On Jan. 31, Laureate Education, a higher education company that aims to balance profits with the interests of students and their communities, raised $490 million in its initial public offering. What makes this remarkable is that Laureate is the first company to go public as a benefit corporation.
Benefit corporations are for-profit corporate entities that include positive impact on society, workers, the community, and the environment, in addition to profits as legally defined goals. They are authorized by states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia. Laureate Education's public offering is described in a B Corporation newsletter as a "momentous shift in the history of the public markets."
There are currently over 4,500 privately-held benefit corporations. With a focus on balancing the interests of all stakeholders, benefit corporations transform the notion of shareholder primacy, writes Frederick Alexander, head of legal policy at B Lab, a nonprofit that offers certification for B corps. These entities are "specifically designed to treat customers, employees and communities as the shareholders' partners, rather than as tools to be exploited for maximum financial gain," Alexander writes.
This shift has the power to make positive impacts on communities and the planet in ways that governments can't or won't. As Alexander writes:
Investors, who must preserve the value of the systems into which they invest, should take note. While government action often dominates discussions of social and environmental policy, our private allocation of financial capital is a critical factor for almost all of these issues, from fighting disease and hunger, to wrestling with climate change and resource scarcity, to addressing inequality. Our future is likely to be decided more by the choices made in capital markets than by those made in capital cities.
If the benefits corporation approach were to be applied to the trillions invested in publicly- traded stocks, private equity, and venture capital, the impact could be transformational. The Laureate Education public offering is a positive step in that direction.
Header graphic is a screenshot from a B The Change video about benefit corporations.