The Etsy Spinoff That is Reimagining What Good Work Is All About

Despite the stereotype, being an entrepreneur doesn’t need to include meetings with venture capitalists, rented offices in a co-working space, and coffee-fueled nights hunched over a MacBook. Back before large-scale industry, most regular people who didn’t farm were “entrepreneurs” and “small business owners” who sold handicrafts to their local communities.

That sort of thing is less common now, but when people with a knack for crafts want to sell their wares online, Etsy is one of the first places they turn. Unlike eBay or Craigslist, for instance, Etsy specializes in connecting artisans to markets for what they make. While most people on Etsy aren’t making a full-time living from the proceeds, the platform has helped resurrect and broaden a sector that America’s big-business economy hasn’t taken seriously for generations.

Since its launch in 2005, Etsy has soared and even gone public. It has a market market cap of around $1.5 billion and revenues last year of $342 million. But the company retains some of its original do-it-yourself attitude, and that comes out in its corporate philanthropy.

The Good Work Institute (originally is a 501(c)(3) business education organization that got its initial funding, for the most part, from the parent company. It is the brainchild of former Etsy sustainability chief Matt Stinchcomb, who shared an apartment with Etsy founder Rob Kalin as the company got its start.

With the blessing of Etsy’s leadership, the ethically minded Stinchcomb became executive director of the nonprofit after it separated from its parent last year.

So what does the Good Work Institute do? For a start, it doesn't give out grants. Instead, it is focused on business education, and specifically leadership development through fellowships. In contrast to a lot of responsible business initiatives that focus, essentially, on helping for-profit leaders be "less bad,"—e.g., by lowering carbon emissions—GWI is challenging some of the precepts of modern capitalism. It says it is "reimagining traditional business education by prioritizing compassion, wisdom, and ethical integrity, instead of limitless growth, competition, and profit maximization."    

Right now, GWI is focusing in New York's Hudson Valley, which is a fitting locale for its brand of thinking. The region is home to many alternative small businesses and has a thriving community of artisans who've been reviving struggling cities like Kingston, Hudson and Beacon. 

To achieve a truly “good” attitude to work, GWI fellows in the Hudson Valley complete a six-month curriculum, free of charge, that emphasizes individual soul searching, group feeling, and a connection to place. Although the program was created with entrepreneurs in mind, participants don’t have to run a for-profit business. Community leaders, “placemakers,” and enterprising folks of all stripes can apply.

GWI is a new organization. Aside from a pilot program in 2015, it has only run one Hudson Valley fellowship program so far (Hudson Valley 2016, currently ongoing). The next one, running from January through June of 2017, just closed its application period. From a glance through the roster of this year’s participants, fellows involved in agriculture and ecological enterprises seem to predominate, though there are exceptions.

The Good Works Institute is a small venture so far, but it's on to something big and is tapping into values that especially resonate among millennials. Many young people don't put for-profit and nonprofit work into separate boxes, but instead see pursuing business and social good as fully compatible goals. In practice, though, fitting these goals together can be tricky, which is why organizations like GWI are becoming more important. They help socially minded entrepreneurs walk the walk. 

A Wall Street Journal article dubbed GWI a “decelerator,” as opposed to the more common accelerator. That description doesn't really capture what's going on here. In fact, GWI and its fellows do have ambitious goals, but they aren't captured by the usual metrics of scale and revenue. This is about reinventing what business is all about.