Working Assets/CREDO Mobile CEO Laura Scher Delivers Leaders Forum Lecture
Laura Scher YC '80 graduated from Harvard Business School in 1985, at a tough time for job seekers. And it took some time to find the job she really wanted. Looking back more than twenty years later, Scher calls herself lucky. Had she taken a job right out of school, she wouldn’t have been available to help found and be the first CEO of a new kind of company being created in San Francisco: the for-profit socially conscious business. "There was no blueprint," she said. "Ben & Jerry’s hadn’t opened its factory; the Body Shop was not yet in the United States. We had to figure how to run it ourselves."
Scher, the co-founder, chairperson, and CEO of Working Assets/CREDO Mobile, spoke about her experience building one of the nation’s premier socially conscious businesses April 14 as part of the SOM Leaders Forum lecture series. From the beginning, she said Working Assets had two goals: to provide critical funding for progressive nonprofit groups and to earn a profit. Over the past two decades, Working Assets has grown to more than $100 million in annual revenues, which has translated to more than $60 million donated to organizations such as Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Watch, Rainforest Action Network, and Oxfam America. During that time, the company has grown from creating an affinity Visa/Master Card credit card, where a percentage of purchases went to Working Assets, to moving into reselling long distance service, to starting its own mobile service. Scher recalled how when they created the first affinity card, the bank thought they’d be able to sign up 10,000 people over the first three years. "We did that in six months," she said. "People then didn’t realize that there are a lot of people who wanted to buy from a company that shared their values. We saw it as a great model. We started out small and we just kept adding to it."
Scher insists on providing competitively priced services, refusing to use the goodwill of her customers as an excuse to charge more or skimp on quality. She said that from the beginning the company did not want consumers to pay more to be socially responsible. By being for-profit, the company has become more disciplined and, ultimately, better at the socially-conscious side of the business. "We care passionately about social change, but also about creating a good business," she said. "Social change shouldn’t cost more."
It was this drive that helped spur the company’s greatest innovation: the bill as call-to-action. In the early ’90s, as Working Assets moved into reselling long distance service, Scher decided that it was important to take over billing for the accounts, something usually done by the original provider. The move allowed Working Assets to have better control over its product and earn better margins. It also provided the opportunity to reach its customers in a new and powerful way. Since each customer receives a bill each month, Scher saw it as a perfect way to communicate on important issues and urge action. She said the company has been able to marshal its forces to fight for protecting wilderness areas, advocate for expanded health care for children, and lobby for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. "We were able to generate more letters and phone calls than any other progressive organization. You have to open your phone bill. It turned out to be a really efficient way to affect social change."