Welcome To The Purpose Economy

How can we create an entire economy geared toward good? Focusing on personal, social, and societal purpose.

Welcome To The Purpose Economy
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]
This is an excerpt from Aaron Hurst’s new book, The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth and Community is Changing the World

I’m not an economist, a sociologist, or a psychologist. I am an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs constantly look for opportunities, hoping to find emerging trends or spot inspiration for new products or services. This kind of pattern recognition first helped me see the enormous potential for pro bono and has now helped me discern the underlying thread in what appears to be myriad emerging trends of the last decade. It’s helped me comprehend how they are all driven by the pursuit of purpose–together, they create the Purpose Economy.


In the last ten years, social innovation has become big business. Conferences and magazines are dedicated to the topic, and legions of consultants and entrepreneurs help individuals and companies adapt to this new way of operating. Under President Obama, the White House now has an Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

Harvard professor and corporate strategist Michael Porter launched the “Social Progress Imperative,” a global index that strives to look beyond gross domestic product and provides a ranking of countries globally, based on the extent to which they are meeting the social and environmental needs of their citizens. It is one of several similar efforts, including the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review, that focuses on aspects such as human rights and social impact rather than economic factors in order to evaluate nations’ progress.

The conversation about work is also rapidly evolving, with the emergence of new fields of research (such as positive psychology) and new search and recruiting firms focused solely on helping people find meaningful work. Search firms like ReWork, On- Ramps, Idealist, and Commongood Careers (which uses the catchy tagline, “Will work for social change”) are thriving. Books like Adam Grant’s Give and Take and Martin Seligman’s Flourish are redefining not just what drives employee engagement and productivity but what improves employee well-being. These new concepts inspire different approaches to management and careers. Applications from the best talent in the nation have flooded these firms, just as Teach for America has been now for over a decade.

A generation of Purpose Economy pioneers, like Whole Foods Market’s John Mackey and Virgin’s Richard Branson, are challenging others to follow their lead and to create new frameworks both to do well and to do good, which raises the bar for the business community and turns successful theories into movements. Richard Branson launched the B Team, a coalition aiming to go beyond traditional corporate social responsibility, and instead embrace what they call Plan B: “a plan that puts people and the planet alongside profit.” John Mackey and his team are promoting a new model for business he calls Conscious Capitalism, which inspired his book of the same name.

Other large corporations have shown signs of new, purpose-focused frameworks as well. Some of the most traditional companies like Deloitte and Pepsi have started to put their toes in the water, as their leaders recognize that while they can’t change overnight, they can develop long-term visions to make purpose a priority. In light of this, they have taken proactive and prudent steps in that direction. Pepsi’s CEO Indra Nooyi has framed their north star as “performance with purpose” and begun to make “healthy eats” and the environment core to their success. Deloitte, a consultancy with 200,000 employees around the globe, has made it a priority to embrace a culture of purpose, realizing that successful companies must be “keenly aware of the purpose they fulfill for clients, employees, community, and other groups,” and they have integrated those goals into their business’s core activities.


Even Morgan Stanley recently got into the game with its announcement of the multi-billion-dollar Institute for Sustainable Investing. Finance is slowly changing to thrive in the new economy. Several states are experimenting with social impact bonds, and others are experimenting with new governance structures to address the financing needs of organizations that don’t neatly fit into commercial or nonprofit categories.

Much like technology a few decades ago, purpose has now become a business imperative. In today’s world, running an organization without an intentional emphasis on purpose for employees and customers is like running an organization in the early 1990s and failing to implement technology.

Little of this is truly new, of course. Farmers’ markets existed long before chain stores. Social impact bonds appeared in Israel in the midcentury. During the 1960s in the United States and Europe, there existed several large-scale experiments with communal ownership. Mother Jones magazine has reported on social problems and impact for decades. But what we are seeing now is the acceleration and the commercialization of those activities, fueled by new forms of capital, that allow these developments to move from the fringe to the mainstream. We are approaching the tipping point, where the Purpose Economy has matured enough to move from the fringes of society to the heart of the U.S. economy and, increasingly, to those around the globe.

To understand the Purpose Economy, it is critical to understand purpose and how it is created for people. The definition and nature of purpose is often misunderstood. There are three well-researched, core categories that consistently echo through the words of the professionals who applied to the Taproot Foundation: personal purpose, social purpose, and societal purpose. Together, they represent the needs that the new Purpose Economy addresses.

1: Personal Purpose

Warren Brown was one of over a million lawyers in the United States. As he describes, “My moment of truth came very late on a Friday night when I was still practicing law. On this night, I was making a cake for one of the senior managers in my office, and I was trying to make it look extra nice.” He was good at his job, but it was only a job–what he really loved was baking with and for What started as a hobby became a bakery, CakeLove, and later a café, the LoveCafe. Both the bakery and café became wildly successful, and he eventually left his job as an attorney. And yet, just a few years in, Warren wasn’t happy. Despite doing what he loved, he was in fact spending all of his time running the bakery. What he loved most was talking to his customers about cake and creating the kinds of amazing cakes that wowed them. As it turned out, his passion had been making cakes, not managing a bakery.


After recognizing the gap between what he was doing and what he wanted to be doing, Warren hired a manager to run his business and refocused his energy on baking and looking for new ways to create cakes. He talked to his customers about what they loved and found that while his customers clearly loved cake, they had trouble eating it neatly. After a little trial and error, a solution emerged: Cake Bites, small cakes baked and served in tiny jars. The Cake Bites were an instant hit, and Warren was soon selling them to Whole Foods. His business boomed. By following his passion, Warren had not only found a profound sense of purpose but built a great business in the process. “In living my passion, when I wake up, I’m all go. I’m spiritually amped–ready and willing to dive into the satisfaction I get every day from baking.” Passion is a crucial element of purpose.

For Warren, the pursuit of purpose was deeply personal. It began with him recognizing a problem, cultivating the self-awareness to understand what needed to change, and pushing himself to make the necessary changes so that he could grow. It’s no different for our generation. We find purpose when we are do things we love, attempt new challenges, and express our voice to the world.

2: Social Purpose

Kristine Ashe’s family was fractured and living all over the country. She longed to share her life with them but knew it was unlikely unless she created the opportunity for it to happen. Though she knew very little about farming or winemaking, Kristine decided to buy a vineyard.

Unlike Warren Brown and his connection to the craft of baking, Kristine’s dream was not to make wine, but rather to create a business that would bring her family together and build a community. The wine business had a relatively low barrier to entry and strong community of mentorship in winemaking–you looked to your neighbors for help. Her hope was that it would be a way for to finally bring her family together in one place, all working on the vineyard. It could be a business that was focused on community and relationships.

Remarkably, her field of dreams worked. Kristine built the vineyard around her family, creating a ranch that allowed her to work with her kids by her side. Her extended family also got involved in ways she never imagined. Her sister moved to the farm, and her brother-in-law now leads the vineyard’s operations. Her father even built their website.


Kristine decided to call the vineyard Entre Nous, French for “between us”. Kristine explained her motivation to create the vineyard: “The connections between us bring the greatest joy, the highest passion, and the most authentic satisfaction in our frequently impassive, impersonal, and impatient world.” The work of winemaking was rewarding and pushed her to her limits, but it was the ability to share that work with the people she loved that made it truly meaningful and gave her such a strong sense of purpose.

Research shows that purpose is not a solo act. Michael Steger at Colorado State University has created a Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life. In his study of over 250,000 people, he found evidence that what Kristine had felt applies on a much broader level. When it comes to meaning in life, relationships matter to humans more than anything else. They reinforce our sense of value, require us to engage, and ultimately help us grow.

3: Societal Purpose

When NASCAR’s Kate Atwood was asked to speak at a camp for kids who had lost a parent, she wasn’t expecting her life and career trajectory to change. But when she found herself in front of hundreds of kids telling the story of losing her own mother to cancer when she was twelve years old, something shifted. It was the first time she had ever shared her story. “Until that day, the death of my mom had been about me,” Kate shared with me. “After that day, I knew it was much bigger than myself.”

Later that evening, a little girl about ten years old tapped Kate on her shoulder and asked, “Are you Kate?” “Yes,” she replied. The girl then continued to tell her the story of losing her own mom and dad in a car accident. “To this day, that moment stands as the time I first brushed up with the power of purpose,” she explains.

“Two years later, at the tender age of 22, this thirst [to find purpose in my life] led me to my boss’s office, to let her know I was leaving the company to start a nonprofit for kids who had lost a parent or sibling.” Kate left NASCAR to start Kate’s Club. For the next ten years she expanded it, and it became a well-established community for children and teens in Atlanta navigating life after the death of a parent or sibling. It was with Kate’s Club that her personality manifested, both as a survivor of loss and as a kid who just wanted to know that grief changed her life but did not end it. She learned that your darkest moment can become your biggest gift, if you are able to make it about something beyond yourself.


The most powerful source of purpose comes from this concept: purpose comes when we know we have done something that we believe matters–to others, to society, and to ourselves. From the small and mundane daily choices we make to systemic and historic impact, we strive to contribute to the well-being of the world around us. Societal purpose isn’t isolated to volunteering and philanthropy, or careers in education and social work. While these often spark feelings of purpose, we can also derive purpose through decisions about how we consume, from decreasing our carbon footprint to buying local produce at the farmers’ market. We can also discover meaning through our daily work, where we help the people on our teams and provide consumers with our products and services.

At its foundation, the Purpose Economy creates purpose for people. It serves the critical need for people to develop themselves, be part of a community, and affect something greater than themselves. It may sound utopian, but there is evidence in almost every industry and throughout our culture that this shift is already underway. The Information Economy, which has driven innovation and economic growth for approximately the past fifty years, is only the most recent evolutionary leap in the history of the global economy. We are now in the process of making the next big leap.

Adapted from The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth and Community is Changing the World, which will be published by Elevate on April 2, 2014.

About the author

Aaron Hurst is a globally recognized social entrepreneur and authority of social innovation. He is the CEO of Imperative, a B Corp advocating for Purpose-Oriented Workers and supporting the organizations that embrace them. Aaron is the founder and an active advisor to the Taproot Foundation where he was the catalyst and lead architect of the $15 billion pro bono service market