Austin Lee, founder of bettercorp
“My parents grew up during the Korean War. As young children they had no resources and food was scarce. The only thing available to them was education. It was a ladder out.”
Austin is the founder of bettercorp, which he describes as “a sustainable impact consultancy on a mission: Facilitate meaningful work that improves the lives around us.” Austin went to law school, was admitted to the New York Bar, and practiced until he realized that the existing structures which power our economy are deeply flawed. He’s since embarked “on an exploration to understand the source and develop corrective measures.”
Austin has coined a term to describe his role: CxO. “It is a one-person show, which can be tough, but it really keeps you disciplined and requires you to maintain a trusted network.”
Austin is part of a movement to broaden opportunity and equity. “The long-term perspective is about privilege most people don’t have.”
How Did He Get Into This Work?
While Austin professes that there was no turning point that led him to his focus that business can be a driver for social change, he can recall an upbringing where nothing was taken for granted:
“My parents grew up during the Korean War. As young children, they had no resources and food was scarce. The only thing available to them was education. It was a ladder out.” And to America. Austin’s father did his residency in America and became a beloved OB-GYN in their small town in central Pennsylvania. While his family wasn’t big on volunteering or protesting — “an immigrant’s philosophy is to just survive” — his father forged a strong bond with the community. “In the way, my dad did his work; trying to care for other people, and that came back to me.”
Until about five years ago, Austin admits to being without a plan. At that time he took stock of our political process. “I realized that I was concerned about how a system that changes itself every 4-8 years can ever achieve stability.”
While most of us view the Citizens v. United decision as an apocalypse, it occurred to Austin that if a corporation can have a voice, it can also have a voice for good.” As a trained lawyer, Austin read the “Friedman Doctrine” — which has been held up as the key argument for corporations maximizing shareholder profits to all exclusion — and found that this conceit has been strikingly, perhaps willfully, misinterpreted. Austin explains: “While the first rule is maximizing profits, this is as long as it stays in the rules of the game without deceit or fraud. This part was missing. We took off the safety gates. We built a car, said press on the gas as hard as you can, but don’t worry about steering.”
Austin then set his sights on companies who were using their voice to do well, thus his focus on B Corps.
What Project Is He Working On?
Bettercorp works closely with partner companies to help them amplify their missions.
Austin is working with Acumen, which fights global poverty by investing in sustainable business. Additionally, he volunteers with its New York chapter NY+Acumen, to create a community to understand patient capital and impact investing.
He also serves on the board of Fashion Revolution USA, which seeks to change fashion by creating a dialogue between the industry and consumers: “It’s about educating people about the impacts of their clothing – both socially and environmentally. Most people don’t know the supply chain. There’s human trafficking; there’s environmental damage.”
“When you spend money with these companies you know that they support your values. That they treat their workers right. That they are managing their waste properly. And they have structures built into how they operate, and incentives for their people to do their best.”
How Did He Come to Civic Hall?
Former Civic Hall member Kate Black, the founder of EcoSessions — a global event series which brings together the fashion industry and citizens to facilitate change — first introduced Austin to the community.
What are you reading right now that is inspiring?
Austin just finished reading Dr. Greg Graffin’s Population Wars: A New Perspective on Competition and Coexistence. The book’s thesis is that we’ve misconstrued evolutionary theory to rationalize entropy; providing us the basis of our belief that war and conflict are inevitable.
What Is His Ask of Civic Hall?
Austin is determined to shatter a few myths about folks who are intimidated by the idea of forming a B Corps.
This fall, Austin plans to holds open sessions on B Corps once a month, with dedicated nights so that folks can meet others working within the same industry.
While Austin is sanguine about our ability to reimagine business as a force for good, he is pragmatic: “It’s not going happen in my lifetime. It will take perhaps three generations to propagate, to create a form that lives in perpetuity.”
While Austin acknowledges that he has limited bandwidth, he still relishes outreach: “I think that the best experiences have come because I’ve been open to… whatever. That’s the best part about it — the unexpected.”