Fairly or not, some religions are associated with hard work and business success while others are not. If you want a group of bearded men to build a high-quality barn quickly, for example, you might want to contact some Amish folk out in Pennsylvania.
While many folks might know about the Amish work ethic, the Quakers are another interesting religious sect that has made quite an impression on the business world. Over the centuries, Quakers from across the globe built companies and institutions that remain impressively relevant today.
Just consider this list of businesses and organizations that were founded by Quakers:
- Barclays Bank
- Rogers Communications
- Amnesty International
- Johns Hopkins University
To understand how such a relatively small group of people have had such success in business, we must first understand who the Quakers are, what they believe and how they’ve done things differently.
Who are the Quakers?
The Quakers (also known as Friends) are a religious sect that grew from Christianity in 1650’s England. Quakers believe that a little bit of God lives in everyone and that all humans, regardless of their actions, have inherent worth and should be valued and treated with respect.
Whereas other religious groups talk about the importance of attending regular church services and having fellowship with other practitioners, the Quakers believe that everyone has a direct relationship with God. You don’t need to head to a sermon and talk to a priest in order to grow closer to Him.
Quakers believe in living simple lives and protecting the environment. They also advocate for social justice issues.
What is Quaker Capitalism?
Whereas today’s tech titans and Fortune 500 CEOs routinely amass insane amounts of money and, for the most part, keep it to themselves, the Quaker capitalists of yore cared much more about making sure the fruits of their labor were spread out amongst themselves, their workers and society at large. Quaker capitalists very unabashedly frowned at business owners who were in debt. They also abhorred those who engaged in what was considered the sinful art of advertising.
Quite simply, Quaker capitalism—a phrase coined by Deborah Cadbury in her book Chocolate Wars—is the practice of building a business on a strong foundation of ethics and faith. Quaker capitalists combined philanthropy with social activism to ensure their employees and surrounding communities were in better shape because of the work they were doing.
Why were the Quakers so good at business?
In a recent paper, Esther Sahle of the London School of Economics posited an explanation for the groundwork that led to the Quakers’ success in the business world:
I suggest that the formal structures for the gathering, verifying, and disseminating information between congregations across the Atlantic world as well as in continental Europe played an important role. Quaker congregations everywhere were in constant communication with each other as well as with central organs in London. They exchanged letters and visitors. They outfitted traveling lay ministers with certificates witnessing their good characters, as well as individuals moving or traveling abroad. Arriving in new places, Friends would be taken in by the local Quaker community. This was an invaluable way of making contacts and building trust. Nothing on this scale and level of organization existed for other religious communities of the day.
It turns out that the Quakers were the fathers of modern networking. Quakers traveled extensively and were extremely supportive of similar-minded folk who were starting their own businesses—not unlike the startup incubators and coworking spaces that exist today. They loved collaboration. Quakers wanted nothing else but to see their fellow man succeed. Many of them ran interconnected small businesses that were among the “innocent trades”—wool manufacturing, mining, crafts, medicines, chocolates, what have you—so as to avoid controversy.
Quakers sought to make truth and integrity cornerstones of their operations. When a Quaker speaks up in the fellowship of other Friends, he or she is greeted by active listeners. That’s sure a lot different than however many of today’s companies that cut corners and treat subordinates like expendable cogs, all the while trying to pad the pockets of owners and executives.
That may be impossible for corporations that have been around forever. But as for new startups and small businesses? It’s up to the owners and those in charge. They control their own destinies.
Some might like it. Others certainly won’t. But at the very least, a return to Quaker capitalism would appear to be an experiment worth exploring on some scale—at least for entrepreneurs who aren’t only driven by padding their own wallets.