19 Jan 2017
Finding Purpose in Profit
Kim Riether Coupounas (MBA/MPA 1995) is helping company leaders do good while doing wellRe: Demetrios Coupounas (MBA 1993)by Robert S. BenchleyTopics:
Photos by Scott Clark
Kim Riether Coupounas (MBA/MPA 1995) has an easy laugh. It erupts when the opera-trained singer and accomplished martial artist is asked whether hitting a high C helps power her fist through a stack of boards.
“I never thought of trying that,” she says; but anyone having a conversation with Coupounas immediately senses that she’s wide open to new ideas.
These days, in fact, her Colorado-based activities are all about promoting new ideas. Coupounas is director of the first fully staffed field office of B Lab, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia that is seeking to redefine the meaning of success in business. B Lab’s mission is to assemble a global community of Certified B Corporations, which are companies that meet certain prescribed standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.
“I was hired in 2014 to change how business is done in Colorado and to make it the leader in responsible business practice,” she says. “There are more than 1,800 Certified B Corporations, in more than 130 industries and 50 countries. Colorado, with more than 80 such organizations, has one of the highest concentrations of B Corporations in the world.
“What I have been doing for the past three years is making connections—working with trade groups, universities, municipalities, NGOs, and other entities—and traveling around the state, inspiring companies to morph themselves into best-in-class businesses that consider impacts on all of their stakeholders, not just shareholders.”
Coupounas spends much of her time counseling entrepreneurs, and she finds they enjoy hearing about other company founders who have successfully followed the B Corporation route. It reminds her of the insights and inspiration she gained from the many case studies she read at HBS, which is why she often refers to her role at B Lab simply as that of a “storyteller.”
Her own story is filled with determination to find a path. Raised in Stratford, New Jersey, Coupounas was the youngest, by 12 years, of five children and the only one still at home when her mother died of cancer at age 43. Consumed by grief, her father succumbed to drink and depression, and the family’s once-idyllic suburban life spiraled downward into poverty. Barely adolescent and lacking role models for success, Coupounas was left to fend for herself. Fortunately, the die had been cast in earlier, better times.
“My parents were very hard-working, ethical people who instilled in us a sense of duty to country, family, and community,” says Coupounas. “They made it clear that we were expected to do all in our power to make the world a better, safer place, and they gave us a clear sense of right and wrong. But losing my mom so young, and being without a traditional family support framework, also helped me realize how fleeting and precious life is. It can end way earlier than you ever imagine; so I determined to pack in as much life and love as possible while I’m here.”
As an undergraduate at Princeton, Coupounas majored in philosophy and then spent a year at Oxford studying philosophical theology as a Rotary Foundation Graduate Fellow. She also sang and acted in various choral groups and theater productions, and practiced several martial arts, all while exploring careers as an attorney and as an Anglican priest.
“I knew that I wanted to lead and to fight for justice and social good,” she observes. “Ironically, I’m doing that now, but on a far different path than I originally intended.”
That path began while at Princeton, where she met her husband-to-be, Demetri Coupounas (MBA/MPA 1994). “He and I had conversations that made me realize I had a very weak understanding of how traditional capital markets and business worked,” she says.
To strengthen that understanding, Coupounas, after completing her fellowship at Oxford, made a 90-degree career turn and accepted a position as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs. It was at Goldman that her interests began to coalesce.
“I finally realized the power of business to change the world,” says Coupounas. “Goldman Sachs, as a partnership at the time, lived by a set of deeply held core values. I saw that I could work in the for-profit realm and still be true to my own values.”
Two years later, she followed Demetri to the HBS/Kennedy School’s MBA/MPA Program.
“HBS gave me a deep grounding and foundation in business practice,” observes Coupounas. “All of the professors were world-class in their subject matter. It’s hard to imagine learning the topics better anywhere else. And it was fun going through it as a newly married couple—burning the midnight oil and reading cases together.”
The two also shared a passion for outdoor recreation.
“We love adventure, travel, and exploring the outdoors, whether trail running, hiking, surfing, skiing, or mountaineering,” she says. “My husband and I have climbed many of the world’s most beautiful mountains together, including the highest mountain or molehill in each of the 50 states and four of the Seven Summits.”
Inspired to use that shared passion as a foundation for entrepreneurial pursuits, in 1998 they launched GoLite, a company that manufactured and sold lightweight, high-performance outdoor clothing and gear. Kim took the reins as CEO in 2000, and the company quickly became a well-respected niche brand. Still, for a couple used to reaching the summit of every challenge they took on, a small market share was not in their plans, and they continued to push hard. In 2006, outdoor giant Timberland came knocking on their door, offering to buy and support the brand while letting Coupounas and her husband keep and operate the company. It seemed like a win-win for both parties. [An HBS Bulletin article in 2007 gave a detailed accounting of GoLite’s founding and eventual trademark sale to Timberland.]
Yet it was not to be. The following year, as the Great Recession began to take hold, Timberland’s stock dropped and the company ceased funding non-core operations—including the GoLite footwear product line and support of the GoLite brand generally. Despite the couple’s desperate attempts to keep the company afloat, GoLite closed in 2014.
“After putting literally everything we had into GoLite, for 16 years, going through the bankruptcy was terrible,” Coupounas recalls. “But it hasn’t shaken my faith in the power of business to do good in the world.”
During the GoLite years, in fact, she went through another conversion—one that involved walking away from what she refers to as the endless “pursuit of more.” It occurred in 2008, as the Timberland deal was beginning to unravel, when she stepped down as chief executive officer and became chief sustainability officer. She and Demetri wanted GoLite to stand for more than just making money. That same year, GoLite became one of the world’s first B Corporations and the first outdoor brand to adopt that corporate structure. [Her change of focus was the theme of a September 2014 TEDxBoulder talk, “The Joy of Less.”]
“So many of our society’s inequalities are unfortunate outgrowths of capitalism,” Coupounas says today. “The notion of growth at all costs is false. What we really want is prosperity. Globally we have to find the point where there’s enough to go around for people to have a good life without others suffering.
“B Lab and B Corporations are about inspiring businesses to proactively solve social and environmental problems, while at the same time providing value for our investors and our society. This is what Michael Porter refers to as ‘shared value.’ I believe in the power of capitalism and the power of human ingenuity to get us out of the holes we’ve dug for ourselves.”
Another B Lab–inspired idea that Coupounas propounds is a corporate structure called the benefit corporation. It’s a new legal tool that is intended to create a solid foundation for long-term alignment and value creation for mission-driven, for-profit companies. It protects a company’s mission through capital raises and leadership changes, creates more flexibility when evaluating potential sale and liquidity options, and prepares businesses to lead a mission-driven life post-IPO. Benefit corporation laws have already achieved passage in 32 US states and Italy—receiving unanimous, bipartisan support in most—and approval is pending in several other states and countries.
Coupounas says expanding her focus to principles as well as profits has enabled her to become more the person she hoped to be when growing up.
“I’m sure some measure of feeling abandoned—by my mom through death, by my dad through sadness and alcoholism, and by my siblings, all of whom went off to start their own lives—led me to become an extremely driven A-type,” she says. “Much of that has gone away, and now I’m largely motivated by the desire to make the world and my community better, and to produce excellence and beauty while I’m here.”
Still, that motivation hasn’t stopped Coupounas and her husband from thinking about what GoLite might have been. Last year, they invested personal capital, as well as money raised through a direct public offering, in a new direct-to-consumer outdoor company called My Trail.
“It’s GoLite, without the mistakes,” she says.
Class of MBA 1995, Section A