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Body Shop founder discusses principles

What's next for Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop empire? A move toward homeopathic products and returning an entrepreneurial spirit to her 1,500-shop firm, she told a large Tang Center audience at a March 30 talk hosted by the MBA Strategic Management and Consulting Track.

Ms. Roddick described entrepreneurs as pathologically optimistic, unemployable and afflicted with "hurry sickness." A proud member of this restless tribe, she built a single shop selling natural skin and hair products in England into a global enterprise in the past 22 years by relying, she said, largely on guerrilla marketing, story-telling and her own enthusiasm. The company is notable for the fact that its social activist agenda guides business practices.

"Business must be a force for social change," Ms. Roddick said. "At the Body Shop, we're trying to do things in a different way. We're trying to seam-lessly transform the acceptance of private greed to public good -- a truly difficult journey."

While boosting dividends by 38 percent in 1997, the company continued fighting for social causes ranging from domestic-violence legislation in the UK to defending imprisoned Nigerian activists to renovating Romanian orphanages.

The Body Shop never uses animal-tested products, obtains raw materials from communities in need to boost their economies, readily turns shops into Action Shops to engage in local causes, and grants employees work time to volunteer. Each year, the company publishes an independently audited Values Report documenting environmental, animal-protection and social performance.

An inveterate traveler, Ms. Roddick sees her own value to the company primarily as a story-teller, an educator and an entrepreneur, not as a manager. "For me, journeying is educating and just something I couldn't live without. The most extraordinary journey I've taken, and am still taking, is with the Body Shop," she said.

In her first shop, Ms. Roddick applied her experiences of traveling and living with tribes. She told stories about Polynesian women's skin care to sell Cocoa Butter Body Lotion and described the foot-care needs of marathon runners to boost Peppermint Foot Lotion.

"If I had to name a single all-purpose instrument of leadership style, it would be communication," she said. "It doesn't matter how much you care; if you can't communicate, you might as well not be there."

Today her stories revolve around using the politics of consciousness to make business an agent of change. She uses her shops, videos, books, public speaking, a street paper in London and Los Angeles called the Big Issue, and the explicit social agenda of her corporation to encourage others to act on their own beliefs.

"What I have learned is that people become motivated when you guide them to the source of their own power, and anything that changes your values changes your behavior," she said. "The best way for me to define spirituality is to combine it with the spirit of work. If you allow people to act on their beliefs, then the energy is unstoppable."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 8, 1998.

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