By Emily Pickrell
When Should Businesses Cross The Line From Selling Products To Speaking Out About Injustice?
When Ayah Bdeir, the 36-year-old founder of electronic toy company littleBits, heard about the plight of migrant children separated from their parents on the Texas border, her reaction was both as a businesswoman and as an immigrant from Lebanon.
“We are a company built with a mission to inspire kids and make them happy. The issue of migrants hit us hard,” said Bdeir, who wrote at length about her views in a company blog post. “There is always the fear that you are tapping into a polarizing issue and not wanting to have business risks as a result. We are a small company and it matters if we lose a big customer. But I figured that we feel very strongly about the issue.”
Speaking up on behalf of migrant children, Bdeir said, was an obvious choice, central to her company’s mission and to her and her employee’s personal experiences. LittleBits, which received the Parents’ Choice Gold Award in 2016 for its electronic toy kits, counts as many as 20 percent of its staff as foreign-born, representing 20 or so different languages and several religions.
LittleBits is one of hundreds of brands that have created an image around children’s products. How they react to the current immigration crisis — the federal government’s decision to split children up from parents who crossed into the U.S. without pre-arranged paperwork—is a defining moment for their brands. The administration has since announced the end of this policy and has reunited about 60 of the youngest children as of mid-July, while another 2,500 remain separated from their parents.
How and whether a child-oriented company should speak out on this issue is especially thorny, because the kids in question are most likely not direct customers.
And even for companies intent on speaking up, doing so effectively can be a challenge, said Rice Business professor Sonenshein, a specialist on organizational behavior. Businesses have started weighing in more on social issues, Sonenshein said, noting the increased participation of companies in issues such as the 2016 “bathroom bill” in North Carolina that attempted to limit options for transgender individuals.
“The larger question with this issue is going to be, what levers do business organizations have to pull?” Sonenshein said.
For some company executives, the lack of a direct business tie negates any need to speak up. Others have focused efforts on developing public awareness, such as Goop.com, the lifestyle titan founded by actress Gwyneth Paltrow, which came out swinging.
“These kids, some of whom are babies, have been put in camps that are essentially cages in a former Walmart,” Goop’s website reads. “It is beyond inhumane — it is vile, and indecent, and anathema to what it means to be American.”
Some have taken an even more muscular approach, drawing attention to the policy they find objectionable by publicly refusing to do business as usual. United and American Airlines, for example, both declined to provide planes for the U.S. government for deportation trips that separated parents from children.
“It has been interesting to see the breadth of business voices speaking out on the issue, from tech companies to Jamie Dimon at JP Morgan, to airlines and farmers,” said Timothy Smith, director of environmental, social and governance shareholder engagement for Walden Asset Management.
Such positions are especially risky for child-oriented companies to make. “There is very little economic incentive for these companies to get involved and very little economic power to exercise,” Sonenshein said.
But the impact can be great. Companies’ ability to speak up to a wide client base creates a bully pulpit distinct from that of other civic groups, said Danielle Silber, director of strategic partnerships development for the American Civil Liberties Union.
After Bdeir of littleBits used her business platform to detail her opposition to the Trump policy on her company blogsite, the reaction from her client base was mixed. About two-thirds of the responses to the post were negative, a level of pushback that the company had not expected.
“Twenty-seven percent of respondents explicitly indicated they would be less likely to purchase littleBits products as a result of us speaking out — either because they didn’t agree with our position, they don’t want political emails, or they simply mistrust our motives,” said Allison VanNext, the head of communications for littleBits.
“It doesn’t change my point of view,” Bdeir said. “We tend to be on the front lines a little bit. It is the luxury of being a start-up and a lone founder-based company.”
Meanwhile, organizations dedicated to helping separated families navigate the legal system say that the act of supporting the cause, in any way, speaks volumes.
“If companies are able to deploy resources that we in the non-profits desperately need – school supplies, toys, in-kind contributions – all of these contributions are extraordinarily important for these kids,” said Wendy Young, the president of Kids in Need of Defense, a legal aid organization.
It’s a good fit for companies like Roma Boots, which was started by Romanian-born philanthropist Samuel Bistrian, who has built his business around making large donations of rainboots to needy kids around the world. When Bistrian heard about the 2,000-plus migrant children separated from their parents at the U.S. border, he remembered his own poverty-stricken childhood in Romania in the final crumbling years of communism.
“When I saw this thing with the children in Texas, I thought, ‘Who knows how long they are going to be there?’” Bistrian said, explaining that rainboots protect against mud and rain, as well as dust and parasites. “A lot of them are poor and not as fortunate as I was, and I would like to offer them the same support I got.”
The question of what to do about the distressing picture of migrant kids in cages, wailing for their mothers, also troubles self-identified socially-minded investors.
Trillium Asset Management is one of the oldest investment advisor firms that has built its brand on “sustainable and responsible investment.” This focus has meant that it looks at the environmental, social, and governance factors in its investment process, according to Jonas Kron, director of shareholder advocacy for Trillium.
And while Trillium does not make investment decisions based on immigration issues specifically, it won’t invest in companies that run immigrant detention centers, Kron said.
“In a way, companies can’t remain neutral anymore,” Kron said. “Everything has become so politicized that by sitting it out, you are implicitly coming down on one side or the other.”