Joint interview with Roland Dominicé, CEO of Symbiotics and Jonathan Normand, founding Director of B Lab Switzerland.
Symbiotics is one of the pioneering and leading actors in the field of impact investing. Could you please tell us a little bit more about the company?
Roland Dominicé: We started in Geneva in 2005, the Year of Micro-Credit for the United Nations. We wanted to help banks and investors in the North “push capital to where it normally doesn’t flow” in the South, initially through microfinance, but increasingly through a range of activities including medium sized business and projects in sectors like food and agriculture, climate and energy, housing and infrastructure, health or education. From a group of friends at inception, the firm grew beyond our wildest dreams with today more than 160 colleagues, 8 office locations and a coverage of over a thousand impact finance companies spread over more than 85 emerging and frontier economies.
You’re joining a global movement of companies committed to using business as a force for good. What does it inspire you and what common actions do you envision?
R.D: Using business as a force for good is our sense of purpose, it was thus very natural for us to join the B Corp Movement. We invest a lot in supporting industry infrastructure and initiatives, and are also an active member of many leading industry associations. I think it’s very important for this nascent but lasting movement in the financial sector to structure itself, develop norms, layout its principles and put forward its value added, through a collective intelligence build-up. B Corp is an important part of all of that, contributing to our overall objective.
The B Corp Movement is accelerating towards the milestone of 100 companies in Switzerland. In Europe, the 600th company has just been certified (from Spain!). How do you perceive this development?
Jonathan Normand: With the COVID-19 crisis shining a light on sustainability issues and “building back better”, interest in the B Corp movement has risen significantly in the past year. The first port of call for any company is typically the B Impact Assessment, a free tool offering insights on improving a business for people and the planet. Pre COVID, we had around 100 companies in Switzerland using this each day. In the last 12 months, this has risen to 500. The growing interest in the B Corp certification is related to the fact that we combine impact management and stakeholders governance, answering the market’s need for authentic and credible frameworks. Board members and CEO’s come back to me saying: “we want to be part of the movement. Certification is a milestone!”
What initiated the B Corp project internally and how did you drive this project?
R.D: It came out of bottom-up consultations that we do periodically through corporate weeks, management days or ad-hoc feedback loops, as a good way to apply to ourselves, through a third party second opinion, what we ask from our investees. The general management was quick to adopt that ask, in tune with our mission and vision, promoting it to our board of directors as a good dashboard for improving our impact footprint, and to our shareholders, who agreed to by-law changes to integrate the B Corp grammar and vocabulary.
From your experience, where does the impulse to become certified come from? And why is addressing impact and sustainably elements from the organisation practices to the business model game changing?
J.N: The market is demanding change. We have moved from addressing sustainability as a self-standing corporate activity to an integrated process that covers the business model’s organizational practices and impact. An approach that allows businesses to work on things you can plug and unplug to a durable design that makes it difficult to change.
Sustainability is at the heart of Symbiotics’ business. Did you nevertheless learn something new regarding social and environmental impact during this process? And will it trigger any changes in your company?
R.D: The firm may have a feeling of leadership in social finance and impact investing for the past 15 years. But we always learn. Two topics which were in the making, in term of improvements, but which the B Corp certification further validated, was the formalization of our environmental and diversity objectives. In February, we signed the UN Race to Zero, and started drafting our environmental policy. In March, we signed a diversity and inclusion plan, and had a first kick-off workshop with the consultant helping us drive that process.
One key benefit of the certification is to help companies position themselves as leaders in their industry in terms of social and environmental performance. How can this play out for Symbiotics?
J.N: Symbiotics have been a pioneer in their sector for many years. In every sector today, getting recognition and acknowledgment to validate that businesses are walking the walk is priceless, particularly regarding the increasing scrutiny of all stakeholders companies operate with. I see more of a role model for Symbiotics that paves the way for others to follow.
And what would you identify as other main benefits of the certification?
R.D: It’s a nice way to formalize many things that are important in our industry, and then a good dashboard to look at margins of progression. It’s a good communication tool as well.
2021-2022 will hopefully be post-pandemic years. Can you share insights about the upcoming plans for B Lab in Switzerland?
J.N: It’s not our aim to certify every business, but we believe we can help change the system. Ultimately, though, we want to make ourselves obsolete, where our principles have been integrated into the way the world works. The new normal will challenge the status quo and rethink the licence to operate in a complex world. However, our mission is not yet accomplished. To support the maximum of business to lead the beat, we have been designing programs like Swiss Triple Impact, a pathway to measuring what matters, which eases the business transformation process by offering a lower step than the B Corp certification process (without by-law changes). Engaging 3000 businesses in Switzerland inspired by B Corp is one of our proposals to develop the SDG/impact-driven infrastructure market.
If you had to share one last thought about this achievement with the readers, what would that be?
R.D: It’s always about people in the end, and the B Lab Switzerland team has been great with us, both at explaining and convincing us, and then holding our hand along the process. A big thanks and cheers to that.