Inside the B: Q&A with Eleanor Allen
The Inside the B Q&A series follows employees from all across the B Global Network as they share more about their roles, what brought them to B Lab, the challenges and opportunities they see for our network, and a peek into their personal lives. In this edition, B Lab Global Lead Executive Eleanor Allen talks about her experiences as a nonprofit leader, civil engineer, ultra-cyclist, and Peace Corps volunteer.
Welcome to B Lab, Eleanor! You’re joining the organization after seven years as the CEO of Water For People, a global water and sanitation nonprofit. You also have a background as a civil and environmental engineer and consultant. What has working across the global development and engineering sectors helped you learn about systems change?
Eleanor Allen, Lead Executive, B Lab Global: In the water world, the problem we are trying to solve is that water is a human right — so why are billions of people living without it, when we have the technology to give everyone in the world access? That work goes beyond technology and policy: it’s about addressing a lack of political will and leadership.
The economic systems change work led by B Lab spans these categories as well. We promote stakeholder governance over shareholder wealth and primacy, but it comes down to people, leadership, and policies — and in our case, also companies — that model these efforts and work to create an economy that brings benefit to all.
Another similarity I see is that it takes coordination and coalition-building to change systems. We can’t go out and change the economy on our own; we have to rely on and work with others to achieve success. Interdependence is key, as is gathering data, evidence, and feedback, and adjusting along the way. Changing a deeply entrenched system like capitalism is a dynamic process. We have to keep learning from our success and failures, and continuously improve our methodologies and models towards enhancing our global community and growing the B Corp movement.
After announcing you were leaving your previous organization, you wrote on Medium that you were seeking an opportunity that combined your past career experiences. Later you wrote that by finding this role at B Lab, you “threaded the needle.” As Lead Executive, what do you see as the next step for B Lab and the B Global Network?
When I wrote that blog, I was in a moral dilemma about my next move. I had a lot of interest from engineering colleagues, and I could have slipped back into that world. But I have this whole part of me that had changed so much through my nonprofit experience that I didn’t want to lose.
When the profile for this role as Lead Executive at B Lab came across my inbox, I thought, this is it! Because I had also come to understand that the world can't solve societal problems with philanthropy and government funding alone. I believe in the power and influence of business: that when businesses are appropriately focused on doing good things for all of their stakeholders, they can really make changes. With the power and size of the economic system in the private sector, there is huge potential to harness business as a force for good.
Coming into this role, I see a surging B Corp movement that has been super successful. What started as an entrepreneurial, audacious, and grassroots idea led by the three founders has gone viral globally. Like-minded leaders around the world have taken the idea from the U.S. to their countries and regions, whether that’s Italy or Taiwan or Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. This model has been really successful to date — in fact, much more successful than originally envisioned. We are scaling rapidly and experiencing some growing pains in increased time for companies to become certified. We have interest from all around the world and a huge backlog for certification — both our friend and our foe.
We are starting a process with the Global Partners to close our strategic gaps and figure out how to scale more efficiently, effectively, and cohesively. Our Theory of Change is a good guide. I’m looking forward to working together as a Global Leadership Team to embrace shared decision-making and accountability.
We are living in a time when progress toward an inclusive economy does not feel inevitable. Powerful resistance from entrenched interests threaten reproductive rights and bodily autonomy, functioning democracies, and the life-sustaining systems of the planet itself. While business can’t solve these crises alone, what do you see as the role of business in creating a more sustainable, equitable, and dignified world for all people?
I try not to get overwhelmed by the weight and magnitude of the global challenges facing humanity and the planet. Instead, I look for rays of light and hope. Business as a force for good is one of them. While business can’t solve all these crises, it can influence change. Businesses can decide to provide services or goods that have a positive and additive effect on people and planet versus an extractive one. In their internal and external practices they can choose to create more equities between employees and other stakeholders and remove barriers to access. Those are factors within the control of a business. The more we can replicate and scale models for doing this successfully, the greater the demand will be from customers, clients, and employees — putting pressure on companies that aren't providing that beneficial microenvironment within their business models.
One corollary I see for this type of systems change is when the United States pulled out of the Paris Agreement. There were many mayors of U.S. cities who said, well, the federal government might be out, but we’re in. With recent developments coming out of the U.S. Supreme Court, the repeal of Roe vs. Wade and the threatened rollback of other policies, there are similar movements. Some businesses are saying, we don’t agree with that. Within our sphere of influence and control, we are going to show you a different reality for our employees, the communities we serve, and our customers.
You’ve addressed Water For People’s journey towards decolonization. B Lab and the standards for B Corp Certification are currently in a process of evolving to address the factors that are needed to define positively impactful business leadership — including social justice, reduced inequalities, and racial equity. What has been your approach to implementing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) at a global organization, and working with stakeholders across cultural contexts?
The decolonization work and focus on JEDI at Water For People was about making sure our policies, employees, and leadership represent the people we serve — largely Black and Brown populations in low- and-middle-income countries in Africa, Latin America, and India. To do this we worked through a framework of regional transformation committees shaping decision-making in the local context, where historically decision-making had been more top-down from the U.S., as is often the case with American nonprofits. We decided that wasn’t a relevant model anymore. It was a shift and will continue to evolve.
When it comes to B Lab, my first impressions are that the JEDI work we need to do is a little different. We have employees and do work in high-income countries as well as in low- and middle-income countries. In the United States and other higher-income regions throughout the Global Network, there is still plenty of work to be done on racial equity, gender equity, and inclusion and support for marginalized populations in the workforce. We need to understand the issues and challenges unique to each of the regions where we have a presence, and through that determine how to implement our JEDI pillars: racial equity and justice, shifting the power of influence and distributing leadership, and accountability. It is about how we’re recruiting, hiring, and retaining employees with a JEDI-informed framework, and working towards distributed leadership and ownership culture. We are intentionally trying to break away from the traditional White male dominant or White supremacist approach to business, which creates exclusion rather than inclusion.
In all our regions we want to ensure that the voices of various constituents take part in decision-making and are accountable in their roles and responsibilities. This is key in regions where there are many cultures — Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Europe, for example. Another core question we should ask is how we’re ensuring equity across countries and regions that are in various stages of economic development. In terms of resources and strategy informing this work, there are also gaps to bridge as we work towards globally-centralized JEDI infrastructure. Coming up with overarching, network-wide goals as a global organization that can then be deployed locally is a complex and interesting challenge.
JEDI work is also personal. I'm always learning and questioning the biases that come out of my own upbringing and professional career in engineering, a largely male-dominated technical field. I feel fortunate that I've been able to live around the world and experience many different ways of living. Being immersed in a different culture and speaking a different language is humbling, and an all-encompassing learning process. Most places I have lived outside the U.S. have been countries with low-income economies. Understanding what it is to live without access to resources has given me a tremendous amount of perspective in my work and life.
You’re a passionate athlete — specifically an ultra-cyclist — living in the mountains of Denver, Colorado, U.S. Much of your previous work in the water and sanitation sector has engaged with our planetary environment. How does your role as a leader addressing the climate crisis in the private and public sector fit into your personal engagement with the outdoor world?
E: Throughout my career I’ve been in touch with the environment, and in my personal life too, through my love of the outdoors — hiking, camping, and cycling. My big introduction to cycling was doing a five-week bike trip around Nova Scotia, Canada, as a teenager; I then started doing organized cycling rides in Michigan, where I grew up. As an adult I got really into mountain biking when I moved to Seattle early in my career. Then life, work, and family got the best of me. Cycling wasn’t a big part of my life again until I moved here to Colorado in 2009. Colorado is cycling heaven! There are good roads, sunny days, and mountains. It’s amazing. I started to do organized endurance rides again and haven’t looked back.
While I was at Water For People, I raced in two ultra-cycling events, the Race Across America and the Race Across the West to fundraise for our work. Those were by far the two hardest cycling events I ever participated in! In August, I will be participating in a four-stage gravel race in the Canadian Rockies. I can’t wait! I love cycling. Knowing that I can combine this passion of mine with purpose is powerful. I would like to figure out how to do this for B Lab, too.
When I decided to become a civil engineer, I really did it to clean up the environment. I loved working on water resources and improving water quality. After working for a few years I quit to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Through this experience my relationship and perspective with water evolved. I saw people die from drinking poor-quality water, deaths that could have been prevented by proper sanitation infrastructure. I learned how much water is a women’s issue, because women are disproportionately affected by the global water crisis; this topic was the subject of a TED talk I did a few years ago. Realizing that I had the skills not just to help the environment, but to save peoples’ lives — that became part of my mission. My career moved away from water resources to improving water quality through wastewater treatment. My work at Water For People, and even all my years as a consulting engineer before that — it always connected to improving the quality of life through water.
More recently I’ve become more engaged in climate activism and look for ways to help respond to the climate emergency. This is an area of interest I share with one of my sons, who is 21. When I began looking for a new job he put pressure on me — in a good way — to figure out a way I could engage on climate issues through my work. Realizing that acting on climate action through business was a key principle of the B Corp movement drew me to B Lab. This new role ties together so many threads of my career and life experience, and gives me the opportunity to continue to act on my commitment to improving the quality of life for people and the planet — I’m grateful to continue that work alongside my B Lab colleagues.
Read more about Eleanor’s background in our press release announcing her hiring.