Maria Kingery is a self-described impact junkie who believes that businesses have the power to change the world. And that’s exactly what Certified B Corporations (B Corps) are doing. So what is a B Corp, and how does an organization get certified? Today, Maria takes us to B Corps 101 class and tells us all about the impact B Corps can have. She also shares some lessons in leadership that she learned the hard way, plus talks about why she embraced “love” as a core value in her business.
Maria Kingery is the Founder and Principal at 360Impact (which changed its name from 360Rocks shortly before publishing this episode). She is also a co-founder and Chief Impact Officer of Southern Energy Management, which has been a B Corp since 2009.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and readability.
[START OF INTRO]
Alisa Herr: Welcome to Inside Impact, where we give you a behind-the-scenes peek at how organizations can create positive change in their communities.
I’m Alisa Herr, founder of Unity Web Agency, and on the show today, leadership coach Maria Kingery comes on to tell us all about something you’re going to hear quite a bit on this show:
Maria Kingery: I am a 54-year-old B Corp impact junkie who believes that businesses have the power to change the world, and I’ve been at it with my own business that I co-founded with my husband in 2001 for 21 years now.
I really saw a need for other businesses that I felt like could learn from my mistakes, honestly.
Alisa Herr: Maria has won numerous awards and her work has been recognized by the US Department of Energy, MIT, and Stanford. She’s the founder and principal of the consulting agency 360 Rocks and co-founder and Chief Impact Officer of Southern Energy Management.
At 360 Rocks, she works with impact-driven entrepreneurs and their leadership teams to embed sustainability into the fabric of their organizations. I am lucky enough to have been one of those entrepreneurs she’s worked with, and I met Maria through the local B Corp community.
[END OF INTRO]
Maria Kingery: So the way I found out about B Corps is also one of my favorite memories in business.
I was at a net impact conference, and I think it was downtown Raleigh, and Eric Henry who owns TS Designs literally comes running across the room and he’s like:
“You’re Maria Kingery, right?”
And I was like:
And he was like:
“You need to be a B Corp.”
In my head I was thinking:
“Okay, well, first of all, who are you? And second of all, what’s a B Corp?”
But he was so passionate and you’ve met Eric, right?
So he’s just, he’s just adorable and so full of life and everything. So naturally, I had to listen to what he had to say. And basically, his pitch was:
You are already a B Corp. You’re just not being measured on it.
And so then I had a series of conversations with Bart Houlahan, one of the founders, and he came and met with us!
The rest is history.
You know, for me, I felt like this is just my perspective, but one of the things that we did that we still do for a living is we go into buildings and verify that they are being built to the standards that the builder wants them to be and says they are.
And to me, it just made sense that we would want a third-party verification. We’re third-party verifiers, right?
That’s part of the work that we do. And so from the very beginning, this ethos of using business as a force for good, which is one of the B Corp phrases that we all like to use.
It was just who we are, and it’s always been who we are. So to be able to actually have an assessment that verifies that and validates that felt like a really important thing to do.
Alisa: Yeah. For people that don’t know what a B Corp is, can you give a brief introduction?
What is a B Corp?
Maria: So a B Corp is a company that takes a third-party assessment around five different impact areas. And those are community governance, internal governance, impact on their workers, impact on the environment, and impact on their customers.
It’s fairly in-depth. I want to hesitate to use the word complex, but that is the word that’s coming to me since you go through and answer questions on these five impact areas.
There’s a possible score of 200, but you only need 80 to be certified as a B Corporation.
Not that that’s easy, because I know that it’s not. In fact, 360 Rocks just became B Corp Certified.
So now I have two certified B Corps, which is really kind of cool and fun.
But yeah, so you have to get 80 and the great thing from my perspective about being a B Corp by far, is that well, there’s the measurement piece, right? So you actually know that you’re creating the impacts that you want to be creating, but the ancillary benefit that you get is being part of a community of people who are also making that commitment.
Alisa: That’s how we met, right?
Being a part of a community!
And when we started Southern Energy Management in 2001, we didn’t know there was any such thing, even like Burts Bees, right? We didn’t. Nobody was talking about, some triple bottom line language. And there were some more academic conversations happening.
But as far as the community of practice and people who are actually doing this, you know, I’ve learned so much and gotten so much value from that piece of it. And then as our company has evolved, we haven’t given our team members the opportunity to have a community of like-minded people that they can interact with as well.
Alisa: Yeah, the community part is one of the best parts of being a B Corp.
Maria: Yeah, it definitely is.
Alisa: We went together to that Eileen Fisher gathering for B-Corp women CEOs, and one of the things that they talked about that I thought was so cool was that, instead of trying to force our way into the table, it was about making a new table and saying:
“We’re not gonna fight this uphill battle. We’re going to make our own game and do it our way, and our way can be more empathetic.”
And I think the business leadership that B Corps have where you’re really thinking about your impact of your team, community, customers, environment, and all of those things, it’s almost a completely different way of doing business in a way.
Maria: No, not in a way.
It is completely different.
It isn’t, it isn’t right. I get what you’re saying.
Alisa: Is there a relationship between gender in leadership and social impact? Have you seen more women leaders of social impact companies proportionately? I’m curious.
Maria: I think as a woman, and I can only speak for myself and some of the women business owners that I know, I do think that there is a very deep desire to do business in a way that feels authentic. I mean, I see that amongst men as well, and it’s the men that I hang around and work with.
So it’s not a universal statement, but maybe women are just less tolerant of playing the game so to speak.
I mean, you were talking about the amount of funding that goes to women.
Well, one of the things is our company is officially women-owned, right? Which seems sort of funny.
And back in the day, I could legitimately say yes, I definitely run this business.
Now, as Chief Impact Officer I’m still involved in developing our people and things like that. But at any rate, I digress, my point was going to be:
The other main reason that I wanted to become a B Corp, in the beginning, was because at the time I thought it was inevitable that we would raise money, scale, and we would take on investors, etc, etc.
And a big piece of the B Corp, the thing that you signed on to, is that you write into your bylaws that you are going to take into consideration all stakeholders, not just shareholders. And that was really important to me.
I mean, it turns out that didn’t happen. We decided not to go that route, but that really was one of my motivations at the time, because that’s where I thought we were headed.
Alisa: That’s interesting. What did you learn in your career that led you to coaching?
Maria: In my work, my goal is to give my clients the tools, resources, and some of the knowledge that I wish I had had. When we discover this whole concept of an operating system, it changed our world because we had done what most businesses do.
You’re just out there. I mean, we had some smart people doing really great work. We had some systems in place. But to really scale the organization and to really think about it and again, living a sustainable life as founders, I just, you know, we were on that rollercoaster.
I know you know. I’ve talked to a lot of other players about the “solar coaster,” right?
Because it’s where we get whipped all around with policy and stuff, but starting any business is a roller coaster, right? I mean, it’s a ride, and it doesn’t have to be like that. There are always things that are outside of our control and much more.
So today it feels like right is outside of our control.
And so being able to put the systems, processes, and the foundational pieces in place so that what you can influence is sustainable. And then that just sets us up, even more, to be able to face the challenges and opportunities that are inevitably going to come our way.
Alisa: Right, yeah. You used to be an EOS implementer and that’s how we started working together, and that toolkit and operating system that we’ve basically continued to use, even once you’ve moved on from that, has completely changed our business.
It’s night and day.
I don’t think we would be around now, actually. No, I know we wouldn’t be around now if it weren’t for that.
We’ve had, like you said, a roller coaster. There’ve been really great times and some really not-so-great times. Having a coach, a guide, to be there and show you that that’s the low times and not the end. And then also to help with putting that kind of structure in place, the infrastructure of how a business runs and what you need, how you set goals, how you track your goals, how do you measure these, what matters in your company, seeing that growth?
It’s so cool. It’s so cool. I love it.
Maria: I’m about to cry over here, actually. Yeah, I love it. I love that you are so enthusiastic about it still and I mean, that’s still the work that I do.
I help organizations implement an operating system, their operating system. So you’ve got the “Unity” operating system that you’ve instilled. And it is something now that you will continue to add tools to that toolbox.
And as you grow, you’ll need different tools, but the fundamental principles:
Let’s get everybody some real clarity and alignment around a vision about where we’re going to go. And then how we’re going to get there.
How do you run a meeting? How do you set up a scorecard?
I mean, these are like basic principles that most of us know, or at least we’ve heard we’re supposed to do. But for whatever reason, it can feel overwhelming.
At least it did for us.
I mean, we had scorecards. Balanced scorecards. We had all kinds of systems that we put in place, but nothing worked for us until we really looked at the business holistically.
Now I’m really excited about the way we’re thinking about this.
It starts with purpose, right?
Because why get out of bed in the morning and do a thing, right?
You got to start with your purpose and then it’s about your people, right? And getting people who, and you’ve heard this a thousand times, share your core values and are fired up about where you’re looking to go. And then after people comes a playbook, and you gotta have a shared playbook.
This is how we do our basic things. And then you have to focus on the performance against that. And then the last one is the one I’m most excited about:
Alisa: Oh, yes.
I really want to think about it because I was sort of taught to believe that profits are the end-all, be-all. And without profit you know:
No money, no mission.
Bart Houlihan said that to me at one point when SEM was in a not-so-happy place.
Alisa: You’ve said it to me.
Maria: Yeah. I want to say it to anyone who’ll listen because we talk about the lessons that you learned. Right?
So that profitability piece, and being able to sustain a profitable organization is really important, but it’s not all of what prosperity looks like for you as a founder, right?
Because it’s more than just money.
I know a lot of founders who’ve made a lot of money who do not feel prosperous. So, then what does prosperity look like for your people, for your community, for all those things? And then in the middle of our model, currently it’s drawn as a heart, and it’s got impact in the middle.
I don’t know if that’s going to fly in the business world, but…
Alisa: Well, one of your core values is what? Lead with love?
Maria: Yeah. That’s, what’s on my business card.
Alisa: So I think that the heart being right there in the middle makes the most sense. I, as someone who knows you and knows the way that you operate, that is very relevant. I have started at the end of our, we just had a quarterly meeting last week, and at the end of it, I’m tempted to just tell my entire team. I love you. Thank you. I love you.
Why don’t you?
Because it feels weird.
Maria: I know it does, doesn’t it? I tell people I love them all the time. I’m sure I’ve said to you because I do.
And you know what?
I do too.
And that’s why I put it on the front of my business card:
Because we do, and yet we don’t say it and we don’t always act from that place.
I mean, we had a town hall meeting for Southern Energy Management last week. I think there were a hundred and some people on there and at the end I was like:
“I love you all.”
I mean, I’m sure some of these people are like:
“I’ve never met this lady before. What in the world is this?”
But you know what? Maybe even, even if that’s the response, it’s like:
“Huh, that was different. Something different just happened here?”
And I did have a male colleague of mine — so I actually did this at a conference two years ago and it was the last conference that I went to where we were in person — and I was giving a talk about something or another. And at the end, I said:
“I love you guys” or “love you people” or whatever I said.
I made a flip comment about it and said “I tell our people that” and blah, blah, blah.
And this guy actually, he runs a company. I think he’s got five or 600 people now. He actually called me and he was like:
“Maria, I just want you to know that at our last company meeting, I told him I loved him.”
I was like, “wow, that’s awesome.”
Alisa: I kind of wonder what people think on the receiving end of it. Do they think, if that’s the first time they hear that, do they think:
“Oh, are you dying? Are you leaving us? Like, why are you telling us that?”
Maria: Well, we’re all dying right? Just like in some ways, and we’re all living.
And I think there’s room for more love in the business world. I tried to make love one of our core values back in 2009 or 2010 with SEM when we were growing really rapidly and we were bringing in a lot of people. And even without calling it or knowing it was an operating system, I knew that core values were at the very foundation.
You got to have those with everybody on your team.
And I actually had a team of like four or five people who were going through that and helping me to develop these. And they were like:
“Maria, you can’t do that.”
Because they said it would make people uncomfortable and people will think that you’re weird.
And Alisa, I think about that.
We’ve gotta embrace the weird.
I think about this sometimes. And then I remember I was like speaking to a group one time and I was so proud that I had listened to them. And I said:
You know, I really thought that was really good that we were collaborating and they had their point of view.
So it’s a balance, right? Because part of me is like, man, what would have happened? What might’ve been different if I had insisted: “no, love is part of this culture.”
Alisa: So yeah, that’s interesting.
When I founded Unity, I’d come from a non-profit. And non-profits talk about mission, values, purpose, and all of those things.
And so I had no business background.
I knew what I wanted my business to generally look like. I knew what it didn’t want it to be. And it’s kind of like parenting, like you know where I don’t want it to be. And then you’re like:
“Okay, well I guess I’ll figure it out.”
And I had two kids by the time I started this company. So I was like:
“Well, if I can make humans, I can make a business, right?”
And so I started with those values too. They were very complicated. And I think I was probably two years into the business when I met you.
I remember the first time we talked, I felt like you turned on a light.
I felt like you walked into the room.
I had a flashlight, in the dark and I’m like “okay, well then. I’m finding my way.”
And then you walk in and you’re like “well, this is how you do it”
And it was like you just turned on the light switch.
Maria: We don’t know, what we don’t know.
Alisa: Yeah, and it’s still finding more rooms that I didn’t know existed in this “house” that I’m trying to build.
Maria: You’re going to call it. You’re going to be making additions. You’ve put on new floors. You’re going to be revamping and remodeling this place for as long as you are in this business.
It’s exciting. That’s the fun of it.
It is fun.
So a lot of times we only get to see the end results and not all of the effort that it takes to get to the end result.
And I am incredibly nosy, so I love to ask and pry a little to get the behind-the-scenes look at the “Inside Impact.”
So with all of your time in the impact world, what are some things that you’ve learned that you didn’t expect to learn? Or what are some surprises that have happened?
Maria: So obviously I’ve learned a lot over the years and it’s evolved a lot. I remember the first impact assessment that we took, and I’m sure it wasn’t actually with pen and paper, but that’s what it feels like it was. And I got on a phone call with Hardy, who I believe is still with B Lab and we went through the questions together and asked me some questions.
Now, of course, it’s all online.
There’s like this whole process. And so I think that I didn’t appreciate in the beginning how complex talking about sustainability can get. For me, there’s some pretty basic principles, but then that can change when you try to measure those things. So, this is my bias because of what I do for a living.
Putting an operating system in place is the thing that you do, and then you don’t have to think about it anymore. You’re making it. You’re simplifying it. This is why I love what impact is doing, right?
Let’s make this simpler for people.
Like I didn’t realize how off-putting it is to at least talk about what’s the impact that you’re having. Like, I didn’t realize that. It’s not that people don’t care. Right? And it’s not that people don’t want to make a difference, but that they don’t see how to do it in a way that isn’t going to destroy their business. For a lot of people, they really do see it as an “either or,” right?
And I remember early on, one of my entrepreneurial friends talking with this person and I was like:
“Well, would you consider doing this?”
And it happened to be a woman. And she said:
“Maria, one bottom line is hard enough.”
Maria: Yeah. And it’s true. Right? It’s true.
And so getting it to a point where it’s not an “either or” and rather a “an and and,” it’s something that it’s adding, and I do believe that now right. More investors are talking about zooming. You got BlackRock saying that this is an imperative that changes the conversation.
It’s so funny. You asked about the origin story of us becoming a B Corp. And one of the ways that I pitched my team — and this was 2009 — I was like:
“Hey, you know guys, in 10 years, this is just going to be how businesses get done. Do you want it?”
Do you want to get on board now or do you want to have to play catch up? And they were like:
“I don’t know.”
Somehow they believed me, but it’s been more than 10 years and I’m delighted at the progress that we’ve made. I’m also a little dismayed that there hasn’t been more.
Alisa: So let’s talk about community impact. What are some of the ways that SEM has made an impact on the community here locally and more broadly?
Maria: I actually got a letter from a former team member.
Bob and I got a letter two weeks ago. I think it was in the solar industry and this person had been at a couple of different companies and his company just got sold. The company he’s working for recently just got sold and he got a little bit of money from it.
He said it wasn’t enough to retire, but it was very financially impactful. Getting that letter from him, he basically said:
“You know what you guys started has enabled so many people to go out and do this work.”
And I’m telling you his words not mine.
He had no doubt that the solar industry in North Carolina and the Southeast would not be where it is today without the work that our team has done. And he was talking about how every day he talks with people who came out of SEM. Even as recently as a month ago, one of our team members left and decided to start his own company.
And that’s not the plan we want for everybody obviously. But you know, we have some team members, our longest team members have been with us for 18 years. We’ve got, I don’t know, 15 or 16 people who’ve been there longer than 10 years. And we’ve watched them grow up and you know, buy homes and raise families. And one of our team members, I remember when his first child was born, nowthis kid’s going to be going to college soon.
I like to think that the effect of working in an organization like ours, while not perfect, really does try to create an inclusive and slightly democratized environment for people. I like to think that spills out into the community and that they take that wherever they go.
Alisa: I hope so too. Speaking of getting weepy, I’m sitting here thinking about like:
“Wow. In 15 years, how many lives will Unity have touched?”
Maria: Yeah. I hope you’re measuring that now. Because that’s one of the things, right? And you’ve got Unit of Impact, and that’s one of the impact is at the heart of what I’m looking to do because measuring that and it’s not just through B Corp certification.
Right, but measuring that along the way really matters. For so many years we’ve been trying to measure what’s what feels unmeasurable.
Alisa: I remember what you said about what you learned on how complex it can be. That makes me think about a year and a half ago, I co-founded Unit of Impact along with two other B Corps — Round Peg in Maryland, Oliver Russell in Idaho, and Unity in North Carolina — and between the three of us, we’re building this platform for companies to be able to measure and report on their impacts.
And just over the past year and a half doing and learning about this, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface and here we are supposed to be building a tool for companies. And even after all of this research and trying to get some kind of organized system for people to do this, it’s like:
“Wow, this is really hard.”
No wonder it hasn’t been done yet. Right? So it’s exciting that we’re making that happen now. And we’ve got an awesome advisory board that you’re on.
Maria: I’m excited for that product. And you know, I don’t know if it was on that call or maybe some of the other calls I’ve been on recently, but things that are really meaningful and important often take longer than we think they are going to take.
And that’s why, you know, many people give up. And so it really takes a lot of tenacity and it takes a lot of determination to see a thing through. And knowing what see-through and whatnot to see. See-through when you’re an entrepreneur, that’s a big part, that’s a big part of crystallizing a vision because knowing what to say no to is just as important many, many times is what we say yes to.
Alisa: I’ve been trying to learn that from you. It’s a lesson that you’ve been teaching me that has not gotten through my thick skull. Well, it’s getting there.
Making its way in.
Maria: I have witnessed! I am delighted to be here as a guest on your podcast. You definitely have boundless energy for new things, which is exciting. Right? And there’s no reason that we can’t and shouldn’t be able to do those things with the proper systems in place. Right? That’s what enables us to be able to do more than we otherwise would be able to.
Alisa: Yeah, that’s true.
I was just thinking about like, oh man,
Maria: you’re so over committed, I’m sure.
Alisa: I’m way over committed, but…
Maria: …you know, that’s a commitment to yourself. I’m learning.
Alisa: Yes. I’m doing some therapy.
Maria: Good. Me too.
Alisa: And it’s amazing, yes! And I’m working through some workbooks.
Alisa: I’m trying to learn self compassion and it’s incredible how hard that is.
Maria: It is, you know? Kristin Neff has an app for that to have you come across Kristin Neff.
Alisa: I think her name sounds familiar. What’s that?
Maria: So she’s like the self-compassion queen. She’s the, and I think her latest episode was called radical self-compassion, and there literally is an app that I downloaded. But I don’t seem to use it very often because it is something I agree with.
I think for many of us, it is the work of right now. And particularly if you’re a high achieving person and you’re used to being someone who gets shit done, it’s one of the ironies you asked me earlier about things I learn. The more shit you get done, the more people want you to do shit. Right?
And the more opportunities you get and it’s like, “wow.” And developing that discipline and again, that’s why, you know, now I’ll point out and I know we’ve had this conversation:
An operating system where you have a very clear vision, very clear goals, and ways to be accountable and measure.
Your life needs an operating system also!
And just so you know, it doesn’t have to be a regimen. But having a family meeting, once a week or once every couple of weeks where you sit down and you talk about whatever obstacles are in people’s way, the same principles actually apply quite well. All these things, like the ultimate goal, are to help people live better lives from my perspective. Yeah, and to create more love in the world and it starts with us.
Alisa: It’s beautiful, and it’s true.
Maria: Well, I mean, and when I say like, I’ve tried to become more aware recently of the way, you know, my own self-talk. And, you know, that’s one of the things that Kristin Neff talks about is like, I think maybe Brene Brown and you know, it’s not earth shattering, but it’s like, you need to talk to yourself in ways you wouldn’t talk to her friend that way.
Yeah. But wow. When I start to listen to like some of the things I say, I’m like, shit, I would never speak to anybody else that way. And so then I have to give myself compassion for that. Oh, which is really the evolution for me the last maybe six months or so is being okay with that inner critic and being like, oh, Bless your heart, right?
You’re, you want me to be better. Yeah. You know, I don’t have to shut you down. Yeah. I don’t have to, you don’t have to shut it down. That’s because then it becomes you against yourself, right?
Alisa: Yeah. The book that I’m reading right now that is just amazingly helpful is called The Child Inside. It’s mind blowing for me, but yeah.
It’s about your inner, inner shadow child, which is your inner hurt child. And then you’ve got an inner sun child and that’s your inner, joyful three-year-old or whatever, and then your inner adult. And then, there’s a bunch of other people in there, but
Maria: It sounds like internal family systems is that,
Alisa: I don’t know if it’s related to that.
Maria: It sounds like very similar concepts, which, you know, uh, Tim Ferris had Dick Schwartz, I think, Richard Swartz on his podcast is where I first learned about it.
Alisa: It is.
And what made me think about, when you’re talking about what everybody says, you should never talk to yourself the way that you wouldn’t talk to someone else. But now that I’m reading this, it’s like, I would never speak to my inner child that way, you know? Or my own children the way that sometimes I speak to myself.
And yeah, who is that coming from? A part of my brain. Yeah. What part of my personality and like, yeah. And thats self-compassion that you have to have, and that I’m working on developing is all about love. Bringing it all back to love.
Maria: And getting really curious, right? As opposed to judgmental? You really think that’s where it’s coming from?
You know, one of the other things that I got trained on this past year was called heart math. And it’s principles are so simple, but it’s like:
“Okay, you got to solve a problem.”
You got to prepare for a meeting. You got to take some time and breathe in through your heart space. And you know, there’s lots of mindfulness techniques, but the stuff is simple. It doesn’t have to be so hard.
Alisa: It’s simple, but it is hard. It’s simple and hard.
Maria: Simple, but not easy. Right?
All right. So my final question is what person or company doing good has had the biggest impact on you?
Maria: I would have to say B Lab and Bart Houlihan specifically. I mean, I love Jay and Andrew and, you know, all three of the founders, but I would say Bart Houlahan. You know, at a time when SEM was struggling, I didn’t know if we were going to make it or not if I didn’t see him.
Bart came by and just happened to be in town to see me and that was when he delivered the fame and I was distraught, because I felt I’d let so many people down and we were having to lay people off, which for me is the worst thing. And I recognize now that it happens.
Bart also shared some personal stories with me, that was when he said those words:
“Maria, no money, no mission.”
And I got it.
Like at that moment I was like:
“Okay, we still have to focus on profitability and, it sounds silly but, I really don’t think I totally got it.”
I think before that time I had had this concept that “you do what you love and the money will follow.”
If you do a whole lot of other things right along the way, right? You know, operate with certain principles and basic, as well as not so basic, right? Putting things into place.
So I give that honor to Bart, as well as the rest of the group there, for that moment specifically.
Alisa: Well, thank you again for joining me, Maria. If people want to learn more about you and what you’re doing now, how can they connect with you?
Maria: Oh my gosh. They can find me on LinkedIn, of course. And they can check out my website, built by Unity. Although I will say we’re going to be, we’re still in the process of updating all of the words, not the beautiful graphics that you guys did.
Uh, but 360rocks.us. And I’m easy to find:
That’s my mail address!