Jul 16, 2013 Strategic Social Responsibility in the Spotlight: Sudha Pennathur
Here at Wilsonwest, we like to emphasize to each of our corporate event management clients the importance of strategic social responsibility. What does this mean? Different companies may have their own definitions, but I like to encapsulate this concept as “doing the right thing in ways that will also benefit your company.”
Mind you, I’m not talking about some sort of philanthropy-with-strings-attached. I’m talking about looking for opportunities to do good within the scope of your ordinary business activities (as opposed to simply writing a huge check every year around tax time).
Over the months to come, I plan to highlight people and companies that personify strategic social responsibility. The first such person who comes to mind is my dear friend Sudha Pennathur.
For 28 years, Sudha has designed and manufactured truly stunning gifts, jewelry, scarves, and home textiles. Along the way, she has never failed to try to enhance the lives of the artisans with whom she works. Sudha’s tagline sums up her approach nicely: “International Design. Global Conscience.”
Sudha’s success was borne of adversity. After beginning her career as a fast-rising executive at Levi Strauss & Co., her business division was closed. Rather than brace herself for more corporate turbulence, she decided in 1986 to try something that would make a difference. So she marshaled her resources and started a design and manufacturing company. Her first venture was to open a store within the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, as well as unique boutiques within many of the Neiman-Marcus stores (at the invitation of then-CEO Richard Marcus himself!) that offered her original designs crafted by some of India’s National Award-winning artisans.
Right from the start, Sudha set her mind on doing the right thing. She made sure to help her initial group of artisans pass along their expertise to the next generation. She also convinced this largely talented group who lacked formal education to send their children to school—and formed a foundation to help them do so.
Fast forward 28 years. Sudha’s business is booming, and she’s now working with a third generation of artisans—many of whom are not only educated, but also computer-savvy enough to expedite the process of development to delivery and shave weeks off her design and production cycles!
And along the way, something else wonderful has happened: for the past 10 years, Sudha has spent one month of each year running a charity store in Marin County, California. During this special period, she’ll showcase and sell her collections at wholesale prices, and then donate 100% of the profits to the various nonprofits with which she’s personally involved (often as a board member). The list includes Angel Island Conservancy, Bread & Roses, and The Redwoods (a retirement community in Mill Valley).
The good doesn’t stop there. Sudha actually recruits dozens of volunteers from these nonprofits to work in her charity store. There, they make new connections and enlist supporters for their own causes. As communities of givers cross-pollinate, they come up with innovative ways of helping others.
So, how does Sudha personify strategic social responsibility? Well, she’s done immense good in the lives of her artisans and their families. And her fundraising efforts on behalf of U.S.-based charities have been remarkable. But there’s also no denying that running a charity store in the Bay Area is excellent publicity for her design business. And she reckons that when her customers have a choice between her products and those of a less-socially conscious vendor, they’ll pick hers every time.
It’s what you might call a win-win. I truly get inspired by stories like these, and I hope you do, too. As we design, market, sell, and publicize, let’s all keep looking for new opportunities to do the right thing.