our employees, and we give back to our industry. That’s why I say that we have been an unconscious conscious business.

Do you think that – given all the recent examples of corporate greed and deception – the public is more ready to embrace Conscious Capitalism?

I absolutely think that the time is right. Capitalism has taken a real brand hit as a result of the financial collapse. Corporate greed has become almost interchangeable with capitalism – and they are not the same thing. Fortunately there are a lot of [good] companies out there. We want more businesses to act like these businesses. John Mackie, the founder of Whole Foods [and Conscious Capitalism founder], and Raj [Sisodia, professor at Bentley University,] are writing a book called Conscious Capitalism that’s going to hopefully [make this concept] a little more mainstreamed.

For more information: consciouscapitalism.org

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.