When Devi Ramkissoon, executive director of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, was growing up in Brooklyn, in a family of Guyanese immigrants, her parents used every bit of their tiny yard to grow enough vegetables to fill their dinner table all summer long. They watered those vegetables with rain from a barrel, rather than a hose. They repaired shoes whose heels were worn down, fixed tools if they were broken, even hammered out spoons if they were disfigured and found another use for them.
To Ramkissoon’s family, this was both tradition based on how they had lived in Guyana, and a way to survive with low means. What they didn’t think of it as? Sustainability.
“All of those things were just common sense, it was just something we did,” says Ramkissoon, who still carries on many of these practices in her adult life. “It was only as I came closer into adulthood that I really understood that there was this whole world of sustainability out there. And the same is true for many Black and Brown communities, and businesses in those communities — they do all these sustainable practices, without even thinking about it.”
Ramkissoon spent most of her career in developing countries, working to alleviate poverty through socially-impactful business practices in Cambodia and Bangladesh, among others. As head of the Sustainable Business Network (SBN) since early 2022, Ramkissoon has brought some of the lessons she learned abroad to her work in Philadelphia. Under her leadership, SBN has broadened its mandate, recaptured many of the businesses that left the organization during the pandemic, and set about redefining what sustainability means in a city with a 25 percent poverty rate, and with only 3 percent of businesses owned by Black people.
For me, when I moved to the Philadelphia area, it felt like that: Same, same but different. Why are the poverty rates here so high? Why is the cost of doing business so high? — Devi Ramkissoon
On Wednesday, May 31, SBN will hold an open house to introduce some of its members to the public at the Bok Building in South Philadelphia, one of many programs Ramkissoon has launched since her time at the organization.
I caught up with Ramkissoon in anticipation of the event, to find out more about how building a sustainable business culture can help more families and communities thrive in Philadelphia.
Roxanne Patel Shepelavy: Can you tell me a little about the work you did before you moved to Philadelphia?
Devi Ramkissoon: My career has been in international development, which means, essentially, trying to reduce poverty around the world. The pathway that I took was around food security, and working primarily with small farmers, because in developing countries that is a large percentage of their local economies. You know, the food is marketed and sold domestically, it is also sometimes sold across borders, or internationally. And so much of the economy is made up of those transactions. A lot of the farmers that I worked with had small scale, sometimes subsistence farms, and the work that I did was to help to bring those farms out of subsistence into business.
There were a couple of things that I was really passionate about. One was around really supporting women in the space of business ownership. In many of the countries that I worked in, women were not property owners; they were not heads of household; they were often not “allowed” to maintain the finances of their household, and any earnings they had went over directly to their husbands. So we tried to reframe ways of looking at agriculture so that women could find a pathway where they saw themselves having ownership.
For example, in Bangladesh, rice makes up like 90-something percent of all agriculture. Bangladesh is so gendered that there was a dominance of male labor associated with rice, and so we had to think about what is non-gendered in Bangladesh? We found that there was a huge demand for cut flowers locally, but not a lot produced in the country. We worked with women to step in to produce cut flowers in whatever incremental land they had in their backyards, to sell domestically, and to capture some of the market of imports. That allowed women to step in as owners of the business, and to start thinking about what it would be like if a community of women who were growing these flowers and bringing them to market could pool their resources. What would they do with that? What could they achieve for the community in a way that a government or the private sector might not be able to?
So some businesses’ entry points into sustainability can be about water conservation. But other businesses’ entry points into sustainability can be paying a living wage. And both of those things are equally valid and true to the way that we see sustainability. — Devi Ramkissoon
We know that having this control over income not only improves their lives and their children’s lives and their family’s life, but also has a tremendous multiplier effect on the local economy. And the same is true for Bangladesh and Denmark and every country in between; it’s not unique to developing countries; it’s just something that is true.
Another thing that I really quite enjoyed was around attracting investment. We were thinking through how we can leverage impact investors or other non-traditional forms of investment to come into countries where they weren’t traditionally working, which were often seen as high risk. That meant thinking a little bit more holistically, with a systems approach, of how to create the types of economic growth that we were looking to achieve over a long period of time.
For example, during the Rohingya crisis [in Myanmar] in 2018, there was a group, the Refugee Investment Network, that was particularly focused on attracting investment to displaced communities during times of crisis. People were thinking about, you know, the sky is falling and not thinking about the business opportunities that can come out of that, because that’s not naturally where their minds go. But there were a lot of business interests. As we’ve seen in refugee camps around the world that have been long established, there’s a micro-economy happening and a lot of investment opportunities that are worthwhile for people if they spend the time looking at them.
How do both of those things translate to the work you’re doing in Philadelphia?
I picked up this thing they say in Cambodia: “Same same but different.” For me, when I moved to the Philadelphia area, it felt like that: Same, same but different. Why are the poverty rates here so high? Why is the cost of doing business so high? There was an indicator that we used to use from the World Bank, called the Ease of Doing Business Index, and it talked through the number of steps to set up a business, or number of permits you need to get or things like that, and it ranked countries. It did not look at cities, but I have a feeling if Philadelphia was in the running, it would be pretty low on that list.
We did a story on this once. It is super complicated to open a business here.
Yes, right. So I found the same sort of themes I was hearing overseas in terms of the struggles of why communities were not able to get out of poverty happening around this city. And I really hate the fact that Philadelphia has this reputation of being the poorest big city, right? I just wanted so badly to channel the work I was doing overseas and be able to apply it here domestically, because even though we don’t live in a developing country, some of the statistics about Philadelphia are akin to those that I was used to seeing overseas. And that’s alarming and disturbing. And that answer came through SBN. It was the only job I applied for locally. As soon as I saw the opening, I saw immediately the parallels between what I did before and what we need to do in the Philadelphia region.
What have you seen about Philly’s business culture?
For me, Philadelphia mirrors what I’ve seen in cities like Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which stand out as very special in that they have this great community that is focused on achieving impact or sustainability outcomes with their businesses. You know, if there’s anything Philadelphia has going for it, it is the number of not only sustainable businesses, but also the nonprofits that are focused on work around sustainability, whether that’s around the built environment, or watershed or clean energy. I just see such a vibrant community filling the gaps that the government or otherwise haven’t been able to fill.
If we had a larger kind of infrastructure around public investment in the watershed, or in supporting sustainable business communities, or having a kind of community-based built environment projects, you may not see businesses stepping in to do those types of things, like filling gaps in food deserts, or filling in gaps when it comes to the health and wellbeing of local communities. Absent those resources, businesses kind of will play that role.
That’s such a mixed bag, right? Because it’s beautiful that we have the kind of community businesses and others that stepped into the role, but it also feels like they shouldn’t have to, necessarily.
Yes, but it’s a proof case for business being a force for good. A lot of my work in the past was based on that foundation, that business could be a driving force for positive change. A lot of people hate capitalism, right? They hate the way that capitalism has been so extractive. I’m coming from a place where we do live in a capitalist society, we will continue to have businesses for however long, why not have those businesses be working in a way that has a positive impact on the environment or on our communities?
A lot of people hate capitalism, right? I’m coming from a place where we do live in a capitalist society, we will continue to have businesses for however long, why not have those businesses be working in a way that has a positive impact on the environment or on our communities? — Devi Ramkissoon
I saw this in Phnom Penh with the lack of government, and other funding for some of the types of social needs or community needs that many, many communities have around the city. In Cambodia, after the war, there was a lot of investment from foreign governments in the country in order to build it back, and help stabilize it. And then as the Cambodian economy grew, they saw sort of a withdrawal of some of those Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). The ones that were remaining were looking for ways to diversify their own income pool. So a lot of them ended up converting to becoming social enterprises or having a social enterprise arm so that they could continue to do the health, education or food security work. Now it’s a special place where, because of that, it felt to me like almost every business I ever bought from or ate at was attached to an NGO or had some type of larger social or environmental outcome that they were looking to serve. It just made for a really interesting business environment and it is so much a part of life that nobody really thought anything of it.
SBN started out as an organization that defined sustainability as environmentally-focused. How have you shifted that mission?
One is around financing. I did so much work around financing that I know that that was the heart of how you make a business grow. What we’ve found, as businesses are emerging from the pandemic, is that it just often seems like they don’t feel that way. They had Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) loans, they had other loans to help them get through; they’ve taken on a lot of debt. Now things are looking almost as bleak as they were during the pandemic because not only is business not quite caught up to what it was pre-pandemic, but now they have a layer of all of this additional debt. And so for me, the financing piece is just so crucial and why I have had such a focus on it since joining SBN, because, if we’re not helping businesses survive financially then how can they be around to do good for our environment or our planet?
In particular, we are refocusing how we serve Black and Brown communities that have just been left out of the financing equation, when it comes to starting and growing small businesses. And that is especially important for me, because I don’t want sustainability to be an academic thing that sits on a bookshelf that you kind of only talk about at fancy dinner parties. It’s really a living, breathing thing. And it’s a practice that anybody can do. And I think Black and Brown communities have done that for ages and maybe don’t see themselves reflected in that definition. So I want to shine a light on that and welcome more of those business owners to our community, and to serve them, especially through our work in financing.
How are you doing that?
During the pandemic, SBN played a role in helping our business members to navigate PPP loans. And so that was kind of an entry point for the organization starting to play a role in that. Since I started, we’ve been looking at non-traditional financing opportunities for businesses. So thinking about impact investment, for example — there’s a strong culture of impact investment, here in the Philadelphia area — and being able to connect the businesses that are in our membership to those investment opportunities as another avenue of financing.
We’ve signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Sustainable Business Network that has allowed our members to access their investor circle in the greater impact investment world. We’re also looking at community-pooled loans through another financial institution. And then part of my goal down the line is to be able to have SBN offer either grants or other types of funding.
And we’re also educating our members about what else is out there. Last year, we did a workshop on what impact investment is, because it just feels so new and foreign to some of our members. Later this summer, we’ll be holding a workshop around debt management, and exploring how financial institutions or investors are looking at healthy debt versus unhealthy debt in a business and how businesses can manage that. We want to just be sure that the businesses that are in our membership — and others in our region, even if they’re not — are able to survive.
What role does city government play in all this?
So the Sustainable Business Tax Credit, which has been around for 10 years, that was initiated by Maria Quiñones Sánchez, is now expired. We had tried to get it back in for this budget year, but that did not happen. That’s difficult, because the businesses that relied on that type of credit, really did, and it really helped them. So we’re trying to think through what other financing opportunity or grant programs could be set up to support the businesses that are already going above and beyond whatever the bare minimum of the law says, to be able to, for example, pay their employees $15 an hour, or to compost, or to be able to repurpose their groundwater so that they’re not consuming as much, or to be able to install solar panels, or however they think about sustainability.
We have seen a few other municipalities around the country that have done all kinds of things ranging from breaks for solar upgrades or tax credits around a specific aspect of sustainability. It can slice and dice that and find a smaller program that is very specific that we can be able to build momentum on it.
So you mentioned the idea that sustainability means different things to different people — which is a shift from SBN’s early days, when legendary restaurateur/environmentalist Judy Wicks launched the organization.
Absolutely. SBN and I take a very holistic view on sustainability, right? It is environmental — about the water and the energy and conservation and thinking about your carbon footprint. But it’s also about how you treat your community, and how that community includes your staff, so all the people you employ, but also all the communities in which your business is based. And so some businesses’ entry points into sustainability can be about water conservation. But other businesses’ entry points into sustainability can be paying a living wage. And both of those things are equally valid and true to the way that we see sustainability. And thinking about also from an economic standpoint, again — if you’re growing financially, sustainably, you’re growing in a way that serves those values while not being extractive or abusive.
How does this seem to resonate with businesses?
Since I started with SBN, we’ve grown over 30 percent in our membership, which I think is proof positive. During the pandemic, we lost close to 50 percent of our membership. A lot of that had to do with businesses either closing or choosing, rightfully, to reprioritize their finances to spend on keeping the lights on and keeping their people paid. Now that we’re in a different place in the world, we’re looking to not only grow purposefully, but embrace more diverse businesses in our community.
I think back to my family, and how we carried over our practices from Guyana. We are not unique. We see a lot of those things happening all across communities here locally. Again, we never talked about sustainability, and I imagine that a lot of those other communities don’t either. That rightfully deserves a place in the world of sustainable businesses and the world of impact. And I think the more businesses talk about that, the better their customers understand what they’re doing, they might be able to gain more customers and they might be able to gain more financing for it as well. We really need businesses to be able to uplift those sustainable practices they’re already doing.
I know you have an open house at Bok this week. What else should we look out for this year?
We’re really looking for our programs to have a different flavor, to make sustainability a living, breathing practice, to shine a positive light on what our businesses are doing, and on how Black and Brown businesses are sustainability in their own work. Our open houses, like the one Wednesday at the Bok Building, showcase our member businesses, and allow the public and the rest of our membership to see and touch and feel what they’re doing, to get tours of their spaces, and for those business owners to talk about their work, and for us to provide updates about SBN and the work that we’re doing as well.
Another thing that we launched last year that we’re going to be doing again this fall is called a Sustainable and Local Tour. Last year, we did one in Fishtown; in September we’ll be in [East] Passyunk. Last time, we visited with a yoga place and a wine place, and a grocery store and a cupcake place and a natural dyeing place. So all of these different businesses that apply sustainability a little bit differently. They’re so diverse, and their stories are so rich, and their products are great and tasty. It’s a way to have a fun day, out of this climate change anxiety headspace, to think about, well, here’s something I can do that has a positive impact on my local community. You know, sustainability can be fun and real and can look very different for all different businesses, but it can have a real positive outcome.
MORE ON SUSTAINABLE BUSINESSES IN PHILADELPHIADevi Ramkissoon. Photography by Jesus Rincon